Tuesday 22 December 2009

Squash and Salsa

Two new activities I’ve taken up the last few months.

First, a friend introduced me to the game of squash as I had never played before. I really enjoyed it and am now playing fairly regularly against my cousin, niece and her boyfriend – only about twice each month. Would like to play more often and get better as I’m pretty crap. Worse, I find I hurt for a few days after each game even though I’ve been exercising. It’s a good workout, a fun social activity and a much better game than badminton or tennis.

Jenny and I started going to Salsa lessons having complete one six week course and planning on doing more next year. We decided that the kids are finally old enough to be left on their own for a couple of hours giving us a chance to go out in the evening. We did a lot of ballroom dancing before we had kids so it’s nice to get back to doing some kind of dancing together.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Lose Weight and Get Fit

In September I decided I needed to lose some weight as I hit numbers on the weigh scale that I’ve never seen before! And I was finding that I would get puffed out much too soon doing physical activities. Not good.

So I began a new diet and exercise regime.

It had to be simple to keep it sustainable and it’s pretty obvious what to do: less bad stuff, more good stuff. For a diet, it means avoid sugar and empty carbs while eating more veg and complex carbs. Essentially a low GI diet. I don’t like systems of complete denial but the balance and proportions have to decisively change.

I have also started a regular exercise regime which is also simple: 30 minutes of exercise every other day. I don’t like the overhead or expense of going to a gym. All I do is go for a run and then come home and do some more exercises. These usually include skipping, crunches, lunges and push-ups. I sometime vary it up with others like tricep dips. I like just using bodyweight exercises as it keeps the routine uncomplicated and portable but I wouldn’t mind adding dumbbell exercises or a rowing machine would be great.

Found this nice iPhone app called iFitness I’ve been using.

How effective has it been?

I’ve been at this now for over three months. I lost 6kg in the first three months and am now fluctuating +/- 1 kg around a constant weight this last month. I’m definitely feeling a lot more fit. Overall, I’m pretty pleased but suspect I’ll need to increase my exercise time and intensity to make further progress. I’m looking for more activities too.

It’s hard keeping to the diet during Christmas. Mince pies! Shortbread! Aaahh!. And the weather is making it hard to keep my running up. The sidewalk is covered in snow and ice today. Nevertheless, “lose weight and get fit” will be my New Years resolution as I need to be ski fit for a holiday in March.

Saturday 19 December 2009

Media Center Entertainment System

Over the course of the year, I’ve reinvented our entertainment system. I won’t go into any great technical depth or rational for what I bought as I do that on another blog but I did want to describe how it has changed the way we entertain ourselves.

First I sold our old 37” Sony CRT TV which was only 8 years. Bought for £2000 and sold for next to nothing - £21! That’s the price for you pay for the progress of technology. I’m just glad someone wanted it as I couldn’t bare to take it to the tip. Bought a new Samsung 42” 600 series HD TV for less than half the price of the old TV.

I then built a custom Media Center PC based on Windows 7. It has a TV tuner, Blu-ray drive and  2.5 terabytes of storage. No need for the old VCR and DVD player so they went to the dead technology grave in the loft. The CD player is on death row.

For audio, I still use my old stereo but added a top notch digital pre-amp and DAC in the shape of a Benchmark DAC1 PRE. Excellent piece of kit that has really improved the sound. And I added a cheap Tapco SW10 subwoofer for extra oomph only when watching films. I’d rather have a quality stereo than a cheap surround sound system.

Finally, I replaced the Xbox with an Xbox 360 and wired everything to the Internet.

Windows Media Center has changed the way we watch TV. The kids and I record tons of stuff so we’re never stuck for something to watch. I love the “record series” feature.  If we don’t record it, chances are we can watch it streamed from the Internet. BBC iPlayer is particularly good and offers downloading too. ITV and Channel4 also offer streaming. Of course, we can also watch DVD’s, Blu-ray’s, YouTube and other video formats either ripped or downloaded from the Internet. The choice is immense!

The Media PC and large telly is also great for any shared computer activities – like shopping, holiday arrangements or looking at photos. It works as a karaoke machine too. And it’s been useful for helping the kids with homework such as writing skills or looking at wikipedia. I haven’t set it up for gaming although it could be used for that. I prefer to keep games on the Xbox 360.

