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.

The Meats I Miss

I’ve been a vegetarian for a year and a bit, now, and it’s not significantly easier than it was to begin with. There are lots of meats that I miss. And there are some meats that I expected to miss, that I don’t. Here’s my experience:

This is how my subconscious communicates with me, too. Click for the original comic.

The things I miss the most:

  • Fish finger sandwiches. I know they’re not to everybody’s taste, but these things are just delicious.
  • Chicken in convenient things. What do you mean, I can’t have the dupiaza unless it’s with chicken? You do other dishes with vegetables!
  • Minced beef. Chilli-non-carne and vegetable bolognese aren’t quite the same as their meaty counterparts, especially when I rarely get the opportunity to put mushrooms in instead.
  • Having a wide variety of choice. If I grab myself a lazy pre-made sandwich from the supermarket, my choices are – at best – limited to cheese-and-tomato or egg mayo. There are plenty of great veggie sandwich fillings: like falafel and hummus, roasted peppers, brie and pickle, curried tofu and lettuce, carrot and rocket, or even QuornTM. But I’ve had to get used to many supermarkets giving me a choice of one or two (and this is also the case in a shocking number of restaurants, too).
This is the fourth time I’ve used this photo on my blog, and it isn’t getting any easier. Man, that’s a tasty-looking sandwich.

And things I don’t miss as much as I expected to:

  • Bacon. I’ve had the ocassional craving for crispy, well-done bacon. This is odd, because as a meat-eater I generally preferred my bacon barely cooked at all. But I’ve not missed bacon as much as I’d feared, and that’s great, because JTA‘s still liable to cook it, and the smell might otherwise have been intolerable.
  • Steak. I occasionally feel like I’m missing out, but this is more-often because I’m stuck with a limited choice on a restaurant menu than that the steak in itself looked particularly tasty. I guess I wasn’t as attached to lumps of beef or mutton as I suspected!
  • Cooking with meat. I expected to have some difficulties here: I cook a variety of different things, some of them well. And of those, the vast majority had a meat component. Meat-substitutes aren’t always suitable (even where they are adequate), so I’ve had to discover a stack of new things that I can put together in the kitchen. But this turned out to be simpler than I thought… perhaps in part thanks to the number of vegetarians I’ve lived with or dated over the years.
The webcomic-o-sphere loves bacon. Click for the original comic.

So there we go. There are things I miss more than I thought, and there are things I’ve missed less. And there’s not a particularly strong pattern between them.

If you’ve restricted your diet (e.g. by choosing to be vegetarian), what do you miss? Or if you haven’t, what do you think you’d miss the most? I think we all know how Adam feels, at least…

Village Of The Bunnies

The other thing (other than building Tiffany2 and a second computer, to be described later) that happened last weekend, of course, is that it was my birthday! I share my birthday with David Bowie and Elvis Presley, so if you were ever looking for evidence about how astrology is bullshit: that’s it right there (I have no musical talent whatsoever, although I’m pretty good at Guitar Hero).

I didn’t organise myself a surprise birthday party this year, but instead had a quiet – but drunken – afternoon in with the Earthlings. Ruth had asked me earlier in the week, though, if “there’s anything special that I’d like to eat?” And, of course, I answered:

“A gingerbread village under assault from enormous gelatinous bunny rabbits!”

This was a convenient request, because we already had a lot of the ingredients to-hand. So Ruth and I spent some time building, decorating, and demolishing exactly such a scene.

Gummy-bear citizens gather around a candle lamp-post in the gingerbread village. Little do they know of the horror that approaches…
The village, under construction. The first bunny came out a little wet, so we decided that it was dead already, recently slain by the villagers.
Armed villagers spear the red bunny.
The green bunny, its maw dripping with gummy blood, advances through the ruins of the damaged North side of the village.
The first casualty; his gummy friends stand shocked around him. But with the orange bunny about to reach the South flank, there’s nowhere to retreat: they must stand and fight!
The orange bunny proves to be a challenge to deploy. More warm water is needed.
The village is lit as the battle against the bunnies continues throughout the night.

This, you see, is what happens when I’m given cocktail-making equipment and supplies for my birthday. Nothing makes this kind of activity make sense so much as spending the whole day drinking champagne cocktails.

I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that as the scene came together I began developing a ruleset for a  tabletop wargame playable using gummy sweets.

In any case, it was a fantastic way to see in the beginning of my thirty-second year.

Marmite

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

Your mate. Marmite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for some buttered toast.

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

Meat To Please You

There’s something that I just don’t understand about vegetarians. It’s something that I didn’t understand when I mercilessly teased them, and it’s something that I still don’t understand now that I am one:

What’s with the fake meat?

Quorn ‘Roast Chicken Style Slices’. No chickens were harmed in the making of this chicken.

You know the stuff I’m talking about: stuff made out of mycoprotein or TVP or soya that’s specifically designed to emulate real meat in flavour (sometimes effectively) and texture (rarely so). Browse the chilled and frozen aisles of your local supermarket for their “vegetarian” section and you’ll find meatfree (although rarely vegan) alternatives to chicken, turkey, beef and pork, presented here in descending order of how convincing they are as a substitute.

Tesco ‘vegetarian’ hot dogs. There’s actually a distinct possibility that these contain MORE meat than their non-vegetarian counterparts.

Let’s be clear here: it’s not that I don’t see the point in faux meat. It has a few clear benefits: for a start, it makes vegetarianism more-approachable to omnivores who are considering it for the first time. I’ve tried meat substitutes on a number of occasions over the last couple of decades, and they’ve really improved over that time: even a meat-lover like me can be (partially) placated by the selection of substitutes available.

Man, this photo of a BLT looks more delicious every time I use it on my blog. Why do I torture myself this way?

