Don’t Ask, Don’t Teach

Politics and pundits

The UK’s Conservative government, having realised that their mandate is worthless, seems to be in a panicked rush to try to get the voters to ignore any of the real issues. Instead, they say, we should be focussed on things like ludicrously-expensive and ineffective ways to handle asylum seekers and making life as hard as possible for their second-favourite scapegoat: trans and queer people.

Screengrab from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. John Oliver is subtitled as saying: In the end, Sunak did an end-run around the ruling that Rwanda was too dangerous by simply having his government officially declare Rwanda a "safe country".
By the time John Oliver’s doing a segment about you, perhaps it’s time to realise you’ve fucked up? But our main story tonight is about sex education…

The latest move in that second category seems likely to be a plan to, among other things, discourage teachers from talking about gender identity in schools, with children of any age. From the article I linked:

The BBC has not seen the new guidelines but a government source said they included plans to ban any children being taught about gender identity.

If asked, teachers will have to be clear gender ideology is contested.

Needless to say, such guidance is not likely to be well-received by teachers:

Pepe Di’Iasio, headteacher at a school in Rotherham, told Today that he believes pupils are being used “as a political football”.

Teachers “want well informed and evidence-based decisions”, he said, and not “politicised” guidance.

Cringey political poster reading "Is this Labour's idea of a comprehensive education? Take the politics out of education, vote Conservative", alongside three books: Young gay & proud, Police: Out of School!, and The playbook for kids about sex.
I can only assume that the Tories still have a stack of this genuine 1987 billboard poster (ugh) in stock, and are hoping to save money by reusing them.

People and pupils

This shit isn’t harmless. Regardless of how strongly these kinds of regulations are enforced, they can have a devastating chilling effect in schools.

I speak from experience.

A group of teenagers stand around awkwardly.
I don’t know if this is the “most-90s” photo I own of myself, but it’s gotta be close. Taken at the afterparty from a school production of South Pacific, so probably at least a little disproportionately-queer gathering.

Most of my school years were under the shadow of Section 28. Like I predict for the new Conservative proposals, Section 28 superficially didn’t appear to have a major impact: nobody was ever successfully prosecuted under it, for example. But examining its effects in that way completely overlooks the effect it had on how teachers felt they had to work.

For example…

In around 1994, I witnessed a teacher turn a blind eye to homophobic bullying of a pupil by their peer, during a sex education class. Simultaneously, the teacher coolly dismissed the slurs of the bully, saying that we weren’t “talking about that in this class” and that the boy should “save his chatter for the playground”. I didn’t know about the regulations at the time: only in hindsight could I see that this might have been a result of Section 28. All I got to see at the time was a child who felt that his homophobic harassment of his classmate had the tacit endorsement of the teachers, so long as it didn’t take place in the classroom.

A gay friend, who will have been present but not involved in the above event, struggled with self-identity and relationships throughout his teenage years, only “coming out” as an adult. I’m confident that he could have found a happier, healthier life had he felt supported – or at the very least not-unwelcome – at school. I firmly believe that the long-running third-degree side-effects of Section 28 effectively robbed him of a decade of self-actualisation about his identity.

The long tail of those 1980s rules were felt long-after they were repealed. And for a while, it felt like things were getting better. But increasingly it feels like we’re moving backwards.

A pride rainbow painted down the back of a white person's first, held in the air.
As a country and as a society, we can do better than this.

With general elections coming up later this year, it’ll soon be time to start quizzing your candidates on the issues that matter to you. Even (perhaps especially) if your favourite isn’t the one who wins, it can be easiest to get a politicians’ ear when they and their teams are canvassing for your vote; so be sure to ask pointed questions about the things you care about.

I hope that you’ll agree that not telling teachers to conceal from teenagers the diversity of human identity and experience is something worth caring about.

Update: Only a couple of hours after I posted this, the awesome folks (whom I’ve mentioned before) at the Vagina Museum tooted a thread about the long tail of Section 28. It’s well-worth a read.

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[Bloganuary] Alumnus

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

What colleges have you attended?

I feel like this question might be a little US-centric? Or at least, not UK-friendly! The question doesn’t translate well because of transatlantic differences in our higher education systems (even after I skimmed a guide to higher education across the pond).

