Covid Brain

I managed to dodge infection for 922 days of the Covid pandemic1, but it caught up with me eventually.

Lateral flow test, with "DAN" written on it, showing a solid control line and a very clear solid test line: a clear positive result.
Well, shit.

Frankly, it’s surprising that it took this long. We’ve always been careful, in accordance with guidance at any given time, nd we all got our jabs and boosters as soon as we were able… but conversely: we’ve got school-age children who naturally seem to be the biggest disease vectors imaginable. Our youngest, in fact, already had Covid, but the rest of us managed to dodge it perhaps thanks to all these precautions.

Vials of Covid vaccine scattered across a red background. Photo courtesy Maksim Goncharenok.
The vaccine provide protection, but it’s not a magical force-field.

Luckily I’m not suffering too badly, probably thanks to the immunisation. It’s still not great, but I dread to think how it might have been without the benefit of the jab! A minor fever came and went, and then it’s just been a few days of coughing, exhaustion, and… the most-incredible level of brain-fog.

Dan with the dog, in the garden.
Today, for example, I completey blanked the word “toilet” and struggled for some time to express to the dog why I’d brought her into the garden, while she stared at me expectantly.

I’ve taken the week off work to recover, which was a wise choice. As well as getting rest, it’s meant that I’ve managed to avoid writing production code with my addled brain! Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time chilling in bed and watching all of the films that I’d been meaning to! This week, I’ve watched:

  • Peggy Sue Got Married (y’know, that other mid-1980s movie about time travel and being a teenager in the 1950s). It was okay; some bits of the direction were spectacular for its age, like the “through the mirror” filming.
  • Fall. I enjoyed this more than I expected to. It’s not great, but while I spent most of the time complaining about the lack of believability in the setting and the characters’ reactions, the acting was good and the tension “worked”: it was ocassionally pretty vertigo-inducing, and that’s not just because I’ve been having some Covid-related dizziness!
  • RRR. Oh my god this Tollywood action spectacle was an adventure. At one point it’s a bromantic buddy comedy, then later there’s a dance-off, then for a while there’s a wonderful “even language can’t divide us” romance, but then later a man picks up a motorcycle with one hand and uses it to beat up an entire army, and somehow it all feels like it belongs together. The symbolism’s so thick you can spread it (tl;dr: colonialism bad), but it’s still a riot of a film.
  • Cyrano, which I feel was under-rated but that could just be that I have a soft spot for the story… and a love of musical theatre.
  • Also, at times when I didn’t think my brain had the focus for something new, I re-watched Dude, Where’s My Car? because I figured a stoner comedy that re-replains the plot every 20 minutes or so was about as good as I could expect my brain to handle at the time, and Everything Everywhere All At Once which I’ve now seen three times and loved every single one: it’s one of my favourite films.
Dan lying in bed, giving a weak "thumbs up".
See, I’m fine! (Feel like I’ve spent a lot of time lying here, this week.)

Anyway: hopefully next week I’ll be feeling more normal and my poor Covid-struck brain can be trusted with code again. Until then: time to try to rest some more.

Footnotes

1 Based on the World Health Organisation’s declaration of the outbreak being a pandemic on 11 March 2020 and my positive test on 19 September 2022, I stayed uninfected for two years, six months, one week, and one day. But who’s counting?

Dan Q found GCA002Z Busted out!

This checkin to GCA002Z Busted out! reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Could have been expected to get the FTF for this one, given that it’s (a) literally 20 seconds walk from my front door and (b) the CO had indicated that one would be hidden around here, but unfortunately I contracted covid last weekend and any walk longer tab my garden was quickly leaving me exhausted. This evening I felt a little better and so the geohound and I (pictured) braved a couple of minutes in the rain to come and sign the logbook.

Note to future cachers planning to park and grab: the “layby” indicated is a working bus stop, albeit with an infrequent (every 2 hours, weekday daytimes) schedule, so remember to be a polite cacher and try not to park in it at times that it’ll be needed by the minibus!

I might need to find a new home for my replacement to GC90RH3, whose bridge hiding place is only 100m or so (less than the requisite 0.1 miles!) from this new cache! Ah well, that’ll teach me to be a slow CO!

TFTC, and for getting me out of the house for a walk for the first time since I got sick almost a week ago.

Dan with the dog, in the garden.

Map of 51.758167,-1.40125

Do What You’re Bad At [Video]

This video accompanies a blog post of the same title. The content is basically the same – if you prefer videos, watch this video. If you prefer blog posts, go read the blog post. If you’re a superfan, try both and spot the differences. You weirdo.

Also available on YouTube or on Facebook.

Do What You’re Bad At

This blog post is also available as a video. Would you prefer to watch/listen to me tell you about how I’ve learned to enjoy doing what I’m bad at?

There are a great number of things that I’m bad at. One thing I’m bad at (but that I’m trying to get better at) is being more-accepting of the fact that there are things that I am bad at.

Against a pale background, Dan, deep in thought and with a finger to his lips, staring into space. A stylised thought bubble above him shows that he is thinking about himself thinking about himself thinking about himself, and so on (implied to infinity).
I’ve also been thinking about how I’m bad at thinking about how I’m bad at thinking about how I’m bad at thinking about…

I’m pretty bad in a pub quiz. I’m bad at operating my pizza oven without destroying cookware. I’m especially bad at learning languages. I’m appallingly bad at surfing. Every time my work periodically leans in that direction I remember how bad I am at React. And I’ve repeatedly shown that I’m bad at keeping on top of blogging, to the extent that I’ve periodically declared bankruptcy on my drafts folder.

