The Story of Scgary

Unless they happened to bump into each other at QParty, the first time Ruth and JTA met my school friend Gary was at my dad’s funeral. Gary had seen mention of the death in the local paper and came to the wake. About 30 seconds later, Gary and I were reminiscing, exchanging anecdotes about our misspent youths, when suddenly JTA blurted out: “Oh my God… you’re Sc… Sc-gary?”

Ever since then, my internal monologue has referred to Gary by the new nickname “Scgary”, but to understand why requires a little bit of history…

Public transport industry professionals at Peter Huntley's wake
While one end of the hall in which we held my dad’s wake turned into an impromptu conference of public transport professionals, I was at the other end, talking to my friends.

Despite having been close for over a decade, Gary and I drifted apart somewhat after I moved to Aberystwyth in 1999, especially as I became more and more deeply involved with volunteering at Aberystwyth Nightline and the resulting change in my social circle which soon was 90% comprised of fellow volunteers, (ultimately resulting in JTA’s “What, Everyone?” moment). We still kept in touch, but our once more-intense relationship – which started in a primary school playground! – was put on a backburner as we tackled the next big things in our lives.

Training page from the Aberystwyth Nightline website, circa 2004
This is what the recruitment page on the Aberystwyth Nightline website looked like after I’d improved it. The Web was younger, then.

Something I was always particularly interested both at Nightline and in the helplines I volunteered with subsequently was training. At Nightline, I proposed and pushed forward a reimplementation of their traditional training programme that put a far greater focus on experience and practical skills and less on topical presentations. My experience as a trainee and as a helpline volunteer had given me an appreciation of the fundamentals of listening and I wanted future trainees to be able to benefit from this by giving them less time talking about listening and more time practising listening.

Aberystwyth Nightline training in the Cwrt Mawr Party Room
Nightline training wasn’t always like this, I promise. Well: except for the flipchart covered in brainstorming; that was pretty universal.

The primary mechanism by which helplines facilitate such practical training is through roleplaying. A trainer will pretend to be a caller and will talk to a trainee, after which the pair (along with any other trainers or trainees who are observing) will debrief and talk about how it went. The only problem with switching wholesale to a roleplay/skills-driven approach to training at Aberystwyth Nightline, as I saw it, was the approach that was historically taken to the generation of roleplay material, which favoured the use of anonymised adaptations of real or imagined calls.

Roleplay scenarios must be realistic (so that they simulate the experience of genuine calls with sufficient accuracy that they are meaningful) but they must also be effective (at promoting the growth of the skills that are needed to best-support callers). Those two criteria often come into conflict in roleplay scenarios: a caller who sits in near-silence for 20 minutes may well be realistic, but there’s a limit to how much you can learn from sitting in silence; a roleplay which tests every facet of a trainee’s practical knowledge provides efficiency, but does not reflect the content of any call that has ever really happened.

Aberystwyth Nightline calltaking office circa 2006
I spent a lot of my undergraduate degree in this poky little concrete box (most of it before the redecoration photographed above), and damned if I wasn’t going to share what I’d learned from the experience.

I spent some time outlining the characteristics of best-practice roleplays and providing guidelines to help “train the trainers”. These included ideas, some of which were (then) a little radical, like:

  1. A roleplay should be based upon a character, not a story: if the trainer knows how the call is going to end, this constrains the opportunity for the trainee to explore the space and experiment with listening concepts. A roleplay is necessarily improvisational: get into your character, let go of your preconceptions.
  2. Avoid using emotionally-charged experiences from your own life: use your own experience, certainly, but put your own emotional baggage aside. Not only is it unfair to your trainee (they’re not your therapist!) but it can be a can of worms in its own right – I’ve seen a (great) trainee help a trainer to make a personal breakthrough for which they were perhaps not yet ready.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: you’re not infallible, and you neither need to be nor to present yourself as a perfect example of a volunteer. Be willing to learn from the trainees (I’ve definitely made use of things I’ve learned from trainees in real calls I’ve taken at Samaritans) and create a space in which you can collectively discuss how roleplays went, rather than simply critiquing them.
JTA learning to pick locks during a break at Nightline training
I might have inadvertently introduced other skills practice to take place during the breaks in Nightline training: several trainees learned to juggle under my instruction, or were shown the basics of lock picking…

In order to demonstrate the concepts I was promoting, I wrote and demonstrated a significant number of sample roleplay ideas, many of which I (or others) would then go on to flesh-out into full roleplays at training sessions. One of these for which I became well-known was entitled My Friend Scott.

