Tinkering with the sublime

Before MTV even considered Pimp My Ride there was an obvious market for after market modifications to cars, be it the silly spoilers lads put on the back of their XR2is or right at the other end, RUF building you a custom car that looks like a Porsche 911 on steroids. I mean, have you seen the insane Nurbergring Yellowbird video?

Anyway, I digress. I’ve always said that my first port of call on a lottery win would be a sports car to tide the gap until I could get something a bit more unique. The way car financing works today, anything right up until to get to McLarens aren’t particularly exotic on the road any more. I drive around our middle of the road surban estate (not one of the more expensive areas in St Albans I hasten to add) and I see various high end Jags, an Audi R8, a Ferrari and several different Porsche 911s (a Turbo, a Carrera 4 GTS, and a plain old Carrera amongst others). Someone over the other side of town has a Lamborghini Huracan with a rather garish wrap job that makes it swirly and mirrored (think the old TVR chameleon paint and you wouldn’t be a million miles off). Lambo always used to have the reputation of being the supercar that fat Italian businessmen drove up the village to visit their mistresses in but things have changed mightily since ’98 when VW bought the company and put it under the control of Audi. German reliability and Italian flair? What could go wrong?

Of course there are a lot of aftermarket kits and modifications you can make to your car, even if it’s a Huracan. Some are cosmetic, some actually affect the performance of your car. It’s fascinating to see what’s involved in this sort of thing too- a lot of performance boosting now days just involves remapping the engine management to improve throttle response and to be honest, can be a bit boring to read through. I’ve been reading the Scuderia Car Parts blog which shows a Huracan up on the ramps with some serious tinkering occuring.

A new exhaust system and a carbon fibre spoiler is certainly a great way to personalise your Lambo!

And that’s what it’s really about I suppose. When I learnt to drive in the early 90’s it was a treat to see something as “exotic” as a 4th generation Supra. Even now, I was genuinely more excited to see an Alpine A110 in the metal than a lot of cars more than two or three times the price- I even drove a McLaren last year on a track day for goodness sake- which just goes to show it’s the niche element rather than the price sticker that makes a lot of these performance cars desirable. If you can spend around £50K on something that does 0-60mph in under 5 seconds, spending £150K on something straight out of the factory isn’t really an option any more.

Because England is the home to a lot of motorsport companies, the whole tuning and modding scene is very well developed here, and there are equally a large number of well established wholesalers that sell performance parts. Such a company is Scuderia Car Parts, with whom this post is a paid partnership. And yes, as the name suggests, they also do parts for Ferrari (and other) manufacturers too!

Nozstock: the most family friendly festival becomes EVEN more family friendly!

We’ve been to the Nozstock festival in Herefordshire for a few years now and we all love it. It’s small enough that the kids don’t feel overwhelmed but big enough that they don’t get bored. Last year was a particular highlight as Ned accidentally learnt the words to the Dub Pistols Mucky Weekend (fortunately he doesn’t understand a word of it. If you want to pick up on our review of it, you can read it here.

  • Expanding and improving family camping to accommodate more tents and more space
  • Increasing the number of toilets on site by 25% and introducing child-friendly toilets in family camping
  • Supplies available for family campers including loo roll, wet wipes, sanitiser, sun cream, plasters, toothpaste and site maps. Whilst stocks last!
  • ‘Save your space’ scheme. Booked to use family camping but want to make sure you have enough space to camp together? A limited amount of 5m2 pitches are available to hire to save your space
  • Little Wonderful Kids Area expanded to include more activities aimed at older children and a dedicated breastfeeding space

As you can see from my review of this years festival, Nozstock is already really family friendly, so any improvement is going to be the icing on the cake.

So if you’re looking for a last minute Christmas pressie, you can buy tickets for the 2019 festival here.

Last night I got told off by my mum- I’m 43!

