The SMBC comic that came out this weekend was perhaps the best birthday present the Internet could provide.
On account of the pandemic, I’d expected my fortieth birthday to be a somewhat more-muted affair than I’d hoped. I had a banner, I got trolled by bagels, and I received as a gift a pizza oven with which I immediately set fire to several pieces of cookware, but I hadn’t expected to be able to do anything like the “surprise” party of my thirtieth, and that saddened me a little. So imagine my surprise when I come back from an evening walk the day after my birthday to discover than an actual (remote) surprise party really had been arranged without my knowing!
Not content with merely getting a few folks together for drinks, though, Ruth and team had gone to great trouble (involving lots of use of the postal service) arranging a “kit” murder mystery party in the Inspector McClue series – The Diamonds, The Dagger, and One Classy Dame – for us all to play. The story is sort-of a spiritual successor to The Brie, The Bullet, and The Black Cat, which we’d played fifteen years earlier. Minor spoilers follow.
Naturally, I immediately felt underdressed, having not been instructed that I might need a costume, and underprepared, having only just heard for the first time that I would be playing the part of German security sidekick Lieutenant Kurt Von Strohm minutes before I had to attempt my most outrageous German accent.
The plot gave me in particular a certain sense of deja vu. In The Brie, The Bullet, and The Black Cat, I played a French nightclub owner who later turned out to be an English secret agent supplying the French Resistance with information. But in The Diamonds, The Dagger, and One Classy Dame I played a Gestapo officer who… also later turned out to be an English secret agent infiltrating the regime and, you guessed it, supplying the French Resistance.
It was not the smoothest nor the most-sophisticated “kit” murder mystery we’ve enjoyed. The technology made communication challenging, the reveal was less-satisfying than some others etc. But the company was excellent. (And the acting way pretty good too, especially by our murderer whose character was exquisitely played.)
And of course the whole thing quickly descended into a delightful shouting match with accusations flying left, right, and centre and nobody having a clue what was going on. Like all of our murder mystery parties!
In summary, the weekend of my fortieth birthday was made immeasurably better by getting to hang out with (and play a stupid game with) some of my friends despite the lockdown, and I’m ever so grateful that those closest to me were able to make such a thing happen (and without me even noticing in advance).
Clearly those closest to me know me well, because for my birthday today I received a beautiful (portable: it packs into a bag!) wood-fired pizza oven, which I immediately assembled, test-fired, cleaned, and prepped with the intention of feeding everybody some homemade pizza using some of Robin‘s fabulous bread dough, this evening.
Fuelled up with wood pellets the oven was a doddle to light and bring up to temperature. It’s got a solid stone slab in the base which looked like it’d quickly become ideal for some fast-cooked, thin-based pizzas. I was feeling good about the whole thing.
But then it all began to go wrong.
If you’re going to slip pizzas onto hot stone – especially using a light, rich dough like this one – you really need a wooden peel. I own a wooden peel… somewhere: I haven’t seen it since I moved house last summer. I tried my aluminium peel, but it was too sticky, even with a dusting of semolina or a light layer of oil. This wasn’t going to work.
I’ve got some stone slabs I use for cooking fresh pizza in a conventional oven, so I figured I’d just preheat them, assemble pizzas directly on them, and shunt the slabs in. Easy as (pizza) pie, right?
This oven is hot. Seriously hot. Hot enough to cook the pizza while I turned my back to assemble the next one, sure. But also hot enough to crack apart my old pizza stone. Right down the middle. It normally never goes hotter than the 240ºC of my regular kitchen oven, but I figured that it’d cope with a hotter oven. Apparently not.
So I changed plan. I pulled out some old round metal trays and assembled the next pizza on one of those. I slid it into the oven and it began to cook: brilliant! But no sooner had I turned my back than… the non-stick coating on the tray caught fire! I didn’t even know that was a thing that could happen.
Those first two pizzas may have each cost me a piece of cookware, but they tasted absolutely brilliant. Slightly coarse, thick, yeasty dough, crisped up nicely and with a hint of woodsmoke.
