Buying A House, Part 6

This blog post is the sixth and final part in a series about buying our first house. In the fifth post, we finally exchanged contracts with the sellers after a long-running disagreement about who was going to repair the front door…

A series of days flew by in a cardboard-box-filled blur, and suddenly it was the last Friday in July – the day upon which our sale was completed. I’d run out of spare days of annual leave, so I was only able to justify taking the afternoon off to pick up a van, scoop up Ruth and Matt, get the keys to the new house, and meet JTA there.

Ruth and Matt at the Europcar office.
The first mission was to collect a van from Europcar, so that we’d be able to spend the entire weekend going up and down the A34.

The estate agents were conveniently just two doors down from a locksmith, so we got some keys cut to what we believed to be the new front door, while we were there. It’s also sandwiched between a funeral home and a florist, which makes it sort of a one-stop street when somebody dies and you want to put their house on the market.

Dan is handed keys and a bottle of sparkling wine by Mark, the estate agent.
The great thing about getting champagne as a housewarming gift, from your estate agent, is that – unlike non-sparkling wine – you don’t need to unpack the corkscrew to open it.

We soon discovered that the “fix” that had ultimately been applied to the broken front door was simply to swap it for a different exterior door, from the inner porch. A little cheeky, and a little frustrating after all the fighting we’d done, but not the end of the world: we still had a perfectly good front door and – as we planned to use the annex as part of the main house, anyway, we were happy to take the door down and leave an open doorway, anyway.

JTA opens the door of Greendale.
We gave JTA the honour of being the first to open the door to our new home. After some fiddling with what turned out to be the wrong key, the door turned out to be already unlocked.

A vacant house feels big and empty. Our new – large! – living room felt enormous. Meanwhile, packing up our old house – with its painted walls and wooden floors – was beginning to sound echoey as it became emptier.

Ruth lies in the empty living room of Greendale.
Lounging in the living room. (or is she living in the lounge?)

We spent a long time working out which of the many keys we had fit which of the locks, as there were quite so many: there’s the front door, the inner front door, the other inner front door, the back door, the outer conservatory door, the inner conservatory door, the gate lock, the shed lock, the window locks, and a good handful of keys besides that we still haven’t identified the purpose of. It’s was like the previous owners just bought a pile of additional keys, just as a prank.

Stacks of boxes in the living room of New Earth.
Our old house – New Earth – became emptier and yet more-chaotic as the stacks of boxes were gradually loaded into the van.

We’d rented a van over a long weekend in which to do the majority of the move, and we’d hired some burly men with a bigger van to move some of the heaviest furniture, and to collect a piano that we’d bought (yes, we have a piano now; booyah).

JTA in the back of the van, in which a small mock living room has been assembled.
“Pack the living room into the van,” I said. “Okay,” said JTA, putting the kettle on.

Very helpfully, Alec came and joined us, and helped run an enormous amount of boxes and furniture down and out of the three-stories of our old house, and in and up the three-stories of our new house. Why do we keep torturing ourselves with these tall buildings? At least our new staircases are a better shape for carrying matresses up.

Removals men carry our sideboard out from the back door of New Earth.
Now that I’ve discovered that I can hire muscular men on-demand, I’m not sure that I’ll ever do anything else.

The weather stayed good, with only ocassional showers (and thankfully, never when we were carrying soft furnishings between a van and a building) and one brief but wild thunderstorm (that we managed to avoid only with a quick re-arrangement of the van contents, slamming the doors, and sprinting for cover), and we worked hard, and we ended up a day ahead of schedule before we were finished.

Alec tests the piano at Greendale.
Alec helped out with lots of heavy lifting, but also with ‘testing’ the piano. Which, before it had been tuned, wasn’t the best of experiences for anybody involved.

In order to minimise the amount of the deposit that we might otherwise lose, from our old place, and because we rightly anticipated being too exhausted from the move to do all of the requisite cleaning ourselves, we’d hired some professionals. By this point, we weren’t even able to think in terms of money like normal people – by the time you’re spending five figures on tax and lawyers, you find it pretty easy to shrug off the cost of a team of cleaners!

Matt filling his face with ice cream.
I’m pretty sure that the local ice cream van driver was following us around, because on each day of the move, he’d arrive on the scene right after we’d finished unloading a van and could really do with an ice cream break.

This did mean that Ruth and I had to each work from home, from the old house, for one last day while we let the cleaners, gardener etc. in. We left in the old house an absolute minimum of furniture: a single desk, chair, laptop computer, cup (for water), router, and cables.

Dan works from home on the final day of the occupation of New Earth.
One desk, one chair, one laptop, one router… in a five bedroom house. It’s a lonely life.

