Full Stop

Update: the funeral will take place at 4pm on Friday 2nd March, at Preston Crematorium.

On Sunday, my dad died.

And honestly, I’m not sure what else to say. There’s nothing else left to say. It felt like my tweet – like all tweets – said too little, too. But I didn’t want to keep anybody in the dark about this tragic news, so… well…

As I mentioned in December, my dad had planned a sponsored expedition to the North Pole, this April, in order to raise money for TransAid, a charity about whose work he was passionate. As part of his training, he was up on High Street, a fell in the Lake District, with his friend John. There, he lost his footing and slipped, falling over a 200 foot precipice. He was discovered to be dead when the air ambulance arrived; almost certainly killed pretty much instantaneously by the fall.

My dad, doing what he loved the most: taking on the world and braving the elements.

Since then, I’ve been in Preston, where my sisters, our mother, my dad’s partner, and our friends have been trying to come to terms with this tragic loss, and to make arrangements for his funeral. We’re keeping busy, which is probably for the best, right now. I’d like to say thank you to everybody who’s sent cards, emails, or text messages: your thoughts and sympathies are really appreciated, and I apologise that there simply hasn’t been time to reply to you all individually.

My dad died doing what he loved: exploring the outdoors, walking, climbing, and pushing his limits, in aid of a worthy cause that meant a lot to him. He was in incredible physical fitness, and I’d always suspected that 15 years from now, with him in his 70s and I in my 40s, he’d still have been able to outpace me on a scramble up Helvellyn’s Striding Ridge.

I’m sad that that’s a theory that I’ll never be able to put to the test. I’m sad that my dad never lived long enough to see if he’d have any grandchildren. I’m sad that the world is so cruel as to deny us all those conversations left unfinished and those mountains left unconquered. I’m even sad that I’ll never again get an out-of-the-blue call from him on some Saturday afternoon because he  can’t work out how to use his printer, or fix his Internet connection.

And I still don’t know what to say. So for now, at least, that’s all.

Update: Added photo and funeral info.

The Course, Of Course

I mentioned back in October that I’ve returned to education and am now studying counselling, part-time. I thought I’d share with you an update on how that’s going.

The classroom at Aylesbury College where the practical parts (and some of the theory) of my course are taught.

The short answer: it’s going well.

I’m finding myself challenged in fun and new ways, despite my volunteering experience, which has included no small amount of work on emotional support helplines of one kind of another. For example, we’ve on two occasions now done role-play sessions in which the “helper” (the person acting in the role of a counsellor) has been required to not ask any questions to the “helpee” (their client). Depending on your theoretical orientation and your background, that’s either a moderately challenging or a very challenging thing – sort of like the opposite of a game of Questions, but with the added challenge that you’re trying to pay attention to what the other participant is actually saying, rather than thinking “Don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question…” the whole damn time.

It’s an enjoyable exercise, and works really well to help focus on sometimes-underused skills like paraphrasing and summarising, as well as of course giving you plenty of opportunity to simply listen, attend to the helpee, and practice your empathic response. The first time I did it I was noticed (by my observer) to be visibly uncomfortable, almost “itching to ask something”, but by the second occasion, I’d cracked it. It’s like climbing with one arm tied behind your back! But as you’d expect of such an exercise, it leaves you with far more care, and control… and one enormous muscular arm!

Amidst all of the “fluffy” assessment, I was pleased this semester to be able to cut my teeth on some theoretical stuff, as a break. The practical side is good, but I do enjoy the chance to get deep into some theory once in a while, and my reading list has spiraled out of control as each thing I read leads me to find two other titles that I’d probably enjoy getting into next. I’ve recently been reading Living with ‘The Gloria Films’: A Daughter’s Memory, by Pamela J Burry, whose existence in itself takes a little explanation:

Gloria with Carl Rogers, from the film "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy"

In 1964, three psychotherapists walked into a bar. They were Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls. They had a few drinks, and then they had an argument about whose approach to psychotherapy was the best.

