Nothing to see here

Lockdown has sort of officially ended but as a country, we’re not really returning to the office yet in massive numbers, as working from home has proved successful for many and let’s face it, encouraging people to return to the office AT THE START OF THE SCHOOL SUMMER HOLIDAYS was never going to be the greatest piece of joined up thinking from our illustrious leaders.

We’ve continued plugging away at work and household life, which has settled into a bit of a monotonous drudge. The monotony has been alleviated by the lack of rushing around, chasing our own tails, with extra curricula lessons and activities for the kids, and the commute to work more or less done away with. I read a great quote from a senior partner at PwC, a firm that is infamous for it’s long hours, where he said presenteeism is dead. Great soundbite but I suspect the reality will be different!

A lot of people seem to have been putting weight on during the pandemic, gym going exercise curtailed and food and beer offering a happy distraction from sitting around at home all day. Happily I’ve managed to keep up the momentum that the Shape Up! course I did, started back in January. I started the year at 21 stone/130KG and by the start of lockdown was down to 17 stone/110KG. A few months further down I’ve now dropped below 90KG, and *just* under 14 stone. I might have been around that when I got married in 2004, I definitely wasn’t by the time we had kids. I feel a lot better for it and have to say it’s not been anywhere as hard as I thought it would; the cravings for beer, chocolate and crisps subsided very quickly and controlling portion size wasn’t much of a struggle.  Most of the exercise I’ve taken has been walking, around 10KM a day on average, with some cycling thrown in back in June. I definitely feel better for it.

In some ways without a pretty disastrous 2019 (I lost my mum after a long and painful illness), which saw me pile on the weight (well, at least 3 stone of it), I might not have reached the tipping point where I had to make a significant change. It’s difficult to not be a bore about it all to be honest; there are precious few other hobbies it’s still possible to undertake during Covid-Times after all.

We had the dreaded “staycation” last week. Dreaded in the sense that we did have 4 weeks away booked for this year, none of which has actually happened. The first two, April and May, were slap bang at the worst part of lockdown and given how stupidly a of people have been behaving since, we didn’t feel safe for the July and August holidays we had booked as they were a camping holiday with communal facilities and to a very popular tourist area respectively. Instead we racked up a few hundred miles doing day trips to places we’ve not been to before.

I tried to film a few 360 degree videos while we were out so that we’ve got a taste of the outdoors when we’re stuck back at home. They work with or without a VR headset and you’re welcome to spend 15 minutes on a coastal salt marsh if you like!

The kids are now all gearing up to a return to what will be a very different school experience for them and this is causing differing levels of anxiety for all of us. Wish us luck!

Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X- which one should I get?

There are tonnes of technical articles on the internet about the relative merits of both the new consoles coming out later this year from Sony and Microsoft. The new Xbox Series X has faster processor and graphics gubbins but the Playstation 5 has a “revolutionary” SSD (storage device). Until they both hit and we can play games on them, it’s going to be marketing spin to a greater or lesser degree.

I wrote a piece on my other blog about the marketing war the other week but if you’re reading this, the chances are it’s either because you’re interested in a new shiny for yourself or one of your kids is already pestering you about getting one and you’re wondering which you should get.

As a gamer of almost 40 years now, the advice I’d give isn’t enormously different to that I’d have given parents in the 1980s when the choice was between a 16K ZX Spectrum or a Commodore 64. Back then I’d have said get what your mates have, you can borrow games from each other, and it’s fun to be playing the same stuff. Nobody was envious of Enzo’s Amstrad CPC in the 80’s because nobody else had one.

Now that gaming is more online than ever, getting what your mates or your kids’ mates have still makes a lot of sense, even if some games do now let you play across different consoles. Yes, you can play Minecraft on your Playstation 4 with people using an Xbox One. And, for that matter, Fortnite, as well as a shed load of others. The big exception is Overwatch, and that’s likely to never be “crossplay”, and neatly highlights the risk of buying a system that none of your mates have.