But I’m not sure that the experience was worth destroying a stone slab and the coating of a metal tray, so I’ll be waiting until I’ve found (or replaced) my wooden peel before I tangle with this wonderful beast again. Lesson learned.
Thanks, supermarket bagels, for expressing exactly how I was feeing when I reached the kitchen this morning:
When this comic (go read the full thing) came out at the tail end of last year, I thought to myself: yeah, that’s about right. I’m resharing that on my birthday in a week or so.
‘Cos I’m forty today, and I sort of had a half-baked dream that I’d throw some kind of big party and get people together. My surprise party for my thirtieth birthday party was an excellent (and much-needed) bash, and I guess I’d thought I’d try to replicate the feel of that, but a decade on (and not a surprise party… although in the end the last one wasn’t either).
But 2020’s the year that keeps on giving, so I’m postponing my party plans to… “some other time”. And so this comic really spoke to me.
Seventeen years ago, WordPress was first released.
Fifteen years, ten months ago, in response to a technical failure on the server I was using, I lost it all and had to recover my posts from backups. Immediately afterwards, I took the opportunity to redesign my blog and switch to WordPress. On the same day, I attended the graduation ceremony for my first degree (but somehow didn’t think this was worth blogging about).
Fifteen years, nine months ago, Automattic Inc. was founded to provide managed WordPress hosting services. Some time later, I thought to myself: hey, they seem like a cool company, and I like everything Matt’s done so far. I should perhaps work there someday.
Lots of time passed.
Seven months ago, I got around to doing that.
Happy birthday, WordPress!
A34 near Peartree Interchange, Oxford.
- Dan Q (whose birthday it is!)
It’s my birthday on YYYY-01-08 (Birthday geohash achievement, here I come!), and even though I have to go into work (boo!), I note that my graticule’s geohashpoint falls only about a kilometre and a half of a diversion from my usual cycle route to work. The A4260 and A34 are basically a deathtrap for cyclists, so depending on conditions and traffic I’ll probably divert via the Oxford Canal towpath from Kidlington to Peartree, park up near Peartree Services, and then finish on foot. And then go to work, I guess.
Success! A relatively easy (but sometimes scary: the traffic’s a bit nuts on some of the major roads that provided the shortest route) journey to the hashpoint area, followed by a slightly-scary crossing of the road to the hashpoint, which turned out to be right by the crash barriers at the central reservation. The crash barriers provided a great place to tie a “The Internet Was Here” sign.
On my way away from the hashpoint, at 09:19, I hid a geocache: (“2019-01-08 51 -1, 09:19”, OK049E, GC827X6). The geocache is of the “puzzle” variety – the person looking for it is likely to discover geohashing (if they haven’t already) as part of their research into the secret location of the cache.
- YouTube video of my expedition (also available here) – this also includes proof of my date of birth
- Tracklog (GPX) showing my route
Dan Q earned the Birthday Geohash Achievement
On the morning of my 38th birthday I set out on an expedition to the geohashpoint in my graticule as a diversion from my way to work: read my full hash log for details (or on the geohashing wiki). Inspired by a spot near the hashpoint, I also hid a geocache (“2019-01-08 51 -1, 09:19”, OK049E, GC827X6). You can download my tracklog [GPX] here.
Despite a full workload and a backlog of both work, personal, volunteering and study emails to deal with, 2016 is off to a pretty good start so far. Here’s some highlights:
- In Sainsburys at the weekend, I got carded. Less than a week before my thirty-fifth birthday and for the first time in well over a decade, somebody asked me to prove my age when I was trying to buy alcohol*. It’s even more-impressive when you consider that I was buying about £90 worth of shopping and a single small bottle of kirsch… oh, and I had a toddler with me. That would have been an incredible amount of effort for somebody who very-definitely looks like he’s in his thirties. Delighted.
