Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Dart Charge Penalty Notice - what you DON’T know!

Received a Dart Charge Penalty notice?

Have you received a Dart Charge Penalty Notice even though you have set up a pre-payment or automatic payment account?  You are not alone.  Are you wondering why you are being fined £70 by Dart Charge when you already have done everything you need to in order for payments to go through automatically each time you use the Dartford Crossing?  I did. Here’s what I had to do to resolve the penalty notice.

dart charge penalty charge notice
Dart Charge Penalty Charge Notice

Dart Charge Penalty Notice  - why did you get fined?

Some time around 2014 all the toll booths on the Dartford Crossing were removed.  In principle this seemed like a good idea.  After all the original agreement when the Dartford Crossing was constructed was that after the crossing had paid for itself (by charging a toll) then there would no longer be a charge for using the bridge or the tunnel.  In fact the charge should have stopped being levied back some time around 2003.  So the Department For Transport was fifteen years late, but hey, better late than never.

But the toll booths on the Dartford Crossing were not removed because there would no longer be a toll charged.  The toll booths were removed because payment would now be taken through the Dart Charge website, which is run by the Department For Transport.  The publicity surrounding the move to online payments made it all sound so simple.  The process running thus:

  1. Sign up for an account on the Dart Charge website
  2. Register your vehicle registration numbers and payment details
  3. Drive over (or under) the Dartford Crossing
  4. Take it easy while the payment toll for your crossing is extracted from your payment method automatically

From a safety perspective removing the toll booths is something I’m in favour of.  The insane race / bundle / inevitable collisions when the many lanes of traffic merged into far fewer lanes is not something any motorists are likely to miss.

So I got a Dartford Crossing penalty charge, where did I go wrong?

I’m going to keep this part of the blog post as simple as possible by breaking it down into two parts.

What I did before I got fined
In 2016 I signed up for a Dart Charge account and entered my payment details (a debit card) and my car registration number.  Between 2016 and 2018 I used the crossing four times.  So there and back twice.  I didn’t receive any penalty notices so thought nothing more of it.  The system worked.  Or so I thought…

How I got fined by Dart Charge
On the 13th June 2019 my band had a gig in Brighton.  So driving from Ipswich to Brighton included a trip over the Dartford Crossing, and then the following day I drove back through the Dartford Tunnel.  I did this safe in the knowledge that my car and payment details were all set up on the Dart Charge website to take the toll for the crossing automatically.

On the 24th June 2019 I received a Penalty Charge Notice from Dart Charge, including the bold, all caps text ‘DO NOT IGNORE’.  I didn’t ignore the fine.  I shrugged it off and assumed there must be some mistake because I KNOW I had the toll covered.

Just to be on the safe side I thought I had better log into my Dart Charge account to ensure my registration number was correct in my account.  When logging in I spotted a notice declaring that the site was in ‘Alpha’ status, meaning there might be a few technical issues.  ‘No shit’ thought I to myself.

I checked my car registration details and they were correct.  There was £5 showing as outstanding in my account.  I thought this was odd but wasn’t too alarmed.  So I checked which debit card I had registered with Dart Charge.  There were no payment details associated with my account.  Oops.  That would nearly explain why no payment had gone through.

Hold on, bear with etc, this is where things get tricksy
I tried entering my payment details six times.  The website fell over six times.  For my day job part of my role is being the person on the other end of sites like this ensuring things keep working.  So I tried a bunch of troubleshooting exercises, like logging out then back in, trying the payment in a different browser.  All sorts.  Nothing worked.  I was unable to add any payment details.  Frustrated I decided that as the site was in Alpha they must still be fixing the payment system and I decided to try again the next day.

The next day I tried entering my payment details again and the system worked perfectly.  Or to be more precise the payment details were recorded by the system adequately.

Despite the fact I now had payment details logged with Dart Charge I could still see no way to clear the £5.00 that my account was declaring I owed.  I even called my wife into the room to check I wasn’t just missing something obvious.  I wasn’t.  There was no ‘pay now’ button or link anywhere on the site once I had logged into my account.

I decided to leave the fine to stew for another day; clearly I was getting nowhere with this new, improved, simple toll payment system.

When I checked my account again the next day my outstanding payment was showing as zero.  I had also received a confirmation of payment email from Dart Charge.  Job done.  Or so I thought…

The second penalty charge notice from Dart Charge
This morning I received a second penalty charge letter through the post.  Yet again the gravity of the situation was expressed to me in grave terms in bold type.  Payment for the crossing had been taken, I even had a receipt with yesterday’s date on it.  Surely I can ignore this letter.  Sadly my dealings with Government departments in the past have made me wary.  I decided I should call Dart Charge just in case.  This is where things got weird and a little confusing.

When I called Dart Charge I was told that I had to pay the £70 fine, although because I was going to pay swiftly this would be reduced to £35.  I told the Department For Transport operative that I had paid for the crossing and had received an email receipt with yesterday’s date on it.

I was informed that the payment I had received a receipt for was for the toll relating to a crossing I made on the 7th October 2018.  So I still owed the toll for the 13th June 2019 crossing.  This crossing was not showing in my Dart Charge account.  Apparently Dart Charge had failed to take payment because the payment card I entered three years ago had expired.  Oops.

At this point I figured it was a fair cop.  Mea Culpa.  So while I had the (admittedly very friendly) operative on the phone I asked for some assistance in paying the fine.  I pointed out that I couldn’t see anywhere in my Dart Charge account that gave me the option to pay a fine.  On top of this confusion my balance was also showing as zero. AND the rogue crossing was not appearing in the list of crossing in my account.

This is when I found out something that I could not have predicted.  In fact I was so surprised by the method for paying the Dart Charge Fine that I’m going to declare the method in a different font, just to emphasise it.

