2018 stock take

Last year I wrote down a list of things I wanted to achieve and then evaluated how well I had done. This year I wrote a similar list but failed to publish it. 8 months later I’ve just found the list, and I’m amused to find that I’ve done fairly well, and even exceeded my own expectations in at least one area (I said I’d start cycling, but didn’t predict that it would become such a large part of my life).

It turns out that travelling less, spending more time exploring Birmingham, trying new places to eat, and swapping time spent in front of a computer for outdoor activities were all (at least subconsciously) planned. Now I just need to go to more concerts and spend more time with my non-Birmingham friends and then the list is largely complete.

500 miles and beyond

I’ve just cycled 500 miles to raise money for Good Hope hospital in Birmingham. I did it over a few weeks, interspersed with all the other things I usually do, which made it a lot more feasible than trying to do it over a weekend (which I also think would have killed me). 500 miles might not seem like a lot, but I had only been cycling for just over a month when I started (after 10+ years without a bike), and I knew that I would likely have to do most of that distance as part of commutes, hospital visits, shopping trips, and other scenarios that would require me to carry a lot of luggage.

The first few days were very hard. I did a lot of road cycling and quickly remembered why I had stopped cycling in the first place. I then talked to other people who cycled in Birmingham and found a couple of canal routes I wasn’t aware of. I also explored the bit of north Birmingham between Good Hope hospital and my house and found a few miles of parks that meant I could avoid the nightmare that is Sutton town centre during rush hour. This made things easier, and I did the first bit of my challenge in and around Sutton and other parts of north Birmingham, with the occasional canal adventure in the south.

I also started cycling home from work some days. It’s a 9 mile ride (8 miles of which is canal towpaths), and I initially thought it might be too far to do every day. Towards the end I did do it every day, and also cycled to work the same way a couple of days a week. Most of my last 200 miles was done this way, and I’ve found it a much more pleasant experience than cycling on the roads.

I did manage a few trips where I got to cycle for pleasure, rather than to move between two places I had to be. I’ve been to Sandwell Valley Country Park, done some of the Rea Valley route, and done a 25 mile exploration of the Grand Union Canal in blistering sunshine. I certainly plan on doing more of that sort of cycling in the near future.

When I started cycling I was carrying everything in a rucksack (largely because the first bike I used didn’t have any other storage). I’ve since switched to panniers for most trips, which reduces the strain on my back significantly, although does add width that can be a problem in some tunnels. It means I can carry a lot now though, and a weekly shop is now very much a possibility (including wine, jars of curry sauce, and other heavy/bulky things). I’m also still refining what I carry with me on a daily basis, although I have found a use for most of the tools in my bag (especially puncture repair tools), and there is probably not much I would want to discard at this point.

I’ve completed 500 miles, but I’m not stopping there. The challenge continues until September, so I’m going to keep on cycling and see how far I get (I’m hoping for at least 700 miles). I’ll be tracking my progress on the website, and am still very much interested in further sponsorship.

Why I’m cycling 500 miles

The NHS have helped us a lot over the last few weeks. Without the NHS we would probably have remortgaged our house by now (or tried to), and we have met lots of skilled, dedicated, and above all nice people.

They are struggling though. From old computers, to inefficient processes, to an IT system that doesn’t seem to be fully joined up, there is so much that is crying out for more funding, more fixing, and a little love.

That’s why I’m cycling 500 miles and asking for £500 in sponsorship I generally hate asking for things, but it turns out when it’s not for me then I don’t mind. I in no way believe that doing this will change lives (apart from perhaps mine), but it’s one of those small things that might at least contribute to something bigger, and should at least give something back.

Cycling in Birmingham

At the moment I’m juggling hospital visits, work, being a responsible pet owner, and all the other things I do. This has lead to a few logistical challenges, but since I was kindly loaned a bike a couple of weeks ago I have found new ways to do everything I need to do and still manage to see new parts of my local environment.

I’m not a fan of cycling on busy roads, and although I’ve done it a few times recently, it’s very much a means to and end, and not an enjoyable journey. The ones I’ve enjoyed are where I can use parks, cycle paths and canals to get around – and Birmingham is surprisingly good for those kind of routes if you know where to look.

The journeys I’ve particularly enjoyed (with links to routes) are:

The park near my house to Good Hope Hospital via Sutton Park – I’ve done this one 3 times now, and it doesn’t go anywhere near a main road until Sutton Town centre. One day I will explore the top part of Sutton Park too, but that’s a trip for another day.

An alternate morning commute – This takes me to my local train station, but via two parks rather than a busy main road. It’s quite short (I walk most of this with the dog a couple of times a week), but it’s a really pleasant cycle when the weather is nice.