The other issue with kids is the inevitable status and peer pressure. Woe betide the classmate of mine who had a BBC Micro System back in the 80s because that was educational. There is no doubt that Sony started this generation strongly and dominated but as the PS4 and Xbox One era begins to draw to an end (it’s still got years left, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise though), Microsoft actually has a better offering with the Xbox One X, the final iteration of it’s Xbox One console. It’s cheaper, smaller, and more powerful than the Playstation 4, and with it’s Gamepass subscription system, you get access to hundreds of games for a month subscription, making it much better value than the Playstation. I’ve got both because I’m hopeless and I find myself firing my Xbox much more frequently than my Playstation.

Which brings me on nicely to the final consideration. New consoles are expensive, premium priced and have been known to go wrong in the past. Since I now definitely fall into the category of more sense than money, I always tend to wait for the first price cut before jumping in. This typically comes 6-12 months after launch (depending on how the machine is doing) and has the added benefit that any designs problems have usually been ironed out by that point. The rumoured launch price for both MS and Sony’s new devices are around the £500 mark.

Ouch.

At the moment you can get some properly brilliant deals on the current generation of consoles (the all digital Xbox One S digital has been as low as £90 during the sales, the Xbox One X is regularly £260, and the PS4, well that’s still expensive for what it is but compared to the prices being floated around for the nex gen, it’s positively affordable).

So I’ve probably really confused you now, telling you:

  • to buy what your mates have but consider crossplay
  • that Xbox Series X likely to be more powerful but Sony have a few tricks, so who knows?
  • both are likely to be EXPENSIVE at launch, so maybe pick up any of the current gen machines you don’t have on the cheap, while the games are cheap too?

To be honest, I’ve confused myself too. Microsoft dropped the ball at the start of this current generation and never really recovered, despite having what is now much the better offering. They can’t make the same mistakes again, so should be a safe bet. But then there are over twice (and almost three) times as many PS4s out there compared to Xbox Ones, and sticking with the brand you know is easiest, so Sony have already probably won.

Tricky isn’t it?

Things I’ll remember from Covid-19 lockdown part one

A red kite, seen on an early morning walk during lockdown

I did a Sainsbury’s Click & Collect the other morning at 7am, a couple of days before the high street shops were allowed to reopen and if it wasn’t evident to me already that lockdown is functionally over before I went, it was by the time I got back. Three weeks ago at the last C&C, the member of staff and I had a shouted conversation at a distance, when I got out of my car to load the food, he got into the cab of his truck and shut the door. He didn’t get out until I got back in my car. This morning a different bloke was leaning in to the driver’s side window of the car in front and having a chat with the driver. The driver was passing him the crates when he’d loaded the stuff into his boot. Three weeks ago we were all following the social distancing rules because we wanted to be safe, today I saw people halfheartedly following them because the rules said they had to and they might get told off it they didn’t.

This triggered me to think about putting some of my thoughts down on on what I’ll remember from the lockdown from the first wave of Covid-19 because thoughts are transient and much of what we’ve done has had an air of sureality about it whilst we’ve been doing it, in a year or so it will seem an absurd confection of misremembered nonsense and myth if we’re not careful.

It’s funny how the banal sits right alongside the shocking in terms of how I’ll remember lockdown. Grumbling about making Yorkshire Puddings that turned out like bricks with rice flour because no supermarket in the universe seemed to have plain flour seem to sit alongside the slow horror of friends and work colleagues losing parents, uncles, and aunts, and grandparents to Covid-19.

Stalin is often attributed as saying, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Whether he actually said this is doubtful but as a country we sit with 60,000 deaths from Covid-19, I’m minded of it. As the deaths piled on, accelerating towards 1,000 a day at a seemingly relentless pace, the cold hard ache of background terror seemed to always be there in April. 20,000 deaths would be a good outcome we were told in mid March, a total we hit a little less than a month later.

Somewhere around the end of the first week of lockdown, we stopped watching the television news. It became pointless because the reporting was so poorly done. Sitting a corespondent outside a hospital makes a great spectacle but little more than that. If a few less people died on Wednesday compared to Tuesday, the reporters started asking whether we’d turned a corner. Science was treated with an almost incomprehensible mysticism, as though it was both immutable and unfathomable. I switched to online news sources, like the fantastic Ars Technica comprehensive guide to the Corona Virus. The BBC also seemed to slip into a war time mode, perhaps pushed their by the Prime Ministers rhetoric that treated the virus like “enemy” to be “fought”, and reporting on government press conferences became more an amplification of what they were saying than a critical dissection of what was happening.