And while I slightly buy-in to the argument that the existence of these fake meats “glorifies” meat-eating, perhaps even to the extent as to under-sell vegetarianism as a poor substitute for the “real thing”, I don’t think that this is in itself the biggest problem with the fake meat industry. There’s a far bigger issue in question:

Why are we stopping here?

A dodo. Apparently it tasted somewhat like turkey, only tougher: there are dozens of accounts of its preparation and consumption.

If we’re really trying here to make “fake meats”, then why are we setting our targets in-line with the commonly-eaten “real meats”? Why stop at chicken and turkey when we might as well make dodo-flavoured nut roasts and Quorn slices? Sure, they’re extinct, so we’ll probably never have real dodo meat: but there’s no reason that the manufacturers of artificial meats can’t have a go. There are dozens of accounts of the preparation and consumption of dodos, so we’d surely be able to emulate their flavour at least as well as we do the meats that we already produce substitutes for.

A tin of unicorn meat: a good source of sparkles! Also cures poison, detects virgins, etc.

Why stop there? We might as well have tins of unicorn meat, too, a meal already familiar to those of us who’ve played more than our fair share of NetHack. How about dragons, or griffins, or the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary? If we’re going to make it up as we go along when we make artificial bacon, we might as well make it up as we go along when we make basilisk-burgers and salamander-sausages, too.

There’s a reason, of course, that we don’t see these more-imaginative meat substitutes. Many of the most loyal fake-meat customers are the kinds of people who don’t like to think about the connection between, for example, “chicken” (the foodstuff), and “chicken” (the clucking bird). To be fair, a lot of meat-eaters don’t like to think about this either, but I get the impression that it’s more-common among vegetarians.

But seriously, though: I think they’re missing a trick, here. Who wouldn’t love to eat artificial pegasus-pâté?

How Can You Have Any Pudding If You Don’t Eat Your Meat?

To those of you that don’t know already, I have a confession to make. After years of picking holes in and finding flaws in their various ethical or other arguments and of mocking their dietary choices, I’ve become… a vegetarian.

This cow, which was not harmed in the making of this blog post, was just as shocked as you are by the news of my vegetarianism.

Okay, this probably wasn’t actually a shock to anybody. Between the observations of the barbeque food I’ve been enjoying recently and the fact that I willingly chose falafel over hog roast a month or so ago, it’s quite possible that you’re saying “well, duh” at this so-called revelation. That’s why I thought it’d be far more-interesting for me to talk about the principal reason for this change.

You don’t eat what, now?

For some, however, this change has been a gradual one, beginning with dropping beef from my diet in January, and other red meats in March (making me, technically-speaking, a lactoovomelopollopescetarian, which is quite a mouthful). Poultry and fish disappeared from my diet in April and May.

For a brief stint, I tried to remove milk, too, aiming for ovo-vegetarianism, but it turns out that – while oatmilk is a perfectly reasonable alternative to the white stuff, and there are some great soya-based dairy-free deserts – there really are no adequate vegan substitutes for cheese… and I’m just not quite capable of coping without it.

Things Dan eats.

Why, Dan? WHY?

My decision to adopt a vegetarian diet is based on a few different influences, but the principal one amongst these is one of environmentalism and sustainability. Over the last few years it’s become increasingly apparent to me that the Western Pattern Diet has a hugely damaging effect in the following areas:

  • Water usage sustainability – studies consistently show[1][2] that it takes an order of magnitude more water to produce beef than wheat, rice, or maize, by weight of food produced. Other meats fare somewhat better, being only three or four times less water-efficient per unit of weight of food, but are still unacceptably water-expensive, to me. Milk and eggs are really quite water-efficient, being (respectively) about as efficient as soybeans/rice (depending on the region they’re grown in) and maize (note, of course, that beef and dairy cattle are almost always separate breeds[3], so the counter-argument that beef is a by-product of milk production or vice-versa is not valid).
  • Climatic impact – intensive modern livestock farming has an appreciable negative impact on global climate, contributing over a third of the world’s methane[4], probably the most-significant of the greenhouse gases[5].
  • Food scarcity – despite worldwide crop yields increasing faster than population growth[6], year on year, food security is becoming a growing issue owing to desertification of equatorial regions, increased uptake of the wasteful Western Pattern Diet, and an increase in the production of biofuels. A still-growing population, the depletion of fish stocks, and a rapid increase by developed nations in biofuel demands as oil supplies dwindle will only aggravate these issues. While a widely-adopted vegetarian/vegan diet would not in itself alleviate these problems (many of which are caused by political and economic constraints), it would help to ensure that it is possible to feed our booming population in the decades to come.
  • Overfishing – most of those reasons, of course, are only applicable to the farming of mammals and birds, but it’s hard to deny that there are huge problems with our consumption of fish, too[7]. We’re already reaching the point where the consumption of many species of fish is ethically very dubious, and an increasing number of species are threatened with extinction. To ensure that fish stocks remain available for future generations, we need either extremely restrictive multinational agreements on fishing quotas (unlikely), or dramatic reductions in the demand for fish.

In short, I could probably best be described as an economic environmentalist vegetarian: I’m concerned primarily with making sure that our agricultural practices are sustainable for the benefit of humans, whether currently existing or future. More on that, little doubt, in the Frequently Anticipated Questions, below.

So… how’re you finding it?

Man, I miss bacon.

A BLT; one of many culinary delights that I’m now denied. /sob/

Giving up beef, it turned out, was reasonably easy. Ditto lamb. But bacon: that’s something I miss. When my co-worker Liz had a bacon, mushroom and cheese jacket potato at an office lunch the other week, I could have almost drowned in my own drool. I find myself envying those vegetarians I know who don’t eat meat because they don’t like it: those guys have it so easy…

Chicken’s been challenging, too, because it’s always been a go-to base ingredient for me, and I’ve had to learn to substitute other sources of protein into my diet. Thankfully, I’ve been in a strong position: many years of cooking for vegetarians, at one point or another, has given me a pretty good understanding of what’s good for what and a decent repertoire of already-vegetarian dishes.