- This week, I’ve been mostly working on a project to make interactive digital content to support an exhibition on board games that we’re about to launch at my workplace. When my head of department first mentioned the upcoming exhibition, there was no way you could have held me back fast enough.
- Annabel has recently decided that she deserves a beard like her father and her Uncle Dan. Her new game is encouraging people to draw them on her with washable pens. Aww.
I hope everybody else’s year is kicking off just as well.
* With one possible exception: the other year, an overenthusiastic bouncer insisted that I join a queue of one in turn to show him my ID before he let me into a nightclub at 9:30pm on a Wednesday night. Like I said, overenthusiastic.
My review of Episode 12 of Godzilla Huntley’s Family Vlog was filmed on-location, secretly, in Godzilla’s bedroom, which I visited and broke into while she was on holiday in the USA. Later, I left her a birthday present (it was her birthday a few weeks earlier), hidden in her own room, and only when she finds THIS video will she know where it is!
I spent the weekend of my birthday working in London, alongside the Squiz team, who make the CMS that forms the foundation of most of the public-facing websites of the Bodleian Libraries. We’d originally scheduled this visit for a different week, but – in that way that projects sometimes do – the project got juggled about a bit and so I found myself spending the week of my birthday away from home.
But on Tuesday – my second day working on-site at Squiz’s office, and coincidentally my birthday – disaster struck! Our first clue was when the lights went out. And then, a minute or so later, when the fire alarm started going off. No big deal, we all thought, as we gathered our possessions and prepared to leave the office – it’s probably just that the fire alarm sounds as a precaution if it’s electricity supply is disrupted… but as we started to go down the stairs and smelled the smoke, we realised that there really was a fire.
The first two fire engines arrived within minutes. Apparently, they don’t mess about when a city centre office block catches light. The smoke was very visible from the street: thick grey plumes pouring out from the basement windows. Theories about the cause of the fire were whispered around the assembled crowd, and the consensus seemed to be that the substation in the basement had overheated and set alight its room.
A third fire engine arrived, and – after about a quarter hour of assessing the situation and controlling the crowd – we were told that we wouldn’t be able to get back into our building for “at least an hour, probably more.” So, being British, we therefore decamped to one of the nearby bars for networking and a round of gin & tonic. After I texted some friends to say that I hadn’t expected to spend the afternoon of my birthday in the pub, but that it wasn’t an entirely unwelcome experience, a few of them had the cheek to ask once again how the fire had actually started.
By the time we were allowed to return to the building, it was already getting dark, and we quickly discovered a new problem that faced us: with the power still well and truly out, the electronic door locks that secured the offices had become completely unusable. Not willing to abandon my laptop, keys, and other personal possessions overnight in an unfamiliar office, I waited around until a locksmith had been summoned and had drilled his way through the cylinder and allowed us into the building.
It being my birthday, I’d arranged that Ruth would come and spend the night down in London, and that we’d go out to Dans le Noir, a restaurant that I’d heard about from news articles and via friends some years prior, and always wanted to try. The restaurant has a distinct and quite remarkable theme that you probably won’t find anywhere else: that theme is that you eat unidentified food in pitch blackness.
As our (blind!) waiter, Gao, led Ruth and I by touch to our table, we suddenly realised that we’d all but forgotten exactly how dark pitch blackness actually is. When you stumble over your coffee table in the dark on a morning, that’s not truly black: there’s that sliver of light coming from underneath the curtains, or the faint glow of the LED light on the stereo. Real, complete darkness is disorienting and confusing, and to sit around in it – not even able to see whether your eyes are open or closed – for hours at a time is quite remarkable.
It took us a little while to learn the new skills required to survive in this environment, but Gao was incredibly helpful. We worked out mechanisms for pouring drinks, for checking whether our plates were empty, and for communicating our relative movements (being geeks, as we are, Ruth and I quickly developed a three-dimensional coordinate-based system for navigating relative to an agreed centre-point: the tip of the bottle of our mystery wine). We also learned that there’s something truly humbling about being dependent upon the aid of a blind person to do something that you’d normally be quite capable of doing alone: simple things, like finding where your glass is.
