Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Birthdays on the 29th February.

Does your birthday, or anyone you know's birthday fall on the 29th of February? If so, what day do you or they, celebrate a birthday on when it's not a leap year?

I have had this discussion with two people in as many days and they both say, if it was them, they'd choose to celebrate on the 28th of February. I find this mind boggling. If you're born on the 29th of February, it's the day after the 28th right? I understand the argument about being born in February and therefore wanting to celebrate in February, but if it hadn't have been a leap year on the date in question, they would have been born on the 1st of March. It's a fact. Mind you; that then begs the question, should people born on the 1st of March celebrate their birthdays on the 29th of February when it's a leap year? After all, it is the day after the 28th of February, which is when they were actually born. Interesting, but it would open up a whole can of worms which I tend to like to steer clear of; so, back to my original question. Which day would you choose to celebrate on, if your birthday fell on the 29th of February? I'm sticking with the 1st of March; it's the only logical answer. J

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Bottled Water or Tap Water?

Do you drink water from the tap or do you go out and buy bottled water?

It is argued that bottled water is purer and therefore healthier for us than tap water, but around 25% of bottled water is just glorified tap water, taken directly from local water supplies. Sometimes it's treated and sometimes it's not. It's then bottled and sold to us at an outrageously increased price. A litre of water out of the tap costs less than 1p, yet you could pay as much as £2 for a litre of bottled water. You do the maths.

In the UK, tap water undergoes many processes to bring it up to the standards set out by the UK Water Supply Regulators. It is equally as good as most bottled waters and very often fresher. Don't forget, bottled water could stay in its bottle on a shop shelf for as long as two years before it reaches its ‘sell by’ date. Wouldn't you rather drink it fresh out of the tap?

I get why people might buy bottled water in a pub or restaurant. If you're driving and don't want a juice or fizzy drink, or just don't drink alcohol, then water is a great alternative and yes, you''ll be paying a shocking price for it, but then you'd be paying a shocking price for a juice or beer too. Let's face it, if you buy a bottle of beer in a supermarket, you'll pay a fraction of the price that you'd pay for the same drink in a pub, but that's how it is. You're paying for being on the premises and spending time with friends or colleagues away from work or home. So, paying for a bottle of water in a pub, I'm cool with. These days you can get all sorts of different waters in bottles but I remember when, if you asked for a water you would only get Perrier ("nothing else will do") Is that stuff still around?

Perhaps you buy bottled water to reduce limescale in your kettle? I'm all for that, but there are cheaper ways of doing it, like using a water filter instead. Filtered water is a great alternative to bottled water. It is designed to work with tap water so no extra energy is required to filter the water. This bypasses some of the environmental problems of the bottled water industry, such as the production of the plastic bottles, -approximately only a third of which get recycled- or the glass that consumes so much energy to make. Filtered water is also a lot more economical than bottled water although not as cheap as tap water, but, it’ll keep your kettle free from limescale provided you replace the cartridge each month as instructed. It is also said to remove more chemicals than any other purification method.

All said and done, water is water. I am quite happy to drink it out of the tap at home even though I have a water filter which I use -as mentioned above- to combat the limescale in my kettle. I've got no problem paying for bottled water in a pub and am equally happy to pay for a bottle in a restaurant. What’s your view?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

GinoCarl - Men's Hairdressers in Hendon

Have you ever searched around for a good  gent’s hairdressers in your local area? Well; if you happen to be in North West London and fancy a change, I think I have the answer for you. ‘GinoCarl’ hair salon for men, in Hendon Central, just about ticks all the boxes.
We all have a different outlook on getting our hair cut; to some it’s a two weekly chore that just has to be done, others like to make it a relaxing experience where they can sit down and have a chat while being smartened up a bit. Then there are those who want make it bit of a social thing. But whatever type you are, you’d probably like to find a hairdresser you enjoy going to and stick with them. It’s great to be recognised by a barber or stylist who remembers your name, knows how you want your hair cut and knows what team you support so you can discuss football for the entire duration of your hair cut - or another topic you can discuss comfortably, as you’ll be talking to someone you’ve come to know as a friend rather than a hairdresser.
So why Ginocarl? First off, it’s important to appreciate that you get what you pay for and unfortunately, there is only one Carl in the salon and he’s the best. (Sorry Paolo if you’re reading this, but you come a close second). Carl started hairdressing as an apprentice with his late father Gino at the family business ‘Bernard and Gino’ at the age of 14 when he was still at school. After school he studied at the London College of Fashion where he completed his exams with no less than a distinction. He was later asked to teach at the college, which he did for several years part time while still working with Bernard and Gino. So he’s good! But if you want to have your hair cut by Carl not only will you have to pay more, you’ll also have to book in advance! “Hold me back” I hear you say! Well, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. With Carl, you can just about guarantee a great haircut every time. He spends hours talking to his customers about football and current affairs and as a result is always kept up-to-date with the latest goings on around town.
Then there’s Paolo who I kind of see as the shop’s jester. He doesn't wear a ridiculous costume with bells on it, but he does come out with some hilarious tales at times and often bursts in to song when you're least expecting it. He's a good hairdresser who did his apprenticeship at Harrods and started working with Carl in the 90’s. A very entertaining character who gets a hard time from almost everyone who walks into GinoCarl's salon. However on his day off he is strangely missed.
Then you have Bernard. Yes, the same Bernard who used to be partner with Gino in the 70’s and 80’s. He went on to run his own hairdressers in Golders Green after the amicable split with Gino, but years later, during retirement, he decided he’d like to go back to work, part time for someone he knew. So he now works for his former apprentice.
And another person well worth a mention is Angelina. She only comes in on Saturdays and is still known as the shampoo girl even though she joined Bernard and Gino in the 80’s and now does more than just shampoo. Born in Portugal, the youngest of 9 children, she’ll entertain you with her family stories which are both funny and sad, often at the same time.
So why else would you want to go to GinoCarl’s hairdressing salon? Apart from the fact that you'll get the best hair products used on your hair, (which they sell separately and make great gifts if you don't know what to give someone who's got everything) you'll get a free friction massage if you ask for one. Yes, believe it or not it’s free. A friction massage improves blood circulation to the scalp which is thought to improve the growth of the hair. I think they’re slightly insane for not charging for it but there you go.
Would you believe the coffee at this hairdressing salon is another really good reason for going there? It’s not unusual to go to a hairdresser’s and be given a free cup of washed out coffee, but at GinoCarl you’ll get a pukka Italian style Cappuccino or Espresso, which would rival any of the caf├ęs on the same street selling a similar drink. At GinoCarl you won’t be paying for it, and if it’s a double espresso you want, then a double espresso you will get.
You’ll be walking into an air conditioned salon; so it's warm in the winter, and more importantly, cool in the summer, and you’ll find a whole host of friends and locals who just pop in on a regular basis for a chat. I like to call them the’ usual suspects’ and will mention them again below.
Then there’s the music in the salon. While you’re having a haircut, you can request just about any type of music of your choice, (unless someone gets in there before you, although people are rarely concerned with what’s playing). There’s one particular guy who likes to have a hot towel treatment while listening to opera music. Each to their own right? Well it’s always nice to have a choice.
GinoCarl also has a TV to keep the kids entertained while they get their hair cut, which was actually originally bought in 2010 for the World Cup!

