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!

20 Years Of Blogging

As of next week, I’ll have been blogging for 20 years, or about 54% of my life. How did that happen?

Castle of the Four Winds, launched in 1998, with a then-fashionable black background.
Castle of the Four Winds was the first of my personal websites to feature what could be called a “blog”. Yes, that’s a flaming “hit counter” (implemented in Perl).

The mid-1990s were a very different time for the World Wide Web (yes, we still called it that, and sometimes we even described its use as “surfing”). Going “on the Internet” was a calculated and deliberate action requiring tying up your phone line, minutes of “connecting” along with all of the associated screeching sounds if you hadn’t turned off your modem’s loudspeaker, and you’d typically be paying twice for the experience: both a monthly fee to your ISP for the service and a per-minute charge to your phone company for the call.

It was into this environment that in 1994 I published my first web pages: as far as I know, nothing remains of them now. It wasn’t until 1998 that I signed up an account with UserActive (whose website looks almost the same today as it did then) who offered economical subdomain hosting with shell and CGI support and launched “Castle of the Four Winds”, a set of vanity pages that included my first blog.

Except I didn’t call it a “blog”, of course, because it wasn’t until the following year that Peter Merholz invented the word (he also commemorated 20 years of blogging, this year). I didn’t even call it a “weblog”, because that word was still relatively new and I wasn’t hip enough to be around people who said it, yet. It was self-described as an “online diary”, a name which only served to reinforce the notion that I was writing principally for myself. In fact, it wasn’t until mid-1999 that I discovered that it was being more-widely read than just by me and my circle of friends when I attracted a stalker who travelled across the UK to try to “surprise” me by turning up at places she expected to find me, based on what I’d written online… which was exactly as creepy as it sounds.

AvAngel.com, my second vanity site, as seen in 2001
We had a dream of being the spiritual successor to TheSpark.com, TOTL.net, or armory.com. We probably managed about a quarter of that, at best, but we had a lot of fun doing it.

While the world began to panic that the coming millennium was going to break all of the computers, I migrated Castle of the Four Winds’ content into AvAngel.com, a joint vanity site venture with my friend Andy. Aside from its additional content (purity tests, funny stuff, risqué e-cards), what we hosted was mostly the same old stuff, and I continued to write snippets about my life in what was now quite-clearly a “blog-like” format, with the most-recent posts at the top and separate pages for content too old for the front page. Looking back, there’s still a certain naivety to these posts which exemplify the youth of the Web. For example, posts routinely referenced my friends by their email addresses, because spam was yet to become a big enough problem that people didn’t much mind if you put their email address on a public webpage somewhere, and because email addresses still carried with them a feeling of anonymity that ceased to be the case when we started using them for important things.

Technologically-speaking, too, this was a simpler time. Neither Javascript nor CSS support was widespread (nor consistently-standardised) enough to rely upon for anything other than the simplest progressive enhancement unless you were willing to “pick a side” in what we’d subsequently call the first browser war and put one of those apalling “best viewed in Internet Explorer” or “best viewed in Netscape Navigator” banners on your site. I’ve always been a believer in a universal web (and my primary browser at the time was Opera, anyway, as it mostly-remained until Opera went wrong in 2013), and I didn’t have the energy to write everything twice, so our cool/dynamic functionality came mostly from back-end (e.g. Perl, PHP) technologies.

Meanwhile, during my initial months as a student in Aberystwyth, I wrote a series of emails to friends back home entitled “Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth”, and put copies of each onto my student webspace; I’ve since recovered these and integrated them into my unified blog.

The first version of Scatmania.org.
Back in 2003 it was still perfectly acceptable for a web page to look like this, I swear.

In 2002 I’d bought the domain name scatmania.org – a reference to my university halls of residence nickname “Scatman Dan”; I genuinely didn’t consider the possibility that the name might be considered scatalogical until later on. As I wanted to continue my blogging at an address that felt like it was solely mine (AvAngel.com having been originally shared with a friend, although in practice over time it became associated only with me), this seemed like a good domain upon which to relaunch. And so, in mid-2003 and powered by a short-lived and ill-fated blogging engine called Flip I did exactly that. WordPress, to which I’d subsequently migrate, hadn’t been invented yet and it wasn’t clear whether its predecessor, b2/cafelog, would survive the troubles its author was experiencing.

From this point on, any web address for any post made to my blog still works to this day, despite multiple technological and infrastructural changes to my blog (and some domain name shenanigans!) in the meantime. I’d come to be a big believer in the mantra that cool URIs don’t change: something that as far as possible I’ve committed to trying to upload in my blogging, my archiving, and my paid work since then. I’m moderately confident that all extant links on the web that point to earlier posts are all under my control so they can (and in most cases have) been fixed already, so I’m pretty close to having all my permalink URIs be “cool”, for now. You might hit a short chain of redirects, but you’ll get to where you’re going.

And everything was fine, until one day in 2004 when it wasn’t. The server hosting scatmania.org died in a very bad way, and because my backup strategy was woefully inadequate, I lost a lot of content. I’ve recovered quite a lot of it and put it back in-place, but some is probably gone forever.

Scatmana.org version 2 - now with actual web design
One of the longest-lived web designs for scatmania.org paid homage to the original, but with more “blue” and a WordPress backing.

The resurrected site was powered by WordPress, and this was the first time that live database queries had been used to power my blog. Occasionally, these days, when talking to younger, cooler developers, I’m tempted to follow the hip trend of reimplementing my blog as a static site, compiling a stack of host-anywhere HTML files based upon whatever-structure-I-like at the “backend”… but then I remember that I basically did that already for six years and I’m far happier with my web presence today. I’ve nothing against static site systems (I’m quite partial to Middleman, myself, although I’m also fond of Hugo) but they’re not right for this site, right now.

IndieAuth hadn’t been invented yet, but I was quite keen on the ideals of OpenID (I still am, really), and so I implemented what was probably the first viable “install-anywhere” implementation of OpenID for WordPress – you can see part of it functioning in the top-right of the screenshot above, where my (copious, at that time) LiveJournal-using friends were encouraged to sign in to my blog using their LiveJournal identity. Nowadays, the majority of the WordPress plugins I use are ones I’ve written myself: my blog is powered by a CMS that’s more “mine” than not!