As I left the house for the last time, as empty and quiet as it was the day we first moved in, I felt a sense of serenity; a calm that came from a number of simultaneous realisations… that this was probably the last house move I’d have to do in a long while… that I finally lived somewhere that I didn’t (theoretically, at least) have to ask for somebody’s permission before I put a picture hook up or painted a wall… and that at long last I was paying off my own mortgage, rather than somebody else’s. It was the beginning of a new era.

Alec among furniture and boxes.
The first box that we unpacked was the one containing Alec, of course.

Changing tack from the theme by which our houses have been named since 2010, our new home is called Greendale. And yes, there’s a website (albeit a little sparse, for now). There’s always a website.

Matt and Susan on a bean bag as we rest at the end of the first day's moving.
Susan didn’t help much with the packing and moving, but I’m not sure I’ve put a photo of her and Matt online yet. So now I have.

There’ll be a housewarming party on 22nd September: if you’re a friend of one or more of us, you’ve probably received an invitation already. But if you haven’t – and it’s not impossible, because we weren’t sure of everybody’s best email addresses these days – and you expect you should have, let me know. It’s not that we don’t love you: we just don’t love you enough to remember to invite you to stuff, that’s all.

Buying a House, Part 1

This blog post is the first in a series about buying our first house.

Today, I called up a man on the telephone and – on behalf of Ruth, JTA, and I – offered him several hundred thousand pounds in exchange for his house. Well, actually I spoke to the agent who represents him, but – crazy alternatives notwithstanding – I gather that’s sort-of the way that things are often done in the world of buying and selling property.

A very pink attic bedroom.
When looking at houses, it’s important to look beyond its current decoration, and see the potential beyond. If you ever get your eyesight back.

With house prices in Oxford averaging about twice the national average, it’s a genuinely scary thing to be doing, to be looking seriously at owning one. On the upside, once we’re done paying for it we could sell it and use the money to buy a yacht. On the downside, by the time we’re done paying for it the sea level may have risen by enough that we’ll need one.

A wood-burning fire.
Sure, it’s got a wood-burning fire, lots of space, and a fair price… but what are the downsides?

House-hunting has been challenging, at times. The place that first caught our interest got quickly pushed down the list after we thought about the implications that the layout of rooms would have for us (as well as its crazy stairwell). The second place that we ‘connected’ with seemed like a clear winner; lots of great features for a very reasonable price. But then we tried cycling to it, and it turns out there’s no way to get there from Oxford without going over what JTA described as “a mountain”! And then, in case we needed more dissuasion, I looked at how far it was from the nearest telephone exchange, and discovered that broadband Internet access there would be only marginally faster than dial-up… until at least 2015. It doesn’t matter how good its countryside views are, it’s not worth trading high-def video for!

Our current home in Oxford.
Will this be the last rented accommodation we ever have? [Google Street View]
I don’t know if there’ll be much to say about the process of buying a house, from here. I don’t know if there’s anything interesting enough to share! But just like my imminent jury duty, I thought I’d share with you all anyway, even if just to say: “How about a housewarming party, sometime?”

Hello 2013: Goodbye 2012

This post has been censored at the request of Sundeep. See: all censored posts, all posts censored by request of Sundeep.

This is the first 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.

2012 was one of the hardest years of my life.

RT @misterjta Dear 2012, Fuck off. Sincerely, JTA.
My retweet of JTA’s sentiments, shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve, pretty much covers my feeling of the year, too.

It was a year of unceasing disasters and difficulties: every time some tragedy had befallen me, my friends, or family, some additional calamity was lined-up to follow in its wake. In an environment like this, even the not-quite-so-sad things – like the death of Puddles, our family dog, in May – were magnified, and the ongoing challenges of the year – like the neverending difficulties with my dad’s estate – became overwhelming.

My sister Becky with Puddles, on a train.
My sister Becky with Puddles, both younger and more-foolish than they eventually became. I don’t know why Puddles is wearing a t-shirt.

The sudden and unexpected death of my dad while training for his Arctic trek, was clearly the event which had the most-significant impact on me. I’ve written about the experience at length, both here on my blog and elsewhere (for example, I made a self-post to Reddit on the day after the accident, urging readers to “call somebody you love today”).

My dad, climbing Aladdin's Mirror in the Cairngorms.
My dad, climbing Aladdin’s Mirror in the Cairngorms.

In the week of his death, my sister Becky was suffering from an awful toothache which was stopping her from eating, sleeping, or generally functioning at all (I tried to help her out by offering some oil of cloves (which functions as a dental contact anesthetic), but she must have misunderstood my instruction about applying it to the tooth without swallowing it, because she spent most of that evening throwing up (seriously: don’t ever swallow clove oil).