In order to pay your Dart Charge Penalty Notice you need LOG OUT of your Dart Charge account.  When logged out you need to go through the penalty payment process as if you do not have a Dart Charge account.

I know a little bit about website UX (user experience) from to my day job.  Demanding that users log out of their account to perform certain actions is lunacy.  Giving no indication that users are required to log out is frustrating to a level that makes the backs of my eyeballs itch.

So I logged out, went through the penalty payment system and paid my fine.  Only it wasn’t actually a fine, it was just the £5 I still owed for the crossing on the 13th June. Bonkers.

Paying the Dart Charge penalty - conclusions

  1. Don’t assume automatic payments means payments are taken automatically
  2. To pay your Dart Charge fine you need to log out of your Dart Charge account
  3. If you fail to make a payment you might not actually get a penalty charge notice at all (I didn’t get a penalty letter for the lack of payment last October)
  4. If you get a new credit or debit card make sure you update your Dart Charge payment method

And finally…
After I made my payment I searched my emails for messages from Dart Charge and found LOADS.  I have no idea who I missed them.  Although I set up Dart Charge on my personal email address, not my work account.  So the message was easily missed.

I have now set up an alert filter in my personal account to flag up any messages from Dart Charge.

Well I hope this post has been helpful to you.  If so please feel free to buy me a pint...

Monday, April 15, 2019

If you play in a band the world shrinks

This short article was originally published in 'Lights Go Out' zine in January 2016

When I was fifteen or sixteen I played in a band with my best mates in the village I grew up in (Wickham Market). Somehow, despite not knowing any other bands, we got a gig supporting a band called The Red Dress at Leiston leisure centre. 

We had a brilliant time. I remember drinking Merrydown cider and all of us running around like loons in the dressing room next to the stage. In our own minds we had 'made it'. This amused The Red Dress greatly, in the nicest possible way. They were like bemused but tolerant older brothers. 

We were massively out of our depth with this gig.  I had put on a bunch of gigs in village halls but had never played at someone else's gig. We had never played through anything other than a small vocal PA, this gig had a full PA. Just playing with a band who had instruments made by brands I'd heard of was incredibly exciting. I seem to remember the bassist playing a Gibson Grabber (or Ripper). Years later I would own a succession of Gibson basses; when I saw Red Dress play I thought the Gibson bass was the coolest thing I had seen in my entire life. 

For reasons that escape me, and memory fails to recollect, the rest of my band left me behind in Leiston after the gig.  There's a chance I was told that there was simply no space for me. Cheers best mates. Naturally I was freaked out by this, I was just a kid and this was a long time before mobile phones. I had no idea where the nearest pay phone was. The only way I'd be getting home would be walking for around four hours to get home. Through the dark Suffolk countryside, and let me tell you, that is proper darkness. 

The guys in The Red Dress were really nice to me, even although I was just some dumb kid. I'm the end they gave me a lift home, for which I was incredibly grateful. I bought their tape at the gig and listened to it a LOT. In my mind they were a proper grown up band, something I found incredibly aspirational. 

I have stayed on friendly nodding terms the singer of The Red Dress, one Phil Redmon ever since, but I never figured out who the super friendly bassist and drummer were. 

A few months ago I decided the skateboard I'd been falling off for the last twenty years was long overdue to be replaced. Friends recommended I visit Hardcore Hobbies in Bury St. Edmunds. So I did. I got chatting to the fella who was serving me and it turned out he was Jay from The Volunteers. The Volunteers have been a big part of the Suffolk punk rock scene for many years and as are respected as they are loved. As we chatted it turned out we had many mutual friends, which is normal when two people in bands get chatting with each other. 

This morning I was idly browsing the Hardcore Hobbies website, pondering whether I should protect what's left of my brains with a helmet, when I landed on the staff profiles page. Reading through Jay's profile I wasn't hugely surprised to find he'd been in a ton of bands over the years. Hey, haven't we all. What I didn't know was that Jay was in The Red Dress. 

So cheers for the lift, sorry it's taken me about twenty five years to say thank you!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Brexit timeline - the animated meme thing

Brexit is here.  Whether any of us actually wanted it or not, it is here.  While I appreciate that for the rest of the world Brexit isn't a big deal, it has dominated the media here in the UK for the past two or three years.  Regardless of whether people actually want the UK to leave the EU or not, people on both sides of the argument agree that Brexit has been one of the biggest farces ever to dominate UK politics.

So I made a GIF.  Or at least I tried to, in the end I couldn't figure out how to make a gif smaller than 200mb so I made an MP4 and shoved it at YouTube instead.

I have no idea what the original source for this video is because I found it on Reddit.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Pact coffee reviews

Pact Coffee - what is it?

Pact Coffee is a coffee subscription service.  Consumers decide how much coffee they want and how regularly, and then pay a subscription to have coffee delivered to them.  The unique selling point with PACT is that all their coffee is sourced direct from the producers.

Click here to find out more about Pact right now...

Pact Coffee reviews

I like coffee, I really like coffee.  I can happily tell you right here in this blog that Pact Coffee is probably the best coffee I have ever tasted.  I've drunk coffee from many places, frantonised with coffee experts, coffee geeks and generally talked at length with those more expert than me about coffee.  In short if you have even a passing fancy for coffee, you're going to LOVE this coffee.

So I think Pact Coffee is pretty amazing, but why take my subjective review as gospel. You don't know me.  If you are reading this and you do know me then I'd like to take this chance to say a cheery hullo!  So for this quick blog post about Pact Coffee I'm going to take a look at some of the other Pact Coffee reviews.  From people I don't know.

Enough of the chatter, take me to the coffee...

Pact Coffee - get on with the reviews!

