Highlights of 2016 so far

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.
Annabel sporting a full beard.
This one’s the third design of beard she’s had this week – this one’s “like daddy”.

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.

Hello 2013: My Birthday

This is the second in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.

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.

The team at Squiz's London office, debriefing over drinks at the end of a crazy week.
The team at Squiz’s London office, debriefing over drinks at the end of a crazy week.

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.

Visiting @SquizUK in London when... Building caught fire! Heaps of smoke, two pumps. Been evacuated.
My tweet, from outside the Squiz offices.

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.

The first fire engines on the scene, as people are still filing out of the building.
People were still filing out of the building when the first of the fire engines arrived.

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.

Fire engines behind a yellow tape line.
Before long, the fire brigade had established a cordon some distance back from the fire, and were pouring water into the basement.

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.

The code lock at the door of the Squiz offices.
Without power, it turns out that these things can be pretty useless. At least they “fail secure”, keeping the door locked (from the outside) in the event of a problem, rather than the alternative…

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.

A tealight candle burning in the dark.
Don’t be fooled: this picture of the tip of a candle wasn’t taken at Dans le Noir, but at Squiz.

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.

Blackness.
Now this is more like what it looks like at Dans le Noir!

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.

Just come out of Dans le Noir, the restaurant where you eat mystery food in the dark, and... OMG. Expected a gimmick. Expected it to be about the food. But it's not. It's about so much more than that. Would eat here again.
My tweets after coming out of Ruth and I’s remarkable experience of Dans le Noir.

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.

Still no power at @SquizUK following yesterday's fire. Just waiting for more people to arrive so we can work out where we're working today. Decamped to a number of venues around East London. The team I've been working with and I are in the basement of a nearby cafe!
Live updates, primarily for the benefit of the people back at my usual workplace, on progress at Squiz.

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.

Squiz team members put their emergency plan into effect.
Team members at Squiz, in their unlit, unheated office, begin to put their emergency plan into place, picking up computers and transporting them to alternative venues.

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.

After a wonderful night of comedy with @BrynS, I'm back in the office (in the building that caught fire), now powered by a huge generator.
My tweet about seeing comedy with Bryn and about returning to the office (now powered by a huge generator).

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…

Days Like Weeks

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.

Enjoying a beer at the launch of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest release of Three Rings.
Enjoying a beer at the launch of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest release of Three Rings.

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.

The Three Rings Birthday Cake. It boggles my mind how they've managed to make the icing look so much like plastic, on the phone part.
The Three Rings Birthday Cake. It boggles my mind how they’ve managed to make the icing look so much like plastic, on the phone part.

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.

My sister Sarah, with TAS managing director Adrian Grant, at the UK Bus Awards.
My sister Sarah, with TAS managing director Adrian Grant, prepare to announce the winner of the Peter Huntley Memorial Award for Making Buses A Better Choice.

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.

Three Parties

I’ve had a few weekends fully of party. It’s no wonder I’m knackered.

Andy’s 30th

First, there was Andy‘s 30th birthday. Ruth, JTA and I slogged our way over to Cardiff to celebrate in style with pizza, booze, and dancing.

Dancing to Black Lace at Andy's 30th birthday.
Dancing to Black Lace at Andy’s 30th birthday.

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.

Some early guests play Ca$h 'N' Gun$, a live-action game of gun-toting gangsters.
Some early guests play Ca$h ‘N’ Gun$, a live-action game of gun-toting gangsters.

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.

Gareth, Rory and Adam put the finishing touches on their (second) wooden railway layout.
Gareth, Rory and Adam put the finishing touches on their (second) wooden railway layout. I’m pretty sure we ‘lost’ them for more than half of the party as they disappeared into the ‘playroom’.

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…

Everything seems a little blurry, and Alec isn't grimacing as much as he did with some of the other drinks he's been forced to try.
Everything seems a little blurry, and Alec isn’t grimacing as much as he did with some of the other drinks he’s been forced to try.

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.

Matthew and Katherine cut the cake in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House.
Matthew and Katherine cut the cake in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House.

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.

The céilidh. More weddings should have cèilidhean.
The céilidh. More weddings should have cèilidhean.

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).

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.

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.

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.

