Time

My name is Dan, and I am a chronogoldfish.

Is this a chronogoldfish? I don't know. And neither do you. I just made them up.

You see: the thing that goldfish are famous for – except for their allegedly very short memory, which is actually a myth – is that they grow to fill the available space. That is: if you keep a goldfish in a smaller tank, it’ll grow to a full-size that is smaller than if you kept it in a larger tank or even a pond. I’m not certain that’s actually true either, and I’m sure that Kit will correct me pretty soon if it’s not, but it’s part of my analogy and I’m sticking with it.

A chronogoldfish, then, is somebody who grows to fill the available time. That is: the more free time you give them, the more they’ll work at filling it up. This is a mixed blessing, which is a euphemism for “usually pretty bad.” You’ll almost never catch me bored, for example – I’ve no idea how I’d find time to be bored! – but conversely it’s reasonably rare to find me with free time in which I don’t have something scheduled (or, at least: in which I don’t have something I ought to be doing).

Earlier this year, I started working for the Bodleian, and this – along with a couple of other changes going on in my life, suddenly thrust upon me several hours extra in each week than I’d had previously. It was like being transplanted from a tank… into a pond and – once I’d stopped checking for herons – I found myself sitting around, wondering what to do with my sudden surge of extra free time. But then, because I’m a chronogoldfish, I grew.

The activities that I already did became bigger – I took on more responsibilities in my voluntary work, took more opportunities to socialise with people I spend time with, and expanded my efforts to develop a variety of “side project” software  projects. I’ve even lined myself up for a return to (part-time) education, later this year (more on that in another blog post, little doubt). And so, only a few months later, I’m a big, fat chronogoldfish, and I’ve once again got just about as little “free” time – unplanned time – as I had before.

But that’s not a bad thing. As Seth Godin says, wasting time (properly) is a good thing. And there’s little doubt that my growth into “new” timesinks is productive (education, voluntary work), experimental (side-projects, education), and joyful (socialising, everything else). I’d like to think I use time well, even if I do sometimes wonder: where did it all go?

I suppose the opposite of a chronogoldfish might be a chronomidget: somebody who doesn’t grow to consume any more time than they have to. The test, I suppose, would be to ask yourself: what would you do if there was an extra half-hour in the day? If your brain immediately rushes to fill that space with an answer (a genuine answer: something you’d actually do – there’s no point lying to yourself and saying you’d spend it at the gym if you wouldn’t!), you’re probably a goldfish. If not, you’re probably a midget.

I think I can name people among my friends who are goldfish, and people who are midgets. But I do wonder what type they would say that they are…

On This Day In 2003

Looking Back

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” she asked, “What’s happened?”

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

“Yeah,” she said, sighing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roadspotters

Recently, I learned that the roads in Great Britain are numbered in accordance with a scheme first imagined about ninety years ago, and, as it evolved, these road numbers were grouped into radial zones around London (except for Scotland, whose road numbering only joined the scheme later). I’d often noticed the “clusters” of similarly-numbered roads (living in Aberystwyth, you soon notice that all the A and B roads start with a 4, and I soon noticed that the very same A44 that starts in Aberystwyth seems to have followed me to my home here in Oxford).

Road Numbering Zones of the United Kingdom

Who’d have thought that there was such a plan to it. If you’re aware of any of the many roads which are in the “wrong” zone, you’d be forgiven for not seeing the pattern earlier, though. However, seeing all of this attempt at adding order to what was a chaotic system for the long period between the Romans leaving and the mid-20th century makes me wonder one thing: are there “roadspotters”?

There exist trainspotters, who pursue the more-than-a-little-bit-nerdy hobby of traveling around and looking at different locomotives, marking down their numbers in notepads and crossing them off in reference books. Does the same phenomena exist within road networks?

It turns out that it does; or some close approximation of it does, anyway. One gentleman, for example, writes about “recovering” road signs formerly of the A6144(M), which – until 2006 – was the UK’s only single-carriageway motorway. A site calling itself The Motorway Archive has a thoroughly-researched article on the construction history of the M74/A74(M) from Glasgow to Carlisle. Another website – and one that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d visited on a number of previous occasions – reviews every motorway service area in Britain. And, perhaps geekiest of all, the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts (SABRE) maintains a club, meetups, and a thoroughly-researched wiki of everything you never wanted to know about the roads of the British Isles.