The caller in this roleplay presents with suicidal ideation fuelled by feelings of guilt and loneliness following the accidental death, about six months prior, of his best friend Scott, for which he feels responsible. Scott had been the caller’s best friend since childhood, and he’s fixated on the adventures that they’d had together. He clearly has a huge admiration for his dead friend, bordering on infatuation, and blames himself not only for the death but for the resulting fracturing of their shared friendship group and his subsequent isolation.

(We’re close to getting back to the “Scgary story”, I promise. Hang in here.)

Gary, circa 1998
Gary, circa 1998, at the door to my mother’s house. Unlike Scott, Gary didn’t die “six months ago”-from-whenever. Hurray!

When I would perform this roleplay as the caller, I’d routinely flesh out Scott and the caller’s backstory with anecdotes from my own childhood and early-adulthood: it seemed important to be able to fill in these kinds of details in order to demonstrate how important Scott was to the caller’s life. Things that I really did with any of several of my childhood friends found their way, with or without embellishment, into the roleplay, like:

  • Building a raft on the local duck pond and paddling out to an island, only to have the raft disintegrate and have to swim back
  • An effort to dye a friend’s hair bright red which didn’t produce a terribly satisfactory result but did stain many parts of a bathroom
  • Camping in the garden, dragging out a desktop computer and extension cable to fully replicate the “in the wild” experience
  • Flooding my mother’s garden (which at that time was a long slope on clay soil) in order to make a muddy waterslide
  • Generating fake credit card numbers to facilitate repeated month-long free trials of an ISP‘s services
  • Riding on the bonnet of a friend’s first car, hanging on to the windscreen wipers, eventually (unsurprisingly) falling off and getting run over
Gary covered with red hair dye
That time Scott Gary and I tried to dye his hair red but mostly dyed what felt like everything else in the world.

Of course: none of the new Nightliners I trained knew which, if any, of these stories were real – that was never a part of the experience. But many were real, or had a morsel of truth. And a reasonable number of them – four of those in the list above – were things that Gary and I had done together in our youth.

JTA’s surprise came from that strange feeling that occurs when two very parts of your life that you thought were completely separate suddenly and unexpectedly collide with one another (I’m familiar with it). The anecdote that Gary had just shared about our teen years was one that exactly mirrored something he’d heard me say during the My Friend Scott roleplay, and it briefly crashed his brain. Suddenly, this was Scott standing in front of him, and he’d been able to get far enough through his sentence to begin saying that name (“Sc…”) before the crash stopped him in his tracks and he finished off with “…gary”.

Gary with some girl called Sheryl and some friend of hers
Scott Gary always had a certain charm with young women. Who were these two and what were they doing in my bedroom? I don’t know, but if there’s an answer, then Scott Gary is the answer.

I’m not sure whether or not Gary realises that, in my house at least, he’s to this day been called “Scgary”.

I bumped into him, completely by chance, while visiting my family in Preston this weekend. That reminded me that I’d long planned to tell this story: the story of Scgary, the imaginary person who exists only in the minds of the tiny intersection of people who’ve both (a) met my friend Gary and know about some of the crazy shit we got up to together when we were young and foolish and (b) trained as a volunteer at Aberystwyth Nightline during the window between me overhauling how training was provided and ceasing to be involved with the training programme (as far as I’m aware, nobody is performing My Friend Scott in my absence, but it’s possible…).