Instead Of Blogging…

Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging, this last month, include:

  • Code Week: hacking Three Rings code in a converted hay loft of a Derbyshire farm, as mentioned on the Three Rings blog.
  • Hoghton Tower: as is traditional at this time of year (see blog posts from 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, for example), went to Preston for the Hoghton Tower concert and fireworks display, accompanied by Ruth, and my sister’s 22nd birthday. My other sister has more to say about it.
  • Family Picnic: Joining Ruth and JTA at Ruth’s annual family picnic, among her billions of second-cousins and third-aunts.
  • New Earthwarming: Having a mini housewarming on New Earth, where I live with Ruth, JTA, and Paul. A surprising number of people came from surprisingly far away, and it was fascinating to see some really interesting networking being done by a mixture of local people (from our various different “circles” down here) and distant guests.
  • Bodleian Staff Summer Party: Yet another reason to love my new employer! The drinks and the hog roast (well, roast vegetable sandwiches and falafel wraps for me, but still delicious) would have won me over by themselves. The band was just a bonus. The ice cream van that turned up and started dispensing free 99s: that was all just icing on the already-fabulous cake.
  • TeachMeet: Giving a 2-minute nanopresentation at the first Oxford Libraries TeachMeet, entitled Your Password Sucks. A copy of my presentation (now with annotations to make up for the fact that you can’t hear me talking over it) has been uploaded to the website.
  • New Earth Games Night: Like Geek Night, but with folks local to us, here, some of whom might have been put off by being called “Geeks”, in that strange way that people sometimes do. Also, hanging out with the Oxford On Board folks, who do similar things on Monday nights in the pub nearest my office.
  • Meeting Oxford Nightline: Oxford University’s Nightline is just about the only Nightline in the British Isles to not be using Three Rings, and they’re right on my doorstep, so I’ve been meeting up with some of their folks in order to try to work out why. Maybe, some day, I’ll actually understand the answer to that question.
  • Alton Towers & Camping: Ruth and I decided to celebrate the 4th anniversary of us getting together with a trip to Alton Towers, where their new ride, Thirteen, is really quite good (but don’t read up on it: it’s best enjoyed spoiler-free!), and a camping trip in the Lake District, with an exhausting but fulfilling trek to the summit of Glaramara.
Setting up camp at Stonethwaite.

That’s quite a lot of stuff, even aside from the usual work/volunteering/etc. stuff that goes on in my life, so it’s little wonder that I’ve neglected to blog about it all. Of course, there’s a guilt-inspired downside to this approach, and that’s that one feels compelled to not blog about anything else until finishing writing about the first neglected thing, and so the problem snowballs.

So this quick summary, above? That’s sort-of a declaration of blogger-bankruptcy on these topics, so I can finally stop thinking “Hmm, can’t blog about X until I’ve written about Code Week!”

Thirty – Part Two

Last weekend, I turned thirty. As I described earlier, I had originally planned to write a retrospective summary of what I’d been doing for my life so far (y’know; what’ve I been up to these decades). I wasn’t terribly satisfied with what I’d written, so far, and by the time that the party was over I’d changed my mind completely. So I threw out everything I’d written so far and wrote this, instead.

Part II: The bit that’s different from what I expected to write.

As I said in Part I, I had originally planned to write a long and drawn-out retrospective, looking back on my life. I wanted to try to encapsulate it in some kind of bubble or capture it in some way that condensed it into something concise and manageable. But every time I tried to begin to put down words to express it, it always came out looking cynical and pessimistic. And that doesn’t reflect how my life has been this far: to the contrary, my original plan to write about the last time years has nestled within it most of the very best years of my life thus far. I took a moment to contemplate my situation: why was I unable to describe this period with the liveliness and joy with which it deserves. And then I realised: the reason that I was writing so pessimistically is because – unusually, those who know me will surely agree – I’ve had a somewhat pessimistic view of the world, recently… and this depressing outlook was infecting my words.

This last year and a bit have been hard, for me. Things like this, and this, and this, and this – among other events – have worn me down and made feel, quite often, that I’m fueled only by nostalgia and that I’ve been struggling to find motivation for the future. Even happy events, like Ruth & JTA’s wedding, have often been an intense emotional rollercoaster ride, full of ups and downs that would be an easy ride under normal conditions but which were each just “one thing to many” when combined with everything else. In short: it’s been a tough year.

The last ten weeks or so have been the worst. Struggling with a variety of different issues and, buried deep in the cold and the dark of a particularly bleak and challenging winter, I’ve periodically found myself a very long way out into the Not OK half of the room.

It’s been particularly unpleasant: not just for me but, I’m sure, for the folks who’ve had to put up with me while I’ve been so irritable and grumpy.

