My year in cities 2014

Last year, I travelled too much. By my final trip to Kiev almost exactly a year ago, cities and trips were blurring into one another, I was on first name terms with most of the easyJet cabin crew, and I'd re-qualified for my gold frequent flier card with several months to spare. I was so sick of being away from my family that I would catch the 6am flight to my destination and the 11pm flight home the same day, in a vain attempt to minimise my time away from home.

American Things I Can't Live Without

I've been back in the UK for almost seven years now. It's home. But there are certain creature comforts from the US that I still can't live without. Just those little, inconsequential things that make me happy and that I haven't been able to find a suitable substitute for here in Blighty.

In the past, I would wait until work or personal travel took me back to the US and I would return with entire suitcases full of Americana to try and appease my wretched withdrawal symptoms. But slowly, over the years, I've been able to find black market (ok not really) sources for my stateside dependencies. So now I present to you the things from America that I can't live without.

Skippy Peanut Butter 


This stuff, this stuff right here. If you think you've experienced peanut butter, you're wrong. The perfect blend of sweet and salty, ultra-thick, and loaded with peanuts. Which reminds me, be sure to get the SuperChunk version and not the smooth or anything else unless you're some sort of infant. You're not an infant, are you? You can get this on Amazon and I've seen it in Tesco too.

ZipLoc Bags

ZipLoc BagsAsk any American expat what they stock up on when back in the US, they will all, without hesitation, say ZipLoc bags. Despite a storied heritage of engineering excellence, the British cannot manufacture a plastic bag any more useful than a wet paper bag. Thank God then for SC Johnson (a family company) and their wonderful, reliable, irreplaceable ZipLoc bag. It's getting to the point now where I have an entire suitcase dedicated to boxes of these bad boys. No kitchen should be without them. The only place I've seen these for sale is Amazon.

Diet Dr Pepper

Diet Dr Pepper

"But Alex," I hear you cry "we have this in the UK, it's called Dr Pepper Zero!" No. No, what YOU have is the "Evan Almighty" of diet sodas, a D-list impostor that tries way too hard to be like the original but just ends up making you so angry you could punch a kitten. Dr Pepper dare you. No, what I'm introducing you to today is the only soda that comes close to Diet Coke. Not too sweet like its pre-diabetic cousin Dr Pepper Zero, and with enough distance from the original Dr Pepper flavour to actually add something to the conversation, Diet Dr Pepper is so damn good that I've had the gall to ask friends visiting the US to pick me up a bottle in the airport departure lounge. Yes,  it's that good. You can get this on Amazon or any American food shop.

Glad Bags

Glad Kitchen Bags

Glad Bags...Glad Rags! Ha! I just figured that out as I was typing the title. *sigh* Solid gold. Anyway, few things make me vomit with rage quite like an over-filled bin-liner catastrophically evacuating its contents all over my beslippered feet at 6:15 on a Sunday morning. And I think my rage is justified. I mean seriously, how hard is it to make a bin liner with a shred of structural integrity? Pretty hard, I guess. And so began my quest to find the best and most robust bin-liner ever created by man. Shortcut, I went to TheSweetHome and found out that it's the Glad Tall Kitchen drawstring bag and I bought 500 of them at Target over the summer. Why are they so good? Doesn't matter....they're bin liners, who cares. But this reviewer sums it up best “I could probably fend off a home invasion by deflecting the blows of the enemy’s weapon with the incredible strength these vessels possess.” These are pretty hard to find over here but there are a few version on Amazon.

Arizona Original Green Tea With Honey

Arizona Original Green Tea With Honey

I have my friend Greg to thank for this one. I've never been a huge fan of iced tea in the past but during my recent "healthy" phase I'd been looking for alternatives to soda. Greg suggested Arizona Iced Tea, in particular the Green Tea version. He had no idea the monster he would end up creating with that suggestion. For this is the sweetest of nectars. It has a tiny bit of sugar in it but the real sweetness comes from honey which balances the slightly bitter green tea absolutely perfectly. The stuff is so, so good. Now I've had this in just about every form it takes; 500ml glass bottles (as pictured above), regular soda size cans, giant 23oz cans (that's over a pint), even powdered. Definitely go with the glass bottles; they're just the right size (the 23oz ones are impossible to finish), they don't have any of the artificial sweeteners that some of the US sizes do, and everyone knows beverages taste best when stored in glass. You can get this on Amazon but I've also seen it at delis and cafes in London.



