Friday, April 13, 2018

Changing Cars: Going Hybrid

It has to be said that driving a brand new car is an expensive indulgence, but I have to own up to rather liking it! It just so happens that every car I've owned, I've had from new. It's a guilty pleasure.

Anyway, the time has come to change my current car, a Mazda 5, for something new and shiny. Although I like driving new cars I find the process of buying one tedious and stressful. But this time I had a different plan in mind because I wanted to go a little greener and began looking at hybrids. The kind of car I like to drive hasn't been readily available as a hybrid, but with the arrival of the Prius+ a number of years ago, an alternative to the typical MPV became available.
It's not everyone's first choice but it's what we have chosen as our next new car.

Hopefully we'll adapt to the automatic gearbox quickly. It's a bit unnerving to start with when you don't quite know where to put your left foot or what to do with it! But once you get out one the road it's a nice, rather relaxed smooth drive. I actually collected the car just before Easter and immediately drove it to Bedford, Eastbourne and Saffron Walden over the weekend! I think I can safely say I've got used to it now!

The ever increasing complexity of the technology that goes into a modern car continues to dazzle. Even more so with the transition to a hybrid and all the data that is available about when you're running in EV mode, how the power is being generated and distributed, and all sorts of other things. I remember when most new cars came without a radio let alone a satellite navigation system and proximity sensors.

If you're a so-called petrol head then you'll probably find the Prius+ a boring, uninspiring drive. That's fine. I didn't buy it as a performance car, I bought it because it suits our needs, it's a hybrid, and it's comfortable. My first refuel suggested I got around 50mpg, and apparently that's likely to improve over time.

So there we have it. The money is spent, the car is bought and the next 4 or 5 years of driving are sorted out. The Prius is the first step in moving away from simple combustion engines towards something greener. The next change will be Anne's Kia, but quite when and what to, I'm not sure. Perhaps another Toyota in the form of a Yaris hybrid.

In 4 or 5 years time I will probably look at at a PHEV version of something. Technology will have moved on and there may be a much wider choice of such vehicles than there are currently. Maybe we will even go fully electric. I can imagine a day when you pull into a service station and simply swap out the batteries rather than recharge before going on your way. I'm guessing too that battery technology will change and maybe we'll have 1000 mile ranges available by the time ICE's go out of production completely.

In my ideal world we will have a house that has all electricity from renewable energy so that charging our electric vehicles is carbon neutral. Is that so far fetched?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

After Vegas: After Parkland: After the next time?

I wrote the following after the Las Vegas shootings but in the end decided not to publish it. No particular reason, it just didn't seem appropriate at the time. I don't know why. But history has repeated itself and once again I fid myself looking in form the outside and asking the same questions. Something in me wants to let those within the USA who want to see change that they are not alone in the world. 

It's been a few days since the awful tragedy in Las Vegas unfolded. Along with many of my fellow UK citizens, I remain somewhat dumbfounded by the continuing reluctance of a civilised society to change its attitude and its legal system with regard to the ownership of guns.

We don't challenge the US from the outside with some sense of superiority. We challenge because we don't understand how a nation can continue to be wedded to the idea that guns, and the apparent ease with which they can be acquired, are not a factor in these events. We listen to the arguments that guns don't kill people, people kill people and shake our heads. Why? Because we can't understand how other cannot see the simple logic that if you put a gun in someone's hand you increase the possibility of it being used.

The sad truth of it is that it appears to those of us on the outside that the nation is so entrenched in its defence of an amendment to its constitution that it's forgotten that it is an amendment and could be changed if there was the political will to do so. That's what amendments are. Changes. Alterations to improve or clarify. And surely by now everyone can see the need for clarification and change.

In 1996 Thomas Hamilton walked into a Primary school in Dunblane and killed 16 children and a teacher. As a nation we said, "No more, this has to change." We changed our law. There were some who raised objections, who questioned the knee-jerk response, but we made the change. We understood that he was unstable. We could have described him as 'sick and demented'. We could have called his actions 'pure evil'. We probably did. But then we acted.

From the outside it appears that the US has decided that the death of children is bearable (Sandy Hook) for the sake of retaining a freedom that looks more like an irresponsibility that it does a right. In the aftermath of what has been reported as the worst mass-killing in recent history, will the same attitude prevail?

Steve Turner, a Christian poet, once wrote:

History repeats itself.
Has to.
No one ever listens.

Is anyone listening now?

Monday, February 05, 2018

Going Vegan: The Veganuary Experiment!

