In these challenging times, and especially because my work and social circles have me communicate regularly with people in many different countries and with many different backgrounds, I’m especially grateful for the following:
My partner, her husband, and I each have jobs that we can do remotely and so we’re not out-of-work during the crisis.
Our employers are understanding of our need to reduce and adjust our hours to fit around our new lifestyle now that schools and nurseries are (broadly) closed.
Our kids are healthy and not at significant risk of serious illness.
We’ve got the means, time, and experience to provide an adequate homeschooling environment for them in the immediate term.
(Even though we’d hoped to have moved house by now and haven’t, perhaps at least in part because of COVID-19,) we have a place to live that mostly meets our needs.
We have easy access to a number of supermarkets with different demographics, and even where we’ve been impacted by them we’ve always been able to work-around the where panic-buying-induced shortages have reasonably quickly.
We’re well-off enough that we were able to buy or order everything we’d need to prepare for lockdown without financial risk.
Having three adults gives us more hands on deck than most people get for childcare, self-care, etc. (we’re “parenting on easy mode”).
We live in a country in which the government (eventually) imposed the requisite amount of lockdown necessary to limit the spread of the virus.
We’ve “only” got the catastrophes of COVID-19 and Brexit to deal with, which is a bearable amount of crisis, unlike my colleague in Zagreb for example.
Whenever you find the current crisis getting you down, stop and think about the things that aren’t-so-bad or are even good. Stopping and expressing your gratitude for them in whatever form works for you is good for your happiness and mental health.
A fun and lightweight 10-minute (very basic, but highly-accessible) primer into the mechanisms by which new viruses appear to emerge via spillover infection and viral evolution. I was pleased by the accuracy of the animations including efforts to show relative scale of microorganisms and the (correct) illustration of RNA as the genetic material of a coronavirus (many illustrators draw all viruses as carrying a double-stranded DNA payload).
I last handed in a dissertation almost 16 years ago; that one marked the cumulation of my academic work at Aberystwyth University, then the “University of Wales, Aberystwyth”. Since then I’ve studied programming, pentesting and psychology (the P-subject Triathalon?)… before returning to university to undertake a masters degree in information security and forensics.
Today, I handed in that dissertation. Thanks to digital hand-ins, I’m able to “hand it in” and then change my mind, make changes, and hand-in a replacement version right up until the deadline on Wednesday (I’m already on my second version!), so I’ve still got a few evenings left for last-minute proofreads and tweaks. That said, I’m mostly happy with where it is right now.
Writing a dissertation was harder this time around. Things that made it harder included:
Writing a masters-level dissertation rather than a bachelors-level one, naturally.
Opting for a research dissertation rather than an engineering one: I had the choice, and I knew that I’d do better in engineering, but I did research anyway because I thought that the challenge would be good for me.
Being older! It’s harder to cram information into a late-thirty-something brain than into a young-twenty-something one.
Work: going through the recruitment process for and starting at Automattic ate a lot of my time, especially as I was used to working part-time at the Bodleian and I’d been turning a little of what would otherwise have been my “freelance work time” into “study time” (last time around I was working part-time for SmartData, of course).
Life: the kids, our (hopefully) upcoming house move and other commitments are pretty good at getting in the way. Ruth and JTA have been amazing at carving out blocks of time for me to study, especially these last few weekends, which may have made all the difference.
It feels like less of a bang than last time around, but still sufficient that I’ll breathe a big sigh of relief. I’ve a huge backlog of things to get on with that I’ve been putting-off until this monster gets finished, but I’m not thinking about them quite yet.
I need a moment to get my bearings again and get used to the fact that once again – and for the first time in several years – I’ll soon be not-a-student. Fun fact, I’ve spent very-slightly-more than half of my adult life as a registered student: apparently I’m a sucker it, for all that I complain… in fact, I’m already wondering what I can study next (suggestions welcome!), although I’ve promised myself that I’ll take a couple of years off before I get into anything serious.
(This is, of course, assuming I pass my masters degree, otherwise I might still be a student for a little longer while I “fix” my dissertation!)
