Posts tagged 'family'

 

Covenant or Service level agreement?

Monday, April 29th, 2013
A photo of a broken doll

Broken doll photo by Goran Zec – CC:By-SA

I’ve been thinking about prayer and expectations lately. Yesterday our daughter came downstairs a bit upset. The cause of the worry was that she thought she had ruined her head forever. It took us a short while to figure out that she meant not her own head but one of those toy ones you apply “make-up” to. Quick tip: If you have a child with one of these – make sure they don’t apply face paint to it.

The interesting thing was that the words we said didn’t have as much effect as the actions we took

Almost on automatic pilot we went into standard comforting-parent mode. We started with “Oh don’t worry, it’ll be okay.”, skipped “It’s just a toy” and arrived at “Don’t worry we’ll look at it and sort it outi one way or another.”. You may recognise some of these from your own experience. The interesting thing for me was to see that from our daughter’s perspective the words we said didn’t have as much effect as the actions we took. All the promises in the world would not have convinced her it was actually going to be alright.

She is wise enough to know that sometimes toys are irrepairable but at that time what she needed was comfort, to be reassured that she was not in this alone. She needed a hug. She got that reassurance and – thanks to a can of WD-40 and a bit of elbow grease – it did turn out alright. Legendary Dad status confirmed but long before the fix she was calmer and reassured and you could tell – while worried – she was happier when she knew we were there for her.

How often do we we interact with God on a results basis?

How often do we interact with God on a results basis? We make requests and look for an outcome. There’s a whole industry within the church dedicated to this kind of thinking but even those of us who don’t subscribe to “blab it and grab it” will still often approach God expecting a fix. What if we approached him looking not for a fix but for reassurance that we will come through this. What if we remembered this covenant is not a service level agreement? Sometimes that reassurance comes from the angels – A.K.A. friends – God places around us, sometimes it may be a little more direct. Sometimes it will be fixed, sometimes it will be alright, sometimes it won’t be how we expected but we don’t need to go through it alone.

Internet blocking will still not protect our children

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Much of this is a reworking of an earlier blog post and proposals for ISP-based “internet blocking” or – as it is more usually termed “pornography blocking”. I have rewritten it to address the proposed law change following the campaign I referred to earlier. I have also updated it to reflect comments made by David Cameron (and the associated media bluster) in July 2013.

[update: Nov 2013] The law change didn’t actually happen but that didn’t stop David Cameron who “teamed up with ISPs” to advertise their products, sorry I mean to come up with a plan to impose filters on all households anyway. Let me be clear – this will not work and it will not protect children. Read below to find why I believe this.

2 Parents watching Tv presuming their son is safe on the Internet in another room

A parent will always be the best protection for a child on the Internet. Image CC:By-NC-SA OllieBray

The government is holding a consultation for a proposed new law which it says will protect children while using the internet. This proposal follows a campaign which I first came across in February 2012. It is called “SafetyNet” and is being run by Premier Christian Media and SaferMedia. The campaign and now the consultation is about requiring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to “[block] pornography and other content at network level whilst giving adults a choice to ‘opt-in’ to this content”.

The campaign website and FAQ document are full of statistics which – as with any statistic – cannot really be argued with. These range from the percentage of UK households with internet access to how many children regularly access explicit images on their home computer. There are also a bunch of sound bite quotes to join the dots between these facts and the aims of the campaign.

The consultation is fairly loaded and appears based upon the “facts” purported by the campaign. As far as I am concerned facts are facts. If a USA survey (taken at a single school by the way) says “1 in 3 10 year olds have accessed pornography online”, I’m not going to argue. I’m not altogether sure why 73% of UK households having internet access adds to the problem but I don’t doubt the figure is correct. What concerns me are the conclusions drawn and the way they are presented in the consultation document.

Perhaps I should introduce why I feel I can write about this. I am a UK Christian parent (so therefore fit neatly in the target demographic for the campaign), my children are between 5 and 9 years old and thus are well within the group the proposed law seeks to “protect”. I am also someone who works with and understands the “network level” Internet this consultation talks about. I have been building hosting webservers and websites since the mid 1990s and I still do. So I am fairly and squarley in the target demographic for the campaign, consultation and the proposed law. I would add I am also one of the people who understands the technology involved and by the sound of it I understand it better than those running the campaign or making the proposal.

Why this won’t work

The campaign calls for ISPs to “block pornography” at “network level”, the consultation expands this into two options. Firstly a universal switch which enables or disables blocking (or “filtering” if you prefer) for the internet connection and secondly an array of questions which apparently will allow the parent to decide which types of content are permitted or not permitted through the same connection. The wording is phrased as if this filtering can be decided on a per user basis rather than a per connection basis but the type of filtering they are describing cannot be managed in that way. In brief the type of filtering they are proposing (regardless of which option is used) is unworkable and dangerous. I’ll focus on pornography here because that is the main thrust of the campaign but the same points can be applied to other content types. Here is why…

How do you define “pornography”?