Let’s try instead enumerating the education establishments I’ve attended post-school. There’ve been a few!

Preston College

A young Dan, plus seven other casually-dressed young men, pose in a classroom.
I’m the leftmost of the unwashed nerdy louts in this collection of unwashed nerdy louts: Preston College’s Computing A-Level graduates of the 1997-1999 class.

Nowadays young adults are required to be enrolled in education or training until the age of 18, but that wasn’t the case when I finished secondary school at 16. Because my school didn’t yet offer a “sixth form” (education for 16-18 year olds), I registered with Preston College to study A-Levels in Computing, Maths, Psychology, and General Studies.

The first of these choices reflected my intention to go on to study Computer Science at University1. Psychology was chosen out of personal interest, and General Studies was a filler to round-out my programme.

A group of young adults mill around in a rainy car park between campus buildings.
This photo first appeared in one of my oldest (surviving) contemporary blog posts, way back in 1999.

Aberystwyth University

Then known as the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, this became my next academic destination as I pursued an undergraduate degree in Computer Science with Software Engineering.

Standing in a study bedroom, Dan shows off his certificate of admission to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
This photo, showing off my admission certificate in my just-moved-into study bedroom, first appeared in a then-private post in October 1999 (after I’d had time to get the film developed and scan the print!2).
Originally intending to spend five years doing a masters degree, I later dialled-back my plans and left with only a bachelors degree (although I still somehow spent five years getting it). This was not-least because I was much more-interested in implementing Three Rings than in studying, although I at least eventually managed to get away with writing and  handing in a dissertation based on my work on the project3 and was awarded a degree and got to wear a silly hat and everything.
Dan and Aberystwyth friends at Ruth and JTA's wedding.
Of course, the real adventure at Aberystwyth was the friends I made along the way. Including this lot!

Since then, I’ve used my Software Engineering degree for… almost nothing. I started working at SmartData before I’d even completed it; the Bodleian required that I had one but didn’t care what the subject was, and I’m not certain that Automattic even asked. But I still appreciate some of the theoretical grounding it gave me, which helps me when I learn new concepts to this day4.

Aylesbury College

Almost a decade later, the academic bug bit me again and I decided to study towards a foundation degree in Counselling & Psychotherapy! I figured that it I were going to have one degree that I never use, I might as well have two of them, right?

A group of 16 counselling students outside a classroom: all are white, and with the exception of Dan, all are women.
Among this cheery group I stood out for a couple of reasons, but perhaps the most-interesting was that I was the only member of my class who didn’t intend to use their new qualification in a practical capacity.

The academic parts5 of the work could be done remotely, but I needed to zip back and forth to Aylesbury on Monday evenings for several years for the practical parts.

The Open University

Almost another decade passed then I decided it was time to break into academia a further time. This time, I decided to build on my existing knowledge from my first degree plus the subsequent experience and qualifications I’d gained in ethical hacking and penetration testing, and decided to go for a masters degree in Information Security and Forensics! I even managed to do some original research for my dissertation, although it’s terribly uninteresting because all it possibly managed to prove was the null hypothesis.

Dan with his Masters Degree certificate (Master of Science in Computing: Information Security and Forensics)
Smug mode activated as I prepare to add another degree certificate to the wall.

Something I’d discovered having been a student in my teens, in my 20s, in my 30s, and in my 40s… is that it gets harder! Whereas in my 20s I could put in an overnight cram session and ace an exam, in my 40s I absolutely needed to spend the time studying and revising over many weeks before information would become concrete in my mind!6 It almost feels like it’s a physical effort to shunt things into my brain, where once it was near-effortlessly easy.

People have occasionally suggested that I might push my field(s) even further and do a doctorate someday. I don’t think that’s for me. A masters in a subdiscipline was plenty narrow-enough a field for my interests: I’d far rather study something new.

Maybe there’s another degree in my sometime, someday, but it’s probably a bachelors!


1 I figured that an A-Level in Maths would be essential for admission to a Computer Science degree, but it very definitely wasn’t, though it helped out in other ways.

2 The ubiquity of digital photography nowadays makes it easy to forget that snapping a picture to share with friends used to be really hard work.