I tried to give up milk and milk products after realising that the ecological impact of milk production – while significantly less than beef, for a variety reasons – is still higher than I’d like. Sadly, it turns out that milk turns up in just about everything, and cheese and cream are remarkably hard to do without. Maybe some day I’ll give that another go.

On the up-side, though, I’ve discovered a reasonable number of things that I didn’t think I liked, that actually I do… or at least, that are perfectly adequate substitutes for meat products.

But man, I miss bacon. Pigs may be clever, but they’re not smart enough to not be delicious.

I also routinely slip up on the likes of isinglass (used in the production of many of my favourite beers), and gelatine (which appears in a surprising number of things), and I try not to kick up a fuss where food is being prepared for several people, of which I’m only one, in a non-compatible way. For example, I tolerate the addition of Worcester sauce (containing anchovies) as an ingredient where a meal is being prepared for several people – it’d be incredibly inconvenient to require a separation of the food at this point during cooking, and I’m happy to compromise a little where the chef’s convenience collides with my ethics.

Frequently Anticipated Questions

In order that I jump the gun and answer you before you ask:

You consume products made using isinglass, gelatine, and occasional small quantities of fish sauce… you’re not a vegetarian at all!

I guess not. But the label’s for my convenience, not yours. I use the word vegetarian because it’s the simplest-common-denominator. If I ask in a restaurant “what have you got that’s vegetarian, or would be but that it contains trace amounts of isinglass, is made using gelatine, has Worcester sauce in, etc.” I’d never get my meal. Plus, the staff would be confused. To take a mathematical model: the set of things that better-vegetarians-than-I eat is completely contained within the set of things that I eat, and the two are very nearly the same, so to call myself a vegetarian is closer to a convenient rounding error than a lie.

Also; that wasn’t a question.

Do you expect to make a significant difference?

No. But, like many moral decisions, this isn’t about making a significant difference but about doing the right thing.

If there’s a riot in your town and an out-of-control crowd begins damaging and looting the shops in the high street, you might be tempted to go out and steal a nice laptop or television yourself, too. Regardless of whether or not you do so, you won’t make a significant difference – Currys will be just as empty in the morning whether you partake of a little ransacking or not. But that doesn’t change the fact that it would be wrong of you to rob them.

On the other hand, over the course of the rest of my life I’m liable, under ideal circumstances, to make a miniscule but measurable net decrease in the demand for meat products, which might, under ideal circumstances, have an impact on meat production, thereby coming some way to achieving my ideals. Moreover, I’d like to think that my dietary choices go some way to making those dietary choices more palatable (hah!) for others, which may influence others to reduce their meat consumption too.

If the aim is to reduce meat consumption, why not simply eat less meat?

Because I can’t trust everybody else to play along.

My gut feeling is that this would work (although I haven’t read any research to either confirm or deny that suspicion): that if we all just cut down our meat consumption so that we were eating meat only once every few weeks, that we’d have a huge impact on sustainability for the future. But I can’t make everybody do this. The best I can do is to do so myself.

However, if I go just a little bit further and stop eating meat altogether, then I also help to “make up” for other people’s meat-heavy diets.

For every animal you don’t eat, I’m going to eat two!

Well, I hope you enjoy it, because you’ll probably not live too long after consuming all the saturated fats of all of the animals I don’t eat.

In any case: I’m not responsible for how you choose to live your life, even if you are threatening to push Comic Book Guy off a railway overpass.

You mentioned that the economic/ecological reasons were the principal cause for your vegetarianism. Are there other reasons, too, like the health and longevity benefits or the cost saving?

Yes. But they’re not the principal reasons.

Incidentally, removing meat from my diet made it far easier for me to lose the second of my three 10kg weight loss goals (as part of my ongoing effort to get down from 110kg to 80kg; I’m currently at about 89kg), because it’s far easier to avoid fats when you’re already avoiding meat.

How does JTA feel, being the only non-vegetarian in the house?

He’s not… so much. These days, Ruth eats a reasonable amount of a select few different varieties of meat, and Paul… well, I’m not sure I can keep up with our favourite pepperoni-eating vegetarian, but I think that right now he’s abstaining from meat entirely, but I’m not sure.

I have a hypothesis that perhaps the world can only tolerate a certain number of vegetarians at once, so as I became one, Ruth had to stop.

What about sustainably-farmed fish/synthetic meat/a survival situation/some other hypothetical situation?

I’m pragmatic, first and foremost, so if somebody wants to demonstrate that a particular farmed fish is environmentally sound, to my satisfaction, then great: it’s back on the menu! I’m not going out of my way to look for any, though, because I was never a big seafood fan to begin with! It’s not a high priority for me to make my life more complicated by coming up with some kind of complex list of what’s okay and what’s not, when the simple rule “no meat” seems to be perfectly workable.

Survival situation: sure, I’d chow down on whatever was available to stay alive. I’m not stupid!

And synthetic meat? If it was economically-sound, environmentally-friendly, safe, and tasty… sounds like a win to me. Fetch me a plate!

Isn’t this quite a turnaround for somebody who was once quoted on the BBC as describing vegetarianism as an “eating disorder”?

Yes, I suppose it is. I’ve always prided myself, though, on what I call “correctness over consistency”: that is, I’d like to think that I’m able to do the right thing, even where it means contradicting my previous attitudes or behaviour. I believe that we’d all do a lot better if people were less attached than they are, on average, to appearing consistent, especially when they’re faced with new information. There’s no shame in saying “I was wrong then,” so long as you can show that you’re learning.