So yeah, pretty bad at things.

But hang on: that assessment isn’t entirely true.

Photograph showing a yellow banana on a pink background. The banana has a silver chain wrapped around it three times. Photo courtesy Deon Black.
I’m also particularly bad at choosing suitable stock photos for use in blog posts.

Being Bad

As a young kid, I was a smart cookie. I benefited from being an only child and getting lots of attention from a pair of clever parents, but I was also pretty bright and a quick learner with an interest in just about anything I tried. This made me appear naturally talented at a great many things, and – pushed-on by the praise of teachers, peers, and others – I discovered that I could “coast” pretty easily.

But a flair for things will only carry you so far, and a problem with not having to work hard at your education means that you don’t learn how to learn. I got bitten by this when I was in higher education, when I found that I actually had to work at getting new information to stick in my head (of course, being older makes learning harder too, as became especially obvious to me during my most-recent qualification)!

Dan, aged around 4, dressed in a duffel coat, bobble hat and gloves, kneeling on a red plastic sledge in a snow-filled garden. The garden is bordered by a wire fence, and in the background a man can be seen scraping icee off a car.
Ignore the fact that you’ve now seen me trying to sledge uphill and just accept that I was a clever kid (except at photography), okay?

A side-effect of these formative experiences is that I grew into an adult who strongly differentiated between two distinct classes of activities:

  1. Things I was good at, either because of talent or because I’d thoroughly studied them already. I experienced people’s admiration and respect when I practised these things, and it took little effort to stay “on top” of these fields, and
  2. Things I was bad at, because I didn’t have a natural aptitude and hadn’t yet put the time in to learning them. We don’t often give adults external reinforcement for “trying hard”, and I’d become somewhat addicted to being seen as awesome… so I shied away from things I was “bad at”.

The net result: I missed out on opportunities to learn new things, simply because I didn’t want to be seen as going through the “amateur” phase. In hindsight, that’s really disappointing! And this “I’m bad at (new) things” attitude definitely fed into the imposter syndrome I felt when I first started at Automattic.

Being Better

Leaving the Bodleian after 8½ years might have helped stimulate a change in me. I’d carved out a role for myself defined by the fields I knew best; advancing my career would require that I could learn new things. But beyond that, I benefited from my new employer whose “creed culture” strongly promotes continuous learning (I’ve vlogged about this before), and from my coach who’s been great at encouraging me towards a growth mindset.

A cake with icing printed with a picture of Dan in a library. Beneath are iced the words "Good Luck Dan".
“Good Luck Dan”, my Bodleian buddies said. But perhaps they should’ve said “Keep Learning Dan”.

But perhaps the biggest stimulus to remind me to keep actively learning, even (especially?) when it’s hard, might have been the pandemic. Going slightly crazy with cabin fever during the second lockdown, I decided to try and teach myself how to play the piano. Turns out I wasn’t alone, as I’ve mentioned before: the pandemic did strange things to us all.

I have no real experience of music; I didn’t even get to play recorder in primary school. And I’ve certainly got no talent for it (I can hear well enough to tell how awful my singing is, but that’s more a curse than a blessing). Also, every single beginners’ book and video course I looked at starts from the assumption that you’re going to want to “feel” your way into it, and that just didn’t sit well with the way my brain works.

Animation showing Dan, wearing a black t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, playing an upright piano.
90% of what I do in front of a piano might be described as “Dan Mucks About (in B Minor)”, but that’s fine by me.

I wanted a theoretical background before I even sat down at a keyboard, so I took a free online course in music theory. Then I started working through a “beginners’ piano” book we got for the kids. Then I graduated to “first 50 Disney songs”, because I know how virtually all of them sound well enough that I’d be able to hear where I was going wrong. Since then, I’ve started gradually making my way through a transcription of Einaudi’s Islands. Feeling like I’d got a good handle on what I was supposed to be doing, I then took inspiration from a book JTA gave me and started trying to improvise.

Most days, I get no more than about 10 minutes on the piano. But little by little, day by day, that’s enough to learn. Nowadays even my inner critic perfectionist can tolerate hearing myself play. And while I know that I’ll probably never be as good as, say, the average 8-year-old on YouTube, I’m content in my limited capacity.

Three books on a blue-and-white tablecloth: John Thompson's Easiest Piano Course (Part One), First 50 Disney Songs, and Essential Einaudi - Islands. Beneath them sits a simplified diagram showing the circle of fifths.
Let’s start at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.)

If I’m trying to cultivate my wonder syndrome, I need to stay alert for “things I’m bad at” that I could conceivably be better at if I were just brave enough to try to learn. I’m now proudly an “embarrassingly amateur” pianist, which I’m at-long-last growing to see as better than a being non-pianist.

Off the back of that experience, I’m going to try to spend more time doing things that I’m bad at. And I’d encourage you to do the same.

Taking a Jackbox Zoom Party to the Next Level

A love a good Jackbox Game. There’s nothing quite like sitting around the living room playing Drawful, Champ’d Up, Job Job, Trivia Murder Party, or Patently Stupid. But nowadays getting together in the same place isn’t as easy as it used to be, and as often as not I find my Jackbox gaming with friends or coworkers takes place over Zoom, Around, Google Meet or Discord.

There’s lots of guides to doing this – even an official one! – but they all miss a few pro tips that I think can turn a good party into a great party. Get all of this set up before your guests are due to arrive to make yourself look like a super-prepared digital party master.