Gary and Faye embracing on a sleeping bag
That time Scott Gary (drunk) hooked up with my (even more drunk) then crush at my (drunken) 18th birthday party.

Gary asked me to give him a shout and meet up for a beer next time I’m in his neck of the woods, but it only occurred to me after I said goodbye that I’ve no idea what the best way to reach him is, these days. Like many children of the 80s, I’ve still got the landline phone numbers memorised of all of my childhood friends, but even if that number is still valid, it’d be his parents house!

I guess that I’ll let the Internet do the work for me: perhaps if I write this, here, he’ll find it, somehow. Hi, Scgary!

New Volunteers for Three Rings

Hot on the heels of our long weekend in Jersey, and right after the live deployment of Three RingsMilestone: Krypton, came another trip away: I’ve spent very little time in Oxford, lately! This time around, though, it was an experimental new activity that we’ve inserted into the Three Rings calendar: Dev Training.

Wayfarer's Cottage, Malvern
We rented a secluded cottage to which we could whisk away our prospective new developers. By removing day-to-day distractions at work and home, our thinking was that we could fully immerse them in coding.

The format wasn’t unfamiliar: something that we’ve done before, to great success, is to take our dedicated volunteer programmers away on a “Code Week”: getting everybody together in one place, on one network, and working 10-14 hour days, hammering out code to help streamline charity rota management. Sort-of like a LAN party, except instead of games, we do work. The principle of Code Week is to turn volunteer developers, for a short and intense burst, in to machines that turn sugar into software. If you get enough talented people around enough computers, with enough snacks, you can make miracles happen.

Volunteers arriving at Wayfarers
I’m not certain that the driveway was really equipped for the number of cars we brought. But I don’t get on terribly well with laptops, so clearly I was going to bring a desktop computer. And a second desktop computer, just in case. And that takes up a lot of seat space.

In recent years, Three Rings has expanded significantly. The test team has exploded; the support team now has to have a rota of their own in order to keep track of who’s working when; and – at long last – the development team was growing, too. New developers, we decided, needed an intensive session of hands-on training before they’d be set loose on real, production code… so we took the principles of Code Week, and turned it into a boot camp for our new volunteers!

New developers Rich, Chris, and Mike set up their development environments.
New developers Rich, Chris, and Mike set up their development environments. Owing to the complexity of the system, this can be a long part of the course (or, at least, it feels that way!).

Recruiting new developers has always been hard for us, for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that we’ve always exclusively recruited from people who use the system. The thinking is that if you’re already a volunteer at, say, a helpline or a community library or a fireboat-turned-floating-museum or any of the other organisations that use Three Rings, then you already understand why what we do is important and valuable, and why volunteer work is the key to making it all happen. That’s the bit of volunteering that’s hardest to ‘teach’, so the thinking is that by making it a prerequisite, we’re always moving in the right direction – putting volunteering first in our minds. But unfortunately, the pool of people who can program computers to a satisfactory standard is already pretty slim (and the crossover between geeks and volunteers is, perhaps, not so large as you might like)… this makes recruitment for the development team pretty hard.

Turfed out of the Ops Centre and into the living room, JTA works on important tasks like publicity, future posts on the Three Rings blog, and ensuring that we all remember to eat at some point.
Turfed out of the Ops Centre and into the living room, JTA works on important tasks like publicity, future posts on the Three Rings blog, and ensuring that we all remember to eat at some point.

A second difficulty is that Three Rings is a hard project to get involved with, as a newbie. Changing decisions in development convention, a mess of inter-related (though thankfully not inter-depedent) components, and a sprawling codebase make getting started as a developer more than a little intimidating. Couple that with all of the things our developers need to know and understand before they get started (MVC, RoR, TDD, HTML, CSS, SQL, DiD… and that’s just the acronyms!), and you’ve got a learning curve that’s close to vertical. Our efforts to integrate new developers without a formal training program had met with limited success, because almost nobody already has the exact set of skills we’re looking for: that’s how we knew it was time to make Dev Training Weekend a reality.