Let me clear one thing up before I even start; I can make pretty damn good American-style pancakes from scratch. But at 6:45 on a Sunday morning when the kids have asked me to make them pancakes for 600th time, Bisquick is a godsend. Toss 2 eggs and a cup of milk into a measuring jug along with 2 cups of this stuff, jam the immersion blender in there for a while and intermittently huck dollops of it onto a hot pan, and 2 minutes later you have enough pancakes to silence even the whiniest of toddlers. And they taste pretty good! Good enough for me to ignore the "real pancakes, real good" tagline on the front of the box. Grab some boxes on Amazon as I haven't seen it anywhere else.

My favourite kitchen tools


Last month I posted a link to two of my favourite kitchen items, the Thermapen and the Vinturi. Well those off-the-cuff posts proved so popular that I thought I'd share a few more of the kitchen bits 'n' pieces I'd be lost without.

The Lodge Color 6-Quart Dutch Oven ($77 | £75)

EC4D33_2LeCreuset? Pfft, no chance. THIS is the best dutch oven out there. I honestly use this thing 4 or 5 nights a week, it's that useful. You can do everything with it; slow cook, braise, deep fry, stew, boil, etc. It does everything a Le Creuset can do for a fraction of the price. It weighs a TON but that's a good thing and it cooks evenly. I absolutely love this thing. It's super cheap too, compared to a LeCreuset, £77 in the UK and $75 in the US. Definitely worth the investment, it will last forever. Oh and it's a breeze to clean.

Aeropress ($25 | £24)

I'm not a coffee connoisseur by any stretch. I have no time or space for a meth-lab level home brewing workshop like many of my friends  seem to enjoy, but I like a good cup from time to time. I'm not sure how I heard about the AeroPress but boy am I glad I did. Despite looking like an over-complicated sex toy, the AeroPress is genius and extraordinarily simple to use. Filter goes in place, coffee goes on top, water on top of that, apply pressure, and hey presto great coffee.

Ok but why? Well "The AeroPress uses gentle air pressure with creates a smooth rich flavour with lower acidity and without bitterness. Other coffee makers drip hot water on to a bed of ground coffee which results in over extracting at the centre and under extracting the flavour from the edges, but the AeroPress brewing system results in uniform extraction for the ultimate in full coffee flavour." Got that? It's the coffee equivalent of salting a steak. And boy does it work. Best part though? It cleans itself as you're using it and all your left with is a neat little hockey puck of coffee grounds which you just pop out into the bin. Hilariously, this little device was invented by the dude who invented the Aerobie flying disc! 

Salter Slim Design Electronic Platform Kitchen Scale (£14)


I have no idea how I existed without a kitchen scale for so long. Actually, it might explain why my cooking was so bad for so long. Hmm. Anyway, you can't go wrong with a digital kitchen scale and I just happen to like this Salter one in particular. It's a good price (£14), easily shifts between different units of measurements, and has stood up to the rigours of my kids "helping" me in the kitchen. When you're looking for a digital kitchen scale, make sure it has a "reset to zero" function so you can place a bowl or container on the scale to hold your ingredients and then reset the scale to zero so the scale doesn't include the weight of the container in the calculation. Super simple but so useful.

Lodge 10" Cast Iron Skillet ($23 | £26)

700_remodelista-cast-iron-skillet-04I have wanted, nay, lusted after a cast iron skillet for years. This will quickly be one of the most used items in your kitchen. Start a dish on the stovetop, transfer it to the oven, bake epic pizza, and of course make the best pancakes you've ever had. It comes pre-seasoned so you don't need to worry about that process, it's extremely well made and will last for generations. And remember, once you own a piece of cast iron cookware, don't clean it with soap and water ever. K?

 Thermapen ($96 | £36)


I know I've mentioned it before but this is the single greatest kitchen tool I've ever owned. Every single cooking and recipe site I've been on recommends the Thermapen and with good reason; it works flawlessly. In every situation and scenario, the Thermapen performs brilliantly and the literature that accompanies is actually helpful, unlike most instructional materials. It gives target temperatures for every type of meat under the sun and all manners of "doneness". The Thermapen has no problem dealing with liquid either so if you're deep frying, making candy, or brewing coffee, the Thermapen will quickly become your best friend. I love, love, love this thing.

How to upgrade on Virgin Atlantic


After my last post ("How I booked a £3000+ flight for £1427") I got a lot of people asking me about upgrades and miles on Virgin Atlantic so I thought I'd post a little How To on using miles for upgrades on Virgin Atlantic.

The first thing to know is that only certain types of tickets can be upgraded. It's not as simple as Economy, Premium Economy and Upper. Each cabin has multiple fares and each of those fares have their own uses and restrictions. Currently on Virgin Atlantic there are 13 economy class fares. Yes, 13.

