Too Ruby

Ruby, a programming language of which I’m quite fond, is well-known for it’s readability and ease of comprehension, among about thirty-seven other wonderful features.

I rediscovered quite how readable the language is when I genuinely ended up writing the following method last week:

# On saving, updates the #Shift counters if the #ExperienceLevel of this
# #Volunteer has been changed
def update_counters_if_experience_level_changed
  update_counters if experience_level_changed?

For the benefit of those of you who aren’t programmers, I’ll point out that which is obvious to those of us who are: the body of the method (that’s the line that’s indented) is almost identical to the method name (the line that starts with “def”).

This is the equivalent of going to WikiHow and looking up the article on, say, How to Make a Tie Dyed Cake, only to discover that the text of the article simply says, “Choose what colours you want, and then make a cake in those colours”… and you understand perfectly and go and make the cake, because you’ve got that good an understanding. In this metaphor, you’re the Ruby interpreter, by the way. And the cake is delicious.

Okay, I cheated a little: the experience_level_changed? method was provided for me by the Rails framework. And I had to write the update_counters method myself (although it, too, contains only one line of code in its body). But the point is still the same: writing Ruby, and thinking in a Rubyish way, produces beautifully readable, logical code.


Dan Q found GL541R7D Spies Like Us – The Dead Drop

This checkin to GL541R7D Spies Like Us - The Dead Drop reflects a log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Found the numbers, and they lead us straight to the “drop”. Nice location, and a great idea for a cache: we’ll certainly be looking out for Spies Like Us – Honeypot sometime soon!

A New Way to Be Creepy on Facebook

This week, I discovered Breakup Notifier, a whole new way to be creepy on Facebook. I mention it because I just know that there are some of you out there who were waiting for this tool to be invented (and we’ll know who you are because you’ll be the ones to try to keep a low profile by not commenting to say “ugh; that’s creepy”).

Breakup Notifier: "You like someone. They're in a relationship. Be the first to know when they're out of it."

The idea is, as it says on the site, that you can tell Breakup Notifier which of your friends you’d be interested in, if only it weren’t for the fact that they’re in a (presumably closed) relationship. If their relationship status changes, you get an email to let you know, so you can be the first to take advantage of the new situation. Like Ted in The Window, an episode of How I Met Your Mother: which if you’ve not seen yet, you should try.

I think that the developers of this site are missing an opportunity, though, to make a little cash on the side. All you have to do is to be able to buy “priority access” on the people you’re interested in. If you’ve paid, then you get notice of a breakup in advance of other people who are interested in the same person but who haven’t paid. The amount of advance notice is based on the difference in your bids: so if I’m stalking watching Alice, and so are Bob and Charlie, but I paid £10 and Bob paid £2, then maybe I’ll get a notification 8 hours before Bob, who get a notification 2 hours before Charlie. It’s all relative, so if I’m also interested in Eddie, who’s also being followed by Frankie and Graeme, but we’re all on the free package, then we all get notified together.

As far as marketing’s concerned, that’s easy: just tell users how many others are watching the people they’re interested in! I suspect that more money would be made if you don’t tell them how much the others have paid, but the whole thing’s as sociologically-complicated as it is skin-crawling. What happened to the good old days, when you’d just keep pressing refresh on your crush’s MySpace page until they hinted that things might be rocky with their significant other?


Polyamory as an Identity

Hang around on any polyamory-themed newsgroups, forums, or mailing lists, and – before long – you’ll see a reasonable number of topics like this:

  • My girlfriend just “came out” to me as polyamorous.
  • I don’t feel comfortable being tied down to one person. Am I poly?
  • My husband is seeing somebody who identifies as mono.

What do all of these topics have in common? In each case, they involve at least one person who defines themselves, or others, as being “polyamorous” or “monoamorous/monogamous”.

That’s a perfectly popular mindset – there are plenty of folks who claim that we’re all hard-wired for mono- or poly-, just like we are for our sexual orientation – but it’s not one that I can get my head around. For me, polyamory is not an identity. It’s not something I am, but something I do. The difference is important: I am not polyamorous (although I’m in a relationship that is), just as I was not monoamorous (when I was last in a relationship that was).