But yes, I’ve been quite mean to many vegetarians for many years, as if I needed reminding. And so yes, this really is quite a turnaround. And I’m proud to be capable of that.

References

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.

Idiocy Repeats Itself

Two years and one month ago to this day, I made an idiot out of myself by injuring myself while chasing cake. Back then, of course, I was working on the top floor of the Technium in Aberystwyth, and I was racing down the stairs of the fire escape in an attempt to get to left-over cake supplies before they were picked clean by the other scavengers in the office building. I tripped and fell, and sprained by ankle quite badly (I ended up on crutches for a few days).

Last week, history almost repeated itself, and I’m not even talking about my recent head injury. Again, I’m on the top floor of a building, and again, there’s a meeting room on the bottom floor (technically in the basement, but that only means there’s further to go). When I got the email, I rushed out of the door and down the stairwell, skipping over the stairs in threes and fours. Most of the Bodleian’s stairwells are uncarpeted wood, and the worn-down soles of my shoes skidded across them.

The prize! Baskets of fresh sandwiches (fruit, but not cakes, are off-camera: around here, cakes go very quickly...)

You’d think I’d have learned by now, but apparently I’m a little slow. Slow, except at running down stairs. As I rounded the corner of the last stairwell, my body turned to follow the route but my feet kept going in the same direction. They took flight, and for a moment I was suspended in the air, like a cartoon character before they realise their predicament and gravity takes hold. With a thud, I hit the ground.

Perhaps I’d learned something, though, because at least this time around I rolled. Back on my feet, I was still able to get to the meeting room and scoff the best of the fruit and sandwiches before anybody else arrived.

Is this really worthy of a blog post? Dan doesn’t have an accident is hardly remarkable (although perhaps a little more noteworthy than I’d like to admit, based on recent experience). Well, I thought so. And I’ve got a free lunch. And I didn’t have to hurt myself to do so. Which is probably for the best: based on the number of forms I had to fill out to get root access on the systems I administer, I don’t want to think how complicated the accident book must be…

Disaster Analysis

Scientists investigating this week’s catastrophic lunchquake in the Dan’s Lunchbox region have released a statement today about the techtonic causes of the disaster.

Analysis of the lunchquake.

“The upheaval event, which reached 5.9 on the Tupperware Scale, was probably caused by overenthusiastic cycling,” explained Dr. Pepper, Professor of Lunchtime Beverages at Tetrapak University.

“The breadospheres ‘float’ on soft, viscous eggmayolayers. Usually these are stable, but sometimes a lateral shift can result in entire breadosphere plates being displaced underneath one another.”

This is what happened earlier this week, when a breadospheric shift resulted in catastrophic sinkage in the left-side-of-lunchbox area, eggmayolayer “vents”, and an increase in the height of Apple Mountain.

No lives were lost during the disaster. However, two jammie dodgers were completely ruined.

Recent emissions in the ring of fire area is unrelated to this recent lunchquake, and are instead believed to be associated with excessive consumption of spicy food at lunchtimes.

Cinco de Mayo

This week included the Cinco de Mayo, the anniversary of the overwhelming (and surprising) Mexican victory over a superior French force at the Battle of Puebla, but used mostly as an excuse for Mexican expatriates and non-Mexicans to celebrate Mexican culture. And food. Mostly food.

To mark the occasion, one of my favourite restaurants, The Mission in Oxford, announced that they were giving away free beer to customers, and your next burrito free if you came along dressed as a Mexican. The Mission already wins my favour by making the best burritos I’ve ever tasted; giving me an excuse to dress up and get free beer and more burritos is just a bonus!

Dan with Ruth and JTA at The Mission.

We’d had a long, long day already. After work, I’d mostly been doing administrative work with helpline Oxford Friend, with whom I’m a volunteer. Ruth and JTA had perhaps been even busier, as they’d spent the evening working on the Yes to AV telephone lines, making sure that everybody who had pledged to vote was out and doing so. We all really felt like we’d earned our burritos. So we donned our ponchos and (in my case) my sombrero, and went to The Mission.

I learned two things:

  1. The Mission remains awesome. If you’re looking for food in Oxford, I highly recommend them. And no, they’re not paying me to say this.
  2. It’s really, really hard to cycle while wearing a sombrero. Those things catch the wind like nothing else, and unless you enjoy riding along with what feels like a kite tied to your neck (and that’s if you’re lucky enough that the neck string catches you; otherwise your hat flies off into traffic and you have to run after it, yelling and screaming), cycling while wearing one is not  a good combination.

We brought home a takeaway for Paul, too, which I suspect was his second burrito of the day. Seriously: nobody celebrates Cinco de Mayo like Paul does.

Puppy Eating Time

My boss, Simon, and his family have recently gotten a new puppy, called Ruby.

Ruby, my boss’s new puppy. Aww.

Apparently the little girl’s full of energy and bounce and is taking up a lot of time while she gets settled in to her new home. While talking on an instant messenger with my boss earlier this week, he was telling me about how he’d had to get up in the middle of the night and take her for a run around the garden, because the little tyke was still full of beans and not sleepy. And that’s why I made one of those fabulous moments in instant messaging: when you type something that can be read multiple ways:

Dan: Puppy eating time?

Obviously, I had meant:

Dan: [Is the] puppy eating [i.e. consuming a lot of your] time? [Poor you, you're not getting much sleep.]

Just three words. So simple. But a split second later the other, inevitable way of reading it became clear:

Dan: [Is it] puppy-eating time? [I want to eat your puppy!]

A puppy sandwich: probably the best way to eat a puppy – dressed with a little mustard and lettuce and presented in a bap. Or a french stick, if it’s a dachshund.