You can’t (as the campaign does) try to get away with a dictionary definition because we are dealing with parents here who may well have their own idea of what is appropriate for their child to view. Limiting it to just ‘the explicit representation of sexual activity’ may not be enough. As an example if that were all that was being blocked I still would need to check what my 8 year old was stumbling across on Google images at which point the “protection” is not coming from the blocking but from me (as it does now). Additionally who decides what content fits into what categiry and what level of “risk” there is? One parent may consider it perfectly aceptable for their child to see say a scantily clad woman in a provactive pose, another may not and yet both would expect such a filtering service to met their needs. It can’t. There is no part of the proposal which mentions fine tuning or configuration of the filters by the parent and to be honest if it did have such a feature I could not see many taking advatange of it because it would be what a friend of mine refers to a “too much of a faff”.

How do the ISPs determine what gets blocked?

Certain websites will be obvious by their name/domain but is the government really so naive as to expect the site owners to be scrupulous in what they call their websites? Also what of images and content provided through otherwise innocent websites? Google images for example has a safesearch option. Set that to “off” and your child will get a bit of surprise. But as the images are hosted and served by Google, the ISP cannot block them. So using the vaunted “network level” blocking, the explicit images can still be viewed. Other sites will be similar. In the end the only way for an ISP to properly block explicit content is to do it on an image-by-image, video-by-video basis. To do that they’d have to either rely of peer reviews which are inherently slow to react or they’d need to employ people to check and grade the content. Now I’m not an employement law expert but I’m pretty sure that an ISP employing somebody to view possibly illegal, often offensive and probably explicit material every day would be opening themselves up to legal consequences they could do without. Aside from that, given the constantly changing nature of world wide web content, this is something I cannot see any ISP being able to do properly. How long would it take before a parent brings an action against an ISP because their child was exposed to some piece of content which slipped through the filter?

Filtering does not work.

Anyone who uses filtering or blocking software will tell you that things slip through. Don’t believe me: how about your eMail spam filters? How about your anti-virus software? If they are so good why are you still suspicious of links in eMails you weren’t expecting? If you are not suspicious, you should be. Let’s look at Google images again. Google are huge, they dwarf any ISP by comparison and yet they still don’t guarantee that safesearch will hide all explicit or offensive images, they have a “report offensive images” link on their search results. If Google can’t make any guarantees how can I be sure an ISP would block everything?

Network level blocking means blocking sites and images before they get to your house. Such things already exist. I use a free (and very good) service called OpenDNS which – among others things – allows me to have it block websites that either declare themselves as “adult” or have been reported as such by other users of the service. Such sites are blocked before they even get down my phoneline. So this is pretty much what is being proposed here. It doesn’t work. Well that’s not true, it does work just not 100%. Google images is not blocked and other sites which have mixed content are not always blocked. If my daughter searches for “girls bedroom posters” on Google images with safesearch on “moderate” (the default setting by the way) she gets images which are possibly not what she was after. Filters can of course be too aggressive such as the one I heard of recently which blocked access to the Essex Radio website (and presumably Sussex and Middlesex too). Lord knows what it makes of Scunthorpe.

The point again is that even with Google images safesearch on strict and OpenDNS I still have to monitor what my children surf. The main “protection” for my children comes from me not any blocking software or service.

It’s all or nothing

The consultation allows for the fact that adults can request the ISP blocking is switched off either entirely or by specifying types of content. This sounds fine as long as all the adults use one connection and all the children use another. But that’s not how the world is. Those 73% of UK households with Internet access probably have a single main connection for each household. Many of them almost definitely have a mixed range of ages using the Internet. So if a parent wants the blocking switched off, the child gets it switched off too. ISP blocking at “network level” is by defnition all-or-nothing. Now you may argue that parents should not be watching such content if they have kids. But I’ll wager they do and if they have the blocking turned off, the children the proposed law seeks to protect are no longer protected.

I’m not here to tell other adults what to do and by the sound of it the proposal doesn’t want to either but if an adult wants it turned off (and I doubt this would be something the ISP would want to keep switching on and off on an hourly basis) then it’s off for the kids and again the “protection” that should be provided by the blocking will have to be provided by the parent (as it should be now).

The consultation makes reference to filtering services supplied by mobile operators. The problem with this is that mobile internet connections are supplied to a single device, home internet connections are supplied to a single point (a hub or router) and this distributes it to a range of devices within the home. If you turn off filtering on a mobile device you disable it for that single device. If you disable it (or part of it) for a home Internet connection you do so for all devices and all users. So while it is entirely practical for a child’s phone to have fiiltering but the parent’s one to not have it, this is not practical or possible on an average home Internet connection as proposed here.