I use it to play my music collection. Indeed it supports 24bit 96kHz audio files which I’m looking forward to collecting. Or instead of my collection, we just play Spotify. Even though the quality of free Spotify streaming is only 160kbps, it’s still listenable and offers tremendous variety.

As you may guess, I’m pretty pleased with all the functionality and flexibility of this system. Just wish I had bought a bigger HD TV!

A Weekend in Prague

In September me and a couple of mates went to Prague for a weekend. In general, we try to find a short-haul destination that’s got something interesting to see or do during the day and has great bars and nightlife in the evening.

Unfortunately for me, that weekend I was still getting over some random bug I had caught from the kids so I drugged myself up and persevered.

We got there flying Easyjet out of Gatwick and stayed in the Hotel Orion which I booked via laterooms.com. Turned out to be a great hotel choice. We had a huge two bedroom suite with a kitchen on the ground floor for only £62/night for all three of us. It was very clean and well furnished.

There’s a couple of bars near the hotel but not many places to eat. It’s a quiet area. However the Namesti Miru metro stop is only a few short blocks away. Various trams stop there too so it’s very easy to get around. We bought a three day pass so we could just jump on and off trams, buses and the metro as we wandered the city. The biggest drawback is you need to grab a taxi to get home late at night or you have a long walk. If you’re going, I would recommend staying near a metro but outside the pricey Old Town quarter.

Overall, Prague is picturesque but it’s totally overrun by tourists with shops and businesses trying to extract tourist dollars. I wouldn’t recommend going and have no wish to go back. With the help of my Time Out guide, we did find several nice bars and restaurants quite easily so it’s a decent place to go for a drinking kind of weekend. The pilsner is excellent and cheap. And to me, the Czechs seem to have great taste in music.

If you’re a culture buff, there’s plenty of architecture and history if you want to discover it but, frankly, how much Czech history do you want to know? I found the modern history interesting but didn’t care much about the earlier stuff.

If you’re thinking of going to Prague, I would at least suggest you try and fit in an excursion to a nearby town which has will have much fewer tourists. A weekend is plenty of time for just Prague. Or reconsider and go somewhere more interesting like Munich or Berlin.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Sailing around Athens

After we got back from Canada, we had a couple of days to repack our bags before we headed to Athens for a week of sailing around the local waters and a few days exploring Athens.

We flew there and back with Olympus Airlines which went well. No hassle and relatively inexpensive. But it was a late flight there so we stayed overnight at Peri's Hotel. It's a very small hotel but very convenient being close to the airport. As we expected for August, it was wiltingly hot.

Day 1

In the morning, we awoke to an angry sky as we discovered that fires were burning in the hills around Athens - a big news item. We went back to the airport to meet our sailing friends, Karen and James who we previously sailed with in Turkey. Together we caught the bus down to Kalimaki to find our yacht. Once again we had hired the yacht through Nautilus Yachting. This time it was a Bavaria 42' Prestige model and we weren't disappointed when we found it. It was in excellent shape and well kitted out.

By the time we had done all the paperwork and provisioned the yacht, it was too late to sail so we relaxed and stayed the night in the harbour falling asleep to the blasting music of a local disco.

Day 2

Karen had been teaching sailing locally so she knew the waters well. This made the itinerary very easy. Just had to ask, "Karen, where shall we go next?"

First stop was a sail across the busy straits outside of Athens to our lunch stop at Ak. Plakakia on Aigina where we had the first of several nice swims. I wouldn't say the water was warm but definitely refreshing. Unfortunately, the sailing motion this day didn't suit Jenny and she was rather ill. After lunch it was an easy reach down to picturesque Poros where we stayed the night tied up at the quay. Poros has a busy harbour with loads of restaurant and tons of fellow yachties. Kieran busied himself fishing with the pack of yachtie kids.

Day 3

Sailed towards Ermioni mostly on a run. Jenny still wasn't quite good with the motion. Ate a quick lunch swinging in an exposed bay. Made it to Ermioni early enough to squeeze onto the quay. Good local swimming. Kids befriended the dog on the neighbouring boat. Dozens of restaurant right beside the mooring. This is the kind of Greek location I had in mind when I first started sailing. A beautiful sunset to end the day. Marvellous!