“I respect you both deeply,” began Perls, “But surely it is clear to see that your rejection of Gestalt therapy is rooted in your attempts to pretend to be accepting of it. It is clearly the superior approach.”

“You don’t need to get emotional over this,” said Ellis, “Let’s just go back and find the event that first inspired your prejudice against my rational emotive therapy, and re-examine it: there should be no doubt that it is the best way to treat disorders.”

“It feels like you’re being quite cold to one another,” said Rogers, father of the humanistic approach, after a moment’s pause. “I wonder what we could do to explore this disagreement that we’re having… and perhaps come to an answer that feels right to us all?”

And so the three agreed to a test: they would find a subject who was willing to undergo a single therapy session from all three of them, and then it’d be clear who was the winner. They’d film the whole thing, to make sure that there could be no denying the relative successes of each approach. And the losers would each pay for all of the winner’s drinks the next time they went out to the Rat And Bang, their local pub.

Albert Ellis wraps up at the end of his section of "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy".

Now that story is complete bullshit, but it’s far more-amusing than any true explanation as to why these three leading counsellors were filmed, each in turn, talking to a client by the name of Gloria – a 30-year-old divorced mother of three concerned with being a good parent and how she presents herself to men. I’ll leave you to find and watch the films for yourself if you want: they’re all available on video sharing sites around the web, and I’d particularly recommend Carl Rogers’ videos if you’re looking for something that almost everybody will find quite watchable.

Gloria died fifteen years later, but her daughter “Pammy” (whose question about sex, when she was nine years old, gave so much material to Gloria’s session with Carl Rogers) wrote a biography of their lives together, which was published in 2008. The focus of “The Gloria Films” was on the therapeutic methodologies of the practitioners, of course. But Gloria herself was intelligent and compelling, and I was genuinely interested to get “the rest of the story” after she left that film studio (made up to look like a psychotherapist’s office) and got on with her life.

Hence the book.

And so hence, my example of how I keep reading (or in this case watching) things, which  lead me to find more things to read, which in turn give me yet more things to read.

And now you’re up-to-date.

Valentine’s Day

Ruth, JTA and I had a fabulous Valentine’s Day evening, last night. Over the last few years we seem to have drifted into treating Valentine’s Day as being a general celebration of love, and those we love, rather than specifically about any particular relationship, as Ruth explained quite eloquently to the student journalist that interviewed us the previous day – more on that in a future blog post.

You can tell that it's Valentine's Day, because there are even more flowers than usual on New Earth.

It’s true. Anniversaries and our “date nights” are already an opportunity to celebrate the individual relationships between Ruth and I, and between Ruth and JTA. Meanwhile, JTA and I’s “Greek nights” are our chance to reinforce our platonic bond (over copious quantities of beer and whisky, and generally, diversion into gossip, public transport, and philosophy – often in that order). Valentine’s Day is one of our slightly-rarer “vee nights”: when the three of us make a deliberate effort to do something special as a threesome.

Paul‘s away this week, so we had New Earth to ourselves, and so mushrooms were on the menu (Paul really doesn’t like mushrooms, and the rest of us do, so it’s become a special treat that we eat lots of mushrooms on nights that we’re eating without him). We set a candlelit table, and I had a go at making a mushroom wellington, which turned out remarkably well despite the fact that I’ve cooked virtually nothing involving pastry for over a decade. Keeping with our “food that’s rolled up” theme, Ruth had produced a fantastic black forest roulade.

And so the evening wore on, and we ate copious quantities of doughnuts, and drank a lot of pink fizzy stuff, and re-watched Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Celebrating love (for as many people as you have) without buying into Valentine’s Day consumerism. Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me.

Monogamy and Mathematics

“We have to split up… in case somebody better comes along!”

Either from our own real life or from popular culture and the media, we’ve all come across a statement like that. It’s rarely quite so brazen: instead, it’s sometimes concealed behind another reason, whether tactful or simply false. But it still reeks of a lack of commitment and an unwillingness to “give it a try.”

With thanks for Flickr user "i.am.rebecca".

