I Made My Shed the Top Rated Restaurant On TripAdvisor

Once upon a time, long before I began selling my face by the acre for features on VICE dot com, I worked other jobs. There was one in particular that really had an impact on me: writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor. Restaurant owners would pay me £10 and I’d write a positive review of their place, despite never eating there. Over time, I became obsessed with monitoring the ratings of these businesses. Their fortunes would genuinely turn, and I was the catalyst.

This convinced me that TripAdvisor was a false reality – that the meals never took place; that the reviews were all written by other people like me. However, they’re not, of course – they’re almost all completely genuine. And there was one other factor that seemed impossible to fake: the restaurants themselves. So I moved on.

And then, one day, sitting in the shed I live in, I had a revelation: within the current climate of misinformation, and society’s willingness to believe absolute bullshit, maybe a fake restaurant is possible? Maybe it’s exactly the kind of place that could be a hit?

In that moment, it became my mission. With the help of fake reviews, mystique and nonsense, I was going to do it: turn my shed into London’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor.

This Tiny Country Feeds the World

In a potato field near the Netherlands’ border with Belgium, Dutch farmer Jacob van den Borne is seated in the cabin of an immense harvester before an instrument panel worthy of the starship Enterprise.

From his perch 10 feet above the ground, he’s monitoring two drones—a driverless tractor roaming the fields and a quadcopter in the air—that provide detailed readings on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and growth, measuring the progress of every plant down to the individual potato. Van den Borne’s production numbers testify to the power of this “precision farming,” as it’s known. The global average yield of potatoes per acre is about nine tons. Van den Borne’s fields reliably produce more than 20.

That copious output is made all the more remarkable by the other side of the balance sheet: inputs. Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent…

McDonalds Let the Internet Create Their Own Burgers and Guess What Happened

Fan-made McDonalds burgers, including Pound My Behind Daddy

McDonalds had to know what they were doing. The New Zealand branch of the franchise launched its “Create Your Taste” campaign with a special promotion: Design your own burger and get free fries and a soft drink for your trouble. Not a bad idea in theory, but then there’s the part where they let everyone share their hideous creations. There was no way that someone somewhere at the company didn’t speak up at one point and say “Hey uh, you know that the internet is just going to create the most offensive and terrible burgers possible, right?”

Anniversary at Wriggles Brook

Three weeks ago was (give or take a few weeks because we’ve never bothered with accuracy) the end of Ruth and I’s 8th year together, and we marked the ocassion with a mini-break away for a few nights. We spent the first two nights in a ‘showman’-style gypsy caravan in Herefordshire, and it was amazing enough that I wanted to share it with you:

'Showman' caravan at Wriggles Brook
It wasn’t quite dusk yet, but we couldn’t resist the urge to light the fire (and the dozens of tiny lanterns).

The place we went was Wriggles Brook, a ‘glamping’-style site in the shadow of the Forest of Dean. In a long field that twists its way alongside a babbling brook, the owners have set up a trio of traditional horse-drawn caravans, each in a wooded clearing that isolates it from the others. Two of the caravans are smaller, designed just for couples (who are clearly the target market for this romantic getaway spot), but we took the third, larger, (centenarian!) one, which sported a separate living room and bedroom.

Annabel in wellies stomps through the orchard at Wriggles Brook.
Between our caravan and the others the owners grew a varied orchard, which Annabel found particularly interesting. By which I mean delicious.

The bedroom was set up so that children could be accomodated in a bunk under the adults (with their own string of fairy lights and teeny-tiny windows, but after she bumped her head on the underside of the beams Annabel decided that she didn’t want to sleep there, so we set up her travel cot in the living room.

Dan and Annabel on the hammock.
Annabel and I swinging on a hammock near the serpentine stream. She clearly misinterpreted the word roots, and spent the entire trip calling it a “hat-cot”.