Maybe you’d like to take part in GinoCarl’s lottery syndicate. It’s for customers and staff. They’ve never won anything but there’s always a first time and if you happen to go in on Grand National day, you might want to take a crack at the sweep stake that always takes place. Again it’s for customers and staff, but you’d do well to get there early or the ‘usual suspects’ will get there first!
So if you’re looking for a gent’s hair salon in Hendon or NW London. Ginocarl is the place to go.

I wrote the above Blog, sometime in 2012. Since then, GinoCarl Men's Hairdressing Salon in Hendon, has become a unisex salon in Hendon. If you are familiar with the area, you might have wondered what ever happened to "Simon Hair and Beauty". Well I can tell you that they have now moved across the road with GinoCarl, and have their own ladies' section.

Simon and Nikki work along side each other and specialise in ladies hair. They offer all the benefits of a ladies hairdresser, including hair extensions (with real hair) and now you get the added bonus of the GinoCarl experience.

So if you're looking for a Ladies'  Hairdresser in Hendon, GinoCarl is still the place to go. ;-)

Monday, 13 February 2012

Outrageous allotment rent increases!

My mum got a letter last week informing her that the Council have put to public consultation their proposals for allotment rent increases for Council managed sites. The basic rent, which does not include water or society fees, would rise from £59 for a 10 pole plot, to £140 for Barnet residents and to £280 for non-residents! How can they possibly justify an increase of 137.3% for Barnet residents and 374.6% for non-residents? I thought allotments were supposed to be a cheap hobby for the elderly! And that’s not all. A Luxembourg-based organization describes the functions of allotment gardens something like this:

·        Providing a better quality of urban life for the community.
·        A leisure activity for families where they can experience sowing, growing, cultivating and harvesting their own healthy fruits and vegetables.
·        A place for children to play and discover nature amidst towns and cities.
·        Where working people can relax after the stress from their jobs.
·        Where the unemployed can feel useful and grow vegetables at 'minimum cost'.
·        A place for disabled people to participate in social life and overcome loneliness.
·        Where senior citizens can spend time with people with the same interests and find self-fulfilment during the period of retirement.

So it’s not just for the elderly. It’s a fulfilling place for almost any member of our society and I agree with all the above. Under the Allotments Act, a local authority is required to maintain an "adequate provision" of  land, usually a large allotment field which can then be divided into allotment gardens for individual residents at a low rent. So why is the rent being increased by an outrageous amount?

What happened to reasonable rent charges as required by law?

The Allotments Act 1922 states:
"'Section 16 required allotments authorities to exact a 'full fair rent' for allotments".

The Allotment Act 1950 states that allotments authorities may charge such rent "... as a tenant may reasonably be expected to pay for the land".

Is it reasonable to increase the rent by almost 375% in some cases?

My mother is in her 70’s, she is a pensioner and the plot she rents from Barnet Council (and has been renting for over 30 years) is a great joy to her. It is her main hobby, it gives her healthy exercise - which the government are recommending through advertising campaigns which don't come cheap - she gets to eat healthy fruit and vegetables which she grows herself and it’s a cheap leisure pursuit.

If Barnet Council’s proposal to increase the rent gets passed, her allotment rent will be increased by 337.5%  as she currently gets pensioner's rates'. And that’s another thing. The council are also proposing to abolish any discount for older people! Why? In the Allotments Act 1950, section 10 makes provision for the allotments authority to let land "... to a person at a less rent, if the Council are satisfied that there exist special circumstances affecting the person which render it proper for them to let the land at a less rent".
What's changed? The council were satisfied that pensioners were entitled to pay slightly less before, so why not now?

It seems to me that the council are trying to drive all of the poorest and most vulnerable people off the allotments and turn them into a luxury for the rich!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Unexplained seizures? It could be epilepsy.

If you are having unexplained seizures which your GP, or other medical expert, is putting down to stress because he or she has no other explanation for them, I would strongly suggest you take a look at the Epilepsy Society website.

The reason I suggest going to this website is because I have a friend who was suffering from seizures for several years before he was eventually diagnosed with epilepsy. He was having, what we at the time called, "funny turns". They began by occurring several months apart, but gradually became more frequent. To me, the symptoms were bizarre, as I had never come across anything like it at all. My friend would turn very pale as if all the blood had drained out of him, he'd start smacking his lips together and stare blankly at his hands all the while, moving them around as if he'd never seen them before. He was unaware that I was in the room and didn't answer any of my questions. After several minutes of this totally out of character behaviour, my friend would slowly come out of it. He'd look around the room as if he'd just materialised from another universe and complain that he didn't know what was going on. He didn't know what day it was, what he had just been doing, where he was living, in fact his short-term memory was completely lost for about a quarter of an hour. He knew his name, where his parents lived, where he went to school and anything I asked him that was to do with his distant past, but anything within the year or so was gone. Shortly after the seizure he'd start to remember things until he'd eventually say he was back to normal, but actually he rarely was. It would take the rest of the day for him to get himself together again, and as the seizures became more frequent, it would take up to two days.

