Toggling

The other morning, I did a strange thing. I got up as normal and had my breakfast. I made myself a packed lunch, just like always. I went outside to begin my cycle to work, but when I got to my bike, in the back garden of New Earth: instead of unlocking it and riding to work, I locked it up.

Then, I had to unlock it again so that I could ride it.

Why did this happen? It happened because my brain has clearly made the association that my daily routine includes “toggling my bike lock” as part of it’s actions, rather than “unlocking my bike lock”. It’s become ingrained that I have to “change the state” of my bike lock (from locked to unlocked, or vice-versa) before I can go to work… so when I forgot to lock my bike up the previous night, it threw off my morning as I began the day by locking it up, rather than unlocking it.

A Kryptonite New York lock, like the one I use. It weighs about a ton but it's pretty-much bombproof.

Back when I had my concussion last May, I did a similar thing, swapping the contents of two cupboards that we’d already swapped. I couldn’t remember why they were being exchanged, just that they were, so I swapped them over.

It’d be nice to think that I only engage in this kind of “toggling” behaviour when I’m sleepy, perhaps, or when I’ve suffered a head injury. But sadly, that turns out not to be the case:

Over the River Thames near Friar’s Wharf, there’s a footbridge that forms a part of the National Cycle Network. It’s part of my usual ride to work. A few months ago, I spent my workday running training sessions in an office on the other side of the river, and so I didn’t need to cross it to get home. But when I was cycling home, along the towpath, and reached the bridge, I started to cross it! I got half-way over before I realised that I was now heading exactly the wrong way and turned back. Again: my brain clearly has a short-circuit there, in that when I come to that bridge during a journey, I feel that I need to cross it. What’s the deal, brain?

This phenomenon seems to be related to muscle memory and the so-called “driving trance”: the same thing that traps you when you plan to run an errand on your way somewhere and somehow reach the other end of your journey having completely forgotten to run the errand. “I walked right past the post box with the letter in my hand! Why would I do that?”

I wonder how others experience “toggling”. Do you “toggle” things when you’re on autopilot?

New Computer #2 – Dana

The other week I built Tiffany2, New Earth‘s new media centre computer. She’s well-established and being used to watch movies, surf the web, and whatnot, now, so I thought I’d better fulfil my promise of telling you about my other new smaller-than-average computer, Dana, whose existence was made possible by gifts from my family over Christmas and my birthday.

Dana‘s size and power-consumption is so small that it makes Tiffany2 look like a bloated monster. That’s because Dana is a DreamPlug, an open-architecture plug computer following in the footsteps of the coveted SheevaPlug and GuruPlug.

A dreamplug (seen here with a two-pin power connector, which helps to give you a sense of its size).

The entire computer including its detachable power supply is only a little larger than the mobile telephones of the mid-nineties, and the entire device can be plugged straight into the wall. With no hard disk (it uses SD cards) and no fans, the DreamPlug has no moving parts to wear out or make noise, and so it’s completely silent. It’s also incredibly low-power – mine idles at about 4 watts – that’s about the same as a radio alarm clock, and about a hundredth of what my desktop PCs Toni and Nena run at under a typical load.

I’ve fitted up mine with a Mimo Mini-Monster 10″: a dinky little self-powered USB-driven touchscreen monitor about the size of an iPad. Right now the whole assembly – about the size of a large picture frame – sits neatly in the corner of my desk and (thanks to the magic of Synergy) forms part of my extended multi-monitor desktop, as well as acting as a computer in her own right.

Dana's Mimo Mini-Monster touchscreen: Dana herself is completely concealed behind the screen.

So on the surface, she’s a little bit like a wired tablet computer, which would seem a little silly (and indeed: at a glance you’d mistake her for a digital photo frame)! But because she’s a “real” computer underneath, with a 1.2GHz processor, 512MB RAM, USB, WiFi, and two Ethernet ports, there’s all kinds of fun things that can be done with her.