If anybody’s curious (and I shan’t blame you if you’re not), here’s my abstract… assuming I don’t go back and change it yet again in the next couple of days (it’s still a little clunky especially in the final sentence):
Multifactor authentication (MFA), such as the use of a mobile phone in addition to a username and password when logging in to a website, is one of the strongest security enhancements an individual can add to their online accounts. Compared to alternative enhancements like refraining from the reuse of passwords it’s been shown to be easy and effective. However: MFA is optional for most consumer-facing Web services supporting MFA, and elective user adoption is well under 10%.
How can user adoption be increased? Delivering security awareness training to users has been shown to help, but the gold standard would be a mechanism to encourage uptake that can be delivered at the point at which the user first creates an account on a system. This would provide strong protection to an account for its entire life.
Using realistic account signup scenarios delivered to participants’ own computers, an experiment was performed into the use of language surrounding the invitation to adopt MFA. During the scenarios, participants were exposed to statements designed to either instil fear of hackers or to praise them for setting up an account and considering MFA. The effect on uptake rates is compared. A follow-up questionnaire asks questions to understand user security behaviours including password and MFA choices and explain their thought processes when considering each.
No significant difference is found between the use of “fear” and “praise” statements. However, secondary information revealed during the experiment and survey provides recommendations for service providers to offer MFA after, rather than at, the point of account signup, and for security educators to focus their energies on dispelling user preconceptions about the convenience, privacy implications, and necessity of MFA.
I keep my life pretty busy and don’t get as much “outside” as I’d like, but when I do I like to get out on an occasional geohashing expedition (like these ones). I (somewhat badly) explained geohashing in the vlog attached to my expedition 2018-08-07 51 -1, but the short version is this: an xkcd comic proposed an formula to use a stock market index to generate a pair of random coordinates, impossible to predict in advance, for each date. Those coordinates are (broadly) repeated for each degree of latitude and longitude throughout the planet, and your challenge is to get to them and discover what’s there. So it’s like geocaching, except you don’t get to find anything at the end and there’s no guarantee that the destination is even remotely accessible. I love it.
Most geohashers used to use a MediaWiki-powered website to coordinate their efforts and share their stories, until a different application on the server where it resided got hacked and the wiki got taken down as a precaution. That was last September, and the community became somewhat “lost” this winter as a result. It didn’t stop us ‘hashing, of course: the algorithm’s open-source and so are many of its implementations, so I was able to sink into a disgusting hole in November, for example. But we’d lost the digital “village square” of our community.
So I emailed Davean, who does techy things for xkcd, and said that I’d like to take over the Geohashing wiki but that I’d first like (a) his or Randall’s blessing to do so, and ideally (b) a backup of the pages of the site as it last-stood. Apparently I thought that my new job plus finishing my dissertation plus trying to move house plus all of the usual things I fill my time with wasn’t enough and I needed a mini side-project, because when I finally got the go-ahead at the end of last month I (re)launched geohashing.site. Take a look, if you like. If you’ve never been Geohashing before, there’s never been a more-obscure time to start!
Luckily, it’s not been a significant time-sink for me: members of the geohashing community quickly stepped up to help me modernise content, fix bots, update hyperlinks and the like. I took the opportunity to fix a few things that had always bugged me about the old site, like the mobile-unfriendly interface and the inability to upload GPX files, and laid the groundwork to make bigger changes down the road (like changing the way that inline maps are displayed, a popular community request).
So yeah: Geohashing’s back, not that it ever went away, and I got to be part of the mission to make it so. I feel like I am, as geohashers say… out standing in my field.
Last week I tweeted a cow-based academic publishing analogy in response to the prompt in the title, and the replies and quote-tweets extended the metaphor so gloriously, so creatively, so bleakly and hilariously at the same time, that I’ve pulled my favourites together below.
Here’s the original tweet:
Cows make milk. They milk themselves.
Other cows check the milk (for free).
Cows – get this – PAY THE FARMER to take the milk away.
When I took a diversion from my various computer science related qualifications to study psychotherapy for a while, I was amazed to discover how fortunate we computer scientists are that so much of our literature is published open access. It probably comes from the culture of the discipline, whose forefathers were publishing their work as open-source software or on the Internet long before academic journals reached the online space. But even here, there’s journal drama and all the kinds of problems that Ned (and the people who replied to his tweet) joke about.