1. Use two computers!

Two laptops: one showing a full-screen Zoom chat with Dan and "Jackbox Games"; the second showing a windowed copy of Jackbox Party Pack 8.
You can use more than two, but two should be considered the minimum for the host.

Using one computer for your video call and a second one to host the game (in addition to the device you’re using to play the games, which could be your phone) is really helpful for several reasons:

  • You can keep your video chat full-screen without the game window getting in the way, letting you spend more time focussed on your friends.
  • Your view of the main screen can be through the same screen-share that everybody else sees, helping you diagnose problems. It also means you experience similar video lag to everybody else, keeping things fair!
  • You can shunt the second computer into a breakout room, giving your guests the freedom to hop in and out of a “social” space and a “gaming” space at will. (You can even set up further computers and have multiple different “game rooms” running at the same time!)

2. Check the volume

3.5mm adapter plugged into the headphone port on a laptop.
Plugging an adapter into the headphone port tricks the computer into thinking some headphones are plugged in without actually needing the headphones quietly buzzing away on your desk.

Connect some headphones to the computer that’s running the game (or set up a virtual audio output device if you’re feeling more technical). This means you can still have the game play sounds and transmit them over Zoom, but you’ll only hear the sounds that come through the screen share, not the sounds that come through the second computer too.

That’s helpful, because (a) it means you don’t get feedback or have to put up with an echo at your end, and (b) it means you’ll be hearing the game exactly the same as your guests hear it, allowing you to easily tweak the volume to a level that allows for conversation over it.

3. Optimise the game settings

Jackbox games were designed first and foremost for sofa gaming, and playing with friends over the Internet benefits from a couple of changes to the default settings.

Sometimes the settings can be found in the main menu of a party pack, and sometimes they’re buried in the game itself, so do your research and know your way around before your party starts.

Jackbox settings screen showing Master Volume at 20%, Music Volume at 50%, and Full-screen Mode disabled

Turn the volume down, especially the volume of the music, so you can have a conversation over the game. I’d also recommend disabling Full-screen Mode: this reduces the resolution of the game, meaning there’s less data for your video-conferencing software to stream, and makes it easier to set up screen sharing without switching back and forth between your applications (see below).

Jackbox accessibility settings: Subtitles, Motion Sensitivity, and Extended Timers are turned on.
Turning on the Motion Sensitivity or Reduce Background Animations option if your game has it means there’ll be less movement in the background of the game. This can really help with the video compression used in videoconferencing software, meaning players on lower-speed connections are less-likely to experience lag or “blockiness” in busy scenes.

It’s worth considering turning Subtitles on so that guests can work out what word they missed (which for the trivia games can be a big deal). Depending on your group, Extended Timers is worth considering too: the lag introduced by videoconferencing can frustrate players who submit answers at the last second only to discover that – after transmission delays – they missed the window! Extended Timers don’t solve that, but they do mean that such players are less-likely to end up waiting to the last second in the first place.

Jackbox game content settings; "Filter US-centric content" is switched on.
Finally: unless the vast majority or all of your guests are in the USA, you might like to flip the Filter US-Centric Content switch so that you don’t get a bunch of people scratching their heads over a cultural reference that they just don’t get.

By the way, you can use your cursor keys and enter to operate Jackbox games menus, which is usually easier than fiddling with a mouse.

4. Optimise Zoom’s settings

MacOS desktop showing a Jackbox game running and Zoom being configured to show a "portion of screen".
A few quick tweaks to your settings can make all the difference to how great the game looks.

Whatever videoconferencing platform you’re using, the settings for screen sharing are usually broadly similar. I suggest:

  • Make sure you’ve ticked “Share sound” or a similar setting that broadcasts the game’s audio: in some games, this is crucial; in others, it’s nice-to-have. Use your other computer to test how it sounds and tweak the volume accordingly.
  • Check “Optimize for video clip”; this hints to your videoconferencing software that all parts of the content could be moving at once so it can use the same kind of codec it would for sending video of your face. The alternative assumes that most of the screen will stay static (because it’s the desktop, the background of your slides, or whatever), which works better with a different kind of codec.
  • Use “Portion of Screen” sharing rather than selecting the application. This ensures that you can select just the parts of the application that have content in, and not “black bars”, window chrome and the like, which looks more-professional as well as sending less data over the connection.
  • If your platform allows it, consider making the mouse cursor invisible in the shared content: this means that you won’t end up with an annoying cursor sitting in the middle of the screen and getting in the way of text, and makes menu operation look slicker if you end up using the mouse instead of the keyboard for some reason.

Don’t forget to shut down any software that might “pop up” notifications: chat applications, your email client, etc.: the last thing you want is somebody to send you a naughty picture over WhatsApp and the desktop client to show it to everybody else in your party!

Automattic Growth

It just passed two years since I started working at Automattic, and I just made a startling discovery: I’ve now been with the company for longer than 50% of the staff.

When you hear that from a 2-year employee at a tech company, it’s easy to assume that they have a high staff turnover, but Automattic’s churn rate is relatively low, especially for our sector: 86% of developers stay longer than 5 years. So what’s happening? Let’s visualise it:

Graph showing all 1.802 current Automatticians as coloured squares, ordered by their start date. Dan Q's square is squarely (LOL) in the middle.
Everything in this graph, in which each current Automattician is a square, explains how I feel right now: still sometimes like a new fish, but in an increasingly big sea.