For a start, she provides an ultra low-power extension to my existing office development environment. I’ve experimented with “pushing” a few tasks over to her, like watching log file output, downloading torrents, running a web server, reading RSS feeds, and so on, but my favourite of her tasks is acting as a gateway between the rest of the world and my office.

A network diagram showing the layout of the computer networks on New Earth. It's more-complex than your average household.

While they’ve come a long way, modern ADSL routers are still woefully inadequate at providing genuine customisability and control over my home network. But a computer like this – small, silent, and cheap – makes it possible to use your favourite open-source tools (iptables, squid, sshd, etc.) as a firewall to segregate off a part of the network. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. My office – the pile of computers in the upper-right of the diagram, above – is regulated by Dana, whose low footprint means that I don’t feel bad about leaving her turned always-on.

That means that, from anywhere in the world (and even from my phone), I can now:

  1. Connect into Dana using SSH.
  2. Send magic packets to Toni, Nena, or Tiffany2 (all of which are on wired connections), causing them to turn themselves on.
  3. Remotely control those computers to, for example, get access to my files from anywhere, set them off downloading something I’ll need later, or whatever else.
  4. Turn them off when I’m done.

That’s kinda sexy. There’s nothing new about it – the technologies and standards involved are as old as the hills – but it’s nice to be able to do it using something that’s barely bigger than a postcard.

I have all kinds of ideas for future projects with Dana. It’s a bit like having a souped-up (and only a little bigger) Arduino to play with, and it’s brimming with potential. How about a webcam for my bird feeder? Or home-automation tools (y’know: so I can turn on my bedroom light without having to get out of bed)? Or a media and file server (if I attached a nice, large, external hard disk)? And then there’s the more far-fetched ideas: it’s easily low-power enough to run from a car battery – how about in-car entertainment? Or home-grown GPS guidance? What about a “delivered ready-to-use” intranet application, as I was discussing the other day with a colleague, that can be simply posted to a client, plugged in, and used? There’s all kinds of fun potential ideas for a box like this, and I’m just beginning to dig into them.

The Nontheist Glossary

There’s a word that seems to be being gradually redefined in our collective vocabulary, I was considering recently. That word is “nontheist”. It’s a relatively new word as it is, but in its earliest uses it seems to have been an umbrella term covering a variety of different (and broadly-compatible) theological outlooks.

Here are some of them, in alphabetical order:

agnostic

“It is not possible to know whether God exists.”

Agnostics believe that it is not possible to know whether or not there are any gods. They vary in the strength of their definition of the word “know”, as well as their definition of the word “god”. Like most of these terms, they’re not mutually-exclusive: there exist agnostic atheists, for example (and, of course, there exist agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and gnostic theists).

antitheist

“Believing in gods is a bad thing.”

Antitheists are opposed to the belief in gods in general, or to the practice of religion. Often, they will believe that the world would be better in the absence of religious faith, to some degree or another. In rarer contexts, the word can also mean an opposition to a specific deity (e.g. “I believe that in God, but I hate Him.”).

apatheist

“If the existence of God could be proven/disproven to me, it would not affect my behaviour.”

An apatheist belives that the existence or non-existence of gods is irrelevant. It is perfectly possible to define oneself as a theist, an atheist, or neither, and still be apathetic about the subject. Most of them are atheists, but not all: there are theists – even theists with a belief in a personal god – who claim that their behaviour would be no different even if you could (hypothetically) disprove the existence of that god, to them.

atheist

“There are no gods.”

As traditionally-defined, atheists deny the existence of either a specific deity, or – more-commonly – any deities at all. Within the last few hundred years, it has also come to mean somebody who rejects that there is any valid evidence for the existence of a god, a subtle difference which tends to separate absolutists from relativists. If you can’t see the difference between this and agnosticism, this blog post might help. Note also that atheism does not always imply materialism or naturalism: there exist atheists for example who believe in ghosts or in the idea of an immortal soul.

deist

“God does not interfere with the Universe.”