Good Hope Hospital to the park near my house via lots of parks and cycle paths – After cycling back from hospital twice on the roads, I vowed never to do it again (especially during rush hour). This route got my home more quickly, despite being longer, and is at least 2/3 off road. It’s also a really lovely ride through leafy cycle paths and past meandering streams.

Witton Lakes to the City Centre, via the canals – I’ve dubbed this one the canal graffiti tour, but it’s not quite as bad as it sounds, and it ends up at the Mailbox with only one tiny bit of road cycling on the way. I like graffiti quite a lot, so I suspect I’ll be coming back to this one with a proper camera at some point.

All of this has been really enjoyable, so I guess I’ll be buying a bike (or two?) soon.

Counting down to Christmas

This week I’ve attended a carol service, eaten nut roast, drank mulled wine, made an excessively glittery Christmas card, listened to Christmas music, and voluntarily walked in the snow. I think that means I’m actually celebrating Christmas this year.

I’ve also made a preliminary list for my albums of the year blog post, mostly because I’ll be overseas during the time I usually write it so I want to give myself a head start. One thing I suspect will feature is the new Bjork album, which I’ve listened to a fair bit over the last couple of weeks, and which I do seem to be recommending to people a lot right now. I like all of it, but this is the song that fits best with the usual subject matter of this blog:

Places I’ve eaten this year

This year I seem to have socialised over food a lot more than previously, so I thought it was worth listing places I’ve eaten in 2017 (in the UK) in case there is anywhere that people are not aware of. I suspect most of these will be in Birmingham or London, as that’s where I spend most of my time.

The Goat Tavern, London – I can’t actually remember what I ate here (it was right at the start of the year), but I did quite enjoy this pub, and their menu has quite a few things I’d like to try on it.

Bratby Bar, University of Birmingham – I don’t eat here often (although I’m there at least once every couple of weeks for drinks it seems). The food is basic, and the three times I’ve eaten here (a very greasy pizza and and two underwhelming jacket potatoes) I’ve not really enjoyed the food that much, although eating there sometimes beats not eating there, which is something I’ve also done a couple of times recently.

The Green Man, London – Nothing too spectacular about this one. It’s a perfectly decent pub that happens to do food, unfortunately it didn’t have a great deal of choice for people who don’t want to eat meat, and as such it didn’t really inspire me to want to eat there. I ended up having a salad and some sweet potato fries, which was about half of the food on the menu that I could actually eat, although I note the menu now looks loads better, so I might have to give it another try at some point.

TGI Fridays, Birmingham – This is where we always seem to eat when we meet my family, and it’s a place I didn’t particularly like before I stopped eating meat, and one that offers an even more limited choice of food now. The last time we went there there was a fire in the kitchen and we got our meal for free – hopefully the next time (in 2 weeks) will be less eventful, although I can pretty much guarantee I’ll be eating the same thing as last time.

Saint Christopher’s Inn, London – Another London pub, but this time one that had plenty of choice, and was probably the best brunch I’ve had in London ever. I had eggs florentine, which is one of my go to breakfast dishes anyway, and which was perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. Definitely somewhere I would go back to if I ever find myself in that part of London again.

That pub in Peterborough (people who were there will know where I mean) – Sometimes when you’re traveling you just have to take a chance on a place. The food wasn’t bad, but the pub itself was full of people who just stared at us the whole of the time we were there, and I’ve never been more glad to leave a pub. Not one to go back to, although I can’t actually remember what it was called so maybe I’ll just have to never go back to Peterborough to make sure.

Bottega, Resorts World, Birmingham. This was probably my favourite place I’ve had dinner at this year (sweet and sour cauliflower and rice on both occasions), but it’s since closed so I can’t really recommend it any more.

The Noble Room, University of Birmingham – I’ve eaten here a few times this year, and I’ve always found the food really good. It’s also a really convenient place to get a cooked main meal if I’m not going to be eating dinner until late. I think this has probably replaced Bratby Bar as my favourite place to meet people for lunch on campus now.

The Knights Templar, London – I’ve only eaten here once this year, and it was only a simple veggie burger and chips, but the KT is generally the only Wetherspoons pub I’ll go anywhere near, and it’s where I often spend my evenings if I’m in London for a conference. I think this is another one that’s all about the people and very little to do with the food, but I do still recommend it as a good place to meet small groups of people who are traveling from all over the place. It’s also within walking distance of where I usually stay when I’m in London, which gives me the unprecedented experience of being able to get from the pub to where I’m sleeping on foot. This did lead to a rather late night last time I was there.