So yeah: a beautiful setting, imaginative and ecologically-friendly accomodation, and about a billion activities on your doorstep. Even the almost-complete lack of phone signal into the valley was pretty delightful, although it did make consulting Google Maps difficult when we got lost about 20 minutes out from the place! But if there’s one thing that really does deserve extra-special mention, it’s the food!

Steam train in the Forest of Dean.
Nearby activities include steam trains. That’s all I needed to hear, really.

Our hosts were able to put on a spectacular breakfast and evening meal for us each night, including a variety of freshly-grown produce from their own land. We generally ate in their mini dining room – itself a greenhouse for their grapevines – but it was equally-nice to have pancakes delivered to the picnic table right outside our caravan. And speaking as somebody who’s had their fair share of second-rate veggie breakfasts over the last… what, four and a half years?… it was a great relief to enjoy a quite-brilliant variety of vegetarian cuisine from a clearly-talented chef.

A speed bump sign in heavy undergrowth.
I’m not sure why the Wriggles Brook site has ocassional signs like this sticking out of the undergrowth, but they sort-of fit the eccentricity of the place.

So yeah – five stars for Wriggles Brook in Herefordshire if you’re looking for an awesome romantic getaway, with or without an accompanying toddler. Ruth and I later palmed the little one off on JTA so that we could have a night away without her, too, which – while fun (even if we didn’t get to try all 280+ gins at the restaurant we ate at) – wasn’t quite so worthy of mention as the unusual gypsy-caravan-escape that had preceeded it. I’m hoping that we’ll get out to Wriggles Brook again.

Health. Food.

I’m pretty sure that an outside observer, given the advance knowledge of this blog post, could easily tell when I’m in the process of getting over an illness just by the food I eat. I’m pretty sure that I have a particular ‘tell’ in the foods I look for when I’m on the cusp of recovering from a cold, like now: or, I suppose, on those rare ocassions that I’ll have drunk enough to be suffering from a hangover.

Take this lunchtime, for example. I’ve been off work for the last couple of days, laid low by what seems to be the very same cold that I was sure I’d dodged when everybody else got it, last month (I blame Annabel, the contagious little beast, who’s particularly keen on shoving her hands into people’s mouths). Today I’m back on my feet, but working from home: I skipped breakfast, but by lunchtime I felt able to face some food, and quickly determined what it was that I really wanted:

From bottom to top: potato waffle, cheese, potato waffle, egg, tomato ketchup.
An egg and cheese wafflestack. If you think it looks calorie-laden and disgusting, then you’re right: but you wouldn’t be saying that if you were recovering from an illness!

Egg & Cheese Wafflestack

Serves: 1 unwell-but-recovering person
Preparation: 15 minutes
Difficulty: if you can’t make this, get the hell out of the kitchen

Ingredients

4 × frozen potato waffles. I’m using Birds Eye ones, but honestly, who can tell the difference?
~ 30g mature cheddar cheese, grated or thinly sliced, brought to room temperature so it melts quickly
2 × eggs
A little vegetable oil
Tomato ketchup (alternatively, brown sauce works well)

Method

Grill the waffles in accordance with the instructions. Meanwhile, fry the two eggs (“sunny side up”: keep the yolk fluid). Assemble in stacks, with each stack consisting of cheese sandwiched between two waffles, topped with an egg and the ketchup. Serve immediately. Eat as quickly as you dare.

So now I’m sitting here eating the taste of delicious recovery, generating 4096-bit strong probable prime numbers (like you do), and reading the feedback on a browser plugin I released recently. And every part of that is a huge improvement upon lying ill in bed.

Pizza Cake

I’m a big fan of pizza. I use it to celebrate people moving house back to Aber; I use it to bribe people to help me move house; I’ve been known to travel into the next country over in search of the “right” one; over the course of the 300 or so Troma Nights I hosted between 2004 and 2010, it got to the point that our local pizza place would bring our food in through the front door and directly to each consumer; and once we got as far south as Naples, finding the world’s best pizza was among the first things on Claire and I’s minds. I like pizza: you get the picture.

