A bad season for squash

Mini squash

My squash plants have not been very fruitful this year.  I was waiting to see if any of the few fruit on the plants would reach maturity, but the weather has been so bad the last couple of weeks that I’ve had to bring some of the squashes in for fear of damage.  There is now only one plant left outside, which has a tiny butternut squash on it.  I am not hopeful.

In case you’re wondering, whilst the type of squash in the above photo is naturally fairly small, it’s meant to be bigger than my hand!

I ate this squash and another in a soup, and it was delicious.  Squashes make excellent soup.  Just add some chicken stock, a carrot and a tiny bit of chilli.  Yum yum yum!

This weekend, the winter garlic went in to the ground, but otherwise the garden is retiring for winter now.  The only crop that’s not been harvested yet is the leeks.  They are ready to harvest; I just haven’t got round to it.  Also, I only really grow them because they grow well in our climate.  I don’t like leek that much, and most of these leeks will end up in soup.

I hope next year is a better growing year.

Christmas gifts with a difference

I don’t usually do a blog post recommending Christmas gifts, as I am definitely not qualified to advise people on what is cool or *it* each season.  However, I am qualified to talk to people about charitable donations, and gift giving at Christmas.

Charitable donations as a form of gift giving can be quite awkward, especially if the recipients don’t share your enthusiasm for supporting charities.  I know this firsthand, as amongst the people I buy for I am the only one who enthusiastically supports charities regularly (and I work for one).  This is ok.  If you are in the same situation as me, you are not here to force your ideals on to other individuals (even if they are family!).  I very strongly believe that charity should be altruistic, and so people should not be donating in order to stop your nagging.

The most obvious way to give a charitable gift at Christmas is to buy charity merchandise, which I shall not discuss.  However, if you want to do this I especially love the RSPB and WWF shops (both are particularly good for children as they do educational soft toys and other appropriate gifts).  You can also buy membership to a charity, and many charities offer membership if you would like to consider this as a gift.  Depending on the charity, membership can include free access to sites, a magazine and discounts with partner organisations.  Don’t forget that many zoos and museums are charities, and so membership to them can include free access to exhibitions.

The purpose of this post is to talk about actual donations you can make on behalf of another individual.  If you don’t know what to buy someone, or you’re struggling to reconcile Christmas and our consumer culture, giving the gift of a donation is an easy way to solve this problem.  The Good Gifts Catalogue translates your donations into a specific project, so that you can donate on behalf of an individual and choose a project that matches their interests.  I’ve chosen my eight favourite projects below to get you started.

Exam fees for a student in Africa – £18

In order to get a certificate when you leave school in many African countries, you have to pay to sit a final exam.  Many students cannot afford this cost, but without their certificate they will find it hard to prove they have received an education and so get a job.  This donation pays for one student’s exam.  If your budget is a little bigger, you can pay for a year’s schooling instead (£26).

Music sessions for children in hospital – £8

It makes me sad to think that there are children all around the world that are stuck in hospitals, especially at Christmas, and so I am glad that projects like this exist.  This donation helps sponsor music sessions for children in hospital.  Hopefully it cheers them up and helps pass the time.

Two pairs of shoes – £15

Most of us nowadays are aware of the importance of shoes in preventing infection by parasites, but many children and adults still do not have access to suitable footwear.  This donation pays for two pairs of shoes.  Alternatively, you could by your recipient a pair of shoes from TOMS shoes, who donate a pair of shoes to charity for every pair they sell.

Donkey-drawn library – £45

This is a great donation for book lovers!  This donation purchases new books for a mobile library pulled by a donkey that travels around a war-torn region of Africa (Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda).  People living in current and recent war zones do not have easy access to books, and these donkey-powered libraries provide fiction, nonfiction and reference books to affected areas.

Get rid of guns – £25

This is an odd donation, and it won’t be appropriate for everyone.  The donation pays for the disposal of weapons in a recent war zone, which is an essential task if weapons are to be prevented from ending up with the baddies.  You can also sponsor the clearing of 10m of mines (£17), 30m of mines (£50) 100m of mines (£150), bombs (£85) or you can sponsor an exploder unit that does the whole lot (£650!).

Feed an abandoned cat or dog – £8

This donation pays for a month’s worth of food for an abandoned cat or dog, which is a bargain.  It’s an ideal donation for animal lovers, and a good stocking filler.

The gift of sight – £30

There are many things that we take for granted in life, and one of these things is our sight.  Most of us will never know blindness, and if we ever have trouble with our eyes we just pop along to our optician and they sort it out for us.  Poorer countries do not usually have this service, and so diseases that are easy to treat are left and an individual can be blind purely because of the geography of their birth.  This donation pays for one operation to repair vision.

Prize bull semen – £10

I am including this on my list because I would love to see someone’s face if they received this as a gift!  In all serious-ness, this donation pays for an African farmer to receive bull semen from a prize bull, so that his calves can grow up big and strong.