3 Little did I know that 20 years later Three Rings would still be going strong, now supporting ~60,000 volunteers in half a dozen countries!

4 While I love and am defensive of self-taught programmers, and feel that bootcamp-plus-experience is absolutely sufficient for many individuals to excel in my industry, there are certain topics – like compiler theory, data structures and algorithms, growth rates of function complexity, etc. – that are just better to learn in an academic setting, and which in turn can help bootstrap you every time you need to learn a new programming language or paradigm. Not to mention the benefit of “learning how to learn”, for which university can be great. It’s a bloody expensive way to get those skills, especially nowadays, though!

5 I was surprised to find that the academic bits of my course in counselling and psychotherapy were more-interesting than the practical bits. See for example my blog post about enjoying a deep dive into the background of The Gloria Films. I learned a lot from the practical bits too, mind.

6 I probably didn’t do myself any favours by beginning Automattic’s intensive and challenging recruitment process while wrapping up my masters degree though.

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It Takes Two

Lately, Ruth and I have been learning to dance Argentine Tango.

In a church hall, its walls decorated with colourful cloths, Dan and Ruth stand in a large circle of people, watching a man and a woman preparing to demonstrate some tango steps.
Stand with both feet together on the floor? Sure, I can do that one.

Let me tell you everything I know about tango1:

  1. It takes two to tango.
  2. I am not very good at tango.
Dan, wearing a black t-shirt and holding a glass of wine, looks sceptically at the camera as he stands in front of a television screen showing a couple dancing, with the title frame "La Caminata: Introduction to Walking in Tango (Core Steps)".
Our lessons started online, in our own living room, with videos from Tango Stream‘s “Tango Basics” series. It was a really good introduction and I’d recommend it, but it’s no substitute for practice!

This adventure began, in theory at least, on my birthday in January. I’ve long expressed an interest in taking a dance class together, and so when Ruth pitched me a few options for a birthday gift, I jumped on the opportunity to learn tango. My knowledge of the dance was basically limited to what I’d seen in films and television, but it had always looked like such an amazing dance: careful, controlled… synchronised, sexy.

After shopping around for a bit, Ruth decided that the best approach was for us to do a “beginners” video course in the comfort of our living room, and then take a weekend getaway to do an “improvers” class.

After all, we’d definitely have time to complete the beginners’ course and get a lot of practice in before we had to take to the dance floor with a group of other “improvers”, right?2

Dan and Ruth sat on opposite sides of a table on a train, with darkness outside the window behind, raising tumbler glasses full of prosecco and smiling.
By the time we were riding the train up to Edinburgh, we’d watched all the videos in our beginners’ course, and tried all of the steps in isolation… but we’d had barely any opportunity to combine them into an actual dance.

Okay, let me try again to enumerate you everything I actually know about tango3:

  1. Essentials. A leader and follower4 hold one another’s upper torso closely enough that, with practice, each can intuit from body position where the other’s feet are without looking. While learning, you will not manage to do this, and you will tread on one another’s toes.
  2. The embrace. In the embrace, one side – usually the leader’s left – is “open”, with the dancers’ hands held; the other side is “closed”, with the dancers holding one another’s bodies. Generally, you should be looking at one another or towards the open side. But stop looking at your feet: you should know where your own feet are by proprioception, and you know where your partners’ feet are by guesswork and prayer.
  3. The walk. You walk together, (usually) with opposite feet moving in-sync so that you can be close and not tread on one another’s toes, typically forward (from the leader’s perspective) but sometimes sideways or even backwards (though not usually for long, because it increases the already-inevitable chance that you’ll collide embarrassingly with other couples).
  4. Movement. Through magic and telepathy a good connection with one another, the pair will, under the leader’s direction, open opportunities to perform more advanced (but still apparently beginner-level) steps and therefore entirely new ways to mess things up. These steps include:
    • Forward ochos. The follower stepping through a figure-eight (ocho) on the closed side, or possibly the open side, but they probably forget which way they were supposed to turn when they get there, come out on the wrong foot, and treat on the leader’s toes.
    • Backwards ochos. The follower moves from side to side or in reverse through a series of ochos, until the leader gets confused which way they’re supposed to pivot to end the maneuver and both people become completely confused and unstuck.
    • The cross. The leader walks alongside the follower, and when the leader steps back the follower chooses to assume that the leader intended for them to cross their legs, which opens the gateway to many other steps. If the follower guesses incorrectly, they probably fall over during that step. If the follower guesses correctly but forgets which way around their feet ought to be, they probably fall over on the very next step. Either way, the leader gets confused and does the wrong thing next.
    • Giros. One or both partners perform a forwards step, then a sideways step, then a backwards step, then another sideways step, starting on the inside leg and pivoting up to 270° with each step such that the entire move rotates them some portion of a complete circle. In-sync with one another, of course.
    • Sacadas. Because none of the above are hard enough to get right together, you should start putting your leg out between your partner’s leg and try and trip them up as they go. They ought to know you’re going to do this, because they’ve got perfect predictive capabilities about where your feet are going to end, remember? Also remember to use the correct leg, which might not be the one you expect, or you’ll make a mess of the step you’ll be doing in three beats’ time. Good luck!
    • Barridas and mordidas. What, you finished the beginners’ course? Too smart to get tripped up by your partner’s sacada any more? Well now it’s time to start kicking your partner’s feet out from directly underneath them. That’ll show ’em.
  5. Style. All of the above should be done gracefully, elegantly, with perfect synchronicity and in time with the music… oh, and did I mention you should be able to improve the whole thing on the fly, without pre-communication with your partner. 😅
Photograph of a small laminated instruction sheet on a golden tablecloth. Titled "Norteña Tango", it reads: Let's make this an amazing weekend. We are all here to dance, so let's look around us and try to make sure that everyone is dancing. We'd love it if you would follow the lines of dance by moving around the floor steadily, try using the cabeceo, leave space between you and the couple in front, make use of the corners of the dance floor, stay in the same lane where possible, take care when entering the dance floor, clear the floor and change partners during the cortinas. It would be great if you could avoid overtaking other couples on the floor, walking (other than when dancing) on the floor.
Just when you think you’ve worked out the basic rules of tango, you find a leaflet on your table with some rules of the dancefloor to learn, too!

Ultimately, it was entirely our own fault we felt out-of-our-depth up in Edinburgh at the weekend. We tried to run before we could walk, or – to put it another way – to milonga before we could caminar.

A somewhat-rushed video course and a little practice on carpet in your living room is not a substitute for a more-thorough práctica on a proper-sized dance floor, no matter how often you and your partner use any excuse of coming together (in the kitchen, in an elevator, etc.) to embrace and walk a couple of steps! Getting a hang of the fluid connections and movement of tango requires time, and practice, and discipline.

Photograph of paving slabs: a glyph of a walking person, signifying "walk here", has been painted onto the flagstones, but the stones have since been lifted and replaced in slightly different locations, making the person appear "scrambled".
Got the feeling that your body and your feet aren’t moving in the same direction? That’s tango!

But, not least because of our inexperience, we did learn a lot during our weekend’s deep-dive. We got to watch (and, briefly, partner with) some much better dancers and learned some advanced lessons that we’ll doubtless reflect back upon when we’re at the point of being ready for them. Because yes: we are continuing! Our next step is a Zoom-based lesson, and then we’re going to try to find a more-local group.

Also, we enjoyed the benefits of some one-on-one time with Jenny and Ricardo, the amazingly friendly and supportive teachers whose video course got us started and whose in-person event made us feel out of our depth (again: entirely our own fault).

If you’ve any interest whatsoever in learning to dance tango, I can wholeheartedly recommend Ricardo and Jenny Oria as teachers. They run courses in Edinburgh and occasionally elsewhere in the UK as well as providing online resources, and they’re the most amazingly supportive, friendly, and approachable pair imaginable!

Just… learn from my mistake and start with a beginner course if you’re a beginner, okay? 😬


1 I’m exaggerating how little I know for effect. But it might not be as much of an exaggeration as you’d hope.

2 We did not.

3 Still with a hint of sarcasm, though.

4 Tango’s progressive enough that it’s come to reject describing the roles in binary gendered terms, using “leader” and “follower” in place of what was once described as “man” and “woman”, respectively. This is great for improving access to pairs of dancers who don’t consist of a man and a woman, as well as those who simply don’t want to take dance roles imposed by their gender.