However, it turns out that there’s actually a solid mathematical basis for it. Let’s assume for a moment that you:

  1. Engage exclusively in monogamous relationships. To each their own, I suppose.
  2. Are seeking for a relationship that will last indefinitely (e.g. traditional monogamous marriage, “’til death do us part,” and all that jazz).
  3. Can’t or won’t date your exes.
  4. Can rate all of your relationships relative to one another (i.e. rank them all, from best to worst)?
  5. Can reasonably estimate the number of partners that you will have the opportunity to assess over the course of your life. You can work this out by speculating on how long you’ll live (and be dating!) for, and multiplying, though of course there are several factors that will introduce error. When making this assumption, you should assume that you break up from any monogamous relationship that you’re currently in, and that no future monogamous relationship is allowed to last long enough that it may prevent you from exploring the next one, until you find “the one” – the lucky winner you’re hoping to spend the rest of your life with.

Assuming that all of the above is true, what strategy should you employ in order to maximise your chance of getting yourself the best possible lover (for you)?

The derivation of the optimal policy for the secretary problem.

It turns out that clever (and probably single) mathematicians have already solved this puzzle for you. They call it the Secretary Problem, because they’d rather think about it as being a human resources exercise, rather than a reminder of their own tragic loneliness.

A Mathematical Strategy for Monogamy

Here’s what you do:

  1. Take the number of people you expect to be able to date over the course of your lifetime, assuming that you  never “settle down” and stop dating others. For example’s sake, let’s pick 20.
  2. Divide that number by e – about 2.71828. You won’t get a round number, so round down. In our example, we get 7.
  3. Date that many people – maybe you already have. Leave them all. This is important: these first few (7, in our example) aren’t “keepers”: the only reason you date them is to give you a basis for comparison against which you rate all of your future lovers.
  4. Keep dating: only stop when you find somebody who is better than everybody you’ve dated so far.

And there you have it! Mathematically-speaking, this strategy gives you a 37% chance of ending up with the person who – of all the people you’d have had the chance to date – is the best. 37% doesn’t sound like much, but from a mathematical standpoint, it’s the best you can do with monogamy unless you permit yourself to date exes, or to cheat.

Or to conveniently see your current partner as being better than you would have objectively rated them otherwise. That’s what love will do for you, but that’s harder to model mathematically.

Of course, if everybody used this technique (or even if enough people used it that you might be reasonably expected to date somebody who did, at some point in your life), then the problem drifts into the domain of game theory. And by that point, you’d do better to set up a dating agency, collect everybody’s details, and use a Stable Marriage problem solution to pair everybody up.

This has been a lesson in why mathematicians shouldn’t date.

Argh! It Burns! Night 2012

Building on the success of last year’s Argh! It Burns! Night, we Earthlings once again hosted our “alternative” Burns Night this year, last weekend. Yes, we know that’s a little late for Burns Night, but many of us have been away touring Scotland or on honeymoon or otherwise busy.

The hallway whiteboard welcomes the guests. Why doesn't everybody have a hallway whiteboard in their house?

Again, the idea of the night is loosely based on Burns Night: we eat a meal of haggis, neeps, and tatties, accompanied by a dram of whisky (or Irn-Bru – Scotland’s other national drink – in the case of Paul, who doesn’t like whisky). But instead of making readings of classic folks literature and poetry, we put a twist on it by performing readings of really bad fan fiction.

At the appointed hour - five minutes to five - the whiskies are opened and drinking commences.

We got off to a late start because Liz and Simon got caught up in the heavy snowfall that poured down across this end of the country. But that wasn’t a problem, because the rest of us – Ruth, JTA, Paul, Matt P and I – just had longer to drink and catch up with one another’s lives while we waited.

As the snow began to fall, Ruth and I went out to make snow angels. So excited by the snow, Ruth didn't even bother to put her shoes on first.

To start the evening, Ruth – as last year’s winner – performed a reading of Garfield: King of Liberty, another Garfield-themed fanfic from “ShakespeareHemmingway“, the author of her winning piece from last year. I’m still not convinced that he’s not a troll, but he is pretty damn funny.