I know it wouldn't be first on most people's list of things to try but I explored being vegan in January as part of Veganuary and at the prompting of my daughter Ally. Being principally vegetarian, it wasn't a huge leap to trying vegan, although the thought of giving up a really nice mature cheddar cheese was a bit of a trial!

It would be really easy to approach "going vegan" as being all about what you are giving up rather than what you might be gaining. I know a lot of people for whom moving vegetables from a side dish to a main course is cause for heart palpitations and cries of impending doom as starvation looms. So you need to look at the positives, the things you can explore, remembering of course that it's always a choice. Trying a plant based diet is not a lifetime commitment unless you choose to make it so.

Perhaps I'm fortunate that the reason I don't eat meat is because I don't actually like it. I'm not fond of either the taste or the texture. Having said that, there are plenty of vegetables and fruits that I don't particularly like either. For example, during veganuary I chose a vegan wrap at a chain restaurant. It was okay, but it had avocado in it and I dislike avocado with a passion. Something confirmed by trying the aforementioned wrap.

So how did I/we get on with our vegan experiment? I discovered that I could live quite happily without dairy products. I use almond milk in my smoothies, and because I don't drink tea of coffee there wasn't a problem finding a substitute for dairy milk in hot drinks. A soy based yoghurt was fine with the oat bran I often have for breakfast and Alpro's soy based custard was good too. I did try some vegan cheese. It was okay grated on risottos etc but I don't think I'd have wanted to try it on toast!

We only ate out once and I managed to find a vegan menu at Ask, the restaurant we visited. I had a vegan spaghetti bolognese. Assuming the pasta was vegan, it tasted exactly the same as every other form of pasta I've eaten and the bolognese was made with veg and lentils. All very nice. I can imagine that other places might be as accommodating, but that is changing.

Do I feel different? Honestly, no. I feel just the same. No ups or downs in energy levels. Will I choose to be vegan? I think we'll be rather flexible. The thing about being vegan is not to fret about things too much. Rather like the pasta. If it was egg based, then okay. There's little value in being overly militant about these things. Make a choice, but don't make a song and dance about it.

Since reading The China Study, it would certainly seem that the traditional western diet needs to change. Too much meat is not good for you, especially if the meat outweighs the vegetable content of your plate. Although there are disputes about the conclusions drawn in the book, we all know the important of complex carbohydrates and fibre to good digestion and therefore good health.

You can visit the veganuary website for more information. It's not too late to give it a try!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Early Days with Nest

 We've had our new boiler and Nest thermostat for just over a week now and I thought I'd write about our early experience. For those who don't know, the Nest thermostat learns your patterns and adjusts your heating accordingly. You can set up a schedule or simply let it learn as you turn the stat up and down. It take about two weeks for it to settle down, but you can programme it as you would do with a standard clock controller. If you're used to an older clock-based system you'll know that at their most sophisticated you only really had the choice of weekday and weekend schedules. Some of the wireless systems that were introduced did have more daily controls, but they were sometimes fiddly to set up. Not so the Nest.


Using either the 'phone app or the web version you set up and alter a schedule very easily. Our current schedule is very simple. Monday to Friday mornings are routine, Weekends are different. Weekday evenings take account of usually coming home at different times rather than having a single set point for the heating to come on and heat an otherwise unoccupied house. The nice thing is that you can turn the heating on remotely, so for those times when we're coming home earlier than expected a quick tap brings on the heating.

You can also use geo-fencing, but given that I'm often driving past the house I suspect this wouldn't be a useful feature for me! The other thing that Nest does is turn the heating off when no one is home. So, if I have to go off to the gym to do an early lesson, Nest will turn itself down.

You can also see your energy usage. It's only been a week, so there's not much to see, but already there have been a couple of occasions when the thermostat has not brought the heating on because nobody was in the house at the time.

Under our old system we had the heating running for around 7 hours a day (5:30-09:00; 17:00-21:30). With the Nest this can drop to around 3.5 hours for some days. That could represent quite a saving over a heating season.

One thing that was hidden away in the features is the pre-heat time. The default setting allows the thermostat to bring the heating system on up to 5 hours before the set temperature. So, if your'e used to having your heating come on at 06:00 to reach your desired temperature by 06:30 you could find that your heating comes on at 01:30 under extreme conditions. Not very likely I know, but you can change this setting. Being a bit old school, I've set ours to a maximum of 1 hour.