Update, July 2013: This part of the proposal is also the basis for the most recent comments by (Prime Minister) David Cameron where he speaks of an “opt-in” blocking system. Actually what he means is an opt-out system. Any block or filter which is in place unless I request for it to be disabled is an opt-out. Calling it an opt-in is spin at its best/worst and only serves to muddy the waters further. The other thing to remember here is that this is about blocking based on content not domain names. Also Mr Cameron’s announcement conveniently mixed rhetoric about adults accessing (already) illegal images of children and children accessing pornographic images. The bluster from certain sections of the media which also run features on female body image and push the sexualisation of women agenda has been as hypocritical as you’d expect. Including one which celebrated Mr Cameron’s statement as their “victory” while just a few weeks before was happy to show photos of a 14 year old in a bikini.

Photo is a screen grab on the Mail Online website

This “newspaper” celebrated the proposed blocking law as their victory. Funny how they’re also happy to publish photos of a 14 yr old in a bikini.

It gives a false sense of security to parents

You’ll have gathered by now that this is my main point. The campaign raises concerns which all parents whose children have Internet access should consider. But the solution offered by the proposed law and consultation is poorly thought through. As you have seen above, ISP blocking will still require a parent to monitor what their kids are surfing. This is good and I wholeheartedly agree that a parent/guardian is the best protection for children online. As parents we should be interested in what they are doing whether online or not. But what worries me is that this ISP blocking idea would cause a lot of parents to stop paying attention (or pay less of it) to what their children are doing online. It would give a false sense of security. Lets revisit the anti-virus analogy. Anyone running a Microsoft Windows PC should run anti-virus software, that is a given. But just having it there does not mean you will be “safe” from malware, phishing or other nasties. Ask anyone who supports Windows PCs and they will tell you that you are only as good as your last update and also just because you have software which the manufacturer promises will protect you (no matter how much you pay for it) you still have to be vigilant. It’s the same with blocking or filtering. The model is flawed. It does the best it can under the circumstances but it’s flawed.

It’s been suggested to me that I am not actually the type of parent this is aimed at. It’s a complement to be considered so and I know there are parents out there who do not pay attention to what their children are doing online. The problem is that if that is the target market aren’t they exactly the ones who will presume this filtering alleviates them of any further concern to their child’s online activity? Doesn’t that – in the terms set out by the campaign and consultation – put their children at greater risk? I’m not convinced that inadequate, unpractical and unworkable filtering is a solution. I’m not convinced that filtering is anything other than an assistance and even then if it is not voluntary introduced by the parent it is less likely they will fully understand it or implement it properly.

Oppose it

In the end, as shown above, ISP blocking would still require a parent to monitor/participate/be involved in their child’s online activity. That means the blocking is next to useless. Even if you presume it will help or do some of the job for you, you still run the significant risk that your child will find an image, video or site that you’d rather they didn’t. Sadly pornography is part of our culture and so is the Internet. But the Internet does not work like a TV, radio of a shelf of magazines in the newsagents. It’s different and it needs to be handled differently. As a Christian parent you might expect me to support this campaign but I just can’t. I do believe that my children should not be exposed to certain types of material until such a time as they are ready to understand it but I do not believe this is the way to achieve that.

The SafetyNet campaign might have the safety and protection of children at its heart but its using the wrong tactics. We do not need scaremongering, knee-jerk reactions based on shaky “evidence” and headline-grabbing phrasing. The government may use rhetoric which says it is trying to protect our children but the consultation is loaded and ill-thought out. Such a law, if passed, would not protect children any more than an 18 certificate on a DVD does. Educate parents, get them to speak to their kids, help them. Don’t make laws which would have a worse effect if passed.

Filtering, blocking and other such technologies can help a parent, but in the end, technology cannot protect our children, only we can. Such laws do not prevent children getting access to the filtered content (whether deliberately or by stumbling across it).

What can we do

The Open Rights Group has provided ways to write to your MP on this matter. In addition if you are a parent or business involved in Internet Services you can take part in the government consultation. The closing date for the consultation is 6 September 2012.

I am not pro-porn – added 29 July 2013

Just for the record and especially as I seem to have been bundled up with the arguments saying pornography is “harmless” I am not saying that. Whilst I disagree with the scare-mongering “won’t somebody think of the children!” shouting of certain parties I do think that pornography can be harmful to children and also I do not like the image it presents of women in society. I have a daughter and I would love her to grow up in a world where she was on an equal footing with her brother. I do feel that world yet exists and I personally feel pornography (on several levels) does not help.

My particular preference is that parents should be guiding their children in such matters and yet I am aware that not all are in a position to do that. The best argument for parent education I have yet read is this one by Gareth Davies of CARE.

Grace and optimism – lottery winners pay for a new leg

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Kieran Maxwell on BBC news

Kieran Maxwell on BBC news

Kieran Maxwell is a 13 year old from Scotland who lost the lower half of one leg to Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer, in October 2010. Kieran captured hearts when he fell but picked himself up carrying the Olympic torch in July 2012. His family had been saving and fundraising for a new prosthetic limb when Euromillions winners olin and Chris Weir offered to pay for the limb.