Our eldest, 4, started school this year and this week saw her first parents’ evening. This provided an opportunity for we, her parents, to “come out” to her teacher about our slightly-unconventional relationship structure. And everything was fine, which is nice.
I’m sure the first few months of every child’s school life are a time that’s interesting and full of change, but it’s been particularly fascinating to see the ways in which our young academic’s language has adapted to fit in with and be understood by her peers.
I first became aware of these changes, I think, when I overheard her describing me to one of her school friends as her “dad”: previously she’d always referred to me as her “Uncle Dan”. I asked her about it afterwards and she explained that I was like a dad, and that her friend didn’t have an “Uncle Dan” so she used words that her friend would know. I’m not sure whether I was prouder about the fact that she’d independently come to think of me as being like a bonus father figure, or the fact that she demonstrated such astute audience management.
I don’t object to being assigned this (on-again, off-again, since then) nickname. My moniker of Uncle Dan came about as a combination of an effort to limit ambiguity (“wait… which dad?”) and an attempt not to tread on the toes of actual-father JTA: the kids themselves are welcome to call me pretty-much whatever they’re comfortable with. Indeed, they’d be carrying on a family tradition if they chose-for-themselves what to call me: Ruth and her brothers Robin and Owen address their father not by a paternal noun but by his first name, Tom, and this kids have followed suit by adopting “Grand-Tom” as their identifier for him.
Knowing that we were unusual, though, we’d taken the time to do some groundwork before our eldest started school. For example we shared a book about and spent a while talking about how families differ from one another: we figure that an understanding that families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes is a useful concept in general from a perspective of diversity and and acceptance. In fact, you can hear how this teaching pays-off in the language she uses to describe other aspects of the differences she sees in her friends and their families, too.
Still, it was a little bit of a surprise to find myself referred to as a “dad” after four years of “Uncle Dan”.
Nonetheless: in light of the fact that she’d clearly been talking about her family at school and might have caused her teacher some confusion, when all three of us “parents” turned up to parents’ evening we opted to introduce ourselves and our relationship. Which was all fine (as you’d hope: as I mentioned the other day, our unusual relationship structure is pretty boring, really), and the only awkwardness was in having to find an additional chair than the teacher had been expecting to use with which to sit at the table.
There’s sometimes a shortage of happy “we did a thing, and it went basically the same as it would for a family with monogamous parents” poly-family stories online, so I thought this one was worth sharing.
And better yet: apparently she’s doing admirably at school. So we all celebrated with an after-school trip to one of our favourite local soft play centres.
Some 702 intimate examinations were done on sedated or anaesthetised patients (table 3). In only 24% of these examinations had written consent been obtained, and a further 24% of examinations were conducted apparently without written or oral consent.
This 2003 study at an “English medical school” determined that vaginal/rectal examinations were routinely carried out on anaesthetised patients without their knowledge or consent. “I was told in the second year that the best way to learn to do [rectal examinations] was when the patient was under anaesthetic,” one fourth year student responded, to the survey, “That way they would never know.”
HackerRank has published its 2018 Developer Skills Report. The paper looks at a number things essential to understanding the developer landscape, and explores things like the perks coders demand from their workplaces, the technologies they prefer to use, and how they entered the software development industry in the first place.
While perusing the paper, something struck me as particularly interesting. One of the questions HackerRank asked its community was when they started coding. It then organized the data by age and country.
Almost immediately, you notice an interesting trend. Those in the 18 to 24 age group overwhelmingly started their programming journey in their late teens. 68.2 percent started coding between the ages of 16 to 20.
When you look at older generations, you notice another striking trend: a comparatively larger proportion started programming between the ages of five and ten. 12.2 percent of those aged between 35 and 44 started programming then.
It’s obvious why that is. That generation was lucky enough to be born at the start of the home computing revolution, when machines bearing the logos of Acorn and Commodore first entered the living rooms of ordinary people.