On Trustpilot Pact Coffee have an overall rating of 4/5 stars, with 59 reviews (to date).  69% of the reviews are exceedingly positive.  Some of the reviews acknowledge the fact that Pact Coffee isn't the cheapest on the market.  But just as many, if not more reviews also claim that is is probably the best coffee on the market.  This is a claim I wholly agree with.

Get £5 off your first Pact Coffee order...

The Pact Coffee review on The Independent draws attention to the fact that everything at Pact appears to have been designed with a fantastic attention to detail.  Again, this is a review I agree with.  I love that each pouch of Pact coffee comes with a tasting notes card.

There's a review of the Pact Coffee service on UK Box Subscriptions that goes into more detail regarding the actual mechanics of how the Pact Coffee subscription works.  Overall these subscription service experts give a very favourable 9/10 for Pact coffee.

If you're happy to pay a little extra for Pact Coffee the returns you'll get far outweigh the small extra cost.  I really do adore Pact Coffee!

Find out more about Pact coffee and get a fiver off your first order...

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

How to fix kids' wellies

This post was originally published on my Crud Dad blog on 26th December 2017

Kids' wellies are crap.  Mostly.

Kids' wellies are almost always total crap.  In fact the only saving grace of kids' wellies is that while they are crap, they are usually cheap.  As adults we can decide to spend a small fortune on a decent pair of wellies because there's every chance we'll get many years use out of them.  If we're particularly lucky, or go outside particularly infrequently then we may even be able to wear the same pair of wellies for several decades.

Kids grow so fast there's little chance of then getting more than a few months wear out of any footwear, let alone wellies.  This could be the reason why it's not easy to buy good wellington boots for children.  Maybe the market (us!) doesn't demand high quality wellies because we know what a short window of opportunity there is to get as much use out of them as possible.  But the same could be said for school shoes, and yet we're prepared to spend more on school shoes than we are on our own shoes.  But at least school shoes are mostly fit for purpose.  Cheap kids wellies are not.

How do kids wreck their wellies?

For once I don't think children are wholly to blame for wrecking their wellies.  The truth is that the wellies just aren't made very well.  Every pair of child-size wellington boots that has come through this household has been cheaply made.  The emphasis appears to be on appearance over function.

If you have a daughter than you have probably already bought (and chucked out) several pairs of wellies that are adorned with bright images of flowers, fairies or (shudder) bloody Frozen characters.  If you have a son then there's a good chance that several of the pairs of wellies your child has knackered had a character like Spiderman printed on them.

I get the association on girls wellies - flowers and fairies are known to live in environments sympathetic to the wearing of wellies.  The characters in Frozen could probably have benefitted from a decent pair of wellies for larking about in the snow.

The choice of characters chosen for the designs on boy's wellies seems to have only a gossamer thin association with the wearing of wellington boots.  For example, I don't recall ever seeing Spiderman swinging like a goodun through the skyscrapers of New York with a pair of wellies on.  Probably because they'd fly off his feet, in the same way that kids' wellies do when faced with the simple task of actually protecting your offspring's feet from mud.

Any parent, grandparent or semi-tolerant aunt or uncle knows that if your charge goes anywhere near mud then they will definitely lose their wellies at some point.  The remarkable aspect of this is that the child rarely seems to notice that they have lost at least one welly and continues walking, planting the foot no longer protected by a welly straight into the nearest muddy puddle or dog shit. Without. Fail.

The Wellington boot paradox
I have never quite figured out why the wellies we buy for our kids are so damned short.  My own wellington boots almost reach my knees.  The tall wellies adults wear are perfect for standing in deep puddles without risking ingress of murky water.  The fact is that even when wearing wellies I'm unlikely to actually test them to the point of a breach.

Most kids' wellies only seem to reach halfway up the little darlings' shins.  Naturally this total lack of lower leg integrity invites, neigh begs the child to stand in water much deeper than the height of the welly allows for.  What results is an phenomena I call the 'Wellington boot paradox'.  As soon as your child's boots are full of water you realise that wellies are much better at keeping water in than they are at keeping water out.

Yes, but how do kids wreck their wellies?

On a purely mechanical level kids' wellies get trashed because they are made of a low grade PVC that tears when flexed.  I wear Grubbs Wellies, these are made of a heavy rubber-like material on the bottom / foot section and waterproof neoprene from the ankle upwards.  So they flex really well.  Because kids' wellies are made of crappy PVC they flex at the ankle and bridge of the foot.  Repeated flexing of the PVC, from something as simple as walking, weakens the PVC and it rips.  The rip is often on the lower section of the boot, ensuring that your child will get soggy socks if they perambulate on anything as wet as slightly dewy grass.  Spending time with a child who has cold, wet socks is a miserable experience.  Especially for the adults.

How to fix kid's wellies - finally!
Despite the fact kids grow out of footwear incredibly quickly it's still worth repairing crappy wellies.  Fortunately the holes and tears in wellies are very easy to fix, and all you need is a puncture repair kit.  You can find puncture repair kids for a pittance on Amazon or at a cycling shop.  But you'll do just as well with puncture repair kit from one of the many pound shops that fill the high street of your nearest metropolis.  Quality doesn't appear to be an issue here.  I carried out the repair in the photos below using a puncture repair kit found in the back of my in-laws' garage.  This kit was definitely older than my daughter, and there's every chance it's older than me.

It's crucial that the area on the boot you're repairing is really clean before making the repair.  If there's any trace of mud, grime, dog shit or nuclear waste then your patch won't adhere properly.  It's also worth pushing against the tear from the inside with a finger to make sure there's no mud / dog poo trapped actually in the tear.

If you have found this post useful please click here to buy me a pint... 