Yakinori, Birmingham – This is down the road from our office, and provides the occasional Friday treat. It does really great bento and sushi, and the portion sizes are very generous for the money. I generally have battered pumpkin, with (separate) katsu sauce and rice, but nothing I’ve had from here has been less than wonderful and I’d highly recommend it.

Boston Tea Party, Birmingham – This has just opened in the city centre, which means I can have my all time favorite brunch (sweetcorn hash – which contains poached eggs, halloumi and avocado) without having to go to Harbourne. I’ve eaten here twice this year, including once with my family (who really liked it, and they are notoriously picky about places to eat). This is somewhere I definitely want to go back to soon, because my calendar says I’ve not been there since July.

The Pitcher and Piano, Reading – I’ve eaten here before when I was in Reading for a course, and decided to go back there when I was visiting this summer. I mainly choose this pub because it’s got very efficient air conditioning, and has Hobgoblin on tap, but it also does a decent veggie burger and never seems particularly busy.

Jamie’s Italian, Birmingham – A fairly regular place to eat, which for some reason I didn’t visit until June this year. I like Jamie’s a lot, and always manage to find some new pasta dish to go with the inevitable veggie plank (served on a plank, propped up by tins of tomatoes), and large glass of some sort of Italian wine. I’ve eaten here with family and friends, and it generally seems to go down well, although it is a little pricier than most of the places on this list.

The William Blake, London – Somewhere else I’ve eaten loads of times, but I’m still not completely sold on their food, and it’s very much a case of eating there because I’m hungry and can’t be bothered to move rather than a comment on the quality of the food. They do decent drinks though (including tea and cocktails), although it can get a little rowdy in the evenings, so probably best for lunch rather than dinner.

Cafe Soya, Birmingham – Definitely the best place to get oriental food if you don’t eat meat and fish, and one of the best menus for vegans that I’ve ever seen. I’ve never had a bad meal here, and I’ve also never finished a good meal (at least without taking half of it home).

The New Masala Merchant, Birmingham – Probably one of the best Indian meals I’ve had for a while, but it was unfortunately coupled with by far the worst wine I’ve drunk for a long time due to us relying on the local off license for alcohol. If I ever go back there I’m bringing wine from home, but there is certainly nothing about the food that I would change, and I actually had a really pleasant evening there.

Not Dogs, Birmingham – I love the idea of this place, and I really enjoyed the hot dog I had here directly after my most traumatic opticians appointment this year. I couldn’t recommend it to people who don’t like fake meat though.

The Stable, Birmingham – This is a new find, but I’ve had two very enjoyable evenings there recently and would highly recommend it. They specialise in cider (including a cider tasting board) and pizza, both of which they do to a very high standard, and they also have a vegan menu as well as several decent vegetarian options. It’s also right next to New Street station which makes the journey home easier than a lot of places on this list.

Accountability

At the start of the year I wrote a blog post about things I might do differently this year. Not resolutions as such, just lines in the sand and broad statements of intent. As the year is nearly two thirds of the way through (how?), I thought it was time to look at those statements of intent, see if anything had noticeably changed, and note anything else eventful that had happened.

The first thing I wrote about was visiting the cinema more. Apart from a slight lull in the spring this has gone very well, and I’ve seen 14 films this year so far. It’s not quite enough to make the unlimited card worth it, but when you add in discounts on food and drink and other benefits it’s just about paid for itself (although I do resolve to go to the cinema slightly more often in the cold winter months to make sure I get value for money). I also set up a (private) WordPress site to record everything I’ve seen, everything I want to see, and to otherwise document my cinematic adventures. Let’s face it, if I’m doing something then there is probably a WordPress site somewhere to document it.

The second thing I wrote about was my relationship with technology, and in particular how I was using my iPad more for personal computing (and my Surface Pro 4 for work computing). The last 8 months has probably been the least remarkable period of time in regard to changes in how I use technology, and I don’t think a single thing has really changed (apart from my diminishing love of the Surface). I’ve not bought a computer of any type this year, and spent a very small amount of money on technology in general. I’ve travelled several times with just an iPad, and have found that the thought of doing that is nowhere near as remarkable as I thought it might be at the start of the year. If anything has changed it’s that I’m using MacOS and Ubuntu at the same time rather than choosing between them, due to having a bigger desk that will fit two monitors, although the jury is still out as to whether I’ll actually replace the Mac when it finally dies or becomes obsolete (it’s 6 years old now).