If you've already booked your flight....

If you've booked your flight already, we need to see if the ticket you have is upgradeable with miles. (If you haven't booked yet, skip to this part.) The general rule is if you got a super cheap fare, it ain't gonna be upgradeable.  But the first step is figuring out what fare class you're booked in. The easiest way is to look at the e-ticket that Virgin Atlantic emails you right after you book. In that email, you can find your fare class:

Virgin Atlantic Fare Class

Ok so how can you tell if your fare is upgradeable? The folks over at V-Flyer have a really handy page that details all the Virgin Atlantic fare codes but for the sake of ease, the following fare codes are upgradeable with miles: Y, B, R, L, & M. So that means the following fare codes are NOT upgradeable with miles: U, E, Q, V, X, N, O, & T.

So you've found your booking class and it's upgradeable. Sweet! Now what? Well now we have to check if there are mileage seats available for you to upgrade into. In other words, are there seats in Premium Economy or Upper Class that have been released or allocated for upgrades. Fortunately, you can check this pretty easily on Virgin Atlantic's website. Just search for a flight as you normally would BUT specify the class you want to upgrade TO, and make sure you select "Spend your miles" in the final section:

Check Virgin Upgrade Availability

When you click "find my flight" you'll be prompted to login to your Flying Club account so make sure you do that. On the next page one of three things will happen:

- you'll get a message saying there is no availability anywhere near your requested date. If you get this message, don't despair. Keep checking back right up until the day before you're due to leave as they often release seats closer to departure. - you'll get a calendar of alternative dates because the specific date you requested is not available for upgrades. Poke around and see what you can find. - you'll get all the info you need to book a flight with miles, which means there is availability to upgrade. Score! N.B. Don't continue the process from here! We're not booking a flight, just checking the availability.

So if you land on the magical third option you need to act fast. Call Virgin Atlantic's reservation number (UK 0844 209 7777  / US +1 800 862 8621) armed with your confirmation code. Tell the friendly reservation agent that you want to upgrade and that you've already checked for availability. They'll be able to take you through the process of upgrading. N.B. You will need to pay the difference in taxes between your original fare and your new plush and fancy fare. But don't worry, it's never a huge amount and absolutely worth it.

If you haven't booked your flight yet...

If you haven't yet booked your flight you're in a good position because you can search for upgradeable fares before you book. Virgin Atlantic quietly rolled out a feature on their site that allows you to search by specific fare bucket which is EXTREMELY useful. If you go to the Companion Flight page you'll see a booking widget towards the end of the page:

Virgin Atlantic Companion FlightsUsing this widget, you can search for specific fare classes and they've already done the heavy lifting by only including fares that are eligible for upgrade. So go ahead and search for the flights you want, starting with M class and working your way up until you find a seat. Remember, as you go up from M all the way to Y, it will get more and more expensive.

Once you find a flight you're happy with in fare class that's upgradeable, WAIT! Go back and check that there are seats for you to upgrade into using the method I describe earlier in the article. If there are seats available then get on the phone to Virgin quickly and seal that upgrade!

This is the process I've gone through to secure a ton of mileage upgrades. Got questions? Let me know either via twitter (@cubedweller) or in the comments below.

How I booked a £3000+ flight for £1427

Last week I started planning our annual summer pilgrimage to California. This year we have to factor in school holidays for the first time as my eldest son is now in nursery school. So I started to have a play around with some dates on Virgin Atlantic's website...and quickly realised, this wasn't going to be cheap.

We're a family of four now and because Luke is 3 he has to have his own seat, and while he doesn't pay the full adult fare, it's pretty close (about 75% of an adult fare). Playing around with the dates, the cheapest I could find for anywhere in the July/August timeframe was £3024.10

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 15.40.23

Ouch. I don't care who you are, that's a lot of money. And that was with us going for over a month, on the cheapest possible dates, which meant pulling Luke out of school early. If we'd left a day earlier it would have been nearly £3700, that's how tight everything was looking.

So I activated "travel nerd mode" and started to poke around. Was LAX cheaper? Nope almost exactly the same, even with 2 flights a day. Even if Deanne and Jack went early and Luke and I came when he finished school, we were still only saving about £100. After a few hours of checking alternate cities, alternate dates, and other city combinations, I was beginning to think we might have to postpone our trip.

But not one to admit defeat, I started to explore alternatives.

Now I've never been a big believer in using miles for flights - they're usually much more effective for upgrades. But I figured this might be the rare case where I can use them to pay for a flight. After a few minutes, that idea was torpedoed too. There wasn't a mileage seat to San Francisco until October! LA was no better. Dammit.