It’s a wonderful story of humanity and kindness and I would recommend you watch this brief news item video on the BBC’s site. Unfortunately I can’t embed it.

The generosity of the Weirs is touching – particularly when so many lottery players seem to say they would do good deeds with any winnings and so few seem to do so (that’s a little anecdotal and I don’t mean to belittle any who do follow up on this). There’s one thing on the video which caught my eye and ear though.

About 1:05 into the video they interview Kieran’s mum, Nicola, who is understandably astounded by the gift. She says:

“It’s been surreal, like a dream. I keep waiting for someone to pinch us and wake us up. Things like this don’t happen to us. We do not get good luck – at all.”

At this point an off-camera voice – which I presume to be Kieran – interrupts and says “I do”.

Yes it would be better if the prosthetic wasn’t necessary but it is. Here’s the thing though – this story made the news and touches our hearts because of the generosity, humility, determination and optimism of those involved. Maybe that’s because we wish there were more occurrences of these things in the world. Then again perhaps we could let this story inspire us to make that so.

Tribute to a Mother

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Inspirational.

I’m not saying anything more – just watch the video.

Why internet blocking will not protect our children

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012
2 Parents watching Tv presuming their son is safe on the Internet in another room

A parent will always be the best protection for a child on the Internet. Image CC:By-NC-SA OllieBray

In the last few weeks a campaign has come across my screen a few times. It is called “SafetyNet” and is being run by Premier Christian Media and SaferMedia. The campaign aims to gather enough signatures to convince the government to leglislate so that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must “[block] pornography at network level whilst giving adults a choice to ‘opt-in’ to this content”.

The website and FAQ document are full of statistics which – as with any statistic – cannot really be argued with. These range from the percentage of UK households with internet access to how many children regularly access explicit images on their home computer. There are also a bunch of sound bite quotes to join the dots between these facts and the aims of the campaign.

As said, facts are facts. If a USA survey says “1 in 3 10 year olds have accessed pornography online”, I’m not going to argue. I’m not altogether sure why 73% of UK households having internet access adds to the problem this campaign is trying to resolve but I don’t doubt the figure is correct. What concerns me are the conclusions and the way they are trumpeted to convince people to sign the petition.

Perhaps I should introduce why I feel I can write about this. I am a UK Christian parent (so therefore fit neatly in the target demographic for this campaign), my children are between 5 and 9 years old and thus are well within the group this campaign seeks to “protect”. I am also someone who works with and understands the “network level” Internet this campaign talks about. I have been building hosting webservers and websites since the mid 1990s and I still do. So not only am I one of the people this campain targets I am also one of the ones who understands the technology involved – by the sound of it I understand it better than they do.

Why this won’t work

The title of this piece is provacative but I believe it is true. Forcing an ISP to “block pornography” at “network level” is unworkable, unsafe and dangerous. Here is why..

How do you define “pornography”?

You can’t (as the campaign does) try to get away with a dictionary definition because we are dealing with parents here who may well have their own idea of what is appropriate for their child to view. Limiting it to just ‘the explicit representation of sexual activity’ may not be enough. As an example if that were all that was being blocked I still would need to check what my 8 year old was stumbling across on Google images at which point the “protection” is not coming from the blocking but from me (as it does now).

How do the ISPs determine what gets blocked?

Certain websites will be obvious by their name/domain but is the campaign really so naive as to expect the site owners to be scrupulous in what they call their websites? Also what of images provided through otherwise innocent websites? Google images for example has a safesearch option. Set that to “off” and your child will get a bit of surprise. But as the images are hosted and served by Google, the ISP cannot block them. So using the vaunted “network level” blocking, the explicit images can still be viewed. Other sites will be similar. In the end the only way for an ISP to properly block explicit content is to do it on an image-by-image, video-by-video basis. To do that they’d have to employ a lot of people. Given the constantly changing nature of world wide web content, this is something I cannot see any ISP being able to do properly.

Blocking is never 100%

Anyone who uses filtering or blocking software will tell you that things slip through. Don’t believe me: how about your eMail spam filters? How about your anti-virus software? If they are so good why are you still supicious of links in eMails you weren’t expecting? If you are not supicious, you should be. Let’s look at Google images again. Google are huge, they dwarf any ISP by comparison and yet they still don’t guarantee that safesearch will hide all explicit or offensive images, they have a “report offensive images” link on their search results. If Google can’t make any guarantees how can I be sure an ISP would block everything?

Network level blocking means blocking sites and images before they get to your house. Such things already exist. I use a free (and very good) service called OpenDNS which – among others things – allows me to have it block websites that either declare themselves as “adult” or have been reported as such by other users of the service. Such sites are blocked before they even get down my phoneline. So this is pretty much what the campaign is asking for. It doesn’t work. Well that’s not true, it does work just not 100%. Google images is not blocked and other sites which have mixed content are not always blocked.