Ah! That's a convenient place for a pub!
Conveniently, there was a pub literally just out the gate from the back garden of the cottage, which proved incredibly useful when we (finally) downed tools and went out for a drink.

We’d recruited three new potential developers: Mike, Rich, and Chris. As fits our pattern, all are current or former volunteers from organisations that use Three Rings. One of them had been part of our hard-working support team for a long time, and the other two were more-new to Three Rings in general. Ruth and I ran a series of workshops covering Ruby, Rails, Test-Driven Development, Security, and so on, alternated between stretches of supervised “hands-on” programming, tackling genuine Three Rings bugs and feature requests. We felt that it was important that the new developers got the experience of making a real difference, right from the second or the third day, they’d all made commits against the trunk (under the careful review of a senior developer, of course).

Test-driven development, bar-style
Mike demonstrates test-driven development, down at the local pub: 1. touch cat 2. assert cat.purring? When the test fails, of course, the debugging challenge begins: is the problem with the test, the touch, or the cat?

We were quite pleased to discover that all three of them took a particular interest early on in different parts of the system. Of course, we made sure that each got a full and well-rounded education, but we found that they were all most-interested in different areas of the system (Comms, Stats, Rota, etc.), and different layers of development (database, business logic, user interface, etc.). It’s nice to see people enthused about the system, and it’s infectious: talking with some of these new developers about what they’d like to contribute has really helped to inspire me to take a fresh look at some of the bits that I’m responsible for, too.

Chris explains with his hands, in the bar.
Chris drip-feeds us fragments of his life in computing and in volunteering; and praises Ruby for being easier, at least, than programming using punchcards.

It was great to be able to do this in person. The Three Rings team – now about a dozen of us in the core team, with several dozen more among our testers – is increasingly geographically disparate, and rather than face-to-face communication we spend a lot of our time talking to each other via instant messengers, email, and through the comments and commit-messages of our ticketing and source control systems! But there’s nothing quite like being able to spend a (long, hard) day sat side-by-side with a fellow coder, cracking through some infernal bug or another and talking about what you’re doing (and what you expect to achieve with it) as you go.

Three new developers at dev. training.
Chris, Mike and Rich discuss some aspect or another of Three Rings development.

I didn’t personally get as much code written as I’d have liked. But I was pleased to have been able to support three new developers, who’ll go on to collectively achieve more than I ever will. It’s strange to look back at the early 2000s, when it was just me writing Three Rings (and Kit testing/documenting most of it: or, at least, distracting me with facts about Hawaii while I was trying to write the original Wiki feature!). Nowadays Three Rings is a bigger (and more-important) system than ever before, supporting tens of thousands of volunteers at hundreds of voluntary organisations spanning five time zones.

I’ve said before how much it blows my mind that what began in my bedroom over a decade ago has become so critical, and has done so much good for so many people. And it’s still true today: every time I think about it, it sends my head spinning. If that’s what it’s done in the last ten years, what’ll it do in the next ten?

Ageism, Nightline, and Counselling

As a trainee counsellor, I’ve had plenty of opportunity of late for self-analysis and reflection. Sometimes revelations come at unexpected times, as I discovered recently.

A counselling session in progress.
A counselling session in progress.

I was playing the part of a client in a role-play scenario for another student on my course when I was struck by a realisation that I didn’t feel that my “counsellor” was able to provide an effective and empathetic response to the particular situations I was describing. It didn’t take me long to spot that the reason I felt this way was her age. Probably the youngest in our class – of whose span of ages I probably sit firmly in the middle – her technical skill is perfectly good, and she’s clearly an intelligent and emotionally-smart young woman… but somehow, I didn’t feel like she would be able to effectively support me.

And this turned out to be somewhat true: the session ended somewhat-satisfactorily, but there were clear moments during which I didn’t feel that a rapport had been established. Afterwards, I found myself wondering: how much of this result was caused by her approach to listening to me… and how much was caused by my perception of how she would approach listening to me? Of the barriers that lay between us, which had I erected?