More-lately, I’m also a big fan of making pizza. I’ve always enjoyed making bread, but over the last five years or so I’ve become particularly fascinated with making pizzas. I make a pretty good one now, I think, although I’m still learning and periodically experimenting with different flour blends, cooking surfaces, kneading techniques and so on. Those of you who know how capable I am of being a giant nerd about things should understand what I mean when I say that I’ve gotten to be a pizza nerd.

Rolled dough being cut into a circle.
Normally, dough should be stretched into a circular shape: but today, I needed a perfect circle of an exact size, so I cut it instead.

In pizza-related circles of the Internet (yes, these exist), there’s recently been some talk about pizza cake: a dish made by assembling several pizzas, stacked on top of one another in a cake tin – ideally one with a removable base – and then baking them together as a unit. Personally, I think that the name “pizza cake” isn’t as accurate nor descriptive as alternative names “pizza pie” (which unfortunately doesn’t translate so well over the Atlantic) or “pizza lasagne” (which is pretty universal). In any case, you can by now imagine what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is an artery-destroying monster.

The first layer of pizza cake begins to be assembled in the tin.
Spreading sauce onto the bottom layer of the pizza cake.

Not wanting to squander my dough-making skills on something that must be cut to size (proper pizza dough should always be stretched, or in the worst case rolled, to size – did I mention that I’d been getting picky about this kind of stuff?), I opted to go for the lazy approach and use some pre-made dough, from a chilled can. That was probably my first and largest mistake, but a close second was that I followed through with this crazy idea at all.

Pizza cake ready to go into the oven.
This pizza cake is one-third meaty, two-thirds veggie: the fillings go all the way down across four layers of pizzas.

I didn’t have as deep a cake tin as I’d have liked, either, so my resulting pizza cake was shorter and squatter than I might have liked. Nonetheless, it came together reasonably well, albeit with some careful repositioning of the ingredients in order to provide the necessary structural support for each layer as it was added. I eventually built four layers: that is, from bottom to top – dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms, dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms, dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms, dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms. As I went along I found myself thinking about calzone.

Pizza cake freshly removed from the oven.
Regardless of anything else, though, it smelled amazing as it came out of the oven.

Using a cake tin with a removable base turned out to be an incredibly wise move, as it proved possible to separate the food from its container by simply running around the outside and then tapping the tin from underneath. It had the weight and consistency of a cake of similar size, and smelled richly like freshly-based bread and cheese: exactly what you’d expect, really. I sliced it into six wedges, “cake-style”, and served it with a side salad to my courageous test pilots.

The completed pizza cake, ready to be sliced.
At a glance, it looked like the thickest imaginable pizza. Sadly, this was the most-awesome part of the experience.

Ultimately, though, the experience wasn’t one we’re likely to repeat: the resulting dish was less-satisfying than if I’d just gone to the effort of making four regular pizzas in the first place. It was impossible to get an adequately crispy crust over the expanded surface area without risking burning the cheese, and as a result the central bread was unsatisfyingly stodgy, regardless of how thin I’d rolled it in anticipation of this risk. Having toppings spread through the dish was interesting, but didn’t add anything in particular that’s worthy of note. And while we ate it all up, we wouldn’t have chosen it instad of an actual pizza unless we’d never tried it before – once was enough.

But that’s just our experience: if you give pizza cake/pie/lasagne a go, let me know how you get on. Meanwhile, I’ll stick to making my own dough and using it to make my own regular, flat pizzas. The way that the pizza gods intended!

How to make a Cheese & Pickle Sandwich

The entire infrastructure of our civilization – our entire species – is something that you can’t help but take for granted. Let’s make a cheese & pickle sandwich.

A delicious-looking BLT.
This is a bacon sandwich: not the same thing at all, but I haven’t used the picture in a while and I felt like I ought to. Click the delicious-looking sandwich to see more articles in which it appears.