The point again is that even with Google images safesearch on strict and OpenDNS I still have to monitor what my children surf. Again the “protection” for my children comes from me not any blocking.

It’s all or nothing

The campaign allows for the fact that adults can request the ISP blocking is switched off. This sounds fine as long as all the adults use one connection and all the children use another. But that’s not how the world is. Those 73% of UK households with Internet access probably have a single main connection for each household. Many of them almost defnitely have a mixed range of ages using the Internet. So if a parent wants the blocking switched off, the child gets it switched off too. ISP blocking at “network level” is by defnition all-or-nothing. Now you may argue that parents should not be watching such content if they have kids. But I’ll wager they do and if they have the blocking turned off, the children the campaign seeks to protect are no longer protected.

I’m not here to tell other adults what to do and by the sound of it the campaign doesn’t want to either but if an adult wants it turned off (and I doubt this would be something the ISP would want to keep switching on and off on an hourly basis) then it’s off for the kids and again the “protection” that should be provided by the blocking will have to be provided by the parent (as it is now).

It gives a false sense of security to parents

You’ll have gathered by now that this is my main point. The campaign raises concerns which all parents whose children have Internet access should consider. But the solution offered is poorly thought through. As you have seen above, ISP blocking will still require a parent to monitor what their kids are surfing. This is good and I wholeheartedly agree that a parent/guardian is the best protection for children online. As parents we should be interested in what they are doing whether online or not. But what worries me is that this ISP blocking idea would cause a lot of parents to stop paying attention (or pay less of it) to what their children are doing online. It would give a false sense of security. Lets revisit the anti-virus analogy. Anyone running a Microsoft Windows PC should run anti-virus software, that is a given. But just having it there does not mean you will be “safe” from malware, phishing or other nasties. Ask anyone who supports Windows PCs and they will tell you that you are only as good as your last update and also just because you have software which the manufacturer promises will protect you (no matter how much you pay for it) you still have to be vigilant. It’s the same with blocking or filtering. The model is flawed. It does the best it can under the circumstances but it’s flawed.

Don’t sign it

In the end all of the above shows that ISP blocking would still require a parent to monitor/participate/be involved in their child’s online activity. That means the blocking is next to useless. Even if you presume it will help or do some of the job for you, you still run the significant risk that your child will find an image, video or site that you’d rather they didn’t. Sadly pornography is part of our culture and so is the Internet. But the Internet does not work like a TV, radio of a shelf of magazines in the newsagents. It’s different and it needs to be handled differently.

The SafetyNet campaign might have the safety and protection of children at its heart but its using the wrong tactics. Those tactics will not help vulnerable children any more than an 18 certificate on a DVD will. Educate parents, get them to speak to their kids, help them. Don’t try to scare them into signing up for a law which a) won’t get passed and b) would be worse than good if it was.

Filtering, blocking and other such technologies can help a parent, but in the end, technology cannot protect our children, only we can.

> Update – 12 March 2012 I’m not the only one who thinks this campaign is a bad idea. There are also some good points raised here: http://marnanel.dreamwidth.org/237955.html

Eat out and help a family?

Monday, October 18th, 2010
a 10p coin

Would you begrudge adding this to a £30 meal to help someone?

This weekend we had a meal at a local restaurant. It’s part of a chain and to be honest the chain is irrelevant. We had a good time and enjoyed the food. When it came to pay the bill they added a 10p donation to the World Food Program‘s World Hunger Campaign. We had no objection and happily paid the bill.

It got us thinking though. What if all restaurant meals had this? What if every restaurant meal over a certain threshold (let’s say £3) had an automatic “tax” of 10p? Not 10% just 10p? How much would this raise? According to one industry site, about 148 million restaurant meals were eaten in the UK last year. This does not include take-aways but if the “tax” I suggest included them I guess we would be looking at it raising around £25million per annum. I’m not an expert but that’s a lot of money.

Now what if this were used to fund something like the WFP or maybe even fund free school dinners for more children in the UK? We’re told that the average cost for a school dinner is about £1.50. Families on benefits get free school dinners anyway but something like this could help a greater number and raise the threshold so those who are just above the benefit threshold (but still on very low income) could get some help too. If a child had a free cooked meal at school wouldn’t that help keep the family budget down and thus help raise a lot of families out of poverty? I suspect the answer is yes because otherwise the government wouldn’t already offer free school meals to the poorest families in the UK. Many studies have also shown that eating a nutritious lunch helps with studies and learning.

Okay so I guess a lot of financial and sociological experts will pick holes in this idea. I’m also sure there would be a lot of people who would object because they don’t have children or they should be able to choose to whom, when, how much and even if they donate. I still think it would be worth looking into and could be acceptable to many because a) it’s flat rate – if your meal costs £500 you still pay 10p, b) it’s a paltry amount, c) it’s easy to pay and d) it could make a real difference very quickly.