Scatmania.org in 2006
I no longer have the images that made my 2006 redesign look even remotely attractive, so here it is mocked-up with block colours instead.

Over the course of the first decade of my blogging, a few trends had become apparent in my technical choices. For example:

  • I’ve always self-hosted my blog, rather than relying on a “blog as a service” or siloed social media platform like WordPress.com, Blogger, or LiveJournal.
  • I’ve preferred an approach of storing the “master” copy of my content on my own site and then (sometimes) syndicating it elsewhere: for example, for the benefit of my friends who during their University years maintained a LiveJournal, for many years I had my blog cross-post to a LiveJournal account (and backfeed copies of comments back to my site).
  • I’ve favoured web standards that provided maximum interoperability (e.g. RSS with full content) and longevity (serving HTML pages from permanent URLs, adding “extra” functionality via progressive enhancement so as to ensure that content functioned e.g. without Javascript, with CSS disabled or the specification evolved, etc.).

These were deliberate choices, but they didn’t require much consideration: growing up with a Web far less-sophisticated than today’s (e.g. truly stateless prior to the advent of HTTP cookies) and seeing the chaos caused during the first browser war and the period of stagnation that followed, these choices seemed intuitive.

(Perhaps it’s not so much of a coincidence that I’ve found myself working at a library: maybe I’ve secretly been a hobbyist archivist all along!)

Fourth major design reboot of scatmania.org
That body font is plain old Verdana, you know: I’ve always felt that it (plus full justification) was the right choice for this particular design, even though I regret other parts of it (like the brightness!).

As you’d expect from a blog covering a period from somebody’s teen years through to their late thirties, there’ve been significant changes in the kinds of content I’ve posted (and the tone with which I’ve done so) over the years, too. If you dip into 2003, for example, you’ll see the results of quiz memes and unqualified daily minutiae alongside actual considered content. Go back further, to early 1999, and it is (at best) meaningless wittering about the day-to-day life of a teenage student. It took until around 2009/2010 before I actually started focussing on writing content that specifically might be enjoyable for others to read (even where that content was frankly silly) and only far more-recently-still that I’ve committed to the “mostly technical stuff, ocassional bits of ‘life’ stuff” focus that I have today.

I say “committed”, but of course I’m fully aware that whatever this blog is now, it’ll doubtless be something somewhat different if I’m still writing it in another two decades…

Graph showing my blog posts per month
2014 may have included my most-prolific month of blogging, but 2003-2005 saw the most-consistent high-volume of content.

Once I reached the 2010s I started actually taking the time to think about the design of my blog and its meaning. Conceptually, all of my content is data-driven: database tables full of different “kinds” of content and associated metadata, and that’s pretty-much ideal – it provides a strong separation between content and presentation and makes it possible to make significant design changes with less work than might otherwise be expected. I’ve also always generally favoured a separation of concerns in web development and so I’m not a fan of CSS design methodologies that encourage class names describing how things should appear, like Atomic CSS. Even where it results in a performance hit, I’d far rather use CSS classes to describe what things are or represent. The single biggest problem with this approach, to my mind, is that it violates the DRY principle… but that’s something that your CSS preprocessor’s there to fix for you, isn’t it?

But despite this philosophical outlook on the appropriate gap between content and presentation, it took until about 2010 before I actually attached any real significance to the presentation at all! Until this point, I’d considered myself to have been more of a back-end than a front-end engineer, and felt that the most-important thing was to get the content out there via an appropriate medium. After all, a site without content isn’t a site at all, but a site without design is (or at least should be) still intelligible thanks to browser defaults! Remember, again, that I started web development at a time when stylesheets didn’t exist at all.

My previous implementations of my blog design had used simple designs, often adapted from open-source templates, in an effort to get them deployed as quickly as possible and move on to the next task, but now, I felt, it was time to do a little more.

Scatmania.org in 2010
My 2010 relaunch put far more focus on the graphical design elements of my blog as well as providing a fully responsive design based on (then-new) CSS media queries. Alongside my focus on separation of concerns in web development, I’m also quite opinionated on the idea that a responsive design has almost always been a superior solution to having a separate “mobile site”.

For a few years, I was producing a new theme once per year. I experimented with different colours, fonts, and layouts, and decided (after some ad-hoc A/B testing) that my audience was better-served by a “front” page than by being dropped directly into my blog archives as had previously been the case. Highlighting the latest few – and especially the very-latest – post and other recent content increased the number of posts that a visitor would be likely to engage with in a single visit. I’ve always presumed that the reason for this is that regular (but non-subscribing) readers are more-likely to be able to work out what they have and haven’t read already from summary text than from trying to decipher an entire post: possibly because my blogging had (has!) become rather verbose.

Scatmania.org until early 2012
My 2011 design, in hindsight, said more about my mood and state-of-mind at the time than it did about artistic choices: what’s with all the black backgrounds and seriffed fonts? Is this a funeral parlour?

I went through a bit of a lull in blogging: I’ve joked that I spent more time on my 2010 and 2011 designs than I did on the sum total of the content that was published in between the pair of them (which isn’t true… at least, not quite!). In the month I left Aberystwyth for Oxford, for example, I was doing all kinds of exciting and new things… and yet I only wrote a total of two blog posts.

With RSS waning in popularity – which I can’t understand: RSS is amazing! – I began to crosspost to social networks like Twitter and Google+ (although no longer to Google+, following the news of its imminent demise) to help those readers who prefer to get their content via these media, but because I wasn’t producing much content, it probably didn’t make a significant difference anyway: the chance of a regular reader “missing” something must have been remarkably slim.

Scatmania.org in 2012
The 2012 design featured “CSS peekaboo”: a transformation that caused my head to “hide” from you behind the search bar if your cursor got too close. Ruth, I hear, spent far too long playing with just this feature.

Nobody calls me “Scatman Dan” any more, and hadn’t for a long, long time. Given that my name is already awesome and unique all by itself (having changed to be so during the era in which scatmania.org was my primary personal domain name), it felt like I had the opportunity to rebrand.