Deism is characterised by a belief in a ‘creator’ or ‘architect’ deity which put the universe into motion, but which does has not had any direct impact on it thereafter. Deists may or may not believe that this creator has an interest in humanity (or life at all), and may or may not feel that worship is relevant. Note that deism is nontheistic (and, by some definitions, atheistic) in that it denies the existence of a specific God – a personal God with a concern for human affairs – and so appears on this list even though it’s incompatible with many people’s idea of nontheism.

freethinker

“Science and reason are a stronger basis for decision-making than tradition and authority.”

To be precise, freethought is a philosophical rather than a theological position, but its roots lie in the religious: in the West, the term appeared in the 17th century to describe those who rejected a literalist interpretation of the Bible. It historically had a broad crossover with early pantheism, as science began to find answers (especially in the fields of astronomy and biology) which contradicted the religious orthodoxy. Nowadays, most definitions are functionally synonymous with naturalism and/or rationalism.

humanist

“Human development is furthered by reason and ethics, and rejection of superstition.”

In the secular sense (as opposed to the word’s many other meanings in other fields), humanism posits that ethical and moral behaviour, for the benefit of individual humans and for society in general, can be attained without religion or a deity. It requires that individuals assess viewpoints for themselves and not simply accept them on faith. Note that like much of this list, secular humanism is not incompatible with other viewpoints – even theism: it’s certainly possible to believe in a god but still to feel that society is always best-served by a human-centric (rather than a faith-based) model.

igtheist

“There exists no definition of God for which one can make a claim of theism or atheism.”

One of my favourite nontheistic terms, igtheism (also called ignosticism) holds that words like “god” are not cognitively meaningful and can not be argued for or against. The igtheist holds that the question of whether or not any deities exist is meaningless not because any such deities are uninterested in human affairs (like the deist) or because such a revelation would have no impact upon their life (like the apatheist) but because the terms themselves have no value. The word “god” is either ill-defined, undefinable, or represents an idea that is unfalsifiable.

materialist

“The only reality is matter and energy. All else is an illusion caused by these.”

The materialist perspective holds that the physical universe is as it appears to be: an effectively-infinite quantity of matter and energy, traveling through time. It’s incompatible with many forms of theism and spiritual beliefs, but not necessarily with some deistic and pantheistic outlooks: in many ways, it’s more of a philosophical stance than a nontheistic position. It grew out of the philosophy of physicalism, and sharply contrasts the idealist or solipsist thinking.

naturalist

“Everything can be potentially explained in terms of naturally-occurring phenomena.”

A closely-related position to that of materialism is that of naturalism. The naturalist, like the materialist, claims that there can be, by definition, no supernatural occurrences in our natural universe, and as such is similarly incompatible with many forms of theism. Its difference, depending on who you ask, tends to be described as being that naturalism does not seek to assume that there is not possibly more to the universe than we could even theoretically be capable of observing, but that does not make such things “unnatural”, much less “divine”. However, in practice, the terms naturalism and materialism are (in the area of nontheism) used interchangeably. The two are also similar to some definitions of the related term, “rationalism”.

pantheist

“The Universe and God are one and the same.”

The pantheist believes that it is impossible to distinguish between God and the University itself. This belief is nontheistic because it typically denies the possibility of a personal deity. There’s an interesting crossover between deists and pantheists: a subset of nontheists, sometimes calling themselves “pandeists”, who believe that the Universe and the divine are one and the same, having come into existence of its own accord and running according to laws of its own design. A related but even-less-common concept is panentheism, the belief that the Universe is only a part of an even-greater god.

secularist

“Human activities, and especially corporate activities, should be separated from religious teaching.”