All that “red” at the bottom of the graph? That’s recent growth. Automattic’s expanding really rapidly right now, taking on new talent at a never-before-seen speed.

Since before I joined it’s been the case that our goals have demanded an influx of new engineers at a faster rate than we’ve been able to recruit, but it looks like things are improving. Recent refinements to our recruitment process (of which I’ve written about my experience) have helped, but I wonder how much we’ve also been aided by pandemic-related changes to working patterns? Many people, and especially in tech fields, have now discovered that working-from-home works for them, and a company like Automattic that’s been built for the last decade and a half on a “distributed” model is an ideal place to see that approach work at it’s best.

We’re rolling out new induction programmes to support this growth. Because I care about our corporate culture, I’ve volunteered myself as a Culture Buddy, so I’m going to spend some of this winter helping Newmatticians integrate into our (sometimes quirky, often chaotic) ways of working. I’m quite excited to be at a point where I’m in the “older 50%” of the organisation and so have a responsibility for supporting the “younger 50%”, even though I’m surprised that it came around so quickly.

Screenshot from officetoday.wordpress.com, where Automatticians share photos of their current work environment.
Automattic… culture? Can’t we just show them Office Today and be done with it?

I wonder how that graph will look in another two years.

Heatmapping my Movements

As I mentioned last year, for several years I’ve collected pretty complete historic location data from GPSr devices I carry with me everywhere, which I collate in a personal μlogger server.

Going back further, I’ve got somewhat-spotty data going back a decade, thanks mostly to the fact that I didn’t get around to opting-out of Google’s location tracking until only a few years ago (this data is now also housed in μlogger). More-recently, I now also get tracklogs from my smartwatch, so I’m managing to collate more personal location data than ever before.

Inspired perhaps at least a little by Aaron Parecki, I thought I’d try to do something cool with it.

Heatmapping my movements

The last year

Heatmap showing Dan's movements around Oxford since moving house in 2020. There's a strong cluster around Stanton Harcourt with heavy tendrils around Witney and Eynsham and along the A40 to Summertown, and lighter tendrils around North and Central Oxford.
My movements over the last year have been relatively local, but there are some interesting hotspots and common routes.

What you’re looking at is a heatmap showing my location over the last year or so since I moved to The Green. Between the pandemic and switching a few months prior to a job that I do almost-entirely at home there’s not a lot of travel showing, but there’s some. Points of interest include:

  • The blob around my house, plus some of the most common routes I take to e.g. walk or cycle the children to school.
  • A handful of my favourite local walking and cycling routes, some of which stand out very well: e.g. the “loop” just below the big blob represents a walk around the lake at Dix Pit; the blob on its right is the Devils Quoits, a stone circle and henge that I thought were sufficiently interesting that I made a virtual geocache out of them.
  • The most common highways I spend time on: two roads into Witney, the road into and around Eynsham, and routes to places in Woodstock and North Oxford where the kids have often had classes/activities.
  • I’ve unsurprisingly spent very little time in Oxford City Centre, but when I have it’s most often been at the Westgate Shopping Centre, on the roof of which is one of the kids’ favourite restaurants (and which we’ve been able to go to again as Covid restrictions have lifted, not least thanks to their outdoor seating!).

One to eight years ago

Let’s go back to the 7 years prior, when I lived in Kidlington. This paints a different picture:

Heatmap showing Dan's movements around Kidlington, including a lot of time in the village and in Oxford City Centre, as well as hotspots at the hospital, parks, swimming pools, and places that Dan used to volunteer. Individual expeditions can also be identified.
For the seven years I lived in Kidlington I moved around a lot more than I have since: each hotspot tells a story, and some tell a few.

This heatmap highlights some of the ways in which my life was quite different. For example:

  • Most of my time was spent in my village, but it was a lot larger than the hamlet I live in now and this shows in the size of my local “blob”. It’s also possible to pick out common destinations like the kids’ nursery and (later) school, the parks, and the routes to e.g. ballet classes, music classes, and other kid-focussed hotspots.
  • I worked at the Bodleian from early 2011 until late in 2019, and so I spent a lot of time in Oxford City Centre and cycling up and down the roads connecting my home to my workplace: Banbury Road glows the brightest, but I spent some time on Woodstock Road too.
  • For some of this period I still volunteered with Samaritans in Oxford, and their branch – among other volunteering hotspots – show up among my movements. Even without zooming in it’s also possible to make out individual venues I visited: pubs, a cinema, woodland and riverside walks, swimming pools etc.
  • Less-happily, it’s also obvious from the map that I spent a significant amount of time at the John Radcliffe Hospital, an unpleasant reminder of some challenging times from that chapter of our lives.
  • The data’s visibly “spottier” here, mostly because I built the heatmap only out of the spatial data over the time period, and not over the full tracklogs (i.e. the map it doesn’t concern itself with the movement between two sampled points, even where that movement is very-guessable), and some of the data comes from less-frequently-sampled sources like Google.

Eight to ten years ago

Let’s go back further:

Heatmap showing Dan's movements around Oxford during the period he lived in Kennington. Again, it's dominated by time at home, in the city centre, and commuting between the two.
Back when I lived in Kennington I moved around a lot less than I would come to later on (although again, the spottiness of the data makes that look more-significant than it is).