How to make a Cheese & Pickle Sandwich

Find a grass whose seed, when crushed, yields a powdery flour rich in carbohydrates and proteins – any of the dozens of species of wheat will do, but there are plenty others besides. If you’re genuinely starting from scratch, you might find that it’s first worth your while cultivating and selectively breeding the cereal to improve its yield. Separate off the dry outer chaff from the seeds and grind them. You’ll also need some yeast, which you can acquire from the environment by letting water in which you’ve boiled vegetables sit in the warm for a few days, or by extracting it from the skins of fruits: alternatively, you can make use of yeast spores in the atmosphere by working slowly in the vicinity of fermenting sugars; e.g. somebody brewing alcohol. Combine the flour with some water and the yeast to make a dough, let it rise, then put it in a hot box for a while to bake it. There’s your bread.

Bread dough in a loaf tin.
Insert into a hot box and wait.

Meanwhile, domesticate some cattle. You’ll need to have started this quite a while earlier. Specifically, you’re going to need cows that have recently weaned a calf, so they’re still lactating. Manipulate the teats of the cow to extract its milk, then heat it gently while stirring it. Assuming that you don’t have the resources to identify and separate lactococcus bacteria, you’ll want to be careful not to heat the milk enough that it kills any such bacteria already in it. Add an edible acid (lemon juice will do, assuming you’ve got access to lemons; alternatively you could use vinegar, which you’ll be needing later on anyway) to cause the milk to begin separating into curds (the solid part) and whey (the liquid part) – alternatively, if you’ve got spare unweaned calves that you can kill and harvest the stomachs of, you can use rennet. If you’ve got the hang of processing cotton, you can weave yourself a square of cheesecloth and use this as a filter. Once you’ve reduced the curds as far as possible, wrap it and squeeze it in a press (you can make this by putting weight on it) for a few days, turning occasionally. Then, cover it in an airtight seal of wax (you can get this by melting honeycombs taken from a beehive), and leave it for a month or two. There’s your cheese.

A block of cheese curd.
This cheese is still curd: it’s edible, but won’t yet have that distinct mature/acidic flavour.

 

Harvest some fruit and vegetables, such as – depending on availability – swede, carrots, dates, onions, cauliflower, apples, courgettes, and tomatoes, and dice them. Boil together in vinegar with cloves, mustard, and sugar added until the hardest parts (typically the swede) are firm but not crunchy. Heat a sterile, airtight container, add the mixture, and seal. Leave for a couple of weeks. Oh: you don’t have vinegar? No problem: first you’re going to need alcohol, which you can produce from fruit – apples are probably easiest; grapes are another popular choice – and yeast: just combine the two and give it a few weeks. Now, to turn that into vinegar, keep it at just over room temperature for several more weeks, stirring regularly to aerate it. Seriously: if you thought that learning to milk a cow was hard, you should have given up long before now. Anyway: there’s your pickle.

Cheese and pickle.
You’re really getting there, now. We’re almost ready to make a sandwich.

You’ll also want some butter, but by this point you’re used to a little work. Assuming you don’t have access to a centrifuge, the traditional thing to do next is to leave it sitting in a shallow pan for about 24 hours, then skimming off the top – congratulations, you’ve got cream (the remaining milk is now what you would call skimmed milk; I suggest you have yourself a cool glass of it while you start working on the next bit). Put the cream into a bowl with a pinch of salt and work it, keeping it as cool as possible while you do so, as if you were trying to make whipped cream… but keep going! If you whip it for long enough it’ll gradually become more and more solid: drain it of the excess liquid (this is buttermilk), and then form it into a ball or block. Hurrah: you’ve got butter!

Bread and butter.
Ready for the spready?

Finally, you can assemble your sandwich. Slide the bread, spread butter onto the slices, and put slices of the cheese and a spoonful of pickle in between them. That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?

Why, Dan, why?

You’ll be forgiven if you’re wondering why I’ve just shared with you the most drawn-out recipe imaginable, for something so simple as a cheese & pickle sandwich.

A ceese & pickle sandwich.
Was it worth it? If you were bored by reading the process, you’d be really bored by the time you’d actually followed the recipe.