The secularist viewpoint is that religion and spiritual thought, while not necessarily harmful (depending on the secularist), is not to be used as the basis for imposing upon humans the a particular way of life. Secularism, therefore, tends to claim that religion should be separated from politics, education, and justice. The reasons for secularism are diverse: some secularists are antitheistic and would prefer that religion was unacceptable in general; others take a libertarian approach, and feel that it is unfair for one person to impose their beliefs upon another; still others simply feel that religion is something to be “kept in the home” and not to be involved in public life.

skeptic

“Religious authority does not intrinsically imply correctness.”

Religious skeptics, as implied by their name, doubt the legitimacy of religious teaching as a mechanism to determine the truth. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned term, dating back to an era in which religious skepticism – questioning the authority of priests, for example – was in itself heretical: something which in the West is far rarer than it once was.

transtheist

“I neither accept nor reject the notion of a deity, but find a greater truth beyond both possibilities.”

The notion of transtheism, a form of post-theism, is that there exists a religious philosophy that exists both outside and beyond that of both theism and atheism. Differentiating between this and deism, or apatheism, is not always easy, but it’s a similar concept to Jain “transcendence”: the idea that there may or may not exist things which may be called “godlike”, but the ultimate state of being goes beyond this. It can be nontheistic, because it rejects the idea that a god plays a part in human lives, but is not necessarily atheistic.

However, I’ve observed that the word “nontheist” seems to be finding a new definition, quite apart from the umbrella description above.

In recent years, a number of books have been published on the subject of atheism, some of which – and especially The God Delusion – carry a significant antitheistic undertone. This has helped to inspire the idea that atheism and antitheism are the same thing (which for many atheists, and a tiny minority of antitheists, simply isn’t true), and has lead some people who might otherwise have described themselves as one or several of the terms above to instead use the word “nontheist” as a category of its own.

This “new nontheist” definition is still very much in its infancy, but I’ve heard it described as “areligious, but spiritual”, or “atheistic, but not antitheistic”.

Personally, I don’t like this kind of redefinition. It’s already hard enough to have a reasonable theological debate – having to stop and define your terms every step of the way is quite tiresome! – without people whipping your language out from underneath you right when you were standing on it. I can see how those people who are, for example, “atheistic, but not antitheistic” might want to distance themselves from the (alliterative) antitheistic atheist authors, but can’t they pick a different word?

After all: there’s plenty of terms going spare, above, to define any combination of nontheistic belief, and enough redundancy that you can form a pile of words higher than any Tower of Babel. Then… perhaps… we can talk about religion without stopping to fight over which dictionary is the true word.

Marks & Spensive

Sometimes, the opportunity arises to troll the real world. And these opportunities are too good to miss. Earlier this week, I found myself in Marks & Spencer, buying some food and wine for a “carpet picnic”-and-Angel date-night-in with Ruth.

The grand total at the checkout came to £26.38: I’d precalculated this and was ready: as the number came up on the checkout I handed over a “£5 off when you spend £25” voucher, and a £20 M&S gift card.

“That’ll be… £1.38,” said the assistant, as I packed my shopping into a bag. Behind me, a young couple had joined the queue, behind me, and had clearly overheard the price. The looked stunned.

Naturally, then, I made sure that they saw the wine, the cakes, the fruit, the bread products, and everything else as I carefully loaded it all into the bag. “£1.38, wasn’t it?” I asked, as if I were double-checking, reaching into my wallet.

Catching the gaze of the shoppers behind me, as if I’d only just noticed them, I spoke to them as the cashier counted out my change. “It’s a great special offer, this one,” I said, “All of this for £1.38. Bargain!”

And then picked up my bag and left, watching the gobsmacked couple as they tried to work out how I’d managed to get 95% off the value of my shopping. Delightful.

It’s the little things, really.

Looking for Wikipedia?

As you may have noticed, the English-speaking Wikipedia is “blacking out” in protest at SOPA/PIPA. This is a very important thing: SOPA/PIPA are potentially extremely dangerous bits of legislation (if you’re looking for a short explanation of why, here’s a great video).