The third thing I wrote about was music, and how I planned on buying less but listening to it more. This has largely gone as expected, although I did go through a period in the spring where I bought a few extra CDs, and it really took me until about May before the vision of the future I was aiming for actually came to pass. I’ve also noticed that I’ve started listening to older music a lot more this year, with as lot of old favourites getting significantly more airtime that records that came out this year. I’m not sure whether this is a blip or a trend yet, but it will be interesting when I do my yearly review to see how many records from before 2017 make the list.

The last thing I wrote about was socialising, and how I wanted to do more of this (but didn’t have a plan). This is probably the area where the most has changed, and I’ve been more socially active (especially with people from work), and have done a wider range of things (cinema, walking and comedy nights rather than just food and drinks). As predicted, it sorted itself out organically, and I can’t pretend I really did anything to make this happen.

The other key thing that happened recently is that I stopped eating meat (and then eventually fish) at some point at the start of this year. It wasn’t a conscious decision (at least not at first), but once I realised I’d stopped and I felt better for it then it was a bit of a no brainer to just make it a thing I didn’t do any more. I’ve found it surprisingly easy, and I’ve found I’m learning more about food and how it affects my body as a result.

I think the only other things of note are that I bought my first pair of varifocals last week after a period of diminishing eyesight, and that at some point in the spring I started drinking proper coffee again and tried to cut out the instant rubbish as much as possible. Both of these are probably only of interest to me, although I’m sure people around me are glad I can now do things like read menus in restaurants and actually see what is on the screen of my phone.

Home improvement

We went to Ikea today, ostensibly for a new desk for my study. Evernote tells me I did the measurements for this desk over two years ago, so it’s probably about time. As well as a desk, we also picked up a new kitchen table (replacing one that’s probably 15 years old) and a new coffee/gaming table for the living room (replacing one that’s nearly as old as I am). We also picked up some stools and a couple of iPad holders each to make it easier to use what are fast becoming our primary computers in a number of different ways. Everything smells new and wooden, and I love it all.

I now need to work out how I want my new desk set up. I long ago accepted that my IT needs are less than they were when I actually worked in IT, and as a result I probably don’t need to have quite so many computers in circulation. How that is going to work with a larger desk I’m not sure, but I’m hoping I can at least be a little sensible when I’m deciding what actually needs to be reassembled tonight.

I’m also hoping this new setup will mean I can dismantle the standing desk I built on the living room fridge a year or so ago. It only houses a Raspberry Pi now, and it’s not really a useful workstation because the dog hates me using it to the point where she barks incessantly and/or tries to jump on my (non-existent) lap.

I like new things, and I suspect this is only phase one of a fairly major decluttering and renovation exercise that is long overdue.

For science!

Yesterday we visited the town of La Laguna, home of two museums, but also a lot of other impressive things to look at (architecture, graffiti, churches etc.). For me this was the highlight of the week so far, and it allowed me to see how the area I’ve been staying in developed over the centuries, and how history touched it and shaped it to be what it is today.

The first museum was a museum of history, which reminded me a little of the Museum of London in that it laid out the history of Tenerife chronologically so as to take visitors through the same journey the island has undertaken over the centuries. Thankfully there was commentary in English (I don’t normally bother with these, but my Spanish is bad enough that it was worth it). I saw a lot of impressive paintings and old books, and also took around 100 photographs which I’ll do something with when I get home.

After lunch we took a short tram ride to the science museum, which was basically a large concrete bunker full of all the usual sorts of things you see in a science museum. It wasn’t particularly innovative, but it was fun, and we ended up staying there a couple of hours and interacting with pretty much everything. Again, I photographed everything, and between the two museums and the town itself I probably have close to 300 pictures.

It’s our last day here today, and we leave very early tomorrow, so I suspect we will be having a lazy day today. It’s been a good holiday though, and this is a place I will definitely come back to at some point in the future.

Travelling further afield

I woke up yesterday feeling less than well, but soon made the decision that it was not going to stop me from interacting fully in the activities of the day. After breakfast we caught a tram, and then a bus, which took us through some fairly impressive scenery including cloud-shrouded mountains and the bluest of seas. The journey did not take too long (nothing does here – it’s just over an hour from one end of the island to the other), and we soon found ourselves in Puerto de la Cruz, which is in the north of Tenerife and is significantly more tourist focused than Santa Cruz. The differences could not have been more obvious – from the English translations on menus and street signs, to the amount of merchandise for sale in the shops and stalls that are everywhere. The day largely consisted of walking around and taking photographs (mainly of lizards– there were many lizards), and also getting coffee and snacks in a couple of places (where again the slightly inflated prices suggested a focus towards temporary visitors).

Last night’s film was Moana. I may have interacted with my iPad a fair bit during that one.