I moved my blog to a new domain, DanQ.me (which is nice and short, too) and came up with a new collection of colours, fonts, and layout choices that I felt better-reflected my identity… and the fact that my blog was becoming less a place to record the mundane details of my daily life and more a place where I talk about (principally-web) technology, security, and GPS games… and just occasionally about other topics like breadmaking and books. Also, it gave me a chance to get on top of the current trend in web design for big, clean, empty spaces, square corners, and using pictures as the hook to a story.

Second design of DanQ.me, 2016
The second design of my blog after moving to DanQ.me showed-off posts with big pictures, framed by lots of white-space.

I’ve been working harder this last year or two to re-integrate (in a PESOS-like way) into my blog content that I’ve published elsewhere, mostly geocaching logs and geohashing expedition records, and I’ve also done so retroactively, so in addition to my first blog article on the subject of geocaching, you can read my first ever cache log without switching to a different site nor relying upon the continued existence and accessibility of that site. I’ve been working at being increasingly mindful of where my content is siloed outside of my control and reclaiming it by hosting it here, on my blog.

Particular areas in which I produce content elsewhere but would like to at-least maintain a copy here, and would ideally publish here first and syndicate elsewhere, although I appreciate that this is difficult, are:

  • GPS games like geocaching and geohashing – I’ve mostly got this under control, but could enjoy streamlining the process or pushing towards POSSE
  • Reddit, where I’ve written tens of thousands of words under a variety of accounts, but I don’t really pay attention to the site any more
  • I left Facebook in 2011 but I still have a backup of what was on my “Wall” at that point, which I could look into reintegrating into my blog
  • I share a lot of the source code I write via my GitHub account, but I’m painfully aware that this is yet-another-silo that I ought to learn not to depend upon (and it ought to be simple enough to mirror my repos on my own site!)
  • I’ve got a reasonable number of videos on two YouTube channels which are online by Google’s good graces (and potential for advertising revenue); for a handful of technical reasons they’re a bit of a pain to self-host, but perhaps my blog could act as a secondary source to my own video content
  • I write business reviews on Google Maps which I should probably look into recovering from the hivemind and hosting here… in fact, I’ve probably written plenty of reviews on other sites, too, like Amazon for example…
  • On two previous occasions I’ve maintained an online photo gallery; I might someday resurrect the concept, at least for the photos that used to be published on them
  • I’ve dabbled on a handful of other, often weirder, social networks before like Scuttlebutt (which has a genius concept, by the way) and Ello, and ought to check if there’s anything “original” on there I should reintegrate
  • Going way, way back, there are a good number of usenet postings I’ve made over the last twenty-something years that I could reclaim, if I can find them…

(if you’re asking why I’m inclined to do all of these things: here’s why)

Current iteration of DanQ.me
This looks familiar.

20 years and around 717,000 words worth of blogging down, it’s interesting to look back and see how things have changed: in my life, on the Web, and in the world in general. I’ve seen many friends’ blogs come and go: they move into a new phase of their life and don’t feel like what they wrote before reflects them today, most often, and so they delete them… which is fine, of course: it’s their content! But for me it’s always felt wrong to do so, for two reasons: firstly, it feels false to do so given that once something’s been put on the Web, it might well be online forever – you can’t put the genie back in the bottle! And secondly: for me, it’s valuable to own everything I wrote before. Even the cringeworthy things I wrote as a teenager who thought they knew everything and the antagonistic stuff I wrote in my early 20s but that I clearly wouldn’t stand by today is part of my history, and hiding that would be a disservice to myself.

The 17-year-old who wrote my first blog posts two decades ago this month fully expected that the things he wrote would be online forever, and I don’t intend to take that away from him. I’m sure that when I write a post in October 2038 looking back on the next two decades, I’ll roll my eyes at myself today, too, but for me: that’s part of the joy of a long-running personal blog. It’s like a diary, but with a sense of accountability. It’s a space on the web that’s “mine” into which I can dump pretty-much whatever I like.

I love it: I’ve been blogging for over half of my life, and if I can get back to you in 2031 and tell you that I’ve by-then been doing so for two-thirds of my life, that would be a win.

On This Day In 2004

Looking Back

On this day in 2004… Troma Night XXI took place at The Flat. Six people were in attendance: Claire, Paul, Kit, Bryn, (Strokey) Adam and I and, unusually – remember that the digital cameras in phones were still appalling – I took pictures of everybody who showed up.

Troma Night XXI Attendees - clockwise from top left: Dan, Claire, Paul, Adam, Bryn, Kit
Cue exclamations of “didn’t we all look young”, etc.

Troma Night was, of course, our weekly film night back in Aberystwyth (the RockMonkey wiki once described it as “fun”). Originally launched as a one-off and then a maybe-a-few-off event with a theme of watching films produced (or later: distributed) by Troma Entertainment, it quickly became a regular event with a remit to watch “all of the best and the worst films ever made”. Expanding into MST3K, the IMDb “bottom 250”, and once in a while a good film, we eventually spent somewhere over 300 nights on this activity (you can relive our 300th, if you like!) and somehow managed to retain a modicum of sanity.

Kit, Alec, Siân, (Strokey) Adam, Bryn, Paul, Mark, Claire and I consuming far too much alcohol at Troma Night V and Troma Night VI.
Copious quantities of alcohol might have been part of our survival strategy, as evidenced by these pictures from Troma Night V and Troma Night VI.

Starting out in Claire and I’s then-home, The Flat, Troma Night followed us to The Sharp and eventually to The Cottage, where – ignoring a few ‘tours’ to other people’s homes – it remained from then on. Fuelled by pizza, crisps, and beer, we made it through such terrible films as Manos: The Hands of Fate, the truly awful nightmare fuel that is Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy, and the so-bad-it’s funny action mess Carnosaur 3: Primal Species.

Troma Night XXI, captured on the Troma Night Webcam
Troma Night XXI was among those captured by the Troma Night Webcam, streamed out to the Internet in 1-megapixel, 4 frames per second glory (when it worked).

And what did we watch on this day 13 years ago? The Stendhal Syndrome, which turned out to be remarkably good, Beavis And Butthead Do America, which turned out to be remarkably unremarkable, and horror/sci-fi classic The Thing. But not until after a greater-than-usual amount of tidying up The Flat, I gather.

