Time to get fit (by )

Sarah's been putting a lot of work into losing weight lately, but apart from the fitness stuff I do in Krav Maga classes most weeks, I've not really paid much attention to my own health. However, my work have a fancy new medical insurance benefit thing, which has two features of relevance: One is that they pay for us to be poked and prodded and weighed and so on to establish our basic health parameters, and the other is that they encourage us to do exercise and eat well through a complex system of points-based incentives.

This has a two-pronged effect: It's told me that my body mass index (23.4) is in the healthy range (18.5-25), but a bit close to the top end; and my blood pressure (124/75) should be under (120/80). Thankfully, both of these can be improved by doing more cardiovascular exercise; and with the complex system of points-based incentives, this is GAMIFIED. Combined that with discounts on interesting fitness tracker gadgets, and feeling that nagging awkward feeling of watching Sarah work really hard on her weight loss while I slumped on the sofa with my laptop, and it started to become inevitable that I was going to start doing more exercise.

So, I got a discounted Polar RC3 GPS. This is a watch with a GPS and some smarts in it, which communicates via radio with a heart rate monitor worn on a strap. By logging heart rate data it can measure my exertion in an activity, and if that activity involves moving around (running or cycling, for instance) it can combine that with speed and gradient information from the GPS to work out what effort I was expending. This data is uploaded via a USB cable to a Web service that Polar run (alas, I have to depend on them keeping the thing up and bothering to securely store all my data, although there does seem to be an option to download it in a documented file format; but if the site goes down, I'll be having to reverse-engineer their USB protocol to continue to get data from my watch).

The fun is in the analysis, however. Their software has a model of human metabolism that works out how much strain I'm putting on my system, how many calories I've used, how many calories of fat I've burnt, and an efficiency factor they call "running index". It'll gather data across exercise sessions and work out trends and all sorts of fun stuff, including a "training load" graph that tracks an exponentially decaying cumulative average of the strain I undergo; horizontal bands on the chart indicate cumulative load levels where I should be taking things easy for a few days.

It also has an ability to suggest training schedules, which can be uploaded into the watch, and will then guide me - giving me a target heart rate to aim for for a given time period, then moving up to a higher pace, than down again, for instance.

So I've set myself the target of doing at least one - and ideally three or four - runs a week, where I spend at least half an hour above seventy percent of my estimated maximum heart rate. Here's one I did earlier. You can even see what I did on a little map, including my cool-down period at the end!

The data from this thing feeds into the health insurance provider, too, which then drives their points-based incentive system. This has an unexpected benefit; although I'm quite enamored of earning points on principle, some of the benefits are things that Sarah and the kids enjoy (free cinema tickets once a week, Starbucks or iTunes credit, etc). That makes an incentive for them to send me out on runs; given how busy our life is, that's surprisingly useful!

Other than meeting my weight and blood pressure goals, and generally increasing the number of armed assailants I can disable at Krav before I start to get sweaty, I'd quite like to do a marathon or something one day.

The Solar Eclipse and Education Fails (by )

Solar Eclipse Gloucestershire UK 2015

Friday morning saw me and many other people outside for the solar eclipse - these are rare events. It was not a full eclipse and I have a busted camera so my photos are not brilliant.

Inversions and reflections

But I was happy and my kids were happy. Mary had learnt about it and made a projector thingy at pre-school and Jean's school had gone all out and have a telescopes and glasses and solar observing stuff. They both loved it and it was a big fantastic educational thing for them.

The eclipse through a defraction grating aka hello kitty sun

I on the other hand was in my back garden mucking about with defraction grating and seeing what funky photos I could take - it was a bit of a fail but I enjoyed myself. And accidently ended up with the above "hello kitty" sun much to Mary's delight.

However... that evening I discovered that this was not the case for most schools. To my horror I listened to other parents tell of how they were late to work in order to take their kids to observe the eclipse because the schools had said they could have until 10 am off to view it as long as it wasn't in the school play ground because.... Health and Safety reasons.

I. Kid. You. Not.

But that was the nice schools - turns out many of them did not even give this little concession to an event that could well be career forming within our younger population - and not just science/astronomy, artists like a good old eclipse too.

The more I listened to the parents groaning about this the more I got angry but not just at the education system that seems to have struck off such events as useful things for teachers but also at the individual schools for being so crass about the whole thing. To the parents who were too busy to notice - but I might well have been one of those, to myself and the science communication community.