Force open the tear from the inside to make sure it's properly clean
Make sure the area you will apply the puncture repair patch is nice and clean. Look at that tear, it hasn't even got the decency to be in the shape of a smile.
It doesn't matter how cheap or old the puncture repair kit is. I'm surprised this bike even has brakes.

The patch might not be pretty, but it's going to prevent a whole lot of moaning.
Yes, these wellies look cute, but they're CRAP! But at least they can now be worn again, giving my daughter another chance to fill them up with stagnant water.

Death of drawing, Sutton Hoo & the Worrier King

This post was originally published on my Crud Dad blog on 5th September 2017

When I was a kid I loved drawing.  I know that's hardly unique, in fact I doubt there's a child on this planet who doesn't enjoy drawing.  Perhaps this drive to draw is part of our natural development as humans.  Learning to make a physical mark on the world around us could lead directly to us making an emotional mark on those around us.  But hey, what do I know?  Admittedly I did study post-natal / early years development when I was at college, but that was a long time ago.  Let's get back to the drawing.

While it's probably true that all children love to draw my fascination with doodling was bordering on obsession.  Drawing was all I ever wanted to do.  One Christmas, while my friends asked Father Christmas for Star Wars figures etcetera my gift desires were focussed elsewhere.  All I wanted for Christmas was some brush pens.  I got them.  I was ecstatic.  So the fascination with drawing continued to grow.

Drawing and the Blue Peter Bring and Buy Sale

In the early 1980s the BBC program 'Blue Peter' ran a huge charity campaign called (if I recall correctly) 'The Great Bring and Buy Sale'.  Any non-British Readers, or possibly any readers under the age of thirty are probably wondering what the hell a bring and buy sale is.  The concept was that you attended an event whereby you took all the old clutter from your house that you no longer wanted and handed it over to be sold in the name of charity.  While at such a sale you would have the opportunity to part with cash for the old clutter that other attendees had brought from their own homes.  Several tonnes of junk could thereby move from one home to another, but more importantly a load of money would be raised for whatever cause Blue Peter was focussing on.

For reasons lost to the mists of time the pre-teen me lacked the resources or the inclination to organise a bring and buy sale.  But I had an urge to help raise some money for charity.  So I convinced my mum to buy me a scrap book and proceeded to draw a cartoon on every page.  I then hawked this book around friends, family and the congregation of the village church.  The proposition was simple, choose a drawing you like and for a modest fee I would recreate the drawing right then and there.  The fact I managed to sell a lot of drawings is testament to the fact I was surrounded by a nurturing community of amused / tolerant adults.  I can't remember how much money I sent off to the Blue Peter great bring and buy sale, but I can remember the feeling of pride when I saw the fund 'totaliser' go up a notch.

The death of drawing

Then high school happened.  I have a memory of an art teacher at school assessing some of my drawings, then telling me that my talents may lay elsewhere.  It was a official - I was shit at drawing.  As a caveat I would like to make it clear that none of this might have actually happened.  But for some reason or other during the first year of high school my passion for drawing was snuffed out.  I abandoned any desire to pursue a life of scribbling for a living.  Despite the modest success of my Blue Peter fundraising.

As the years spun by I never lost my love of illustration, but it became a passion for enjoying the work of others.  Each time I considering taking up drawing again I'd find some work created by someone else that was so amazing I couldn't possibly match it, so I wouldn't try.  This attitude of assumed failure is something I generally disregard in my life.  I've been a musician for over twenty five years, despite the fact my musical talent appears to be buried very deep indeed.  Or at least deep enough that it is yet to surface.  I have written novels despite the fact nobody is terribly interested in reading them.  Hell, I even write this blog despite the fact that...

The re-birth of drawing

Yesterday something changed.  Yesterday was my daughter's sixth birthday.  On route to a family gathering at Sutton Hoo we called in at a giant shop called Hobbycraft.  My daughter loves to create.  I met my wife while she was studying for a degree in art.  They both know Hobbycraft well, but I had never been inside the place.  The purpose of this post is not to celebrate Hobbycraft, but oh,-my-goodness, that place is amazing.  We had only been in the shop for a few minutes when I casually mentioned to my wife the fact that I adored drawing when I was a child.  I proceeded to tell her that my passion for drawing was crushed out of me at school.  She was horrified.  In fact I was quite taken aback by how appalled she was by this fact.  At that moment I decided the time had come to start drawing again.

Under the semi-excuse of drawing being another activity I could share with my daughter I treated myself to a sketchpad and some nice pens.  I am loving watching my daughter's creative side blossom and being able to be a part of that is something I am extremely grateful for.  My wife draws wonderfully, she has a natural talent for creating beauty.  A couple of my friends are astonishing artists (look at Steve Larder and Graham Birks).  I am realistic in my own expectations.  But I love to create.

This morning I watched a quick couple of tutorials on YouTube then sat down with my sketchbook and pens and did something I haven't done in perhaps thirty years.  I drew for pleasure.  What happened next really surprised me.  Within a few minutes of sitting down my daughter and her mate from next door joined me at the table.  A handful of moments later both girls had picked up their own bits of paper and some pens and started drawing.  They watched as I sketched out the pencil guidelines that help me draw faces, then they used the same method in their own creations.  By deciding quite quietly and privately that I would spend some time drawing I had accidentally taught these girls a method of drawing they hadn't previously known.

So what? Sometimes as parents I think we forget that our children aren't our peers.  I know I'm occasionally guilty of holding back in some way in front of my girl, based on the same reasons I might quite sensibly hold back in front of my peers or people I don't know.  As parents we are undeniably role models for our children.  By showing our children that the urge to create doesn't need to spawn a masterpiece I think we're giving ourselves to opportunity to pass on something quite wonderful.  Creating almost anything is wonderful in it's own right.  As adults I think we can be too goal orientated.  Over the past few years I've learned from my daughter than doing is often more important than achieving.