This survey parallels my own experience: that among developers, those of us who grew up using an 80s microcomputer at home were likely to have started programming a decade or so younger than those who grew up later, when the PC had come to dominate. I’ve written before about why I care about programming education, and I still think that we’re not doing enough to show young learners what’s “under the bonnet” of our computer systems. A computer isn’t just a machine you can use, it’s a tool you can adapt: unlike the other machines you use, which are typically built to a particular purpose, a computer is a general-purpose tool and it can be made to do an infinite number of different tasks! And even if programming professionally isn’t “for you” (and it shouldn’t be for everyone!), understanding broadly how a tool – a tool that we all come into contact with every single day – is adapted makes us hugely better-able to understand what they’re capable of and pushes us forwards. Imagine how many young inventors would be able to realise their for the “killer app” they’ve dreamed up (even if they remained unable to program if themselves) if they were able to understand the fundamental limtations and strengths of the platforms, the way to express their idea unambiguously in a way that a programmer could develop, and the way to assess its progress without falling into the “happy path” testing problem.
I’m not claiming that late-Gen X’s are better programmers than Millenials, by the way: absolutely not saying that! I’m saying that they were often lucky enough to be shaped by an experience that got them into programming earlier. And that I wish we could find a way to offer that opportunity to today’s children too.
Yesterday, Ruth and I attended a Festive Breads Workshop at the Oxford Brookes Restaurant Cookery and Wine School, where we had a hands-on lesson in making a variety of different (semi-)seasonal bread products. It was a fantastic experience and gave us both skills and confidence that we’d have struggled to attain so-readily in any other way.
The Oxford Brookes Restaurant is a working restaurant which doubles as a place for Brookes’ students to work and practice roles as chefs, sommeliers, and hospitality managers as part of their courses. In addition, the restaurant runs a handful of shorter or day-long courses for adults and children on regional and cuisine-based cookery, knife skills, breadmaking, and wine tasting. Even from the prep room off the main working kitchen (and occasionally traipsing through it on the way to and from the ovens), it was easy to be captivated the buzz of activity as the lunchtime rush began outside: a large commercial kitchen is an awesome thing to behold.
By early afternoon we’d each made five different breads: a stollen, a plaitted wreath, rum babas, a seeded flatbread, and a four-strand woven challah. That’s plenty to do (and a good amount of standing up and kneading!), but it was made possible by the number of things we didn’t have to do. There was no weighing and measuring, no washing-up: this was done for us, and it’s amazingly efficiency-enhancing to be able to go directly from each recipe to the next without having to think about these little tasks. We didn’t even have to run our breads in and out of the proofing cupboard and the ovens: as we’d be starting on mixing the next dough, the last would be loaded onto trays and carried around the kitchens.
The tuition itself was excellent, too. The tutors, Amanda and Jan, were friendly and laid-back (except if anybody tried to short-cut their kneading of a wet dough by adding more flour than was necessary, in which case they’d enter “flour police” mode and start slapping wrists) and clearly very knowledgeable and experienced. When I struggled at one point with getting a dough ball to the consistency that was required, Jan stepped in and within seconds identified that the problem was that my hands were too warm. The pair complemented one another very well, too, for example with Amanda being more-inclined than Jan towards the laissez-faire approach to ingredient measurement that I prefer when I make bread, for example.
The pace was fast and Ruth in particular struggled early on to keep up, but by the end the entire group – despite many hours on our feet, much of it kneading stiff doughs – were hammering through each activity, even though there was a clear gradient in the technical complexity of what we were working on. And – perhaps again thanks to the fantastic tuition – even the things that seemed intimidating upon first glance (like weaving four strands of dough together without them sticking to one another or the surface) weren’t problematic once we got rolling.
Our hosts, apparently somehow not having enough to do while teaching and supervising us, simultaneously baked a selection of absolutely delicious bread to be served with our lunch, which by that point was just showing-off. Meanwhile, we put the finishing touches on our various baked goods with glazes, seeds, ribbons, and sugar.
And so we find ourselves with a house completely full of amazingly-tasty fresh bread – the downside perhaps of having two of us from the same household on the same course! – and a whole new appreciation of the versatility of bread. As somebody who makes pizza bases and, once in a blue moon, bread rolls, I feel like there’s so much more I could be doing and I’m looking forward to getting more adventurous with my bread-making sometime soon.