After plenty of persuading from me, (about two years!) Graham eventually went to see his GP to find out what might be wrong with him. His GP referred him to a neurologist who sent him for an EEG and an MRI scan, both of which came back as normal. Well of course they did. Graham wasn't having a seizure at the time of either scan so there was no abnormal activity registering in his brain.

As a result of the scans, the neurologist sent Graham to see a psychiatrist, which suggested that the problem was psychosomatic in nature. The psychiatrist had a 2 hour consultation with Graham, during which time he asked standard questions such as, "Do you drink?", "Do you smoke?" and, amazingly, even "Do you suffer from epilepsy?"!! No one had ever mentioned the possibility of epilepsy, so as far as Graham was concerned the answer to this question was 'No'.

After the consultation, the psychiatrist wrote to Graham's GP with three possible diagnoses:
1. Dissociative Amnesia
2. Unexplained medical phenomenon
3. Factitious disorder (in other words - He's making it up)!!!

The psychiatrist then referred Graham to a psychotherapist. He attended his sessions twice a week for about a year. The journey took an hour round trip and Graham drove there and back each time.

After a year of therapy there was no evidence of any improvement in Graham's condition, in fact the seizures were becoming more frequent and the post seizure effects were lasting longer. I had started taking video footage each time Graham had a 'funny turn', because by now he was recognising the signs that warned him he was about to have a seizure. (We now know them to be 'auras'.) He took this footage in to one of the sessions with the psychotherapist who found them to be very interesting and concluded that the cause was all stress related.

I eventually persuaded Graham to go and get a second opinion. It was like pulling teeth! He doesn't like upsetting people and by asking for a second opinion he felt like he was suggesting they'd been wrong in the first place. (Which we now know they were, of course!) So he went back to see his GP. This time he took the video footage with him. The GP barely looked at it and dismissively asked "What do you want me to do? Are you saying you want a second opinion?" Graham almost said "No", because he didn't want to cause any unnecessary trouble. Luckily, he didn't and his GP referred him to a second Neurologist.

So, several weeks later, Graham took his laptop to the hospital and went to see another Neurologist. After watching the video, the Neurologist asked if Graham would be happy to spend some time at the Chalfont Centre for Epilepsy. He didn't have a problem with this so was sent to see a third Neurologist at Chalfont, for yet another consultation. This is where things started to get interesting. Firstly, as soon as the Neurologist at the Chalfont Centre watched the video, he told Graham he should not be driving and would have to inform the DVLA that he was a potential danger on the road. As you can imagine, this didn't go down very well. No other Doctor, Psychiatrist, Neurologist or psychotherapist was of the same opinion, yet this one medic was about to take Graham's driving licence away for, as yet, no explained reason. The next thing the Neurologist said was that Graham's seizure he'd just watched on the laptop, was atypical of epilepsy! In other words, probably not epilepsy at all but caused by stress. However, he thought Graham would benefit from a few weeks at the Chalfont Centre where he would be placed on an EEG for an extended period (several days) in an effort to 'catch' a seizure.

Graham was at the Chalfont Centre for almost three weeks. The first week was uneventful, but on the second week, he was put into his own room, attached to an EEG and monitored by video around the clock. As luck would have it, he had two seizures (one while sleeping!) whilst being monitored and guess what? The official diagnosis was: Complex Partial, Left Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.

So why did it take years for this condition to be discovered?! Once diagnosed with epilepsy, Graham started trawling the net for more information on his condition. He was flabbergasted to see on site after site, that some of the common signs of Complex Partial Temporal Lobe Epilepsy are smacking of the lips, confusion, a vacant stare and short term memory loss!! These were obvious signs in the video footage I took! And not only that, but these were the very symptoms that Graham had been complaining about all along!

Graham's seizures are now being controlled by medication which he will have to take for the foreseeable future. There are many side-effects to anti-epilepsy medication, but he's been lucky enough to get away with little more than a bit of drowsiness. Sadly, the medication hasn't helped his memory problems and he continues to have the memory of a goldfish at times! He has his driver's licence back as he has been seizure free for over a year (though getting it back took four months!) but if he has another seizure (or even just an aura) at any time, it will be an instant ban and he will have to go another year seizure-free before the licence is returned to him once more. If he ever decides he'd like to try coming off the medication he'll also be banned from driving for six months - so you can guess how soon that's likely to happen!

Is it possible that YOU could be suffering from epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition where there is a trend of seizures that start in the brain.
There are more than 40 different types of epilepsy, so not everyone who suffers from it has the same type of seizure. Often, the seizures bear no resemblance to the type-cast, convulsions, thrashing around or jerking movements, that we imagine as soon as the word epilepsy is mentioned. Indeed, some sufferers have seizures without anyone being aware of it other than themselves. Some people go blank and stare vacantly for several minutes, others may become confused and behave in an unusual manor, some will be unaware of what is happening for a while, but all of them will start in the brain.

After some thought, and with Graham's consent, I have decided to publish one of the videos I took of him while he was having a seizure. I hope it will help someone who is having similar issues but has no idea what is going on with them.

Please feel free to comment.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Skiing during term time.

I have a four year old boy who loves going on holiday. Who doesn't? I take him as often as I can which includes skiing in the winter and swimming in the summer. The problem now is that he's registered at a school and the only way we can get away during term time, is to put in an application to the school head before booking anything, and hoping he says it's okay to go. My little boy is not 5 years old yet. While he's still 4, he skis for free. We went away in January and I got permission from the school, but they won't give me the okay to go again in March. I have to wait until the Easter holidays, in April when the snow has all but turned to slush and worse, my little boy will be 5 and I'll have to pay for his travel, accommodation and lift pass! Not to mention the fact that the holiday itself will be twice as much over Easter. Am I being unreasonable here? He's in reception! He completed nursery last year and to-date, he's never had a day off sick. When he's older and goes for a job interview, will he be at a disadvantage because he went on two skiing holidays at the age of 4 when he was in reception? I think not.

