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.

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.

On This Day In 2005

Looking Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On This Day in 2040

Looking Forward

On this day in 2040 I first managed to get my Internet Time Portal working. It’s been a long time coming, but my efforts have finally paid off. The trick was just to run The Wayback Machine in reverse, which just required the integration of my flux capacitor with the webserver. Thankfully, Apache 5‘s plugin architecture’s made it pretty easy, but I’ve already talked about how time-travel/webserver integration works back in my blog posts at the end of 2039, so I won’t bore you with them all again.

Despite what I said about password security back in 2011, I haven’t actually changed the password for my blog in 28 years, so it was the obvious target for my first reverse-websurfing experiment. That’s why past-me will be surprised to find this article posted to his blog, now that I’ve connected back in time and posted it. And I know he’ll be surprised, because I was.

In fact, it was probably this moment – this surprising moment back in April 2012 – that first made me realise that reverse-chronological web access was possible. That’s why I spent most of the next three decades cracking the secret and finally working out a way to send information back in time through the Internet.

Looking Back

There’s so much potential for this new technology. I’m hoping that soon the technology will evolve to the point where I’ll even be able to use ancient and outdated Internet protocols like “Facebook” (remember that fad?) to actually communicate directly with the people of the early 21st century. Just think of what we can learn from them!

After the second coming of Jesus in 2028 resulted in the deletion the mysterious “Video R” from the entire Internet, as well as from the minds of everybody on Earth, we’ve only been able to speculate what this mysterious media contained. Whatever it was, it was something so offensive to our Lord and Saviour that He saw fit to wipe it from the face of the Earth… but you can’t help but be curious, can’t you? Of course, those of you reading this back in 2012 can still see the video, you lucky lucky guys.

The possibilities are limitless. As soon as I’ve finished making this post, I’ll be trying to make contact with the past version of myself and see if past-Dan is capable of looking up this Wikipedia article for me: for some reason I can’t get access to it now, in 2040…

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

On This Day In 2011

Looking Back

On this day in 2011 I launched FreeDeedPoll.org.uk, a site that tries to make it as easy as possible for British citizens to change their names (and have those new names accepted as being legally-recognised).

Generate free UK deeds of name change at freedeedpoll.org.uk.

The thing that people often don’t realise is that, as a British citizen, you have the right to be known by pretty-much any name you like. You don’t need a solicitor to change your name. You don’t even need any money. You can just start using it. A deed poll, which you can make all by yourself for free, is just a piece of paper on which you write a promise that you consider your “new” name to be your primary moniker, and not your “old” one.

Over the last year, almost 3,000 deed polls have been generated using the site, including ones for my partner Ruth (who opted to keep her maiden name as a middle name after she got married) and my friend Jen (who now has among the coolest – and most hippyish – collection of names I’ve ever seen). As to how many of the other thousands of deed polls have actually been used, I simply don’t know: as a commitment to privacy, no logs are kept of the names people enter onto the form, so for all I know there are 2,000 all the same and 998 “blank” submissions.

Looking Forward

I’ve become a minor Internet guru on the topic of name changes, it turns out. The other week, a transgendered stranger contacted me via the “chat to Dan” link, to ask about the legal aspects of their (slightly more-complex than most) case for changing their name. And because I’m a fan of helping people, I did a little research with them in order to find the answers. I felt the need to keep stressing that IANAL, but I’m pretty sure I managed to help, anyway.

And over the New Year, when there were a few days of downtime for the site (I was part of an exodus of domains from my SOPA-supporing previous registrar, and they made the process difficult), I received messages from people asking when it would be back up again, so it’s obviously getting some use.

Most recently, a few days ago, a stranger emailed me asking for advice on the legal issues in changing the names of his children. After doing the necessary research, I’m now thinking of expanding the site to make this easier, too.

A (sample) deed poll document generated by freedeedpoll.org.uk.

A strange feeling for me has been that this project is, and has been for the last year, “finished”. I’m not very good at finishing technical projects: one of the biggest and most important things that I’ve worked on – Three Rings – is now in its tenth year and shows no sign of being “finished”. So it feels odd to have developed a website that’s complete, done and dusted, and probably won’t require more than a modicum of maintenance over the coming decades to keep it running.

It’s good, though, that I’ve been able to help people with something about which far too many are underinformed. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, and I like it.

To mark the ocassion, I’ve updated the open-source version of the tool so that it works “out of the box”: it now includes all of the (free) fonts you need to get started, and can be used without setting up reCAPTCHA if you like. For more information about the history of the project, see my project page about it.

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

On This Day In 1999

Looking Back

On this day in 1999 I sent out the twelfth of my Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth e-mails. I wasn’t blogging at the time, although I did have a blog previously, but I felt that it would be nice to do something to help keep in touch with my friends and family “back home”, so I came up with Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth. I’ve written about it a little in a previous On This Day post.

On this particular day, I’d just finished downloading a copy of The Matrix, that fantastic cyber/action movie that spawned a huge string of memes and won the love and praise of geeks and action-flick junkies everywhere. The movie remains a pinnacle of great filmmaking, with its’ adventurous direction (remember when bullet time was still new and exciting?), funky soundtrack, and cleverer-than-average twists… for a film full of guns.