The remaining ace I had up my sleeve was my companion ticket. For re-qualifying at Virgin Atlantic's Gold level status, you get a free companion ticket. It ain't as grand as it sounds, the restrictions on fare class and availability make it pretty hard to use. I figured at this point I should give the (usually excellent) Virgin Atlantic customer service card a call. I explained my predicament and I could immediately tell the lady on the other end was up for a challenge - we dove straight in...

As I thought, there was no availability for companion seats to SFO or LAX so that was a bust. But, she said, what about Las Vegas? The Bay Area is a piece of cake to get to from Vegas and it would be a fun place to decompress and get over jetlag for a few days. A quick look at the cash fare revealed the same depressing fare though, around three grand for the four of us.

But then we started look at companion tickets. Ah ha! Availability! I'd need to buy a slightly more expensive ticket (an M class ticket for those keeping score) but  that might  be ok if the taxes and fees on the companion ticket weren't too awful. Here's how it was shaping up:

- £1162 for my M Class fare - £213 in taxes and fees for the companion ticket (Deanne) - £150 for Jack's infant ticket - £863 for Luke's child ticket = £2388

Ok, progress! Over £600 off the total airfare cost. But, as my learned friend on the other end of the phone pointed out, I had a stash of miles in my account. Should she run the numbers on a miles seat for Luke instead of cash? Sure, why not! So now we get to:

- £1162 for my M Class fare - £213 in taxes and fees for the companion ticket (Deanne) - £213 in taxes and fees for Luke's miles seat - £150 for Jack's infant seat = £1738

Boom. Now we're down over £1300 off the cash price. Just as I was about to hand over my credit card details, the voice on the end of the phone (after we'd been talking for over an hour) said "Hmmm...hold on....let me try something....what if the two adults are on mileage seats? You have enough miles if you transfer them over from your wife's account." By God, she'd done it:

- £213 in taxes and fees for my mileage seat - £213 in taxes and fees for Deanne's mileage seat - £863 for Luke's child ticket - £138 for Jack's infant seat = £1427

£1427. Down from a cash price of £3024. A saving of £1597. Same flight, same airplane, same service. And the best part is I still have a companion ticket left to use later in the year. Now because I used miles, I won't earn miles for this flight, or tier points towards re-upping my Gold card. But given the savings and the circumstances, I think it was well worth it.

The lady at Virgin had to jump through all kinds of technical hoops to get the reservation system to allow this ticket to be issued because of the child/infant dependencies, the miles coming from multiple accounts, etc. It was quite an extraordinary display of dedication and exemplified why I continue to fly Virgin Atlantic.

A few things are worth pointing out:

- redeeming miles on popular routes during quiet times is hard enough, and during peak season it's nearly impossible. So... - look around for alternate cities, alternate routes (into your intended destination, out of an alternate city or vice versa), alternate dates. - redeeming miles when the fare is already pretty reasonable is stupid. Pay the cash, earn the miles and tier points. Don't piss your miles away unless there are substantial cash savings. - further to that, in many cases it's worth paying a little MORE for your economy ticket so you're in an upgradeable fare class (that ultra-cheap fare you found won't be upgradeable.) I'll write a post about how to do that soon. - it pays to call the reservation line sometimes as they can see mileage and companion/reward seat availability better than you can.

How I fell in love with Pact Coffee's Service (and got a new case study in customer loyalty)

I do a lot of public speaking and a topic I frequently speak about is loyalty. One of the most effective ways to create enduring loyalty is bridge the gap between online and offline. I want to share with you the best example of this principle that I've ever experienced.

Last weekend I was flicking through Twitter and I came across this sponsored tweet in my feed.

Now we use Pact at Rushmore and their service and their coffee are both very good. Subscription coffee delivered to your door. But I bristle at that word "proper". It's an awful word. A lazy word. An elitist word that implies you're better than everyone. I immediately fired off a reply:

At the very least, my own "get off my lawn" itch was scratched and I put my phone away. But moments later, it dinged and there was a reply. From a company. On a Saturday. Within minutes of the initial contact.

I get what they mean about trying to find the right word but I think companies have every right to be confident and assertive in their product descriptions IF they genuinely feel their products live up to the labels. Confidence in a brand, just like confidence in a person, is attractive.

They graciously and promptly replied almost immediately.

I could end this story here and it would be a great example of a online customer service. But what happened next took it to a whole new level.

Today, as we were all sitting in the office, a delivery arrived. I opened up the recycled Amazon box and found 3 big bags of Pact's fantastic coffee. No way. No freakin' way. Did they...they couldn't have...could they?