But it’s not all bad. The worst has passed, I think, and things are getting better. I’ve got all the support I could need, and it’s been getting better a little at a time – a little more each day. My birthday, though, was different. It wasn’t a step forward: it was a flying leap! Where I expected to be looking back over the past, I instead found myself looking forwards to the future. And being surrounded by the wonderful (infectious) bounciness and enthusiasm of so many great friends, piled into one place, was incredibly liberating. For the first time in weeks I felt a surge of optimism that persists even now.

I managed to find the time – but not the words – to try to tell some of you who were there how important it was for me that you’d been able to come and make the party a success. I hope that this blog post makes everything clearer.

Thanks to everybody involved for a fantastic party.

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Thirty – Part One

Last weekend, I turned thirty. I had originally planned to blog this weekend in a retrospective manner- looking back over the last decade or so of my life: a particularly common theme for the time of year, when we look back over our resolutions and count the years as they pass, and also a common activity suitable for a birthday so (arbitrarily, but apparently appropriately) significant as one’s thirtieth. However, I’ve had a change of heart, for two reasons.

Firstly, but least significantly, the numerical significance of a decade of life truly is arbitrary. This was expressed quite clearly, I think, when Finbar looked at my birthday cake, and, misinterpreting the writing on top of it, said, “You’re… 3D years old?” After a few seconds of mental arithmetic, I replied: “Not for another thirty-one years, I’m afraid.” Unfortunately my joke – based on the implication that my age was being expressed in hexadecimal base – was wasted on those within earshot (Angharad, Ele, and Lee, I think), but still gave me a moment to think: seriously: is the significance of my age really dependent upon the fact that it’s an exact multiple of the (modal – this isn’t quite true for all) number of digits on the uppermost two limbs of a human?

But more importantly, the reason behind my change of heart was primarily because of a shift in my attitude, brought about, I think, as a result of the birthday celebrations. I’ll talk about that in the next blog post. But first, I thought I’d tell you all about the party:

Part I: Surprise! Or: how to organise a surprise party that’s still surprising even though the person being honoured knows it’s happening.

Ruth tried ever so hard to keep my surprise party a surprise. It’s generally hard for her to keep secrets about which she is excited, and she’d become ever so proud of herself for managing to keep her plans under wraps for so long. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication, and Finbar first heard about the party without being told that it was to be a surprise.

I received a text message from him towards the end of last year:

Hey Dan, I haven’t been watching my inbox and Angharad tells me you’re doing a thing on the 6th for your birth cycle. If we attended, could we pitch a tent behind earth? Happy birth cycle, by the way. Hard to believe you’re already 25.

This caused some confusion. Not only had he gotten the date wrong (a separate misunderstanding), but he was also talking about an event about which I know nothing. I began to compose a response, correcting him and explaining that no, nothing is planned – but perhaps if he and a few other people were free we could get together anyway. As I typed, I quizzed Ruth to see if she knew from where the confusion might have arisen. And so: the truth came out.

A 'Happy Birthday' banner in the hallway of Earth.

Nonetheless, the party was a success. Particular highlights (and surprises) included:

  • The attendance of so many people, and from such far-flung corners of the country! I was honestly overwhelmed by the attendance of so many friends at (what felt to me, at my late discovery) such short notice.
  • A beautiful cake produced by Ruth to show a group of Pikmin of various colours crowding around a large object that would require 30 of them to lift it: a wonderful interpretation of the (adorable) Pikmin characters for the medium of a birthday cake.
My birthday cake. With pikmin on it!
  • Drinking cocktails out of the largest martini glass I’ve ever seen. Seriously: I could easily have drowned in this thing (sorry; no picture – others took some, though, and I’ll add one to this post if somebody can supply one).
  • A mixture of party games both silly (like the Christmas-themed pass-the-parcel which used up a lot of our spare Christmas supplies) and spectacular (like JTA‘s clever and complex treasure hunt, which has hampered only by the sheer number of guests involved even after Liz, Suz and I kindly offered to sit on the couch and take managerial roles). Even those games that didn’t get off the ground, like the short-lived game of charades, the on-again-off-again game of Apples To Apples which finally went ahead the following morning, and the ill-conceived fruit-passing game – not suitable for seated players, we now know – that ultimately lead to the spillage of lots of booze were fun in their own ways.
  • Discovering new things about old friends (the kinds of things that earn them even more Awesome Points™).
  • The thought and consideration that evidently took place in the minds of my fellow Earthicans, from the kids-party themed food and drink (plus alcohol, naturally) that I know that Ruth and JTA were up far too late preparing, to the blatantly catered-to-me playlist that first appeared on the music collection (thanks, Paul!). Even down to the detail of taking me outside again after everybody had arrived so that I could come in any everybody could shout “Surprise!”, as if I didn’t know (sorry, folks: I knew).
Leading candidates in the ad-hoc 'best boobies' competition. I still like Ele's.
  • Feeling like I was the core of a group of people that varied, over the course of the evening, between one and three parties (which shall be referred to as Party A, Party One, and The Upstairs Party).