So what about when he's 5? Am I still going to be wanting to take my little boy out of school during term time? For skiing yes, and I've listed my reasons below, but just once a year as he won't be free anymore. In summer it isn't such a problem. In the summer a hotel by the beach with a pool can only hold a certain amount of people, so when it's full it's full. You don't have to worry about over crowding in the pool, or there not being enough room in the restaurant to eat. But when you go skiing it's a different story. The slopes have no limit to the number of people on them at any given time and the busiest times are, of course, during the school holidays when parents are allowed to take their kids away for a week or two. My problem with this is that the more people skiing down the same run, the more dangerous it becomes and the less enjoyable. Then there are the queues to get on the lifts where you could easily be waiting in the freezing cold for 20 minutes just to get on. How is that fun? You've also got the added disadvantage of the travel prices being almost double compared to any other time during the ski season, and the lift passes go up during high season too. Great!

So let's take a look at the advantages of going skiing during term time. Firstly, it's a hell of a lot cheaper. Secondly, there are rarely queues for the lifts so you get a lot more skiing done, instead of waiting around feeling cold and miserable. Thirdly, it's a lot less dangerous on the slopes with less people around and fourthly, it's a lot more fun and you get value for money.
So I'll be requesting a week out every winter! Who's with me on this?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Are you being ripped off by a letting agency?

A few years ago, I had an empty property that I needed to let to cover the mortgage, so I place an advert in my local paper and the response was pretty poor. Actually, the only person to call me about the property was an estate agent in my area. (Let's call him MA). He told me he could have my property filled within two weeks of our phone call. Sounded great! I left it with him and didn't bother advertising it anymore. Sure enough, I was getting calls from him almost straight away, asking if I could show prospective tenants around the house. MA never went around himself and never sent any of his staff around. In fact, he never even saw the house; he just left it to me to show everyone around. Admittedly, it was something I didn't mind doing, but it'll soon become clear why I have a bit of a gripe about it now.

Within two weeks I had a good tenant in the house and everyone was happy. MA asked for 10% plus VAT, of the yearly income on the property, for finding the tenant, which I was happy to pay. I chose not to take him up on his offer to manage the property as I was quite capable of doing that myself. Contracts were signed, monies changed hands and that was that. Well, until a year later when the tenant was due to move out. I got a letter from MA reminding me that the contract was up and would need to be renewed. The tenant had decided to stay, so new contracts were issued (in fact, they were simple templates which were amended and sent out) papers were signed and MA asked for 8% of the yearly income on the property. A 'finder's fee' again, I was told, but 8% plus VAT? What choice did I have? So monies changed hands and that was that.

Until the following year when I received another letter from MA saying contracts had to be renewed and he wanted a further 8% plus VAT 'finder's fee'! Outrageous! He hadn't even seen the property to show anyone around. It wasn't as if he'd worked really hard trying to get anyone in there. The tenant was very happy where she was and had no intention of moving out for a long time. So I asked MA how long I would have to pay this 'finder's fee' for and would it be reduced? His reply was simply that I read the contract that I'd signed with him the first year. So I did. And there it was in black and white "...If the family of the tenant renew the agreement, a further fee of 8% of the annual rent, plus VAT will become payable at the outset of the new agreement. These fees are also payable on any subsequent renewal in future year... “Well that was me gob-smacked! How could I have missed that? I suppose I was just so keen to get someone into the property covering the mortgage, that I didn't read all the small print. I was stuffed really. So I paid up again. :-(

After three years of paying the finder's fee, I tried reasoning with MA, asking about reducing the amount I was paying. I was quite willing to pay a fee, after all, they had found the tenants in the first place, and yes I had signed an agreement, but I didn’t realise it was an infinite agreement that I’d have to pay until the tenant left or in this case died, because she wasn’t going anywhere. But, no, they wouldn’t budge. So when year four came around, I refused to pay. I was going to write my own contract and get the tenant to sign that, unless MA met me half way. (even half the fee -£600 was good money for printing off an edited template. It even got posted back to him! He never saw with either myself or my tenant after the initial papers were signed) but oh no, he wouldn’t have it and instead of arranging to have a chat and see how we could sort things out, he took legal action against me and took me to court.

What a blooming palaver! I had to prepare my defence, submit my own statement and it was almost a year before the hearing took place. Was it really worth the hassle when I didn't really fancy my chances in court? I was tempted to just pay up again, but the problem was, I knew I was right! Still, his contract appeared to be airtight and my chances of winning were slim to none. The best I could hope for was the Judge agreeing that it was an unfair contract and perhaps reduce my yearly payment. But what did I have to lose by going to court? Not that much really. If I lost, I’d have to carry on paying, and okay I’d have court costs to pay, but it was a small claims court so it was a minimal amount - maybe a couple of hundred pounds. If I won, there was a very slim chance I would be released from the contract, with nothing more to pay. Slim indeed, but still a chance. On the other hand, if MA lost he could potentially lose a hell of a lot more than me! And if he won? He wouldn't be any better off than if we hadn't gone in the first place. That was good enough for me. So I was going for it!

However, the day before the hearing was due to take place, I got a call from MA, suggesting we call the whole thing off. I was quite relieved to hear this and expected him to negotiate a new annual payment with me. But no, he said something like ... you know you're not going to win. I don't want to waste half a day in court, so why don't we just forget about it and I'll wave the court costs?... er, hello! Do I come across as a complete moron!? I suggested MA reduce my annual fee to £500. He said no way, so I said I'd take my chances in court, and he hung up.

So we went to court. It was a short hearing and, in hindsight, it was clear that the Judge had looked at both our statements (which we'd submitted before the hearing) and had already decided how it was going to pan out. He went through the usual routine of letting both sides give their evidence and then he laid down the law...
I was being fleeced and the case was dismissed...
That's not quite how he put it, but that was what it boiled down to.

Well I can tell you, I almost fell off my chair! MA stormed out of the room faster than a speeding bullet, slamming the door behind him. Not only did he have to pay all the costs, but he never got another penny out of me. I would have gladly settled for paying £500 a year, a day earlier, now I had nothing to pay. And guess what? My tenant is still in the house several years on. :-)

So the moral is, if you know you're right, go all the way with it. And if you're a greedy son of a gun, you'll probably end up with nothing!