I’m used to be told off, it’s a part of life but it has been a number of years since my mum actually told me off. I’m well into my forties now and had thought that I’d passed that stage of my life. It appears that I haven’t.

I tend to have a weekly chat with my parents on the phone while I’m walking home from work. Although they’re only based 18 miles away, with three kids and lots of activities at the weekend, we only see them once every couple of months, so it’s good to keep in touch.

While I was chatting to mum yesterday, I mentioned that it’s great to be able to see what the boy has had for lunch- he’s newly started at secondary school and his school dinner money is done via biometrics- in this instance a thumb print. We can log on to an app and see what he’s spent and what he’s spent it on. Mum was impressed, I could tell. Mind you, a lot of technology impresses her generation, but even so, she said it was a shame that they didn’t have that sort of system when I was at school.

I was a creature of habit in my school days. Packed lunch containing:

  • two slices of Sainsbury wholemeal bread made into a Marmite sandwich (cut diagonally)
  • a bag of crisps (Ringos, Farmer Browns, Hula Hoops, Chipsticks)
  • a biscuit (orange/mint/fruit Club or a KitKat)
  • an apple
  • a carton of drink (5 Alive, Umbongo or something similar)

Blithely, I mentioned to mum I didn’t actually eat my packed lunch very often, instead I sold it to Mark Giltrow. Mark was on school dinners but didn’t like them and preferred a packed lunch, so I sold him mine for the equivalent of a school dinner, pocketing the money to fund my obsession with comics and computer games. Along with my 55p bus fare home I didn’t spend, choosing to walk instead, this added a huge £8.75 a week to my income. That was enough to buy a Megadrive game once a month!

There was silence on the other end of the phone. The silence extended and became awkward. Them mum replied, “You naughty boy, no wonder you were hungry when you got home, honestly Alex, I’m cross with you.”

I had to point out that we were talking about something that happened 30 years ago, and as a 43 year old parent of three I wasn’t about to take a telling off for something that happened so long ago but there was little I could say that would mollify her. I was in trouble!

Hoarding like a pro

It’s not getting any better. Whenever we have a big tidy up it seems like we’re just moving stuff about and relocating things rather than getting rid of stuff. Our house must weigh about twice as much as our neighbours because we’ve got so much darn stuff in it.

The kids don’t help the accumulation of detritus- attempt to get them to part with any old or broken toy they haven’t touched for years and they’ll wail and play with it incessantly until you leave the room and then revert to the scrumming wrestling game that is their preferred pastime. 

Still I’m no better, I keep on finding stuff in the house that I bought years ago and in some instances haven’t actually opened. Take this for example:

Dreamcast VMU

The Dreamcast was Sega’s last (and ill-fated) console. It was released in 1999 and discontinued in 2001. This is a sealed box VMU (memory card) for a Dreamcast that’s sat in a box in our loft for many many years.

Still, I did manage somewhat of a breakthrough. I took 17 boxes down from the loft that contained old video consoles, games and various cables and power supplies. I only returned 7 boxes, which I count as a win, but I’m still a little nervous about some of the PSUs I threw away.

I mean, just because I haven’t used them in the last 15 years, doesn’t mean they’re not vital. Right? Right???

Navigating the maze of electricity use with British Gas and their smart meter maze game

Our house was built in the 1960s and one of the ways we get an insight every day to how different things are in 2018 to 1968 (Happy 50th Birthday house!) is the aggravation we inevitably have when it comes to plugging stuff in. Each room has at most two plug sockets, which in this day and age simply isn’t anywhere near enough. And boy do we have things plugged in- from computers to grills, to smart speakers, everything seems to come with a power brick and a plug today. Ironically, even the 1970s stereo we’ve recently inherited needs two plug sockets, which suggests that power strips were pretty common in the 70s too.