There are many more gifts available through the Good Gifts Catalogue and I recommend having a browse.  They are part of the Charity Advisory Trust in the UK, and they check all the projects they support, and so you can rest assured that your money will be well-used.

I hope this post helps you find some alternative gifts this Christmas!

(I wasn’t asked or paid to write this post.)

A question about photographs

Hello, lovely readers.  I have a question for you today.  It is a random one, but stick with me please as it’s been niggling away at me for a few months now.

When you read blogging articles, and articles about Instagram (a platform I don’t use), a lot of the advice about photographs is to develop a style.  The idea is that if you always use the same filter and crop the same way, people will know immediately that it is you, without having to see your logo or avatar.

I understand the importance of this advice if you’re running a commercial blog or website, and I suppose the advice makes sense if you’re using Instagram for developing your photography or something similar, but I do not like the advice for personal blogs like mine, which are a just a mishmash of everyday things.  Having said that, I do see lots of blogs that are similar to mine in topics where the authors do have a photography style, and I usually know immediately whose blog I’m on by the photos.

A final point is that I like playing with filters and editing photos for random effects, and so having a full editing package that does that and then only using a couple of filters for all photos seems a bit pointless.

So, my question is: do you agree that all bloggers should develop a photography style (if they use photos), or do you think this advice only applies to professional bloggers?  Do you look at my photos and go “She’s used *another* new filter. SIGH.”, or do you not care if my photos are all edited differently?  [I do try to keep the style the same within a post, but it varies from post to post!]  Have you even noticed that my photos are not edited with the same filters each time?

My experiences with FutureLearn

Today I want to talk to you about FutureLearn.  I’m a big believer in continuing education once school is over.  There is so much to learn, and there is definitely something out there that will pique your interests.  Just because you hated school doesn’t mean you should abandon all learning.

I did my MSc part-time whilst working, so I have a lot of experience in organising learning at home on my own schedule.  However, it’s not that difficult to find a couple of hours every week to watch stuff on your computer.  You probably already do that anyway!

FutureLearn is a UK-based collaboration with universities all over the world to provide free online courses on a number of topics.  You create a free online account, and then you can sign up to courses.  You don’t have to be a UK resident to sign up.  The courses all have start dates, but once they have gone live you can complete then whenever you like.  However, it’s more fun to do it at the same time as everyone else, as you can comment and chat to other students.

So far, I have completed two courses and have three started.  The first two I did were both related to my career (ecology and environmental science).  One of the great things about FutureLearn is that for a small fee you can get a Certificate of Participation if you complete the course, so you can use courses to back up your formal education and CV.  I did a course on nature and planning run by the University of Leeds (When Worlds Collide), and then a course on global food security run by Lancaster University (a really good course, and I learnt so much!).

Right now, I’m doing three courses that are unrelated to my job, but that I thought would be fun.  In chronological order, these are Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier (run by Newcastle University), Introduction to Journalism (Strathclyde University) and Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds (University of Southampton).  All three of these courses are still open, so you can sign up if you would like to.  The Hadrian’s Wall course is fascinating for anyone with a passing interest in the Romans (or Game of Thrones, I guess!).

There are loads of new courses coming up in the next few months, and I really recommend having a browse.  I’ve signed up for a course starting next February about all the moons in the solar system!

The courses vary in length from a couple of weeks to eight weeks, and usually include an estimate on the introduction page of how much time you’ll need each week to complete the steps.

I think FutureLearn is a great platform, and I’ve already got a few friends signed up (and my Mum, who has done courses on finances and the science of obesity!).  Go check it out, and see what you fancy!

5 tasks for the end of summer

This post was first published on 27th October 2012.

I’m afraid this is a northern-hemisphere-themed post, as we’re heading into winter. The nights are drawing in, and I’m having to put the light on when I shower in the morning now! A sure sign that winter is on its way! Here are five tasks that you ought to complete before winter settles in properly.

  1. Get your boiler serviced. 

    Boring, but necessary! You don’t want to wake up on Christmas Eve with a freezing house and no hot water. Trust me, my Dad was a boiler engineer and every hols he’d get a call out from some poor soul with no heating. If a new part is needed, you could be without heating for a few days. Don’t take the risk!

  2. Insulate outdoor taps and put a tennis ball in your water butt.

    You don’t want to have to repair damaged water works in the spring. I use bubble wrap to insulate the outdoor tap. I wrap it securely around the tap with tape, and then turn the tap pipe off until spring (this ensures there’s no water sitting in the pipe). The tennis ball in your water butt will stop the water from freezing. As I’m sure you know, water expands as it freezes and this can damage your butt it if it happens.

  3. Check boots and coats.

    If you live in the UK you’re probably already wearing your coat and winter boots so you may be able to skip this step! If you’re lucky enough to have had mild weather so far, you may need to check that your coat is clean and your boots are clean, spider-free (!) and ready for traipsing through snow.

