Nature abhors vacuuming

A while back I found myself looking at an online review discussing the merits of various cordless vacuum cleaners. I can’t imagine what I was up to as I already have a Dyson V8 and a V10, and I’m not in the market for any more. Maybe I was looking for a present for someone. In any case out of curiosity I clicked to see what the reviewer had to say. It didn’t turn out to be terribly enlightening, as it was simply a rehash of the features and specifications as published by the manufacturer. In all honesty it was a completely useless review for anybody considering buying one of these as it didn’t tell them what they would actually want to know.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been particularly surprised, given that anybody with no qualifications at all can post an online review (me, for instance). My wife and I were once looking at sofas on the John Lewis Web site, and she pointed out that one of them had had a couple of bad reviews in terms of durability. I thought there was probably selection bias at work here, however, as most people who were satisfied with their purchases probably wouldn’t take the trouble to post a review. I know my wife has never reviewed any of the many things she buys from John Lewis, and sofa nor have I.

Amazon grace

Then there are the many star ratings on Amazon which I understand to be posted by bots (these are automated programs, and have nothing to do with botflies). The trick is to take no notice of star ratings and to read the reviews themselves, ignoring any that don’t sound as though the reviewer has actually used the product. Unfortunately their usefulness isn’t helped by Amazon lumping together different versions of the same or similar products so that a review of one appears to be of one of the others.

Amazon makes it quite easy for you to review things as they keep sending you reminders that will take you straight to the right place. I have occasionally posted reviews myself. One was of an electrical adapter that I bought to use in India. It had a double UK socket, a short lead, and what proved to be a European plug. It was very well made, but the pin sizes in Europe and India are not quite the same, so it would have worked, but not safely. They were selling it for India as well as Europe so I gave them one star. The manufacturer contacted me and asked if I could improve my rating. They were very nice about it, but I felt it was potentially dangerous so I couldn’t. If they had recommended it for Europe only I would have given it five stars.

I once found myself caught up on the Amazon site in a strange sort of reviewers’ correspondence with regard to Jim Al-Khalili’s book Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics. There is a probability problem near the beginning which, like many exercises in probability, has a rather counter-intuitive answer (I will cover some of these elsewhere). Al-Khalili had explained it very well, but the reviewer (wrongly) disagreed with him. I commented on the review with my own explanation, but after increasingly heated exchanges (including a comment from the author himself that he would remove the problem from the next edition) I gave up. There are a lot of people, including a few professional mathematicians, who think they understand probability but actually don’t know anything about Bayesian statistics, relevant here, and in my experience they tend to get a little over-emotional when challenged.

Mind you don’t trip

You also have to be careful of TripAdviser, as hotel and restaurant owners are known to get their friends and family to post favourable reviews. One clue to a genuine review is if it mentions cockroaches.

Actually, speaking of TripAdviser, it can be quite useful if you are looking for a restaurant, especially if you have a particular one in mind and know roughly where it is but can’t remember what it is called. I used it once to find a restaurant in Florence which had been recommended by a friend who lived there. The food was really excellent, but the reviews were rather indifferent. One of them was from somebody who had ordered a bistecca Fiorentina (Florentine steak) and although he asked for it well-done it had come rare. He clearly had no idea what a bistecca Fiorentina was (it is two inches thick and the size of a dinner plate; it comes from a special breed of cattle and it is the cow that is used, not the bull, with the steak cut high up towards the ribs; it is cooked quickly on the embers of a log fire, which chars the outside and leaves the middle raw), or that asking for it to be well done was like asking the chef to boil an omelette. The next review of the same restaurant described in detail a traditional Tuscan dish consisting of chunks of vegetables and rabbit meat deep-fried in batter and served in a cone of paper. It clearly wasn’t what the reviewer was expecting, and he didn’t like it, so he blamed the restaurant. In all fairness it is an acquired taste, but it did sound as though it had been made to the authentic recipe. If you want the best food in the world you will find it in the traditional restaurants of Tuscany, but if that isn’t what you want then there are always pizzerie.