This is the day the Lord has made…

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Thought I’d start the new year with a cautionary tale.

Somebody once said “There’s no such thing as a normal day”. That is true but there are definitely abnormal days. Days that really could only happen once. At least there had better be or else the day described here could happen again. Before I go any further I want to say this is all absolutely true (except the Bon Jovi bit which I can’t prove) and occurred in mid 2008. At the time, I submitted it as an article for an internal magazine where I was then working but never got around to putting it on here.

Update 19 March 2010: Recently this page has been coming to the top of Google searches for “My child has put cat poo in their mouth”. If you’ve come here looking for what to do I’m afraid I don’t have the answer. The NHS website does say that “Animal faeces (poo) are not ‘poisonous’ but may cause infections and if you are concerned you should call NHS Direct.” Here’s the link to that page (helpfully called “poisoning”) if it helps.

If your child hasn’t been tucking into the cat litter you can read on. Oh and wouldn’t read this while eating if I were you.

Rude awakenings

It all started when my left leg decided it was time to re-introduce me to the idea of cramp. Now I’ve had my fair share of cramp and perhaps it was the fact that I was in the middle of an unusually deep sleep but I don’t recall cramp ever feeling like this! This was man-cramp. My leg felt like it had a shark attached and I went from snore to roar in under a second. I did what any normal human would do and screamed. Actually I didn’t – I was about to when I remembered my loving wife (Claire) sound asleep beside me and being a caring husband (and a complete coward) I thought it best not to wake her at 5:30 in the morning.

So I slid out of bed (the only way I could actually move at the time) and tried to get rid of the cramp by stretching my leg – which of course hurt even more. So now I wanted to scream even more. Time to leave the room and scream elsewhere. They don’t call it cramp for nothing though and my first step resulted in a half lunge and me falling towards the bed. After a clever mid-fall twist which would have made Tom Daley proud I avoided the bed and landed on the floor – right on top of the leg with cramp. So I crawled to the bathroom, stuffed a flannel in my mouth and stretched my leg. After about ten minutes the pain (and the screaming) reduced enough for me to limp back to bed where my – ever so concerned – wife was probably dreaming about Jon Bon-Jovi but was definitely not awake. Phew. The venture was a success in one aspect at least.

I went from roar to snore in under a second. This was man-cramp!

And so back to sleep for all of around 10 minutes when my son (four at the time) started shouting “help!” from his bedroom. Despite some well placed elbows, Bon-Jovi was still holding my wife’s avid attention. So up I got and hobbled into the kids’ room to find him sitting up in the top bunk. He calmly explained that he’d had a nightmare and had “forgotten” to wake up in the middle of it to go to the toilet. The bed was soaked. His sister (three) was as out of it as my wife (but hopefully not dreaming about Jon Bon-Jovi) in the lower bunk. The manager in me took over and I decided that eighties musicians would have to move aside. I, gently, woke my wife and assigned her the task of dealing with our son while I dealt with the bed. Standing on the edge of the lower bunk (with my daughter still asleep in it) I stripped the top one and cleaned up. Eventually the bedding was all piled up and Catnip (his favourite toy) was sitting atop the pile like a wee-covered Guy Fawkes. I decided I’d take them down “in the morning”. By this time my son was clean and in dry jammies and clambered back into bed. I limped back to mine. My wife was already heading back to the eighties and my cramp was dying down so it seemed some sleep was on the cards.

Enter the cat

At this point the cat realised she had not played a big enough part in my morning. She also decided – what with all the moving around – that it must be time for her breakfast. Tempting as it was to help her out of the upstairs window, I hobbled downstairs and fed her with all the grace I could muster. Believe me, she was lucky I didn’t put a funnel in her mouth and pour it down! So after all that it was back to bed and what was left of my sleep.

Believe me at this point the cat was lucky I didn’t open her mouth and pour the food down for her!

But wait! There’s more. Apparently during my cramp-induced gymnastics I managed to knock my alarm clock off the bedside and turned it off. So half an hour after I was supposed to wake up, my son appeared beside my bed and gently shook me. “Ah bless” I thought ,“He probably wants some breakfast”. He probably did, but the reason he was waking me up was to say “Daddy, Pebbles has done a poo in my room”. Pebbles if you haven’t guessed is the afore-mentioned cat. Taking in this glorious news I just knew it would be on the rug and not on the – easy to clean – laminate flooring. “Where abouts?” I asked, anxiously. “On the bottom bunk” came the reply swiftly followed by – a very dead-pan – “and it’s all squishy”. This was enough to drag my wife back from her own personal Ashes-to-Ashes and she went to rescue our daughter from the cat’s new litter tray. After she returned while I limped towards my own personal Life On Mars to clean another bed. Meanwhile Mummy went through the checking-a-child-for-cat-poo-whilst-avoiding-getting-it-on-yourself-and-anything-else procedure (patent pending).