I didn't worry about the eclipse I knew Jean's school had stuff planned and I wanted to attempt to take photos. It never occured to me that schools would not be doing stuff with the kids, there are universities and what not out there that I'm sure with a little work could have been galvinised into action and all schools could have watched the eclipse at least on the telly if the weather had been a complete fail.

I really can not fathom what was going through the head teachers heads to not set up something. At to this people getting annoyed with me for the fact that large science announcements they think should be major headline news... isn't. This is normal people not scientists, they kind of don't believe some of the recent discoveries because they are not splashed across the headlines but it is really difficult to get the main media outlet (TV, Radio, News Papers and Mags) to take stories at all, let alone give them headline coverage.

However non of this absolves me - I have cuddly science sitting up stairs and I have done nothing other than write another script for it since Jan and this episode has just proven to me how much stuff like it is needed. My main constraint is that I need money to run the workshops and get to the schools and stuff so kind of need paying and no one seems to want to pay and so I simply can not give my time as funnily enough going to events can end up costing you especially if they don't even want to give you expenses.

It is on the too sort list :/

It's even worse as I could have made projectors with the cub pack but thought all the schools would be doing that :/

If there are any teachers out there who want to give a voice as to why they chose not to run an event/observation morning - then please get in touch.

The sun Eclipse inversion rainbow arc Sun in the trainbow lines Sun and rainbow and eclipse Rainbow pincers Rainbow streaks Reflection in the glare Sun through the arc

Camera is broken is a way that means I can't use a tripod which is a right pain! Just click on the photos if you want to see them bigger.

R.I.P. Terry Pratchett (by )

RIP Terry Pratchett

I wanted to blog about Sir Terry Pratchett the fantasy author last week but could not. I found out via his social media feeds and it struck to the marrow in away that I wasn't expecting nor prepared for. My facebook status read "Oh no frown emoticon Damn you upload tech you are coming to slow - we've lost another..." with a link to the authors page. With Leonard Nimoy's death as well I was hurting.

I'd known Terry's demise was coming, I've know since we went to his talk at the Cheltenham Lit Festival in 2007. There are sadly no photos due to the camera getting busted during the house flooding and there is no signed book either because I'd spent all my money on getting the tickets to the event and paying for parking and fuel.

It was an amazing experience and formative experience for me, but he announced he was having little strokes/bleeds and we knew what that meant. Watching over the years as he appeared at other things saying he could no longer read, or do many things was heart breaking. But he kept writing, he kept being inspirational and though opinions amongst my friends varies about the quality of those stories I've liked a lot of them.

I felt slightly awful as one of my first thoughts was... "I hope he finished the book for the autumn." It is also weird that a man I met/saw in the flesh once, just once in my life could upset me so with his death - I always used to think that people who morned for celebrates were stupid - I was wrong.

His books have been a big thing in my life. It all started with my GCSE Chemistry teacher who wrote in my leaving book to try his books out, she thought they would be perfect for me and she was right. I did not however go straight out and grab one, that had to wait until I was struggling with my A'levels, by this point I was doing a creative writing course at lunch times at the college and I was kind of getting sick of the accusations of plagerism especially on stuff I worked on jointly with my dad. Plus revision was coming up and I needed some distraction.

I used to go to Hornchurch library to procrastinate, I could be found "doing my homework" on the table by the geology etc... books not many of the wall of books around me would be anything to do with my homework. I rationed myself on the fiction books though as otherwise I would stay up all night, I had just written a story about falling off of a dragons back and puncturing reality and again been told it sounded like Pratchett. I went over to the sci-fi and fantasy stand (they did not have a book case - horror just about managed and was nearly all Stephen King), they had just put out some new books, one of which had a cartoony cover... I flicked it open having noted the name on the cover. It was Watchmen, it was about a dragon and sure enough it was like listening to me and my dad making up stories together.

I did not put it down, I finished it in three days - I am still a slow reader and was in the middle of A'levels - four A'levels when the normal was three plus lots and lots of extra stuff like the Geology Society, Creative Writing courses, Guiding and Thriftwood Campsite not to mention jobs and unsuitable boyfriends.

I hoovered up the libraries grand total of 3 discworld novels, Dad found me another two in a second hand shop in Brentwood. They however turned out not to be discworld but The Dark Side of the Sun and Carpet People. Throughout my A'levels I lent heavily on Terry to pace me through essays and all nighters, being slightly problematic in that there were rarely chapter breaks so I would have to remember to stop at ten page marks. Dad ended up reading them - he ended up a huge huge fan! I had to make him keep writing, assuring him that he is different enough (one day I will get his work out there!).