20131218-163306.jpg Underneath the bags of coffee was a card... 20131218-163314.jpg

*slow clap* They did. They took the time to figure out who I was, where I worked, what our address was, package up the coffee and write out a note. Not only that, the message in the card was so perfect in its tone and context that I immediately got in touch with the company to express my appreciation and admiration.

Learn from Pact. It doesn't get much better than this.

My year in cities 2013

As I stepped off my final flight of the year, I have no problem admitting I was a little emotional. Not because the year's travel was coming to an end but because I was reminded that just a few years ago I was so scared of flying that the very idea of getting on a plane was enough to make me feel nauseous. Overcoming my fear of flying remains one of my biggest personal achievements. I'm proud of myself, quite frankly.

Revolution in Kiev

A few days ago I had the opportunity to witness a revolution. Despite assuring my wife that I wouldn't be anywhere near the protests in Kiev, on Wednesday night I found myself in the heart of Independence square, the epicentre of the Ukraine's latest political struggle.

An ode to London City Airport

At this point, the pilot gets the plane in the "dirtiest" configuration possible, i.e. the airplane is fully configured for landing at the slowest possible speed; flaps fully extended, speed brakes deployed, gear down. By now, the plane is on dat glideslope and dropping agressively. The speed brakes disrupt the lift over the wing creating turbulent air and the aircraft begins to shake, as though it's really struggling to stay in the air.

11 things I learned in New England

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 15.28.29

  1. There are not enough Dunkin' Donuts in New England. Wait, I mistyped that. There are more Dunkin' Donuts than people in New England.
  2. Almost every single New Englander I met was outgoing, friendly, confident, and chatty. Even the surly ones were hugely entertaining. e.g. When I enquired as to how a supermarket worker's day was going, she replied "It's Saturday, I'm stuck inside, it's busy as pretty lousy. But the Sox clinched last night so I can't complain. That'll be 23 bucks, hun."
  3. A lot of people still smoke there. California and London have skewed my sense of "normal" on this one.
  4. It's one of the most beautiful parts of America I've ever seen. Water everywhere, tree-lined boulevards, quaint towns, pristine beaches.
  5. Hot sauce is quite hard to come by. My brother's explanation is that while west coast food has heavy latin american influence, east coast food is mainly influenced by European cuisine and therefore not as hot-sauceable. (It is so a word, shut up.)
  6. You haven't had clam chowder until you've had it in New England.
  7. Boston Logan International takes the crown for the worst airport in the developed world. Try parking there, I dare you.
  8. Tom Brady is 16ft tall and once threw over 400 touchdown passes in a single season.
  9. Clam bakes are delicious, entertaining, and scaleable. Everything good food should be.
  10. I could listen to a Boston accent forever.
  11. "Wicked pisser" means really great. And a "shit buddy" is a great friend. Not a shit friend. Counter-intuitive, I know.

The shittiness of the Saturday-night stay rule

A few weeks ago I posted on Twitter about the shittiness of the Saturday-night stay rule that airlines use to fleece business travellers. If you're not familiar with the rule, many airlines require passengers to spend a Saturday night in their destination city to get a half-decent fare. Wikipedia explains it further:

The rule is based on the airlines' assumption that business travellers are more likely than leisure travellers to spend Saturday night at home. For example, a business traveler may depart on a Sunday or Monday and then return home that Friday or Saturday.

Business travellers' demand for travel is less elastic and airlines attempt to increase their profits by price discriminating business travellers and leisure travellers. Business travels are also more loyal to a particular airline, and therefore are more likely to accept higher price.

Today, I came across a perfect example:

London to New York, roundtrip.

Leave on Wednesday, fly back at 10:25pm on Saturday night = £1521.45

Leave on Wednesday, fly back at 7:20am on Sunday morning = £480.45

Less than 9 hours difference in departure time but a cost increase of over £1000.

Dick move, right? The rule assumes that all businesses are big businesses and have huge travel budgets. What about the hundreds of thousands of small businesses that DON'T have big travel budgets. Or the leisure traveler who gets caught up in a rule that is purposely designed to screw the consumer?

Oh and here's the hilarious "WTF?" cherry on this horse poo cake. The base fare on the Sunday flight is only £124. The rest is taxes and fees. And yes, the taxes and fees are exactly the same on the Saturday flight. So the airline jacked up the base fare by 850%. So there you have it, a £1000 "convenience" fee for business travellers to make it home in time to spend the weekend with their families.

