20 week scan

A 20 week ultrasound image of our baby

Last week, Christine had her 20 week ultrasound scan. Our baby is developing normally, it would seem – everything seems present and correct, and he or she is growing at the correct rate. And the image is much more clear than it was at the first scan at approximately 11 weeks.

We did found out the gender of the baby and have told some people (mainly family), but we’re not making it widely known. This is mainly because the sonographer wasn’t very confident about whether the baby is a boy or a girl, but also because we don’t want to end up with lots of pink or blue clothes in case we have another child later on.

Christine is still due to give birth in early January.


A photo of part of my driving test report, showing just two minor errors

I passed my driving test today, with just two minor faults (you’re allowed up to 15). As you can probably imagine, I’m delighted, and also very relieved.

Technically this was my third attempt at the test, but it’s been almost 8 years since my last attempt and so I’ve had a fresh set of lessons since. My lessons have been approximately weekly since July last year so it’s taken just over 12 months, although that includes a month-long break in March when I was in the Middle East. I passed my theory test in April.

Now I just need to wait for my full license to arrive, which will take two-to-three weeks, and then I can go and buy a car. Having a car will definitely make things easier, especially with a newborn baby come January.

2015 is certainly turning out to be a big year for me.

A photo of me posing with my Practical Driving Test Pass Certificate


An ultrasound scan of our baby, taken at around 11 weeks of gestation

I’m proud to announce that Christine and I are expecting a baby. She’s around 14 weeks pregnant, and it’s due in January. We’re both delighted.

Secret Starbucks Sizes


Many frequent Starbucks visitors know that its coffee comes in three sizes:

  • ‘Tall’, which is the small size, at around 350 millilitres (12 US fluid ounces), or about the size of a standard drinks can.
  • ‘Grande’, which is the medium size at 470 ml (16 US fl oz) and a bit less than an average drinks bottle.
  • ‘Venti’, which is their largest size at 590 ml or 20 US fl oz. ‘Venti’ means 20 in Italian, hence the name.

Quite why they can’t use ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ is beyond me, but never mind.

But actually, there are seven sizes in total. They’re not widely advertised, but here they are:


If you look more closely at the menu the next time you’re in Starbucks, you’ll see there’s a kid’s hot chocolate on there, which comes in a ‘Short’ serving size – smaller than ‘Tall’. However, your Starbucks barista may be able to make you any hot drink in the ‘Short’ size, which will cost a bit less than ‘Tall’. I don’t think cold drinks like Frappuccinnos are available in the ‘Short’ size in the UK, but you can ask. ‘Short’ is 240 millilitres (8 US fl oz) and should be available in most outlets.


This one is US-only, and is a limited-time offer for this summer. It’s only for Frappuccinos, and is 10 US fl oz  (300 ml) – halfway between short and tall.


Demi is the smallest size of them all, at just 89 millilitres (3 US fl oz). It’s basically a single espresso shot, and should be available in most Starbucks outlets.


Finally, if you want a drink that’s larger than ‘Venti’, then try asking for a ‘Trenta’ size. It was announced four years ago in the US, but was primarily for the Refresha range of light cold drinks. However, theoretically, it may be possible to have any other cold drink in this size. At over 900 millilitres (31 US fluid ounces), this is a big drink – almost three times the size of a ‘Tall’ drink. As far as I am aware it was only ever available in certain outlets in the US, and as the Refresha range has seemingly been phased out, it’s probably no longer an option. ‘Trenta’ means 30 in Italian.

Starbucks ‘secret menu’

If you want to know more about ‘off the menu’ drinks that may or may not be available at your local Starbucks, Starbucks Secret Menu and Hack the Menu were two web sites that I found during my searches. Not all of the items on these sites are official, but if you’re in a Starbucks outlet and it’s not busy, you can probably ask the barista to vary the drink based on the recipes listed. You can also sometimes get seasonal drinks like the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte out of season if the outlet has stock left over, and sometimes new drinks are available to Starbucks Rewards customers before they appear on the menu.