I learnt a lot during my A'levels and alot of the really important stuff like how to be myself and people can be dicks, came from his books. Of course they were not the only fiction I was reading but they were the only ones that I was saving up to buy models from - not that I ever managed that one :(

During the last leg of my A'levels I had a triple exam day, I had a clash! Not of two exams but of three and one of them was a long everything exam for Classical Civilizations - apparently it is not normally taken with with sciences. I wasn't allowed to talk to anyone and I was pushing the boundary of having to stay over night somewhere in isolation. I had to be escorted by teachers - I am in truth a shy person and found this highly worrying and embarrassing, I wasn't even able to go and buy food so had packed dinners. I also had Small Gods - I am not a last minute crammer, the dyslexia rules that out as an exam passing strategy, mainly I need to relax and not have panic attacks between exams. I read the whole book between the exams and felt like a complete zombie with brain over load - the book kept me sane, the book pointed out certain things that I was beginning to suspect myself already. I think bits of it may have accidently sneaked into my Clas Civ exam essay.

Great A'Tuin Cake

The summer between college (I was at a sixth form college and not at school for my A'levels) I worked at Thriftwood Campsite as an outdoors pursuits instructor, by the end of the summer I was the Duty Warden due to illness sweeping through our ranks. On of the boys (the guy who should have been in charge) lent me his huge, huge stack of discworld novels and a minidisc player. So when I suddenly found myself in charge (there was the actual Warden and Sub-Warden but they lived off site though not a thousand miles away and the next summer I was a Duty Warden from the start), the discworld helped me unwind.

The books were a mirror and not as distorted as people seem to think. I got to go to uni - I was sick, I was ill, Harry Potter and Vimes got me through. I had to repeat my first year of uni and when I had to go to the meeting for them to decide what was best, I had role models that didn't exist in normal lit. I had the witches which fitted me and my friends and my family, the Watchmen and the softest spot I reserve for Rincewind. Not to mention Imperial College is a rambling misfit of buildings with cellars that are linked and tunnels to various other bits like the museums etc. There was also the Queens Tower - I was blatently in a discworld novel.

I remember the thrill of The Fifth Elephant posters going up in the tunnel that goes to South Kensigton Station. And when I returned for my second and rather more successful bash at university I had scanned the book covers and printed them out A4 to be posters for my wall, this was how I then found the sci-fi, horror and fantasy library as they pretty much came and claimed me once told about my wall.

I was never competely well after that though and when stuck in bed, when unable to run and jump I turn to three book groups - Discworld Novels, Harry Potter and Philip Pullman. These got me through weeks of oxygen monitoring and bed rest during Jean's pregnancy, they got me through nights of breast feeds. They have been read so many times I am on second and even third copies of some of them.

For someone who couldn't read until I was 12 - books are increadibly important to me and none more so than Terry Pratchett's books. The stories curl around themselves so that I do not have stories in my head anymore but worlds, I feel such a sense of loss that the mind that produced these works is gone. They started as satire but became something more.

Poor Jeany has only just started reading his work and I have censored a little bit - she is 9. She went as Tiffany Aching for world book day - one of his characters. I gave her the book about the 9 yr old witch because she is struggling as we all do with growing up and being different and I knew that though I was never like Tiffany - Jean is. This was someone who could be a fictional role model for her but realistic, that make mistakes, some really awful ones and how you get through that. Jean loved the book. There was a horror on her face when I told her he had just died, "but I'll run out of his books now" - it was a genuine sorrow.

She made Nac Mac Feegles, and had a frying pan. She also declared that she NEEDED book 2 in the Bromiliad series (Books of Gnomes).

Jean as Tiffany Aching

Part of the great ache is that though the world is missing him, no one had the right to ask him to stay, he was suffering and loosing him self a fragment at a time. The tweets on his twitter feed are loving and sad and that deep humour that is something more than comedy or tragedy.

And of course there is something else, Terry Pratchett always read to me like my dad's stories - the ones I grew up with and going to see him speak made this more apparent. It was like watching my Dad's ulter ego, the one who got on with writing the stories down. So it's also a stark reminder for me that my Dad is not immortal and worse, I've always bought him the latest Pratchett book when he's been ill etc... mortality what a fragile thing you are.