I’d not been at the University long, and I was making the most of the huge amount of bandwidth that seemed to be available: for the first time ever, I was able to download music (of a appreciable bitrate) faster than I could listen to it (the boundary at which “streaming” becomes feasible). Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet splashed out on new hardware, so downloading a 1.4GB film quickly became a drain on my hard drive, which will have probably been in the region of about 20GB total. But it didn’t matter, because it was cool. “Look at me, I’m a l33t haxxor like Neo!” I never actually uttered those words, but I might as well have.

I soon went and bought a copy of The Matrix – one of the first DVDs I owned – if only to save on hard drive space. I also burned my second ever student loan cheque on a beefy new computer of a specification so high that nobody I knew had even seen such a thing before: including a massive 500MHz processor (or as we’d call it nowadays, a “half-gigahertz”).

Later, friends and coursemates Rory, Huw, John, Dom would join me in producing a 15-minute spoof of The Matrix as part of our entry for the University of Wales, Aberystwyth’s Student Skills Competition. We won best presentation. This in gave me the opportunity to help out with the Student Skills Competition and networked me to the person who eventually introduced me to the guy who would eventually become my boss at SmartData. It’s amazing how these little things link together, isn’t it?

Looking Forward

Later still, no sequels were made to The Matrix, thankfully. You heard me: no sequels were made. Especially not Reloaded. Okay, okay: they made The Animatrix. But they certainly didn’t make any video games.

Nowadays, I keep a little over 2TB of storage space in my primary computer, but I still manage to fill it somehow – one of my drives ended up with only 5GB of free space just the other month, and needed a big tidy-up. Or, as they’ll call it in another twelve years: 0.00005PB.

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

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.

On This Day In 2003

Looking Back

On this day in 2003, I first launched this weblog! That means it’s eight years old today! I’d bought the scatmania.org domain name some time earlier with the intention of setting up a vanity site separately from my sub-site on the avangel.com domain, during a rush on cheap domain names perpetrated by some of the friends I’d lived with in Penbryn, but never found a significant use for it until this day. It was at about the same time that I first set up (the long-defunct) penbryn-hall.co.uk, a parody of Penbryn’s website launched as an April Fools joke against the hall, which eventually got me into some trouble with the management committee of the halls. Some friends and I had made it a tradition of ours to play pranks around the residence: our most famous one was probably 2003’s joke, in which we made a legitimate room inspection out to be an April Fools joke, with significant success.

scatmania.org in August 2003. The theme is simplistic, and the blog itself is powered by a custom-built PHP engine back-ending onto a stack of flat files. It worked, just about, but it wasn't great.

In my initial blog post, I took care to point out that this wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination my first foray into blogging. In actual fact, I’d run a weblog, The Åvatar Diary, for a few years back in college: a few fragments of this still exist and are archived here, too. I suppose that this means that, ignoring the occasional gap, I’ve been blogging for almost thirteen years. The Åvatar Diary died after an incident with a rather creepy stalker: remember that this was in 1999, back in the day when Creep Internet Stalkers were still new and exciting, and I panicked slightly and shut the Diary down after my stalker turned up in person somewhere that I’d hinted that I might be in a post.

I didn’t mention the new site launch, to begin with, hoping that folks might just “pick up on it” having re-appeared (I’d been promising to launch something at that domain for ages). Later, I launched Abnib, in an attempt to unite the LiveJournal users with whom I associated with those of us who hosted our own blogs. Abnib still runs, after a fashion, although I’m likely to let it die a natural death as soon as it wants to.

scatmania.org in November 2005. The site looked a lot more professional by now, and was beginning to sport the thick blue header that was it's hallmark all the way up to 2010.

Looking Forward

So here I am, eight years later, still blogging on the same domain. The frequency with which I write has waxed and waned over the years, but I still find that it’s just about the best way for me to keep in touch with my friends and to keep them posted about what’s going on in my life: it’s unintrusive and can be dipped in and out of, it’s accessible to everybody, and – because I host it on my own domain – it’s under my control. That’s a million points in its favour over, say, Facebook, and it’s nice to know that it’ll exist for exactly as long as I want it to.

A recent screenshot of scatmania.org. Whoah: this has all gone a bit recursive.

It also provides a great “starting point” by which people find me. Google for me by name or by many of the aliases I go by and you’ll find this site, which I think is just great: if people are trying to find me online I’m happiest knowing that the first pages they’ll get to are pages that I control, and on which I write what I want to: I’ll bet U.S. Senator Rick Santorum wishes that he had that.

I enjoy blogging about geeky stuff that interests me, things that are going on in my life, and my ocassional and random thoughts about life, the universe, and everything (with a particular focus on technology and relationships). It’s put me in contact with some strange people – from pizza delivery guys who used to bring me food on Troma Nights back in Aber to crazy Internet stalkers and confused Indian programmers – and it’s helped me keep in touch with the people closest to me. And because I’m a nostalgic beast, as this and similar posts show, it’s a great excuse to back-link my way down memory lane from time to time, too.