I go to Starbucks quite a lot nowadays, as I pass one of their outlets on the way to work. So much so that I’m a gold member of Starbucks Rewards. Considering that, four years ago, I didn’t drink coffee at all, it’s quite a turnaround.

May 25th


One thing Wikipedia is good for is finding out what happens on a particular day in history. For example, on May 25th:

It’s also International Missing Children’s Day, Africa Day, Geek Pride Day, National Tap Dance Day and Towel Day.

And famous birthdays include Jonny Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Demetri Martin, Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, Mike Myers, Anthea Turner, Julian Clary, Paul Weller, Alastair Campbell, Eve Ensler, Catherine G. Wolf and Ian McKellen.

Plus, a not-so-famous birthday: mine.

Theoretically passed

Two of the big things we’re aiming to do in 2015 are learn to drive, and buy a house. We’re making progress on both: we’ve had an offer accepted on a house (although we’re probably still a good 6 weeks away from getting the keys), and last week I passed my theory test.

I’ve passed the test before, but that was way back in October 2006, when I last had driving lessons. Because I didn’t then pass my practical test, my theory test certificate expired in 2008, meaning I had to take it again.

The test has changed a little bit since last time. Firstly, there are more questions – 50, instead of 35 – and a higher pass mark; you now need to get 43 questions right instead of 30. 5 of these questions form a case study, which was also new compared to last time.

The second part of the test is hazard perception, where you watch several videos and have to identify the hazards that take place. This is to make sure that you’re aware, and would have time to react appropriately in a real situation. This was new when I took it last time – back then, a series of actual video footage was used. Nowadays the videos are mocked up using reasonably realistic CGI – right down to the idiot BMW driver who pulls out in front of you.

I actually didn’t expect to pass. Even though I’d passed it before, in the week running up to it, I heard of two people who had failed it, so I assumed I would too. As it happened, I got 47 questions right out of 50, and scored 58 out of 75 for the hazard perception. To practice and revise, I used the Theory & HPT app from SmartDriving, which was recommended to me by my instructor. It’s up-to-date and comprehensive with hundreds of practice questions, and available on iOS (iPhone and iPad), and on Android. There are many other apps out there that I haven’t tried, but this one seemed to work for me.

Now I just need to pass my practical test. This week’s driving lessons suggested that I’m most of the way there but there are a number of areas that I still need to improve. Hopefully I’ll be able to take the test in the summer, by which time I’ll have had lessons most weeks for around a year.

Thought Bubble Comic Con, Leeds

Photo of Neil and Christine pondering a trip to Thought Bubble, annotated in the comic book style

Yesterday Christine and I went to our first every comic convention, as part of this year’s Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds. It’s been running since 2007, and I’ve been aware of it since 2012 but this was the first time we’d been.

Running over two days, the comic con concludes the week-long Thought Bubble Festival which takes place across Leeds and celebrates comic art. It’s based at the Royal Armouries Museum, taking over the Royal Armouries Hall (recently renamed from the ‘Saville Hall’), the New Dock Hall, and a large marquee in the square outside, plus some small rooms for talks. There were hundreds of mainly independent comic book sellers, artists and all sorts across the three main venues.

Me and Christine, dressed in Steampunk outfits

One-day passes were £15, or two-day passes for both days – for die-hard comic fans who want to attend as many talks and panels as possible – were £24, and in both cases there was a £4 discount for cosplayers. So Christine and I dusted off our various steampunk paraphernalia and dressed up for the occasion. In doing so we spent more than the £8 that we saved on the entry price but we had a significant number of positive comments about our outfits – especially the octopus fascinator that Christine bought at a previous Leeds Steampunk Market. I’d say around 10-20% of attendees were in cosplay, some more elaborate than others. Kids under 12 had free entry so there were plenty of children around, many also dressed up. We saw a small Tardis, and a young, grumpy Hulk in a pushchair amongst others.