Shit. That’s not what I meant! I tried to correct myself:

Dan: I don't want to kill your puppy!

Then I realised: what if my boss didn’t read it the wrong way at all? What if he already understood that I was asking about how much time and energy the new family member was taking up… if that’s the case, then I’d just made myself look like a psychopath who’s contemplating killing his family pets. I backpedalled:

Dan: That came out all wrong. I mean: of course I don't want to kill your puppy - I just didn't want you to think that I did, in case you thought that for some reason.

That didn’t help. This was just going from bad to worse. Then, salvation came:

Simon has reconnected.
Simon: Sorry, had to reboot - did you get my message about our new puppy?

Easter Egg Hunting, Gravity Hooking, and Geocachers You Might Know

This afternoon, like last year, we took the opportunity to spend Easter Sunday hiding one another’s Easter eggs in the woods and then running around looking for them.

Paul & Rory

For some reason, this year Rory didn’t want me to be responsible for hiding his egg (something to do with his eventually being found up a tree, last year), so I ended up hiding Adam‘s, instead. I didn’t even put much effort into it: just propped it on a branch. This turned out to be a bad hiding place because Adam walked right back past it on his way back from hiding JTA‘s egg.

Adam's egg

Paul, meanwhile, hid my egg. He did a pretty good job of it, too, and eventually had to give me a couple of clues. “It’s near Barking Up The Wrong Tree,” he said, knowing perfectly well that this was a geocache that I hadn’t yet hunted for. I pulled out my GPSr and found the cache, and then started looking for my egg in the vicinity.

Adam in a Forest

In a particularly special bit of hiding, Rory managed to hide Matt P‘s egg so well that he himself couldn’t find it again. Eventually we all had to help hunt for Matt’s lost egg. Rory had helpfully taken a photo of the egg in it’s hiding place, but this photo was ultimately useless because it depicted nothing more distinctive than “a wood”, which we were unable to see for all of the trees. I suppose that if we were trying to get to a particular spot and then ascertain that we were in the right place, it would be useful, except for that fact that being in the exact right place would probably have been pretty obvious by the time we were standing on top of an Easter egg.

Hunting for Matt's egg

Finally, Adam basically “tripped over” the hidden egg, and all was well.

Matt finds his egg!

All in all, it was a fabulous afternoon out, and a great way to work off all the calories of Ruth‘s most-excellent Easter lunch (and just in time to be able to scoff down cakes and chocolate later in the afternoon).

Ruth, JTA, and Paul near the edge of the woods

In other news:

The 17 Blog Posts That Weren’t

It may come as a surprise to you that the stuff I write about on my blog – whether about technology, dreams, food, film, games, relationships, or my life in general – isn’t actually always written off-the-cuff. To the contrary, sometimes a post is edited and re-edited over the course of weeks or months before it finally makes it onto the web. When I wrote late last year about some of my controversial ideas about the ethics (or lack thereof) associated with telling children about Santa Claus, I’m sure that it looked like it had been inspired by the run-up to Christmas. In actual fact, I’d begun writing it six months earlier, as summer began, and had routinely visited and revisited it from time to time until I was happy with it, which luckily coincided with the Christmas season.

As an inevitable result of this process, it’s sometimes the case that a blog post is written or partially-written and then waits forever to be finished. These forever-unready, never-published articles are destined to sit forever in my drafts folder, gathering virtual dust. These aren’t the posts which were completed but left unpublished – the ones where it’s only upon finishing writing that it became self-evident that this was not for general consumption – no, the posts I’m talking about are those which honestly had a chance but just didn’t quite make it to completion.

Well, today is their day! I’ve decided to call an amnesty on my incomplete blog posts, at long last giving them a chance to see the light of day. If you’ve heard mention of declaring inbox bankruptcy, this is a similar concept: I’m sick of seeing some of these blog articles which will never be ready cluttering up my drafts folder: it’s time to make some space! Let the spring cleaning begin:


Title: Typically Busy
Unpublished since: March 2004
Unpublished because:
Better-expressed by another post, abandoned

In this post, I talk about how busy my life is feeling, and how this is pretty much par for the course. It’s understandable that I was feeling so pressured: at the time we were having one of our particularly frenetic periods at SmartData, I was fighting to finish my dissertation, and I was trying to find time to train for my upcoming cycle tour of Malawi. The ideas I was trying to express later appeared in a post entitled I’m Still In Aber. Yay, in a much more-optimistic form.


Title: Idloes, Where Art Thou?
Unpublished since: June 2004
Unpublished because: Got distracted by rebuilding the web server on which my blog is hosted, after a technical fault

In anticipation of my trip to Malawi, I was prescribed an anti-malarial drug, Lariam, which – in accordance with the directions – I began taking daily doses of several weeks before travelling. It seemed silly in the long run; I never even saw a single mosquito while I was over there, but better safe than sorry I suppose. In any case, common side-effects of Lariam include delusions, paranoia, strange dreams, hallucinations, and other psychological
effects. I had them in spades, and especially the weird trippy dreams.

This blog post described what could have been one of those dreams… or, I suppose, could have just been the regular variety of somewhat-strange dream that isn’t uncommon for me. In the dream I was living back in Idloes, a tall Aberystwyth townhouse where I’d rented a room during 2002/2003. In the dream, the house caught fire one night, and my landlady, Anne, was killed. Apparently the fire was started by her electric blanket.


Title: Are We Alone In The Universe?
Unpublished since: March 2006
Unpublished because: Never finished, beaten to the punchline

Here’s an example of an article that I went back to, refining and improving time and time again over a period of years, but still never finished. I was quite pleased with the direction it was going, but I just wasn’t able to give it as much time as it needed to reach completion.