Put simply, the party was fantastic. Everybody who came helped to make it awesome by bringing a bit of their own magical selves (or by contributing from afar by ordering the pizza, of course). Thank you all so very much.

The following morning, Matt eats a breakfast of muffins... and milk???

Edit: Part 2 is now online. It’s significantly less jolly, but ultimately optimistic.

On This Day In 1999

Looking Back

On this day in 1999 I sent out the fourth of my Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth e-mails. I wasn’t blogging at the time (although I did have a blog previously), but I felt that it would be nice to do something to help keep in touch with my friends and family “back home”, so I came up with Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth. Every day I’d send back a bulk e-mail about something that I’d gotten up to during my first months at the University. Some of them were pretty tame, but some were more spectacular, like the time some of my hallmates and I tried to steal a golf course, piece by piece. Many of them just appear dated, like the one where I balk at having over 3.25GB of digital music. I was having a great time, and I wanted to share it with my friends, even when my college-mate Richard wrote to say that he didn’t believe me.

When I finally got around to re-integrating my old blog entries (well, the ones I could recover) from the last millennium into my new blog, I also decided to include the Cool Thing Of The Day, with a few minor amendments.

The dates on many of them aren’t actually accurate, because when I re-imported them I made the assumption that I sent one every day, which wasn’t the case (it was actually one every two or three days, and they went on into 2000, which isn’t correctly reflected any longer). However, the date for this particular one is pretty close. On this day in 1999, I bought tickets to see Craig Charles during his Live On Earth tour, at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

Looking Forward

When we actually went to see Craig Charles, it was after a couple of heavy nights partying all around the UK, to celebrate the birthdays of my friends Andy and Reb (Reb would later go on to become my girlfriend, although we had a friends-with-benefits arrangement going on for a long while before then). We started the party in a few London pubs and a club, and then Andy and my friend Gary sobered up as fast as they could to drive back to Aberystwyth, arriving just before the sunrise, while Reb and I took the train behind them.

Cool Thing Of The Day died in January, after I became bored of it and was finding it harder and harder to do new and cool things that would justify keeping it on. Many of my friendships with the people who received the newsletter waned, but I still keep in touch with most of the recipients of it, albeit only occasionally.

Craig Charles was pretty good. He later went down to the Glengower Hotel bar and apparently got into a fight with a local.

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

Busy Weekends Part I

The weekend before the weekend before last, Ruth, JTA and I went up to Preston, for:

My Sister’s Birthday


My sister, Sarah, turned 21 at the start of this month, and we – accompanied by her friends and family – went out to a new Punjabi restaurant called East Z East. The food was fantastic (although in hindsight we probably should have adapted the formula as far as naan bread is concerned, at least – each naan bread was about three feet long!), but the restaurant was a little full! Perhaps be better on a midweek night.

And…

Hoghton Tower

As has become traditional (see blog entries for 2009, 2005, 2003), the next stop was Hoghton Tower for their annual concert and fireworks display. As usual, this event began with the erection of a gazebo in which to have our picnic.


The instructions for the gazebo clearly stated that it was to be constructed by two adults, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to help Ruth and JTA building it, except in a supervisory capacity. I helpfully assembled the first deckchair and sat in it, drinking a beer and overseeing the process.


My management skills paid off, and soon we had a gazebo, tables, and a (huge) picnic.


Some of my sister Becky‘s friends had brought face paints and brushes with them, so we formed a line of people, each painting the face of the next. My mum painted mine: she asked what I wanted, so I told her that I wanted a narwhal, breaching the water and leaping for the sky. I think she did a pretty good job:


Then came my turn. I was to paint Ruth, but she didn’t know what she wanted. The suggestion came that I should paint a rubber duck on her forehead, and so long as you don’t mind ducks that look like they’re from canary heritage:


The concert itself was even better than normal – the arsenal of fireworks was even huger than we were used to, and was supplemented by the addition of a laser show, too! I was slightly disappointed that God Save The Queen wasn’t performed (not for any patriotic reason, I’m sure you understand – I’m just used to them playing it!). Still, a great night, and a fabulous excuse for me to re-educate Ruth in how to count to three (in order to waltz, you see: it’s incredibly difficult to dance when one participant is counting to three and the other is counting to two).