We followed the web site’s advice and made sure that we took out plenty of cash before we got there. The bigger stalls take cards but many of the exhibitors are regular people like you and me who just do this on the side, and the one cash machine nearby usually runs out of money on Saturday morning, apparently. And we spent most of the cash that we took.

Comic books bought at Thought Bubble

Here’s the point where I’ll admit to not being an avid reader of comic books, but you don’t necessarily have to enjoy reading comics to have a good time at Thought Bubble. It did mean that we knew very few of the exhibitors – Moo and Keo being one of the only major exceptions, along with Dr Geof whose Tea Museum has recently returned from an exhibition at the Cutty Sark in London. However we did come across the official Professor Elemental comics, about the steampunk-themed ‘chap hop’ rhymer, and James Chapman whose Soundimals comics I’ve come across on Tumblr and Facebook. We bought their books, the latter signed, with a sloth illustration.

Speaking of sloths, we also had a couple of commissions, or pieces of art drawn for us. The first was by Sajan Rai, who offered to draw you as a sloth – Christine volunteered, hence the octopus. And Lucy Bellwood drew us the beautiful red panda, which we’re planning to get framed.

Commissioned pieces - red panda and sloth

Leeds’ major comic book stores – Forbidden Planet, Travelling Man and OK Comics – were also there and we picked up The Oatmeal‘s book 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (sponsored link).

Part of the fun of Thought Bubble, for us, was simply people-watching. Obviously some of the cosplay outfits were amazing, although regrettably I only took one or two photos. But it was also fun looking at the bemused expressions of those who were on their way to the Royal Armouries Museum and weren’t aware that Thought Bubble was taking place – and were thoroughly confused by all the people dressed up. In Pizza Express, at lunch, we were one of two steampunk groups, with a girl on another table wearing a painted morphsuit showing all of the muscle groups in the style of a flayed corpse.

It was really good fun, and I can’t believe we’d never been before. We’ll be there next year.

Back in the driving seat…

A photo of a Rolls Royce outside a hotel in the Lake District

Yesterday was my first driving lesson since 2007. It went quite well, on the whole.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for many years will remember that I had lessons in 2006 and 2007, and took my practical test twice (and failed) in 2007. Afterwards, I ran out of time and money, and ever since I have been fortunate enough to be in situations where having a car hasn’t been so important. But we’re looking to buy a house soon, and being able to buy one that isn’t necessarily close to a railway station would be nice. Plus, as and when we start a family, having a car will be a big help.

We’re both learning at the same time, with the same instructor, but with lessons on different days. There’s no race to see who passes first but we can’t really go forward with a house purchase until at least one of us is driving.

Despite it having been almost seven years since I last got behind the wheel of a car, it was surprising how much I remembered – even if it took a little while to get used to it again. What took weeks of practice all those years ago took less than an hour to pick up again. That’s not to say that I can get ready to book my practical test any time soon, as I definitely will need more practice in the meantime. In particular, I got a bit flummoxed when trying to pass some cars parked on the left, with an oncoming bus and then being required to turn right.

I will need to take my theory test again as the test I took in 2006 was only valid for two years. I’ll need to get around to booking that soon. It’s changed a bit since I did it, with the pass mark now 45 out of 50 rather than 30 out of 35 (I got 33 last time).

My next lesson is next weekend, where I’ll be tackling some roundabouts.

Flying without checked-in luggage

Flight home

When we went to Dublin, Christine and I flew with Ryanair, the airline everybody loves to hate. This is mainly because Ryanair has unbundled just about anything that can be considered optional from its fares. Which means that the basic fare is cheap, but you may end up having to pay more for things that other airlines include. For example, the ability to check in luggage to be carried in the plane’s cargo hold.