So if you've read this far then you might be wondering what the significance of the Sutton Hoo mention and the drawing is all about.  While we were sitting around the table drawing, my girl explained to her friend that yesterday we went to Sutton Hoo.  Her friend asked what is at Sutton Hoo.  My daughter replied 'Sutton Hoo is where they found a buried worrier king'.  I asked if she had meant to say 'warrior king', she replied that she had said what she had intended to say.  Fair enough.  So I drew her a worrier king.


Vinegar and Bicarbonate of Soda Rocket Failure

This post was originally posted on my Crud Dad blog on 3rd September 2017

Vinegar and Bicarbonate of Soda explosion

One of the activities my daughter and I both get a kick out of is science experiments.  Sometimes we try simple experiments to satisfy her curiosity.  What happens if you pour hot water on ice.  What happens to the surface of oily washing up water when you put drops of detergent on it.  That sort of thing.  But sometimes we get a bit more adventurous.

The fun thing about experiments is that even if we know the outcome we still have a good time working towards the outcome.  If an experiment involves creating a certain amount of mess or chaos then there's a good chance we'll want to do the experiment over and over again.  In the interests of science of course.

Vinegar and Bicarbonate of Soda experiments

The first experiment that made a big impression involved mixing vinegar and bicarbonate of soda together in a bottle to make a volcano.  It's our 'go to' science experiment.  Usually while we've got the house to ourselves.  Things can get creatively messy.  We've evolved the vinegar volcano to include washing up liquid (for more bubbles), food colouring (for more colour) and sometimes glitter (because glitter is cool).  The mess is usually reasonably easy to clean up.  Apart from the glitter.  Spread glitter around for a few minutes (by any means) and you'll be finding it for months.

Taking Vinegar and Bicarbonate of Soda to the next level

While we were generally satisfied with our message volcanos we wanted to take things to the next level.  That's when we were led astray by YouTube.  We found a video showing us how we could use Vinegar and Bicarbonate of Soda to make a rocket!  How could we resist!  Because our garden is quite small, and we were expecting our rocket to go high enough to trouble light aircraft, we decided to conduct this new experiment at the allotment.

Being sharing, caring types me and the girl decided to film our rocket experiment so others could join in the fun.  The first rocket sort of exploded in my hand.  The second failed entirely.  The results were so disappointing that my daughter decided that to liven up our spirits we would 'do a volcano'.  Instead of using a drinks bottle we decided to make our volcano inside an empty HP sauce bottle.  Why?  There was an empty HP bottle on the draining board at home.  Sometimes genius is inspired by what is around us.  It's such a fine line between clever and stupid.

It turns out that the small hole on the top of a HP sauce bottle is a problem when there's a violent reaction between Vinegar and Bicarbonate of Soda happening.  This small hole, normally so useful for dispensing HP sauce might tend to cause a bit of an explosion.  Whilst the explosion might not be the type to cause physical harm, it will be the type to liberally coat you, your screaming daughter and all your camera equipment with stinky foam.

Getting sprayed with stinky vinegar foam led to my daughter bowing out of any further experimentation.  But I still had some of the raw ingredients to spare so decided to carry on with one more HP Sauce bottle explosion.  The girl gave me her best wishes and retired to a safe distance.  It was about this time some of our allotment friends arrived on the scene.  The pressure was on for a bit finale.  Watch the video below to find out what happened.

The 5 stages of school run grief

This post was originally published on my Crud Dad blog on 17th January 2017

I had no idea the school run each morning would cause us so much grief.  Getting the girl to nursery on time wasn't nearly as stressful as getting her to school on time is.  If we were late for nursery it was more impolite than anything else.  Ultimately we were directly paying for our daughter to attend, so if she was late it was our money we were wasting.  Although we don't pay directly for a school place (our girl attends a 'free' education authority funded school) we pay for it with our taxes.

I appreciate that attendance figures contribute to the OFSTED ratings of primary schools.  I also acknowledge that a sense of order needs to be in place at schools for them to operate at all.  Unlike places of business there are hundreds of humans in attendance who did not make the decision to be there themselves.  The kids.  But since the wee one started school last September, just four months ago, we have only managed to get her to school with plenty of time to spare on a handful of occasions.  I have no issue with the fact that we have to get our lass to school on time, it's an entirely reasonable request.  But that doesn't make it any easier.

Like all schools our school (which we LOVE) made it clear from day 1 just how important prompt attendance is.  There have been multiple letters home explaining the penalties for untimely arrivals.  If you're five minutes late you're in some trouble, if you're ten minutes late you're in some more trouble.  Should some sort of time-keeping disaster befall you and you are a whole fifteen minutes late you're in more severe trouble.  If you arrive twenty minutes late then the amount of trouble you are in is more acute; your child will be marked absent.  If you're spawn is marked absent more than a few times then, yes, you guessed it - you're in real trouble.  The scale of woe continues to slide up until fines, visits from the truancy officer and ultimately time in jail are a possibility.

Before I proceed I need to make very clear indeed that I have no issue with the need to get to school on time.  That's all fine and logical.  No issue.  I get it.  But try as we might we're still having an issue getting to the school gates with time to spare.  We have tried going to bed earlier, we have tried getting out of bed earlier.  In fact we have tried many things, and I'm aware that these are early days with regards to our child's school career, but right now there's no getting away from the fact that the school run causes us grief.