Saturday-night Stay Rule

Wooden mockup of a single deck 747


This mockup was made to show the difference between a single-deck and double-deck version of the new Boeing plane that eventually became the 747. It's purpose was to convince former PanAm chairman Juan Trippe that he didn't need a double-deck airplane and that a new category of single-deck plane, which came to be known as the "jumbo jet", would scratch his "ocean liner style" itch.

To give an idea of what the single deck cabin and the double deck cabin would look like, two lumber and plywood mock-ups were built (see picture above for the single deck mock-up). PanAm chairman & his team flew down west to evaluate the options. “Would PanAm agree for the single deck?” It was a tense moment for Joe. After reviewing the mock-ups Trippe told Joe, “You made the right decision”.

How I lost 12lbs in 30 days (and that's not the best part)

weightjuly2013 Recently I finished an interesting experiment. And as a result I'm 12 lbs lighter. But that's not the headline outcome, not by a long shot.

About a year ago I started my weight loss journey and I'm delighted to say I've managed to keep 50lbs off ever since. However in the last few months my diet lapsed a bit, I was traveling a lot, and embarked on a new career chapter - none of which are conducive to a healthy lifestyle. As a result, I gave back a few of the pounds I lost. Maybe 5 or 6, tops. But it was enough for me to reconsider my approach to food, drink, and exercise.

But instead of going back to the regimen that was so successful for me in the first place, I thought I'd try a body hacking experiment. What would happen if I adopted an ultra-strict regimen with no cheat days? What would the effect be on my physique, my mood, my sleep, my concentration? The results were fascinating.

I decided for 30 days I would have:

- NO white or refined carbohydrates (e.g. sugar, pasta, bread, potatoes, flour, etc)

- NO dairy

- NO alcohol

- NO red meat

- NO soda

- NO coffee

(For context, I drank 3-4 cups of coffee per day, at least one diet coke, and a glass of wine in the evening.)

The elimination of soda and coffee was to see the effect on my teeth and on my sleep and concentration.

Removing white/refined carbs, alcohol, red meat, and dairy was to see the effect on body composition and weight loss.

I wanted to see a) if I could even do this for 30 days and b) what the overall effect on my body would be.

I began the experiment on a Monday.

As I wandered bleary-eyed into the office on the first day, I instinctively lunged towards to the coffee machine but managed to catch myself before deploying the mediocre "americano" into my chipped and overused mug. I opted for green tea instead, a habit I maintained for the entire 30 days.

The rest of the day looked like this:

Breakfast: Protein shake first thing in the morning followed by fruit when I got to the office.

Lunch: The office salad bar (leaves, vegetables, hard boiled eggs, smoked salmon, tuna, etc) or cold grilled chicken and vegetables.

Dinner: All manner of chicken, fish, turkey, pork, eggs with every vegetable I could think of. Dinner was easy and satisfying every single time.

Snacks: Almonds, fruit, carrot sticks, etc.

Exercise: Nothing beyond my 4-mile roundtrip walk to/from work.

The first week was the toughest but not what I predicted. Giving up carbs, red meat and dairy was easy. It was the coffee and alcohol that proved very difficult. Coffee was such a habit that its absence in my daily routine was immediately noticeable. And I enjoyed a glass of red wine when I got home in the evening, especially after a hard day. But after the first week, the changes started to happen.

Immediately the weight started to come off. But I also had better concentration, more energy, no afternoon slumps, and the quality of my sleep had noticeably improved. The cravings also disappeared after the first two weeks as well.

I kept the routine up for a full 30 days, no cheat days, no cheat meals. And I dropped 12lbs and inches off my waist. I now wear a small size t-shirt and need a new belt.

But on the 31st day, something weird happened. I was finally free to eat whatever I wanted, drink a load of coffee, have a hunk of cake and wash it down with some wine. But I didn't want to do any of that. Instead, I had my protein shake, my green tea, a salad for lunch, and a protein heavy dinner. It was the weirdest goddamn thing.

I kept thinking, if I'm going to have a cup of coffee then I want the best damn cup I can find. So I waited until I had access to one, and it was totally worth the wait. Made it all worthwhile. Same with wine, red meat, and soda. I actually paid £3 for a can of Diet Dr Pepper imported from the US so the reward would be so much sweeter.

So ultimately here's what I found:

- for me 30 days seems to be what it takes to turn exception into rule, hardship into habit.

- it's easy to lose weight even with kids and an office job as long as you have a shred of discipline.

- carbohydrates are a dangerous addiction with almost no value.

- good food is worth waiting for. If I want something that's not so healthy, I'm going to find the most delicious, well made example I can.

I'm interested to see if I can apply this 30-day mentality to other challenges. Exercise, finance, learning, etc.