Monday, 30 January 2012

Are You a Pasta Snob?

I have been called many things in my time but I think far and away the funniest is a "Pasta Snob"!

So I'm a bit fussy when it comes to how my pasta is cooked and the shapes of my pasta I eat, and let's face it, there are many different types. But, I'm not talking about things like Ravioli or Tortellini which have various fillings or Gnocchi, which are a form of dumplings. I'm not talking about Fresh Pasta which cooks much quicker than dried pasta and isn't hard to begin with. I'm not even talking about Egg Pasta and I'm certainly not talking about Tinned Pasta! Yikes! I'm talking about plain old dried pasta. The stuff you've all probably got in your kitchen cupboards, in a 500g packet, which lasts forever. (almost)

It's all made from the same stuff but it's shaped differently. Well actually, that's not entirely true. Like everything you buy in the supermarket, there are different brands of pasta. Some are cheaper than others and are made from different types of flour. I don't care what anyone says here, there is a difference between brands. If you compare a cheap brand with an expensive one and couldn't tell the difference between them, it's because you don't really like pasta and any old stuff will do.

Here are some of the brands of Pasta that I would happily eat. (providing they're not over cooked that is) De Cecco, Barilla, Molisana and Agnesi. I can stomach Napolina but I'd be hard pushed to buy Buitoni.

All of the above have to be cooked for the length indicated on the packet. A few seconds less is good with me but if you start adding minutes, I'm no longer interested and dinner will have to be cancelled. I like my past Al dente. In other words a bit firm, not crunchy and certainly not soft. 

If I go to an Italian restaurant to eat, I will only ever choose Gnocchi as a pasta option. (you can't go wrong cooking Gnocchi) Restaurants, even though they have pukka chefs cooking, rarely cook the pasta to my liking. Many restaurants have the pasta cooked half way in preparation for an order to be placed, so all they have to do is throw the already partly cooked pasta into some boiling water for the remaining cooking time required and voila! Although there's nothing wrong with that method, I'd never do it at home and it kind of puts me off my food a bit. It also means the cooking time gets messed up and the result is over cooked pasta.

So what about the different pasta shapes? This is where it gets interesting. Let's take just one brand of pasta, De Cecco in this case, and take a look at the different shapes. I can't stand Shells (Conchiglie) or Butterflies (Farfalle)! Even when cooked perfectly, I just don't like them. I'm afraid I don't have any photos of my own for these because, I don't have any of these shapes in the house - for obvious reasons. Hence the links above.  :-)

I do, however, really like Rigatoni, Penne Rigate (I always prefer pasta rigata - with grooves - than lisca - smooth) and Fusilli.

Now we move onto the long stuff. Spaghetti, Spagettini, (same as spaghetti but thinner) Linguine, Vermicelli, to mention but a few. My favourite in this category is Linguine. They're long like spaghetti but they're flat and wide. Vermicelli I can live without, they're very fine and lack texture in my opinion and if you were to ask me to choose between spaghetti and Spagettini, it'd be Spagettini every time.


And how about smaller pasta shapes. Well there's Pastina which really only means small pasta, when translated. There are many many forms of Pastina and frankly, I'm not really that fussed which one I have. Well, as long as it's not made with egg or isn't too big. Pastina should be really tiny. I usually eat it in a chicken broth, never with a pasta sauce.

Finally, and this post has taken a lot longer than I expected it to, so I hope you're still with me, I'm going to mention one of my very favourite pasta shapes. Tubetti or Tubettini. As with the pastina, I never eat this with a pasta sauce. I always have it mixed with either peas, potatoes or beans, sometimes lentils or chic peas but I prefer to use other shapes with the latter. Yes, I know it sounds weird but it's delicious and so quick and easy to make. (If I get any interest from this post, I'll post a recipe some time). The only thing is, it has to be the small stuff. You can't use the larger stuff because the peas or whatever you're using, get stuck inside the pasta. Different brands are different sizes so you have to be a bit selective with these. I would prefer the Tubetti Rigati - with grooves - but they're not that easy to find in the UK so I have to settle for Lisci - smooth - here.

There are so many different shapes and sizes of pasta and I have mentioned just a few. Only the ones I really like or really don't like. If you're Italian, you can probably relate to this post and see exactly where I'm coming from. If you're not, you probably think I'm insane and will dismiss it as soon as you've read it. I'd love to hear your comments either way and will leave you with a Buon Appetito!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Is losing weight simply a case of eating less?

Why is it that some of us can eat what we like and not seem to put on any weight, while others watch what they eat, count calories and are endlessly struggling to lose weight?

Why are some of us hugely obese and others very thin? Is it simply a case of food or are there other explanations? Obviously food plays a large part in our shapes and sizes. If I spent all day eating fast foods, drinking fizzy sugary drinks and snacking on cakes and chocolates in between meals, I would probably be a lot larger than I am now.

I'm not a dieter or calorie counter and my weight has been around 9 stone for as long as I can remember in my adult life. I eat what I want and snack from time to time, I drink alcohol in moderation, but now that I think about it, I hardly consume any calories with my soft drinks. So what if I started eating as mentioned above? How big would I actually get?

A few years ago, Horizon broadcast a documentary on why thin people don't seem to put on weight easily. They took 10 thin volunteers, who found it difficult to put on weight, and carried out an experiment to see if after consuming double their recommended daily calories and limiting their daily activity to just 500 steps, how much weight they would gain.

The women had to consume 7,000 calories a day, (the average woman needs about 2000 calories a day) while the men had to consume 10,000! (the average man need about 2500 calories a day). They had to eat as many burgers, chips, cakes, ice-cream and pizza as they could possibly keep down, to get up to the calorie intake requirement. And they could only walk a short distance each day. The experiment lasted 4 weeks and the results were quite shocking in some cases.