Here's a run down of what happens in our house every morning.  This is from my perspective, my wife (of course) is a goddess of the school run..
  1. Denial
    The alarm clock goes off, gets switched off.  The alarm goes off again and gets snoozed.  The radio comes on and I try to ignore it.  It's warm and cozy in bed.  I'm happy here.  I know it's my turn to get the wee one to school on time but I am in denial.  Maybe I have the day wrong.  Maybe it's actually a Saturday.  Maybe it's a school holiday.  Could it be a teacher training day?  Might the school get closed due to some sort of environmental issue beyond anyone's control; could ten feet of snow fall between now and when we have to leave the house?  No.  I am in denial.
  2. Anger As I force myself out of bed I am a little angry.  It's a futile and useless anger.  I have to get out of bed just because education exists.  Ludicrous thoughts flitter through my mind, could we start home-schooling?  Fortunately this dumb anger never lasts more than a few seconds.  My daughter is just so cheerful when she first wakes up that being cross is just not possible.  She loves school and she wants to go.  Which is what makes the following stages of school run preparation so bewildering.
  3. Bargaining
    I know she wants to go to school.  She knows she loves school.  So why is it taking her so long to eat breakfast?  Why after breakfast does it take her ten minutes to get from the bottom step to the top of the stairs to clean her teeth?  Bargaining with a five year old is a clear sign that the situation is getting desperate.  The bargaining starts low key, with offers of post-school activities that both parties can enjoy.  But as the time we must leave the house in order to be on time gets nearer the bargaining becomes more desperate.
  4. Depression
    We should have left the house five minutes ago.  This can only be happening because I am a bad parent.  How do other parents manage to get their kids to school on time so effortlessly? I've tried everything in my arsenal to cajole, humour, bargain and plead with my daughter to get ready on time.  I have failed.  Again.  I know this type of thought is ultimately useless; it's not going to get us out of the door any faster if I turn into Eeore.  Nothing gets us out of the door on time, I'm not even sure a minor fire somewhere in the house could get us out of the door any faster.
  5. Acceptance
    As we walk to the school I can already see the last of the kids pouring through the gate.  We're going to be a little bit late.  Nothing can change our lateness.  We're not going to run, I'm not going to pick the girl up so we can walk faster.  I have accepted our lateness.  Tomorrow is another day and we'll try yet again to get to school with time to spare.  One day we'll find the magic formula and surprise ourselves by casually strolling up to the school gate with time to kill.  Maybe.

My 5yr old's first mixed-media artistic statement

This post was originally published on my CrudDad blog on 13th December 2016

I've been making music for most of my life and ever since my daughter was born music has been a large part of her life.  Whether she wanted it to be or not.

We have hi-fi speakers in every room of the house and the radio (BBC 6Music) is on from the moment we wake up until bedtime.  I play in a couple of bands, my wife plays the piano and there are always instruments strewn around the house.  We recently got a £20 piano from Gumtree and it has been fascinating listening to my girl's abilities develop.  At first all the tunes she played were random stomps of the keys, but that soon morphed into repetitive 'loops' and now there are even hints of melody.  Considering the fact we live in a victorian terrace house with paper-thin walls I'm sure the neighbours are appreciative of this speedy development.

A few weeks ago I bought a small midi keyboard and attempted to teach myself how to make music using GarageBand.  GarageBand comes with a lot of pretty decent virtual instruments straight out of the virtual box.  It didn't take my daughter long to find out that by playing short key repetitions she could make music.

I'll be honest, the music she makes is not entirely to my taste; she appears to want to emulate the free-jazz musicians of the mid 1960s.  But it is music.  Music made by a five year old.

Having the music wasn't enough for our little creator, she wanted to make a video to accompany her composition.

So for your viewing and listening pleasure I proudly present my daughter's first publicly available art:

Easiest Spaghetti recipe EVER

This post was originally published on my Crud Dad blog on 2nd July 2016

Hello again!  In this blog post I wanted to share one of my favourite recipes with you, and it might just be one of the easiest spaghetti recipes you'll ever cooked.

Usually when I see a recipe claim to be fast and easy it's usually neither.  Several of my friends have commented that Jamie Oliver's 15 minute meals have the potential to take considerably longer than 15 minutes to prepare.  So I wanted to share an idea for a meal that really is simple and fast to throw together.  Sure it takes a while in the oven but the time needed to actually chuck the ingredients together is minimal.

You'll notice when you read the ingredients list that this spaghetti is not what you may have come to know as spaghetti.  This is a rough and ready rustic Neapolitan traditional spaghetti.  If you landed on this page hoping for a big rich tomato sauce then I recommend you try this Neapolitan variation anyway.  My whole family loves this recipe because it's big on flavour and has the added bonus of being nicely healthy.

As a caveat I need to let you know I didn't invent this recipe, I found it in one of my favourite recipe books, the fantastic 'From Seed to Plate' by Paolo Arrigo.

Easiest Spaghetti ingredients

You'll notice that all of these ingredients are a little vague.  I've cooked this meal countless times and have used different quantities each time, and the end result is always much the same.  My family is just me, my wife and the wee one so if your tribe is a little larger just bung in some more tomatoes and cook up some extra spaghetti / pasta.
  • A couple of handfuls of tomatoes
  • Some cloves of garlic
  • A generous splash of extra virgin olive oil
  • Dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper

Easiest Spaghetti method

  1. Switch on your oven and set it to 170oC / 340oF.
  2. Cut the tomatoes in half and lay them in a baking dish with the juicy bit pointing upwards
  3. Sprinkle the diced, grated (or whatever) garlic over the tomatoes
  4. Sprinkle your salt, pepper and oregano over the tomatoes
  5. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over the tomatoes
  6. Sling the lot in the oven and check on it every ten(ish) minutes.  When the tomatoes have gone mushy take the dish out of the oven.  Don't let 'em burn!  This can take up to about an hour depending on how brutal your oven is
  7. Boil your spaghetti or pasta in a saucepan like you always do
  8. When the spaghetti or pasta is cooked drain it, but make sure you leave just a tiny bit of water in the saucepan.  At a guess I'd say about a tablespoon worth
  9. Tip all the mushy roasted tomatoes into the spaghetti saucepan and mix it all together
  10. Slop it into pasta bowls (or plates, we're not fancy here)
  11. Eat!
If you want to make a tiny amount more effort then you can sprinkle some freshly grated parmesan before serving.  Ripped up leaves of fresh basil are also pretty swish.