I’m going to assume that you’re aware of the issues and have already taken action appropriate to your place – if you’re in the US, you’ve written to your representatives; if you’re in the rest of the English-speaking world, you’ve donated to the EFF (this issue affects all of us), etc. But if you’re in need of Wikipedia, here’s the simplest way to view it, today:

Accessing Wikipedia during the blackout

  1. Go to the English-language Wikipedia as normal. You’ll see the “SOPA blackout” page after a second or so.
  2. Copy-paste the following code into the address bar of the browser:

javascript:(function()%7Bdocument.getElementById('content').style.display='block';document.getElementById('mw-sopaOverlay').style.display='none'%7D)()

That’s all. You don’t even have to turn off Javascript in your browser, as others are suggesting: just surf away.

If you get sick of copy-pasting on every single Wikipedia page you visit… you can drag this link to your bookmarks toolbar (or right click it and select “add to bookmarks”) and then just click it from your bookmarks whenever you want to remove the blackout.

And if you just came here for the shortcut without making yourself aware of the issues, shame on you.

Northern Radio

As I mentioned earlier, I spent some of the period between Christmas and New Year in Preston. And there, while taking a shower at my mother’s house, I had a strange experience.

My mother's shower is one of the new style of high-tech ones, with a dozen different washing functions as well as a built in light and radio. I gather that there are ones with built in phones, now, too.

One of the funky features of my mother’s shower cubicle is that it includes a fully working FM radio. Its controls are pretty limited and there’s no user interface to provide feedback about what frequency you’re tuned to already, so it’s hard to deliberately tune in to a specific station. Instead, the house policy seems to be that if you don’t like what you’re listening to, you press the “cycle to the next station” button until you hear something you like.

Listening to music is about the third or second most-enjoyable thing that one can possibly do in a shower, in my experience, so I gave it a go. Local station Radio Wave came on, and they were playing some fun tunes, so I sang along as I washed myself under the hot steamy “drench” setting on the shower.

Radio Wave (96.5FM), Blackpool, Lancashire

At the end of a couple of songs, there were some commercials and the show’s presenter shared a few words. And it occurred to me quite how very Northern he sounded.

Living and working in Oxford, I don’t in my day to day life come across people with that broad lanky dialect. Growing up in Preston, and going to school there, I came across it on a daily basis, but didn’t notice it. Now, in its absence, it’s starkly noticable, with its traditional short gutteral “t” instead of “the”, use of the archaic second-person “tha” (related to “thou”), and the ever-present pronunciation of words like “right” and “light” as “reet” and “leet”, and “cold” and “old” as “cowd” and “owd”.

It’s unfamiliar, but still “homely”. Like that smell that reminds you of where you grew up, this sound to my ears filled me with a strange nostalgia.

It’s funny, because I’m sure I carry a little bit of that accent with me. To the folks in my life around Oxford way, I perhaps sound as foreign as those people in Preston sound to me, now. I spoke on the phone the other week to a couple of people I used to hang out with, back in the day, and my immediate thought was that they’d become more Lanky than I remembered – as if they’d somehow overdosed on butter pie and barm cakes in the years since I last saw them.

But that’s clearly not the case: it’s not their voices that have changed, but my ears. Untouched by the North-Western tongue for so long, it sounds very strange to me now to hear it over the phone, on the radio, or even in person.

It’s a strange side-effect of moving around the country. I wonder what it’s like for my American friends, who have an even bigger gap (both geographically and linguistically) between their homes in the UK and their families in the US, to “phone home”.

Village Of The Bunnies

The other thing (other than building Tiffany2 and a second computer, to be described later) that happened last weekend, of course, is that it was my birthday! I share my birthday with David Bowie and Elvis Presley, so if you were ever looking for evidence about how astrology is bullshit: that’s it right there (I have no musical talent whatsoever, although I’m pretty good at Guitar Hero).