Since then, I’ve spent a little time trying to get to the bottom of this observation about myself, asking: from where does my assumption stem that age can always be associated with an empathic response? A few obvious answers stand out: for a start, there’s the fact that there probably is such a trend, in general (although it’s still unfair to make the outright assumption that it will apply in any particular case, especially with somebody whose training should counteract that trend). Furthermore, there’s the assumption that one’s own experience is representative: I know very well that at 18 years old, my personal empathic response was very weak, and so there’s the risk that I project that onto other young adults.

However, the most-interesting source for this prejudice, that I’ve found, has been Nightline training.

The Nightline Association
The Nightline Association, umbrella body representing student Nightlines around the UK and overseas

Many years ago, I was a volunteer at Aberystwyth Nightline. I worked there for quite a while, and even after I’d graduated and moved on, I would periodically go back to help out with training sessions, imparting some of what I’d learned to a new generation of student listeners.

As I did this, a strange phenomenon began to occur: every time I went back, the trainees got younger and younger. Now of course this isn’t true – it’s just that I was older each time – but it was a convincing illusion. A second thing happened, too: every time I went back, the natural aptitude of the trainees, for the work, seemed to be less fine-tuned than it had the time before. Again, this was just a convincing illusion: through my ongoing personal development and my work with Samaritans, Oxford Friend, and others, I was always learning new skills to apply to helping relationships, but each new batch of trainees was just getting off to a fresh start.

This combination of illusions is partly responsible for the idea, in my mind, that “younger = less good a listener”: for many years, I’ve kept seeing people who are younger and younger (actually just younger than me, by more) and who have had less and less listening experience (actually just less experience relative to me, increasingly). It’s completely false, but it’s the kind of illusion that nibbles at the corners of your brain, if you’ll let it.

Practicing good self-awareness helps counsellors to find the sources of their own prejudices and challenge them. But it’s not always easy, and sometimes the realisations come when you least expect them.

On This Day In 2004

Looking Back

On this day in 2004 I handed in my dissertation, contributing towards my BEng in Software Engineering. The topic of my dissertation was the Three Rings project, then in its first incarnation, a web application originally designed to help university Nightlines to run their services.

An early Three Rings Directory page. If you remember when Three Rings used to look like this, then you're very old.

I’d originally started developing the project early in the previous academic year, before I’d re-arranged how I was going to finish my course: Three Rings celebrates its tenth birthday this year. This might be considered to have given me a head start over my peers, but in actual fact it just meant that I had even more to write-up at the end. Alongside my work at SmartData a few days a week (and sometimes at weekends), that meant that I’d been pretty damn busy.

A page from my dissertation, covering browser detection and HTTPS support (then, amazingly, still not-quite-universal in contemporary browsers).

I’d celebrated hitting 10,000 words – half of the amount that I estimated that I’d need – but little did I know that my work would eventually weigh in at over 30,000 words, and well over the word limit! In the final days, I scrambled to cut back on text and shunt entire chapters into the appendices (A through J), where they’d be exempt, while a team of volunteers helped to proofread everything I’d done so far.

Go on then; have another screenshot of an ancient web application to gawk at.

Finally, I was done, and I could relax. Well: right up until I discovered that I was supposed to have printed and bound two copies, and I had to run around a busy and crowded campus to get another copy run off at short notice.

Looking Forward

Three Rings went from strength to strength, as I discussed in an earlier “on this day”. When Bryn came on board and offered to write programs to convert Three Rings 1 data into Three Rings 2 data, in 2006, he borrowed my dissertation as a reference. After he forgot that he still had it, he finally returned it last month.

The inside front cover of my dissertation, along with a note from Bryn.

Later still in 2009, Ruth expanded Three Rings as part of her Masters dissertation, in a monumental effort to add much-needed features at the same time as getting herself a degree. After handing it in and undergoing her defense (which went better than she expected), she got a first.

My dissertation (left) back on my bookshelf, where it belongs.