The Drake Equation

In the article, I examine the infamous Drake Equation, which estimates the likelihood of there being intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy (more specifically, it attempts to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations “out there”). Which is all well and good, but the only way to put the formula into practice is to effectively pull unknowable numbers out of the air and stuff them into the equation to get, in the end, whatever answer you like. The only objective factors in the entire equation are those relating to the number of stars in the galaxy, and everything else is pure conjecture: who honestly thinks that they can estimate the probability of any given species reaching sentience?

The post never got finished, and I’ve since seen other articles, journals, and even stand-up comedians take apart the Drake Equation in a similar way to that which I intended, so I guess I’ve missed the boat, now. If you want to see the kind of thing I was working on, here it is but better-written. I wonder what the probability is that a blog post will never end up being published to the world?


Title: Why Old People Should Be Grumpy
Unpublished since: October 2006
Unpublished because: Never finished, possibly bullshit

In this post, I put forward a theory that grumpy old people are a positive sign that a nation is making just enough change to not be stagnant: something about the value of keeping older people around crossed with the importance of taking what they say with a pinch of salt, because it’s not them that has to live in the world of tomorrow. I can’t even remember what the point was that I was trying to make, and my notes are scanty, but I’m sure it was a little bit of a one-sided argument for social change with an underdeveloped counter-argument for social stability.

In any case, I left it for years and eventually gave up on it.


Title: The Games That Didn’t Make The List
Unpublished since: July 2007
Unpublished because: I could have kept refining it forever and still never finish it

After my immensely popular list of 10 Computer Games That Stole My Life, I received a great deal of feedback – either as direct feedback in the form of comments or indirectly in other people’s blogs. Reading through this feedback got me thinking about computer games that had stolen my life which I hadn’t mentioned. Not wanting to leave them out, I put together a list of “games that didn’t make the list”: i.e. games which could also have been said to steal my life, but which I didn’t think of when I wrote my original top ten. They included:

  • Castles and Castles 2
    The original Castles was one of the first non-free PC computer games I ever owned (after Alley Cat, that golf game, and the space command/exploration game whose name I’ve been perpetually unable to recall). It was a lot of fun; a well-designed game of strategy and conquest. Later, I got a copy of Castles 2 – an early CD-ROM title, back before developers knew quite what to do with all that space – which was even better: the same castle-building awesomeness but with great new diplomacy and resource-management exercises, as well as siege engines and the ability to launch your own offensives. In the end, getting Civilization later in the same year meant that it stole more of my time, but I still sometimes dig out Castles 2 and have a quick game, from time to time.
  • Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates!
    Early during the development of Three Rings, I came across an existing company with the name Three Rings Design, based in the US. Their major product is a game called Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, an MMOG in which players – as pirates – play puzzle games in order to compete at various tasks (you know, piratey tasks: like sailing, drinking, and swordfighting). Claire and I both got quite deeply involved during the beta, and played extensively, even forming our own crew, The Dastardly Dragons, at one point, and met some fascinating folks from around the world. When the beta came to an end we both took advantage of a “tester’s bonus” chance to buy lifetime subscriptions, which we both barely used. Despite the fact that I’ve almost never played the game since then, it still “stole my life” in a quite remarkable way for some time, and my experience with this (as well as with the Ultima Online beta, which I participated in many years earlier) has shown me that I should never get too deeply involved with MMORPGs again, lest they take over my life.
  • Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
    As a Civilization fan, I leapt on the chance to get myself a copy of Alpha Centauri, and it was awesome. I actually pirated my first copy of the game, copying it from a friend who I studied with, and loved it so much that I wrapped up the cash value of the game in an envelope and sent it directly to the development team, asking them to use it as a “beer fund” and have a round on me. Later, when I lost my pirated copy, I bought a legitimate copy, and, later still, when I damaged the disk, bought another copy, including the (spectacular) add-on pack. Alpha Centauri is the only game I’ve ever loved so much that I’ve paid for it three times over, despite having stolen it, and it was worth every penny. Despite its age, I still sometimes dig it out and have a game.
  • Wii Sports Tennis – Target Training
    Perhaps the most recent game in the list, this particular part of the Wii Sports package stole my life for weeks on end while I worked up to achieving a coveted platinum medal at it, over the course of several weeks. I still play it once in a while: it’s good to put on some dance music and leap around the living room swinging a Wiimote to the beat.
  • Rollercoaster Tycoon and Rollercoaster Tycoon 2
    In the comments to my original post, Rory reminded me of these games which stole my life during my first couple of years at University (and his, too!). RCT2, in particular, ate my time for years and still gets an occassional play out of me – but was pipped to the post by OpenTTD, of course.
  • X-COM series
    Another series of games which hooked me while I was young and stayed with me as I grew, the X-COM series (by which – of course – I mean Enemy Unknown, Terror From The Deep, and Apocolypse; not Interceptor and certainly not that modern travesty, Aftermath). Extremely difficult, each of them took me months or years before I completed them, and I’ve still never finished Apocalypse on anything higher that the lowest-two difficulty settings.

I wanted to write more and include more games, but by the time I’d made as much progress as I had, above, the moment felt like it had passed, so I quietly dropped the post. I suppose I’ve now shared what I was thinking, anyway.


Title: Rational Human Interaction
Unpublished since: September 2007
Unpublished because: Too pretentious, even for me; never completed

I had some ideas about how humans behave and how their rationality and their emotions can conflict, and what this can mean. And then I tried to write it down and I couldn’t find a happy medium between being profound and insightful and being obvious and condescending. Later, I realised that I was tending towards the latter and, besides, much of what I was writing was too self-evident to justify a blog post, so I dropped it.