It’s just this: think about how much was involved in that process (and I didn’t even talk about making the tools you’d need). How complex is that process, compared to everything eaten by every other animal on the planet. Otters use rocks to get into shellfish, and chimpanzees use sticks to pull termites out of nests, but apart from these – and a few other exceptions – virtually no other species we’ve ever come across does anything more than picking or hunting for their food, and then eating it. We, on the other hand – even for our simplest processed foods – put a monumental amount of effort into making them the way they are.

And as if that weren’t complex enough, we go even further. We make different kinds of bread and cheese with different kinds of flour and milk, different processes, different ages; we make different brands of pickle and butter, and then argue on the Internet about which one is the best. We make sandwiches with egg mayonnaise (boiled eggs… in an emulsion of egg yolks and oil), with roasted or cured meats of different kinds of animals, with hummus (a remarkably complicated ingredient in its own right).

A banana Baked Alaska.
Just be glad I didn’t tell you how to make a Baked Alaska.

When you make yourself a sandwich, you’re standing upon the shoulders of the hundreds of generations that preceded you, and all of their peers. A collective knowledge passed down over millennia. In reality, nobody milks a cow because they want to make a sandwich: but that separation is only possible because of the enormous infrastructure we’ve built up in order to support the production and distribution of dairy goods.

We are, indeed, a very strange species.

But if you actually do have a go at making a sandwich based on this recipe, let me know how you get on.

Odd One Out?

While you’re tucking in to your turkey tomorrow and the jokes and puzzles in your crackers are failing to impress, here’s a little riddle to share with your dinner guests:

Which is the odd-one out: gypsiesturkeysfrench fries, or the Kings of Leon?

Gypsies, a Turkey, a pan of French Fries, and the Kings of Leon
If you answer “turkey, because it’s the only one that’s a bird,” then you’re somewhat missing the point.

In order to save you from “accidentally” reading too far and spoling the answer for yourself, here’s a picture of a kitten to act as filler:

A ginger and white kitten.
Aww.

Want a hint? This is a question about geography. Specifically, it’s a question about assumptions about geography. Have another think: the kittens will wait.

A Persian cat.
Interestingly, this Persian cat could easily be another candidate for the odd-one-out.

Okay. Let’s have a look at each of the candidates, shall we? And learn a little history as we go along:

Gypsies

The Romami are an ethnic group of traditionally-nomadic people, originating from Northern India and dispersing across Europe (and further) over the last millenium and a half. They brought with them some interesting anthropological artefacts of their culture, such as aspects of the Indian caste system and languages (it’s through linguistic similarities that we’ve been best-able to trace their multi-generational travels, as written records of their movements are scarce and incomplete), coupled with traditions related to a nomadic life. These traditions include strict rules about hygiene, designed to keep a travelling population free of disease, which helped to keep them safe during the European plagues of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The migration of the Romanies
The migration of the Romanies. The arrows show that they stopped in France for some French Fries before continuing to Britain.

Unfortunately for them, when the native populations of Western European countries saw that these travellers – who already had a reputation as outsiders – seemed to be immune to the diseases that were afflicting the rest of the population, their status in society rapidly degraded, and they were considered to be witches or devil-worshippers. This animosity made people unwilling to trade with them, which forced many of them into criminal activity, which only served to isolate them further. Eventually, here in the UK, laws were passed to attempt to deport them, and these laws help us to see the origins of the term gypsy, which by then had become commonplace.

Consider, for example, the Egyptians Act 1530, which uses the word “Egyptian” to describe these people. The Middle English word for Egypian was gypcian, from which the word gypsy or gipsy was a contraction. The word “gypsy” comes from a mistaken belief by 16th Century Western Europeans that the Romani who were entering their countries had emigrated from Egypt. We’ll get back to that.

Turkeys

When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, from the 15th Century onwards, they discovered an array of new plants and animals previously unseen by European eyes, and this ultimately lead to a dramatic diversification of the diets of Europeans back home. Green beans, cocoa beans, maize (sweetcorn), chillis, marrows, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, buffalo, jaguars, and vanilla pods: things that are so well-understood in Britain now that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that they were completely alien here.