I’d really highly recommend the Brookes Restaurant courses; they’re well worth a look if you’re interested in gaining a point or two of Cooking skill.
Wow, I was really blown away by OMGYes. The concept sounded novel but I wasn’t prepared for how completely engrossed listening to the interviews, watching the examples, and getting to practice the different techniques on the interactive vuvlas would be. This is genuinely an invaluable resource for folks looking to learn about touchin’ twats. OMGYes…
I’m not sure that there’s any age that’s too-young at which to try to cultivate an interest in science. Once a child’s old enough to ask why something is the case, every question poses an opportunity for an experiment! Sometimes a thought experiment is sufficient (“Uncle Dan: why do dogs not wear clothes?”) but other times provide the opportunity for some genuine hands-on experimentation (“Why do we put flowers in water?”). All you have to do is take every question and work out what you’d do if you didn’t know the answer either! A willingness to take any problem with a “let’s find out” mentality teaches children two important things: (a) that while grown-ups will generally know more than them, that nobody has all the answers, and (b) that you can use experiments to help find the answers to questions – even ones that have never been asked before!
Sometimes it takes a little more effort. Kids – like all of us, a lot of the time – can often be quite happy to simply accept the world as-it-is and not ask “why”. But because a fun and educational science activity is a good way to occupy a little one (and remember: all it needs to be science is to ask a question and then try to use evidence to answer it!), I’ve been keeping a list of possible future activities so that we’ve got a nice rainy-day list of things to try. And because we are, these days, in an increasingly-large circle of breeders, I thought I’d share some with you.
Here’s some of the activities we’ve been doing so far (or that I’ve got lined-up for future activities as and when they become appropriate):
Measuring and graphing rainfall We’ve spent a lot of time lately taking about calendars, weather, and seasons, so I’m thinking this one’s coming soon. All we need is a container you can leave in the garden, a measuring jug, and some graph paper.
Experimenting with non-Newtonian fluids
You can make a dilatant fluid with cornflower and water: it acts like a liquid, but you can slap it and grab it like a solid. Fine, very wet sand (quicksand!) demonstrates pseudoplasticity which also explains how paint ‘blobs’ on your brush but is easy to spread thin on the paper.
I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to play with magnets: we’ve started already with thanks to Brio wooden railway and talking about the fact that the rolling stock will attach one way around (and seem to jump together when they get close) but repel the other way around, and we’ve also begun looking at the fact that if you remove a carriage from the middle of a train the remaining segments are already correctly-aligned in order to be re-attached.
Different kinds of bouncy balls
We’ve had fun before measuring how high different kinds of balls (air-filled rubber football, large solid rubber ball, skeletal rubber ball, small solid rubber ball) bounce when dropped from a stepladder onto a patio and talking about how ‘squishy’ they are relative to one another, and speculating as to the relationship between the two.
Demonstrating capillary action/siphoning
Two containers – one with a fluid in and one without – joined over the rim by a piece of paper towel will eventually reach an equilibrium of volume, first as a result of capillary action causing the fluid to climb the paper and then using a siphon effect to continually draw more over the edge.
Illustrating the solar system (to scale)
It helps adults and children alike to comprehend the scale of the solar system if you draw it to scale. If you’ve got a long street nearby you can chalk it onto the pavement. If not, you’ll need a very small scale, but doing the Earth and Moon might suffice.
Batteries, wires, and LEDs are a moderately safe and simple start to understanding electricity. Taking a ‘dead’ battery from a drained toy and putting it into the circuit shows the eventual state of batteries. Connecting lights in series or parallel demonstrates in very simple terms resistance. Breaking or joining a circuit illustrates that switches function identically wherever they’re placed on the circuit.
I’m interested in trying to replicate this experiment into making different kinds of standing vortices in water, but I might have to wait until our little scientist has slightly more patience (and fine motor control!).
We’ve been lucky enough to get to talk about this after using a whirlpool-shaped piece of marble run, but if we hadn’t then I was thinking we’d wait until the next time it was sunny enough for outdoor water play and use the fact that a full bucket can be spun around without spilling any in a similar way.