Ryanair’s carry-on baggage allowance isn’t as bad as it once was, thankfully. For each passenger, two bags – a large one and a small one – are permitted, with the largest bag limited to 10 kilograms. That’s enough for a rucksack and a camera bag, for example. If you want to check in a bag, then there’s a £20 charge per person per flight for up to 15 kilograms, so that would be £40 if we wanted to take a larger case to Dublin and back. We decided, therefore, not to check in a bag.

We found that there are several advantages and disadvantages to not checking in luggage, some of which are listed below.

It may be cheaper

I’m sure Ryanair isn’t the only airline that offers cheaper fares for those that don’t need to check in their luggage. It saves the airlines quite a bit of time and money, so whilst it’s nice to find it included in your fare, you may find that if you can cope without it, savings can be made.

You may not need to check-in in person

Most airlines allow you to check-in online, and some, like Ryanair, pretty much mandate this. Not printing your own boarding passes on such airlines can cost quite a bit of money. Consequently, the ‘check-in’ desks for low-cost airlines essentially just become ‘baggage drop’ desks, where you can check-in your luggage to go into the hold. If you’ve no luggage to check-in, then you can just head straight for the security screening area. Unless you need a visa to travel and are required to have this checked by someone from the airline, in which case you will need to go to the check-in desk first.

You can’t carry liquids in containers larger than 100ml

Liquids in carry-on bags must be in containers of 100 millilitres or less, including any shampoo for example. So for our Dublin trip we bought travel size bottles of shampoo, deodorant and the like. These cost more per millilitre than regular-sized bottles so it’s another expense to consider. Alternatively, you could buy such things after passing through security (even a small airport like Leeds-Bradford had a Superdrug airside), or once you’ve arrived at your destination. And most hotels offer complementary shampoo and soap.

There’s no need to wait for baggage reclaim

If you carry your bags with you, then once you’re off the plane you already have all of your luggage. So there’s no need to wait at baggage reclaim – you can head straight out of the airport and onwards to your destination. Considering it can take some time for your luggage to make it off the aircraft and onto the carousels, especially at larger airports, this may save you quite a bit of time.

That being said, on the return flight from Dublin to Leeds-Bradford, practically no-one had checked in any luggage. Ours was the only flight landing at that time, so reclaim was a relatively quick and easy process for those that had checked in bags. I guess it’s a sign that Ryanair’s policy is working.

No risk of your luggage getting lost

You know where your bags are at all times. After all, you’re the one who brought them on the plane, put them in the lockers, retrieved them again and took them off the plane. So they can’t be left behind, put on the wrong plane, or picked off the carousel accidentally by somebody else. Plus, any fragile items are less likely to get broken if you’re careful with your bags, since you’re not at the mercy of the baggage handlers.

You may be limited to what you can take

Whilst we managed to fit in everything that we needed for our four night stay into two rucksacks and two shoulder bags, with room to spare, we may not have been able to manage this for longer trips. Indeed, we were somewhat conservative in what we took – I only had one pair of shoes, which I wore, and had a coat and jumper wrapped around my waist. We also had the benefit of travelling in summer – had we gone in January, for example, or to a cold country, we’d have needed more warm clothes which would have taken up more space.

You may need an iron

If you’re bringing smart clothes then you may have to crumple them up in your bags to make them fit. So it may be worth checking that your accommodation at your destination offers access to an iron or trouser press. Or, if you have space, take a travel iron, but make sure it’s drained of water and doesn’t push you over any weight allowances.

Buy yourself a luggage scale

We bought a luggage scale for less than £2, from which we could weigh our bags to ensure they were under the 10 kilogram limit. The scale itself was quite small and light, so we could also take it with us to make sure that our luggage was compliant on the way back as well. As it happens, at no point were we asked to weigh our bags but it was best to be on the safe side in case it happened.

You can buy these scales for £2.10 at Amazon (sponsored link), with more accurate digital ones in the £5-£10 range.