Another time I used TripAdviser to locate the nearest decent restaurant in Kanazawa (where Hokusai set his famous print commonly known as the Great Wave (神奈川沖浪裏 kanazawa-oki nami ura), one of his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景 fugaku sanjuurokkei). You can see Fuji-san in the background, dwarfed by the huge wave looming over the fishermen coming home in their small boats. The other 35 views are just as amazing, and if you can’t find antique prints, you can still buy modern ones made from the original woodcuts using the same inks, for about £200 each. I strongly recommend a visit to Obuse, where Hokusai spent the last ten years of his life. There is a museum there dedicated to his works including an extraordinary and very moving painting of a dragon bringing a thunderstorm which I had only previously seen on TV (dragons are the good guys in Japanese mythology). While you are there, try the local chestnut ice-cream (the Japanese word for ice-cream is eisukuriimu).

Sorry I seem to be digressing from a review of vacuum cleaners…

When we got to the restaurant, it turned out to be a small and friendly place, playing rather good jazz in the background (sadly not live). We ordered some sausages and grilled meats, which were very tasty and much less baffling than most Japanese food. I drank o-sake and my wife had shiro wain. I took another look at TripAdviser and found a review from someone apparently from Kansas who was comparing it unfavourably to the burger joints at home, which he clearly regarded as the epitome of haute cuisine. Er… Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.

It isn’t even just Internet reviews. I once read a review of a professional camera (one of the Canon EOS 1D series) in a computer magazine (PC Pro, PC Plus, PC Buyer, What PC or something along those lines). I don’t know what they were doing writing about something so obviously outside their remit, but the reviewer clearly didn’t understand that a camera built for people who have to rely on it to make a living is not the same thing as a consumer camera that might be of interest to computer enthusiasts, and like professional equipment of all kinds is designed for those who know exactly what they are doing. Indeed, he seemed quite baffled by it and gave it a bad write-up. I wonder how he would have reacted if Amateur Photographer had written about the shortcomings of a blade server in playing computer games?

Which old witch?

When I am buying anything I prefer to look up the reviews in Which? magazine or on their Web site. They tell you what you want to know rather than what is in the advertising, and they are independent and disinterested. Unless it is something very specific and technical, such as professional photographic equipment, which I wouldn’t expect them to cover.

I’m reviewing the situation

The V8 and V10 have in common that they both take a few hours to charge, and that is enough to do a quick once-over of the house, including the bedrooms, stairs, hall, living room and kitchen floor. They are much easier to carry around than a corded vacuum cleaner, particularly up the stairs as neither is particularly heavy, and they are more manoeuvrable. They pick up dirt reasonably well provided that it isn’t too big (lumps of earth trodden into the house or dead leaves are beyond them). They cope with dog hair reasonably well, though Dyson also make a special attachment for their corded vacuum cleaners (which does fit the cordless ones) designed to get animal hair off upholsery, and it works brilliantly. There is a detachable shaft which takes all the other attachments, allowing you to reach both the floor and the ceiling. They both have a boost setting (the V10 has three power settings) which runs down the battery very quickly and is hardly ever necessary.

One thing that is very difficult to understand from the literature is the difference between the Total Clean, the Absolute and the Animal models, which are different colours and different prices from each other. They are in fact identical in all other respects, but come with different numbers of attachments. You can buy these separately, but it works out cheaper to get the bundle (provided that you actually need them). Compared to the Animal, the Absolute also has a tool for hard floors, but although it looks quite different from the one for carpets, it doesn’t seem any better at picking up dirt, so probably the main advantage is that it might stop you from spreading kitchen spills onto your living room carpet (that is, if you remember to change the tool in between). The Total Clean also has an extension hose and an angled adapter. These are probably essential if you want to valet your car, as without them the whole unit is too big to fit into the nooks and crannies which seem to make up the entire interior (at least of my car). I haven’t actually got the Total Clean version so I can’t say for certain that it will work inside a car, but it looks as though it would do the trick.

The V8 has a very awkward and badly thought-out method for emptying out the dust. Dyson’s motto is “say goodbye to the bag” but in my experience that isn’t necessarily an advantage. There is a sliding lever at the back which releases a hinged plate at the bottom, allowing most of the dust to fall into your dustbin and the rest to go onto the floor. Well, actually not quite, since about three-quarters of the dust will still be trapped above a rubber flange, and you can only get at it if you take the dust collector off completely. Be careful when you do this as it always seems to catch and it feels as though you are about to break something. You can then put your fingers in and pull out the rest of the dirt. Putting it back together requires careful alignment and a gentle touch, but you get the hang of it after a while. Once you have done that you can wash your hands and then vacuum up all the dust that you have just spilt.