Sandals (with socks), shorts, checked shirt.
My dad’s clothes for his funeral. My sisters and I decided that he ought to be dressed as he would be for a one of his summer hikes, right down to the combination of sandals and socks (the funeral director needed reassurance that yes, he really did routinely wear both at the same time).

Little did she know, worse was yet to come: when she finally went to the dentist, he botched her operation, leaving her with a jaw infection. The infection spread, causing septicæmia of her face and neck and requiring that she was hospitalised. On the day of our dad’s funeral, she needed to insist that the “stop gap” surgery that she was given was done under local, rather than general, anasthetic, so that she could make it – albeit in a wheelchair and unable to talk – to the funeral.

Five weeks later, my dad finally reached the North Pole, his ashes carried by another member of his team. At about the same time, Ruth‘s grandmother passed away, swamping the already-emotional Earthlings with yet another sad period. That same month, my friend S****** suffered a serious injury, a traumatic and distressing experience in the middle of a long and difficult period of her life, and an event which caused significant ripples in the lives of her circle of friends.

VARLEY Margret Of Doddington Lodge, Hopton Wafers, formerly of Newcastle-on-Clun, on April 28, 2012. Funeral Service, at Telford Crematorium, on Tuesday, May 22, at 2pm. Inquiries to LINDA DAWSON Funeral Director Corvedale Road Craven Arms Telephone 01588 673250. Originally printed on May 17, 2012.
The notice of Ruth’s grandmother’s death, as it appeared in the online version of her local newspaper.

Shortly afterwards, Paul moved out from Earth, in a situation that was anticipated (we’d said when we first moved in together that it would be only for a couple of years, while we all found our feet in Oxford and decided on what we’d be doing next, as far as our living situations were concerned), but still felt occasionally hostile: when Paul left town six months later, his last blog post stated that Oxford could “get lost”, and that he’d “hated hated 90% of the time” he’d lived here. Despite reassurances to the contrary, it was sometimes hard – especially in such a difficult year – to think that this message wasn’t directed at Oxford so much as at his friends there.

As the summer came to an end, my workload on my various courses increased dramatically, stretching into my so-called “free time”: this, coupled with delays resulting from all of the illness, injury, and death that had happened already, threw back the release date of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest update to Three Rings. Coupled with the stress of the 10th Birthday Party Conference – which thankfully JTA handled most of – even the rare periods during which nobody was ill or dying were filled with sleepless nights and anxiety. And of course as soon as all of the preparation was out of the way and the conference was done, there were still plenty of long days ahead, catching up on everything that had been temporarily put on the back burner.

My sister Sarah and I at the christening of a bus named after my dad. Click the picture for the full story.
My sister Sarah and I at the christening of a bus named after my dad. Click the picture for the full story.

When I was first appointed executor of my dad’s estate, I said to myself that I could have the whole thing wrapped-up and resolved within six months… eight on the outside. But as things dragged on – it took almost six months until the investigation was finished and the coroner’s report filed, so we could get a death certificate, for example – they just got more and more bogged-down. Problems with my dad’s will made it harder than expected to get started (for example, I’m the executor and a beneficiary of the will, yet nowhere on it am I directly mentioned by name, address, or relationship… which means that I’ve had to prove that I am the person mentioned in the will every single time I present it, and that’s not always easy!), and further administrative hiccups have slowed down the process every step of the way.

A hillside. A sunset. A fast, hard cycle ride. A beer and a Mars bar, just like old times. Wish you were here. Still miss you, Dad.
On the first anniversary of my dad’s death, I cycled up a hill to watch the sunset with a bottle of Guinness and a Mars bar. And sent this Tweet.

You know what would have made the whole thing easier? A bacon sandwich. And black pudding for breakfast. And a nice big bit of freshly-battered cod. And some roast chicken. I found that 2012 was a harder year than 2011 in which to be a vegetarian. I guess that a nice steak would have taken the edge off: a little bit of a luxury, and some escapism. Instead, I probably drank a lot more than I ought to have. Perhaps we should encourage recovering alcoholic, when things are tough, to hit the sausage instead of the bottle.

A delicious-looking BLT.
It’s been a while, old friend. A while since I used this delicious-looking photograph in my blog, I mean! This is the sixth time… can you find them all?

Becky’s health problems weren’t done for the year, after she started getting incredibly intense and painful headaches. At first, I was worried that she was lined-up for a similar diagnosis to mine, of the other year (luckily, I’ve been symptom-free for a year and a quarter now, although medical science is at a loss to explain why), but as I heard more about her symptoms, I became convinced that this wasn’t the case. In any case, she found herself back in the operating room, for the second serious bit of surgery of the year (the operation was a success, thankfully).