But the bigger lesson that we learned was about how darkness changes the way that we operate on a social level. Ruth and I were sat alongside another couple, and – deprived of body language, the judgement of sight, and the scrutiny of eye contact – we quickly entered into a conversation that was far deeper and more real than I would have anticipated having with total strangers. It was particularly strange to see Ruth, who’s usually so shy around new people, really come out as confident and open. I theorise that (in normally-signted people) eye contact – that is, being able to see that others can see you – serves as a regulator of our willingness to be transparent. Depriving it for long enough that its lack begins to feel natural makes us more frank and honest. Strange.
Back at Squiz the following day, there was still no electricity. Credit is due to the team there, though, who quickly put in to effect their emergency plans and literally “moved office” to a handful of conference rooms and meeting spaces around Shoreditch. “Runners” were nominated to help relay messages and equipment between disparate groups of people, and virtualised networks were established across the city. I laughed when I discovered that Squiz’s old offices had been in an old fire station.
Before long, the folks I’d been working with and I were settled into a basement meeting room in a nearby café, running a stack of Mac desktops and laptops from a monumental string of power strips, and juggling an Internet connection between the café’s WiFi and a stack of Mifi-like devices. We were able to get on with our work, and the day was saved, all thanks to some smart emergency planning. Later in the week, a generator was deployed outside the building and we were able to return to normal desks, but the quick-thinking of the management ensured that a minimum of disruption was caused in the meantime.
Not one to waste the opportunity to make the most of being in London for a week, I spent another of my evenings out with Bryn. He and I went out to the Free Fringe Fundraiser, which – despite a notable absence of Peter Buckley Hill, who had caught a case of the then-dominating norovirus – was still a great deal of fun. It was particularly pleasing to get to see Norman Lovett in the flesh: his particular brand of surrealist anti-humour tickles me mercilessly.
So what could have been “just another business trip” turned into quite the adventure, between fires and birthdays and eating-in-the-dark and comedy. If only it hadn’t taken me two months to finish writing about it…
A study by Swiss researchers has generated a startling statistic – you are 14% more likely to die on your birthday than on any other day of the year. But why should that be?
As the researchers put it, “birthdays… appear to end up in a lethal way more frequently than expected .”
This is not a joke. The study was carried out by legitimate scientists who analysed data from 2.5 million deaths in Switzerland between 1969 and 2008.
There are a number of hypotheses which may explain the finding.
Perhaps some people close to death “hang on” until their birthday, to reach another milestone? Or perhaps a significant number of people take greater risks on their birthdays, like driving home from their own parties drunk?
But Professor David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from Cambridge University, says the Swiss data does not support the “hanging on” theory.
“They don’t find any dip before so there’s no holding on,” he says, “and they don’t find any blip after, so there’s no jumping the gun. It’s purely a birthday effect.”
The Swiss data, he says, suggests “something on your birthday kills you”.
You know how when your life is busy time seems to creep by so slowly… you look back and say “do you remember the time… oh, that was just last week!” Well that’s what my life’s been like, of late.
There was Milestone: Jethrik and the Three Rings Conference, of course, which ate up a lot of my time but then paid off wonderfully – the conference was a wonderful success, and our announcements about formalising our non-profit nature and our plans for the future were well-received by the delegates. A slightly lower-than-anticipated turnout (not least because of this winter ‘flu that’s going around) didn’t prevent the delegates (who’d come from far and wide: Samaritans branches, Nightlines, and even a representative from a Community Library that uses the software) from saying wonderful things about the event. We’re hoping for some great feedback to the satisfaction surveys we’ve just sent out, too.
