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    Sunday, 6 June 2010

    Saying goodbye…

    If you’ve followed this blog over the years then I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you.  It’s coming to an end.

    But I’ve also got good news… it’s being revived over here, at Wordpress!

    Google’s Blogger service has always been a faithful friend to me and my moanings, but – as they say – a change is as good as a rest and, unfortunately, although Google do well in many areas Blogger just seems to have been left behind and forgotten about.  As such, it’s not really progressed with the blogging revolution and so I’ve been hunting around for a while now for something new to use that better suits my requirements.

    Having played with Tumblr for a bit, I’ve decided that Wordpress is the way forward for me right now.  So, from today, all new blogs will appear under the new address: http://www.markjdaniels.com/

    This old address, http://blog.markjdaniels.com/, will remain for the time being so all old posts are still very accessible.  But if you followed me here, then head over to the new blog right now and sign up for notifications of new blogs – that way you won’t miss out on anything!

    Thank you for reading, and au revoir…

    Saturday, 5 June 2010

    Guaranteeing Insurance for the Young

    “I wonder if it’s time for the insurance companies to come up with some compromise that will help parents and children get out on the road without bankrupting them before they’ve even started their lives; a ‘guarantee’ system, perhaps?”

    Having just been involved in a car crash myself, and being in the messy middle of changing from one insurer to another as it happens, I can appreciate some of the dilemmas that insurance companies have to go through when one of their customers cocks it up a bit.

    But I can’t help feel sorry for young drivers, and the news today that over 40% of parents ‘front’ their children’s insurance in order to help them get on the road doesn’t really come as a surprise.

    After all, according to a BBC report today, for an average 17-year-old the cost of insuring a bog-standard Vauxhall Corsa would be somewhere in the region of £4’000.  That’s quite ridiculous, even allowing for the fact that young drivers pose a risk on the road. 

    A basic, brand new Corsa costs barely £9’000, meaning that insurance premium is half the car’s value before you get started.  And that’s just for one year…

    There are literally dozens of second-hand Corsas for sale and such insurance premiums often mean that youngsters are paying more to cover themselves on the road than they paid for the vehicle in the first place.

    It’s no wonder, then, that many young drivers are turning to Daddy for help in the hopes that they might circumvent the prices.  The difference in premiums is quite staggering – but then, it is for all of us.  On a recent search for changing the insurance on my own car the prices quoted to me, at the tender age of 38, ranged from £219 to £1’047.50.

    Then there are some who might decide that they’ll take the risk and drive without insurance because, as long as they don’t kill anybody, it might be cheaper to just pay the third party to keep quiet and buy a new bumper.  Highly illegal, but much cheaper than taking out insurance without sticking a parent’s name as the main driver.

    ‘Fronting’ might be deemed insurance fraud, but surely people can understand why it’s done, given the price difference between that and insuring the car yourself.  When I was seventeen I had a two-year-old Austin Rover Metro and insurance groups ran from one through to nine (today it’s one to fifty); my insurance cost me £600 for the year, and it was only that expensive because I’d driven in to the back of my Mum’s Fiesta XR2 when she stopped for a lollypop lady to let kids cross the road.

    But at least, at that price, I could afford to insure the car myself – just – and I was completely legal.

    I wonder, then, if it’s time for the insurance companies to come up with some compromise that will help parents and children get out on the road without bankrupting them before they’ve even started their lives.

    I remember getting my parents to act as a guarantor on my first ever car loan because I didn’t have enough credit history to take one out myself.  Perhaps there could be a system whereby parents ‘guarantee’ their child’s motor insurance.

    It would mean the kids get their premiums lower, but still at a price that reflects their inexperience and risk, while their parents’ premiums increases by a percentage to cover their guarantee.  It would be a win-win situation for both customers and insurance companies, because it would mean tying both father and son, mother and daughter in to one insurance company in order for it to work and would take out the apparently heinous crime of ‘fronting’ in an effort to circumvent the currently ludicrous prices young people have to pay.