Highlight: With these words Garfield and his Liberty Ladies made love of passion that sparked skies like fireworks as they rubbed their bodies liked sand on water. Garfield delivered pleasure into their bodies like manly post office man delivering package of love explosion. Their love exploded like cannonball shots into night and went on for hours and days.

This year's prize - a can of premixed Famous Grouse whisky and caffeine-free cola.

First among this year’s competitors was Matt, reading Misadventures Of The ‘Tragedy’ Dorm, a 20%-homoerotic, 80%-creepy attempt to bring a variety of Shakespeare’s characters into the modern age.

Highlight: Romeo having a rant about what coloured board shorts to wear. “Which colour should I weeeeaaar!” Yep. All the usual stuff. 

JTA performs his reading.

Second was Simon, reading The Death Of Vince Noir, a Mighty Boosh fic, apparently (hampered by the fact that many of his audience have little to no experience of The Mighty Boosh). I hate to spoil it for you, but the twist is that it’s all a dream.

Highlight: When Mick Jagger stepped into the strange Daulston second-hand shop he was greeted by an odd sight. Instead of the screaming trendy fan who he had expected to meet, he was greeted by a giant ape comforting a man in the corner. Specifically, a bald man wearing last month’s leopard skin catsuit, wailing mournfully into handfuls of raven-black hair in a puddle of his own tears. The whole thing looked freakily fucked up.

Liz tries to explain why her story makes sense, and fails. Miserably.

Third up was Liz – strange that the random order put the three “new” players first – reading the first of two chapters of PokeAccident, a first-person perspective on a long bus trip with a pokémon with a full bladder. It reads like it’s been written by an austistic young teen with a urination fetish. And no grasp of geography.

Highlight: Charizard looked bored, and we were past Londen and into Edinbrugh, where it was raining. Now Charizard is used to rain, but he was now horrified to see it raining, it increased his need heavily by 15%, 38% of his meter were full , Charizard really didn’t see this coming at all, he tried to ignore it, but the rain was loud, making it hard to do so.

Ruth & JTA brace themselves for another piece of fiction.

Paul provided us with Halflife: Fulllife Consequences: the story of John, the brother of Half-Life‘s Gordon Freeman. It’s littered with awful spelling and abysmal grammar, all wrapped around a plot that makes no sense whatsoever.

Highlight: John Freeman had to go faster like the speed of sound and got there fast because Gordon needed him where he was. John Freeman looked at road signs and saw “Ravenholm” with someons writing under it saying “u shudnt come here” so John Freeman almost turned around but heard screaming like Gordon so he went faster again.

Matt, Paul, and Ruth listen as I read my story.

Ruth had settled on Frosty The Snowman!, an unusual take on the classic story, featuring lots of swearing and an Iron Man crossover, all in just over 200 words.

Highlight: With the power of magic, the snowman came to life and started to dance a bit, scaring the crap out of the children. “Hi there children! I’m Frosty the Fuckin’ Snowman! Follow me!” He said happily as he marched down the road. 

Simon & Liz listen to JTA's story. For some reason, they're not crying.

When it came to his turn, JTA has selected Legolas, now best known as “Legolas by Laura” after its author (who just coincidentally shares her name with the main character of the story – always a good starting point for a piece of really bad fanfic). With incredible run-on sentences and a complete disregard for any semblance of continuity, this is truly a work of epic failness.

Highlight: Mean while Legolas got to the cell where Laura is.Legolas said”Laura are you in there”and then Laura said”Oh Legolas you finally came”and then Legolas said”are you alright”and then Laura said”no I am not alright”and then Legolas said”they bet you up and raped you also the Dark lord gave you the posion”and then Laura said”how did you know that”.Then Legolas said”when I was your age they did the samething to me”.

An unfilled ordering/voting slip from Argh! It Burns! Night 2012.

I came last. This year, I’d chosen what is probably the only piece of fanfiction ever to be set in the universe of one of the worst video games ever made, Desert Bus. The story is Desert Bus Ride #1 – A Romance Story and for Ladies, and it makes about as much sense as actually playing Desert Bus in the first place.