Title: Long Weekend
Unpublished since: April 2008
Unpublished because: Too long, too wordy, and by the time it was nearing completion it was completely out of date

This post was supposed to be just an update about what was going on in my life and in and around Aber at the time. But as anybody who’s neglected their blog for more than a little while before may know, it can be far too easy to write about everything that’s happened in the interim, and as a result end up writing a blog post that’s so long that it’ll never be finished. Or maybe that’s just me.

In any case, the highlights of the post – which is all that it should have consisted of, ultimately – were as follows:

  • It was the Easter weekend on 2008, and town had gone (predictably) quiet, as many of my friends took the opportunity to visit family elsewhere, and there was a particular absence of tourists this year. Between Matt being in Cornwall, Sarah being out-of-town, and Ruth, JTA, Gareth and Penny off skiing (none of them wrote anything about it, so no post links there), it felt a little empty at our Easter Troma Night, which was rebranded a Troma Ultralite as it had only two of the requisite four people present: not even the three needed for a Troma Lite! Similarly, our Geek Night only had four attendees (but that did include Paul, unusually).
  • Claire and I took a dig through her wardrobe about found that of the skirts and dresses that she famously never wears, she owns over two dozen of them. Seriously.
  • I played and reviewed Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty, which turned out to be a second-rate first-person shooter with a reasonably clever alternate history slant. I’m a fan of alternate histories in video games, so this did a good job of keeping me amused over the long bank holiday weekend.
  • Paul and I were arranging for a beach-fire-barbeque with Ruth and JTA when they got back, to which we even anticipated attendence from the often-absent not-gay-Gareth.
  • And finally, I had something to say about Jimmy‘s recent experiences in Thailand, but that’s as far as my draft went and I don’t remember what I had planned to say…

Title: Confused And Disoriented
Unpublished since: April 2008
Unpublished because: Never finished; abandoned

Having received mixed feedback about my more-unusual dreams over the years, I’ve taken to blogging about a great number of them in order to spread the insanity and let others comment on quite how strange my subconscious really is. This was to be one of those posts, and it catalogued two such unusual dreams.

In the first, I was at my grandma’s funeral (my grandma had died about two years earlier). A eulogy was given by both my mum and – confusingly – by Andy R. Afterwards, the crowd present booed them.

In the second, I revisited a place that I’ve dreamed of many times before, and which I think is a reference to some place that I found as a young child, but have never been able to determine the location of since. In this recurring theme I crawl through a tunnel (possibly of rock, as in a ruined castle) to reach a plateau (again, ruined castle-like), from which I am able to shuffle around to a hidden ledge. I have such vivid and strong memories of this place, but my faith in my own memory is shaken by the very “dreamlike” aspects of the event: the tunnel, the “secret place”, as well as the fact that it has appeared in my dreams time and time again for over 15 years. Perhaps it never existed at all: memory is a fragile and malleable thing, and it’s possible that I made it up entirely.

Some parts of it are less dream-like. For example, I’m aware that I’ve visited this place a number of times at different ages, and that I found it harder to fit through the tunnel to re-visit my secret childhood hiding place when I was older and larger.

A few years ago, I spoke to my mum about this dream, and described the location in great detail and asked where it might be, and she couldn’t think of anywhere. It’s strange to have such a strong and profound memory that I can’t justify through the experience of anybody else, and which consistently acts as if it were always just a dream. Maybe it’s real, and maybe it isn’t… but it’s beginning to sound like I’ll never know for sure.


Title: The Code In The School
Unpublished since:May 2008
Unpublished because: Never finished; abandoned

Another dream, right after Troma Night 219, where it seems that the combination of the beer and the trippy nature of the films we watched inspired my brain to run off on a tangent of it’s own:

In the dream, I was visiting a school as an industrialist (similarly to how I had previously visited Gregynog on behalf of the Computer Science department at Aberystwyth University in 2005, 2006 and 2007). While there, I was given a challenge by one of the other industrialists to decipher a code represented by a number of coloured squares. A basic frequency analysis proved of no value because the data set was too small, but I was given a hint that the squares might represent words (sort of like early maritime signal flags). During mock interviews with the students, I used the challenge as a test, to see if I could get one of them to do it for me, without success. Later in the dream I cracked the message, but I’m afraid I didn’t make a record of how I did so or what the result was.

A particularly famous message represented in maritime signal flags (click for bigger version)

Title: Absence

Unpublished since: May 2008
Unpublished because: Forgotten about; abandoned

At the beginning of the long, hot summer of 2008, I wrote about the immenent exodus of former students (and other hangers-on) from Aberystwyth, paying particular attention to Matt P and to Ele, who left for good at about this time. And then I forgot that I was writing about it. But Matt wrote about leaving and Ele wrote about being away, anyway, so I guess my post rapidly became redundant, anyway.


Title: =o(
Unpublished since: June 2008
Unpublished because: Too negative; unfinished

I don’t even know what I was complaining about, but essentially this post was making an excuse to mope for a little while before I pull myself together and get things fixed. And that’s all that remains. It’s possible that it had something to do with this blog post, but without context I’ve no idea what that one was about, too. Sounds like it was about an argument, and so I’m happier just letting it go, whatever it was, anyway.


Title: Spicy Yellow Split Pea Soup
Unpublished since: November 2008
Unpublished because: Got lazy; unfinished

I came up with a recipe for a delicious spicy yellow split pea soup, and wanted to share it with you, so I made myself the stub of a blog entry to remind myself to do so. And then I didn’t do so. Now I don’t even remember the recipe. Whoops!

In any case, the moral is that pulses make great soup, as well as being cheap and really good for you, and are especially tasty as the days get shorter and winter tightens it’s icy grip. Also that you shouldn’t leave just a title for a blog post for yourself and expect to fill it in afterwards, because you won’t.