Take a quadrant of garden and count the different kinds of things living in it. Multiply up to estimate the population across the garden, or measure different parts (lawn versus bedding plants versus patio, direct sunlight versus shade, exposed versus covered, etc.) to see which plants or animals prefer different conditions.
Caring for different kinds of plants provides an introduction to botany, and there’s a lot to observe, from the way that plants grow and turn to face the light to the different stages of their growth and reproduction. Flowers give an attractive result at the end, but herbs and vegetables can be eaten! (Our little scientist is an enormous fan of grazing home-grown chives.)
Mechanics and force
We’ve taken to occasionally getting bikes out of the shed, flipping them upside-down, and observing how changing the cogs that the chain runs over affects how hard you need to push the pedals to get movement… but also how much the movement input is multiplied into the movement of the wheel. We’re not quite at a point where we can reliably make predictions based on this observation, but we’re getting there! I’m thinking that we can follow-up this experiment by building simple catapults to see how levers act as a force multiplier.
Chromotography of inks
I’ve been waiting to do this until I get the chance to work out which felt tip pens are going to give us the most-exciting results… but maybe that’s an experiment we should do together, too! Colouring-in coffee filter papers and then letting them stand in a cup of water (assuming a water-soluable ink) should produce pretty results… and show the composition of the inks, too!
Mixing paint or play-doh is an easy way to demonstrate subtractive colour mixing. We got the chance to do some additive colour mixing using a colour disk spinner at a recent science fair event, but if we hadn’t I’d always had plans to build our own, like this one.
Structure and form of life
Looking at the way that different plants and animals’ physical structure supports their activities makes for good hands-on or thought-driven experimentation. A day at the zoo gets a few steps more-educational for a preschooler when you start talking about what penguins are able to do as a result of the shape of their unusual wings and a walk in the park can be science’d-up by collecting the leaves of different trees and thinking about why they’re different to one another.
The classic magic trick of poking a skewer through a balloon… with petroleum jelly on the skewer… lends itself to some science, so it’s on my to-do list.
Water’s such a brilliant chemical because it’s commonplace, safe, and exhibits so many interesting phenomena. Surface tension can be demonstrated by ‘floating’ things like paperclips on top of the surface, and can be broken by the addition of soap.
In the winter months when the sun sets before bedtime are a great time to show off stars, planets, satellites and the moon. Eyes or binoculars are plenty sufficient to get started.
I was especially pleased when our nursery kept an incubator full of chicken eggs so that the children could watch them hatch and the chicks emerge. We’d looked at this process before at a farm, but it clearly had a big impact to see it again. Helping to collect eggs laid by my mother’s chickens helps to join-up the circle. Frogspawn and caterpillars provide a way to look at a very different kind of animal life.
Putting baking soda into things
Different everyday kitchen liquids (water, vinegar, oil…) react differently to the addition of baking soda. This provides a very gentle introduction to chemistry and provides an excuse to talk about making and testing predictions: now that we’ve seen what cold water does, do you think that hot water will be the same or different?
Bubbles and foams
Blowing bubbles through different types of mesh (we just used different kinds of tea towels elastic-banded to the cut-off end of a plastic bottle) demonstrates how you can produce foams of different consistencies – from millions of tiny bubbles to fewer larger bubbles – because of the permeability of the fabric. And then we wrecked the last tea towel by adding food colouring to it so we could make coloured foams (“bubble snakes”).
Start with ice and work out what makes it melt: does it melt faster in your hand or in a dish? Does it melt faster or slower if we break it up into smaller parts? If we ‘paint’ pictures on the patio with them, where does the water go? I’m also thinking about ways in which we can safely condense the steam (and capture the vapour) from the kettle onto e.g. a chilled surface. Once we’re at a point where a thermometer makes sense I was also considering replicating the experiment of measuring the temperature of melting snow: or perhaps even at that point trying to manipulate the triple point of water using e.g. salt.
Take apart the bits of a flower, or look in detail at the parts of a bone-in cut of meat, and try to understand what they’re all for and why they are the way they are.