Two members were unable to consume the designated amount of calories each day failing to complete the experiment. One member was a sportsman who found it too difficult to stick to the 500 steps a day. Five of the other members, although reaching their daily calorie targets, were unable to keep the food down and vomited at least once a week. One of these was recorded to have gained 3.5kg in weight (almost 7% gain) and another 5.5kg (9% gain). It was later reported that all the weight gained by these volunteers was easily shed without any need to diet or count calories.

Only two members of the experiment reached their target. One gained 0.5kg (1% gain in body weight) while the other put on 5.7kg of muscle! Yes muscle! His body fat percentage actually went down slightly!

Dr Rudy Leibel of Columbia University, New York believes "we all have a biologically determined natural weight which our bodies make an effort to stick to, whether it is fat or thin ... The body will constantly tend to try to bring you back to whatever your normal body weight is". Dr Leibel found that for some people, such as those who couldn't reach their calorie targets, the appetite hardly fluctuated regardless of how much they wanted, or were told, to eat.

In this Horizon documentary, there was a brief mention of an experiment which had taken place in a prison in America back in the 60's. I can't find anything about it now so I'm going completely from memory here. An obese inmate volunteered to take part in an experiment to reduce his weigh in exchange for early release from prison. (A Clockwork Orange springs to mind). He was kept on a strict diet for a year until he reached a normal, healthy weight and was then given enough food each day to sustain this weight permanently.

Although the amount of food he was consuming at this stage was perfectly acceptable for his size, the inmate was constantly complaining that he was still hungry. He was attached to a monitor and his brain was registering a person in a state of starvation. How could this be?

This proved that the only way this man could remain a healthy weight, would be to live his life in a constant state of starvation. (Now I don't know about you, but I think I'd rather eat and be fat, than live my life literally starving. Gina Kolata writes an interesting paper where she mentions "semi-starvation neurosis". Have a read if you like what I've written so far).

Professor Jane Wardle, believes that there is a gene known as the FTO gene which could have an affect on our weight. She believes the gene can influence appetite, leading some people to not know when they are full. Those without the gene, she thinks, find it easier to say 'no' to food. "It's kind of effortless because they don't even want to eat. They're not having to exert willpower and self-control whereas for other people, their brain responses to foods that they're exposed to, aren't being switched off effectively as a consequence of them already having had enough."

I now beleive that our weight is genetic and it is possible for two people to eat exactly the same amount of food and put on very different amounts of weight. Perhaps a great explanation is evolution. This is what I think. If you evolved from a tribe of hunters, you'll probably be in the overweight category. In the days where man had to hunt for his food he would gorge himself with whatever was available to eat when food was plentiful, piling on the fat which would sustain him for the months ahead when food was less easy to come by. Those who could not keep the weight on would simply starve to death. Leaving a large group of potentially obese people.

If you evolved from a tribe where food was never a problem and was plentiful all year round, you would probably fall into the thin category. Why would you need to develop the ability to store fat if you didn't have to? You would simply eat what you needed until the next meal.

I like Dr Leibel's theory about our bodies always trying to bring us back to whatever our natural weight is. So if you're constantly fighting a battle of weight loss, perhaps this post will give you a possible explanation as to why.
However; whatever way you look at it, you can't change the laws of physics. The more calories you consume, the more weight you'll gain and the more you work off, the more weight you'll lose.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Should we smack our kids?

If you'd have asked me about five years ago if I thought it was okay to slap a child, I would probably have said yes. At the time I thought a good hard slap across the legs or on the hand, never did anyone any harm. In fact, I would have said it'd probably make them a better adult.

These days I'm not so sure.
I now have a 4 year old boy who I adore and even though he has his moments of seriously winding me up, I just couldn't justify slapping him. He's 4 years old and defenceless so he can't fight back! That to me seems very unfair.

The 'naughty step', 'time out', 'carpet time', whatever you want to call it, works perfectly well for me. My little boy hates it. If I gave him a slap, the sting would be over in seconds and I think he'd prefer that to five minutes on the naughty step.
I've had people argue that if they don't smack their children, the child will never learn to do what it's told. The only explanation I can give to that is that perhaps the discipline given to their child when they were toddlers, wasn't quite effective enough.

I suspect many parents don't follow through on their threats of discipline, and the child doesn't take them seriously anymore. An example of this would be sending a child to the naughty step for five minutes and letting them get off after just one, or as soon as they apologise. Another example could be, giving a '5 count' and not doing anything when you get to '0'. Of course the child isn't going to take you seriously. Why should he. He knows he'll get away with it.

A friend of mine's partner used to start a five count when her child had misbehaved and the child would finish it for her. When he got to zero he'd say "yeah whatever" and his mum would leave it at that! Now, I don't know about you, but I don't think that child learnt much from the five count. So that's when slapping might have to come into play.
Are some parents making a rod for their own backs?

I was watching Coronation Street last week, where Owen, slapped his partner's daughter Faye, while his partner Anna was out. ITV received a number of complaints about the episode suggesting it shouldn't have been broadcast. What are your views? I have mixed emotions. I could see why Owen was angry. Faye - who is about 9 - deliberately slaughtered Owen's fish by pouring creosote into his fish pond. However she isn't his daughter so he should have let Anna deal with it when she got back. But what would Anna have done? Sent her to her room? Is that really a punishment? Perhaps Anna might have given her a slap across the legs? How effective would that be? This scenario is a bit of a can of worms because Faye is adopted and her earlier life was complicated, but if it was your child who had poisoned someone else's fish, how would you deal with it?

Tricky! I'm not totally against slapping children, I just couldn't do it myself.

Where do you stand on the matter?

Monday, 23 January 2012

Global Warming, Climate Change or Climate Disruption?

So which one is it? Perhaps it's none of the above.

Are you a sceptic or an alarmist?

We all have an opinion on the former Global warming issue but the majority of us go by what we hear on the news or read in the papers. Let's be honest, we just go with the flow. But how much do we really know about Climate Change, or whatever it's now being called? Should we be worried or is it all being blown totally out of proportion?

I have a very good friend (Graham) who I think I can safely say is a bit of a global warming nerd. He spends hours on forums stating his views, he reads anything and everything he finds on the subject of Climate Change and he's passionate about the whole issue. So I asked him for his input and as expected he didn't let me down with his feelings.