Title: (untitled)
Unpublished since: December 2008
Unpublished because: Too busy building, configuring, and working on my new PC, ironically

December is, according to Rory, the season for hardware failures, and given that alongside his troubles, Ruth’s laptop died and Paul’s computer started overheating, all at the same time, perhaps he’s right. So that’s when my long-serving desktop computer, Dualitoo, decided to kick the bucket as well. This was a particularly awkward time, as I was due to spend a weekend working my arse off towards a Three Rings deadline. Thankfully, with the help of friends and family, I was able to pull forward my plans to upgrade anyway and build myself a new box, Nena (which I continue to use to this day).

I began to write a blog post about my experience of building a computer using only local shops (I was too busy to be able to spare the time to do mail order, as I usually would), but I was unfortunately too busy building and then using – in an attempt, ultimately successful, to meet my deadline – my new computer to be able to spare time to blogging.

But I did learn some valuable things about buying components and building a mid-to-high spec computer, in Aberystwyth, all in one afternoon:

  1. Daton Computers are pretty much useless. Actual exchange:
    “Hi, I need to buy [name of component], or another [type of component] with [specification of component].”
    “Well, you’ll need to bring your computer in for us to have a look at.”
    “Umm; no – I’m building a computer right now: I have [other components], but I really need a [name of component] or something compatible – can you help?”
    “Well, not without looking at the PC first.”
    “WTF??? Why do you need to look at my PC before you can sell me a [type of component]?”
    “So we can tell what’s wrong.”
    “But I know what’s wrong! I only took the shrink-wrap off the [other components] this morning: all I need is a [type of component], because I don’t have one! Now can you sell one to me or not?”
    “Well, not without -”
    /Dan exits/
  2. Crosswood Computers are pretty much awesome. Actual exchange:
    “Hi, remember me? I was in here this morning.”
    “Yeah: how’s the rebuild going?”
    “Not bad, but I’ve realised that I’m short by a [type of cable]: do you sell them?”
    “We’re out of stock right now, but I’ve got some left-over ones in the back; you can have one for free.”
    /Dan wins/
  3. It’s possible to do this, but not recommended. The local stores, and in particular Crosswood, are great, but when time allows it’s still preferable to do your component-shopping online.

I later went on to write more about Nena, when I had the time.


Title: Child Porn
Unpublished since: April 2009
Unpublished because: Never finished; too much work in writing this article

I had planned to write an article about the history of child pornography, starting well before Operation Ore and leading up to the present day, and to talk about the vilification of paedophiles (they’re the new terrorists!) – to the point where evidence is no longer as important as the severity of the alleged crime (for particularly awful examples of this kind of thinking, I recommend this article). I’m all in favour of the criminalisation of child abuse, of course, but I think it’s important that people understand the difference between the producers and the consumers of child porn, as far as a demonstrable intent to cause harm is concerned.

Anyway, the more I read around the subject, the more I realised that nothing I could write would do justice to the topic, and that others were already saying better what I was thinking, so I abandoned the post.


Title: 50 Days On An EeePC 1000
Unpublished since: May 2009
Unpublished because: By the time I was making progress, it had been more like 150 days

Earlier in the year, I’d promised that I’d write a review of my new notebook, an Asus EeePC 1000. I thought that a fun and engaging way to do that would be to write about the experience of my first 50 days using it (starting, of course, with reformatting it and installing a better operating system than the one provided with it).

Of course, by the time I’d made any real progress on the article, it was already well-past 50 days (in fact, I’d already changed the title of the post twice, from “30 Days…” to “40 Days…” and then again to “50 Days…”). It’s still a great laptop, although I’ve used it less than I expected over the last nine months or so (part of my original thinking was to allow me to allow Claire to feel like she’d reclaimed the living room, which was being taken over by Three Rings) and in some ways it’s been very-recently superceded by my awesome mobile phone.


Title: El De-arr
Unpublished since: September 2009
Unpublished because: Too waffley; couldn’t be bothered to finish it; somewhat thrown by breaking up with Claire

Over the years I’ve tried a handful of long-distance romantic relationships, and a reasonable number of short-distance ones, and, in general, I’ve been awful at the former and far better at the latter. In this blog post I wrote about my experience so far of having a long-distance relationship with Ruth and what was making it work (and what was challenging).

I’m not sure where I was going with it in the first place, but by the time Claire and I broke up I didn’t have the heart to go back into it and correct all of the references to her and I, so I dropped it.


Title: Knowing What I’m Talking About
Unpublished since: October 2009
Unpublished because: Never finished; got distracted by breaking up with Claire

On the tenth anniversary since I started doing volunteer work for emotional support helplines (starting with a Nightline, and most recently for Samaritans), I wrote about a talk I gave at BiCon 2009 on the subject of “Listening Skills for Supporting Others”. It was a little under-attended but it went well, and there was some great feedback at the end of it. I’d helped out with a workshop entitled “Different Approaches to Polyamory” alongside fire_kitten, but strangely it was this, the workshop whose topic should be that which I have the greater amount of experience in, that made me nervous.

This blog post was supposed to be an exploration of my personal development over the previous decade and an examination of what was different about giving this talk to giving countless presentations at helpline training sessions for years that made me apprehensive. I think it could have been pretty good, actually. Unfortunately a lot of blog posts started around this time never ended up finished as I had other concerns on my plate, but I might come back to this topic if I give a similar presentation at a future conference.


So there we have it: a big cleanse on my perpetually unfinished blog posts. I’ve still got about eight drafts open, so there’s a reasonable chance that I might finish some of them, some day: but failing that, I’ll wait until another decade or so of blogging is up and I’ll “purge” them all again, then.

And if you had the patience to read all of these – these “17 blog posts in one” – well, thanks! This was more about me than about you, so I don’t mind that plenty of you will have just scrolled down to the bottom and read this one sentence, too.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMAC