A History of the World in 100 Objects

A History of the World in 100 Objects - book cover

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Dr Neil MacGregor

Have you ever wondered what future generations will make of our lives when they look back? Will our descendants wonder why we continued to burn fossil fuels to drive our transportation network? Will they be fascinated by the details of how we recorded our favourite television shows on Sky+? Will they even be able to see many of the photos we are taking these days and storing in digital format?

I love history and archaeology, and the idea of objects from the past telling a story is compelling. That’s why I loved reading through Neil MacGregor’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. Neil has been Director of the British Museum since 2002, and presented a series on Radio 4 on the same subject as the book I am reviewing here.

The 707-page (including indices) book takes a look at various objects from different ages and area of mankind’s journey through time. It isn’t a purely chronological affair, but the objects do generally follow a progression from ancient to modern.

What sort of objects? How about an Egyptian mummy, which tells us something of how people lived in those times, but also how they died and what they believed happened to them afterwards. Or a bird-shaped pestle, which, Dr MacGregor writes, helps us understand the changing scene surrounding what we ate, and the fact that humans display an impressive intelligence in knowing how to cook.

We move through objects like the Standard of Ur, and a tablet which seems to tell the story of Noah’s Ark from a different time and place. Objects detailing the social climates are the most elusive and intangible to me. They tell us what people enjoyed as much as what they did.

The most modern objects are, I think, the ones that I was most interested in finding out about. Not just because they may be things I remember (not all of them are!) but because I wanted to see what Dr MacGregor would select as being the important objects to define this present age. We see a plate commemorating the Russian revolution, a throne made from various parts of weapons, and a credit card among other items. These got me thinking…

What would you choose to represent life today? A computer? A smartphone? Credit card? Car? What do you think will actually last long enough to be picked up by a scholar in a few hundred or thousand years time, allowing him or her a window back into the 21st Century? Will ditigal information survive? These are all questions I don’t really have an answer to, but I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Coming back to the matter at hand – the book – it’s a genuinely fascinating walk through history from the point of view of the objects dropped along the way. It’s great for anyone interested in history, or archaeology, or just for looking at some beautiful pictures of artefacts. And it’s hard not to read it without thinking, “I wonder what impression we will leave for future scholars”.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

M-Edge Executive Jacket for Amazon Kindle [Review]

I’m usually a bit of a butterfly when it comes to gadgets. By that, I mean that I tend to lose interest fairly quickly and move on to something else. I kind of wondered whether that would happen when I bought an Amazon Kindle back in February, but I’m still using it daily and still loving it! I like to keep my gadgets in good condition, and the Kindle is no exception, so I usually end up using covers or cases to protect them from any bumps or knocks that could damage them (not to mention protect them from the children!). With that in mind, I was pleased to be sent an M-Edge Executive case for the Kindle by Gear Zap. So, what’s it like?

I’ve said it before, but there’s not a lot of innovation to be had in gadget covers. What you’re after is something that looks good, feels comfortable, and actually offers some degree of protection to the device you are covering. Let’s see how the Executive delivers in these areas:

Looks

The M-Edge Executive’s faux leather covering gives it a stylish look that wouldn’t look out of place in an office (I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?) or on the bookshelf. The detailing around the middle is understated but makes it a little more interesting than just a plain black surface. The detailing does have a functional purpose, though, as the case is fastened shut with a sort of belt-loop system, and the central band is where the “belt” slots into. At first I thought that wouldn’t prove anywhere near as secure as a stud popper or elastic strap, but it turns out it copes very well.

Inside, the Executive is lined with a suede-like material and has two internal pockets. If I have one complaint it would be that the case is a little wider than others I have used, with the Kindle sitting nearly an inch in from the spine. The reason for this is that, as an optional extra, you can buy a reading light that fits into that gap and allows you to carry on reading when someone decides it’s time to go to sleep and turns the bedside lamp out on you.

Overall, the Executive is a stylishly understated cover and, for my money, scores well on looks.

Comfort

Have you ever tried to use a mobile phone cover, or Kindle case, and found that it just doesn’t seem to be designed to actually let you use the device inside? Pointless flaps, studs, or misplaced holes can really ruin the user experience. There is a little of this with the Executive, in that the fastening belt sits right next to the right-hand navigation buttons on the Kindle. You can simply fold the belt back to move it out of the way, but it is a little annoying.

Other than this, though, the Executive case is very comfortable to use. It is a little larger than the Kindle unit itself, as already mentioned, but not cumbersome. If you prefer to navigate your books using your left-hand, as I do, you can fold the case’s front cover underneath and get easy access to the left-hand buttons. I actually find that doing this makes the Kindle easier to hold too. The case’s spine is quick thick, so you get a good grip, and that gap I mentioned earlier that is meant for a reading light seems to put the buttons in just the right place. It’s almost like they’ve thought about this!

Right-handers – I do think the fastening belt could become annoying but perhaps that’s as much a product of the fact that I’m left-handed as anything else.

Protection

To my mind, this is the entire point of a gadget case: protection. The Kindle is held in place within the case by two slide-in straps and two elastic straps. I have tried flinging the whole assembly around and can’t get the Kindle to budge so I’m confident in saying it’s not going to fall out of the case in your bag! We have already made much of the belt-loop fastener that keeps the case closed too and, so far, it has done that job to perfection. Again, it’s highly unlikely that you will delve into your rucksack to find that the case has flopped open and your house keys have scratched the Kindle’s screen. Finally, there’s drop protection. The faux leather outer of the case is padded, so the shock of a drop should be dissipated by that and, assuming you have inserted your Kindle firmly into the slide-in straps, there is a small gap between it and the edge of the case that will protect should you drop it edge-on.

As ever, you wouldn’t want to throw your gadgets under the wheel of a moving car, or off a bridge, but for everyday drops, knocks and bag-carrying, the M-Edge Executive case will offer ample protection.

Roundup

So there we have it. There are some annoyances, such as the fastening strap getting in the way if you use the Kindle’s right-hand navigation buttons, but on the whole the Executive case is a great way to keep your Kindle safe while looking good and being comfortable to use. If the black version doesn’t take your fancy, there are also versions in red and purple. Personally, I like the black version and will be using this as my Kindle cover from now on.

M-Edge Executive Kindle Cases are available from Gear Zap, and are priced at £25.48.

Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal [Review]

I’ve just realised that title implies Terry Pratchett is going postal, but this is actually a review of the Sky adaptation of his Going Postal book, which aired on Sunday and Monday here in the UK.

Let me come straight out and say that, in every film or television adaptation I can think of, the book has been better. That’s not to say every film/TV adaptation is rubbish, but I’ve just never seen one when I thought the adaptation came out on top. Having said that, I thought Sky’s other two adaptations, The Colour of Magic and Hogfather, were both good so I looked forward to whatever Going Postal had in store.

I deliberately didn’t read Going Postal before watching, because I didn’t want the “proper” story too fresh in my mind. As it was, then, I really enjoyed the adaptation.

Charles Dance is, while different from how I imagined Vetinari to look, an excellent Patrician. I much preferred his quiet, understated, slightly menacing portrayal to Jeremy Irons’ lisping version (although, take the lisp out and Jeremy Irons was much closer to the Vetinari of my imagination). I can’t remember if we’ve ever seen Drumknott before, but it was a bit of a surprise to see him played by Steve Pemberton from, among other series’, The League of Gentlemen. I kept expecting him to do something ridiculous, but mercifully that never came!

Richard Coyle, arguably the star of the show, plays Moist von Lipwig… the postmaster. He’s got a cheeky chappy charm about him that fits Moist’s conman style to the ground. In fact, the way he fits with the Lipwig I imagined means I don’t have much to say about him other than, “good job!”

There are loads of other characters and actors I could comment on, but I want to move on. Let me quickly say that Claire Foy spent a wee bit too much screen time grimacing and glaring for my likes, and that David Suchet was absolutely brilliant as Reacher Gilt! Honestly, it wasn’t that long ago that I only knew him as the mild-mannered Poirot, but he does villains brilliantly.

OK, on to storyline. As far as I can recall (remember, I didn’t want the book to be fresh in my mind), the storyline is pretty close to that of the book. But the real test is whether it’s fun to watch! It was, and I was quite surprised to find that each of the two episodes is two hours long. They just flew past, with the story cracking along at a good pace to try and fit in as much as possible. There are some great moments of comedy, emotion, and the just plain weirdness we’ve come to expect from the mind of Sir Terry.

The only thing that really niggled me was how Lipwig was caught by the Watch for his fraud at the very start of episode one. Sergeant Angua, a watchwoman and werewolf, has always been careful in the books not to reveal her dual nature, but in the adaptation she’s pretty open with it. If you’re not a Pratchett fan that’s unlikely to bother you, but the obsessive geek in me did cringe at her changing just to scare Moist.

So, on the whole, Going Postal was a great story and, I thought, pretty close to Discworld lore. Sure there are things that grate, but there always will be when a book is adapted for a wider audience. It was still fun, and will be well worth getting when it comes out on DVD.

And, of course, it was nice to see Terry Pratchett himself in the traditional cameo appearance.

Did you watch Going Postal? What did you think of it? Is there another Discworld novel that you think is just crying out for an adaptation? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

Problogger 2nd edition out now

Just a quick post today – I wanted to let you know that Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett have updated their excellent Problogger book with a second edition. The first was so good that I got two copies – one for me and another to give to a friend.

Darren says this in the e-mail he sent out about the book:

2 years is a long time in blogging and so it was time for an updated version – hence when Wiley asked us to do a 2nd edition we were only too pleased to do so.

This is an update of the 1st edition and not a complete rewrite – however there are a few significant updates including:

  • there have been many many small updates and changes throughout the book. New examples, screenshots, updates of new tools, a few deletions of references to old tools, an update to our stories in the intro etc.
  • we’ve removed a chapter on blog networks – things have changed a lot in this space and many networks are not hiring any more or have changed their models significantly.
  • Chris has added a significant chapter on social media and how it impacts and can be used by bloggers
  • I have added a case study chapter that goes through the first 4 years of my main blog – Digital Photography School. I work through how I launched it, what I focused upon in years 1-2 and then in years 3-4, how I monetize it and share the secrets to how I drive significant traffic and income through email newsletters, social media etc.
  • Bonuses – we’re offering anyone who buys the book a series of bonuses (some interviews with successful bloggers, some extra teaching etc)

The first book was excellent, and I have no doubt that the updates and additions will make this edition another essential read. It’s currently available from Amazon.com (of which I am an affiliate). Go on, order your copy today.

Atomic Swarm by Jason Bradbury [review]

Jason Bradbury, who you most probably know as one of the presenters of The Gadget Show, released his first children’s novel, Dot.Robot, last year. It was a cracking tale of technology and geekery so when the second book in the series was released I made sure I got my copy quickly!

Atomic Swarm picks up the story of Jackson Farley after he’s left home and taken up a scholarship at MIT. He’s still working on remote-controlled robots, but no longer for the MeX organisation of the first book. Instead he’s working with his MeX partner Brooke and her father.

There’s some really clever storytelling here. Much of the book is devoted to Jackson’s work with Dr English but you’re aware that there’s something going on in the background. I found myself wanting to know what was going to happen, and when, but without being frustrated by the wait to find out. And when it does happen it’s another exciting tale of intrigue and twists. I was constantly guessing what the real storyline was and whether the events so far were just leading up to a twist – suffice to say it certainly kept my interest right up to the end.

Much as with the first book, I’m a little surprised how much I enjoyed this given its 11+ target audience. I also find myself still amazed that the technology referenced in the story is all real! Much of it is so cutting edge that we won’t see it in general use for a while, but real all the same.

I loved the first Dot.Robot and I’m pleased to say I thought Atomic Swarm was just as good. It’s available from Amazon.co.uk* now, and well worth picking up a copy.

* Affiliate link

And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer [Review]

Eoin Colfer’s “And Another Thing…” is, on the face of it, a strange book. It’s the sixth instalment of Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. According to the blurb in the back cover “Douglas Adams always intended to write a sixth Hitchiker’s book, but his unfortunate early death in 2001 meant he never got the chance. Now, acclaimed humorist and bestselling author Eoin Colfer, creator of the widely acclaimed (and much-misunderstood) anti-hero Artemis Fowl, has been invited to once again set Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect adrift in space and time.” A Hitchiker’s book not written by Douglas Adams? Hmm, we’ll have to see about that.

One of the characterising features of the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has always been a sense of silliness –  bizarre plot twists that leave you feeling slightly lost whilst still marveling at the cleverness of the story. I remember listening to the radio play of the first book and wondering what on earth was happening when Arthur and Ford first encountered the Heart of Gold, but then realising the whole thing was actually a very clever plot device. So there’s a definite feeling to a Hitchiker’s book, and Eoin has actually managed to capture that pretty well in And Another Thing…. He’s got the balance right between keeping the reader on their toes with unexpected twists, but not straying into the completely ridiculous! In short, this definitely feels like a Hitchiker’s book.

I don’t want to give away any major spoilers, but the story has all the usual characters we’ve got to know in the other Hitchiker’s books, including those jobsworth Vogons. The story cracks on at a fast pace and is brilliantly enjoyable. It’s not absolutely necessary to have read the first five books in the series to enjoy this one, but doing so will definitely help you understand more of what’s going on.

If you’re a fan of the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you definitely won’t want to miss this. And if you’re not a fan… well, either get hold of the first five books and build up to this one, or just jump straight in and enjoy it!

And Another Thing… is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Dot.Robot by Jason Bradbury [Review]

“Congratulations, Jackson. Welcome to MeX.” Dot.com billionaire Devlin Lear, founder of the top-secret defence force MeX, has been watching Jackson Farley. He knows he has found a digital genius. Along with three other brilliant gamers from different corners of the world, Lear needs Jackson to join him and stop the criminal heist of the century. And all by the power of the most highly advanced, state-of-the-art robots ever invented. Are Jackson and the MeX recruits as good as Lear thinks? And how does Jackson know quite who to trust when they can never meet face-to-face? (Amazon.co.uk)

Jason Bradbury’s Dot.Robot is one of those stories I’d have loved when I were a lad. It reminded me of the film “The Last Starfighter” where a boy completes an arcade game and then discovers that it was actually a training and recruitment tool for an alien defence force. It’s a story of “gamer turned hero”… and to think people say playing computers games is a waste of time…

Actually, it’s a bit wrong to say I’d have loved this story when I were a lad, because I loved it last week and I’m 30! The introduction to the book states that all the technology mentioned in the story is real, which is amazing to consider as you read through it. Autonomous cars, remote-operated aircraft, and other high-tech gadgetry make this science fiction in the proper sense (i.e. fiction actually based on science) and make you wonder what might be possible as these technologies become more common.

But what of the story itself? Well, I don’t want to reveal too much, obviously, but it hurtles along at a fast pace, drawing you through conspiracy, tension, and drama… and there’s a nice twist too. It’s written for children aged 11+ but certainly didn’t feel childish to read as an adult, so if you don’t have kids don’t let that stop you picking up a copy!

Would I recommend reading Dot.Robot? Absolutely! Whether you’re a teenager or an adult, whether you’re into gadgets or just want to read a good story, pick up a copy and find out what happens to Jackson and his gaming teammates.

Dot.Robot is available on Amazon.co.uk.

The Colour of Magic

The Colour of MagicImagine with me… a giant turtle swims through space. On its back stand four elephants, who balance on their backs a huge disc. On that disc live all manner of people…

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series have been among my favourite books for about fifteen years now, and it has been great to see them converted first into animation, and then live action. This Easter, Sky One will be showing the latest live action story… the first story in the whole series, The Colour of Magic.

The new adaptation stars Sean Astin (Sam from Lord of the Rings) as Twoflower, the Disc’s first tourist, David Jason as Rincewind, the failed wizard, Christopher Lee as the voice of Death, and Jeremy Irons as the Patrician of Anhk Morpork. From the trailer it looks like it’s going to be a great show! I can’t wait to see how they carry off things like The Luggage and the Upside Down Mountain. Most of all I’m looking forward to reliving one of the stories I loved so much in my teenage years.

There’s so much about The Colour of Magic that I just can’t remember, so I’ve decided to re-read the book and remind myself. Why not do the same? Dust off that old copy if you have one; buy one if you don’t, and step into the Discworld.