Hello 2013: My Birthday

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

I spent the weekend of my birthday working in London, alongside the Squiz team, who make the CMS that forms the foundation of most of the public-facing websites of the Bodleian Libraries. We’d originally scheduled this visit for a different week, but – in that way that projects sometimes do – the project got juggled about a bit and so I found myself spending the week of my birthday away from home.

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

But on Tuesday – my second day working on-site at Squiz’s office, and coincidentally my birthday – disaster struck! Our first clue was when the lights went out. And then, a minute or so later, when the fire alarm started going off. No big deal, we all thought, as we gathered our possessions and prepared to leave the office – it’s probably just that the fire alarm sounds as a precaution if it’s electricity supply is disrupted… but as we started to go down the stairs and smelled the smoke, we realised that there really was a fire.

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

The first two fire engines arrived within minutes. Apparently, they don’t mess about when a city centre office block catches light. The smoke was very visible from the street: thick grey plumes pouring out from the basement windows. Theories about the cause of the fire were whispered around the assembled crowd, and the consensus seemed to be that the substation in the basement had overheated and set alight its room.

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

A third fire engine arrived, and – after about a quarter hour of assessing the situation and controlling the crowd – we were told that we wouldn’t be able to get back into our building for “at least an hour, probably more.” So, being British, we therefore decamped to one of the nearby bars for networking and a round of gin & tonic. After I texted some friends to say that I hadn’t expected to spend the afternoon of my birthday in the pub, but that it wasn’t an entirely unwelcome experience, a few of them had the cheek to ask once again how the fire had actually started.

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

By the time we were allowed to return to the building, it was already getting dark, and we quickly discovered a new problem that faced us: with the power still well and truly out, the electronic door locks that secured the offices had become completely unusable. Not willing to abandon my laptop, keys, and other personal possessions overnight in an unfamiliar office, I waited around until a locksmith had been summoned and had drilled his way through the cylinder and allowed us into the building.

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

It being my birthday, I’d arranged that Ruth would come and spend the night down in London, and that we’d go out to Dans le Noir, a restaurant that I’d heard about from news articles and via friends some years prior, and always wanted to try. The restaurant has a distinct and quite remarkable theme that you probably won’t find anywhere else: that theme is that you eat unidentified food in pitch blackness.

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

As our (blind!) waiter, Gao, led Ruth and I by touch to our table, we suddenly realised that we’d all but forgotten exactly how dark pitch blackness actually is. When you stumble over your coffee table in the dark on a morning, that’s not truly black: there’s that sliver of light coming from underneath the curtains, or the faint glow of the LED light on the stereo. Real, complete darkness is disorienting and confusing, and to sit around in it – not even able to see whether your eyes are open or closed – for hours at a time is quite remarkable.

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

It took us a little while to learn the new skills required to survive in this environment, but Gao was incredibly helpful. We worked out mechanisms for pouring drinks, for checking whether our plates were empty, and for communicating our relative movements (being geeks, as we are, Ruth and I quickly developed a three-dimensional coordinate-based system for navigating relative to an agreed centre-point: the tip of the bottle of our mystery wine). We also learned that there’s something truly humbling about being dependent upon the aid of a blind person to do something that you’d normally be quite capable of doing alone: simple things, like finding where your glass is.

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

But the bigger lesson that we learned was about how darkness changes the way that we operate on a social level. Ruth and I were sat alongside another couple, and – deprived of body language, the judgement of sight, and the scrutiny of eye contact – we quickly entered into a conversation that was far deeper and more real than I would have anticipated having with total strangers. It was particularly strange to see Ruth, who’s usually so shy around new people, really come out as confident and open. I theorise that (in normally-signted people) eye contact – that is, being able to see that others can see you – serves as a regulator of our willingness to be transparent. Depriving it for long enough that its lack begins to feel natural makes us more frank and honest. Strange.

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

Back at Squiz the following day, there was still no electricity. Credit is due to the team there, though, who quickly put in to effect their emergency plans and literally “moved office” to a handful of conference rooms and meeting spaces around Shoreditch. “Runners” were nominated to help relay messages and equipment between disparate groups of people, and virtualised networks were established across the city. I laughed when I discovered that Squiz’s old offices had been in an old fire station.