At a slight tangent, when you set your temperature you really need to think about where the thermostat is sited and fiddle around with the temperature to get it right for the house. Balancing your heating system can help save money too because overheated rooms wastes energy. When I was working in R&D our design day temperatures were 16 in bedrooms, 22 in bathrooms, 21 in the lounge, and 18 in other living areas. Now without a lot of effort that's pretty difficult to achieve. But doing simple things like adjusting radiators and TRV's to get a more even distribution of heat helps. Our thermostat is in the hall and it's usually set to 19.5. It doesn't matter if it's actually 19.5 in the hall as long as the house is warm.

I suspect the Nest is far more accurate than the old bi-metallic strip thermostat we used to have. That used to be set to 17 because that gave an even distribution of heat. The nice thing about the Nest is that you can tweak the temperature up or down, knowing that in the next cycle it will revert to the previous settings instead of having to remember to reset the stat manually.

Overall I'm pleased we decided to have the Nest installed rather than a programmer and thermostat.

Monday, January 29, 2018

"Did you win?" should never be your first question!

I really enjoy getting people started with a tennis racquet. Tennis is one of the great social games, and seeing people laugh and cheer in equal measure in my adult beginners/improvers class is a regular highlight. Take the other week when one of the players couldn't work out whether to hit a forehand or backhand volley as the ball came at them quite quickly, so they headed it back across the net instead. Rather than roars of disapproval everyone collapsed in laughter. They then followed that up with the most outrageous recovery shot to win the next point.

All fun and games.

But then there's the more competitive side of things, and this is where the question makes it's appearance. Not every person who carries a racquet on court wants to play tournaments, but some do. Some work really hard to be the best they can be and go out and play. But tennis is a brutal, unforgiving sport. Only one person can win a match and only one person can win a tournament. So asking "Did you win?" is not the place to start. "How do you play?" is a better question. You can play you're absolute best, but if you're up against the best player in the tournament your'e probably coming home a loser.

To put that in a context let's look at yesterday's Australian Open men's final. Roger Federer won his 20th Grand Slam, more than anyone else in the open era. He's been in 30 finals and played in 72 Grand Slams. His 20 titles make up 10% of the Grand Slams played in the open era.

So, he's converted 2 out of 3 finals into wins. Is that the best record? Well, in 2016 it wasn't. Djokovic  had a better conversion rate. 20 GS wins out of 72 means that he's won fewer than a third of the GS tournaments he's entered! Even arguably the best male tennis player in the open era has had to work incredibly hard to achieve that return. Many tour players go through a whole career without ever getting close to winning a GS let alone a Tour 1000 or 500 event.

The simple truth for anyone who plays an individual sport like tennis or golf is that it is only in exceptional circumstances that you don't go home a loser most times. A professional tennis player was once asked how he coped with losing. His reply was simple, "It happens every week." 128 seat the main draw of a Grand Slam singles tournament. 127 go home losers. That's the brutality of of an individual sport. That's why, "Did you win?" is the wrong first question.

Friday, January 19, 2018

For what it's worth

There are still times when I get quite angry about the events of 6 years ago. I still feel like I was misunderstood by my denomination and simply brushed aside. The ultimatum to either join a church or lose my accredited status failed, in my view, to express any sort of understanding of what we were going through. It seemed that the local church was more important. We were dispensable, replaceable. The local church wasn't. Therefore the local church took priority. And anyway, they were probably right and I was undoubtedly wrong.

That's how it felt. It's how it still feels if I spend too long thinking about it.

What brings it to the surface every now and then is usually a moment when I think about what I could have done differently if I'd behaved myself and continued to make more and more compromises and acquiesced to the demand to conform to a pattern of ministry that wasn't me and wasn't how I understood my call. I simply didn't fit and that wasn't acceptable.

I think it was the day someone told me that the way we were doing church was no longer something to which they felt they could invite their friends from the golf club that I realised it was time to walk away. So we did. Of course it wasn't that easy. We could have resigned, but that would have meant moving out of the house in 3 months whereas getting the church to terminate my ministry meant we could stay for 6 months. No pastoral care, just tick the boxes, meet the criteria. Ridiculous and hurtful because in many ways it reinforces the sense that it's your fault, you're the failure, you've done all the wrong.

It's been some time since I revisited all these feelings, but today I sat with someone talking through some of the issues they are facing. The 20 years of ministry that was cast aside 6 years ago leaves a positive mark too. Things that draw you into ministry don't go away just because you're no longer in a role that fits or doesn't as in my case. Perhaps what God saw in me he still sees. Perhaps the gifts and skills he gave me, gifts and skills he nurtured in me, are subtly at work for the kingdom still. Perhaps coaching and therapy are just alternative ways of expressing those things that have become part of a "landless" experience.