From what started as a quick question about British road numbering, I find myself learning about a hobby that’s perhaps even geekier than trainspotting. Thanks, Internet.

Disc Golf

After moving to Earth, one of the things I thought might be fun was to use the excuse of being in a new place to try out some new things. A quick Google around the area uncovered OxDisc, the local Disc Golf society, who meet once or twice a week in a park less than half an hour’s walk from my house. Given that all I knew about disc golf I learned from the summary at the top of the Wikipedia page for the sport, I knew… well, basically nothing except that it was like golf, only with a frisbee and target rather than a ball and cup.

Accompanied by Ruth and JTA, who I’d somehow persuaded to join me, I set out to try to meet some strangers in a park. Having only spoken to anybody associated with the group online (all of whom subsequently turned out to be on holiday or otherwise unavailable), all we knew was vauguely where we were headed and that we were looking for a guy called George: sure, no problem – how hard can that be?

Luckily, it turned out to be reasonably easy to find our contact: once we were in the vicinity, all we had to do was look for the guy carrying a bag full of frisbees. Here came my first surprise: players don’t use just one disc. Three is pretty much a minimum – a long-range, high-speed “driver”, an easier to control but still pretty fast “approach disc” (or “mid-range”), and a slow “putter”. Only the putter looked like any kind of frisbee I’d ever thrown before: the others looked more like a rubber discus that had been given a lip to make it throwable in the same way as a frisbee is. George lent us each a set of three discs, explaining some of the differences between them. Professional players can be found carrying a variety of different drivers with different weights (and weight distributions) to make them tend towards understability or overstability or be more or less suitable for hyzer, anhyzer, forehand, elevator, and other varieties of throw. Yes, they have their own lingo: and I thought that this would be like throwing a frisbee around a park.

We teed off on the first hole of one of the courses that the group sometimes take around the park: markers like a protruding tree root or a gap between a path and a tree marked the tees, and the targets were all particular trees. Some of the courses were set up such that it was actually impossible to see the target from the tee as a result of the intervening trees, and so – without a profound knowledge of the course nor the sport – I had to fall back on a strategy of “throwing it sort-of in the right direction” as best I could and hoping.

Needless to say, my very first throw was a disaster. Unfamiliar with the unusual weight balance of the faster discs (some of which were “overbalanced”; that is, if you throw backhand using your right arm, as most people normally throw a frisbee, it will tend towards the left given an even spin and a level takeoff… are you following all of this? I certainly wasn’t), I was doomed to balls up my first throw… it rocketed forwards and then suddenly flew off to the left, diving deep into a forest of waist-high nettles. About 30 seconds later, I began to really regret choosing to wear shorts for this particular adventure, as my lower legs were rapidly becoming a mass of nettle stings.

Some of the other folks were obviously far, far more accomplished than any of us. Several times, we saw frisbees thrown end-on, like darts, flicked into the air where somehow they’d magically stabilise at exactly the right height to clear a particular obstacle. On a few ocassions, the other players would fing their discs in physics-bending ways, turning right to avoid an obstacle then slowing down and turning left to clear the other side of it. Once, I even got to watch a guy deliberately throw his frisbee upside-down in order to “skim” it under a bush and right up to the target tree!

I was pleased with myself that by the end, I could generally throw the mid-range approach disc in a vaugely straight line, some of the time, and that once, I managed to pull off a hook shot up and over (and around) an inconveniently-placed copse, landing the frisbee almost exactly where I wanted it. But just the once, mind.

JTA seemed to pick up the sport pretty quickly, and on the long straight sections easily outperformed me (although I think I had more accurate “putting” ability). Ruth had somewhat more difficulty: the difficulties with her wrists left her unable to “snap” the disc out of her hand, which resulted in far slower throws. Nonetheless, we all had a good time and we’re talking about going along again… right as soon as we’ve had the chance to get a bit of practice in, so we don’t look like quite such wallies!

At the end of the evening, we were surprisingly more well-exercised than we expected (considering that it’s a sport of 5% throwing, 95% walking), and enjoyed the opportunity to calorie-up on ale and crisps at a nearby pub before making the trek home in the sticky warmth of the low sun.