Dave!!! Highlights From Robin’s Birthday

Right now, I’m out in Oxfordshire for this a “code week” – a get-together for the purpose of hacking some code together – for the Three Rings project. That’s got nothing to do with this post, but helps to offer a framing device by which I can explain why I was in such proximity to London in the first place.

JTA at the Ops Room table

Last night, y’see, Ruth and I hopped on the bus down to London to meet up with Robin, her brother, for his 21st birthday. Starting out at The Dove in Broadway Market, we began an adventure of epic proportions, backed up by some of the least-consistent planning ever encountered in a pub crawl. At times, the revellers and I were as one unit, moving together through the capital, shouting “Dave!” in unison. Other times, keeping the group together and headed in the same direction was a little like trying to herd cats.

But progress was made, and a milestone birthday was celebrated. Highlights included:

Pub Jenga

Pub Monopoly is so last week: Pub Jenga is the new hotness. At each bar, we brought out a set of Jenga, the bricks of which had each been emblazoned – using a marker pen – with the names of diferent areas of London. When the tower collapsed, the brick responsible dictated where we would go to next.

Pub Jenga - The Next Big Thing

The person responsible for the destruction of the tower was required to drink a penalty shot of Jägermeister and be the bearer of the Jenga set and The Trowel until the next pub. Oh yeah, The Trowel. Robin’s plan was that, at the end of the night, the Jenga set would be buried forever at a secret location. As we’d left before this point to catch the bus back to Oxford, I’ve no idea whether or not this actually happened.

Another gripping turn of Pub Jenga

Mystery Pockets

Ruth and Robin’s older brother, Owen, had come prepared: having numbered each of his eight pockets and placed a mystery item in each, Robin was periodically charged with picking a number, at which point the contents of the pocket were revealed and used. Some of the items revealed were:

Face Paints


One of the first Mystery Pockets contained red and green face paints, with inevitable results. Also, I’m not sure what was in them, but quite a lot of people at the table started itching quite a lot after they were applied: whoops! Click the thumbnails for bigger pictures.

Party Poppers

After these were chosen, everybody managed to get ahead of Robin by sprinting down a tube station fire escape staircase, and hiding around the corner at the bottom. Which might have been more effective if not for the fact that it’s quite hard to hide a dozen people in a tight stairwell. Also, that Robin had decided by this point to “fall” down the staircase.

Silly String!

Silly string! It's so silly!

It’s silly. ‘Nuff said.

People Of London

Our travels put us into contact with a variety of people from around the city, like:

The Moon Man

In Covent Garden, we got a small audience as a result of our various exploits, but this one – persuading a random stranger to bare his colourful underwear to the world, might be the best. In the background, you can just make out an unrelated group of partygoers, about to tie themselves together with a long rope left lying around by a street performer.

The Moon Man pulls his trousers down

Owen’s Fans

The two women at the next table from us in a bar in Oxford Circus, who seemed quite pleased and impressed when Owen tore his shirt in half in a show of manliness. I’m pretty sure that if he’d have asked, they’d have paid to see more.

Jamaican Me Crazy

A busker with drums who we persuaded to play the most reggae interpretation of Happy Birthday To You that has ever been heard.

Lay down some beats! Dancing might have been involved on my part.

Dave!!!

I can’t even remember how, but it quickly became our callsign that – in order to make sure that everybody was together (at least, after we’d lost the enormous Papa-Smurf-penis-styled balloon, fresh from Owen’s mystery pockets, that had previouly been our beacon), we’d all shout “Dave!!!”, as if we’d lost somebody by that name. No, I can’t explain it either.

But... where's Dave? DAVE? DAVE!!!

A Cornish-Pasty Themed Pub

Seriously, such a thing exists. We almost gave this one a missing, mistaking it for merely being a late-night Cornish Pasty Shop (yes, that was more believable to us at this point), before we noticed that it had a bouncer. “What kind of bakery needs security?” “Ohhhhh.”

Playing Jenga In Unusual Places

Like the game on the steps of St. Paul’s Church.