The "F" is for "Fuck me you're going to put a scalpel WHERE?"
The “F” is for “Fuck me you’re going to put a scalpel WHERE?”

I had my own surgery, of course, when I had a vasectomy; something I’d been planning for some time. That actually went quite well, at least as far as can be ascertained at this point (part three of that series of posts will be coming soon), but it allows me to segue into the topic of reproduction…

Because while I’d been waiting to get snipped, Ruth and JTA had managed to conceive. We found this out right as we were running around sorting out the Three Rings Conference, and Ruth took to calling the fœtus “Jethrik”, after the Three Rings milestone. I was even more delighted still when I heard that the expected birth date would be 24th July: Samaritans‘ Annual Awareness Day (“24/7”).

Ruth's pregnancy test, showing "pregnant".
One of the many pregnancy tests Ruth took, “just to be sure” (in case the last few were false positives). Photo from Ruth’s blog.

As potential prospective parents, they did everything right. Ruth stuck strictly to a perfectly balanced diet for her stage of pregnancy; they told only a minimum of people, because – as everybody knows – the first trimester’s the riskiest period. I remember when Ruth told her grandfather (who had become very unwell towards the end of 2012 and died early this year: another sad family tragedy) about the pregnancy, that it was only after careful consideration – balancing how nice it would be for him to know that the next generation of his family was on the way before his death – that she went ahead and did so. And as the end of the first trimester, and the end of the year, approached, I genuinely believed that the string of bad luck that had been 2012 was over.

A kitten.
In Ruth’s blog post, she’s used kittens to make a sad story a little softer, and so I have too.

But it wasn’t to be. Just as soon as we were looking forward to New Year, and planning to not so much “see in 2013” as to “kick out 2012”, Ruth had a little bleeding. Swiftly followed by abdominal cramps. She spent most of New Year’s Eve at the hospital, where they’d determined that she’d suffered a miscarriage, probably a few weeks earlier.

Ruth’s written about it. JTA’s written about it, too. And I’d recommend they read their account rather than mine: they’ve both written more, and better, about the subject than I could. But I shan’t pretend that it wasn’t hard: in truth, it was heartbreaking. At the times that I could persuade myself that my grief was “acceptable” (and that I shouldn’t be, say, looking after Ruth), I cried a lot. For me, “Jethrik” represented a happy ending to a miserable year: some good news at last for the people I was closest to. Perhaps, then, I attached too much importance to it, but it seemed inconceivable to me – no pun intended – that for all of the effort they’d put in, that things wouldn’t just go perfectly. For me, it was all connected: Ruth wasn’t pregnant by me, but I still found myself wishing that my dad could have lived to have seen it, and when the pregnancy went wrong, it made me realise how much I’d been pinning on it.

I don’t have a positive pick-me-up line to put here. But it feels like I should.

Ruth and her father at High Green.
A few days before the miscarriage became apparent, Ruth and her dad survey the back garden of the house he’s rebuilding.

And so there we were, at the tail of 2012: the year that began awfully, ended awfully, and was pretty awful in the middle. I can’t say there weren’t good bits, but they were somewhat drowned out by all of the shit that happened. Fuck off, 2012.

Here’s to 2013.

Edit, 16th March 2013: By Becky’s request, removed an unflattering photo of her and some of the ickier details of her health problems this year.

Edit, 11th July 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s personal details have been obfuscated in this post so that they are no longer readily available to search engines.

Edit, 26th September 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s photo was removed from this post, too.

Conference Preparations

Right now, Three Rings seems to be eating up virtually all of my time. It’s hardly the first time – I complained about being incredibly busy with Three Rings stuff just a couple of years ago, but somehow right now it’s busier than ever. There’s been the Milestone: Jethrik release, some complications with our uptime when our DNS servers were hit by a DDoS attack, and – the big one – planning for this weekend’s conference.

Checking the timetable while I wait for inspiration to strike me about what to say about the "engagement" responsibilities of a Three Rings Administrator.
Checking the timetable while I wait for inspiration to strike me about what to say about the “engagement” responsibilities of a Three Rings Administrator.

The Three Rings 10th Birthday Conference is this weekend, and I’ve somehow volunteered myself to not only run the opening plenary but to run two presentations (one on the history of Three Rings, which I suppose I’m the best person to talk about, and one on being an awesome Three Rings Administrator) and a problem-solving workshop. My mind’s been on overdrive for weeks, and I’m pretty sure I’m not even the one working the hardest (that honour would have to go to poor JTA).