Hot on the heels of those volunteering activities came my latest taped assessment for my counselling course at Aylesbury College. Given the brief that I was “a volunteer counseller at a school, when the parent of a bullied child comes in, in tears”, I took part in an observed, recorded role-play scenario, which now I’m tasked with dissecting and writing an essay about. Which isn’t so bad, except that the whole thing went really well, so I can’t take my usual approach of picking holes in it and saying what I learned from it. Instead I’ll have to have a go at talking about what I did right and trying to apply elements of counselling theory to justify the way I worked. That’ll be fun, too, but it does of course mean that the busy lifestyle isn’t quite over yet.
And then on Tuesday I was a guest at the UK Bus Awards, an annual event which my dad co-pioneered back in the mid-1990s. I’d been invited along by Transaid, the charity that my dad was supporting with his planned expedition to the North Pole before he was killed during an accident while training. I was there first and foremost to receive (posthumously, on his behalf) the first Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, which will be given each year to the person who – through a physical activity – raises the most money for Transaid. The award was first announced at my father’s funeral, by Gary Forster, the charity’s chief executive. Before he worked for the charity he volunteered with them for some time, including a significant amount of work in sub-Saharan Africa, so he and I spent a little while at the event discussing the quirks of the local cuisine, which I’d experienced some years earlier during my sponsored cycle around the country (with my dad).
So it’s all been “go, go, go,” again, and I apologise to those whose emails and texts I’ve neglected. Or maybe I haven’t neglected them so much as I think: after all – if you emailed me last week, right now that feels like months ago.
Siân‘s got more to say on the subject, but suffice it to say this: it’s been a long, long time since I’ve found myself dancing in a nightclub until half past two in the morning, then grabbing a thoroughly disgusting-looking (but remarkably good-tasting) portion of fried food as an after-club snack. Oh, and Alec drooled all over himself long before he ended up sharing a bed with me.
Honestly, I didn’t think I had it in me to party like that any more: I’m such an old man (having myself turned thirty a good year and a bit prior). Didn’t stop me from getting up before anybody else the following morning for a quick geocaching expedition, though…
Summer Party On Earth
The following weekend was the Summer Party On Earth: an event that started out with Ruth saying “Let’s have a summer party!” and finished as a nostalgia-themed marathon of epic proportions.
This… was a party with everything. It had kids’ toys like Brio wooden railway, Lego bricks, and a marble run; it had soup and buffets and a barbeque and cakes; it had board games and party games and drinking games; it had beer and wine and cocktails; it had the world’s tiniest and most-nettley geocaching expedition… and from the time that we first started entertaining guests to the moment that the last of them left, it lasted for an exhausting 36 hours.
It was particularly interesting to get together with people from all of our varied social circles: workmates, former workmates, local friends, distant friends, partners of friends… all kinds of random folks coming to one place and – for example – pointing foam guns at one another.
In order to help us identify, classify, and dispose of some of the vast collection of booze that Ruth has recently inherited, JTA invented a drinking game. What can I say about it? Well: it certainly brought us all a lot closer together to suffer through some of the drinks we were served…
As usual for any party at which Ruth caters, everybody was required to consume their own weight in (delicious, delicious) desserts, and we only just finished eating the very last of the party food, almost two weeks later.
Matthew & Katherine’s Wedding
Finally, then, just the weekend after that, was the wedding of two folks I know via the Oxford Quakers: Matthew and Katherine.
I turned down the curious “What to expect at a Quaker wedding” leaflet as I entered: after all, I felt like an old-hand now, after helping make Ruth & JTA’s wedding into one of the most spectacular events ever. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have, because every wedding is as different as every bride and groom, and Matthew and Katherine’s was no exception. They’d clearly put so much thought into exactly what it is they wanted to do to celebrate their special day, and – with their help of their friends and family – had pulled everything together into a beautiful and remarkable occasion.
For me, particular highlights included:
- One of the most adorable couples ever.
- Not just a “vegetarian-friendly” meal, but one where vegetarianism was the norm (and guests were required to state if this wasn’t okay for them).
- Catching up with folks who I don’t see as much of these days as I might like (and meeting new people, too).
- A céilidh! More weddings should have these (although it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a “first dance” where the bride and groom were given instructions on what steps to do right before the music started).