So there you go, get cooking and let me know how you get on in the comments section.

If you fancy trying some of the other recipes in 'From Seed to Plate' click here:

Rustic Spaghetti - Tasty, cheap and fast!

Smash Cakes are great!

This post was originally posted to my Crud Dad blog on 15th June 2016

Now, you might be wondering what a Smash Cake is. And, to be honest, I'd never heard of them until a few years ago. Well before I had a child of my own, I was visiting a friend in the States near Boston, and I arrived the day after his first birthday party. Not my friend because that would just be weird - no, my friend's son.

And, he's showing me some of the pictures that he'd taken of the party. And, his son, who has got very blonde hair like I used to have a long time ago, was covered in some sort of red goo and bits of blue all over his shoulder and just -- I couldn't figure out what had gone on. I assumed that they had painting at the party and some kid had just got wickedly overenthusiastic and decided to paint the baby, because we've all seen pictures like that before.

But, the reason his son was decorated in such a way is that they had given him a Smash Cake. I don't know if it's a tradition in all of America, but certainly it appears to be quite a "thing" over there that, for a kid's first birthday part, you have the nice cake for all the guests of take pictures of and go, "Ooh, aah," and then you queue up at the end of the day hoping to get a piece of the cake. And then, quite separately, you have something called a Smash Cake, which is a cake with tons of colorful icing that's quite soft and the kid smashes it up. That's basically all there is to it.

So, I really liked the idea of that. So, many years later when my own daughter was born, for her first birthday we asked a friend called Graham to make her a Smash Cake. And, I gave him quite a clear directive. It needs to be a cake that a one-year-old can easily pull apart and rub in their hair and just destroy for our own amusement. Because it looks cute when kids smash up cakes, and it's funny, and you’ll have pictures the rest of his or her life that you can embarrass them with in front of future boyfriends and girlfriends.

A side note for punk fans: I do wonder if this is where The Damned got the idea for the cover of their first album, Damned Damned Damned, from. That's an aside.

So, we asked my friend Graham to make a Smash Cake, and he didn't quite get it. He made a beautiful cake. It was a work of art. It was lovely, and the icing and the decoration was just a thing of beauty.

One way he went wrong, though, was instead of using a very soft icing, he put -- I don't know what icing is called. You get hard icing or soft icing. Anyway, it was very hard icing. So, when we gave it to my daughter she just looked at it. She had no idea. Obviously she was well used to smooshing things up with her hands. But, the concept of, "Hey, this is that day where we give you a cake you smash up and rub in your face," didn't really mean much.

Nothing much happened for a while, until my wife took action and plunged her firsts into the cake and pulled it apart and gave my daughter a big lump of it. It didn't quite pan out the way I thought it was going to because my daughter, being given a big piece of cake covered in really thick icing, did what most kids would do and she ate it. After a little while, with a bit of encouragement, she did start smooshing it up and whatever. And, we got some pictures of her with, you know, giant pieces of cake. So, as far as we were concerned, it was mission accomplished.

My own daughter being unimpressed with the concept of smash cakes

So, a couple of weekends ago, my little sister, it was her son's first birthday. So I thought, "This isn't a tradition over here yet, but it was quite fun and it was quite cute… Well, I'll try and make this a family tradition for my own family." I decided that each time someone has a first birthday, I'll make them a Smash Cake.

Now, I am not really much of a baker. I can follow recipes and have something come out at the end of the process that's just about human consumable. But, the idea of actually making a cake isn't going to work. So, when my wife was going off to Sainsbury's, I asked her to just buy a cheap sponge. I figure, if Sainsbury's and Waitrose sell things like ‘essential’ trifles, then buying an essential victoria sponge should be quite reasonable.

Anyway, my wife came back, and she didn't quite like the idea of doing something cheap, even though no one is going to really eat the cake, or they're not meant to. And, she came back with a top of the range, little victoria sponge, but that's fine. We also got a big tub of vanilla soft icing. It wasn't quite like butter icing, but it was soft enough that you could squish it between your fingers.

And, the day before the party, myself and my daughter, who is now four and a half, had an enjoyable hour of covering this cake in far too much icing and using little tubes of colored icing to make it all look -- well, it looked awful, really. And, we got a big bag of Maltesers and put them on the cake - some of them. We ate most of them. We got a big bag of marshmallows, and my daughter pushed the marshmallows into the soft icing. The ratio was about one marshmallow on the cake for about five into a gob - but that's all right.

The 'beautiful' smash cake we made for my nephew

And, the big day came. We took the cake to my nephew’s party, which was in a village hall, and my sister was well onboard with the Smash Cake concept. When the time came, she put her son, my nephew, on the floor on a waterproof blanket, and placed the cake in front of him. And, that's when we realized this whole ‘not smashing cakes up’ isn't necessarily a child not wanting to get dirty.

It appears that most members of my family don't like getting their hands dirty. I mean I don't. If I eat olives, I'd rather use a little stick. I hate eating meat off the bone. Anything that involves getting my hands dirty, blah, even though I've had to come to terms with that, you know, from being a parent. And, if you're not used to seeing that kind of carnage on the table, and if allow that kind of carnage to put you off your own food, then you're going to starve. You're never going to eat.