Still: all this work will pay off, I’m sure, and Saturday will be an event to remember. I’m looking forward to it… although right now I’d equally happily spend a week or two curled up in bed under a blanket with a nice book and a mug of herbal tea, thanks.

In other news: Matt P‘s hanging out on Earth at the moment, (on his best behaviour I think) while Ruth, JTA and I decide if we’d like to live with him for a while. So far, I think he’s making a convincing argument. He’s proven himself to be house trained (he hasn’t pooped on the carpet even once) and everything.

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).

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.

New Computer #1 – Tiffany2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marmite

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

Your mate. Marmite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for some buttered toast.

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

A Vintage Murder

Another successful murder mystery party! This one was a prefabricated “kit” one, unlike many of our recent ones, in the Inspector McClue range.

As usual, Murder Mystery Night starts a day or two earlier, with Ruth preparing a monumental quantity of food.

I was slightly worried that – with only six people (we four Earthlings and Ruth‘s brothers) in attendance, that the evening might be a little too “quiet”, but Robin and Owen did a pretty good job of ensuring that this wasn’t the case by any stretch of the imagination.

Maurice de Cheval (Robin) and Wallis Simper (Owen)

My character was Marlene Deepditch, a German wine merchant. Not wanting to take things by halves, I put a perhaps-excessive amount of effort into my last-minute costume, even going so far as to shave off my beard… as well as my sideburns… chest… armpits…

My dress wasn't quite as long on me as I'd expected, and I'd neglected to shave my legs, unfortunately.

The night yielded three surprises:

  • Paul wasn’t the murderer.
  • The straight-edge razor I wrote about the other week is remarkably good at removing body hair in bulk.
  • Regrowing chest hair is remarkably itchy.
Hilarity ensues as the combination of wine and outrageous accents kicks in.

All in all, a fantastic night, full of exactly the kind of delicious chaos that’s usually reserved for larger murder mystery parties – watch this YouTube video (may contain spoilers) to see what I mean.

Spirit of the Century

A couple of weeks ago, the other Earthlings and I played our very first game of Spirit of the Century. Spirit of the Century is a tabletop roleplaying game based on the FATE system (which in turn draws elements from the FUDGE system, and in particular, the FUDGE dice). Are you following me so far?

Four sets of FUDGE/FATE dice. Each die is labelled with 2 “blank”, 2 “minus” and 2 “plus” sides, and all four are rolled to obtain a result between -4 and +4, on a probability bell-curve trending towards 0. Neat.

Spirit of the Century is set in the “pulp novel” era of the 1920s, in the optimistic period between the two world wars. The player characters play pulp-style heroes: the learned professor, the adventurous archaeologist, the daring pilot, all of those tropes of the era. Science, or – as it should be put – Science! is king, and there’s no telling what fantastic and terrifying secrets are about to be unleashed upon the world. Tell you what… let me just show you the cover for the sourcebook:

Yes; that’s a gorilla flying a biplane away from a stricken zeppelin, fighting a masked hero. Meanwhile, a female mechanic clambers under the fuselage and man wearing a jetpack pulls alongside, guns blazing.

Everything you need to know about the game is right in that picture, right there.

The character generation mechanism is different from most RPGs; even other fluffy, anti-min/max-ey ones. All player characters (for reasons relevant to the mythos) were born on 1st January 1901, so the first part of character creation is explaining what they did during their childhood. The second part is about explaining what they did during the Great War. During each of these (and every subsequent step), the character will gain two “aspects”, which they’ll later use for or against their feats in a way not-too-dissimilar from the PDQ System (which may be familiar to those of you who’ve played Ninja Burger 2nd Edition).

The third chapter of character generation involves telling your character’s own story – their first adventure – in the style of a pulp novel. The back of the character sheet will actually end up with a “blurb” on it, summarising the plot of their novel. Then things get complicated. In the fourth and fifth chapters, each character will co-star in the novels of randomly-selected other player characters. This can involve a little bit of re-writing, as stories are bent in order to fit around the ideas of the players, but it serves an important purpose: it gives groups of player characters a collaborative backstory. “Remember the time that we fought off Professor Mechk’s evil robot army?”

Johnny Sparks is a character of my creation.

That’s exactly what Johnny Sparks did in “Johnny Sparks and the Robot Army”. When Professor Mechk released his evil robot army on the streets of New York City, Johnny Sparks – government-sponsored whizkid – knew he had to act. With his old friend Jack Brewood (and Jack’s network of black market contacts), he acquired the parts to build a weapon powered by lightning itself. Then, alongside Mafia child and expert pugilist Michael Leone, he fought his way up the Empire State Building to Mechk’s control centre. While Michael duelled with Mechk, Johnny channeled the powers of the heavens into the gigantic robot brainwave transmitter at the top of the tower, sending it into overload. As the tower-top base melted down and exploded, Michael and Johnny abseiled rapidly down the side to safety.