And it is true for us that almost every plug socket has a power strip on it, with various devices and chargers plugged in. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up in a cold sweat wondering how much electricity half our stuff uses on standby and whether cumulatively it would be enough to put one of our kids through university. Both our bigger tellies (50 and 60 inch respectively) don’t even have a physical on/off button; they’re either in standby or switched off at the wall and since the cables are tucked away from sight, turning them off at the wall every night is a bit of a chore, especially when one of the kids wakes you up at 6am because the TV doesn’t work.

British Gas have developed a game to let you see what uses electricity and how, with the idea that it creates an awareness of the things that use a lot of electricity. Much like a smart meter will let you see what is being used, and make you conscious of what needs turning off or using sparingly to save you money. I have a friend who was shocked to see the electricity usage of his big plasma TV after he got a smart meter fitted. He went away and looked up the actual power consumption and worked out that if he bought a similar size modern LCD TV the saving in electricity between the two would actually pay for his new telly before the warranty on it ran out.

The British Gas Smart Meter Maze game lets you get an idea of how much simple things like turning off lights or game consoles will save you, all wrapped up in a lovely retro pixel art style. I particularly like the way it shows the kids running around and turning everything on ALL THE TIME. It’s very realistic in that respect.

That’s the beauty of a smart meter really. It won’t magically save you energy on its own but there is something about seeing a £££ move that focuses the mind and makes you more energy conscious. I even did the experiment of setting our TV to ECO mode to see what difference it would make. Initially the screen looked a lot dimmer but since we mostly watch TV in the evening with the lights off, we soon adjusted as the saving, although small, was another step towards being more frugal with our energy usage.

And in case you’re wondering, I scored 23,000 on the Smart Meter Maze game. Try and beat that if you can!

 

This post is a promotional feature in association with British Gas® but all thoughts are my own

Chaps, did you realise you can get thrush too?

I like to think I’m a fairly typical bloke in many ways when it comes to health- I was three years late to having my 40+ medical check up for example- and I’m always happy to soldier on with a cold without making a martyr of myself but when Canesten® made me aware of their Talk Health campaign and that men could get thrush, and male thrush was actually a thing, I was a bit taken aback to be honest. So taken aback, I was actually motivated to find out more.

Thrush is a common yeast infection, experienced by both men and women, caused by an overgrowth of a yeast-
like fungus, Candida albicans. This fungus is naturally found on the skin of healthy people, however, when the natural balance of the skin flora is disturbed, the fungus can multiply excessively triggering the typical signs of the infection.

In men, thrush usually affects the head of the penis, with symptoms being similar to those of vaginal thrush:

  • First, the affected skin reddens. The inside of the foreskin can also swell
  • After a few days, itching can begin, often accompanied by a burning sensation which becomes stronger when passing urine or during sexual intercourse
  • Sometimes, a white discharge which looks like cottage cheese can be observed under the foreskin. There may also be an unpleasant smell in some cases
  • Difficulty in pulling back the foreskin is another frequent symptom

So yes gents, it basically hits you where it hurts and where you’d least like to get something like that and have to show a doctor. In fact since reading that men could get thrush, I went on to read up on thrush and found that if left untreated, in some instances it can prove fatal. Eeek! Fortunately it’s about as easy to treat as athlete’s foot and the biggest issue facing us chaps with thrush is an actual awareness that we can get it in the first place.

Canesten® itself is something I am aware of, it’s a popular treatment for thrush, I actually used it on the back on my leg to treat a fungal infection many many years ago (at the recommendation of my GP I hasten to add) but it’s one of those creams that’s found in the “scary aisle” at Boots, along with other stuff that no self respecting bury his head in the sand at all things medical chap would ever look at.

In fact it’s this general lack of awareness centred around male thrush has prompted Canesten, the top brand in women’s intimate health, to launch a ‘Let’s Talk Health’ campaign. This campaign focuses on improving conversation around the topic of thrush, and how it is important for everyone to understand common health conditions.

As I’ve already alluded to, us chaps are quite good at not talking about medical stuff in the first place, in the good old fashioned hope that it will simply “go away”, so it’s hats off to Canesten® for starting the conversation!