He agrees that people just “go with the flow”. “Casual believers” is what he calls it – and what he called himself, until he first saw the “Hockey Stick Graph"

It's basically a graph showing the temperature changes over the last 1000 years.

At first glance it would appear that the temperature has remained fairly stable or cooled slightly over the first 900 years of the graph and then suddenly in the 20th Century temperatures have shot up dramatically. This looks like a real "smoking gun" showing that Global Warming really is something we should be worrying about.

However, I was taught at school about the Medieval Warm Period - a period around 1200AD when it was warmer than it is today. But where is the Medieval Warm Period on this graph?

Curiosity got the better of me, so I searched the 'net to investigate and discovered the work that has already been done by Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick. (Expert statisticians) They have examined the hockey stick and found it to be a case of 'lies, damn lies and statistics'.

Graham says:

1) There is simply no evidence (and by evidence we mean true, empirical, scientific evidence) that we are heading for any kind of catastrophe. Oh, we have evidence that CO2 is rising, that mankind is causing it, that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, even that CO2 is behaving like a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. And we have recent warming, of course. But there’s no actual evidence that it’s the rise in CO2 that’s caused the rise in temperature. Let’s not forget that CO2 really started to rise during the Post War Economic boom in the late 1940s, but temperatures went down for the next 30 years. And currently CO2 is rising faster than ever, but the temperature rise has slowed (or even started reversing, depending on which temperature data set you look at) so far in the 21st century.

The simple truth is that, to any unbiased person, it’s not immediately obviously that CO2 is having a large effect on temperature.

And there’s even less evidence to support the claimed looming future catastrophe. The actual empirical evidence leads to a conclusion that we will get about 1.2⁰C of warming from a doubling of CO2 – which would be largely beneficial. To get to the figures of 3+⁰C that the alarmists use, they have to add positive feedbacks. However, given our very limited understanding of how the climate works, we have no idea whether the feedbacks will actually be net positive or net negative. (In other words, whether the feedbacks will increase the warming caused by CO2, or reduce it.)
So, why do all the alarmists say they’ll be positive? Because they create computer models of the climate. But these models are filled with parameters that reflect the various different factors that affect the climate – and many of these factors are very poorly understood.
So, what values do you use for a factor that is poorly understood? Easy! You guess! And guesses, let’s be clear, simply mirror a person’s bias. If you want a warming world, you use values that produce that result. But the opposite would be equally valid. We just don’t know.

In summary; if this is a scientific debate, why the lack of scientific evidence?

2) The Climate Alarmists operate in an unscientific way. Science works by using the Scientific Method. Wikipedia define the Scientific Method in this way:

“Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses via predictions which can be derived from them. These steps must be repeatable, to guard against mistake or confusion in any particular experimenter.”  (My emphasis)
But in the science of Climate Change, most of the work carried out by the Global Warming Proponents cannot be repeated, because the scientists involved commonly refuse to share their methods and/or data. Time and again, sceptical scientists request methods and/or data, to allow them to attempt to reproduce the Proponents work, in an effort to check for errors or bias, but time and again their requests are refused – often by the Learned Journals themselves, despite those Journals supposedly having strict rules concerning data sharing.

A great example of this is when Phil Jones (a climatologist at the University of East Anglia) infamously said:

“Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”
You can’t help but smell a rat when you hear about this sort of thing.

In summary; if this is a scientific debate, why the lack of scientific methods?

3) Why all the Ad hominems? This is supposed to be a scientific debate. Why do the Global Warming Proponents feel the need to work so hard to demonise the sceptics? If the Proponents have so much irrefutable scientific evidence on their side, why not simply shoot the sceptics down with this evidence?

Why indeed. Instead, they insist on calling sceptics “Deniers”? Sceptics “deny” nothing (at least nothing that is supported by actual scientific evidence). And sceptics have pointed out that they find the term “Denier” insulting (because of all the Holocaust Denier connotations it evokes), yet the Proponents insist on its continued use. Why? If this is a scientific debate, then let’s debate the science and stop all the childish name-calling.

On top of that the Proponents frequently miss-quote sceptics, while claiming that it’s only the “Deniers” that do that sort of thing. For example; a Proponent reading number 1, above, would probably respond by saying something like “it’s ridiculous to suggest that there’s no evidence that CO2 is a greenhouse gas!” – Which is not what I’m saying at all, of course.
Let’s be very clear here; Climate Change may be a problem, but it has yet to be proved. Until it has been, we have plenty of problems that are real, are killing people and are happening right now. My personal favourite (if that’s the right word!) is that a lack of clean drinking water kills around 3 million children in Africa every year. With enough money we could fix this – we could build power stations and desalination plants by the sea to create the needed water and then lay water pipes across the continents to supply that water to those who need it. Expensive, but fairly easy if we’re prepared to pay.
So, if we have the money to spare, what should we do with it? Save people who are dying now, or let them die to prevent something that may not even be a problem.

I dare anyone to say we should let 3 million children a year die, “just in case” Global Warming turns out to be real.

As always, my post is based on personal views (be them my own or someone close to me)and I am always happy to discuss them with anyone who feels the urge to contribute.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Brake lights Permanently stuck on.

I recently had a problem with my Mini Cooper where the brake lights stayed on constantly. When the ignition was on, the brake lights were on.
I went to my local mechanic who checked the wiring and did some other stuff to the car, but really, he didn't have the faintest idea what was wrong and suggested I take it to BMW.
Gee thanks!

So I phoned BMW who told me I would need to take my Mini Cooper in for a diagnostic report. That alone was going to cost me just short of £100. Once they found the fault they would repair it and charge me accordingly. Right! So I'd be looking at anything between £200 and £500 realistically.

I decided that there couldn't be that much wrong with the car so I did the obvious thing, and hit The Net. :-) And Guess what? There were a whole bunch of people with the same problem. "Brake lights constantly on", "brake lights won't turn off", "brake lights stuck on when car is on"... some even had the problem with brake lights still on even when the car was off.

