COVID diary – week 7

dsc_1134Everyone on the Weston Front has remained well so far, we are blessed by the sunshine and home school seems to be going well.  I did spend the whole years school resources budget on one topic though.  An introduction to coding, by way of Bob the (Lego) robot.

The whole concept is very well thought out and seems ideal for 6-9 year olds.  We’ve learned about variables, triggers, flags and sub-routines in a really fun way.  To get a better insight into what’s possible take a look at the video’s of Bob’s antics on my Flickr Feed.

I would not want to do a ‘Facebook Front‘ post and suggest that everything is rosy.  I am finding motivation hard when I’m not home schooling and it is frustrating to remain in limbo as to whether we will get away on holiday this year.  It’s true we have not got a foreign trip planned where we will lose deposits etc, but we really did (and still do) hope to go to Shetland at some point during the sunnier part of the year.  Nathan is missing interacting with his friends too.  Video calls are good, but no still no substitute for the real thing.

What I want to leave you with this week is the best advise I’ve yet seen on surviving ‘house arrest’ which comes in the form of a allegorical video from James Veitch. But note that really it should come with a ’16’ certificate!

The COVID Diaries (Weeks 3 & 4)

Here in rural Lancashire we are still a couple of weeks (decades?) behind London & Birmingham so we’ve not seen the direct impact of COVID-19 as yet, but the indirect impact on day-to-day life is now with us just the same as the rest of the UK.  Without doubt it is strange, but after two weeks under house arrest the ‘new normal’ is getting to be fairly well bedded in.

How to light a campfire

How to light a campfire, a great way to also teach the fire triangle and an introduction to combustion chemistry.

Home Schooling turns out to be a much better experience than I expected. With Junior being six I guess I have it easy.  He doesn’t have exams ahead of him and is missing his friends more than it matters that he missing his formal education.  I am finding that a project based approach, akin to the  Montessori  approach is working well for both of us.  Each week we have a project, or two, which acts as the framework for discovery and learning the skills needed to carry it out (maths, science, dexterity) and record it (maths, English).

We have been blessed with great weather thus far meaning that bike rides (twin solo, or with the tag-along) have been possible and have been a little longer than most folks 20 minute walks.  However around here it’s easy to self isolate on the back roads.

I am delighted that I was able to restock my (mini) alpine garden before house arrest too, and am starting to see the results of old and new.


Church life has changed again.  My ‘live streamed’ drumming to an empty church  was not only the first but probably the last time this will happen.  Since then church buildings have themselves been closed and now our church, amongst many others, is streaming sections of each service from different members homes.  All credit to the people organising this at St James who are doing a grand job.  Canned music didn’t work as well as it might last week, the difference between performance (what you can get from YouTube et al) and leading a congregation, albeit virtually, is actually very significant.  For Easter we had a multitrack of keys, guitar and vocal, complete with video, from two different homes.  Much better. Next week there should be drums as well.  This afternoon I laid down four drumming tracks for someone to mix into next weeks multitrack song recordings.  I’m feeling the benefit of having an electronic kit.  Whilst it’s perfectly technically feasible to mike-up every drum and cymbal, it’s neither easy nor cheap to achieve this.  I can mix my drums within the Roland ‘brain’ and output the drumming track straight to a .wav file on a memory stick.  In theory this is a perfect recording. I can even choose my ambience!

Home Multitrack Recording setup

I’ve found some voluntary work on the day I’m not home schooling and it’s good both to be busy and to be ‘doing my bit’ for the community.  Finally, the wheat malt I ordered has arrived and I have been able to set up my home office and do some informal development work.  I cannot sell the results as I am on furlough, and then there is also the small issue of being unlicensed.  However, it’ll keep my tasting panel happy and keep my brain and taste buds ticking over.

Isolation Pale Ale

Brewing an IPA – Isolation Pale Ale!


Have we passed ‘Peak Specialization’ ?


Over the past few months something about the current structure of our society has disturbed me. I’m a deep ponderer not a quick thinker and I’m not sure if I’ve yet got to the root of what is disturbing me or whether I need to take a fresh perspective. Are my concerns valid? The benefit of blog is that I can float my ideas and take listen to the feedback.

So what is disturbing me? I think that we are seeing too much specialization in the skill sets / job roles within our current society. The trigger for this was to compare the job roles I held up until 2017 verses today.