And so they have a history, you see! And some “aspects” for it: Johnny got “Master of Storms” from his lightning-based research and “With thanks to Jack” for his friend’s support. Meanwhile Jack got “On Johnny’s wavelength” to represent the fact that he’s one of the few people who can follow Johnny’s strange and aspie-ish thought patterns.

Beer, crisps, and roleplaying. What more does an Earthling need?

In our first play session, Michael Leone (Paul), Jack Brewood (JTA), and Anna Midnight (Ruth) found themselves in a race to rescue aviator Charles Lindbergh from the evil Captain Hookshot and his blimp-riding pirates. Hookshot hoped to use the kidnap of Lindbergh as leverage to get his hands on some of Thomas Edison‘s secret research, which he hoped would allow him to gain a stranglehold on the world’s aluminium supply, which was only just beginning to be produced in meaningful quantities. So began an epic boat (and seaplane) chase across the Atlantic to mysterious Barnett Island, a fight through the pirates’ slave camp and bauxite mines, a Mexican-stand-off aboard a zeppelin full of explosives, and a high-speed escape from an erupting volcanic island.

Highlights included:

  • Jack’s afraid of flying, so while the others arrived for the first scenes of the adventure by seaplane, Jack trundled well behind in a cruiser. As a result, he completely missed the kidnapping.
  • When Hookshot was first kidnapping Edison, his attempt was foiled when Ana threw a cutlass at him, severing the grapple he had tied to the scientist.
  • Michael’s a badass at barehand combat. When he wasn’t flinging wild dogs into trees, he was generally found crushing the skulls of pirates into one another.
  • Spirit of the Century encourages a particular mechanism for “player-generated content”. This was exemplified wonderfully by Jack’s observation that he “read once that there was a tribal whaling camp on an island near here, called Ingleshtat.” He paid a FATE point and made an Academics roll, but because I wouldn’t tell him the target of the roll he only knew that he’d “done well”, and not that he’d “done well enough.” He and the other player characters weren’t sure that his knowledge was accurate until they reached the island (and thankfully found that he was right). Similarly, the motivation for the kidnapping wasn’t about aluminium until one of the players speculated that it might be.
  • Ana Midnight’s spectacularly failed attempt at stealth, as she crept via a creaky door into a building full of armed guards. Also, Jack’s fabulous rescue attempt, as he dived and rolled into the building, firing his pistol as he went, while Michael climbed up the zeppelin’s boarding tower, leading to…
  • The tense (and, surprisingly, combat-free… barely!) stand-off and negotiation aboard Hookshot’s zeppelin, towards the end of the story.

There’s a lot of potential for a lot of fun in this game, and we’ll be sure to play it again sometime soon.

Content Freeze

Isn’t memory strange?

Last week, we updated to the latest version of the CMS that powers the Bodleian‘s web site. During the process of installing and testing the new version, we initiated a “content freeze”, disallowing the 100+ regular content editors access to the administration sections: any changes they’d have made wouldn’t have been replicated in the new version, and we didn’t want a discrepancy in content while we were testing that the change had taken! We still had back-end access, of course, and a few minor “emergency” changes were made (on both the old and the new version), but in general, the site was in a read-only mode for several days.

A similar thing happened to my head during this weekend’s house move.

While running  a van-load of stuff from Old Earth to New Earth, Ruth, JTA and I stopped off at Argos to buy a few bits and pieces for our new home. We parked in one of the few remaining parking spaces capable of accommodating our extended wheel-base van. Unfortunately this brushed us up very close to an unfortunately-placed tree, whose branches reached in through the door as I clambered out. I spent a while trying to reposition them so as not to slam them in the door while Ruth and JTA walked ahead, towards Argos, and so when I was done they were quite a way ahead. I turned and ran to catch up with them…

BAM! Something struck me on the top of my head. We’re still not all in agreement as to whether it was a branch or the wing mirror of the van, but it hurt like hell. My knees buckled up and I collapsed into a heap.

Before long I was on my feet, but as I began to feel dizzy and nauseous, we started to worry that I might be concussed, and Ruth took me to the hospital. By then, I was unable to keep my eyes open without feeling like the world was spinning and I was going to throw up, and I kept feeling like I was moments away from falling asleep.

By the time I’d seen a doctor, about three hours later, I was starting to feel a little better. We took a leaflet of “things to watch out for after a concussion”, which advised that I shouldn’t lift any heavy things (“But I’m moving house today!”) nor use a computer or drink alcohol (“This is my life you’re talking about!”), all of which I ignored to some degree or another.