I’m not alone in this belief, although I’m perhaps in a minority. It’s evidently the case for many practitioners of polyamorous relationships that they are “poly”, just like they might be gay, straight, or bisexual (among other sexualities).

It’s Complicated. For you, perhaps.

We attach a great deal of significance to our personal identity: I suppose that’s one explanation for why people get so attached to the idea that they are something. It’s very easy to claim an identity based on your race, your sexual orientation, your religion, or your political affiliation. It’s clear from these examples that an identity does not have to be something genetic or biological, but can be the result of a choice. However, this still doesn’t “fix” things for me: it still doesn’t feel as though my relationship choices are part of me so much as they are part of my circumstances.

The difference, for me, is one of activity. One can have a sexual orientation without having sexual activity, can have a religious belief without engaging in a religious ceremony; can have a political stance without voting (although I know people who’d throw back at me a No true Scotsman argument about those last two). But I can’t fathom a way that one can “be” polyamorous without having a relationship!

I wonder if, perhaps, those people who identify as “being” polyamorous would claim that they could not possibly be happy if they were somehow confined to exactly one or fewer romantic relationships? That’s the only way that I can conceive that one could justify a polyamorous self-definition. Anything less would seem to be putting the cart before the horse: if it’s not essential to you, then how is it part of you?

And maybe there are some people would answer that question affirmatively; people for whom having a second (or third, or more) romantic relationship is critical to their happiness. In fact, I’m sure there are. Maybe these are the truly “polyamorous” people – the nonmonogamy equivalent of what in sexuality would be a Kinsey 6 (or 0: I haven’t yet decided which way this scale should go).

I can conceive of the existence of these people: I’ve probably even met some. They’re not so dissimilar to those “monogamous” people who are incapable of being happy when they’re single. I’ll admit that the society we live in is horribly biased towards couples, and that we’re culturally stunted in that we’re trained to think of those who are single as somehow “failing”, but I just can’t quite get my head around it. I’ve been perfectly happy at various points of being in intimate relationships with zero, one, or more partners, and I almost never go “out of my way” to seek out a potential mate.

Perhaps I’m the outlier: it certainly sounds like it, in the face of overwhelming evidence. But for me, that’s certainly the most comfortable choice to find happiness regardless of how my relationships happen to be laid out. And for that reason, polyamorous relationships are, when the occur, simply a rational choice for me – not some drive to “hoard” more lovers nor (as is commonly stated by some poly practitioners) a way to have your needs by more than a single person. To me, engaging in an open, polyamorous relationship – where possible – just makes logical sense, and for those capable of it, there seems no reason not to use that kind of relationship as a starting point. Everything else can be bolted on top.

But what would I know?

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This weekend, Ruth & I went to London for a short course in massage. After hitting up a couple of geocaches in the beautiful Holland Park, we trotted into Notting Hill and met up with the woman who was to show us a variety of different ways to massage a variety of different body parts. “This is going to hurt,” the instructor warned us, as we sat ourselves down alongside the other two students – a Spanish couple about ten years older than us – and introduced ourselves. “We’re going to be experimenting with the extremes of hard and soft pressure to understand when each are useful and to find the middle ground. If you don’t wince at least once during that process, then your partner is doing it wrong.” She wasn’t kidding. At one point, I remember musing over whether the instructor might run an S&M dungeon on her days off. I think it was right after she said, “Come on; I want to see red marks!”

A variation on the 'S' move, common to hand and foot massage. As opposed to the 'M' move. Hang on... these moves are called 'S' and 'M'...? Seriously?

Feet, hands, shoulders, heads, backs… we took a tour of the body, swapping over from time to time to alternate who was the masseur and who was the… masseuee? Apparently I was the star pupil and picked it up quickly, but I may have had an unfair advantage because I’ve got “just the right kind of thumbs” for massage – they’re fat and straight, which is apparently ideal. So if the world of software goes belly-up when we someday invent computers that can program themselves, at least I now know that I could retrain as a massage therapist.