This post has been supported by Canesten®, but all thoughts are my own.

Review: Concept the board game

At completely the opposite end of the board game spectrum from last months Catan, is Concept, a board game built around using visual clues to guess a word or phrase. Concept is dead easy to play but like any good board game, the more people you have, the more fun and frantic things get.

Concept is the latest game we’ve been sent by the board game club to expand our board gaming vistas beyond the traditional games of Monopoly and Cluedo that are pretty much all I ever managed to progress to after I got bored playing chess.

Concept has a board with four columns and a row of colours. The idea is to string together a cryptic set of icons from the columns to describe a word or phrase from a card. Each card has three words or phrases on for three different difficulty levels.

In the picture above, for the word “Zebra”, I put the starter piece (a question mark) on the animal icon in the first column, and then two cubes on the black and white colours. This says to the other players on my team that they’re looking for an animal that’s black and white. So far so simple but what if the card had “Jaws” on it? That’s a bit more complicated. I might put the question mark starter on film or TV, then a cube on animals (both of these are in the first column), then a cube on hare in the second column to denote “speed”, and finally a cube on the water icon in the third column to denote it’s an aquatic animal. Hopefully that would be enough for someone to guess the movie as “Jaws” and not Free Willy or The Penguins of Madagascar!

Those are the basic rules but they do get more complex- you can effectively give separate sub-clues by using different coloured cubes, and other players should pay particularly close attention to the order that the cubes are laid down as they can give important clues themselves.

I’ve read some stinking reviews of Concept online from board game enthusiasts and if you google Concept you’ll probably find some yourself but I found myself enjoying the game immensely and finding completely the opposite to these negative reviews. Them great thing about Concept is the limitations to what you can select in terms of icons/clues. You sometimes have to use a large degree of lateral thinking to get to an answer that might seem obvious to you but everyone else is struggling to get to grips with. This creates great tension and allows for a lot of banter during a game (which typically lasts around 40 minutes). The more people you have, the more fun you will have as it can get quite competitive in the way that a slower, more complex game doesn’t.

Concept is aimed at 10+ year olds, and although it’s easy to CRUSH your kids while playing, it is also a genuine learning experience for them as they’re learning all sorts of logic puzzles and semiotics(!) Concept is available from all good retailers for an RRP of £30.99.

Gearing up for some DIY

Previous bank holidays have been busy

Next week sees a long Bank Holiday weekend and that can only mean one thing- DIY. I’m not sure why adults across the country see long weekends as an ideal opportunity to go stuff around the house instead of sitting around watching football and F1 but we do, and I’m invested in the process as much as other people.

Our big task this Bank Holiday is going to be emptying the loft and getting rid of most of the stuff in it. The things will be divided into keep, sell, charity shop and take to the dump. I’m hoping the first pile will be the smallest. It’s been something we’ve been meaning to do as I’ve wanted to replace all the loft insulation for a while now. Insulating a loft can be tricky, and once you’ve piled a load of loft boards and boxes on top of the insulation like we have, it doesn’t really provide much actual insulation.

This winter was in places a really cold one and since we had our energy meter fitted I’ve pathologically resented having the heating any higher than it should be. And given I’ve got a Nest thermostat, I can check what it’s been set to really easily! There’s not much point having cavity wall insulation if all the heat can escape through the roof.

Once we get that done though, there are still several other things that need doing. In the recent cold snap we had a burst pipe (to an outside tap). This is the first burst pipe we’ve ever suffered and I think it probably got in the wall cavity before it was spotted. Fortunately we have an isolation value on the tap but it has meant that we’ve had a damp section of wall which I’ve been waiting to dry out before skimming it repainting it. If I can face the rolling digits on the energy meter, I might just put a fan heater on it to speed the process up.

