Slow News Days

Press

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

I haven’t got much to say today so I’ll quickly mention newspapers that seem to be similarly afflicted.

Linda Smith once said on a B-series episode of QI “My favourite ever headline was “Worksop Man Dies Of Natural Causes.”

The internet era equivalent of the Worksop man are the people from across the country who have done some DIY on a budget. The Google News feed on my phone provides me with, at least once a week, a story from a local newspaper site wherein someone has given their kitchen, bathroom or garden a spruce up for less than it should surely cost by doing something novel and amazing – buying things from a cheaper shop. Gasp.

They’re generally along these lines: “Savvy shopper Tracy transformed her home using items from [insert bargain store name here]“, and the article tells us “she got a new look kitchen for just £200.” Sometimes you’ll “never believe how she did it.”

Why is this news? Why is it unbelievable? Why haven’t I got an article written about me? Just last night I had fish, chips and mushy peas for less than the chip shop cost by buying items from Asda and B&M Bargains. Chips shop quality mushy peas too. And I’ve given my living room a makeover using stuff from B&M and Ebay no less.

When there’s a two-hundred foot UFO hovering over the town hall, that’ll be news.

[Glances out the window, just in case.]

Junk Shop Days

Milk Cans

Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay

I like second-hand and charity shops, not only for the benefits to charity and the environment of recycling, or because I’m being fashionable but largely to get things I couldn’t afford years ago amazingly cheaply now. Of course the same is true of Ebay. I’m missing these shops at the moment, but when they reopen I’m on a mission to find garden planters.

Looking around my home much of what I own is pre-owned, or pre-loved to use the modern term. As I described in an earlier post my patchwork Sony stereo is still fantastic; my trio of Olympus DSLRs are used but still going strong, even if the power switch of one needs the occasional squirt of contact cleaner; my old Sony smartphone came pre-distressed so I wouldn’t be if I scratched it. To me even my second hand Citroen felt like a brand-new car, as I remarked at the time. Last year I even broke my usual rule of not buying second-hand shoes and got some lovely red Puma suede trainers. Unused £40 Sony headphones for £12 on Ebay without a box, lampshades, shirts and books from our many charity shops, as well as most of the vases and ornaments I own – including two blue tealight holders that I saw one evening in the window of a charity shop on the way home and had to wait four days to buy on the Saturday afterwards.  Just about every vase and ornament I have was a charity shop find and it’s a little joy to find a beautiful object that you weren’t even looking for.

Our society’s tendency of replacing something because it’s a couple of years old and there’s a new one so why not means there’s lots of stuff available with much life left in it. The phone couldn’t hold as many apps as a newer one and I have to update it manually to avoid the huge updates to built-in apps I don’t use and there are similar compromises with other older tech but if you can live with that then these things are bargains – I only replaced it when the touchscreen stopped working. The irony is that good condition old stuff can be bought cheaply, although much is becoming fashionable now and tatty old stuff can be sold in retro shops for a fortune because it’s “authentic” – I’ll return to this subject in another article. It seems that second-hand bookshops are increasing in number, whether due to the cost of new books, a backlash against ebooks or fashion – walls in trendy hipster loft apartments filled with “authentic” old books – I don’t know.

I’m writing this on my “new” desktop PC which I bought because my last desktop was finally showing signs of not being able to cope any more. No 1 was an HP Compaq “enterprise” PC, built in 2006 with a then state-of-the-art Pentium 4 processor and rescued from a skip a few years later. It languished in my apartment for a few more years until I put in a new graphics card, sound card, hard drive etc to make it capable of running flight sims and Windows 7. It’s been fine for many years but eventually it just couldn’t keep up with modern browsers, note apps and so on, finally a number of strange behaviours made me feel it was perhaps starting to fail. I looked at brand-new PCs but am out of touch with modern specs and didn’t feel that the software I use would need an absolutely new PC. I didn’t know where to start so searched Ebay for pre-owned HP pcs – why not stick to what you know. Eventually I narrowed it down to a particular model with a good spec and again it was a rock-solid Enterprise-spec machine and I could get a cleaned-up and reinstalled machine for £60, delivered next-day from a company thirty miles away. It arrived, not a spec of dust inside it. I installed the graphics card and sound card from the old machine, installed Windows 10 using the Windows 7 licence that came with it and it’s perfect, much faster, much quieter, much smaller. The way computer hardware is today older PCs can still have very much life left in them, my current laptop – another HP which originally cost over £400 but I bought second-hand for £70 – is similarly fantastic, fast, small and light, and only needed a new power adaptor shortly after I bought it, and a new battery eventually.

Then there are cameras – today DSLRs are in the twenty megapixel range, why would anyone want a ten megapixel one – someone who can accept that this size of sensor can produce images big enough to have printed and certainly detailed enough for Flickr. Someone who can’t afford the latest shiny thing. Me. Buying into discontinued product ranges can work out well too.