Today, Three Rings continues to eat a lot of my time, and now supports tens of thousands of volunteers at hundreds of different helplines and other charities, including virtually every Nightline and the majority of all Samaritans branches.

It’s grown even larger than I ever imagined, back in those early days. I often tell people that it started as a dissertation project, because it’s simpler than the truth: that it started a year or two before that, and provided a lot of benefit to a few Nightlines, and it was just convenient that I was able to use it as a part of my degree because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had time to make it into what it became. Just like I’m fortunate now to have the input of such talented people as I have, over the last few years, because I couldn’t alone make it into the world-class service that it’s becoming.

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

Instead Of Blogging…

Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging, this last month, include:

  • Code Week: hacking Three Rings code in a converted hay loft of a Derbyshire farm, as mentioned on the Three Rings blog.
  • Hoghton Tower: as is traditional at this time of year (see blog posts from 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, for example), went to Preston for the Hoghton Tower concert and fireworks display, accompanied by Ruth, and my sister’s 22nd birthday. My other sister has more to say about it.
  • Family Picnic: Joining Ruth and JTA at Ruth’s annual family picnic, among her billions of second-cousins and third-aunts.
  • New Earthwarming: Having a mini housewarming on New Earth, where I live with Ruth, JTA, and Paul. A surprising number of people came from surprisingly far away, and it was fascinating to see some really interesting networking being done by a mixture of local people (from our various different “circles” down here) and distant guests.
  • Bodleian Staff Summer Party: Yet another reason to love my new employer! The drinks and the hog roast (well, roast vegetable sandwiches and falafel wraps for me, but still delicious) would have won me over by themselves. The band was just a bonus. The ice cream van that turned up and started dispensing free 99s: that was all just icing on the already-fabulous cake.
  • TeachMeet: Giving a 2-minute nanopresentation at the first Oxford Libraries TeachMeet, entitled Your Password Sucks. A copy of my presentation (now with annotations to make up for the fact that you can’t hear me talking over it) has been uploaded to the website.
  • New Earth Games Night: Like Geek Night, but with folks local to us, here, some of whom might have been put off by being called “Geeks”, in that strange way that people sometimes do. Also, hanging out with the Oxford On Board folks, who do similar things on Monday nights in the pub nearest my office.
  • Meeting Oxford Nightline: Oxford University’s Nightline is just about the only Nightline in the British Isles to not be using Three Rings, and they’re right on my doorstep, so I’ve been meeting up with some of their folks in order to try to work out why. Maybe, some day, I’ll actually understand the answer to that question.
  • Alton Towers & Camping: Ruth and I decided to celebrate the 4th anniversary of us getting together with a trip to Alton Towers, where their new ride, Thirteen, is really quite good (but don’t read up on it: it’s best enjoyed spoiler-free!), and a camping trip in the Lake District, with an exhausting but fulfilling trek to the summit of Glaramara.
Setting up camp at Stonethwaite.

That’s quite a lot of stuff, even aside from the usual work/volunteering/etc. stuff that goes on in my life, so it’s little wonder that I’ve neglected to blog about it all. Of course, there’s a guilt-inspired downside to this approach, and that’s that one feels compelled to not blog about anything else until finishing writing about the first neglected thing, and so the problem snowballs.

So this quick summary, above? That’s sort-of a declaration of blogger-bankruptcy on these topics, so I can finally stop thinking “Hmm, can’t blog about X until I’ve written about Code Week!”

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.

Another Crazy Connection

Remember about three weeks ago when I re-met a Bodleian Libraries employee whom I’d first met many years ago? And then went on to meet their friend, who turned out to have been somebody with whom I’d been trying to schedule a meeting anyway!

Well today I had that meeting (and was formally introduced to my friend-of-a-friend). And when I got back, I found the following (edited, here) email in my Inbox:

Hi Dan,

You may remember me from such RT requests as #1234567. I have an inkling that we may also have met (if you attended) at the National Nightline^W^WNightline Association AGM in Leeds a couple of years back. I used to be a Nightline volunteer at Oxford.