Looking Forward

In addition to running for over 300 weeks, Troma Night became, for many of us, a central facet of our social lives. The original attendees were all volunteers at Aberystwyth Nightline, but we were later joined by their friends, lovers, housemates… and by Liz‘s dates (who after meeting all of her friends, we usually never saw again). We quickly developed our own traditions and ideas, such as:

  • Our own “drinking game” with rules relating to particular tropes of the films we were watching (an early version can be found here),
  • Pizzas like the Alec Special – a Hollywood Special (ham, pepperoni, beef, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, sweetcorn) but without the onions and with pineapple substituted in instead – and the Pepperoni Feast particularly enjoyed by our resident vegetarian,
Bryn, Paul, Claire, Liz, and Kit enjoy Hollywood Pizza at Troma Night VI.5.
For those who – like me – insist that our regular Hollywood Pizza got greasier over this years, these photos from Troma Night VI.5 are pretty damning. Maybe it’s just that our tastes changed.
  • Paul spontaneously throwing a sponge out of the window to mark the beginning of the evening’s activities,
  • Alec bringing exactly one more can of Grolsch than he’s capable of drinking and leaving the remainder in the fridge to be consumed by Kit at the start of the subsequent event,
  • A fight over the best (or in some cases only) seats in Claire and I’s various small (and cluttered) homes: we once got 21 people into the living room at The Flat, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant,
  • Becoming such a regular customer to Hollywood Pizza that they once phoned us when we hadn’t placed an order in a timely fashion, on another ocassion turned up with somebody else’s order because it “looked like the kind of thing we usually ordered”, and at least one time were persuaded to deliver the pizza directly up to the living room and to each recipient’s lap (you can’t get much better delivery service than that).
Troma Night 4, back when The Flat was in its original furniture configuration.
Decisions about how Claire and I would lay out our furniture were eventually influenced directly by maximising the efficiency of our seating plan. This picture, from Troma Night IV, makes it seem quite spacious and relaxed compared to later nights.

Perhaps the apogee of Troma Night’s success, for me at least, was when some of us got to meet Lloyd Kaufman himself, over a beer and a bowl of nachos, in 2007: prior to the UK premiere of the fabulous return-to-form Troma masterpiece Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. This resulted in much fangirling on the part of Claire and, let’s be honest, by pretty much all of us who got the be there.

And I still enjoy the occasional awful film. I finally got around to watching Sharknado the other month, and my RiffTrax account’s library grows year on year. One of my reward card accounts is still under the name of Mr. Troma Knight. So I suppose that Troma Night lives on in some the regulars, even if we don’t make ourselves suffer of a weekend in quite the same ways as we once did.

This Old Tech: Remembering WorldsAway’s avatars and virtual experiences

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

This Old Tech: Remembering WorldsAway's avatars and virtual experiences (PCWorld)
The year was 1995, and CompuServe's online service cost $4.95 per hour. Yet thousands of people logged into this virtual world daily.

WorldsAway

WorldsAway was born 20 years ago, when Fujitsu Cultural Technologies, a subsidiary of Japanese electronics giant Fujitsu, released this online experiment in multiplayer communities. It debuted as part of the CompuServe online service in September, 1995. Users needed a special client to connect; once online, they could chat with others while represented onscreen as a graphical avatar.

I was already a veteran of BBSes (I even started my own), Prodigy, CompuServe, and the Internet when I saw an advertisement for WorldsAway in CompuServe magazine (one of my favorite magazines at the time). It promised a technicolor online world where you could be anything you wanted, and share a virtual city with people all over the globe. I signed up to receive the client software CD. Right after its launch in September, I was up and running in the new world. It blew my young mind.

Benj Edwards (PCWorld)

HMF episodes of outTHERE (2001-2003), because it seems to have vanished from the planet.

This self-post was originally posted to /r/HelpMeFind. See more things from Dan's Reddit account.

by an author

Back in the early 2000s when I was suffering from insomnia I used to sit up and watch all kinds of trashy late-night TV on the UK’s (then new) Channel 5. There was one show that I got hooked on and tuned in to religiously, simply because its presentation was so bizarre. That show was outTHERE (iMDB) (Wikipedia). I’d love to find some episodes of it: I’m happy to pay for DVDs or watch episodes online or whatever, but I just can’t find any. Anywhere. Seriously: it’s like the entire show has vanished.

There are clips on YouTube of up to a minute long, like this one of the opening credits and teaser [slightly NSFW] and this especially-tacky one from season 2, when they’d changed presenters.

Reddit Gold for anybody who helps me in the right direction. Eternal love and respect for anybody who finds what I’m looking for.

Children’s book about a kid and an alien represented by an asterisk (*)

This self-post was originally posted to /r/Findabook. See more things from Dan's Reddit account.

by an author

I read a book as a child, probably in the early 1990s, whose story sick with me but which I haven’t been able to find since. The plot goes thusly: a child plays a semi text-based video game in which he controls a character (represented by an asterisk), but it later becomes apparent that the character he’s controlling is real and self-aware. He’s an alien, or something similar, and he needs help… and that’s most of what I remember, but I can’t be the only one who read it, right?

Cosmo – Building A Watercooled PC (Part 1)

Recently, I’ve reduced my hours working at the Bodleian in order to be able to spend more time working on Three Rings and engaging in other bits of freelance work… and to increase my flexibility so that I can be available for childcare and to generally make things more-convenient for the other Greendalians and I. Unfortunately, on my very second day of this new working arrangement Nena (which I built in 2008) had her power supply blow up, which sort-of threw a spanner into the works. This, along with a scary recent hard drive failure in JTA‘s computer, I took as being a sign from the Universe that it was time to build myself a new PC to replace Toni, my primary box, and relegate Toni to be the new Nena. It was time to build: Cosmo.

Frame from the Basic Instructions comic "How to Justify Upgrading Your Computer"; click for full comic
This episode of Basic Instructions, which came out disturbingly close to the construction of Cosmo, somewhat parallels my experience. Click for full comic.