    And it’s worth remembering that, while I appreciate young people do pose a risk on the road, a man of seventy will always get ridiculously cheap insurance because of his age and experience.

    Yet how often do we read stories of a modern day Mr Magoo driving the wrong way up a dual-carriageway, leaving carnage in his wake?

    --

    And yes, I am aware of the irony of writing about insurance for the young when I had a crash with an ambulance last week… MJD

    Sunday, 30 May 2010

    Xperia-nce the best!

    “…why the developer thought it would be a good idea for me to stick my shiny new phone between my wife's legs is beyond me...”

    The first thing you notice about Sony Ericsson's Xperia X10, right after its sleek and sexy glossy body, bright screen, 8 megapixel camera and beautiful Timescape interface, is how much it uses the battery.

    So let's get the bad news out of the way first: Sony Ericsson boast that this phone can achieve up to 425 hours from the battery in standby mode.  This is, quite frankly, a blatant lie.

    I timed mine, switching it on in the morning from a full charge and leaving it alone all day.  After thirteen hours and three minutes, the battery was dead.

    Both Sony Ericsson and Vodafone, my mobile provider, told me that I could extend the battery life by switching off such features as GPS and Wi-Fi, but as the GPS was already off and my phone wasn't in range of a wireless network, such advice seemed redundant.  Not to mention that if I didn't want to have such facilities as GPS and Wi-Fi, I wouldn't have bothered buying the phone in the first place.

    Switching them off, then, seems kind of pointless.

    Still, the iPhone fares no better when it comes to battery life, and as the X10 is aiming squarely at the same market place we can assume there are no victors on either side in the battery argument.

    So what is the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10?  In short, it's Sony Ericsson's first foray in to the Android market place.  Android being Google's smartphone operating system to challenge the iPhone, and it does this very well indeed.

    Certainly, Apple's 'Jesus Phone' has got a big chunk of this particular market place at the moment, but Google's clever move has been to release Android as an operating platform to any manufacturer or developer who wants to play with it, and let them put it on to any device they wish.  Apple, on the other hand, keep their OS strictly to themselves and rigorously check every app written for the device before releasing it to their market.

    As a result there are many more manufacturers putting Android on to their top-of-the-line mobile phones and, in the US, Android phones have started to outsell the iPhone this year.

    The other big advantage of Android is that it can run more than one application simultaneously, whereas the current crop of iPhones can't.  This means you can have instant messaging and e-mail applications open whilst listening to your favourite music and browsing the web.

    Like Apple's phone, there is a Market place where applications - or 'apps' - can be downloaded, and apps for just about everything you'd ever desire can be put on your phone.  The Android market is still not as populated as Apple's, but it's growing by the day and a plethora of free and pay-for apps ranging from games to office applications and everything mundane in between can generally be found.  There's even one that turns my new Sony Ericsson in to a vibrator, though why the developer thought it would be a good idea for me to stick my shiny new phone between my wife's legs is beyond me...

    The other advantage of Android is that each developer can 'skin' their own interface, essentially making the phone look bespoke to their brand, whilst still taking advantage of Google's slick mobile operating system.

    Sony Ericsson have done this extremely well, focusing heavily on the social networking market space and squarely marketing this phone at Twitter and Facebook addicts.  Their Timescape interface brings feeds from your social networking accounts in to one simple, scrolling page that allows you to see all updates from your contacts with the flick of a finger on the screen.  If one grabs your attention, simply touch that particular image and it will bring up the relevant account with all details.

    Timescape also allows you to link all your social networking feeds with your contacts list.  This takes a little time to do, but it's worth doing.  Each time you scroll through your contacts you'll see their latest Facebook or Twitter updates without having to open your browser.

    Mediascape is Sony Ericsson's music player, photo and video library all rolled in to one.  It makes selecting your music, pictures and videos easy and allows you to display slideshows to your friends of your latest holiday snaps.  It even connects to Facebook and Picasa and allows you to show off photographs you've got stored online, too.