The shame of screw cap wine, now in cork.

Bust open a screw top wine at your next dinner party and your guests might assume you've nipped across the road to the gas station for the evening's plonk. But does the screw cap deserve its reputation as the cheap and cheerful counterpart to the cork? Not so fast, bucko.

...the screw cap not only avoids the problem of tainted cork, it forms a tighter seal. Most critics say that this guarantees a better flavour for all but the more expensive wines (which may age better with more oxygen).

"We prefer seals that ensure the wine is not going to be faulty," says Ewan Murray, spokesman for the Wine Society. "Wines that are ready to drink young are always going to be fresher under a screw cap."

Wine experts and critics from across the spectrum, even Robert Parker, freely admit that from a pure technical perspective, a screw cap is a much more effective method of preserving the contents of a bottle, and it entirely removes the possibility of wine becoming "corked".

But for a lot of people, the cork is so much more than just a device designed to keep the wine in the bottle. It's an experience.

...for wine lovers, the distinctive creak and pop means something good is happening. It triggers associations - social intimacy, relaxation, nuanced aromas, celebration - that go far beyond just a slug of alcohol.

So a large bottling company and a cork conglomerate teamed up to make a handscrew cork. All the ceremony of a cork with the convenience of a screw cap. Clever compromise.

What do you think of screw cap wine?

via BBC News - Why the snobbery over corks?.

United Airlines' Men-Only Flights

  In the 1950s United Airlines had "men-only" flights between New York and Chicago. Manly cities, you see. The flights had everything the 1950s man could want; steak dinners, closing stock market numbers as you board, a pipe and slippers, and a card table in the dedicated in-flight lounge.

I remember seeing this ad in the wonderful San Francisco Airport museum and wondering how long the service lasted and what prompted its demise. God help an airline if they tried to implement something like this today.

American Beer: from guardrail to guardrail


American beer has always been a little bit of a joke. And rightly so.

To international tastebuds, it meant bottled lagers like Budweiser, Miller or Coors - commonly regarded by self-respecting drinkers as bland, corporate and lacking in credibility.

But the explosion in "craft beers" has lead to quite a revolution in the American beer industry. It's actually pretty good stuff and for some weird reason very fashionable.

Somehow, beer from the United States has become not just widely respected, but achingly fashionable.

Visit a chrome-surfaced bar in London, Stockholm or Amsterdam and you're likely to find Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Odell's porter on tap.

"There's a hipster cachet to it," says Melissa Cole, ale expert and author of Let Me Tell You About Beer. "Craft beer is seen as sexy right now, there's no doubt about it."

But in my mind it's all gone a bit too far. When you go into a pub or bar in any beer drinking country, you can always find an array of very cold lagers. Simple, refreshing, no pretense. This is basically all American beer was for decades. Very cold Bud lights, Coors, etc. But try going into a "beer works" or "ale house" or some other equally pretentiously-named establishment and try and get a cold lager. Nope. I went into one of these places last summer that was very proud of the fact that it had 24 beers on tap and more than twice that in the bottle, all proudly displayed on a huge chalkboard above the bar. When the waitress came to take my order, I asked for a cold lager, didn't care which one. "A lager? I don't think we have that brand." I could have had any type of nut ale, chocolate stout, coffee IPA, blueberry bock or some other weird concoction (as well as some damn fine ales, don't get me wrong.) But the reliable simplicity of a cold lager has been entirely eschewed in favour of boutique beers. It's like going to a burger joint that serves potatoes wedges instead of fries.

Meanwhile the big beer makers aren't refining their core lager product to appeal to the thirsty, hot beer drinker of today. No they're creating monstrosities like Bud Light and Clamato. For shame.

I'm delighted to see American beer is getting the respect that it deserves overseas, but let's not throw the baby out with the beer water. via BBC News - US craft beer: How it inspired British brewers.

Transatlantic flights are going to get a lot bumpier

For someone who crosses the Atlantic several times a year, I thought this was interesting. As they noted in the article, the winds across the Atlantic are already stronger and now areas of turbulence will be stronger and more widespread. Indeed on several eastbound transatlantic flights I've taken recently, the NYC-LON flight time was less than westbound transcontinental US flights (e.g. NYC - SFO). In other words, because of stronger winds, I could go from NYC to London faster than I could go from NYC to San Francisco.

Modelling suggested the average strength of transatlantic turbulence could increase by between 10% and 40%, and the amount of airspace likely to contain significant turbulence by between 40% and 170%, where the most likely outcome is around 100%. In other words, a doubling of the amount of airspace affected.