Next time the paddling pool is out, I’d like to start a more-serious look at which things float and which things don’t any try to work out why. What might initially seem intuitive – dense (heavy-for-their-size) things sink – can be expanded by using plasticine to make a mixture of ‘sinking’ and ‘floating’ vessels and lead to further discovery. I’m also thinking we need to do the classic ‘raisins in a fizzy drink’ thing (raisins sink, but their rough surfaces trap the bubbles escaping from the now-unpressurised liquid, causing them to float back up to shed their bubbles).
So there’s my “now and next” list of science activities that we’ll be playing at over the coming months. I’m always open to more suggestions, though, so if you’re similarly trying to help shape an enquiring and analytical mind, let me know what you’ve been up to!
Earlier this year, my colleague Liz and I were talking – as I’m sure the staff of every academic library’s communications team have at some point or another – about the most-valuable survival skills for a post-apocalyptic world. Once it’s time to rebuild society, we probably don’t have much need for computer programmers, magicians, or social media experts, and the value of librarians is tertiary, so we decided that we needed to learn some new skills in order to improve our quality of life. You know, after the radioactive dust has settled/zombies are under control/firestorm has ceased/disease has passed.
Obviously we’ll need food, for which we’ll need farmers. But it seemed to us that anybody can learn to plant and harvest crops: we’ve all grown food in our gardens and greenhouses before… and there’s a far more-comfortable position to be had being the person who makes the tools for the farmers. And the builders, and the woodcutters, and the soldiers, and so on.
The correct career choice for the post-apocalyptic world is… blacksmith.
We arrived at the Avoncroft Museum, near Bromsgrove, early on Saturday morning. It looked to still be closed, but I asked a conveniently-nearby man, who had that certain look of a blacksmith, if he was the blacksmith, and the responded affirmatively. Liz and I followed him down through the grounds of the museum, between expansive model train layouts and the National Telephone Kiosk Collection (of course that’s a thing), to his little forge.
The smith gave us a brief tour, showing us the different parts of the hearth, the (140-year old) anvil, the slack tub, and so on, then went outside to gather up some kindling so that he could get a fire going.
Then, he showed us what we’d be making today: a fire poker (“here’s one I made earlier”). He pointed out the different elements of the work: the broadened tip with its sharp point, the tapered end and stem, the decorative twist, and the hook at the top. This, he said, represented the majority of the basic techniques of traditional forging (except for fire welding): upsetting, drawing out, and bending.
The talents of a blacksmith are actually quite broad and complex. There’s the ability to determine the heat (and thus malleability) of a metal by its colour (which in turn is affected by the type of metal: light steel, wrought iron, aluminium, brass etc. all have different thermal characteristics). Then there’s the skill required in accurately positioning and moving the metal, and the vision required to appreciate how it’ll behave when it’s more-or-less plasticine. And that’s without mentioning the physical strength that’s needed: forge-temperature iron turns out to be only a little more-flexible than cold iron, and it takes quite a wallop to make the impact you need… and all while trying to maintain the control you require to shape it the way you’re looking to.
Something quite magical about the process, for me, was that the work we were doing used effectively all of the same tools and techniques that have been practiced by blacksmiths for at least 3000 years. With only three exceptions – the striplights over our heads (rather than lanterns – although the blacksmith did have a good number of those around too!), the electric fan that pumped air into the hearth (rather than a nine-year-old boy pumping the bellows) and the angle grinder that the blacksmith used initially to cut us each off a chunk of steel to work with – what we were doing wouldn’t have looked remotely out-of-place to a blacksmith of ancient Rome or Greece. Well: except for letting a woman work metal, I suppose.
Twelve hours later, Liz and I left – pokers in hand and ready to fight off any zombies we came across! – completely exhausted. We’d each gotten a few small burns and some memorable aches in our arms and backs, but we’d succeeded in the tiny first step of our plan to make ourselves indispensable after the apocalypse happens. In nearby Bromsgrove, we each devoured half of a pizza, then finally made our way to our respective homes.
Would I ever be a blacksmith by choice? Outside of an apocalypse, no: having heard the war stories (and seen the injuries) of our blacksmith tutor, I’d rather stick to safer activities, like skydiving. But if you’ve got the inclination to try your hand at blacksmithing, I’d thoroughly recommend that you give it a go, and the smith at Avoncroft is totally worthy of your attention: go make something!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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”).
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.
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.
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.