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

Before long, the folks I’d been working with and I were settled into a basement meeting room in a nearby café, running a stack of Mac desktops and laptops from a monumental string of power strips, and juggling an Internet connection between the café’s WiFi and a stack of Mifi-like devices. We were able to get on with our work, and the day was saved, all thanks to some smart emergency planning. Later in the week, a generator was deployed outside the building and we were able to return to normal desks, but the quick-thinking of the management ensured that a minimum of disruption was caused in the meantime.

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

Not one to waste the opportunity to make the most of being in London for a week, I spent another of my evenings out with Bryn. He and I went out to the Free Fringe Fundraiser, which – despite a notable absence of Peter Buckley Hill, who had caught a case of the then-dominating norovirus – was still a great deal of fun. It was particularly pleasing to get to see Norman Lovett in the flesh: his particular brand of surrealist anti-humour tickles me mercilessly.

So what could have been “just another business trip” turned into quite the adventure, between fires and birthdays and eating-in-the-dark and comedy. If only it hadn’t taken me two months to finish writing about it…

On This Day In 2003

Looking Back

On this day in 2003 I first juggled with flaming clubs! But first, let’s back up to when I very first learned to juggle. One night, back in about 1998, I had a dream. And in that dream, I could juggle.

I’d always been a big believer in following my dreams, sometimes in a quite literal sense: once I dreamed that I’d been writing a Perl computer program to calculate the frequency pattern of consecutive months which both have a Friday 13th in them. Upon waking, I quickly typed out what I could remember of the code, and it worked, so it turns out that I really can claim to be able to program in my sleep.

In this case, though, I got up and tried to juggle… and couldn’t! So, in order that nobody could ever accuse me of not “following my dreams,” I opted to learn!

About three hours later, my mother received a phone call from me.

“Help!” I said, “I think I’m going to die of vitamin C poisoning! How much do I have to have before it becomes fatal?”

“What?” she asked, “What’s happened?”

“Well: you know how I’m a big believer in following my dreams.”

“Yeah,” she said, sighing.

“Well… I dreamed that I could juggle, so I’ve spent all morning trying to learn how to. But I’m not very good at it.”

“Okay… but what’s that got to do with vitamin C?”

“Well: I don’t own any juggling balls, so I tried to find something to use as a substitute. The only thing I could find was this sack of oranges.”

“I think I can see where you’re going wrong,” she said, sarcastically, “You’re supposed to juggle with your hands, Dan… not with your mouth.”

“I am juggling with my hands! Well; trying to, anyway. But I’m not very good. So I keep dropping the oranges. And after a few drops they start to rupture and burst, and I can’t stand to waste them, so I eat them. I’ve eaten quite a lot of oranges, now, and I’m starting to feel sick.”

I wasn’t  overdosing on vitamin C, it turns out – that takes a quite monumental dose; perhaps more than can be orally ingested in naturally-occuring forms – but was simply suffering from indigestion brought on as a result of eating lots and lots of oranges, and bending over repeatedly to pick up dropped balls. My mother, who had herself learned to juggle when she was young, was able to give me two valuable tips to get me started:

  1. Balled-up thick socks make for great getting-started juggling balls.  They bounce, don’t leak juice, and are of a sensible size (if a little light) for a beginning juggler.
  2. Standing with your knees against the side of a bed means that you don’t have to bend over so far to pick up your balls when you inevitably drop them.

I became a perfectly competent juggler quite quickly, and made a pest of myself in many a supermarket, juggling the produce.

So: fast forward five years to 2003, when Kit, Claire, Paul, Bryn and I decided to have a fire on the beach, at Aberystwyth. We’d… acquired… a large solid wooden desk and some pallets, and we set them up and ignited them and lounged around drinking beer. After a little while, a young couple came along: she was swinging flaming poi around, and he was juggling flaming clubs!

Fire poi! They look fantastic when they're flying around you; scary when they're flying towards you.