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Local Expert

At school, our 9-year-old is currently studying the hsitory of human civilization from the late stone age through to the bronze age. The other week, the class was split into three groups, each of which was tasked with researching a different piece of megalithic architecture:

  • One group researched Stonehenge, because it’s a pretty obvious iconic choice
  • Another group researched the nearby Rollright Stones, which we’ve made a family tradition of visiting on New Year’s Day and have dragged other people along to sometimes
  • The final group took the least-famous monument, our very own local village henge The Devil’s Quoits
Dan, wearing a black t-shirt with the words "Let's make the web a better place" on, sits with his back to a standing stone. Four more standing stones can be seen stretching away into the bakground, atop a flowery meadow and beneath a slightly cloudy but bright sky.
Love me some ancient monuments, even those that are perhaps less authentically-ancient than others.

And so it was that one of our eldest’s classmates was searching on the Web for information about The Devil’s Quoits when they found… my vlog on the subject! One of them recognised me and said, “Hey, isn’t that your Uncle Dan?”1

On the school run later in the day, the teacher grabbed me and asked if I’d be willing to join their school trip to the henge, seeing as I was a “local expert”. Naturally, I said yes, went along, and told a bunch of kids what I knew!

A group of schoolchildren in a mixture of white and blue shirts, and with most wearing sunhats, sit on a pile of rocks alongside a ring ditch and listen intently to Dan.
I’ve presented to much-larger audiences before on a whole variety of subjects, but this one still might have been the most terrifying.

I was slightly intimidated because the class teacher, Miss Hutchins, is really good! Coupled with the fact that I don’t feel like a “local expert”2, this became a kick-off topic for my most-recent coaching session (I’ve mentioned how awesome my coach is before).

A young girl, her hair wild, sits at a kitchen table with a laptop and a homework book, writing.
I originally thought I might talk to the kids about the Bell Beaker culture people who are believed to have constructed the monument. But when I pitched the idea to our girl she turned out to know about as much about them as I did, so I changed tack.

I eventually talked to the class mostly about the human geography aspects of the site’s story. The area around the Devil’s Quoits has changed so much over the millenia, and it’s a fascinating storied history in which it’s been:

  • A prehistoric henge and a circle of 28 to 36 stones (plus at least one wooden building, at some point).
  • Medieval farms, from which most of the stones were taken (or broken up) and repurposed.
  • A brief (and, it turns out, incomplete) archeological survey on the remains of the henge and the handful of stones still-present.
  • A second world war airfield (a history I’ve also commemorated with a geocache).
  • Quarrying operations leaving a series of hollowed-out gravel pits.
  • More-thorough archeological excavation, backed by an understanding of the cropmarks visible from aircraft that indicate that many prehistoric people lived around this area.
  • Landfill use, filling in the former gravel pits (except for one, which is now a large lake).
  • Reconstruction of the site to a henge and stone circle again.3
Ultrawide panoramic picture showing a full circle of standing stones under a clear sky. The dry grass has been cut back, and the remains of a campfire can be seen.
It doesn’t matter to me that this henge is more a modern reconstruction than a preserved piece of prehistory. It’s still a great excuse to stop and learn about how our ancestors might have lived.

It turns out that to be a good enough to pass as a “local expert”, you merely have to know enough. Enough to be able to uplift and inspire others, and the humility to know when to say “I don’t know”.4

That’s a lesson I should take to heart. I (too) often step back from the opportunity to help others learn something new because I don’t feel like I’m that experienced at whatever the subject is myself. But even if you’re still learning something, you can share what you’ve learned so far and help those behind you to follow the same path. I’m forever learning new things, and I should try to be more-open to sharing “as I learn”. And to admit where I’ve still got a long way to go.


1 Of course, I only made the vlog because I was doing a videography course at the time and needed subject matter, and I’d recently been reading a lot about the Quoits because I was planning on “hiding” a virtual geocache at the site, and then I got carried away. Self-nerdsniped again!

2 What is a local expert? I don’t know, but what I feel like is just a guy who read a couple of books because he got distracted while hiding a geocache!