We’ve also been in the process of replacing some of our curtains and net curtains with roman blinds and roller blinds. We’ve had issues with curtain poles in the past due to over engineering in the actual house construct- the concrete lintels over the windows are massive and my Bosch power drill hasn’t managed to even dent them. This has meant we’ve had to screw wooden batons part into the wall, and no more nails them for extra strength. This doesn’t look tidy so I’ve finally bit the bullet and bought an SDS drill which goes through the concrete like a hot knife through butter. It’s similar to this one from Ferm  and a complete beast of a drill. It’s slightly terrifying to use but gets the job done nicely, so we’re now in the process of sorting out all the windows. So far I’m pleased with the results:

One room down- many more to go- I need to get value for money out of my drill after all!

So what are you up to this Bank holiday weekend? No doubt our kids will complain that they’ve got nothing to do but if we rush through it all to make sure we’ve got some time for a day out, no doubt they’ll also complain bitterly about having to go out. That’s the way with kids and we’ve just got to get on with it I suppose!

 

My life is ruled by batteries

Whether it’s Christmas Day spent putting triple As into toys that will only be used over the Christmas period, my smartphone battery anxiety as I head out for the evening with only 35% charge left, I’m increasingly becoming a slave to batteries. Even my watch needs charging every couple of days for goodness sake.

I’m spending a couple of hours out this morning, going straight from extra maths for the boy to guitar for Fifi. I had my laptop with me, left on to charge overnight, so I could catch up on some email, do some admin and done writing. Except that the wall switch wasn’t turned on so I was faced with 3% battery and a morning off sitting around twiddling on my phone. It’s not the end of the world but it’s a waste of a couple of hours where I can guarantee that I can’t feel guilty about what I should be doing and won’t be interrupted by kids.

Battery technology hasn’t improved inline with other technology. This has led to a lot of technology starting to stagnant in terms of actual processing power as they focus on keeping the power level constant while improving the battery life. I’m a heavy tech user and on a “bad” day I’ll need to charge my phone mid afternoon, despite every mainstream review saying that they get a day easily out of it. The obsession with thin hasn’t helped this; add three or four mm to the thickness of my phone, it’ll make it easier to hold and give me better battery life.

I’ve written this on my smartphone and the one thing it’s taught me is how badly I’ve ruined the predictive text with lazy thumb movement.

I don’t make new year resolutions

The idea that you do pretty much anything you want for most of the year and then make a half hearted attempt to set things right for a few weeks in January has never been particularly appealing to me. I mean, what’s the point in eating enough sausage and chips during eleven twelfths of the year to the point your skin colour resembles a savaloy, only to swear off them for an altruistic month or two before starting all over again.

If nothing else, it sets a bad example to the kids because seeing your debauched lifestyle month in month out and a short but futile attempt to alter it is hardly inspiring is it? I’m a firm believer that most things are okay in moderation and that’s something you should look to keep up all year long.

Having said all that, I have entered myself in a fun run in June with the kids and signed up to a run every day in January thing. But I did start running again in mid December, so that doesn’t count as a resolution right? Right?

 

Cock!Tails!

A post shared by Alex Walsh (@daddacool) on

I’ve decided to get a personal trainer to help me with my running. At the moment my brisk walk is only 3 minutes a kilometre slower than my running speed, so I need all the help and enthusiasm I can get. My personal trainer has this in spades, mostly because she is eight, almost nine, and my daughter. She is a natural athlete, has the build of a long distance runner and can out distance me at twice my speed without even getting out of breathe. That’s something to aspire to, and she’s very encouraging too. At the moment I’m on the threshold of around 7 minutes to the kilometre, sometimes ducking under it, sometimes (like New Years Day, on 6 hours cocktail fuelled sleep) considerably over it but I’m working on it and have been for three weeks now.

So here’s to not having expectations that a new year will bring a new you, the first of January is more important as the birthday of Ned than anything meaningful in terms of a new start in attitude or approach. He’s more interested in LEGO…