Given that I had a little cash to burn, I decided that it must finally be time to fulfil a couple of long-standing dreams I’ve had – things I’ve wanted to do when building my last two or three computers, but never been able to justify the expense. And so I set out to build my new “dream computer”: a beast of a machine which would present me with some fresh engineering challenges during construction. Key features that I wanted to include were:

Liquid cooling

Most computers are air-cooled: the “hot” components like the processor and graphics chipset are covered with a heatsink (which works just like the fins on a motorcycle engine: drawing heat away through contact with cool air) and, generally, a fan (to improve airflow over the heatsink and thus increase cooling). Air cooling, though, is inefficient (the transfer of heat from components to air isn’t very fast) and noisy (“hot”-running air-cooled computers are annoyingly loud), and so in my last few PC builds I’ve drifted towards using cooler and quieter components, such as processors that are overpowered for what they’ll actually be asked to do (like Tiffany2, who’s virtually silent) and all-in-one liquid coolers for my CPUs (like these ones, from CoolerMaster – note that these still have a fan, but the use of a radiator means that the fan can be large, slow, and quiet, unlike conventional CPU fans which spin quickly and make noise).

Lookin' for some hot stuff baby this evenin'. I need some hot stuff baby tonight. I want some hot stuff baby this evenin'. Gotta have some hot stuff. Gotta have some love tonight.
The “business end” of the cooling system of a typical air-cooled graphics card. That grey sticky bit on the copper square touches the processor, and the entire rest of the system is about dissipating the heat produced there.

But I’ve always had this dream that I’d one day build a true, complete, custom water-cooled system: taking a pump and a reservoir and a radiator and cutting pipe to fit it all around the “hot” components in my case. The pumps and fans of water-cooled systems make them marginally louder than the quietest of fan-driven, air-cooled computers… but are far more efficient, drawing a massive amount of heat away from the components and therefore making it possible to pack more-powerful components closer together and overclock them to speeds undreamed of by their manufacturers. A liquid cooling solution was clearly going to be on the list.

Multi-GPU

And how to best make use of that massive cooling potential? By putting an extra graphics card in! The demands of modern 3D games mean that if you want to run at the highest resolutions, quality settings, and frame rates, you need a high-end graphics card. And if you want to go further still (personally: I love to be able to run Bioshock InfiniteFar Cry 3, or Call Of Duty: Ghosts at a massive “ultra-widescreen”, wrap-around resolution of 5760×1080 – that’s triple the number of pixels found on your 1080p HDTV), well: you’re going to want several high-end graphics cards.

Two ATI graphics cards linked in "Crossfire" mode using a link cable.
Even though the capability to run graphics cards in tandem, pooling resources, has existed since the 1990s, it’s only within the last decade that it’s become truly meaningful: and even now, it’s still almost-exclusively the domain of the enthusiast.

Both ATI/AMD’s Radeon and Nvidia’s GeForce series’ of chipsets are capable of running in tandem, triple, or quadruple configurations (so long as your motherboard and power supply hold up, and assuming that you’ve got the means to keep them all cool, of course!), and as a result all of my last few PC builds have deliberately been “ready” for me to add a second graphics card, down the line, if I decided I needed some extra “oomph” (instead, I’ve always ended up with a new computer by that point, instead), but this would be the first time I’d actually design the computer to be multi-GPU from the outset.

SSD/RAID 1+0 Combo

Toni featured a combination of a solid-state drive (flash memory, like you get in pendrives, but faster) instead of a conventional hard drive, to boot from, and a pair of 2TB “traditional” hard drives, all connected through the perfectly-adequate SATA 2 interface. Using an SSD for the operating system meant that the machine booted up ludicrously quickly, and this was something I wanted to maintain, so clearly the next step was a larger, faster, SATA 3 SSD for Cosmo.

RAID is for people who can't handle reality.
This is your computer. This is your computer on RAID.

Anybody who’s messed about with computer hardware for as long as I have has seen a hard drive break down at least once, and JTA’s recent malfunction of that type reminded me that even with good backups, the downtime resulting from such a component fault is pretty frustrating. This, plus the desire to squeeze as much speed as possible out of conventional hard drives, made me opt for a RAID 1+0 (or “RAID 10”). I’d tie together four 2TB hard drives to act as a single 4TB disk, providing a dramatic boost in redundancy (one, or possbily even two drives can be completely destroyed without any data loss) and speed (reading data that’s duplicated across two disks is faster because the computer can be effectively “reading ahead” with the other disk; and writing data to multiple disks is no slower because the drives work at the same time).

A few other bits of awesome

Over my last few PC builds, I’ve acquired a taste for a handful of nice-to-have’s which are gradually becoming luxuries I can’t do without. My first screwless case was Duality, back in the early 2000s, and I’d forgotten how much easier it was to simply clip hard drives to rails until I built Nena years later into a cheap case that just wasn’t the same thing.

The small non-blue thing on the left is Mark, Mark, Christian Mark.
If you were at, for example, Troma Night IV, on 17th May 2003, you’ll have seen Duality: she’s the huge blue thing on the right.

Another thing I’ve come to love and wonder how I ever did without is modular power supplies. Instead of having a box with a huge bundle of cables sticking out of it, these are just a box… the cables come separately, and you only use the ones you need, which takes up a lot less space in your case and makes the whole process a lot tidier. How did it take us so long to invent these things?

Needless to say, the planning about building Cosmo was the easy and stress-free bit. I shall tell you about the exciting time I had actually putting her together – and the lessons learned! – later. Watch this space, and all that!

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?

The Worst Joke I Ever Heard

I’d like to share with you the worst joke that I ever heard. Those of you who’ve heard me tell jokes before might think that you’ve already suffered through the worst joke I ever heard, but you honestly haven’t. The worst joke I ever heard was simply too awful to share. But maybe now is the time.

Children sweeping at Holme Slack playground.
The playground of Holme Slack Primary School, and the very wall that I was probably sitting on when I first heard this “joke”.

To understand the joke, though, you must first understand where I grew up. For most of my school years, I lived in Preston, in the North-West of England. After first starting school in Scotland, and having been brought up by parents who’d grown up in the North-East, I quickly found that there were a plethora of local dialect differences and regional slang terms that I needed to get to grips with in order to fit into my new environment. Pants, pumps, toffee, and bap, among others, had a different meaning here, along with entirely new words like belm (an insult), gizzit (a contraction of “give it [to me]”), pegging it (running away, perhaps related to “legging it”?), and kegs (trousers). The playground game of “tag” was called “tig”. “Nosh” switched from being a noun to a verb. And when you wanted somebody to stop doing something, you’d invariably use the imperative “pack it in!”