When I arrived there were indeed some “parcels of fun” from Pebbles the cat on the end of the bed and they were indeed, squishy. Not that my daughter had noticed. Apparently she had remained completely asleep while the cat did it’s business and – even with the squishy poo on her bed – I confess I was envious. The cat must have seen my face and decided this was not the time to ask for more food and she sat quietly by the back door waiting for me to open it. If she was smart she’d stay out there all day. I know my cat. She’s not that smart.

A twist in the tale

You’d think this story would end now wouldn’t you but, like an M. Night Shyamalan film, there’s one final plot twist. As I went out to deposit Pebbles’ – er – pebbles ( now in a bag ) into the dustbin I re-discovered that the day before my Father-in-Law ( who to be fair was just trying to be helpful ) had put the kitchen bin liner and put it next to our dustbin. I had “meant” to do something about that before going to bed because, bless him, he didn’t know the reason we have dustbins with lids where I live. They are called foxes and overnight a couple of the little beggars had ripped that bin bag to shreds and spread the contents – offering like – before my front door. They were obviously looking for waste food. Ha! Waste food in our house – nice one.

So there I stood, tired, in bare feet, only one of which I could stand on, holding a bag of poo, before a sea of kitchen waste. Hey, at least the sun was shining. Right in my eyes! So I mopped up the sea, deposited the bag o’ poo and glanced at the clock. Arrghhh – 7:45 – I was supposed to leave at 7:30!

So while “this is the day that the Lord has made” would seem ironic at that moment. “We will rejoice and be glad in it” was a particular struggle. I really hope that was an abnormal day. Because if it wasn’t, there’s a risk that it could happen again and I’m not sure I could survive two days like that.

I know for a fact that my cat won’t!

P.S. My wife has asked me to point out that the bit about Bon Jovi is entirely without evidence or factual basis and is simply a pre-supposition on my part. Glad to get the legal part over but I would like to say that she was very excited when I later gave her tickets to a Bon-Jovi concert

Christmas is for the kids

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

It’s a popular meme at this time of year that Christmas is for the kids and — incarnation of God and beginning of the world’s salvation not withstanding — it probably is as well.

Having two of the little ones myself I thought it might be nice to share some of the Christmas-related, children-related quotes and events that I’ve encountered. Some happened this year, others in previous years.

Fair’s fair

My two were clamouring for one of the chocolates on offer after the carol service. I said they could have one each. My eldest (6 at the time) spotted the mince pies and — putting on his best smile — asked “Can I have a mince pie as well Dad?”. It’s Christmas. I said yes. At which point my youngest (4 at the time) started rifling through the tin of chocolates. When I asked what she was doing she responded (without looking up or stopping the rifling) with: “I don’t want a mince pie!”.

Guess who’s coming to town

It was six days before Christmas and to say my two were excited is a gross understatement. School was out and they were gearing up for the big night in a big way. Despite their excitement we managed to get them upstairs to get ready for bed. I took the opportunity to make a cup of tea and after stirring, tapped the mug with the teaspoon (I don’t know, it’s a thing I always do). It made a slight tinging sound at which the two kids thundered down the stairs shouting “We heard the bells! Where’s Father Christmas?”

New takes on the old old story

We’ve all encountered children who think the wise men brought “Gold, Frankenstein and Myrrh” but there are other cases of new words being used in the old story. I personally got in trouble as a child for saying the shepherds were washing their socks. I’ve also heard a version of Away in a manger where the cattle were “glowing” (presumably from standing too close to the angels). A friend’s child once asked why Mary and Joseph didn’t just drive home again if all the hotels were booked up but perhaps my favourite is the child who asked where the horses slept with all those people crowded in the stable.

The Real Father Christmas

When my niece was young I took her to see one of the many Father Christmas’s in a local shopping centre. Whilst queueing we passed the people exiting excitedly with their presents (and an emptier wallet). I heard a parent ask their little one if they enjoyed seeing Father Christmas. The child responded with “yes and I think this one is the real one not some bloke pretending”. Then there was a pause and then the big brother (who was looking very fed up) said  “He could do with getting his beard dry cleaned though!”.

The look that the parent gave the older child would have made Medusa proud.

The trials of Christmas shopping

Last year I was in a shopping centre, a week or so before Christmas and took a moment to grab a rest while waiting for my wife. A Mother and her three children stopped and readjusted their myriad of bags next to me. The mother started running through her – mental – checklist to ensure they hadn’t forgotten anything. As she listed the gifts they had bought and who they were for, the middle of the three children began to interrupt. “Mum..”. The mother held up her hand to summon silence. “But..” Again the mother held up her hand and this continued through the list. Satisfied that they hadn’t forgotten anything she declared they could now go home. She then turned and asked what the middle child wanted. “I think Dad’s still in GAME” they said at which point the youngest threw up her arms and said “Oh great! We’ll never get him out of there!” (For those who don’t know, GAME is a popular video game store in the UK)

If you have any of your own, feel free to add them as comments here.