A wild turkey
Gobblegobblegobblegobble.

Still thinking that the Americas could be a part of East Asia, the explorers and colonists didn’t recognise turkeys as being a distinct species, and categorised them as being a kind of guineafowl. They soon realised that they made for pretty good eating, and started sending them back to their home countries. Many of the turkeys sent back to Central Europe arrived via Turkey, and so English-speaking countries started calling them Turkey fowl, eventually just shortened to turkey. In actual fact, most of the turkeys reaching Britain probably came directly to Britain, or possibly via France, Portugal, or Spain, and so the name “turkey” is completely ridiculous.

Fun fact: in Turkey, turkeys are called hindi, which means Indian, because many of the traders importing turkeys were Indians (the French, Polish, Russians, and Ukranians also use words that imply an Indian origin). In Hindi, they’re called peru, after the region and later country of Peru, which also isn’t where they’re from (they’re native only to North America), but the Portugese – who helped to colonise Peru also call them that. And in Scottish Gaelic, they’re called cearc frangach – “French chicken”! The turkey is a seriously georgraphically-confused bird.

French Fries

As I’m sure that everybody knows by now, “French” fries probably originated in either Belgium or in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of Belgium), although some French sources claim an earlier heritage. We don’t know how they were first invented, but the popularly-told tale of Meuse Valley fishing communities making up for not having enough fish by deep-frying pieces of potato, cut into the shape of fish, is almost certainly false: a peasant region would be extremely unlikely to have access to the large quantities of fat required to fry potatoes in this way.

Friet Museum, Bruge
They may find it hard to prove that they invented fries, but the Belgians certainly hold the claim to the world’s only museum dedicated to the food.

So why do we – with the exception of some confusingly patriotic Americans – call them French fries. It’s hard to say for certain, but based on when the food became widely-known in the anglophonic world, the most-likely explanation comes from the First World War. When British and, later, American soldier landed in Belgium, they’ll have had the opportunity to taste these (now culturally-universal) treats for the first time. At that time, though, the official language of the Belgian army (and the most-popularly spoken language amongst Belgian citizens) was French. The British and American soldiers thus came to call them “French fries”.

The Kings of Leon

For a thousand years the Kingdom of Leon represented a significant part of what would not be considered Spain and/or Portugal, founded by Christian kings who’d recaptured the Northern half of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista (short version for those whose history lessons didn’t go in this direction: what the crusades were against the Ottomans, the Reconquista was against the Moors). The Kingdom of Leon remained until its power was gradually completely absorbed into that of the Kingdom of Spain. Leon still exists as a historic administrative region in Spain, similar to the counties of the British Isles, and even has its own minority language (the majority language, Spanish, would historically have been known as Castilian – the traditional language of the neighbouring Castillian Kingdom).

The Kingdom of Leon (circa 1210)
Leon, sandwiched between the other kingdoms of the 13th century Iberian Peninsula.

The band, however, isn’t from Leon but is from Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve got nothing linking them to actual Leon, or Spain at all, as far as I can tell, except for their name – not unlike gypsies and Egypt, turkeys and Turkey, and French fries and France. The Kings of Leon, a band of brothers, took the inspiration for their name from the first name of their father and their grandfather: Leon.

The Odd One Out

The Kings of Leon are the odd one out, because while all four have names which imply that they’re from somewhere that they’re not, the inventors of the name “The Kings of Leon” were the only ones who knew that the implication was correct.

The people who first started calling gypsies “gypsies” genuinely believed that they came from Egypt. The first person to call a turkey a “Turkey fowl” really was under the impression that it was a bird that had come from, or via, Turkey. And whoever first started spreading the word about the tasty Belgian food they’d discovered while serving overseas really thought that they were a French invention. But the Kings of Leon always knew that they weren’t from Leon (and, presumably, that they weren’t kings).