Highlight: When they arrive, boyfriend was got shot. “He am hit by bullets!” Margaret thought very loudly. “This is all because terrorists!” Mr. Oakland punched fist into air with angry. He was angry.

Liz is awarded with her "prize".

After what turned out to be a remarkably close competition, Liz just barely beat JTA and won herself the “prize”. In accordance with the traditions of Argh! It Burns! Night, we passed the drink around and all suffered in it together: a metaphor for the experience of the evening.

Having performed a reading of "Legolas" earlier, the winner's drink is the second-most disgusting thing JTA's had in his throat all evening.

For some reason, Simon actually enjoyed the drink, and finished the can on Liz’s behalf. Maybe he enjoyed the fanfiction, too. Maybe he’s a replicant. It’s just impossible to tell what we know for sure about him, after a revelation like that.

Simon "enjoys" the "beverage".

All things considered, a spectacular second Argh! It Burns! Night. If you’d like to come next year, let me know and we’ll try to arrange for it. Just remember: if you don’t suffer, you haven’t had enough fun yet.

Oh; and the following day was Matt's birthday, so we forced him to celebrate a little before he got back on the road.

Touring Scotland

While JTA was off breaking parts of his body (and showing off his injuries on Reddit) with Ruth on the second part of their honeymoon, the week before last, I too took some time off work in order to have a bit of a holiday. I’d originally hoped to get some cheap domestic skiing in, but the weather forecast showed that Scotland was going to consist of exactly two weather conditions, depending on where you were:

  • Snowy, but with 55mph winds.
  • Not snowy.
Scotland. Snowy, but with 55mph winds. It looks like this.

This kind-of put a dampener on my plans to get some snowsports done, but I’d already taken the time off work so I re-arranged my plans into a “make it up as you go along” tour of the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.

Highlights of my little tour included:

  • Renting an almost brand-new car, and – by the time I returned it – being responsible for more than half the miles on the odometer.
  • Visiting my family both on the way up and the way down – my dad injured his back while cycling around Italy this winter, and had originally hoped to join me in Scotland (perhaps to get some more training in for his upcoming trek to the North Pole). He couldn’t, as he was still recovering, but it was nice to drop by.
  • Being virtually the only guest at each of Glen Nevis and Glencoe youth hostels; getting an entire dormitory to myself at each.
Ben Nevis. It looks slightly less-hostile here than it did on the day of my ascent.
  • Exhilarating but exhausting trek up Ben Nevis. The freezing conditions, plus the incredible wind, meant that I spent the Tower Ridge stretch clinging to a steep ice slope against the push of a gale-force blizzard. Spectacular.
  • Ice climbing at Ice Factor. I’ve never done ice climbing before (y’know – scaling a glacier with crampons and ice axes), and it was spectacular. Also, very tiring, especially after just coming down off Ben Nevis a couple of hours earlier. I was pleased that not all of the rock climbing experience I’d had, over 15 years ago, was completely forgotten, and my stamina – if not my flexibility – was better than I expected.
A climber fights to free his axe from the wall.
  • Veggie haggis, tatties, neeps, and a dram of whisky on Burns Night, drying myself off by the open fire in a wonderful little pub.
  • A reasonably-gentle walk along the lochside at Fort William, in order to allow my knee – which I banged swinging into a wall of ice – to recover a litle.
  • Visiting the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. Did you know that the wheel is apparently so efficient that it costs only £10 a day in electricity to run it?
The Falkirk Wheel. Photo by Sean Mack.
  • Live comedy and music in Edinburgh. Also, meeting fabulous strangers and hanging out with them drinking whisky and singing along to bawdy Scottish folk songs until past midnight.
  • Returning to Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel to find it full of Spanish sports fans. Sharing pizza with them, and conversations in broken English.
  • Visiting the Wallace Monument and learning all of the bits of 13th Century Scottish history that they don’t teach you in Braveheart. It’s far cooler, yet much much bloodier, than you’d be made to believe.
The Wallace Monument, photographed by Finlay McWalter.
  • Geocache-maintenance expedition with Kit, along with the opportunity to dress up in invisibility jackets and hang about near roundabouts and road signs.
  • Chinese buffet with Kit & Fi, two of my favourite people to go to a Chinese buffet with. Surprisingly impressive selection of veggie-friendly foods, which is something I look for, these days.