Day 4

Sailing into the wind, we spent a lot of time tacking. Jenny was much better. The lovely harbour at Hydra was full so we anchored in the sheltered bay of Mandraki a bit further up right beside a monster luxury yacht. Good swimming and lots of jokes about visiting the neighbours.

Day 5

Long sail up to Epidhavros with a brief stop at Poros for supplies. Had lunch on the run. Anchored in a bay full of jellyfish so no swimming. The kids had a great time rowing around in the dinghy exploring the bay. Robyn did a stellar job of ferrying us to shore when we went for dinner.

Day 6

No hurry today. We were going to try to visit a local ruin but the taxis wanted too much money. Abandoned it for relaxing in a cafe and a spot of shopping. In the afternoon, we did the short sail over to Aigina and found a nice mooring in the harbour. Aigina is a big town and the island is famous for pistachio's.

Day 7

A lazy day poking around Aigina and relaxing on a local beach before the short sail back to Kalimaki where we stayed the night. Reluctantly our sailing holiday had come to an end.

Day 8

Karen and James headed to the airport while we went on to find our hotel in the middle of Athens. In the process, we got ripped off by a taxi driver. Very common in Athens. We stayed at Hotel Attalos. Excellent location. Inexpensive. Clean. Great view of the Acropolis from the rooftop bar. Highly recommended.

We spent the afternoon at the superb National Archeological Museum. It has very good exhibits and even better air conditioning! Athens was sweltering. We then went up to the top of Lykavitos Hill to get a great view of the city and watch the sunset.

Day 9

Early morning start to climb the Acropolis and join the daily throngs of tourists. I've wanted to see the Parthenon for a long time. It's not in very good condition but I expected that. Before this trip I had read much of the history and had even visited the British Museum to see the Elgin marbles. It was great to finally get here and took loads of pictures to commerate it.

 In the afternoon, we walked around the perimeter or the Acropolis and tried to get into the New Acropolis Museum but the queues were too long and we abandoned it. Slunk back to our hotel for some aircon and a nap as it was just too hot. Towards evening, we walked through the Ancient Agora with the Temple of Hephaistos before climbing up Filopappou Hill for some great views of the Acropolis at night.

Day 10

In the morning, we walked around the food markets as that's one of Jenny's favourite things to do. Then we split up with the girls going shopping and the boys exploring the old Roman forum. A very casual day before our flight home the next morning.

It was a great trip. Really enjoyed the sailing and would really like to get out more often. Athens was much better than I expected. The greatest drawback I find with Greece is the food! It gets so repetitive.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Growing Your Own Vegetables

This year, I grew a vegetable garden for the very first time. It was all because we tore down the old shed leaving a bare plot of earth and that got me thinking about getting something back from the land that we own.

My scheme started with a dream of huge giant pumpkins. The pumpkins in the UK are always of a small variety and I wanted something really big for Halloween. I did eventually harvest one nice sized pumpkin bit it wasn’t nearly as big as I would liked. Unfortunately, it didn’t get much water when we were away in Canada. Gotta try again next year.

Beside the pumpkins, I grew potatoes and corn in the plot. The potatoes were dead easy and very rewarding to grow. The corn wasn’t so successful; only harvested several small ears.

I also bought four 65 litre tubs to grow smaller plants. Growing in tubs works really well. Two tubs were just salad greens and were very easy to grow but need loads of watering. It’s great harvesting your own salad just before dinner. One tub was Kieran’s and he grew carrots. It was very overcrowded so they didn’t develop very well. A final tub had some cherry tomatoes and I was surprised how well they grew.

We grew more tomatoes in grow bags sheltered beside our new shed. They grew better than I expected and we got a small crop but they really could do with a greenhouse. Next to the tomatoes, Kieran grew a crop of strawberries in some grow bags and they turned out well.

We also added some berry plants to our garden. Kieran owns two blueberry plants and we have a couple of thornless blackberry plants and logan berry plant. Not much berries from them this year but I’m sure they’ll improve. Berries grow very well in the UK climate.

I concluded pretty quickly that growing vegetables is not cost effective. The scale is way too small for the amount of work involved. But it is strangely satisfying and I’m sure I’ll try again next year.

Back to B.C.

As soon as school ended we went back to Victoria and Vancouver for a month to visit family and friends.

As usual, we start in Victoria where my parents live. We had discussed with the kids what they wanted to do some months before and had come to our goal of going on a "real" fishing trip. By real, it meant catching big wild fish from a boat.