Before 2011, and before we bought our first house, I spent a couple of years living in Kennington, to the South of Oxford. Looking at this heatmap, you’ll see:

  • I travelled a lot less. At the time, I didn’t have easy access to a car and – not having started my counselling qualification yet – I didn’t even rent one to drive around very often. You can see my commute up the cyclepath through Hinksey into the City Centre, and you can even make out the outline of Oxford’s Covered Market (where I’d often take my lunch) and a building in Osney Mead where I’d often deliver training courses.
  • Sometimes I’d commute along Abingdon Road, for a change; it’s a thinner line.
  • My volunteering at Samaritans stands out more-clearly, as do specific venues inside Oxford: bars, theatres, and cinemas – it’s the kind of heatmap that screams “this person doesn’t have kids; they can do whatever they like!”

Every map tells a story

I really love maps, and I love the fact that these heatmaps are capable of painting a picture of me and what my life was like in each of these three distinct chapters of my life over the last decade. I also really love that I’m able to collect and use all of the personal data that makes this possible, because it’s also proven useful in answering questions like “How many times did I visit Preston in 2012?”, “Where was this photo taken?”, or “What was the name of that place we had lunch when we got lost during our holiday in Devon?”.

There’s so much value in personal geodata (that’s why unscrupulous companies will try so hard to steal it from you!), but sometimes all you want to do is use it to draw pretty heatmaps. And that’s cool, too.

Heatmap showing Dan's movements around Great Britain for the last 10 years: with a focus on Oxford, tendrils stretch to hotspots in South Wales, London, Cambridge, York, Birmingham, Preston, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and beyond.

How these maps were generated

I have a μlogger instance with the relevant positional data in. I’ve automated my process, but the essence of it if you’d like to try it yourself is as follows:

First, write some SQL to extract all of the position data you need. I round off the latitude and longitude to 5 decimal places to help “cluster” dots for frequency-summing, and I raise the frequency to the power of 3 to help make a clear gradient in my heatmap by making hotspots exponentially-brighter the more popular they are:

SELECT ROUND(latitude, 5) lat, ROUND(longitude, 5) lng, POWER(COUNT(*), 3) `count`
FROM positions
WHERE `time` BETWEEN '2020-06-22' AND '2021-08-22'
GROUP BY ROUND(latitude, 5), ROUND(longitude, 5)

This data needs converting to JSON. I was using Ruby’s mysql2 gem to fetch the data, so I only needed a .to_json call to do the conversion – like this:

db = Mysql2::Client.new(host: ENV['DB_HOST'], username: ENV['DB_USERNAME'], password: ENV['DB_PASSWORD'], database: ENV['DB_DATABASE'])
db.query(sql).to_a.to_json

Approximately following this guide and leveraging my Mapbox subscription for the base map, I then just needed to include leaflet.js, heatmap.js, and leaflet-heatmap.js before writing some JavaScript code like this:

body.innerHTML = '<div id="map"></div>';
let map = L.map('map').setView([51.76, -1.40], 10);
// add the base layer to the map
L.tileLayer('https://api.mapbox.com/styles/v1/{id}/tiles/{z}/{x}/{y}?access_token={accessToken}', {
  maxZoom: 18,
  id: 'itsdanq/ckslkmiid8q7j17ocziio7t46', // this is the style I defined for my map, using Mapbox
  tileSize: 512,
  zoomOffset: -1,
  accessToken: '...' // put your access token here if you need one!
}).addTo(map);
// fetch the heatmap JSON and render the heatmap
fetch('heat.json').then(r=>r.json()).then(json=>{
  let heatmapLayer = new HeatmapOverlay({
    "radius": parseFloat(document.querySelector('#radius').value),
    "scaleRadius": true,
    "useLocalExtrema": true,
  });
  heatmapLayer.setData({ data: json });
  heatmapLayer.addTo(map);
});

That’s basically all there is to it!

Holidays in the Age of COVID

We’ve missed out on or delayed a number of trips and holidays over the last year and a half for, you know, pandemic-related reasons. So this summer, in addition to our trip to Lichfield, we arranged a series of back-to-back expeditions.

1. Alton Towers

The first leg of our holiday saw us spend a long weekend at Alton Towers, staying over at one of their themed hotels in between days at the water park and theme park:

2. Darwin Forest

The second leg of our holiday took us to a log cabin in the Darwin Forest Country Park for a week:

3. Preston

Kicking off the second week of our holiday, we crossed the Pennines to Preston to hang out with my family (with the exception of JTA, who had work to do back in Oxfordshire that he needed to return to):

4. Forest of Bowland

Ruth and I then left the kids with my mother and sisters for a few days to take an “anniversary mini-break” of glamping in the gorgeous Forest of Bowland:

(If you’re interested in Steve Taylor’s bathtub-carrying virtual-Everest expedition, here’s his Facebook page and JustGiving profile.)

5. Meanwhile, in Preston

The children, back in Preston, were apparently having a whale of a time:

6. Suddenly, A Ping

The plan from this point was simple: Ruth and I would return to Preston for a few days, hang out with my family some more, and eventually make a leisurely return to Oxfordshire. But it wasn’t to be…

Screenshot from the NHS Covid App: "You need to self-isolate."
Well that’s not the kind of message you want to get from your phone.

I got a “ping”. What that means is that my phone was in close proximity to somebody else’s phone on 29 August and that other person subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

My risk from this contact is exceptionally low. There’s only one place that my phone was in close proximity to the phone of anybody else outside of my immediate family, that day, and it’s when I left it in a locker at the swimming pool near our cabin in the Darwin Forest. Also, of course, I’d been double-jabbed for a month and a half and I’m more-cautious than most about contact, distance, mask usage etc. But my family are, for their own (good) reasons, more-cautious still, so self-isolating at Preston didn’t look like a possibility for us.