All in all, a delightful little tour, particularly impressive considering that it was launched into with the minimum possible amount of planning.

On This Day In 2011

Looking Back

On this day in 2011 I launched FreeDeedPoll.org.uk, a site that tries to make it as easy as possible for British citizens to change their names (and have those new names accepted as being legally-recognised).

Generate free UK deeds of name change at freedeedpoll.org.uk.

The thing that people often don’t realise is that, as a British citizen, you have the right to be known by pretty-much any name you like. You don’t need a solicitor to change your name. You don’t even need any money. You can just start using it. A deed poll, which you can make all by yourself for free, is just a piece of paper on which you write a promise that you consider your “new” name to be your primary moniker, and not your “old” one.

Over the last year, almost 3,000 deed polls have been generated using the site, including ones for my partner Ruth (who opted to keep her maiden name as a middle name after she got married) and my friend Jen (who now has among the coolest – and most hippyish – collection of names I’ve ever seen). As to how many of the other thousands of deed polls have actually been used, I simply don’t know: as a commitment to privacy, no logs are kept of the names people enter onto the form, so for all I know there are 2,000 all the same and 998 “blank” submissions.

Looking Forward

I’ve become a minor Internet guru on the topic of name changes, it turns out. The other week, a transgendered stranger contacted me via the “chat to Dan” link, to ask about the legal aspects of their (slightly more-complex than most) case for changing their name. And because I’m a fan of helping people, I did a little research with them in order to find the answers. I felt the need to keep stressing that IANAL, but I’m pretty sure I managed to help, anyway.

And over the New Year, when there were a few days of downtime for the site (I was part of an exodus of domains from my SOPA-supporing previous registrar, and they made the process difficult), I received messages from people asking when it would be back up again, so it’s obviously getting some use.

Most recently, a few days ago, a stranger emailed me asking for advice on the legal issues in changing the names of his children. After doing the necessary research, I’m now thinking of expanding the site to make this easier, too.

A (sample) deed poll document generated by freedeedpoll.org.uk.

A strange feeling for me has been that this project is, and has been for the last year, “finished”. I’m not very good at finishing technical projects: one of the biggest and most important things that I’ve worked on – Three Rings – is now in its tenth year and shows no sign of being “finished”. So it feels odd to have developed a website that’s complete, done and dusted, and probably won’t require more than a modicum of maintenance over the coming decades to keep it running.

It’s good, though, that I’ve been able to help people with something about which far too many are underinformed. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, and I like it.

To mark the ocassion, I’ve updated the open-source version of the tool so that it works “out of the box”: it now includes all of the (free) fonts you need to get started, and can be used without setting up reCAPTCHA if you like. For more information about the history of the project, see my project page about it.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

The Artist

Ruth and I went out to the cinema last night and saw The Artist, and I’m inclined to agree with the critics: this film is spectacular.

For the benefit of anybody who hasn’t come out of hibernation yet, The Artist is a modern film whose production is heavily influenced by the cinematographic style and technology of the late 1920s movie industry. It’s shot in black and white and is, almost without exception, silent apart from the musical soundtrack. Title cards provide explanation of plot-critical dialogue, but for the most part the story is told through the (excellent) visual performance of the actors.

But there’s a warning – this is not a happy film. To go in expecting something dramatic-but-fun, as I did, then you’re in for a shock. This film is deeply tragic, incredibly sad and moving. On at least two occasions during the more despair-ridden parts of the story, I found myself begging the movie to find the twist and lighten up… and on both occasions it responded only by becoming more doleful still.

Beautiful, mournful, sometimes meta and fourth-wall-breaking, and a testament to the writer/director’s ability to work with the incredibly challenging constraints imposed by a now-archaic medium… well worth a look: in the cinema, if you get the chance.