  4. Winter proof your car.

    Make sure you have a rope, de-icer and a blanket in your car, ready for any ice/snow incidents. We also keep spare fleece jackets in the car. Always useful to have! If you live in a particularly snowy area, or drive a lot, you may want to consider snow tyres. They’re not compulsory in the UK, but they can increase your grip on slippery roads.

  5. Buy lip balm, tissues, Lemsip and a good cream.

    Do you really want to wait until you’re ill to buy these things? Be prepared! Now is also a good time to check your first aid kit or medical cabinet. Check that everything’s in date, and replace anything that needs replacing. There are often winter promotions on medicines and first aid items, so this shouldn’t cost too much.

As a bonus task, now is also a good time to clean and oil your garden tools. You probably won’t do much work until spring now, and cleaning your tools will help them to last longer.

So, that’s your weekend to-do list!

Lego Moleskine week 39 & 40

Lego Moleskine week 39

Week 39

I need to stop ordering non-Christmas related things online.  Other things I learnt in this week: John Carter is a brilliant film, and everyone who criticised it when it came out is wrong!  Pompeii, however, was a bit crap.  Silver Lining Playbook was good, but mostly I just found it interesting because I’m a crazy person too! (But not that crazy!)

Lego Moleskine week 40

Week 40

I’m going to do a blog post about FutureLearn so I’ll talk about that later.  I also watched pretty much all of The Big C during this week.  I thought it was really good.  It’s hard to talk about cancer, but I think this show worked well at making it more normal to talk about.

A new charity knitting project

I started a new scarf for charity at the weekend.  I don’t imagine that it will take long to complete, although you all know I’m terrible at abandoning projects for months on end!

Yellow glitter scarf

You can’t really tell from the photo, but the yarn is the Sirdar Ella yarn, which I love.  Pretty much my entire stash is made up of this range at the moment, which is great since I love them all.  It’s a beautiful soft yarn with glitter strands through it.

I’ve also started a new larger version of the knitted top that I recently finished.  This time it’s in grey (still Sirdar Ella yarn, so still glittery) and possibly a few green lines.  I will show you that soon.  And finally, I’m still doing the mustard yellow version of the same top, which may also be too small when finished (I don’t know for sure as it’s a heavier weight yarn and so will naturally be a bit bigger).

My Personal Planner

Hi all.  This isn’t a sponsored post, but I want to show you all my new personal planner!  (I’m saying this at the top because I’m going to gush lots, so I want you to know I paid full price!)

Personal Planner 1

I basically bought this planner on a whim.  I was browsing the internet late one night when I should have been asleep, and I decided I wanted a new planner.  Personal Planner lets you choose the features of your planner so that you can personalise it to your own needs.  I think the idea is brilliant!

Firstly, you get to choose the design of the front cover.  You can upload your own design, or choose from one of the stock designs that Personal Planner have available.  They have various designs, included a range made for them by a designer.  This year the theme is the Arctic circle, and I used one of the designs from that series (a polar bear, if you haven’t guessed!).  (Whilst writing this post I have seen the new 2015 designs, and now I really want a flamingo one… or a giraffe!)

You also get to choose the size of the planner.  I’ve chosen an A5 planner, but there are a number of different sizes available, both smaller and larger.

Personal Planner 2

Inside, you get to choose from a number of different diary formats.  I like a week-to-view page set-up, as you probably know by now.  There were a couple of different styles available but in the end I chose this one as I liked the day space.

You can choose the colour of the banners along the top of the pages. I’ve gone with a red sunset banner.  You also get to choose the three boxes along the bottom of the page.  I chose two to-do list boxes and a grid box, all for making notes.  Finally, you also get to choose the format of the day boxes themselves, so I’ve gone with alternating grey and white lines, but you can also have grid and plain, etc.

The planner runs for 12 months, and you can choose when it starts.  I started mine on the 1st of October, but obviously you could order yours for 2015 if you wanted!

Personal Planner 3

The important bit of the planner is the quality of the paper and how it handles fountain pens.  Well, it excels at this!  The paper stock is thick and lovely to write on, and because of its thickness there is no bleeding or show-through with fountain pens.  In the example above, I’ve used my Lamy 1.1 nib, and you can see on the right hand side there is nothing visible at all.  The ink itself doesn’t feather on the paper either.  This is a planner that loves fountain pens!

There are a few other features you can customise, including the elastic, bookmark, features you include in each day space (work hours, weather, etc.) and back pages.  You can also import dates from your Google Calendar or whatever.

All in all, I think this is a great planner.  I’m using it mostly to track to-do lists and tasks, and I’ve designed it well for that purpose.  The planner isn’t cheap (I paid around £20), but if you’re serious about planners it’s definitely worth the money.  If you have a super-hectic life it will probably make your life a lot easier!  You can order your planner at personal-planner.co.uk, and it takes a couple of weeks for it to ship.  Sadly, it won’t do your to-do lists for you, but it’s certainly a help!