I didn’t organise myself a surprise birthday party this year, but instead had a quiet – but drunken – afternoon in with the Earthlings. Ruth had asked me earlier in the week, though, if “there’s anything special that I’d like to eat?” And, of course, I answered:

“A gingerbread village under assault from enormous gelatinous bunny rabbits!”

This was a convenient request, because we already had a lot of the ingredients to-hand. So Ruth and I spent some time building, decorating, and demolishing exactly such a scene.

Gummy-bear citizens gather around a candle lamp-post in the gingerbread village. Little do they know of the horror that approaches...
The village, under construction. The first bunny came out a little wet, so we decided that it was dead already, recently slain by the villagers.
Armed villagers spear the red bunny.
The green bunny, its maw dripping with gummy blood, advances through the ruins of the damaged North side of the village.
The first casualty; his gummy friends stand shocked around him. But with the orange bunny about to reach the South flank, there's nowhere to retreat: they must stand and fight!
The orange bunny proves to be a challenge to deploy. More warm water is needed.
The village is lit as the battle against the bunnies continues throughout the night.

This, you see, is what happens when I’m given cocktail-making equipment and supplies for my birthday. Nothing makes this kind of activity make sense so much as spending the whole day drinking champagne cocktails.

I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that as the scene came together I began developing a ruleset for a  tabletop wargame playable using gummy sweets.

In any case, it was a fantastic way to see in the beginning of my thirty-second year.

My Very Excellent Liz Just Brought Us Sixteen Pizzas

I hadn’t really talked about it yet, because I’ve been too busy… I don’t know… blogging about Marmite and beds and computers or something… but I had the most fabulous time at a New Year’s party hosted by Liz and Simon at their house in Macclesfield. There was drinking, and board games, and truly awful Troma films, and then at midnight we all counted down from 7, or 12, or something, and spontaneously broke out into a chorus of Auld Lang Syne. See: there’s a video and everything –


(can’t see the video? click here to watch on YouTube)

It seems that my mnemonic (as used in the title of this post) is broken, unless we reinstate Pluto as a planet and rename the fourth and eighth planets in the solar system to Lars and Septune, respectively. Which I think are better names, anyway.

It was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with folks I don’t see enough of, to talk about what had gone right (and wrong) about the year gone by, and what we were looking forward to in the year to come. Liz suggested that perhaps this should become a regular thing, a little like “fake Christmas” has begun to, and that seems like a good idea (and I’m pretty sure I heard Bryn volunteer to host it next year…).

By the way: do you remember how last year Paul, Ruth, JTA and I invented Argh! It Burns Night? We’re doing it again this year, and because so many of you expressed an interest in joining us, we’d like you to come too. It’ll be on the evening of Saturday 4th February (yes, we know this is a little late for a Burns Night, but the second part of Ruth & JTA’s honeymoon is going to get in the way otherwise): drop me an email if you want to come along for a night of haggis, whisky, and fanfiction.

New Computer #1 – Tiffany2

This weekend, I integrated two new computers into the home network on New Earth. The first of these is Tiffany2.

Tiffany2 is a small "media centre" style computer with an all-in-one remote keyboard/mouse.

Tiffany2 replaces Tiffany, the media centre computer I built a little under four years ago. The original Tiffany was built on a shoestring budget of under £300, and provided the technical magic behind the last hundred or so Troma Nights, as well as countless other film and television nights, a means to watch (and record and pause) live TV, surf the web, and play a game once in a while.

The problem with Tiffany is that she was built dirt-cheap at a time when building a proper media centre PC was still quite expensive. So she wasn’t very good. Honestly, I’m amazed that she lasted as long as she did. And she’s still running: but she “feels” slow (and takes far too long to warm up) and she makes a noise like a jet engine… which isn’t what you want when you’re paying attention to the important dialogue of a quiet scene.