The V10 is much simpler, though it does require you to use exactly the right amount of force to release the catch. Once it does there is a syringe-like action (sorry, piston-like – I forget that I’m not writing this for fellow doctors) to scrape the dirt out of the cylinder. The dirt is easier to direct into the dustbin and the lid is much easier to close.

The V10 also has a more powerful motor and the battery lasts a bit longer between charges. It doesn’t block so easily. But it is significantly heavier, and for somebody elderly or frail that makes it harder to use.

Both units have clever ways of telling you that something is going wrong, though if you want to find out what they are saying then you will probably need an Internet search. There are lights that come on when it is time to wash the filters – they come out easily and can be rinsed out under a tap, but they then take 24 hours to dry before you can use it again. The most common problem is a blockage, which is usually in the floor attachment but can be in the machine itself. You will know because it starts sucking intermittently, I suppose in an attempt to clear the obstruction – a sort of mechanical version of a cough However, this never works, and you will have to clear it manually. In the case of the V8, there is a large plastic screw that you have to turn to take the roller out. You need to find something to go into the slot in order to turn it, and the best tool I have found is a 5p piece. I keep a few of them round the house now so I can unblock it without having to hunt for change.

In conclusion, either will do a good job, and according to Which? the Dyson cordless vacuums are much better than most of the competition. But they each have their little ways. I think I have had the V8 for about three years and the V10 for half that time. Neither of them have broken, so they seem reliable enough. You will still need a proper vacuum cleaner for Spring cleaning, builders’ dirt, Christmas tree needles and that sort of thing, but most of the time a quick run-through with the cordless is enough.

3 thoughts on “Nature abhors vacuuming

  1. Julian

    I have enjoyed all the entries on your blog, but I never would have thought before now that a review of vacuum cleaners could prove such fertile grounds for comedy. Your description of emptying the Dyson into the bin made tears roll down my eyes. Magnificent stuff.



  2. My first comment! Sugoi! The first to pass the Turing test, anyway, which is what counts. When I set up this blog just under about a fortnight ago I immediately started receiving emails along the lines of “so-and-so thinks your post is pretty awesome! You should see what they’re up to. Maybe you will like their blog as much as they like yours.” Thrilled at the thought of perfect strangers trembling in the presence of an intellect greater than theirs (why else would they think it was awesome? The only other meaning I know of “!awesome” is “yes”) I investigated further, only to find that when I translated such emails into proper English, what they really said was “so-and-so hopes to tempt you into linking to their site, or at least visiting it, in the hope of generating advertising revenue”.

    So I am genuinely appreciative of your feedback, and also that you have taken the trouble to be so nice about it when there are so many people who use the Internet to be rude to strangers, making me wonder whether what they really want to do is put ground glass in baby food but they aren’t brave enough.

    I hope the format continues to entertain, and maybe make a few people think about things differently, from time to time.


    1. Hi Julian

      It is a very interesting question as to whether the internet has produced a culture of meanness in online and public discourse, and if the inherent rudeness of people has been allowed to flourish behind the cloak of anonymity adopted by so many who comment online, combined with the unregulated nature of the web. I have thought about this for a while and, like most things, I suspect it is a combination of the two. Hopefully most visitors to your blog won’t be of the baby food-poisoning type!

      A friend of mine once posed a fairly simplistic thought experiment whereby he thought that, if you left a man or woman alone on a desert island (why always a desert island?) with an iPhone and unlimited and uninterrupted internet connection, he or she would over many years be able to educate themselves to a sufficient degree to be able to reintegrate into the world when the rescue plane turned up. I suspect this person would come home with rather a lot of misinformation and plain wrong beliefs. I see again in today’s Times, for example, that Andrew Wakefield is again being given the oxygen of publicity for his ‘belief’ that the MMR vaccine causes autism and viruses. The reporting goes to some lengths to assure the reader that his research has long been debunked by medical science, but that relies on the average reader getting beyond the headline. And this in a national newspaper, which is regulated.

      Anyway, I’ve digressed a bit from my original point, which was that these blog entries have thus far given me a great deal of pleasure – and already taught me much I didn’t know – and I hope the blog reaches a wider (human) audience and the WordPress bots leave you in peace.

      (Since you mention Alan Turing, in one of those funny coincidences of life, yesterday I bought a novel by Will Eaves called Murmur, which is a short fictionalised life of the great man. I’ll report back if it’s any good.)


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