Which leads me on to the last bit. To conquer my own sadness I drew some pictures and I posted one of these to social media, it is not brilliant, it is just a sketch and it's not very big and it was done for me. But people have been asking to buy it. It is not for sale, I'm afraid, as my Dad has asked for it. However, when I said this, some of you have been asking for prints - there will be prints, it might take a while as I need to clean the image up and I'll also do some of my other pictures, there will also be a page with high res versions on for download. But I can not/will not take money for these, instead if you request one or download one then maybe think about giving money to a research or care charity. There is already a Just Giving page for Terry Pratchett supporting the charity NICE which is the one his daughter has asked people to give to.

And for anyone who knows me in the non-internet world, I am still doing a tribute party, I just need to find a free weekend which is being tricky! (the cake pic is from my dad's 65th birthday).

And for anyone wanting to see good tribute art I suggest you check out the Multiverse board I've started on Pinterest.

Last few bits - that's I've just remembered I wanted to mention:

The xkcd comic made me cry.

I felt a huge sense of relief when I first read about L-space and all libraries being connected through out time and space, this occured just after I'd started to discover all the book/libraries/museum burnings in our history.

When I was in labour with Jean everything was going wrong, dangerously so and I couldn't speak and was basically dying. I was very lucky but at the time death was no longer scary - taking my baby with me however was. Within me I knew death and it was a combination of the Aztec woman, mother, warrior, birth and death and Death from the discworld. A sort of cross between Terry Pratchett's Death and Neil Gaiman's I suppose.

It sounds hippy and I'm not saying it's not but I clung to life by thinking of the glow of universal power in deaths eye sockets, by remembering I was as much part of existence as everything else. I know doubt would have found some other imagery but it is always locked in my mind. And because I am me this appears in a poem and the poem has been on the radio and stuff, I always wondered if anybody would spot the connection.

This picture is one I started painting after I read my first discworld novel - I stopped when someone pointed out the elephants were supposed to be the other way around. I am now considering finishing it anyway.

Unfinished discworld

And finally - my thoughts go out to Terry's family and friends because what I am feeling is but a shadow of their pain and remembrance. RIP sir.

Chillies in Feb! (by )

Ok so I thought I'd have a go at growing my chilli plants through the winter so that they could be big and strong and go outside for our summer. I didn't use lamps and I got a bug infestation and my dad forgot to water them when he was in charge of them but I still have a few plants and in February they have started to produce chillies!

Chillies in Feb!

I am hoping to put them in bigger pots this week too :)

This is the first chilli from seed success I have had! The last lot I'd gotten as little seedlings.

Of Chickens and Candles and Holes (by )

This weekend has been absurdly busy, for a start I have finally been putting the attic back together after the whole roof fixing of last year! Then there were chickens! It was time to fetch our new rescue chooks - these ones are slightly less rescued than the previous lot as they came from a free range farm and so are a lot perkier than the first lot were initially. They also look better with already red combs and wattles.

Rescue chickens galore!

It was getting dark by the time we got back with them so photos are not brilliant I'm afraid. Felix who is one of the original four, is not impressed as she is in the rabbit run whilst they settle in.

Chickens exploring their new home

She was always quiet pecky so we shall have to see how introductions go!

We had planned on getting four hens but when we got there they had spares, so we ended up with 6. Their names are:

1) Squwashy - apparently this is something minecraft related that Jeany has picked.

2) Rose - named by Mary, she didn't give a reason

3) Chris - a chicken scheme programmer as picked by Alaric

4) Pete - another chicken scheme programmer

5) Tardis - this is my chicken :)

6) Firefly - this is my dad's chicken and apparently the most intellegent of all the dinosaurs.

They laid an egg on the way home and have since laid 3 more - we had fried eggs for dinner. The run looks so much better with chickens in it :)

1st egg from new batch of hens laid on the journey home!

The weekend also saw Alaric drilling holes in the walls.

Whole in the wall

Apparently I didn't want this part of the house! No he isn't just randomly destroying the house - he is network cabling so that we can have proper internet in all the rooms in the house etc...

Preparing for newtwork cabling!

Also the compressor was the best buy EVER! It now unsurprisingly has a hole saw attachment.

Alaric and the Nuematic hole saw

Last but certainly not least - Jeany has been wanting to do some more of her candle making for ages, in sorting the attic I discovered just how many candle ends we had accumulated - to be fair friends do post her candle ends to melt down.

Jean and Alaric making candles

This is her main craft activity that she does with Alaric, and it is also her little business which she started years ago now :)

Candles in the moulds

Infact the square moulds that came with the starter kit that... erm... started it all broke, so this is the last batch of square candles until she sells some candles and buys a square mould with the money.

It was a pretty epic weekend to be honest.

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