If I'm really honest I doubt very much that I will ever find my way back into a local church. There's one place where it might happen, but not yet, not now. I could arrange my time to make room for a monthly excursion, but why would I want to go back and do the very things that were wearing thin for me?

It was hard sitting and listening to someone pour out their troubles. It takes concentration and not a little effort to listen well and respond helpfully, occasionally offering a challenge or two. But it was a reminder that skills once learnt and practiced remain available, if a bit rusty and tarnished with neglect and lack of use.

The church is not the kingdom just as it is not the building nor the worship nor the Bible study group or the prayer meeting. I didn't promise my life to the organisation 40 odd years ago. I promised it to Jesus. It's still his. I may have left the church behind, I've never left the kingdom.

Friday, January 05, 2018

10 things about writing and blogging that come to mind

I studied Sports & Remedial Massage at NLSSM and we have a Facebook Group for graduates and someone recently asked about blogging. It took me a while, but I eventually responded with some observations based on my experience of being an infrequent and frankly disorganised blogger.

Blogging, and bloggers, come and go. Some hang around for long periods, others drop in and out. Some blogs are focussed and specific, other are more rambling or personal.

For what it's worth, I've decided to try and put a bit more thought into the observations I made in responding to the question on the Facebook Group. Here's what I've come up with so far, in no particular order.

1. Be clear about what your purpose is for writing.

You are going to write differently for different purposes. This blog is a personal rambling sort of thing where I write about all sorts of stuff. It's a place where I share ideas, express opinions, post music I like, pictures that make me smile and where I rant about stuff that irritates me. I don't worry about likes and subscribers. I write for myself.

2. Decide on a frequency.

I'm very relaxed about my writing. It's mainly about me processing my thoughts. If anyone reads it that's okay, if they don't, well I don't worry too much about that. But if you're intending to use it more proactively then you need to post regularly. The key is not to assume that the 101 ideas you currently have in your head will all work and if you post too much too quickly you'll probably do two things. Firstly, you will run out of ideas and energy and you'll skim on research. Second, you'll overwhelm readers. Better to post once a month than post seven things today and then nothing for the rest of the year. With most platforms you can schedule your posts, so you can use a productive period to get ahead. See the next point!

3. Get ahead of yourself.

If you are going for regular postings, then plan ahead. Sketch out ideas and do your research. Always be one or two posts in front so you don't dry up.

4. Write well.

Always proof-read. Learn to spell. It doesn't stop errors creeping in, but hopefully you will catch most grammatical and other mistakes before you post. We all make typing errors, it's about keeping them to a minimum. You may not be bothered by ending sentences with prepositions, splitting infinitives or the nuances of the Oxford comma, but it's always worth the effort to make sure your syntax is good and that what you're writing has clarity. Read other stuff and ask yourself what makes it clear, what makes it readable? Then learn from it. Don't be afraid to "go back to school" and learn some basic grammar if you're a bit rusty or have simply never been taught it. It's not as complicated as it sounds.

5. Related to writing well is knowing your audience.

If you're writing technical stuff for technical people, then use technical language. If you're trying to explain something technical to the non-techs, then avoid it or at the very least define it clearly.

6. Keep it relatively short.

Blog posts are neither essays nor dissertations! You need to capture you reader's imagination early if they are going to make it all the way to the end. Ask yourself if what you've written will fit on a single screen or will the reader need to scroll down. If your asking folk to scroll down or even click through to a second page, it's got be worth the effort!

7. Be prepared to get criticised.

People will take issue with you, and that's okay. Some will be rude, that's not okay, but it's the way things are. The internet is not the most civil place in which to share thoughts and ideas. If you don't handle criticism well then learn. Always be civil in your responses. Disagree with respect. Do not get involved in self-justification, it's not worth the effort and you'll never win a critic over with it.

8. Use illustrations and pictures where you can and only if you have access to good ones. But don't clutter the screen with unnecessary photo's and illegible charts.

9. Edit.

Let things sit for a while. Re-read them. Don't be afraid to discard stuff, even whole projects. But don't throw out a good idea just because it's proving tricky to get the words down. I have drafts on my blog that might get posted one day but might not. It's part of the process. Use a tool like Evernote or Onenote to gather thoughts, ideas and research.

10. Review.

Every so often stop and look at the big picture. Is what you are currently doing still serving the purpose with which you set out. If the answer is no, what needs to change the purpose or the product?

Okay, so there's probably more, but this is getting too long as it is and I,have other things to be getting on with right now. (And it's cold in the house because the boiler has broken down and I need to find someone to fix it!)