Consider these juxtapositions:

(a) A professional person with a desk based role, using part of their high salary to pay for an expensive gym membership so that can get the exercise their body needs after work. vs. (b) Someone who has physical work integrated within their job, who when they finish work, they do so fit without need for the gym, having more time with their family.

(a) A similar professional person who deals with the mental stress of working within a top down driven silo like existence who lives and earns to be able to go on their next holiday. (b) Someone whose job role is their vocation so the satisfaction of what they do work something they actively want to do, who can blur work and free time to their benefit and enjoys but does not ‘need’ holiday down time.

The human body and mind has certain core needs (link). These have been summarised in the form of the following connections

  1. Exercise / The Natural World
  2. Status & Respect
  3. People & Community
  4. Hope for the future
  5. Good values

It seems clear to me that the over-specialization of job roles has a strong tendency to weaken a number of the above connections rather than strengthen them. We are noticing a rise in mental illness. Between 2003-2014 the prevalence of common mental health issues in the UK rose by 20%. Additionally, the prescription of anti-depressants has doubled over the past ten years. Is there a link?

For an employer, increased specialization gives higher productivity and this improves revenue, and in a well managed firm profit. So is the rise in specialization simply the fuel desired by those who seek to sell more and higher margin products back to society for financial gain? Is it good for the individual, for the family or society as a whole or simply for those at the top of large corporations (of those who profit on the trading of their shares)?

I am not suggesting that we have left behind a golden period when everything was better than today. One can clearly see the benefits of how we have specialised since we moved away from subsistence living. Healthcare, culture and the arts, travel and free time have all given us an enhancement in our lives today vs. say 1000 years ago. What I want to ask is: Have we passed our peak?

What if something happened to cause societal collapse? How many of us would be able to cook from raw ingredients? Who would be able to start a fire or know how to best source clean water from the wild? Who would be able to repair their own clothes, house, bike, car etc. And how many people would be stuck without being able to seek the advice of Siri or Alexa?

We all have a basic set of needs: Clean air, water, food, shelter, security, good health, sleep, clothing, companionship and the option to reproduce. And beyond that we have a reasonable set of desires; Friendship, community, friendship, comfort, expression and appreciation of creativity (music and the arts), freedom for personal growth and the like. But do we need a trophy car, the latest mobile technology, a television larger than our bookshelf, sculpted eyebrows, this years trainers, all examples of the fruits of a growth driven, technology enabled, specialist made and target advertised economy? Or would we be better off with connections which we fracture to achieve these material goals?

Lightweight stove review – Alpkit Koro & MyTiMug

Ahead of a recent six day backpacking trip (my first > 2 day backpacking exped. in, ahem, 12 years) I sought to find ways to reduce the weight of my kit. I’d already got a lightweight tent, so I looked next at my stove. I was amazed to discover that my MSR Dragonfly, cookset and a half full petrol fuel bottle totalled up to 1800 g. After seeking advice from a friend, a former outdoor education instructor, I looked through the offerings from Alpkit. I then compared these to gas stoves from MSR, Optimus, Primus and Jetboil. For my money Alpkit’s Koro came out on top in terms of stability and weight and also came in at the most reasonable price.


The stove packs down to fit inside a 650ml mug and the 100 g gas canister fits into my breakfast bowl. When I’ve carried the MSR until now I’ve never bothered taking out bits I don’t need, I just carry it all. Making the change from MSR and S/S cookset to the Koro and a titanium cooking mug saved me an amazing 1.4 kg in pack weight, that’s almost a tent.  Right now the Jetboil is a very trendy option. It is true that it boils more water more quickly and I’d estimate you’d save ca. 20-30% in fuel burnt but it’s bigger, more complex, has plastic parts and is 340 g vs. 200 g for my set up.  Also because the Koro stands separate to the gas canister is it far more stable.  For a three season stove I am delighted and will probably invest in a larger pan for proper cooking for my next totally unsupported trip.


After many years with a petrol stove (which are very quick to boil water due to the high calorific value of liquid hydrocarbons) I was really impressed with the simplicity of going back to a gas stove. Also with the safety, meaning I was happy to cook in the porch of the tent (not that I could or should commend doing this to others). Unlike a petrol stove, errors cannot lead to a six foot flamethrower!

I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with a single skin titanium mug either, but the moderate thermal conductivity of Ti (25 W/m.K) vs. Al (237 W/m.K ) or Cu (400 W/m.K) works well if you want to drink your tea straight from the  mug you have boiled the water in. Ahead of going I wondered if I might have been better with a double skinned mug, but my experience says no – single skin works well enough and is obviously lighter in weight.