It’s a profession for which I’ve discovered a new-found respect. Massage is hard. Surprisingly harder than it looks. Despite her slender arms and shoulders, our trainer had a hell of a grip and a lot of upper body strength: emulating the level of pressure that she was able to apply was incredibly challenging, and by the second time that we were switching positions, I’d begun to work up a bit of a sweat. In my case, at least these bouts of exercise were punctuated by getting a nice relaxing massage (or, at worst, being used as an experimental punching bag), but for a professional masseur there’s no such relief.

All in all, it was a fun afternoon/evening out. We learned some enjoyable skills and got the chance to practice them under expert guidance. Once I’d learned to think of the rhythm and looseness as being similar to drumming (“What is that? 3/4 time?”), I really got a knack for loosening up back and shoulder muscles with hand-tapping. And Ruth learned to do an awesome hand massage trick using her knuckles.


Dan Q couldn’t find GC1R2BV Kensington Town Hall Ghost

This checkin to GC1R2BV Kensington Town Hall Ghost reflects a log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

We were only able to spend about 20 minutes searching for this, but didn’t manage to find it, even after looking at the clue. We found what we think must have been its hiding place and wonder if perhaps it’s been muggled again…? Hope not: it’s rare to see such large caches in such urban areas, and it’s always quite satisfying to find one. Good luck, future cachers! Hope it’s still there!

Remember Go Ape?

Many of you will remember that we went to Go Ape as part of Ruth & JTA’s stag/hen night, last year… and that we dressed as superheroes.

Superheroes gathered with civilians outside Jordans YHA, at Ruth and JTA's Stag/Hen Weekend party.

Well: it looks like we made a big difference to one little girl. Do you remember the kid who was scared to go on the big “tarzan swing” until she was cheered on my a group of us, hanging from the next platform along? Well, it turns out that we were mentioned in that girl’s family’s review of the day.

A review of the day out, by Emily Sarwa. Click on it to see it embiggened.

That’s kind-of sweet.

In other news, we’ll be doing another Go Ape trip on 27th March, to celebrate Paul‘s birthday. More of you ex-Aberites read my blog than has, so – if you’re coming – Paul’s asked me to remind you to fill in the form on his blog post about the event (we need to do this so we can pre-book for the appropriate number of people), and we’ll see you there! (superhero costumes are not mandatory, but you know I’ll be wearing mine…)

× ×

The Week of Balls

Early this week, I’ve spent quite a bit of time knee deep in the guts of Phusion Passenger (which remains one of the best deployment strategies for Rack applications, in my mind), trying to work out why a particular application I’d been working on wouldn’t deploy properly after a few upgrades and optimisations on the development server. Ultimately, I found the problem, but for a few hours there there I thought I was losing my mind.

This lunchtime, I decided to pull out all of my instant messenger logs (being out of the office, my co-workers at SmartData and I do a lot of talking via an IM system). I’d had a hunch that, so far this week, “balls” would be amongst my most-frequently typed words, chiefly uttered as yet another hypothesis about why the development server wasn’t behaving itself was blown out of the water. A few regular expressions (to strip it down to just the words I typed) and a run through a word-counter, and I had some results!

Here’s my top words of the work week so far:

Position Word(s)
1 – 18 the, to, I, a, it, that, of, in, and, on, but, have, what, is, you, just, so, for
Positions 1 through 18 contain some of the most-common conjunctions and pronouns that I use on a day-to-day basis, as well as some common verbs. Nothing surprising there. So far, so good.
19 Rails
Between the projects I’ve been involved with and those my colleagues are working on, there’s been a lot of discussion about (Ruby on) Rails around the office so far this week.
20 IPN, do
One of the projects I’ve been working on this week has used a payment gateway with an Instant Payment Notification service, so it’s not surprising that “IPN” appeared in the top 20, too…
22 was, this
24 my, know, at
27 up, don’t
Over 50% of “don’t”s were immediately followed by “know”: Monday was one of those days.
29 I’m
30 yeah, be, [name of troublesome web app]
Not unexpectedly, the name of the project that caused so much confusion earlier this week came up more than a little.
33 there, one, if
36 we, see, problem, get balls, back, all
These seven words never all appeared in a sentence together, but I sort of wish that they had. There’s the key word – balls – apparently the joint 36th most-used word by me between Monday morning and Wednesday lunchtime.