Ruth and Dan in a car, in a car park.
Ruth and I went directly to a drive-through PCR testing facility.

As soon as I got the notification we redirected to the nearest testing facility and both got swabs done. 8 days after possible exposure we ought to have a detectable viral load, if we’ve been infected. But, of course, the tests take a day or so to process, so we still needed to do a socially-distanced pickup of the kids and all their stuff from Preston and turn tail for Oxfordshire immediately, cutting our trip short.

The results would turn up negative, and subsequent tests would confirm that the “ping” was a false positive. And in an ironic twist, heading straight home actually put us closer to an actual COVID case as Ruth’s brother Owen turned out to have contracted the bug at almost exactly the same time and had, while we’d been travelling down the motorway, been working on isolating himself in an annex of the “North wing” of our house for the duration of his quarantine.

Barricade with signs reading "Quarantine: Zombie Outbreak"
I set up a “yellow zone” between Owen’s quarantine area and the rest of the house into which we could throw supplies. And I figured I’d have fun with the signage.

7. Ruth & JTA go to Berwick

Thanks to negative tests and quick action in quarantining Owen, Ruth and JTA were still able to undertake the next part of this three-week holiday period and take their anniversary break (which technically should be later in the year, but who knows what the situation will be by then?) to Berwick-upon-Tweed. That’s their story to tell, if they want to, but the kids and I had fun in their absence:

8. Reunited again

Finally, Ruth and JTA returned from their mini-break and we got to do a few things together as a family again before our extended holiday drew to a close:

9. Back to work?

Tomorrow I’m back at work, and after 23 days “off” I’m honestly not sure I remember what I do for a living any more. Something to do with the Internet, right? Maybe ecommerce?

I’m sure it’ll all come right back to me, at least by the time I’ve read through all the messages and notifications that doubtless await me (I’ve been especially good at the discipline, this break, of not looking at work notifications while I’ve been on holiday; I’m pretty proud of myself.)

But looking back, it’s been a hell of a three weeks. After a year and a half of being pretty-well confined to one place, doing a “grand tour” of so many destinations as a family and getting to do so many new and exciting things has made the break feel even longer than it was. It seems like it must have been months since I last had a Zoom meeting with a work colleague!

For now, though, it’s time to try to get the old brain back into work mode and get back to making the Web a better place!

Dan Q found GC1Y6GZ One Giant Step

This checkin to GC1Y6GZ One Giant Step reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Greetings from Oxfordshire! I’m staying in the holiday park just East of here as part of the first of a three week holiday (taken in an attempt to “make up” for holidays cancelled over the last year and a half owing to The Situation). I figured it’d be an easy and relatively direct hike from there to here, but I’d not counted on the work underway at the moment by the Forestry Commission! Several diverted footpaths later I finally found this “giant step”! Took Paul the Seahorse TB, SL, TFTC.

Map of 53.180133,-1.566933

Lichfield

We took a family trip up to Lichfield this weekend. I don’t know if I can give a “review” of a city-break as a whole, but if I can: I give you five stars, Lichfield.

Dan in front of Lichfield Cathedral, early on Sunday morning.
It’s got a cathedral, which is quite pretty.

Maybe it’s just because we’ve none of us had a night away from The Green… pretty-much since we moved in, last year. But there was something magical about doing things reminiscent of the “old normal”.

Dan and the kids in a bed at a hotel.
“I’m so excited! We get to stay… at a Premier Inn!” At first I rolled my eyes at this joyous line from our 4-year-old (I mean… it’s just a Premier Inn…), but it did feel good to go somewhere and do something.

It’s not that like wasn’t plenty of mask-wearing and social distancing and hand sanitiser and everything that we’ve gotten used to now: there certainly was. The magic, though, came from getting to do an expedition further away from home than we’re used to. And, perhaps, with that happening to coincide with glorious weather and fun times.

A balloon artist wearing a unicorn on her head makes sculptures for children.
Socially-distanced balloon modelling turns out to work, not least because you can hand one of those long balloons to somebody without getting anywhere near them.

We spent an unimaginably hot summer’s day watching an outdoor interpretation of Peter and the Wolf, which each of the little ones has learned about in reasonable depth, at some point or another, as part of the (fantastic) “Monkey Music” classes of which they’re now both graduates.

Ruth and John sit on a picnic blanket in a painted circle; the maquee for the band is behind them.
So long as you weren’t staring at the painted circles on the grass – for corralling families apart from one another – you’d easily forget how unusual things are, right now.

And maybe it’s that they’ve been out-of-action for so long and are only just beginning to once again ramp up… or maybe I’ve just forgotten what the hospitality industry is like?… but man, we felt well-looked after.

From the staff at the hotel who despite the clear challenges of running their establishment under the necessary restrictions still went the extra mile to make the kids feel special to the restaurant we went to that pulled out all the stops to give us all a great evening, I basically came out of the thing with the impression of Lichfield as a really nice place.

Dan in Lichfield city centre, deserted early on a Sunday morning.
Take social distancing to the next level: do your urban geocaching at the crack of dawn.