You may need to buy new bags or cases

Christine’s handbag was too large to be her ‘small bag’ under Ryanair’s rules, so she used this as an excuse to buy a new, smaller handbag. Thankfully, not an expensive one, so it was still cheaper than it would have been to check in her larger bag. Similarly if you only have small bags, you may need to buy a slightly larger one. Ryanair has a range of bags it recommends, that fit within its dimensions, but at quite a high price.

I wasn’t able to use my normal rucksack, which is designed to be comfortable when hiking. It fit the dimensions, but is curved to keep my back cool, at the expense of internal space. Instead, I used a less ergonomic bag which had a larger capacity, but at least it was one that I already owned. If you don’t own a suitable bag, then you need to consider the cost of buying one versus checking in a bag that you already have.

If you want to take this to an extreme, buy a wearable luggage jacket that lets you keep many items on your person, to maximise the space in your luggage. The cheapest ones are about £30 and have plenty of pockets.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this amusing video by the cabaret act Fascinating Aida, about cheap flights and the added extras.

Shiny new iPad

iPad Mini with Retina Display

As I mentioned on Sunday, my birthday present from my parents was a shiny new iPad Mini with Retina Display. We bought it from the Apple Store in Trinity Leeds, since we were going to Leeds for a birthday meal anyway.

This is to replace my old iPad, a first generation model. Although I’ve only had it for a year, it’s now over three years old and no longer supported by Apple. It won’t even run iOS 6, never mind iOS 7. Many apps either won’t install at all, or can only run as an older version. Plus, it’s rather slow and some apps, including Apple’s own like Safari, crash a lot. Whilst the larger screen means it’s better to use than my iPhone for some things, for others it was slow and frustrating – I’d avoid browsing sites like Buzzfeed or Lifehacker because of the risk of crashing it.

Choosing an iPad

I’d narrowed the choice down to the iPad Air or the iPad Mini with Retina Display. I ruled out the older models – the iPad with Retina Display and the iPad Mini (without Retina Display) – because they came with older processors which are much more likely to be deprecated by Apple within a few years. I didn’t want to be in the same situation again with my iPad in a couple of years’ time.

The two models are basically identical inside – same processor, battery life and features. The only difference is the size of the screen (the resolution is the same), the weight and the price. At £80 cheaper, we decided to go for the iPad Mini.

Personal setup

When you buy a product at the Apple Store, a ‘Personal Setup’ service is offered to get you up and running with the device. As we had some time to spare, I decided to take them up on the offer. This turned out to be a good thing. Because myself, and the member of staff who sold me the iPad, learned the hard way what happens when you try to restore an iCloud backup from an iPad 1 running iOS 5, to an iPad Mini running iOS 7. Suffice to say, it got stuck in a soft reboot loop and was completely unusable.

To their credit, the staff at the store were really good about it, and took responsibility for the problem. I should have been advised that this wouldn’t work. Instead, I should set the new iPad up as a new device, rather than using a backup from an iOS 5 device as a starting point. So the iPad Mini, now essentially bricked, will be sent back to Apple, and I was given another iPad Mini to take away. I decided not to go through the Personal Setup this time, instead waiting to get home so that I could do it at my own pace. It’s working fine, as shown in the above photo.

I’m glad that the reboot problem happened in the Apple Store and not at home, as I’m not even sure that I’d have been able to force a factory reset on the device. But perhaps Apple should have coded this into the iPad setup program, and displayed a warning that restoring a backup from such an old device to a new one is a bad idea.

Anyway, my new iPad Mini is great. It’s so much lighter than my old one, and the screen is only a bit smaller. It’s not quite so good for reading magazines, as the text is a bit small, but at least when I zoom in the text doesn’t become so pixelated as it did on my old iPad. And apps like Facebook, YouTube and 1Password are actually usable now, and others, like Pocket, are much, much faster.