Happy Christmas

Oasis Camel Centre – a grand day out

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009
One of the main attractions

One of the main attractions

During the summer our family visited Suffolk and spent some time doing the tourist bit. We found some great examples of things to do – particularly if you are dragging under 8s around. One shining example was the Oasis Camel Centre.

It’s a bit tricky to find as it’s buried in the heart of Suffolk farm land. That said, there’s a great map on their website which would have been handy had we bothered to prepare this trip before we went on holiday. As the name suggests the main attraction of the place are the camels which are fab. Twice a day there is a meet the camel session during which you can get right up close to one of the magnificent creatures. It being a little harder to get to and not as well known as other Suffolk animal attractions (such as Africa Live) actually works in our favour here as it’s not overly crowded. That said it’s not exactly empty either.

But it’s not just camels, there are llamas, al-pacas and rhea (see below), along with ponies, donkeys, pig and the almost ubiquitous goats, rabbits and peacocks. Add to that the very well kept play areas (including a covered bouncy castle area) and the small but clean and functional cafe and you have a really good out. The entrance prices are reasonable, staff friendly and facilities are good and most importantly the animals are clearly well looked after with plenty of room and you can see they are cared for.

For reference our party consisted of adults in their 30s, 40s and 70s as well as a four and five (sorry nearly six) year old and all of us had a good time. So if you are Suffolk and find yourself wondering what to do, I really recommend the Oasis Camel Centre.

Welsh cakes – yum

Friday, July 17th, 2009
Some welsh cakes I made

Some welsh cakes I made – image (c) Ryan Cartwright CC:By-SA

Welsh cakes, sometimes called “bakestones” or as my family calls them – “plank-cooks”, are something I’ve enjoyed cooking and eating since I was small. I’ve made them for friends and colleagues to a warm reception. Many have asked for the recipe so here it is. There are lots of welsh cake variations, usually regional. I don’t claim these are the best or easiest they are just the ones that four generations of my family have made.

This makes about 30. Preparation takes around 30 mins. Cooking takes about 45 mins and you need to be there for all of it.

Ingredients

  • 1lb/450g Self-raising flour
  • ½lb/225g Butter
  • 6oz/170g Caster sugar
  • 12oz/340g Currants
  • 3 Eggs
  • drop of milk

Alternatives

  • I’ve given both imperial (UK) and metric but in reality I’ve always measured this is imperial so the metric is an approximation.
  • You can use Margarine in place of butter but make sure it’s a suitable for baking one (e.g. not Flora light!).
  • You can use Sultanas in place of the currants. Raisins will do at a push but can go bitter at the cooking stage.
  • I’ve made a sugar-free version (for diabetics) using granular Canderel – use ¾oz/20g in place of all the sugar.

Method

  1. Sift the flour ( not strictly required but makes for a smoother mix)
  2. Rub the butter into the flour until it is like breadcrumbs
  3. Add the fruit and sugar and mix together
  4. Add the eggs and mix well
  5. Add the milk very gradually while mixing. The consistency you are looking for is like sticky pastry. Not too dry or it will break up when cooking but too sticky will make it hard to roll out.
  6. Roll out the mix on a floured surface. Roll it until it is about ¼” / ½ cm thick.
  7. Cut into 2½” / 7cm rounds. I use a pastry cutter but my Nan always used the same teacup!
  8. Cook on a greased (with butter) smooth griddle or heavy frying pan. They usually take about 30 seconds on each side – until they are brown but not burned. Flip them once and leave to cool.
  9. Dust with caster or icing sugar.

Serving

Best served slightly warm with a bit of butter and cup of tea! They are not usually accompanied by jam or cream. If you want that make scones.

Storing

They will keep in an air-tight container for a few days without drying out. You can freeze them when they have cooled properly. Defrost at room temperature and enjoy.

Notes

Don’t be tempted to cook them for too long or they burn. If the inside seems less cooked when you take them off that’s fine. It continues to cook slightly and if you leave them on too long the outside burns and that tastes horrible. My Nan taught me to flip them using my hands (careful though). She said if you could lift them and the underside was stiff they were ready to turn , if they bend too much then you need to leave them a bit.

You can also freeze the dough once it is made and defrost it before cooking but in my experience the best ones are made from fresh dough. In a similar way some recipes recommend chilling the dough for a couple of hours before cooking but that’s not something I was ever taught to do or have tried (habit I guess).

Traditionally they are baked on a smooth griddle – often called a plank or stone. A heavy or thick frying pan will do but some of the more modern frying pans transmit the heat too quickly and the cakes burn. DO NOT use oil on the griddle/pan – instead grease it with butter. The heat setting for the griddle will vary depending upon your cooker and griddle. Experiment with various settings until you reach a good one. As said you want them to go golden after about 30 seconds.