And it’s that last one that spawned the worst joke I ever heard. Try, if you can, to imagine the words “pack it in”, spoken quickly, in a broad Lancashire accent, by a young child. And then appreciate this exchange, which was disturbingly common in my primary school:

Child 1: Pack it in!

Child 2: Pakis don’t come in tins. They come from India.

In case it’s too subtle for you, the “joke” stems from the phonetic similarity, especially in the dialect in question, between the phrase “pack it in” and the phrase “paki tin”.

An opened food tin.
Unless the recent horsemeat scandal investigation takes a dramatic and unexpected twist, we can be pretty sure that this item contains no people from Pakistan.

In case you need to ask why this is the worst joke I ever heard, allow me to explain in detail everything that’s wrong with it.

It’s needlessly racist

Now I don’t believe that race is necessarily above humour – and the same goes for gender, sexuality, religion, politics, etc. But there’s difference between using a racial slur to no benefit (think: any joke containing the word “nigger” or “polak”), and jokes which make use of race. Here’s one of my favourite jokes involving race:

The Pope goes on a tour of South Africa, and he’s travelling in his Popemobile alongside a large river when he catches sight of a black man in the river. The man is struggling and screaming as he tries in vain to fight off a huge crocodile. Suddenly, the Pope sees two white men leap into the water, drag the man and the crocodile to land, and beat the crocodile to death with sticks, saving the black man’s life.

The Pope, impressed, goes over to where the two men are standing. “That was the most wonderful thing to do,” his holiness says. “You put yourselves at risk to kill the crocodile and save the life of your fellow man. I can see that it is men like you who will rebuild this country as an example to the world of true racial harmony.”

The Pope goes on his way. “Who was that?” asks one of the white men.

The other replies: “That was the Pope. He is in direct communication with God. He knows everything.”

“Maybe,” says the first, “But he knows fuck all about crocodile fishing!”

The butt of this joke is not race, but racists. In this example, the joke does not condone the actions of the ‘crocodile fishers’: in fact, it contrasts them (through the Pope’s mistake in understanding) to the opposite state of racial harmony. It does not work to reinforce stereotypes. Oh, and it’s funny: that’s always a benefit in a joke. Contrast to jokes about negative racial sterotypes or using offensive terms for no value other than for the words themselves: these types of jokes can serve to reinforce the position of actual racists who see their use (and acceptance) as reinforcement for their position, and – if you enjoy them – it’s worth asking yourself what that says about you, or might be seen to say about you.

"Bit it's asbestos it gets!" Click for full comic.
Among its other faults, the worst joke I ever heard relies upon an incredibly weak pun. It even makes this comic, by Completely Serious Comics, look good. [click for full comic]

It’s an incredibly weak pun

What would “paki tin” even mean, if that were what the first child had meant? It’s not as if we say “beans tin” or “soup tin” or “peas tin”. Surely, if this piece of wordplay were to make any sense whatsoever, it would have to be based on the phrase “tin of pakis”, which I’m pretty sure nobody has ever said before, ever.

To illustrate, let me have a go at making a pun-based joke without the requirement that the pun actually make sense:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Yoodough.

Yoodough who?

Youdough not understand how jokes are supposed to work, do you?

You see? Not funny (except perhaps in the most dadaist of humour circles). It’s not funny because Yoodough isn’t actually a name. The format of the joke is ruined by balancing a pun against a phrase that just doesn’t exist. Let’s try again, but this time actually make the pun make sense (note that it’s still a knock knock joke, and therefore it probably still isn’t funny, except in an academic way):

Knock knock

Who’s there?

Yuri.

Yuri who?

Yuri-ly expect me to laugh at this, do you?

It’s stupidly inaccurate

Let’s just stop and take a look at that punchline again, shall we: “Pakis… come from India.” Even ignoring everything else that’s wrong with this joke, this is simply… wrong! Now that’s not to say that jokes always have to reflect reality. Here’s a classic joke that doesn’t:

Lion woke up one morning with an overbearing desire to remind his fellow creatures that he was king of the jungle. So he marched over to a monkey and roared: “Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?”

“You are, Master,” said the monkey, quivering.

Then the lion came across a wildebeest.

“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.

“You are, Master,” answered the wildebeest, shaking with fear.

Next the lion met an elephant.

“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.

The elephant grabbed the lion with his trunk, slammed him repeatedly against a tree, dropped him like a stone and ambled off.

“All right,” shouted the lion. “There’s no need to turn nasty just because you don’t know the answer.”

Aside from the suspension of disbelief required for the dialogues to function at all – none of these animals are known to be able to talk! – there’s an underlying issue that lions don’t live in jungles. But who cares! That’s not the point of the joke.

A jungle containing no lions.
Count the lions in this picture. If you found no lions, then you counted correctly. If you got any other number, try again.

In the case of the “paki” joke, the problem could easily be corrected by saying “…they come from Pakistan.” It’d still probably be the worst joke I ever heard, but at least it’d be trying to improve itself. I remember being about 8 or 9 and explaining this to a classmate, but he wasn’t convinced. As I remember it, he called me a belm and left it at that.

So that’s the worst joke I ever heard. And now you’ve heard it, you can rest assured that every joke you hear from me – no matter how corny, obscure, long-winded or pun-laden – will at least be better than that one.

Here’s one last joke, for now:

A woman gets on a bus with her baby. “Ugh!” says the bus driver, “That’s got to be the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!”

The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming and close to tears. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me! I’m so upset!”

“You go up there and tell him off,” the man replies, “Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

On This Day In 1999

Looking Back

On this day in 1999 I sent out the twenty-eighth of my Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth emails. I wasn’t blogging at the time (although I did have a blog previously), but these messages-back-home served a similar purpose, if only for a select audience. You can read more about them in my last On This Day to discuss them or the one before.