After some research and calling a few friends, we eventually arranged to go out on an old 39' trawler owned by a friend of mine from high school. The boat was harboured in Port Renfrew and luckily there was a good salmon run going on while we were there.

All together, we caught 10 Pink salmon and a 20lb Spring. We also caught a crab in a crab trap and even spotted a pod of orcas. It was a great day out. Ended up giving a lot of the fish away as there was too much for us to eat.

It's always great to catch-up with all the people we know and the time went quickly. Spent an afternoon up at Grouse Mountain and another one at the beach on the Spanish Banks.

We did a side trip down to Seattle visiting friends living there. Visited the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum which was really good. Particularly liked seeing the old Star Trek props and the display of guitars.

The big family event of the trip was my cousin's wedding. Tanya married her girlfriend Jennifer. It wasn't without some family controversy but I absolutely support same sex weddings. It was a lovely event and it all went smoothly. It does take a little while to get used to the phrase "her wife".

Family Archery

As a new family activity, I tried to get us all signed up for archery lessons only to discover we were too late. Every club I tried was booked up full. You gotta book this stuff well in advance.

So I went and bought our own bows for the kids and had a go in the backyard. Unfortunately, I discovered that the 20lb reflex bow with aluminum arrows I got for Robyn is pretty powerful. I feared for anyone walking in the field behind our house. Haven't been able to use it yet as I'm stuck on how to construct a cheap and effective backstop.

Will try for places at a club in 2010.

Visit to Bath

In July, my cousin and nephew came to stay for a few days.

As usual, this is when you become a tourist in your own country and go to places you usually ignore. Camden Town is a favourite place to knock about so we spent an afternoon there. We also went to Windsor Castle which I haven't been to in ages. For a road trip, we drove out to Stonehenge and then on to Bath. While Stonehenge I had seen much too recently, it was nice having a walk around Bath. We went through the Roman Baths this time which I haven't done before and wandered around the Royal Crescent.

Made a mental note that Bath would be a good family day out and a visit to the Thermae Spa (no kids under 16) would be great.

A Cottage On The Isle of Wight

Didn't quite live up to the song lyrics...

Last May, we joined a big group of friends who do an annual get together in a caravan park on the Isle of Wight. We have sailed to the Isle of Wight before but never explored the island. The kids had a great time playing at the park and the beach despite it being still a bit chilly.

This group also likes a sing-a-long for evening entertainment so I brought my guitar out too. I haven't played much in years but it's motivating me to gather together all the songs I think I can play and make sure I can get through them. We're booked to go back to the caravan park in 2010 so I hope to have a better reportoire by then.

Before we left, we did a tour of Osborne House. This was the private residence of Queen Victoria. Very interesting place and well worth a visit.


Two Weddings and a Funeral

Sadly, my Uncle passed away this last father's day. His health had been suffering for some time but he went peacefully in his sleep. My cousin and girlfriend did a wonderful job of looking after him in the three years after his wife died. He will be missed.

Luckily, weddings have outnumbered funerals this year. Some friends got married in the Spring and my cousin Tanya got married in the Summer. I seem to be at an age where weddings and funerals happen in equal quantities.

Renault World Series at Silverstone

I took Kieran to see some racing up at Silverstone. The Renault World Series is free; you just need to apply for tickets on their website.

The event completely lacked big screen TVs so you don't really see much of the race. The displays around the track were ok but not particularly interested. The highlight was watching Nigel Mansell do doughnuts in his F1 car at the end.

Not a great event but it's free entertainment. We got trapped in the parking lot for a hour or two when we tried to leave. This must happen at any big event at Silverstone.

Blur in Hyde Park

There's not a lot of bands for whom I would pay top dollar to see live in concert but Blur is one of them. I was dead pleased that I managed to get tickets. So on a nice warm sunny day in July, I took Jenny, Robyn and her friend so go see them.
I would say this is the first big concert to which we have every taken Robyn. She and her friend left us and went up near the front of the stage where you tend to get squashed. It thoroughly worried Jenny but that's what Moms do.
It was a brilliant concert. Wish I had known the lyrics better as much of it was a big sing-a-long. I only regret that they didn't play "Magic America" which is one of my favorites.
One "game" the crowd played was pelting anyone that sat on someone's shoulders with plastic beer bottles. Certainly kept the view of the stage clear!