I’m not saying that it was perfect. A combination of the intolerable heat (or else the desiccating effect of the air conditioner) and a mattress that sagged with two adults on it meant that I didn’t sleep much on Saturday night (although that did mean I could get up at 5am for a geocaching expedition around the city before it got too hot later on). And an hour and a half of driving to get to a place where you’re going to see a one-hour show feels long, especially in this age where I don’t really travel anywhere, ever.

But that’s not the point.

Ruth and the kids eat breakfast
The buffet was closed, of course, but these kids were made for an “all you can eat” breakfast.

The point is that Lichfield made me happy, this weekend. And I don’t know how much of that is that it’s just a nice place and how much is that I’ve missed going anywhere or doing anything, but either way, it lead to a delightful weekend.

Retrohashing expedition 2012 02 19 51 -1

This checkin to geohash 2012-02-19 51 -1 reflects a geohashing expedition. See more of Dan's hash logs.

Location

Field behind Hill Barn, near the Gom’s Hole public footpath, in the valley beneath the hamlet of Clapton-on-the-Hill. About 4km outside the village of Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire.

(Retro) Participants

  • Dan Q (as a retrohash on the same date but 19 years later, on 2021-02-19)

(Retro) Plans

On the second anniversary of the death of my father, a man who loved to get out into the world and get lost, I undertook my first geohashing expedition. As this seemed to be a good way to remember him I decided to repeat the experience on this, the ninth anniversary of his death, but the actual hashpoints for the day didn’t look interesting… so I opted to make my way to what would have been my nearest hashpoint on the day he died.

(Retro) Expedition

The weather looked horrible and the COVID lockdown (and working from home in general in recent years) has put me out of practice at cycling, so I thought a 40-50 mile round trip through the rolling hills of the Cotswolds was just the thing. This may have been a mistake, as my aching legs were able to testify for several days.

Cycling through Witney, over the hills behind Burford, and then across the Windrush valley and into Gloucestershire was a long, arduous, and damp journey, but what really got me was the wind picking up in the afternoon and giving me a headwind to fight against all the way back home.

Near the hashpoint I was able to lock my bike up at the junction between Sherbourne Street and Bourton Hill – a place shown on my map as “Gom’s Hole” which sounds exactly like what a D&D dungeon master would have a goblin would name his bar. From there I followed the footpath towards Farringdon. As the hashpoint drew closer I began to suspect that it would be unreachable: tall walls, fences, and hedges stood on both sides of the (flooded) footpath, but at the last minute they gave way to wide meadows. I turned off the path and crossed a dyke to the hashpoint, where I had a great view of hares and deer in the valley below. Minutes later, the owner of Hill Barn came over with her dog and asked what I was doing around the back of her land and why I was taking pictures, so I explained that I’d strayed from the footpath (true) because my GPS had told me too (technically true) but I was heading back down to what I could see was the path, now (true, if misleading).

She continued to watch me all the way back to my bike, so I changed my plans (which had been to eat a sandwich lunch and drink a pint of Guinness: my dad’s beer of choice) near the hashpoint and instead I cycled away to a nearby layby to have my lunch.

After a 48.3 mile round trip I got back home aching and exhausted, but pleased to have made it to this damp hashpoint.

(Retro) Tracklog

GPX tracklog: Track 2021-02-19 RETROHASH 2012.gpx

(Retro) Photos

Map of 51.8569418,-1.7795905

The Diamonds, The Dagger and One Classy Dame

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!

Matt, Suz, Alec, Jen, Dermot and Doreen on a Google Meet screen.
“Hello, remote guests! What are you doing here?”

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.

JTA (wearing a string of pearls) and Robin (wearing sunglasses)
“Hello, local guests. Wait… why are you all in costumes…?”

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.

Dan with his tongue out holding a glass of champagne.
Fortunately I was able to quickly imbibe a few glasses of champagne and quickly get into the spirit. Hic.

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.

Jen drinking from the neck of a nearly-empty wine bottle.
As she had previously with Sour Grapes, Ruth had worked to ensure that a “care package” had reached each murder mystery guest. Why yes, it was a boozy care package.

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.)

JTA downing a Jeroboam of champagne.
The largest bottle, though, was with us: we opened the Jeroboam of champagne Ruth and JTA had been saving from their anniversary (they have a tradition involving increasing sizes of bottle; it’s a whole thing; I’ll leave them to write about it someday).

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!

Google Meet transcript with the words "You are the Jewish", which nobody said.
I’m not sure how I feel about Google Meet’s automatic transcription feature. It was generally pretty accurate, but it repeatedly thought that it heard the word “Jewish” being spoken by those of us who were putting on German accents, even though none of us said that.

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).

COVID Ipsum

So I made a COVID conspiracy theory-themed lorem ipsum generator:

I blame my friend Bryn, who put the idea into my head while he was coming up with fake COVID conspiracy theories (I realise this sentence makes it sound like there are real COVID conspiracy theories) on a WhatsApp group we’re both in:

WhatsApp conversation: Bryn says that it's easy to come up with COVID conspiracy theories, Dan says somebody should make a Lorem Ipsum generator based on them.
This is about the minimum level of encouragement I need to do just about anything in tech.

It’s implemented using perchance, a platform for creating random text generators that I’ve been playing with – sometimes with the kids – lately. It’s really easy to use and provides a kind of instant-satisfaction that I think is important if you want to inspire the next generation of software engineers. This means, among other things, that you can clone, edit, and mashup my tool: perhaps you can make it better! Or perhaps you’ll use perchance to write some fiction, or poetry, or something else entirely. But regardless, I’d encourage you to have a play.