The first couple of weeks of lockdown are a blur already, we had Covid-19 during that time, I remember being unable to get warm, shivering under our winter duvet in three jumpers and feeling terrible. Supermarket deliveries were almost impossible to get, all the things you wanted were out of stock and half of what you ordered didn’t show up. It was a scary time. The attitude in the office had swung from everything being a stupid overreaction to full emergency mode in a very short period of time, and that in itself was worrying.  The weather was horrid, cold and wet out, and the heating didn’t seem to take the edge of the chill. Home schooling was a novelty and the Easter holidays were only just around the corner, so it seemed like an achievable goal to get the kids there.

Do you remember those days?

Specifically do you remember when people took the lockdown more seriously because it was new, fresh, and really really scary?

In that first few weeks the only time I went out of the house was into our back garden. I actually wore a path around the edge of it, I walked so many laps there. The next few weeks were fraught with trips to Great Ormond St Hospital for ultrasounds, MRIs and eventually a biopsy for one of the kids. Stressful enough at the best of times but in the middle of a full lockdown pandemic, with only one parent allowed to come, it’s not something I’d like to repeat (and hopefully we won’t have to).

At some point in late April I started taking my daily exercise outside of the front door. I found a good route that whilst horribly dull to look at, allowed for good lines of sight, and the ability to cross either to the middle or the other side of the road if I saw people. It was a little over 6km, and I’ve walked that same route every lunchtime, listening to an audiobook, every day since. I even bought a cheap GPS fitness tracker, and have just hit 300,000 steps/260km in under a month. Unfortunately my poor wife hasn’t been able to join me because I probably broke her ankle in early April by leaving a pair of sandals outside the backdoor. She twisted her ankle really badly and by the time I took her for an x-ray, it was too late to tell whether it had been fractured or not. I’m still feeling guilty over this….

 

The power money can have on relationships

Shepherds Friendly recently got in touch with me over some interesting research it’s done into the influence that money can have in relationships. It’s interesting to see how the dynamic is slowly changing with regard to money between partners. In my parents era it was more accepted that the woman would eventually become a mother (and perhaps even unspoken that job was really something to just tide you over until you found your man) and would stay at home to look after the kids until they were old enough to be left at home.

Today I can say this dynamic is changing but the fact we’re now past the date where women effectively work for free compared to men doing exactly the same job shows how far we still have to go. In our relationship we try to be very even and very fair- we have a joint account which all our money goes into and everything else goes out of that. Yes, it makes buying surprise gifts a bit tricky but at the end of the day I don’t see that the money aspect is important because we’re a team and as long as we both work our best for the family, that’s all that matters, not who brings in what. I know plenty of people who keep separate accounts and pay into a joint account for household expenses and while I can see the pros and cons of that, it’s just not for us!

Looking at the infographic that Shepherds Friendly has produced, it is also interesting to see where views diverge on a gender basis- there are some things like how much of a part money plays in a potential partner being attractive for example that have quite a wide gap (translation: men are shallow and go on looks but women are planning for the future) but others like sharing information about salaries where the genders pretty much agree that sharing is indeed caring.

Why don’t you click on over to the infographic yourself and have a look to see whether your approach fits in with the majority, you might find one or two things that could change your mind or approach for the better!

Blue Monday

Mum went to sleep a month ago today and didn’t wake up. This proved to be the end of her long and arduous battle with cancer- multiple myloma. It was the way she wanted to go, at home and in her own bed.

The news came as both a surprise and not a surprise. I was surprised that mum made it past Christmas, and we had been planning for this Christmas, so in that sense it was a surprise but the last few times I saw her she had been very weak. The gruelling treatment for her cancer had unearthed a latent heart problem, and other things were starting to not work properly too. Time was definitely not on mum’s side but when time runs out it is always a shock.