Other common words this week so-far included “jQuery“, that great JavaScript library (there was some discussion about how we can best make use of the new features provided by version 1.5), “payment” (again; a lot of talk of payment processing, this week), “means” (mostly where I was explaining the results of my investigations into the troublesome server), “tried” (a disappointing-sounding word), “error” (I saw a few of those, to be sure!), and “somehow” (not a reassuring thing to catch yourself saying).

Also pretty common this week was “boiler”, as I explained to my workmates the saga of the boiler at my house, which broke down at the weekend, leaving us with no hot water nor heating until it was repaired on Tuesday. On the upside, I did get to poke around inside the boiler while the repairman was taking it to bits, and learned all kinds of fascinating things about the way that they work. So, a silver lining, there.

Bits of our boiler: the hip bone's connected to the... leg bone.

With the boiler fixed at home, and the development server fixed at work, it finally feels like this week’s turning into the right kind of week. But for a while there, it didn’t look certain!


Finding my Geographic Centre

Have you come across GeoMidpoint? This web service will help you find the midpoint between any number of geographical points. They’ve got all kinds of proposed uses for it, like finding a convenient restaurant that’s equidistant from each of you and your friends, but one of the more frivolous activities you can enjoy using it for is to find your home “centre of gravity”. Put in everywhere you’ve lived (and, optionally, how long you lived there for, as a weighting factor), and it’ll show you the centre point.

I gave it a go. Here’s where I’m centred.

Dan's centre point (the green 'M' pin).

Okay, you think – it’s not so surprising that the centre point is near Preston: I spent over a decade living there. But here’s the quirk: my addresses weren’t weighted by how long I’d lived there. All I did is put in everywhere I’d lived for six months or more, and let these places all have equal weight.

Curious, then, that the centre point comes to within a quarter hour’s drive of either of my parents’ houses, in Preston.

I suppose there are some balancing factors, here: places that cancel one another out quite nicely. The Northern bias of Scotland is counteracted by the comparative Southernness of Aberystwyth, Oxford, and Surrey. The strong Western bias of the many different places I lived in Aberystwyth are invalidated by quite how far East Aberdeen and London are. But still, it seems to be a quirky coincidence to me that the centre point would be so close to where I did most of my growing up, despite how much I’ve moved around.

New Earth, where we'll be moving later this year

This observation comes only a little while after the other Earthlings and I have finished signing the paperwork on what is later this year to become our new home, New Earth. It’s still in the Oxford area, but provides us with some nice things that we’re looking forward to, like more space (something we never seem to have enough of!). And any of you who’ve visited by car will probably appreciate how much more accessible the driveway is…

We’ll be moving this Summer, and in doing so we’ll pull my little green triangle over into Chorley. Better that, I think, than out in the Irish sea, which is where it’d be if I weighted where I’d lived by the amount of time I’d spent there!

× ×


Recently, I learned that the roads in Great Britain are numbered in accordance with a scheme first imagined about ninety years ago, and, as it evolved, these road numbers were grouped into radial zones around London (except for Scotland, whose road numbering only joined the scheme later). I’d often noticed the “clusters” of similarly-numbered roads (living in Aberystwyth, you soon notice that all the A and B roads start with a 4, and I soon noticed that the very same A44 that starts in Aberystwyth seems to have followed me to my home here in Oxford).

Road Numbering Zones of the United Kingdom

Who’d have thought that there was such a plan to it. If you’re aware of any of the many roads which are in the “wrong” zone, you’d be forgiven for not seeing the pattern earlier, though. However, seeing all of this attempt at adding order to what was a chaotic system for the long period between the Romans leaving and the mid-20th century makes me wonder one thing: are there “roadspotters”?