For technical reasons, this particular Cool Things Of The Day appears to have been sent on 27th October, but in actual fact I know that the events it describes took place on 5th November 1999. The obvious clue? The fireworks! I knew that Cool Thing Of The Day as shown here on my blog was out-of-sync with reality, but this particular entry gives a great indication of exactly how much it’s out by. And no, I can’t be bothered to correct it.

Back in 1999 I started as a student at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University), moved away from home, and had a fantastic time. One bonfire night, I called up two new friends of mine – Rory and Sandra – and persuaded them that we should wander over to nearby Trefechan and climb the hill (Pen Dinas) there to watch the fireworks. It was a wild and windy night, and certainly not the conditions to climb an unknown and occasionally-treacherous hill, but we weren’t dissuaded: we set out!

You know those films or sitcoms where the protagonist (usually through their own stupidity) ends up on a date with two people at the same time, trying to keep each unaware of the other? That’s what I felt like at the time: because (though neither of them knew this at the time) I had an incredible crush on both of them. Of course: back then I was far shyer and far less-good at expressing myself, so this remained the case for a little while longer. Still: my inexperienced younger self still manged to make it feel to me like a precarious situation that I could easily balls-up. Perhaps I should have better thought-out the folks I invited out that night…

A storm blew in furiously, and the fireworks launched from the town scattered around, buffeted and shaken and only occasionally still flying upwards when they exploded. The rain lashed down and soaked us through our coats. We later found ourselves huddled around a radiator in The Fountain (under its old, old ownership), where the barman and the regulars couldn’t believe that we’d been up Pen Denis in the

Looking Forward

A little later, I got to have a ludicrously brief fling with one of the pair, but I was fickle and confused and ballsed it up pretty quickly. Instead, I fell into a relationship with my old friend-with-benefits Reb, which in the long run turned out to be a very bad chapter of my life.

Trefechan – exotically across the river from the rest of Aberystwyth – didn’t seem so far away after a few more years in Aberystwyth… only a stone’s throw from Rummers! But for three new students, just a couple of months into their new home, lost and drunk and fumbling their way using an outdated map and seeing by firework-light, it was an exciting adventure. In 2004, SmartData (my employer at that time) moved into their new premises, right over the road from The Fountain and in the shadow of Pen Denis. The Technium turned out to be a pretty good place for SmartData, and it suited me, too. Some days in the summer, when it was warm and sunny, I’d leave work and take a walk up Pen Dinas. It wasn’t the same without the fireworks, the company, or the mystery of being somewhere for the very first time, but it’s still a great walk.

Sometimes I’d go up there in the rain, too.

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

Edinburgh 2012 – Day One (was: On The Fringe)

As I indicated when I made a map of Free Fringe venues the other week: Ruth, JTA and I are this week back in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival.

JTA and I on Preston train station (platform 4), waiting for the train to Edinburgh.
JTA and I on Preston train station (platform 4), waiting for the train to Edinburgh. We drove as far as Preston, briefly visited my family, and then took the train the rest of the way, in an example of perhaps the most-eccentric “Park & Ride” concept ever.

This is the first time we’ve been up here together since 2007, a year in which we watched a lot less comedy than we’d intended but did end up coming home and having to explain that somewhere along the way that Ruth, JTA, Claire and I had transformed from two couples into four couples in a complicated but fun polyamorous way. Later, I compiled some of the reactions we’d had to that news, in case you’re feeling nostalgic and want to see.

The flat we're renting towers above most of the surrounding buildings.
The flat we’re renting towers above most of the surrounding buildings. It’s reasonably quiet for its very-central location, but it makes up for this by having a narrow spiral staircase and no elevator…

Wasting no time, we arrived, hooked up with Matt R (who’s also up here for the Fringe), and went off to our first show: Peter Buckley Hill, of course, with his new the repeat of his 1994 show, titled “It’s Shite, Not Sh*te”. Buckers was on form again, of course, and we laughed and sang along with all of his classic shite.

Matt, JTA and Ruth in the front row at a Peter Buckley Hill show.
Matt, JTA and Ruth in the front row at a Peter Buckley Hill show (although, admittedly, not the one that I just mentioned but one in which the photo came out better…).

Later, Matt and I caught Tesco Chainsaw Massacre, a comedy piece billed as “spoken word”, which had some funny and clever ideas but could perhaps do with a little refinement, and a remarkably wonderful queer performance poet named Sophia Blackwell, from whom I later bought two books.

A quick booze-up break back at the flat.
A quick booze-up break back at the flat, and then we’re on the move once more…

We were rejoined by JTA for Thom Tuck‘s Free Fringe show, Straight To DVD. This… was simply spectacular. Perhaps the best show I’ve ever seen at the Edinburgh Fringe, Thom’s encyclopaedic analysis of straight-to-DVD Disney movies (interspersed with tales of his sad and tragic love life) is one of the best things that I’ve ever seen at the Fringe.

So yeah: that was Day One for us at the Edinburgh Fringe. An epic start to the holiday.

Three Parties

I’ve had a few weekends fully of party. It’s no wonder I’m knackered.

Andy’s 30th

First, there was Andy‘s 30th birthday. Ruth, JTA and I slogged our way over to Cardiff to celebrate in style with pizza, booze, and dancing.

Dancing to Black Lace at Andy's 30th birthday.
Dancing to Black Lace at Andy’s 30th birthday.

Siân‘s got more to say on the subject, but suffice it to say this: it’s been a long, long time since I’ve found myself dancing in a nightclub until half past two in the morning, then grabbing a thoroughly disgusting-looking (but remarkably good-tasting) portion of fried food as an after-club snack. Oh, and Alec drooled all over himself long before he ended up sharing a bed with me.

Honestly, I didn’t think I had it in me to party like that any more: I’m such an old man (having myself turned thirty a good year and a bit prior). Didn’t stop me from getting up before anybody else the following morning for a quick geocaching expedition, though…

Summer Party On Earth

The following weekend was the Summer Party On Earth: an event that started out with Ruth saying “Let’s have a summer party!” and finished as a nostalgia-themed marathon of epic proportions.

This… was a party with everything. It had kids’ toys like Brio wooden railway, Lego bricks, and a marble run; it had soup and buffets and a barbeque and cakes; it had board games and party games and drinking games; it had beer and wine and cocktails; it had the world’s tiniest and most-nettley geocaching expedition… and from the time that we first started entertaining guests to the moment that the last of them left, it lasted for an exhausting 36 hours.