I napped on and off for a lot of Sunday and some of Monday, but it was on Monday that the amount of damage I’d done became most apparent. I got out of bed and staggered downstairs to find that Ruth and JTA had at some point bought a shoe rack. They weren’t around, but neither was the van, and I reasoned that they must have been out collecting more boxes, but I thought I might as well make myself useful by assembling this shoe rack they’d gotten. It was of the variety that hangs on the back of a door, so I spent some time deciphering the instructions and putting it together… only to find that it wouldn’t actually fit onto any of the (quite thick) doors in our new house.

That’s when Ruth & JTA arrived. “I saw you’d bought a shoe rack,” I said.

“Yes,” they replied, “We bought it yesterday. We told you about it.”

“Oh. I don’t remember that. Anyway, I built it, but it turns out that it won’t fit any of our doors.”

“Yes, we know: we told you that too. We were about to take it back to the shop.”

I have no recollection whatsoever of that conversation. Or several other conversations, it seems. In the hospital, I remember that Ruth talked to me for an hour or more (I wasn’t capable of conversation myself, some of the time, but it was nice to hear a familiar voice), and I still can’t remember any of it except for snippets (something about her father’s new house?).

For much of Sunday, my brain went into “content freeze”, too. A read-only mode where my memories worked fine, except that I couldn’t construct any new ones: everything just went in one ear and out the other. Maybe this is to be expected: a quick look at some maps of brains and an examination of the bump on my head indicates that the blow came to a point squarely in the centre of the middle frontal gyrus (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex)  of the right hemisphere of my brain: an area associated with emotional self-control, social judgement, lateral thinking, and the transfer of working memory.

Still: it was certainly a strange experience to be told about events from only a day earlier that I simply can’t remember. It also made Tuesday interesting: long weekends are confusing at the best of times, but parts of my memory made it feel like I’d had only a two-day weekend (as parts of Sunday are simply missing from my memory), and so it was even harder than usual to shake the feeling that it was Monday when I arrived at work on Tuesday. That’ll be a pleasant surprise on Friday, anyway, when the weekend “comes early”: maybe I should bang my head every time there’s a long weekend.

Earth Sunset

As regular readers will no-doubt know, the other Earthlings and I are currently in the process of moving house. Last weekend, as well as watching the Eurovision Song Contest, of course, we packed a lot of boxes (mostly stuffed with board games) and moved a handful of them over to New Earth, our new home, by car (this weekend, we’re using a van, which – in accordance with our BSG theming – is dubbed the “Raptor”).

Isis, Ruth and JTA's car, laden with boxes.

Part of this pack-and-move process has been to cut down on all of the things that we no longer want or need. Of particular concern was all of the booze we’ve collected. I’m not just talking about the jam-jar of moonshine that Matt R left here after our last Murder Mystery, although it is one of the more-terrifying examples. No; I’m talking about things like the Tesco Value Vodka, the blackcurrant schnapps, and the heaps of absinth we’ve got littering the place up.

Paul outside New Earth.

The more we drink, the less we have to box up and move, you see! So we’ve spent a lot of the last fortnight inventing new (sometimes quite-experimental) cocktails that make use of the ingredients that we’d rather not have to take with us to the new place. We’ve refrained from buying alcohol, promising ourselves that we won’t buy any more until we’ve gotten rid of the stuff we’ve got and don’t want by one means or another. And it’s just about working.

JTA, Paul and Ruth eat pizza and drink Earth Sunset.

Earth Sunset – a mixture of cheap vodka, grenadine, and lemonade, with stacks of ice – caused some debate when Paul compared the drink to a Tequila Sunrise, claiming that “it isn’t a sunrise without orange juice”. He’s certainly right that you don’t get that cool “gradient” effect without something lighter (both in colour and specific density) to float on top of the grenadine. But on the other hand – as JTA pointed out – this is an Earth Sunset: it’s name has little to do with what it looks like and a lot to do with what it represents – the end of our life on (what we’re now calling) Old Earth.

Earth's "Battlestar Galactica" poster, hanging in New Earth. JTA, under Ruth's direction, adjusts Earth's "Red Kite" photo (which we eventually decided to move elsewhere).

For those who are following our progression and comparing it to Battlestar Galactica canon, you’ll be glad to see that this works. We arrived on Earth, but now we’re leaving because it was irradiated and inhospitable (okay, perhaps it’s a slight exaggeration, but the house was a little run-down and under-maintained). And so we find ourselves making our home on New Earth.

There’ll be a housewarming thingy for local people (and distant people who are that-way inclined, but we’re likely to have something later on for you guys) sometime soon: watch this space.

Who’s Your Daddy?