The past month has gone by somewhat in a blur. There is a degree of unreality to it all if I’m honest. Over the last 18 months, as the cancer’s progression and the treatment had become increasingly gruelling, I’ve found despair all too often and upset myself quite a lot. I’ve shed a few tears since October 14 but nowhere near as many as I feel I should. I don’t think it’s sunk in properly if I’m honest. Perhaps it will be the situations like Christmas, or when dad does something stupid and I think, wait til I tell mum about what he’s done now, that I’ll realise.

The kids have been upset by it. To them, their Nanny was someone who used to make great trifles and lasagnes, gave them sweeties and a little bit of pocket money and generally made a fuss about them. She was ever so proud of her grandchildren and their appearance gave her a real second wind when it came to retirement.

Everyone loses their parents eventually, and if they don’t that’s the real tragedy I suppose. But it’s not easy is it?

10 years. 10 damn long years

A month before the iPhone 3GS was released, and Terminator Salvation was getting roundly trounced by the rebooted Star Trek franchise at the cinema, I decided to buy a domain name. I rather enjoyed puns so thought that a family orientated play on the Boney M song Daddy Cool would be just the ticket. And so Daddacool was given form.

Ten years have passed since I made that decision. The Wild West of the blogging world has given way to the Wolf of Wall St world of online influencers.

Things have changed a lot in ten years. If nothing else, I’m ten years older and about 30 years more tired. People who don’t have kids don’t know what tired really means. I don’t mean that disrespectfully of course, but until you’ve had three children devise a rota to make sure you never get more than 45 minutes continuous sleep, for years on end. Still, in the spirit of celebration (although I’m too tired to properly celebrate), there’s a slide show of some of the highlights I’ve had as a blogger over the past decade. In some instances there is even an overlap of the highlights of being a parent but I’ll leave you to guess which ones those are!

10 years

ClassDojo, helping schooling into the 21st century

One of the most frustrating things about communicating with our kids school is the haphazard way they use email. More often than not, we get email that simply says please see the attached letter (which is in PDF format). PDFs are not the best for reading on a mobile phone and invariably these always end up being sent at the wrong time of day for either of us to be anywhere near a computer. Talking to friends, we are far and away not alone in this, so I’m not singling out our kids school- honest!

It is also difficult to contact the teachers directly with any particular issue either- through no fault of theirs I should stress- as every morning there is a queue to see form teachers and they’re often busy after school and home by the time either of us finishes work.

it’s funny that in the work place we adopt lots of collaborative systems like Slack or Microsoft Teams to make our communication and workflow better but in other areas of life still have to rely on an email with a PDF attachment, or even in the case of the doctors, a letter that’s dictated and sent overseas for transcription.

Fortunately if you have a school that’s either onboard with the 21st century or open to suggestion, it doesn’t have to be this way because clever people out there have noticed that downloading and squinting at PDFs or leaving work early to have a five minute chat with a teacher isn’t really the most sensible thing to do and you know what? They’re right.

Enter ClassDojo, already used by a good 40% of primary school teachers in around 85% of primary schools, if your school hasn’t jumped on board, it’s time to ask them if they intend to. If it turns out your school actually does use ClassDojo and you just didn’t realise it, there are plenty of benefits to using it.

ClassDojo connects teachers with families so they can become a “teaching team.” Teachers can instantly share pictures, videos and messages with families about what’s happening throughout the school day.If, like me, you’re greeted with a “Not anything” when you ask how the day has gone or seem to spend half of your ten minutes at parents evening asking what you can specifically do to support your kid at home, this sounds like a godsend. I can still remember the day I asked our lad what happened at school (he was in reception at the time) and he said “nuffin” but the following week we saw a photo of him on the school website sitting in a big yellow digger.

ClassDojo is also an app that your kids can use, which helps to get them involved and develop both responsibility and accountability.

Kids can even use it to update you as parents to what they’re up to in the classroom. I know for a fact all our kids are brimming with pride when it comes to parent evening, how much more exciting would it be to let them share via ClassDojo as and when they do something cool, obviously once agreed by the teacher!

ClassDojo is available in primary schools so what are you waiting for? Check it out and if you like what you see, be sure to mention it to your school!

This post is advertorial content for ClassDojo

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!