There exist trainspotters, who pursue the more-than-a-little-bit-nerdy hobby of traveling around and looking at different locomotives, marking down their numbers in notepads and crossing them off in reference books. Does the same phenomena exist within road networks?

It turns out that it does; or some close approximation of it does, anyway. One gentleman, for example, writes about “recovering” road signs formerly of the A6144(M), which – until 2006 – was the UK’s only single-carriageway motorway. A site calling itself The Motorway Archive has a thoroughly-researched article on the construction history of the M74/A74(M) from Glasgow to Carlisle. Another website – and one that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d visited on a number of previous occasions – reviews every motorway service area in Britain. And, perhaps geekiest of all, the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts (SABRE) maintains a club, meetups, and a thoroughly-researched wiki of everything you never wanted to know about the roads of the British Isles.

From what started as a quick question about British road numbering, I find myself learning about a hobby that’s perhaps even geekier than trainspotting. Thanks, Internet.


Free Deed Poll Generator

I talk a lot. If you don’t want to listen to me ramble, and you’re just looking for the free deed poll generator, click here.

After Claire and I changed our names back in 2007, I actually took the time to do a little research into deeds poll (or, more-specifically in this case, deeds of change of name). It turns out that we did it the wrong way. We paid a company to do all of the paperwork for us, and – while it wasn’t terribly expensive – but it wasn’t free, and “free” is exactly how much it ought to cost.

In the intervening years I’ve helped several friends to change their names via deeds poll (yes, “deeds poll” is the correct plural), and I’ve learned more and more about why the whole process should be simpler and cheaper than many people would have you believe.

A deed poll, by definition, is nothing more than a promise signed by one person (it’s not even a contract – it’s got little more weight than a New Year’s resolution), on paper which has straight edges. That’s what the word “poll” actually means: that the paper has straight edges. Why? Because back then, a contract would typically be cut into two on an irregular line, so that when the two halves came together it would be clear that they were originally part of the same document – an anti-forgery measure. A deed poll, because it’s signed only by one person, doesn’t need to be separated like this, and so it has straight edges.

The Charter of the Clerecía de Ledesma, a contract from 1252 - note the cut top edge where it originally joined to the "other half" of the contract.

That means that’s it’s perfectly legitimate for you to write, on the back of a napkin, “I have given up my name [former name] and have adopted for all purposes the name [new name]. Signed as a deed on [date] as [former name] and [new name]. Witnessed by [witnesses signature(s)].”

The problem comes when you send that napkin off to the Inland Revenue, or the DVLA, or the Passport Office, and they send it back and laugh. You see, it helps a hell of a lot if your deed poll looks sort-of official. You ought to put some work into making it look nice, because that makes a world of difference when you ask people to believe it. That’s not to say that they won’t laugh at you anyway – the Passport Office certainly laughed at me – but at least they’ll accept your name change if it has an air of authority and is covered with all of the most-relevant legalese.

Behind the dozens of scam artists who’ll charge you £10, £20, £30, or even more to produce you an “official” deed poll (tip: there’s no such thing), there are one or two “free” services, too. But even the best of these has problems: the site is riddled with advertisements, the document isn’t produced instantly, you’re limited in how many deed polls you can generate, and – perhaps worst of all – you have to give them your email address in order to get the password to open the documents they give you. What gives?

Generate free UK deeds of name change at

So I’ve made my own. It’s completely free to use and it’s available at so what are you waiting for – go and change your name! Oh, and it’s also open-source, so if you want to see how it works (or even make your own version), you can.

Why? Well: I don’t like feeling like I’ve been scammed out of money, so if I can help just one person change their name for free who might otherwise have been conned into paying for something that they didn’t need: well, then I’ve won. So change your name or help your friends and family to, on me, or just download my code and learn a little bit about Ruby, Sinatra, and Prawn (the technologies that power the site). What’re you waiting for?