I asked if I could have a go with his flaming clubs. “Have you ever juggled flaming clubs before?” he asked. “I’ve never even juggled clubs before,” I replied. He offered to extinguish them for me, first, but I insisted on the “full experience.” I’d learn faster if there existed the threat of excruciating pain every time I fucked up, surely. Right?

Juggling clubs, it turns out, is a little harder than juggling balls. Flaming clubs, even more so, because you really can’t get away with touching the “wrong” end. Flaming clubs at night, after a few drinks, is particularly foolhardy, because all you can see is the flaming end, and you have to work backwards in your mind to interpret where the “catching end” of the stick must be, based on the movement of the burning bit. In short: I got a few minor singes.

But I went home that night with the fire still burning in my eyes, like a spark in my mind. I couldn’t stop talking about it: I’d been bitten by the flaming-clubs-bug.

Looking Forward

I ordered myself a set of flaming clubs as soon as I could justify the cost, and, after a couple of unlit attempts in the street outside my house, took them to our next beach party a few days later. That’s when I learned what really makes flaming clubs dangerous: it’s not the bit that’s on fire, but the aluminium rod that connects the wick to the handle. Touching the flaming wick; well – that’ll singe a little, but it won’t leave a burn so long as you pull away quickly. But after they’ve been lit for a while – even if they’ve since been put out – touching the alumium pole will easily leave a nasty blister.

Me juggling flaming clubs at the barbecue I mentioned, in 2007. I almost look like I know what I'm doing. And more importantly, I feel like a badass.

Still: I learned quickly, and was still regularly flinging them around (and teaching others) at barbecues many years later.

Once, a Nightline training ended up being held at an unusual location, and the other trainers and I were concerned that the trainees might not be able to find it. So we advertised on the email with the directions to the training room that trainees who can’t find it should “introduce themselves to the man juggling fire outside the students union”, who would point them in the right direction: and so I stood there, throwing clubs around, looking for lost people all morning. Which would have worked fine if it weren’t for the fact that I got an audience, and it became quite hard to discreetly pick out the Nightline trainees from the students who were just being amused by my juggling antics.

Nowadays, I don’t find much time for juggling. I keep my balls to-hand (so to speak) and sometimes toss them about while I’m waiting for my computer to catch up with me, but it’s been a long while since I got my clubs out and lit them up. Maybe I’ll find an excuse sometime soon.

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

Halloumi & Mushroom Skewers

Last week, I was invited to a barbeque with Oxford’s Young Friends. Despite being neither a Friend (in their “capital-F” meaning of the word: a Quaker) nor young (at least; not so young as I was, whatever that means), I went along and showed off my barbecue skills. It also gave me an excuse to make use of my Firestick – a contemporary tinderbox – to generally feel butch and manly, perhaps in an effort to compensate for the other week.

Anyway: this is how I discovered halloumi and mushroom skewers. Which may now have become my favourite barbeque foodstuff. Wow. Maybe it’s just the lack of mushrooms in my diet (we operate a cooking rota on Earth, but Paul doesn’t like mushrooms so I usually only get them when he or I happen to be eating elsewhere), but these things are just about the most delicious thing that you can pull off hot coals.

Aside from meat, of course.

Update: we just had some at the Three Rings Code Week, and they were almost as delicious once again, despite being hampered by a biting wind, frozen mushrooms, and a dodgy barbeque.

Demolition Of Y Tabernacle

Following the fire at Y Tabernacle, Mill Street, Aberystwyth at the weekend, the decision was made that it was structurally unsound and had to be demolished. It’s sad to see such a beautiful (pics) old building torn down, but one can’t help but marvel at the speed and efficiency with which they did it. This morning, as I walked to work, there was no sign of any of the heavy plant machinery that later appeared. Yet this evening, as I look out of the windows of my office, the building’s suspiciously absent – from this distance, it’s just a space in the skyline.

I’ve taken a few videos of the demolition on my mobile and uploaded them to YouTube. If you can’t see them below, you can watch them here.

I notice that the fire’s being treated as suspicious, and I hear that arrests have been made. I’ve also heard my fair share of conspiracy stories already about it – the building is apparently a recent aqcuisition of Merlin Homes, whose boss (rumour has it) was conveniently out of the country when this and (allegedly) another Merlin Homes building burnt down in a very short space of time… I suppose they’ll be building a block of flats on the site, now.

But hey; people will gossip.

Injured

FireSpent last night on the beach with Andy, Alec, Paul, Claire, and others last night. Folks like Andy and Alec are in Aber for the graduate’s ball tomorrow, we we went out for a barbeque. I took along my new juggling gear and practised juggling flaming brands. I wasn’t very good at it. I need more practice. Today, I have burns all over my arms.

Later, Claire and I borrowed Paul’s dinghy and paddled around in the sea for awhile. That was fun, too. All in all, a good night.

Kit wasn’t feeling well and retired early.

Came in to work late today. This afternoon, in fact. I love it when I get a lie-in. Claire’s uncharacteristically less horny than usual. Down to about my level, for once. Hmm… Anyway: lots of work to do for the company’s presence at the Royal Welsh Show next week. Better go get on with it.

Feel strangely nostalgic. Perhaps a result of the retro-computer games I’ve been playing. Or the music Alex has put on. Or just too much caffiene. Ah well.

Almost Passed This On The Way To Work

Another fantastic story from the BBC: this one took place yesterday, and so I missed it, as I didn’t come in to work. Apparently this lorry full of cheese caught fire on the A44, on my usual route to the office. The driver said: “I saw the fire starting but by the time I’d gone back to the cab to get the fire extinguisher the whole lot had started to go on fire.”

1. Cheese burns?
2. What route did he take back to the cab? Via Bow Street?
3. How does combusion occur in the hold of a moving lorry full of milk produce?

Fucking Flaming Brands

Last night Kit, Claire, Paul, Bryn and I acquired a huge wooden desk and other burnables and went and started an enormous fire on the beach, having just finished a most fantastic curry at Cafe All Spice. Big fire!

Later, we were joined by a man with some juggling batons and a woman with some flags and flaming things on the end of cords. I’d never juggled with clubs before, but a quick play and a little coaching later, and he had me juggling with fucking flaming brands. What a buzz!

The woman will be taking part in Equilibre at Machynlleth. Judging by how impressive she alone was with her firey-things, I’m really tempted to go. Showing 9th-16th August, 8pm.

I must buy some flame-batons. The buzz is only just wearing off.

Friends

It is Claire’s birthday.

“Our feet are going to get wet.”

Somebody had to say it. Somebody did.

The waves roll up the beach, rustling gently against the smooth pebbles. Claire sits in front of me. Kit is to my side. The remaining embers of the fire flicker, as if trying to fight to hold onto the remains of their minimal existance against the oncoming tide. We watch the waves through the dwindling smoke.

I put my arm around Claire, holding her hand against her busom. She returns my grip. I glance across at Kit, and he looks back. For a moment, I look into his eyes… try to see what he sees… but to no avail. We turn back to the sea.

For the best part of half an hour none of us had spoken. For a half hour to come none of us will speak. Sometimes there’s no need for words. Sometimes just being together is enough.

The greatest secret you never tell is how you feel.

Goodnight;

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #35:

Raid a skip outside the computer labs, filled to the brim with semi-defunct equipment. Steal several cables, some dumb-terminal keyboards, and a PSU (which was funtional, but later caught fire). Spend much of the remainder of the afternoon taking broken monitors from it and throwing them from great distances into the skip again, just ’cause you want to see if you can make them implode and blow a hole in the side of the skip. Fail. Spend much of the evening trying to get an old 8086 your flatmate pulled from it to work. Succeed… to a degree… it just doesn’t *do* much!

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #28:

Escape from your hall’s “Punch Party”, and go to a bonfire instead, because you *know* that if you start drinking vast amounts of free sub-cocktail you’ll just *keep* drinking and you’ve got to be up before 9:00am the following morning to continue running a Nightline training session.

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.