Sadly, none of them had the answer I was looking for and many of them were talking about different makes and model of car. But eventually I found a forum where someone mentioned a tiny little part called a DIODE. Brilliant! (It's a spade connector for anyone who knows any kind of technical jargon - which I don't - but apparently it means you just have to shove it in. No soldering required). I wasn't sure it would work but BMW sold me one for under £10 so I thought I'd try my luck. Well actually, I thought I'd give it to someone else to try their luck, as I'm really not very clued up when it comes to fixing things. :-/

So here's what we had to do...

We removed the panel on the driver's side of the footwell. We think it's called the "sill". It was quite a tricky job which required small bendy hands and more than one pair was useful.

Inside were a whole load of very thin bunched up wires all tied together. (Sorry there are no other photos but I don't fancy pulling everything out again) :-) Somewhere amongst those wires was the broken diode. We had to look really hard for it and we missed it the first time round, but it was there. When we located it, we simply replaced it, closed everything up again and "voila"! the brake lights worked again.

So much cheaper than taking my car to the manufacturer. Now all I need to do is work out how to turn the airbag light off. :-/ 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Stop thinking about it. Do it!

How often do we put things off that we just don't want to do?

Too often would be the short answer; well not anymore, not for me anyway.

I always used to be the worse person for stressing out over things that needed to be done before a certain dead line, like my tax return for instance. It used to wind me up from the time I got it in May; to the time I needed to file it in January. It's ridiculous really. In total, it would probably have taken me about half a day to prepare. Then off to the accountant I’d go and that would be it. Job done!

So why did I leave it until the last minute and have it playing on my mind for months? It's probably because it’s stuff I don't like doing. But it doesn't alter the fact that it won’t go away no matter how long I put it off for.

So what happened to change my mind?

Well; I had this wardrobe in one of my spare bedrooms which I'd been meaning to get rid of for years! Yes years! (And yes, a wardrobe) I saw it every time I went into the room and got annoyed that it was still there every time I saw it. But did I ever do anything about it? Of course not. I just kept putting the job off and getting irritated on a regular basis.

Then one day, my brother called round to see me. When he went upstairs and spotted the wardrobe and laughed out loud because it was still there. "Just get rid of it" he said and promptly started pulling it apart. Ripping off the doors, kicking out the back and the next thing I know it's in pieces in the back garden.

It was an easy job that took less than half an hour to do, but had wound me up for about half a decade! And now it’s gone. What was all the fuss about? Why didn’t I just tackle the problem as soon as it presented itself?  I could have saved myself a lot of irritation.

So my advice to anyone interested, is just do whatever it is that needs doing as soon as you can. Especially if it’s not urgent. You’re more likely to forget about something if you put it off until its deadline and you could end up with a fine or worse, end up stressing about it unnecessarily for a very long time.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Things to know before you go skiing in La Rosiere

I've just returned from a week skiing at La Rosiere in France and I must say, it was brilliant in every way. The snow was fantastic for a start, (not really something that can always be guaranteed unfortunately), the chalet was ski to and from the door, which really is second to none. Let's face it, who can be bothered hanging around for a minibus to pick you up, (or worse, the ski bus) after a long, exhausting day skiing? Not to mention the fact that you might miss the last bus back, even though you've risked life and limb bombing it down the slopes from the last lift to get to the designated pick up point on time only to find it just left! So you have to walk back in your ski boots! Bugger that!

But I digress...

The weather was perfect (again; not really something you can pre-book before you leave) and finally, we were only a few hours away from Italy where we could ski over for a decent pizza, superb hot chocolate (with a nice touch of brandy) and be back in resort for afternoon tea at the chalet that we didn't have to worry about getting a bus back to.

So what is it that you really need to know about skiing in La Rosiere? Well; unlike many other resorts I've been to, and I've been to a few, this one has 3 ski lifts (actually they're drags) that you don't need a lift pass to use. They just happen to be right outside the chalet I was staying in which was perfect, but it doesn't really matter where you're staying, you can still use them to get your ski-legs back on if you arrive in resort early.

Below is a photo of one of the free drag lifts.

The other important thing to mention, is that if you have a beginner in your group or a child over 5, (anyone under 5 gets a free lift pass) It's not worth getting the full 6 day pass for them. Some beginners might not feel confident to leave the nursery slopes for several days. They might stay on them for the first 2 days and then if they're ready they can buy a lift pass for the last 4 days of their ski holiday. The lift pass office in La Rosiere is a short walk from most hotels and chalets so don't feel obliged to buy a pass on the transfer from the rep. The price will be the same but as I just mentioned you might not need the full 6 days. It's also better to buy the lift pass direct from the lift pass office because, should any of your party sustain an injury whist skiing, or perhaps decide they don't actually like skiing, you can go back to the office with your receipt and claim a refund on the days you no longer wish to ski. The rep will simply tell you to claim on your insurance as he/she will have one huge receipt for all the passes purchased together.

I must point out that this is a general rule and cannot guarantee a refund from the lift pass office at La Rosiere, but I'm pretty sure it works that way everywhere. Please correct me if I'm wrong.
It's also worth pointing out that hiring skis direct from the ski shop is a lot cheaper than hiring from your tour operator. This is true of any resort, but in some resorts like Courchevel, you might end up hiring from a shop that's miles away from your accommodation. (I found this out from experience). This can be very inconvenient and not worth the hassle, but La Rosiere is very small and you can walk to just about any shop from almost any hotel or chalet. This includes the lift pass office and main ski school. Which brings me to the subject of Ski School. It's cheaper to go with the guys in red!
ESF. I didn't check out all the prices but our tour operator was charging a lot more than the ski school itself.

Finally, (and I hope you're still awake at this point) eating out is actually quite reasonable. Again, I'm comparing to Courchevel so it's not hard to be cheaper, but it wasn't really that bad. Now, The Dolomites in Italy... well; that's another story.

I hope this blog has been helpful to you. All the details above come from personal experience. Things will change and become up-graded so please don't hold that against me.

I would really appreciate any comments you might have and perhaps you can think of something important that I've missed out so feel free to add it. You might have to click on the "comments" link to get the box up.