    The 8 megapixel camera is good, with a variety of digital camera options including face recognition, smile detection and image stabiliser all helping provide good quality images - excellent for a phone but even with eight megapixels the images still lack some depth.  The 16x digital zoom is poor, with even the mildest zoom applied leaving the images pixelated, and the unprotected lens on the back of the camera is easy to smudge with your finger when taking the phone from your pocket.

    The phone comes with a photolight but, as this device is being shipped with version 1.6 of Android, it doesn't act as a flash.  Sony and Vodafone have both advised me that when they release the upgrade to version 2.0+ of Android this flaw will be rectified.  I wait with baited breath...

    Being a Google device it communicates with all of Google's online services seamlessly so if, like me, you're already a Googlephile, setting the phone up is a doddle.  I simply switched it on for the first time, gave it my Gmail login details, and within two minutes my contact list was populated with all my e-mail addresses and telephone numbers stored online.

    This phone does rely heavily on being connected to the Internet and so you must make sure you've got an unlimited data contract with your mobile provider.  Failure to do so will result in some spectacularly expensive bills!  Its insistence on constantly updating you with e-mail and social media feeds will also remind you of how much junk your life receives throughout the day.  After a couple of days use it left me wishing for the 1980s, my collection of LP records and having to knock on the door of my mates' houses in order to find out what they were up to.

    As I approach my forties, however, I do find myself having a particular aversion to touchscreen keyboards.  I like to feel something click under my finger tips and the X10's onscreen keyboard has been a constant thorn in my side as I fumble my way from one letter to another.  The predictive text input onscreen, however, is excellent and often spots my errors and suggests corrections.  After two months of use I have started to get used to it and can now type a text or e-mail with relative ease, although if I'm not concentrating I can end up writing utter rubbish.

    One huge plus that I do love on the X10, however, is Google Maps.  Coupled with Google's recently launched Navigation service, the device now acts as a full Satellite Navigation solution in the car, with better results than even the industry-leading Tom Tom has managed to achieve.

    Despite some of the flaws, however, I love the X10 overall.  The interface is shiny, bright and easy to read and it means that when I'm out-and-about I'm in constant contact with my friends and my business without having to lug my heavy Compaq laptop about, whilst simultaneously providing me with entertainment and a good camera for those opportune family-snap moments.

    If you can get used to the constant raping of the battery - I recommend buying several USB-based charging leads to dot about the home and office - and can forgive some of the weaknesses the camera shouldn't have, this makes an excellent everyday phone and a clear alternative to the Apple iPhone.

    Thursday, 27 May 2010

    If you’re going to crash…

    “Had my hair cut, gone grey, crashed in to an ambulance, been breathalysed, ensured that an ambulance driver has been suspended from his job, and left myself without a car in the process…”

    When you wake up in the morning you always make decisions that affect how the rest of your day pans out.

    Take me, for example.  This morning, I woke up and decided I needed a hair cut.  As I’m in training for the London to Cambridge Cycle Ride, I considered cycling to Newmarket and back again but then decided that the barber can often take a long time so driving would be quicker.

    On the way in to town I heard a funny noise from the back of the car and thought it might need checking out, but then promptly forgot about that as I watched the barber blow dry all the colour from my hair.  I swear I wasn’t that grey before I went in…

    Getting back to the car, I decided that I would drive up to Sam’s to get a burger but, as I drove out of the Market Square car park, I heard that funny noise again so decided to drive to Ian Button’s in Fordham to get the noise checked out, and turned right instead.

    On the way to Fordham I saw an ambulance behind me, blue lights flashing, so – at the next roundabout – I pulled across to the side so that he could come around me.  For some reason, I assumed the ambulance driver would be going straight on so, when I saw in the wing mirror that he’d cleared me, I pulled out and accelerated again.  Only the ambulance driver was turning left on the roundabout across the front of my car…

    It’s amazing how many emergency vehicles turn up when you write your car off on the side of an ambulance… How many emergency vehicles?