I'm still amazed that we didn't attract a larger audience than we did, playing Jenga in this famous spot for street entertainers.

Racing Around The Transport Network

You know all of those signs about not playing on the escalators, not running up the escalators: all that jazz. Apparently some of the group didn’t think that they applied to them, with hilarious consequences. Honestly, I’ve never seen somebody slide all the way down the central reservation of a 100-foot escaltor before, “bouncing” over every sign and emergency-stop-button as they rocketed down along the polished steel. And if I never do again, that’ll be fine, because I’ve seen it now.


Meeting Some Fabulous People

Turns out, everybody who came along to Robin’s birthday – most of whom I hadn’t previously met – were all awesome in their own unique ways. It’s been a long time since I’ve hung out in the company of such a lively crowd. Thanks to you all for a fantastic night out.

Lots Of People Visit Aberystwyth

Sloppy blogging, on my part, but I’ve been a busy boy lately and haven’t had time to say a lot. On the other hand, I’ve been twittering a little (but don’t worry, you’ll never catch me telling the world what’s on my sandwiches at lunchtime or what song I’m listening to right this second… unless, of course, it’s a dolphin steak and cream cheese sandwich or I’m listening to the 1995 Beatles Reunion Album or something else that’s actually worth remarking about).

Adam’s Big Birthday

What have I been up to, then. Well; there was Adam‘s 30th birthday, which shall probably hereafter be known as “Adam’s twenty-mmgphhnn <cough> th birthday”, which – as it seems he’s not going to say anything about, I suppose I ought to, not least because it’s an excuse to share some photos I might not otherwise have bothered to.

His birthday fell on a Troma Night, so Ruth baked a stack of muffins which were subsequently decorated by everybody who got to Troma Night before Adam did. The idea was to decorate them with “all of his favourite things”… can you begin to imagine what a stack of muffins look like when they’re iced with the BBC logo, twinkly little stars, ejaculating penises, a TARDIS, and – on one particularly well-decorated muffin (thanks Penny!) – a fabulous looking Dalek.


The Dalek is particularly impressive, yeah? I was impressed, anyway.

Andy & Sian Visit

The other thing that’s occupied plenty of my time is the string of visiting friends we’ve had in town. First up was Andy & Sian, who came up from Cardiff to open the new football stand for Aber Town, in memory of Sian’s brother, who died suddenly a few years ago.

It was great to catch up with them, eat curry with them, and play board games with them, especially as I hadn’t expected to see either of them again before the oft-promised Cardiff Is Amazing (are we still doing this, folks? how does the new proposed date sound to everybody?).

Jen & Nick Visit

Next up on the visiting queue were Jen and her new man, Nick. She’d been planning to come as part of her tour of the UK (I gather that she was at a wedding somewhere over here, too).

Nick’s a fab chap, and he and Jen make a great couple. Oh, and I got a video of Nick and Claire singing karaoke at the Inn on the Pier.

Incidentally, Jen: is this your watch? If so, you’ve left it here – where do you want me to post it?

Matt P Visits

Next up was Matt‘s visit, over Easter weekend. Claire and I hadn’t even gotten around to putting away our inflatable bed since Jen & Nick had borrowed it the previous weekend, which turned out to be convenient on account of the fact that it saved us from having to get it back out again.

Ruth organised a collaborative Easter egg hunt for us all (by which I mean; she supplied us all with Easter eggs, each with somebody else’s name on, which we had to hide) out in a nature reserve in the Rheidol Valley, which was a lot of fun. Rory‘s posted a fantastic video from the event, featuring mostly me looking like a prat as I hunt for the most obviously-hidden egg in the history of egg-hiding.

On Easter Sunday I ate too much. But I didn’t turn into a butterfly, just a big flabby ball of chocolate-muching.

And There’s More…

Andy & Faye are in Aberystwyth until tomorrow morning. Didn’t know they were here? Nor did I, until Andy was already on a train. I guess this counts as a “stealth visit.” I got to meet up with them for a smoothie after work yesterday, but couldn’t make it out to the pub with them. I invited them to Sci-Fi Night, though, but I don’t know if they’re up for that or not. In any case, you all know where to find them, now, so I feel like I’ve done my part to decloak them, in that way I do.

And I gather that Bryn will be down for the weekend as part of some variety of LUG gathering. Don’t people phone, text or blog ahead any more? What’s the world coming to?

Plenty more to say, but I’ll save it for another day.