Mostly my generator comes up with meaningless gibberish, nonsense, and laughable claims. So it’s marginally more-trustworthy than your typical COVID conspiracy theorist.

Staying Sane with GEMSAW

I’ve been having a tough time these last few months. Thanks to COVID, I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Times are strange, and even when you get a handle on how they’re strange they can still affect you: lockdown stress can quickly magnify anything else you’re already going through.

We’ve all come up with our own coping strategies; here’s part of mine.

JTA, Dan and Ruth shopping for a Christmas tree, wearing face masks
Only people who are highly-allergic to pine needles normally look like this when they’re shopping for a Christmas tree.

These last few months have occasionally seen me as emotionally low as… well, a particularly tough spell a decade ago. But this time around I’ve benefited from the self-awareness and experience to put some solid self-care into practice!

By way partly of self-accountability and partly of sharing what works for me, let me tell you about the silly mnemonic that reminds me what I need to keep track of as part of each day: GEMSAW! (With thanks to Amy Blankson for, among other things, the idea of this kind of acronym.)

Because it’s me, I’ve cited a few relevant academic sources for you in my summary, below:

  • Gratitude
    Taking the time to stop and acknowledge the good things in your life, however small, is associated with lower stress levels (Taylor, Lyubomirsky & Stein, 2017) to a degree that can’t just be explained by the placebo effect (Cregg & Cheavens, 2020).
    Frankly, the placebo effect would be fine, but it’s nice to have my practice of trying to intentionally recognise something good in each day validated by the science too!
  • Exercise
    I don’t even need a citation; I’m sure everybody knows that aerobic exercise is associated with reduced risk and severity of depression: the biggest problem comes from the fact that it’s an exceptionally hard thing to motivate yourself to do if you’re already struggling mentally!
    But it turns out you don’t need much to start to see the benefits (Josefsson, Lindwall & Archer, 2014): I try to do enough to elevate my heart rate each day, but that’s usually nothing more than elevating my desk to standing height, putting some headphones on, and dancing while I work!
Dan dancing at his desk (animated GIF)
Warming up. Things only get nuts when the bass drops, but I’ll spare you having to watch that.
  • Meditation/Mindfulness
    Understandably a bit fuzzier as a concept and tainted by being a “hip” concept. A short meditation break or mindfulness exercise might be verifiably therapeutic, but more (non-terrible) studies are needed (Vonderlin, Biermann, Bohus & Lyssenko 2020). For me, a 2-5 minute meditation break punctuates a day and feels like it contributes towards the goal of staying-sane-in-challenging-times, so it makes it into my wellbeing plan.
    Maybe it’s doing nothing. But I’m not losing much time over it so I’m not worried.
  • Sunlight
    During my 20s I gradually began to suffer more and more from “winter blues”. Nobody’s managed to make an argument for the underlying cause of seasonal affective disorder that hasn’t been equally-well debunked by some other study. Small-scale studies often justify light therapy (e.g. Lam, Levitan & Morehouse 2006) but it’s possibly no-more-effective than a placebo at scale (SBU 2007).
    Since my early 30s, I’ve always felt better to get myself 30 minutes of lightbox on winter mornings (I use one of these bad boys). I admit it’s possible that the benefits are just the result of tricking my brain into waking-up more promptly and therefore feeing like I’m being more-productive with my waking hours! But either way, getting some sunlight – whether natural or artificial – makes me feel better, so it makes it onto my daily self-care checklist.
Bright sunlight in an almost-cloudless blue sky.
10 minutes of overhead, unoccluded sunlight is the minimum therapeutic dose. That translates to about 30 minutes of winter sun at my latitude or 10,000 lux full-spectrum sunlamp.
  • Acts of kindness
    It’s probably not surprising that a person’s overall happiness correlates with their propensity for kindness (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener 2005). But what’s more interesting is that the causal link can be “gamed”. That is: a deliberate effort to engage in acts of kindness results in increased happiness (Buchanan & Bardi 2010)!
    Beneficial acts of kindness can be as little as taking the time to acknowledge somebody’s contribution or compliment somebody’s efforts. The amount of effort it takes is far less-important for happiness than the novelty of the experience, so the type of kindness you show needs to be mixed-up a bit to get the best out of it. But demonstrating kindness helps to make the world a better place for other humans, so it pays off even if you’re coming from a fully utilitarian perspective.
  • Writing
    I write a lot anyway, often right here, and that’s very-definitely for my own benefit first and foremost. But off the back of some valuable “writing therapy” (Baikie & Wilhelm 2005) I undertook earlier this year, I’ve been continuing with the simpler, lighter approach of trying to no more than three sentences about something that’s had an impact on me that day.
    As an approach, it doesn’t help everybody (Zachariae 2015), but writing a little about your day – not even about how you feel about it, just the facts will do (Koschwanez, Robinson, Beban, MacCormick, Hill, Windsor, Booth, Jüllig & Broadbent 2017; fuck me that’s a lot of co-authors) – helps to keep you content, and I’m loving it.

Despite the catchy acronym (Do I need to come up with a GEMSAW logo? I’m pretty sure real gemcutting is actually more of a grinding process…) and stack of references, I’m not actually writing a self-help book; it just sounds like I am.

I don’t claim to be an authority on anything beyond my own head, and I’m not very confident on that subject! I just wanted to share with you something that’s been working pretty well at keeping me sane for the last month or two, just in case it’s of any use to you. These are challenging times; do what you need to find the happiness you can, and hang in there.