This morning I took a cycle out to the post office to put in the mail redirection forms (which they wouldn’t let us fill in online, and – in fact – they rejected once I got to the post office because I’d used blue ink in one place on the form, rather than black… but that’s another story) in anticipation of the Earthlings‘ upcoming house move, and on my way out of the garage our neighbour came over.

“We’ll be sorry to see you go,” she said, gesturing at the “TO LET” sign at the end of the driveway.

“Hmm?” I responded. It took a while to sink in that she was talking to me: apart from an occasional “Hi” or “Bye” on the way in to or out of the house, we’ve never spoken to one another before.

To Let sign outside Old Earth.

“Oh yeah,” I said, after a pause, “We’re moving over to the other side of the city: we kind-of wanted a bigger place for the four of us.”

“Oh,” she continued, “I suppose it might be a little small in there for four. It’s a shame, though: you’re the best tenants we’ve ever had.”

Something in my head snapped, and unraveled, and it took a little time before I managed to re-assemble her sentence into something that made sense to me.

“You… own this building?” I asked, pointing back at our house. We’d never met our landlords (at least, I thought we hadn’t): everything had always been arranged through our letting agency.

There was another twang in my head as something else snapped. Then moments later, half way through my next thought, I realised how incredibly racist I was being. You see: our contract had stated that our landlord’s name was Mr. Patel, and that’s a name that in my mind had associated itself with a certain tone of skin colour. And it had, for a moment, seemed inconceivable that the plump white woman in front of me could possibly be part of the family of the imaginary Mr. Patel that had taken up residence in my head. As I worked to reprogram my brain with this new information (and perhaps a little less capacity for runaway assumptions), she continued:

“The previous tenants have all been awful,” she said, “The last lot broke all of the windows. The ones before that tried to burn the place down!”

This actually went some way to explaining the state of the building, with it’s various weakened and damaged parts.

“Well thank you,” I said,  “I hope you get some more great tenants next time.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “I was going to say that to your dad this morning when I saw him leaving.”

“My… dad?”

“Yeah: he left here earlier; just a bit before your girlfriend left. Sorry: is he not your father?”

Every string that still remaining intact in my brain snapped simultaneously. This woman had just blown my poor little mind. I investigated:

“Dark-haired chap, with a beard?” I queries, miming the shape of a beard because for some reason that made sense to me – you know, in case she’d never seen a beard before.

“Yeah, that’s him.”

“Wow. No, that’s JTA. He’s… like four years younger than me.”

“Oh God!” she said, “You can’t tell him I said that…”

But it was too late: the blog post was already half-written in my mind, taking up the void that had been cleared during the earlier series of mental implosions. This one’s for you, pops.

My "father" updates the Earthlings' "Jump Track", a metaphor borrowed from the Battlestar Galactica board game to represent our readiness to "jump" to our new home. It looks like moving now has a 25% chance of us leaving 3 people behind. Also, it looks like the Galactica has put on weight since it's last step.

Beware: Necrophiliac Paramedics!

A conversation I had this morning with JTA, via text message:

I sent:

Boiler update: this is getting silly. The probability-weighted Markov-chain based predictive text system I’m using this morning saw me type “boi” and suggested “Boiler update:”? /sighs/
On the upside, I’ve successfully arranged for the new distributor valve to be installed on Friday, when I’ll be around.

To give a little background, we’re having trouble with the boiler on Earth. You may have observed that it broke last year, and then again this year: well – it’s still broken, really. Nowadays it’ll only produce a little hot water at a time, and makes a noise like that scene in Titanic where the ship begins to tear in two. You know – a bad noise for a boiler to make. Over the last two or three weeks we’ve repeatedly fought to get it repaired, but it’s been challenging: more on that in a different blog post, if JTA doesn’t get there first.

JTA replied:

On the plus side, at least this saga is overriding your phone’s memory of your previous life as a male prostitute. :-)

I was once mistaken for a gay prostitute, actually – by a gay prostitute – but that’s another story, I guess. In any case, I responded:

Until now! you’ve just mentioned that again, which means it’ll be the “last message received” when the paramedics go through my phone if I’m killed on the way to work this morning. And they’ll say, “yeah; I’d pay to have sex with him.”

Quickly followed by:

And his mate will say:
“Now he’s dead, you don’t HAVE to pay.”
If my corpse is raped by a paramedic, I’m blaming you.

To which JTA said:

You’re talking about people who drive blacked out vans full of drugs. I’m pretty sure they never pay.

From prostitution to necrophilia to date rape over the course of only a handful of text messages. What a great start to a Wednesday morning. I do like the image of an ambulance as “a blacked out van full of drugs,” though…