3 I’ve no idea what future archeologists will make of this place when they finda reconstructed stone circle and then, when they dig nearby, an enormous quantity of non-biodegradable waste. What was this strange stone circle for, they’ll ask themselves? Was it a shrine to their potato-based gods, to whom they left crisp packets as a sacrifice?

4 When we’re talking about people from the neolithic, saying “I don’t know” is pretty easy, because what we don’t know is quite a lot, it turns out!

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Do What You’re Bad At

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

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

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

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

So yeah, pretty bad at things.

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

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

Being Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Will Never Stop Learning

I’ve been doing a course provided through work to try to improve my ability to connect with an audience over video.

This is my fourth week in the course, and I opted to revisit a video I made during my second week and try to do it again with more engagement, more focus, more punch, and more emotion. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. Interestingly, it somewhat mirrors my Howdymattic video from when I first started at Automattic, but I pivoted my “origin story” a little bit and twisted it to fit one of my favourite parts of the Automattic Creed.

Shot during the same outing as the Devil’s Quoits one. Also available on YouTube.

The Coolest Thing About GPS

I’m currently doing a course, through work, delivered by BetterOn Video. The aim of the course is to improve my video presentation skills, in particular my engagement with the camera and the audience.

I made this video based on the week 2 prompt “make a video 60-90 seconds long about something you’re an expert on”. The idea came from a talk I used to give at the University of Oxford.

The Secret of Magic

I’m currently doing a course, through work, delivered by BetterOn Video. The aim of the course is to improve my video presentation skills, in particular my engagement with the camera and the audience.

I made this video based on the week 2 prompt “make a video 60-90 seconds long about something you’re passionate about”. The idea came from a blog post I wrote back in 2014.

Note #17552

Dan with his Masters Degree certificate (Master of Science in Computing: Information Security and Forensics)

I’m unlikely to get a graduation ceremony like last time (on account of social distancing and whatnot), but I get a certificate to acknowledge my most-recent qualification.



This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

My partner @scatmandan just completed his Masters degree. His sister @bornvulcan sent him a stethoscope as a congratulations gift which is one of the funniest things to happen in these parts for a while.

I’m not sure my sister understands that a masters degree is not a doctorate. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to use this.

Dan with a pink stethoscope



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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Our kids are healthy and not at significant risk of serious illness.
  4. We’ve got the means, time, and experience to provide an adequate homeschooling environment for them in the immediate term.
  5. (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.
  6. 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.
  7. We’re well-off enough that we were able to buy or order everything we’d need to prepare for lockdown without financial risk.
  8. Having three adults gives us more hands on deck than most people get for childcare, self-care, etc. (we’re “parenting on easy mode”).
  9. We live in a country in which the government (eventually) imposed the requisite amount of lockdown necessary to limit the spread of the virus.
  10. 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.
Bowl of ice, glasses of water, salt and sugar supplies.
Today’s homeschool science experiment was about what factors make ice melt faster. Because of course that’s the kind of thing I’d do with the kids when we’re stuck at home.

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.


Where Do New Viruses Come From?

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

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).

Dissertation Hand-In Déjà Vu

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.

Project management graph for my dissertation
I found it motivating to maintain a graph of my dissertation’s “outstanding tasks” where I would see it every day. Also, as it started to get hairy, my word limit.

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.
Dan's masters dissertation: "Impact of the use of Language on Adoption of Optional Multifactor Authentication"
Despite this thing being big and heavy and dense, it somehow doesn’t seem to fully represent the weight of blood, sweat and tears that went into it.

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!)

Sankey chart showing participants divided into groups and exposed to different experiments, and the results of those experiments.
A personal highlight was that I got to find a genuine use for Sankey charts and treemaps in my work for perhaps the first time.

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.

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Geohashing Resurected

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.

xkcd #426: Geohashing
My favourite kind of random pointlessness is summarised by this algorithm.

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.

Graph of Dan's dissertation progress as the deadline creeps closer
My dissertation “burndown” is characterised on my whiteboard by two variables: outstanding issues (blue) and wordcount (red). There are… a few problems.

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 Take a look, if you like. If you’ve never been Geohashing before, there’s never been a more-obscure time to start! homepage
My implementation of the site is mobile-friendly for the benefit of people who might want to use it while out in a muddy ditch. For example. Just hypothetically.

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.

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