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Le Mans 24hr Race 2009

In June, a friend and I drove down to Le Mans in his Audi TT and camped at the Le Mans 24hr race. I've wanted to do this trip for a long time.
It is rather bizarre to see a campground full of sports cars. The Friday night was one long party. It did get a bit frustrating when you want to finally get some sleep but the neighbours don't. Ear plugs are well worth it. Many people also stayed up all of Saturday night but it isn't nearly as raucous. The Stranglers played a concert that evening.
It was great to watch the race. My respect for the drivers has shot up numerous fold. There are four drivers to a team each doing two shifts of three hours. That's a lot of driving and the speeds are amazing.
There are loads of big screens around the track but the truth is you miss a lot of what happens. Watching TV is better of course but you miss the atmosphere which is worth sampling at least once. I don't think I would do the trip again. One brilliant way to do this trip is to stay at a B&B and take a bicycle for getting around the viewing points.

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I have a friend who's into photography so we went on a little photo expedition to Turville. It's one of my favourite little villages in the area as you can do a nice walk up the hill to the old windmill for a lovely view of the valley. Best of all, the pub does some excellent grub.

Stonehenge and Avebury Again

If you have two children, I think you find you do a lot with the first child and then forget to do them again for the second child. Or at least do them again when your second child can remember it.
At least that was what happened with us and Stonehenge. We realised that Kieran hadn't been there so we set out to correct that with a little field trip since it isn't that far away. And we went to Averbury too since that fits in well with the theme of ancient circles. The museum at Avebury is very good and there's a decent cafe for nice coffee.
It's an excellent trip but choose your day carefully. Stonehenge on an overcast day is a bit dull. You need sun or some dramatic cloud formations to bring pictures alive. There's inevitably a cold wind blowing over the Salisbury plain so be prepared for that. A car picnic is a good idea.
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Brooklands Museum and Mercedes World

Our last activity of 2008 was go the Mercedes World and the Brooklands Museum. Just want to recommend this as a really good day out with the kids.
For Christmas, we gave Robyn a driving lesson at Mercedes World as a gift. There's no age restriction; you just need to be tall enough. While she was doing that, there's plenty of nice cars to check out.
Brooklands was of course a very famous racetrack in its’ day. The museum feels a bit tired and underfunded but the exhibits are very good and you can even have a tour of one of the first Concordes that was built.
Go on a warm day since there are many things to see outside or in a hanger.
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Catching Up With 2009

Wow, it's December already and my last posting was ten months ago! And 2009 is almost over. I have considered killing this blog but rather than do that I'm going to make an effort to catch up by posting what we did in 2009. I've found a few people actually do read these ramblings, particularly my son! If anything, this blog has become more of a family diary and may turn out to be my only legacy.

The kids are now much older than when I started so I'm going use their names: Robyn (R*) and Kieran (K*).

I can't write a huge amount in one shot but it will be better than nothing. I'll try to find time to add more detail, correct grammar and spelling and spice them up with pictures later. I’m now using Windows Live Writer which makes it easier.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Agenda 2009

Clearly, I haven’t been too inspired to blog for a while. Three months in fact. Life has been a lot more quieter than tramping around the world. I still haven’t finished sorting out all our pictures from the trip.

The major theme for this year is getting serious about our careers. I’ve decided that I’ll stick with Information Technology. Specifically, I’m back to writing software and planning to have a go at freelance contracting. Jenny is exploring her options to combine her interest in food with education.

I’m also spending a lot of time in managing our investment portfolio and learning how to invest better. Of course, we got bitten by the stock market crash like so many others. However, with share valuations down, I’m very interested in trading.

We have lots of plans for changing around the house and how each room gets used. This also means trying to get rid of tons of old stuff. And then shopping for a load new stuff. And then doing a massive amount of decorating. The whole house needs painting and all the carpets replaced. There’s tons of DIY things to do but I’m waiting until it warms up a bit outside first.

And finally there’s family time and all the running around that involved. R* continues with Sea Cadets and is in three ensembles and a choir. She has both trumpet and singing lessons. K* continues with Cubs and is taking percussion lessons. He’s also in the local tennis club and plays tag rugby at school. At the moment, it seems like a pretty good balance of activities.

No much travel planned for this year except for spending the summer in Canada.