A couple of years ago I visited our branch of Cash Converters (a UK chain of second-hand stuff shops) and browsed as usual then nearly squealed with excitement on seeing a lens for my number 2 Olympus DSLR, or more to the point the price sticker on it. Alongside examples of the 14-42 short zoom and 40-150 telephoto lenses I already own was Olympus’ monster of a zoom, the 70-300 (equivalent to a 140-600mm in 35mm terms) that I had looked for on Ebay a few years back and given up on. It currently retails new for around £450 and on Ebay second-hand for around £200. The sticker said £59.99. I thought “I’ll just double check on Ebay” then after a few milliseconds my internal voice slapped me round the face and shouted “NO, JUST BUY IT”, it also helped that at that moment a member of staff unlocked the same cabinet to put something in it, “oh, while you’re in there…” I said. I bought it and it’s amazing, even if it did require some rearranging of my camera bag to accommodate it and the shorter zoom – needless to say much thought over which lens would be most usefully attached permanently to the second DSLR, and a helpful drawing to show the overlap of the focal lengths (a visual version of my friend Jane’s famed comparison spreadsheets), helped everything to fit nicely. The long, long lens really needed an Image Stabilised DSLR and No 2 Olympus had the dodgy power switch so turning to Ebay again I bought Olympus No 3 for a very cheap price and it’s been flawless for years since. No 2 still lingers as a backup body.

Another side of this is buying things that are not of any use but you just want to own – you might only justify getting them if they’re cheap. My example of this is a camera I first saw on holiday in Guernsey in 1991, a camera I still have the brochure for, the brochure I just browsed regularly being unable to afford the camera itself. It was an Olympus OM101, one of the last of their film SLRs. After twenty-six years I bought a fully-working camera that cost hundreds new for a tenner on ebay. I could load it with film and use it but at the moment it’s taking pride of place on my bookshelf.

Back to the useful stuff though, when I moved to a house with a garden I needed a lawnmower, I looked at a few options and decided to wait a bit. Then I just happened to visit Cash Converters and saw a Bosch mower for £35, in its box. I didn’t get it immediately but went back for it later. When I opened the box I found that this mower that was £130 new in the Argos across the road from where I’d bought it was, in fact, brand new, never opened.

Earlier in Cash Converters I saw a compact camera, it had languished in the cabinet for months, I’d not really paid much attention to what it was but the price had steadily dropped, I took notice when I saw the price had dropped to £12.99. I looked more closely and noticed it was more than just a cheap compact, it had manual controls and was clearly made of metal. Turns out it was a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, a camera which was, when launched in 2008, a very well-reviewed, £400 piece of technology. It was described in glowing terms in magazine articles, a rare combination of compact size, solid build quality, and a lens that was unusual for a compact. It was brilliant and today, second-hand, they usually sell for over £100. Like my Olympus DSLRs the 10 megapixel sensor will still take great pictures. This particular LX3 had clearly had a hard life, it’s metal shell was dented at the bottom corner, the paint had rubbed off underneath, some of the lettering had worn off too but the screen was virtually unmarked, all the buttons were there and worked and the lens itself was spotless. You’d assume there was something wrong with it but the only reasons it was at that price were that it had no charger, it needed a new (£6, compatible) battery and it was a little worn around the edges. This camera had been ignored and unloved just because it wasn’t cutting-edge like it had been in 2008 and was tatty yet I knew that it still had the same professional features that made it stand out.
  So yes, dear readers, I bought it.
    Would have been rude not to.

The Bluetooth Totem Pole

Bluetooth - FM Bridge

Bluetooth – FM Bridge v2.0

I’ve owned the Citroen for eighteen months now and for most of that time I’ve been plugging a strange contraption (above) into its cigarette lighter socket.  Like most modern cars the radio/cd player is highly integrated into the car’s systems, being used to display more than just the time and track on its remote display, therefore it’s not recommended (though not impossible with the right adaptor) to replace it.

Putting an aftermarket cd player would also spoil the lines of the dashboard so if I wanted to do more than play cds I had to come up with an alternative solution to playing my music from my phone through the radio.  First I tried a plug-in FM transmitted which worked well enough but it was a bit of a faff, plugging in various cables, next came a simpler FM transmitter that plugged directly into the top of the phone, powered by a splitter cable.  Better but not perfect – I want less cables.  I had a small bluetooth receiver and I could plug the transmitter into that, power both with a splitter and voila, bluetooth from the phone to the adaptor, FM to the radio.

Bluetooth - FM Bridge Mk1

Bluetooth – FM Bridge v1.0

Still not ideal though, it was a bit untidy – plus the button on the Bluetooth made it too easy to redial the last number used instead of switching it off.

Next, by chance, I bought a usb-powered bluetooth receiver (the white bit in the middle) from China on Ebay for a few quid.  After wondering why I’d bought it other than the fact that I thought it was a cool thing the lightbulb moment happened.  If I got a three-port car USB power supply I could plug a lead to the phone in, the USB Bluetooth Receiver and finally with a very short USB lead, the FM transmitter that plugged into the top of the bluetooth receiver. In one neat tower that plugs into the lighter socket I have everything I need.  I don’t have to switch this one on and off even, if it’s left in the socket it all comes on with the car’s ignition.

The phone is set up to automatically launch the music app and start playing music as soon as it detects and connects to the Bluetooth adaptor and I can control the volume of the radio from the steering wheel while swiping the screen to change tracks.

Now, of course, you can buy the same setup as a single device that attaches to your dashboard but it was still immensely satisfying to make something that did the job from these various disparate modules – all bought for a few quid each off Ebay.  The joy of tinkering is still with us.