Some early guests play Ca$h 'N' Gun$, a live-action game of gun-toting gangsters.
Some early guests play Ca$h ‘N’ Gun$, a live-action game of gun-toting gangsters.

It was particularly interesting to get together with people from all of our varied social circles: workmates, former workmates, local friends, distant friends, partners of friends… all kinds of random folks coming to one place and – for example – pointing foam guns at one another.

Gareth, Rory and Adam put the finishing touches on their (second) wooden railway layout.
Gareth, Rory and Adam put the finishing touches on their (second) wooden railway layout. I’m pretty sure we ‘lost’ them for more than half of the party as they disappeared into the ‘playroom’.

In order to help us identify, classify, and dispose of some of the vast collection of booze that Ruth has recently inherited, JTA invented a drinking game. What can I say about it? Well: it certainly brought us all a lot closer together to suffer through some of the drinks we were served…

Everything seems a little blurry, and Alec isn't grimacing as much as he did with some of the other drinks he's been forced to try.
Everything seems a little blurry, and Alec isn’t grimacing as much as he did with some of the other drinks he’s been forced to try.

As usual for any party at which Ruth caters, everybody was required to consume their own weight in (delicious, delicious) desserts, and we only just finished eating the very last of the party food, almost two weeks later.

Matthew & Katherine’s Wedding

Finally, then, just the weekend after that, was the wedding of two folks I know via the Oxford Quakers: Matthew and Katherine.

Matthew and Katherine cut the cake in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House.
Matthew and Katherine cut the cake in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House.

I turned down the curious “What to expect at a Quaker wedding” leaflet as I entered: after all, I felt like an old-hand now, after helping make Ruth & JTA’s wedding into one of the most spectacular events ever. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have, because every wedding is as different as every bride and groom, and Matthew and Katherine’s was no exception. They’d clearly put so much thought into exactly what it is they wanted to do to celebrate their special day, and – with their help of their friends and family – had pulled everything together into a beautiful and remarkable occasion.

The céilidh. More weddings should have cèilidhean.
The céilidh. More weddings should have cèilidhean.

For me, particular highlights included:

  • One of the most adorable couples ever.
  • Not just a “vegetarian-friendly” meal, but one where vegetarianism was the norm (and guests were required to state if this wasn’t okay for them).
  • Catching up with folks who I don’t see as much of these days as I might like (and meeting new people, too).
  • A céilidh! More weddings should have these (although it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a “first dance” where the bride and groom were given instructions on what steps to do right before the music started).

Three Rings – Then And Now

Those of you who’ve been following Three Rings over the last decade (either because you’ve volunteered somewhere that used it, or because you’ve listened to me rave about it over the years) might be interested in this new post on the Three Rings blog. It’s about how Three Rings has evolved over the last 10+ years of its life from a tiny system designed specifically for the needs of Aberystwyth Nightline into the super-powerful charity management tool that it is today, and how it’ll continue to evolve to meet the needs of the helplines and other charities that use it for the next ten years.

Three Rings as it appeared about seven years ago.
Three Rings as it appeared about seven years ago. Do you remember this?

It still blows my mind that something that began as a bedroom project has come to support over 13,000 volunteers around the UK, Ireland, and further afield (we’ve recently been getting started with supporting Samaritans branches in New Zealand and Australia). Now, of course, Three Rings is a volunteer-driven company with a “core” team of half a dozen or so… as well as tens of others who help with testing. It’s eaten tens of thousands of development hours and it’s become bigger and more-important than I’d ever dreamed. Of all of the volunteer work I’ve been involved with, it’s easily the one that’s helped the most people and had the biggest impact upon the world, and it still excites me to be part of something so huge.

So here’s to another ten years. Do go and read the post on the Three Rings blog if you’d like to see more retro screenshots.

Eurovision Spectacular 2012

As I’m sure you’re aware, Saturday marks the final of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the musical highlight of the year. You may also know that there’s been a long tradition among our group of friends to have a Eurovision Party to mark the ocassion, generally hosted by Adam. If you’ve somehow missed this event, then here’s some background reading that might help you understand how it came to be what it is: me, 2005; Liz, 2005; Paul, 2005Adam, 2006; Adam, 2007 (1); me, 2007; Adam, 2007 (2); Matt R, 2007; Adam on Paul’s blog, 2008Adam, 2008; Adam, 2010; Adam, 2011; me, 2011. Like I said… a long history.

For the last few years, though, the population of Aberystwyth has been dwindling, and Adam’s parties have turned from an immense hard-to-squeeze-everybody-in ordeal to a far more civilised affair. While simultaneously, groups of ex-Aberystwyth people (like those of us down in Oxford, and those who are up in the North) have been having their own splinter satellite parties.

And you know what? I miss doing Eurovision Night with you guys. So this year, we’re going to try to bring Eurovision Night back to its roots… with technology!

Google+ Hangouts
Google+ Hangouts. One of the technologies that will bring us closer this Eurovision Night.

Here’s where the parties are at, this year:

  • Adam’s house, in Aberystwyth – mission control
  • New Earth, in Oxford (hosted by Ruth, JTA, and I) – technical operations
  • …and… anybody else having one this year? One of you up in the North, perhaps?

If you’re one of the usual crew, or one of our newer friends, come on over and join the party! Or if you’re going to be watching from further North (Liz? Simon? Gareth? Penny? Matt? Matt? Kit? Fi?), let me know so that I can bring you in on my proposals for “sharing the experience”, drawing together our votes, and whatnot.

And regardless of whether you’ll be joining one of these parties in person, or not, I hope you’ll be joining The Party at Adam’s and The Party on New Earth digitally. If you’re among the 17 people who are actually on Google+, come and join us in our Hangout! Dust off that old webcam and point it at you or your little party, make sure you’re in Adam or I’s “circles”, and then log in on Eurovision Night and join us via the power of the Internet! You’ll have to provide your own crisps and beer, and (unless you’re at Adam’s) you’ll need to bake your own cupcakes with adorable European-flag icing, too, but at least you can be part of the moment with the rest of us.

See you online!