Tiffany and Tiffany2. Were this a histogram of their relative noise levels, the one on the left would be much, much larger.

Tiffany2 is virtually silent and significantly more-powerful than her predecessor. She’s also a lot smaller – not much bigger than a DVD player – and generally more feature-rich.

This was the first time I’d built an ITX form-factor computer (Tiffany2 is Mini-ITX): I wanted to make her small, and it seemed like the best standard for the job. Assembling some of her components felt a little like playing with a doll’s house – she has a 2.5″ hard disk and a “slimline” optical drive: components that in the old days we used to call “laptop” parts, which see new life in small desktop computers.

Examples of six different hard drive form factors. Tiffany2 uses the third-smallest size shown in this picture. The computer you're using, unless it's a laptop, probably uses the third-largest (picture courtesy Paul R. Potts, CC-At-SA).

In order to screw in some of the smaller components, I had to dig out my set of watchmaker’s screwdrivers. Everything packs very neatly into a very small space, and – building her – I found myself remembering my summer job long ago at DesignPlan Lighting, where I’d have to tuck dozens of little components, carefully wired-together, into the shell of what would eventually become a striplight in a tube train or a prison, or something.

She’s already deployed in our living room, and we’ve christened her with  the latest Zero Punctuation, a few DVDs, some episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, and an episode of Total Wipeout featuring JTA‘s old history teacher as a contestant. Looks like she’s made herself at home.

(for those who are sad enough to care, Tiffany2 is running an Intel Core i3-2100 processor, underclocked to 3GHz, on an mITX Gigabyte GA-H61N-USB3 motherboard with 4GB RAM, a 750GB hard disk, and DVD-rewriter, all wrapped up in an Antec ISK 300-150 case with a 150W power supply: easily enough for a media centre box plus some heavy lifting if I ever feel the need to give her any)

Five Beds

I took a tour of the United Kingdom over the Christmas period, and was offered no fewer than five different beds to sleep in. Here’s a little about each of them:

Robin’s Bed

The first bed belonged to Robin, (Ruth‘s little brother) at their mother’s house. Robin wasn’t with us for the entire period that Ruth, JTA and I spent visiting Ruth’s mother, so I was able to annex his bed for much of the time.

Robin, his boss, and his boss's dog turned up in a rental van: "The only vehicle they could get hold of at short notice on Christmas Eve."

While at first it appeared to be just a regular single bed, closer investigation revealed that the entire headboard was hinged, with radial bolts to hold it upright during normal use. Opening these bolts allowed the headboard to tilt forward and lie down on the bed. I have no idea what purpose this mechanism was supposed to serve, but it was very useful for getting my hand down the back to plug my mobile phone charger in to the otherwise-inaccessible sockets behind.

Owen’s Folding Mattress

While Robin and his boss were around, though, I was relegated to the living room floor, and given a folding mattress that Owen (Ruth’s older brother) used to keep in his van as a crash-space. Unfolded and then wrapped in a blanket and sheet for comfort, it didn’t look like much except a quick way to consume floor space.

But damned if it wasn’t the most comfortable thing I slept on all week. I’d jarred my back in some awkward way (probably lugging my enormous suitcase and a stack of presents around the country!), and a low, firm mattress on a hard floor turns out to have been exactly what it needed to speed my recovery.

If this kind of futon looks familiar, then like me you probably used to volunteer somewhere that owned one. This one's a single, which is significantly less-awkward to fold and unfold.

My Mother’s Futon

My next overnight stop was in Preston, visiting my family. My mother keeps a futon in her study, a room barely bigger than the bed when fully deployed, which made getting into and out of the room more than a little challenging, but only marginally less-difficult than re-folding it back into a chair every time.