Time for a 21st century thermostat


It’s ironic, a good friend and I discussed the idea of a wifi enabled thermostat around this time last year.  Just after this the Nest came to the US.  Now today in the UK there are a number of offerings.   Interestingly the cheapest I’ve found so far is the Nest at £179.  My market research told me that the price people were prepared to pay was in the £50-100 bracket.  This is what stopped our project, as we could make very little margin on this.  I’m still keen to have one myself and probably would pay up to £150 for one even though the savings would take a few years to recoup this, I’d be happy to have improved convenience.  My question today is, have you – my wide and varied readership – come across (UK available) offerings in addition to those I list below which meet my spec.

  • Totally wireless thermostat (wireless link to boiler, router and battery powered)
  • Work with a Worcester boiler.
  • Controlled via an interface which could be accessed on an Android phone, Mac or PC (web access I’d guess)
  • Good, clear simple programming that worked on a 7 day basis, with four periods per day and the option of a timed holiday over ride (i.e. the standard programme would not be lost but could be re-activated after getting home – automatically on a set day – ideally with an independently programmable option for the day of return itself.
  • Smart – learns the response of the house to the heating and also adjusts depending on the weather via data it can gather from the web (after all, it is linked to the web, so this should be possible)
  • <£150

Systems I’ve come across so far are

  1. Nest – but this is auto learning, not programmable.  It also seemed to be based on US fast response hot air heating systems and I cannot see this working with a UK gas to water CH system that takes two hours to get the house to temperature in the winter. £179
  2. Hive – this seems to be programmable to meet my spec, has the totally wireless thermostat but is in no way ‘clever’ £200
  3. Tado – works by tracking where your smart phone is. I cannot see how this would work with a household of three people and cannot see how it would know for people who regularly are close to home but don’t intend to go home, that this was your plan.  It has it’s audience, but I don’t think I’m one of them.
  4. Evohome (Honeywell) – I think this meets all my technical requirements (not 100% sure if the thermostat is battery powered though) but at a cost of £337 plus installation, well outside my limit.
  5. Inspire – not ‘clever’, battery powered but not wirelessly linked to the boiler – £125 (inside budget)
  6. Heatmiser – research ongoing – does not appear to be fully wireless – wide range at range of prices.
  7. ???  What else is out there dear reader?


Is computer familiarity what is really needed in rural developing communities?

I read with interest an article on a scheme to bring a mobile computer classroom to rural schools in Uganda.  It is flagged as good for the children as it opens up the opportunity for work involving such technology in the city.  But is this really sustainably good?  I don’t know the answer to this question, but it seems far from be ‘obvious and correct’ to me.  And I don’t say this to be negative, on two occasions on Christian Mission trips I’ve made to developing nations I’ve agreed to help teach basic computer skills – both in Honduras and in Mongolia.  I did as I was asked, but reading this article again opens up the question for me – should I have done this?  Was it really the right thing to do.  I am genuinely keen to hear peoples thoughts on both sides of this argument.

What worries me is the promotion of the movement of people from rural to city environments by such initiatives – so whilst, yes, if they go to the city these skills could help; should they be helped to go to the city?  From what I have seen of rural and urban environments in developing nations (and to a lesser extent in developed nations too) is that a higher morality is to be seen in rural areas than in the city.  So in encouraging urbanisation are we also encouraging a reduction in morality? If we are then this needs to be considered in the balance of costs and benefits of programmes like that outlined in the article above – and in the work I did myself.

I honestly ask the question – would it not be better to teach rural children the skills they need to have a sustainable future within their own communities?  This would provide work and wealth but at a lower moral cost (Matt 6:33)

Your thoughts please…

£17 For a Pizza base – time for a more palatable solution?

It was reported today – BBCNews – that the NHS has been spending £17 on gluten free pizza bases and £2.50 for comparable loaves of bread.  Typical of a ‘big organisation out of control’.  This is our money they are wasting – not that the need is not valid, but the approach is not appropriate.  But one should not just complain unless you have a better suggestion – so here is mine.  Why not launch an NHS special food’s website from which people can order what they want.  Subsidize the prices as before but use the power of a partner like Amazon to manage the logistics for you.  For sure the £2.99 books I buy from them cannot cost the same to deliver as these NHS foodstuffs – reported to be 3-4 times the cost of the item itself.  What do you think Mr Lansley?