So anyway, the boy, he did not want to put his hands in the cake. He didn't want to smash it up at all. Even when my brother-in-law took his hands and drove them into the cake, the poor lad looked really shocked and everybody laughed because when the child goes [gasp] then everyone laughs.

It turns out my nephew doesn't like being laughed at. So, instead of pictures of him covered in cake, we have pictures of a screaming child. But still, there's a story behind it. What actually happened after the screaming was that several older boys and girls got interested in what was going on.

They asked me about the smash cake, so I asked my daughter to show them how treat the smash cake properly, and she went at it like a ferocious animal. She did smash it up. She didn't rub it in her hair, fortunately, or in my nephew's hair. But, she did start eating it. And, as soon as that happened, children descended on this pulverized cake like a pack of wild dogs.

So, I don't think other parents were massively impressed by the fact that me (well. my daughter really) was encouraging their children to eat--what looked like trampled on vomit--off the floor. But, all in all, I think the Smash Cake thing is quite fun. So, what lessons can I give you from my Smash Cake experience?

Don't use armor plated icing.
Probably don't expect your kid to actually do anything with it.

This might be one of those things that's more for the adults than for the children. But, all in all, it's fun. So, I just thought I'd share with you the marvel of Smash Cakes. If you Google ‘smash cakes’ I'm sure you'll find tons of fun stories.

But, I quite like things like this. I like new ideas for parenting. The web, and other parents with older children are helping broaden the whole parenting experience. So, there you go. I like Smash Cakes. Yay! Smart.

Say something in the comments box, please. Share this. Smash Cakes are good!

My name is Andrew and this is my Dad blog

This post was originally posted on my Crud Dad blog on 28th May 2016

I’ve kept blogs about various things over the years. Yesterday I was speaking to a friend and they asked why I haven’t got a Dad blog, I thought, you know what? I don’t know.

I started a blog a while ago (when I found out I was going to become a Dad) that charted the pregnancy ‘phase’. After my girl was born I think I just became too consumed with actually doing parenting stuff, rather than actually thinking about it in a kind of naval contemplating type way.

I thought about how to present myself in the smartest way (for the above video) but if this blog is going to be realistic then what you see is what you get. I’ve got the tail end of a cold and I am just back from a slightly stressful nursery rhyme. The cold is not that bad actually. We have done okay this year it’s now May, and this is only about our 149th cold so far this year. So this year we are doing quite well. This feels like a rest point before the girl starts school and we start getting more colds.

This blog won’t contain much in the way of advice because I don’t really know what I am doing. This blog is not going to contain lots of fancy product reviews (probably), because I don’t get sent stuff to review.

I do write other blogs, but mostly about technical things, or skateboarding, or photography and many other things. I also write blogs for clients. So for this blog I want to do things a little differently. I am going to try and make it a video blog, and then to transcribe each post. This means that the writing style will be totally different to anything else I create. Which I find an interesting prospect.

So, welcome aboard. Hopefully the next few months, years or however long this blog lasts (before I get distracted by something else) will be entertaining. If it’s not then the internet is pretty big, so I am sure you will find something to tickle your eyeballs shortly after pressing the stop button on this.

If you are still with me by this point, thanks, a lot I really appreciate it.

Oh, one more thing, my name is Andrew Culture, this isn’t actually my real name it’s just a name I have been known by for a long time. The name comes from playing in bands and it just kind of stuck. I think most of my clients know me as Andrew Culture, but my actual name is not Andrew Culture. Okay? Cool? Ready? Here we go.

Friday, January 05, 2018

The Failure Men live at The Smokehouse in Ipswich

It has been a while since I've posted about one of my musical projects, mostly because I post about them in plenty of other places.  But I'm particularly proud of this video I made of my band The Failure Men.  It was shot in one of our local venues, The Smokehouse, here in Ipswich.  I played several small, cheap cameras around the stage and a glorified Dictaphone at the back of the venue.  Considering how low-tech the setup was I'm really pleased with the results!

Find out more about The Failure Men at https://thefailuremen.bandcamp.com/ 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Persistent scam call from the World Wide Server support team

I get a lot of scam support phone calls, I usually just hang up and block the number using my call blocker.  But sometimes the call is so audacious that I record the call and bung the video up on YouTube.  This caller claimed to be calling me from the 'world wide server' with crucial information about what is wrong with my computer.  This was too good to be true, so I fired up my camera.

I'm never mean to scam callers.  There's a chance they might not even know what they're doing is a crime.  I'm being charitable here, but I've read articles claiming that the lower level callers like this are just one of hundreds of people working in a high pressure call centre environment.  I see no reason to swear at scam callers, but that's not to say they don't often swear at me.

In the scam call from the World Wide Server support team I played along for a bit.  But when the scam caller wanted me to load an executable file on my computer I decided not to risk it.  From this point I stopped playing dumb and started letting the caller know that I did not wish to proceed.  I even listed the technical reasons why his call couldn't possibly be genuine.   This is when it got weird.

When I start spouting technical details regarding using a VPN for security, or running a NetStat command to record the IPs of scammers who attempt access to my network, that's usually when scam callers hang up.  This caller wasn't put off by little things like that.  In fact he wasn't put off by me asking him outright if he was a scammer and had employers for whom he was breaking the law.

In the end I offered to put the phone in front of my radio so he could listen to some music.  My logic being that he could pretend to still be speaking to me, but could listen to some music and have a break for a few moments.  He still persisted.  This was one determined caller!

Watch the video and you'll hear how badly the caller was trying to fill the holes I was picking in his shaky scammers' argument.

Scam support calls - remember this

  • Nobody will ever call you offering you free support for a problem you have not reported
  • NEVER allow anyone access to your computer, no matter where they say they are calling from
  • Don't be freaked out that they appear to have some of your personal details, they would need nothing more than a telephone directory to find this information