"The probability of moderate or greater turbulence increases by 10.8%," said Dr Williams.

"'Moderate or greater turbulence' has a specific definition in aviation. It is turbulence that is strong enough to bounce the aircraft around with an acceleration of five metres per second squared, which is half of a g-force. For that, the seatbelt sign would certainly be on; it would be difficult to walk; drinks would get knocked over; you'd feel strain against your seatbelt."

Besides passenger comfort, there's also a business consideration here:

"It's certainly plausible that if flights get diverted more to fly around turbulence rather than through it then the amount of fuel that needs to be burnt will increase," he told BBC News.

"Fuel costs money, which airlines have to pay, and ultimately it could of course be passengers buying their tickets who see the prices go up."

Pilots never knowingly fly into or stay in areas of sustained moderate (or greater) turbulence, not because it's dangerous but because it's not fun for the passengers or the cabin crew. So if they have to go further and further north or south to avoid it, then they burn more fuel. And those increased costs will inevitably get passed onto the flying public.

via BBC News - Transatlantic flights 'to get more turbulent'.

What the Bay Area looked like from space yesterday


Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield is a prolific tweeter. Not an interesting fact in isolation but there's one important detail; he's currently in command of the International Space Station. He tweets several times a day often with stunning photos taken from his vantage point 250 miles above the earth. Yesterday he posted this beautiful shot of the entire Bay Area at night, each of the valleys clearly visible.

My neighbor, the walled city of Kowloon

When I was growing up in Hong Kong I spent a year at (the now closed) Boundary Junior School. It was a unique experience for a 10 year old, going from a suburban Californian elementary school to an international school populated with every nationality and culture under the sun. But that wasn't what made BJS so unique - it was the location that made it truly memorable. Crammed into the concrete jungle of Kowloon, BJS was right under the flight path of the legendary Kai Tak airport. Every 90 seconds a plane would roar over our heads as we sat in assembly or played downball in the playground. And we're not talking about several thousand feet here, we're talking LOW. As each plane came over, the teacher would pause, wait for the plane to pass, and carry on with the lesson. It became as second nature as breathing or blinking.

Kai Tak Approach

While looking for a photo of the Kai Tak approach I stumbled across an infographic on one of Boundary Junior School's more infamous neighbors - the Walled City of Kowloon.

The walled city, located not far from the Kai Tak airport, was remarkable high-rise squatter camp that by the 1980s had 50,000 residents. A historical accident of colonial Hong Kong, it existed in a lawless vacuum until it became an embarrassment for Britain.

Each resident had about 40 ft.² of space, and because it fell outside of the jurisdiction of any Hong Kong authority or municipal service, including rubbish collection, garbage was hauled to the roof and just left.

But within its dark and squalid walls a micro-economy emerged. Metal fabrication shops, grocery stores, and even kindergartens and schools all had a place within the "City of Darkness".

The infographic below tells a  quite extraordinary tale of an architectural and urban anomaly. Unauthorised, unplanned, and unregulated but yet, like the rest of Hong Kong, efficient, thriving and successful in its own unique way.

Click on the image below for the full version.

City of Anarchy via the South China Morning Post.

In praise of the humble donut

My favourite magazine in the world is Saveur. I like to refer to it as the National Geographic of food. A recent issue was dedicated entirely to a food that doesn't always get the love it deserves. The Donut.

The genus of donuts is broad and extremely varied, with each species attracting fiercely loyal advocates, and God help you if you question their donut style of choice. What most people think of when they think "donut" is the Krispy Kreme style, yeast risen, fluffy donut which is often found on this side of the pond, occasionally filled with jelly or jam. I never been a huge fan of these but I know people all over the world go absolutely nuts for Krispy Kreme, and it can be an irresistible allure first thing in the morning.

But Saveur reserves special prayers for my favorite type of donut, the donut I was brought up, the doughnut I will knock over an old lady to get to...

Then there are cake donuts, the sturdiest of the bunch; prime examples are dense chocolate donuts or substantial old-fashioneds. Made with a chemical leavener, such as baking powder, the dough doesn't need time to rise and can be fried immediately. These are the dunkers of the donut world, the ones with heft, a satisfying crust, and a moist interior. Unlike yeast donuts, they're still pretty good on day two…assuming you have the willpower to keep them around.

In California you can't walk a city block without stumbling across an independent donut shop, usually still resplendent it's 1960s decor and generally populated by slow talking retirees. Row upon row of every conceivable type of donuts, cruller, Bearclaw, and fritter. But the wonderfully dense cake doughnut is what I will always reach for.

via Deciphering the Donut -