The futon itself was comfortable enough, but the room was extremely nippy. After a particular cold snap one day, I began taking not one but two hot water bottles to bed, and running an electric heater for an hour or so beforehand. I suppose the main problem was the tiny 4.5-tog “summer” duvet I was using, which I’m sure would have delightful if I were in, say, Egypt. Still: I got to rediscover quite how delightfully opulent it is to get into a bed that’s been freshly warmed by a pair of hot water bottles, which was nice (albeit also necessary).

My Dad’s Bed

When he left Preston to go and finish his final few days with Go North East, he offered me the use of his bed, which – given the temperatures on my mother’s futon – I should have taken.

But I didn’t, so this bed is the bed that wasn’t. Five just seemed like a better number than four for the article title. And no, “five beds” isn’t a metaphor for something (which I feel the need to say after some of the feedback I got to my apparently-too-mysterious earlier post, “Marmite“).

The beds might be cold, but this photo shows a few dozen great things about Christmas at my mother's. When drinking, stop before you get as far back as the cooking oil.

Liz & Simon’s Massage Mattress

I saw the New Year in at Liz and Simon‘s house in Macclesfield, where I was given the choice between the couch and a “massage mattress”. Naturally, I opted for the latter – one doesn’t turn down a strange-looking, vibrating sleeping partner without good cause!

Unfortunately, I never got to try it out! After a copious quantity of alcohol and a handful of other substances, my one-day-only roommate Alex collapsed onto the sofa and fell asleep within seconds. Not wanting to wake him, I left the mattress off and just, y’know, slept on it (how old-fashioned). It was still a great night’s rest after a fantastic party, though.

So there we are – a round-up review of my sleeping arrangements. Apparently I’m in a slightly off-the-wall blogging mood so far this year. Because sleeping on-the-wall… would be weird.

Marmite

This blog post is about Marmite. I apologise if it makes you hungry, nauseous, or confused.

Your mate. Marmite.

My partner enjoys Marmite. This isn’t a surprise: I’ve known it for years. Some weekend mornings I’ve seen her enthusiastically scoff down some Marmite on toast, and I’ve known times that she’s been feeling run-down and hungry and the prospect of a bit of Marmite is exactly what she needs to get her motor running again. She doesn’t eat it all the time, but she likes to keep a jar around in anticipation: Marmite lasts pretty much forever, so there’s no hurry.

It’s only since living with her, though, that I’ve seen so much of the strange sticky substance as I have. That’s not her doing, I’ll stress: she’s always respectful of the fact that I seem to just be one of those people who’s just never going to be a Marmite-eater, and she doesn’t surprise me with Marmite-infused foodstuffs. In exchange, I try not to complain whenever I can smell that the jar is open.

Her husband enjoys Marmite too. Sometimes she makes Marmite whirls, pastry spirals with a sharp taste of Marmite, and I think she does so mostly because she knows that he enjoys them so much. I honestly don’t know how often he eats the stuff other than when she serves it: occasionally, I guess.

Marmite whirls. You love them, or you hate them, or you go round and round and round them like an escaped rollercoaster.

I’ve only recently kept Marmite in my cupboard: it’s a new addition to my food supply. Are my partner and husband responsible for this? No… well, only insofar as that they once reminded me that they keep Marmite in the house: “We keep our Marmite in this cupboard,” they said, and that was that. (sometimes they disagree on which shelf the Marmite belongs on, but more often than not they’re in agreement)

But now there’s Marmite in my cupboard. I’m not sure why I keep it there. I still don’t really like Marmite, although I think that with experience I’ve learned to appreciate what others see in its flavour, even if it doesn’t sit comfortably in me.

I look at the jar of Marmite in my cupboard. “Why are you there?” I ask it, “What am I supposed to do with you?” It doesn’t answer. It is, of course, only Marmite. I realise that I’m standing alone in the kitchen, talking to my shelf, and I feel a little stupid. But it’s a puzzle that I can’t solve: how did the Marmite even get into my cupboard? I certainly didn’t buy it. Did it… put itself there?

Time for some buttered toast.

This blog post is not about Marmite. My apology still stands.