    Still, all the attending paramedics and police officers declared that I am a fit and healthy young man (their words, not mine) but this is how my day has gone so far:

    Had my hair cut, gone grey, crashed in to an ambulance, been breathalysed, ensured that an ambulance driver has been suspended from his job, and left myself without a car in the process.

    How many other people can say they’ve achieved so much in such a short space of time?

    If I’d made the decision to get fit and cycle in to town, or get fat and go up to Sam for a burger, I’d still have a car.  But I didn’t.  And I don’t.

    Click here to see more pictures

    Wednesday, 26 May 2010

    Going for a ride…

    Once I've got all my cycling gear on I end up looking like a human Fab ice lolly. Only nobody's ever keen on licking me...

    On the morning of Monday 26th July I shall most likely wake up in bed, still caked in sweat and my muscles quivering with fatigue.

    This won't be a delayed reaction to England's obvious success in the forthcoming World Cup tournament, nor - unfortunately - will it be because I finally managed to spend a night of unbridled passion between the sheets with Jennifer Aniston.

    Instead, I'll be trying to recover from taking part in the London to Cambridge cycle ride the day before.

    What started approximately twelve months ago between my friend, Keith, and myself was a simple need to work off a bit of beer belly.  Back then, attempting to complete a circulatory four-mile route felt like it would kill us.  And took about an hour to achieve.

    Gradually, we were able to build up both our pace and our stamina but, as winter approached, we needed an incentive to keep us cycling through the icy conditions.  Somewhat foolishly, we decided it would be a good idea to take part in a cycling event and so, on Sunday 25th July, Keith Lomas and I, along with friends from the pub, will be taking part in the 57 mile event.

    Now, ordinarily I hate begging letters, but understandably we'll be raising money for good causes: my youngest son is affected by Asperger's Syndrome and this local charity, Asperger's East Anglia, works with families and individuals whose lives have been altered by this condition.  Keith's chosen cause is the Irregular Cornea Foundation, an organisation founded to help raise global awareness of irregular cornea conditions and Keith's company, UltraVision CLPL, works closely with them.  The organisers of the event are Breakthrough Breast Cancer, and therefore we'd like to help make a contribution to them too.

    I'm not writing this to ask for donations, but should you feel you'd like to help us raise money for these good causes and support us in making sure all the hard work of staying on the bikes throughout last winter's freezing temperatures was worthwhile, even the smallest contribution will be gratefully received and so I've included a link to our Charity Giving page at the end of this blog.

    It's also worth noting, for comedic purposes, that (unless some generous benefactor feels like donating me a brand new bike) I'm going to be taking part in this event on my aged Raleigh mountain bike that I think is older than my children's ages combined!  And I haven't changed a puncture since the age of fifteen.

    I'm a little worried that the lack of punctures over the past twenty three years might catch up on me all in one go...

    With just shy of two months to go until the day itself, and with the World Cup hopefully going to be keeping me busy in the pub in between, I suspect July 25th will be here before I know it but you'll be able to keep up with how we're getting on via my Twitter feed or on my publican blog.

    To ensure my poor old bones don't end up in too much of a bad way and that I don't get saddle sore, my wife has very generously been out and bought me a pair of cycling shorts that, quite frankly, make me feel like I'm wearing a nappy, a pair of fingerless gloves to stop my hands chafing on the handlebars, and a helmet that, honestly, makes me look like a berk.

    Add to that the hi-viz t-shirt that I need to wear to make sure the traffic can see me wobbling about on the road and I end up looking like a human Fab Ice Lolly.  Only nobody ever seems too keen on the idea of licking me after I've been for a ride...

    We're hoping to complete the distance in under six hours and then get back to the pub for a few celebratory pints.  I suspect, however, that by the time I've collapsed on Cambridge's Midsummer Common all I'll be wanting is the kiss of life.

    So, if anybody's got Jennifer's number, please tell her where I'll be....

    --

    Please do help support us on our ride by visiting http://www.charitygiving.co.uk/markkeithandothers - details of the ride and the charities we are raising money for can be found there.