<snip>

Alex

This chap works for the Computing Services department of the University, and as a result he’s been helping to deal with my (many, many) tickets and request-for-change forms as I’ve tried to get access to all of the systems to which I’ve needed access. And recognised me, apparently.

It’s a crazy, crazy small world.

Fresher’s Week – Part Two

I’ve registered for modules this year which better than last year reflect my individual interests within my field – an emphasis on telecommunications and the internet and on software engineering practice, and away from artificial intelligence and from hardware-layer stuff. Some of my new modules – many of which were not available as courses last year – look quite stimulating.

As the end of the week approached I helped Nightline to lay their new carpet – the benefit to the organisation that the money we raised by selling hot dogs – in their office. This involved first removing their old carpet, laying it out on the road, and using it as a stencil for the new one, such that the new one fit almost exactly before we began to stick it down (an important consideration when laying flooring in a room no larger than 11 by 11 feet). I made hats for us all out of the offcuts of the carpet and masking tape.

Saturday Night’s Troma Night saw Liz bringing a date along, Rob (or was it Bob?), who we managed to scare off before the opening credits of the first film had finished rolling or any pizza had been consumed. Apparently all is well, though.

Aberystwyth’s first sex shop, part of the Little Amsterdam chain, is due for it’s delayed opening on Wednesday. I’m arranging for a party to go and visit on it’s opening day to applaud it on it’s success over the efforts of many members of the council, and for it’s manager’s success so far in court in another (possibly related) case.

Update: 25 October 2017 – fixed a minor spelling mistake.

Dark Side Of The Moon

Spent last night in a dark room with Paul, Kit and Claire, listening to a DTS-encoded 5.1 surround sound version of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve heard in a long while. The sound quality was unbelievable – the patterns moved and shifted around and through us. Quite stunning. I felt my heart rate change several times to match the beat

Nobody’s updated their web journal in several days except Kit. That makes my work morning a little boring.

We have a new guy working for us – Daniel – a school leaver who’ll be helping us for the summer. Alex and I are trying to get him talking, without any luck yet.

Suppose I’d better get on with some work, now.

Update (20th March 2012) – crosslinks:

  • Paul’s post about getting to use his DTS system
  • Kit’s post about the experience of listening to Dark Side of the Moon with us

Scanning And Zelda

Talked with ICQ-friend Summer for the first time in over six months this afternoon, which was great, because I’ve missed chatting with her. Caught up on each other’s news, then chatted about Love, Sex, and What It All Means for awhile. Refreshing. Made her promise to be online more often in future. We’ll see.

Couldn’t be arsed going to campus to help Kit scan magazines this evening, so I bought a scanner and set it up on Claire’s computer, where he’s now scanning away to his little heart’s content.

Got a little further in Zelda: The Wind Waker on the GameCube this evening – all the way to Ganondorf, the bad nasty guy at the end, but he kicked my arse.

Dreadful Deadlines

Just been working like a demon towards a 13:00 deadline this afternoon, delivering a piece of software to a client. Barely made it, but what a buzz!!! Celebrated with a pub lunch with two colleagues, Lisa (the SQL Queen) and Alex (the CodeMonkey, our office pet).

Claire called from Norfolk to say “Hi!” I’d have liked to chat longer, but I have work to do.

Have promised to scan and archive some old magazines with Kit this evening. Ho hum.

Cool Thing Of The Day

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

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

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

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #27:

(1) What with being excessivley busy, and a network failure last weekend, fail to get out a “Cool Things”. Feel the need to apologise to everybody (SORRY!), and give them three “Cool Things” to help make up for it.
(2) Be elected Communications Officer for a confidential telephone listening and advice service.
(3) Take your first exam. Gulp. Still – 20 questions, and only 36% required to pass. From the results of people in my class who’ve done it earlier this week, marks range from 30% –> 80%. Remain confident. My result is out on Monday.

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