And as for you? Your sex is on fire. Well, either that or it’s your turkey. You oughta go get it out of the oven if it’s the latter, or – if it’s the former – see if you can get some cream for that. And have a Merry Christmas.

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…

Hello 2013: Goodbye 2012

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

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

2012 was one of the hardest years of my life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to 2013.

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

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

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

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Four

For our fourth day at the Edinburgh Fringe, Ruth, JTA and I decided to take a little break from the rushing-around-to-comedy-shows game and get out and see the sights. Ruth had somehow acquired a somewhat romantic idea of nearby Leith: that it would be full of quays and boats and suchlike, and not – as we would come to discover instead – full of rain and a foul-smelling burst sewer pipe.

Self-important seagull sits solemnly, soaked, surveying South.
Self-important seagull sits solemnly, soaked, surveying South.

We started with breakfast from Snax Cafe, under Matt‘s recommendation, which turned out to be a good one, as this tiny greasy spoon/takeaway turns out to serve a fantastic selection of fried foods ready-to-eat at great prices. I opted for a fried egg sandwich, with which I quickly made a mess of my t-shirt and shorts when I accidentally spilt the yolk all over myself.

Ruth and JTA trudge through the wet suburban streets of Leith.
Ruth and JTA trudge through the wet suburban streets of Leith.

A combination of the weather quickly turning against us, Leith being significantly further away than it first appeared on a map, and the three of us still being remarkably tired since the previous day turned this expedition into a far more arduous affair than we had initially expected. By the time we’d reached the pretty little boats and bars of the waterfront, we were damp (admittedly, we’d all but JTA underdressed for the excursion: his overcoat helped protect him, but it had the side-effect of making him look like a flasher, his bare legs poking out from under it).

Ruth and Dan playing Scrabble[TM] in a pub in Leith.
Ruth and I playing Scrabble[TM] in a pub in Leith.
We escaped from the weather just as it began to get sunnier again, into a pub called the Teuchter’s Landing, which Ruth had discovered earlier during her research into the area. There, we drank beer and played some of the boardgames made available by the pub: Scrabble™ (at which I scored abysmally low, for which I partially blame rotten luck on draw after draw: my final hand – representative of my fortunes – was R-R-R-L-L-U-O; my starting hand contained only one consonant), the Who Wants To Be A Millionare boardgame (which took a significant amount of sorting to put it back into a working order, and in which we had to work around some missing pieces), and a few hands of Knockout Whist (with the most static-electricity-inducing deck of cards I’ve ever encountered: almost impossible to deal without giving each player four or five cards at the same time).

(Veggie) haggis stovie (in a mug), a bowl of oatcakes, and a pint of beer.
(Veggie) haggis stovie (in a mug), a bowl of oatcakes, and a pint of beer. Is there a better lunch? The shiny white thing is my new phone: oh yeah, I have a new phone. the old one broke. I should probably do a blog post about that rather than just mentioning it in the caption of a picture of an unrelated post, shouldn’t I? I’ll try to remember to do so.

The food was good, though: we lunched upon freshly-made haggis stovies, served in mugs, with chunky chips (in further mugs) and oatcakes. And when we were done, and set out into the world again to explore the waterfront… that’s when it began raining again, even harder than before. Fucking marvellous.

JTA and Dan by the waterside in Leith.
JTA and I by the waterside in Leith. For some reason, at this point, a whole queue of Three Rings clients decided to phone me (about unrelated things), in a row, so in most of the photos I seem to be on the telephone.

By the time we’d worked our way around the docks, we were damp and tired, so we found a bus to take us back to Princes’ Street, cut across to a cheesemonger in Grassmarket to stock up on delicious cheeses, and then returned to the flat for a quick nap, because we were all pretty pooped.

Ruth aims a harpoon.
Ruth aims a harpoon. I’m not sure what she’s hoping to hit from here: it’s too rainy for whales. Whales hate the rain, right? Everybody knows that.

Later, we went out for another helping of Peter Buckley Hill and Some Comedians. Being Tuesday – the day before Buckers’ day off – and close to the end of the Fringe, he was clearly exhausted, and kept digressing from the usual (awesome) shite to random stream-of-consciousness new shite. Still all funny, and some enjoyable guests.

And then we slept. A lot.

On This Day In 2005

Looking Back

On this day in 2005 (actually tomorrow, but I needed to publish early) I received an unusual parcel at work, which turned out to contain a pan, wooden spoon, tin of spaghetti hoops, loaf of bread… and an entire electric hob.

A parcel from Paul, containing everything required to make a "proper" plateful of spaghetti hoops on toast.
A parcel from Paul, containing everything required to make a "proper" plateful of spaghetti hoops on toast.

This turned out, as I describe in my blog post of the day, to have been the result of a conversation that the pair of us had had on IRC the previous day, in which he called me a “Philistine” for heating my lunchtime spaghetti hoops in the office microwave. This was a necessity rather than a convenience, given that we didn’t have any other mechanism for heating food (other than a toaster, and that’s a really messy way to heat up tinned food…).

It was a different time: a time when the lives of many of my friends were still centered around academic persuits (Siân was working on and handing in her dissertation, as was Liz, Claire was getting results back, Ruth was stressed out by a useless student on her team, Paul took things too far, and even JTA was suffering: struggling with his wordcount of an essay that he considered handing in late). It was a time when our evenings were being consumed watching Knightmare (my blog posts mentioning: the first series, first half of second series, second half of second series, Ruth’s commentary) or at the Ship & Castle (both, sadly, without Sian). It was a time when Andy worked at the cafe under The Flat, like we were all in some kind of sitcom or something.

It was clearly a time when we were all blogging quite regularly: apologies for the wall of links (a handful of which, I’m afraid, might be restricted). Be glad that I spared you all the posts about the 2005 General Election, which at the time occupied a lot of the Abnib blogosphere. We were young, and idealistic, and many of us were students, and most of us hadn’t yet been made so cynical by the politicians who have come since.

Another shot of the parcel. This wasn't posted, mind: he lugged this over to my office by hand, and dropped it off at the reception desk.
Another shot of the parcel. This wasn't posted, mind: he lugged this over to my office by hand, and dropped it off at the reception desk.

And, relevantly, it was a time when Paul was able to express his randomness in some particularly quirky ways. Like delivering me a food parcel at work. He’s always been the king of random events, like organising ad-hoc hilltop trips that turned out to be for the purpose of actually releasing 99 red (helium) balloons. I tried to immortalise his capacity for thinking that’s not just outside the box, but outside the known Universe, when I wrote his character into Troma Night Adventure, but I’m not sure I quite went far enough.

Looking Forward

It seems so long ago now: those Aberystwyth days, less than a year out of University myself. When I look back, I still find myself wondering how we managed to find so much time to waste on categorising all of the pages on the RockMonkey wiki. I suppose that nowadays we’ve traded the spontaneity to say “Hey: card games in the pub in 20 minutes: see you there!” on a blog and expect it to actually work, for a more-structured and planned existence. More-recently, we’ve spent about a fortnight so far discussing what day of the week we want out new monthly board games night to fall on.

There’s still just enough of the crazy random happenstances in my life, though. As I discovered recently, when I once again received an unusual and unexpected parcel in the post. This time, it wasn’t from Paul, but from Adam, who’d decided to respond in a very literal fashion to my tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he owed me tea, and a keyboard.

Several boxes of fruit and herbal teas.
The second of the two unexpected parcels I received from Adam.

I got the chance to live with Paul for a couple of years, until he moved out last month. I’m not sure whether or not this will ultimately reduce the amount of quirkiness that I get in my diet, but I’m okay either way. Paul’s not far away – barely on the other side of town – so I’m probably still within a fatal distance of the meteor we always assumed would eventually kill him.

We’ve turned what was his bedroom into an office. Another case of “a little bit less random, a little bit more structure and planning”, perhaps, in a very metaphorical way? Maybe this is what it feels like to be a grown-up. Took me long enough.

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