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

On This Day in 2002 (New Job!)

This will be the first time I’ve ever written an On This Day post where I haven’t been able to link back to a blog post that I actually wrote in the year in question. That’s because, in 2002, I was “between blogs”: the only thing I wrote about online that I still have a copy of was the imminent re-launch of AvAngel.com, my vanity site at the time. In that post, however, I did mention that I’d re-written my CV, which was relevant to what was going on in my life in March 2002…

Looking Back

On this day in 2002, I first began working for SmartData, my primary employer for the last nine years. A few months earlier, Reb – my girlfriend whom I’d moved in with in 2001 – and I had broken up, and I’d recently found the opportunity to visit Aberystwyth and visit friends there (the trip during which I first met Claire, although we didn’t get together until a little later). On that same trip to Aber, I also met Simon, who at that point had recently accepted a voluntary redundancy from the Rural Studies department of the University and was getting started with the launch of his software company, SmartData. He’d recently landed a contract with the National Dairy Farm Assured Scheme and needed an extra pair of hands on board to help out with it.

Sorting out premises was coming along somewhat slower than he’d planned, though. As part of the SpinOut Wales scheme, SmartData had been offered cheap accommodation in a University-owned building, but they were dragging their feet with the paperwork. On our first day working together, Simon and I crammed into his tiny home office, shoulder-to-shoulder, to hack code together. The arrangement didn’t last long before we got sick of it, and we “moved in” to the room (that would eventually be legitimately ours) at Peithyll, a former farmhouse in the village of Capel Dewi, near Aberystwyth.

The entrance to Peithyll, where SmartData established itself for much of the first six years of its life. It was quite a cycle to get out there every day, but in the summer it made for a great office: not many people can sit at their desk and watch red kites hunting outside, or go for a lunchtime walk up a hill with a picnic.

Over the last nine years since, as the company has grown, I’ve always felt like a core part of it, shaping it’s direction. As we transitioned from developing primarily desktop applications to primarily web-based applications, and as we switched from mostly proprietary technologies to mostly open-source technologies, I was pointing the way. By working with a wide variety of different clients, I’ve learned a great deal about a number of different sectors that I’d never dreamed I’d come into contact with: farm assurance schemes, legal processes, genetic testing, human resource allocation, cinema and theatre, and more. It’s been a wonderfully broad and interesting experience.

Looking Forward

When I began making plans to move to Oxford, I initially anticipated that I’d need to find work over here. But Simon stressed that my presence was important to SmartData, and offered to allow me to work remotely, from home, which is most of what I’ve been doing for the last year or so. Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, this has worked reasonably well: VoIP phones keep us in touch, tunneling and virtual networks allow us to work as if we were all in the same location, and webcams help us feel like we’re not quite so far from one another.

But this wasn’t to be a permanent solution: just a way to allow me to keep contributing to SmartData for as long as possible. Last week, I was offered and accepted a new job with a new employer, here in Oxford.  Starting in April, I’ll be managing the administration and the ongoing development of the website of the Bodleian Libraries, the deposit library associated with Oxford University.

My new office, right in the heart of Oxford. It looks a lot less green, and a lot more prestigious, than Peithyll.

It’s a huge change, going from working as part of a tiny team in a West Wales town to working with hundreds of people at one of the largest employers in Oxford. I’ve no doubt that it’ll take some getting used to: for a start, I’m going to have to get into the habit of getting dressed before I go to work – something I could get away with while working from home and that might even have been tolerated in the office at SmartData, as long as I threw on a towel or something (in fact, I have on more than one occasion taken a shower in the SmartData offices, then sat at my desk, wrapped in towels, until I’d dried off a little).

This feels like a huge turning point in my life: a whole new chapter – or, perhaps the completion of the “turning a page” that moving to Oxford began. My new job is a brand new position, which provides an exciting opportunity to carve a Dan-shaped hole, and I’ll be working with some moderately-exciting technologies on some very exciting projects. I’m sure I’ll have more to say once I’m settled in, but for now I’ll just say “Squeee!” and be done with it.

Oh: and for those of you who follow such things, you’ll note that Matt P has just announced his new job, too. Although he’s a sloppy blogger: he’s actually been working there for a little while already.

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

On This Day In 2004

A little bit tongue-in-cheek, this one.

Looking Back

On this day in 2004, I’d just finished my first marathon session of playing Half-Life 2, a spectacular new video game that quickly became one of the best-selling computer games ever. Despite New Year celebrations and other distractions, I managed to sit and play the game for a couple of days and finished it very soon after.

The launch of the game was delayed – I’d pre-ordered it 17 months before it eventually got released – after being plagued with development difficulties. One of the many delays to it’s launch was blamed on the theft of part of the source code: I remember joking, after the thief had been caught, that now that they’d got the code back they’d be able to release the game, right?

Meanwhile, Paul swore that he would have nothing to do with the digital distribution platform – Steam – that remains the only way to get a legitimate copy of Half-Life 2. On his blog – then on LiveJournal – he listed all of the many problems that he saw with Steam, and I countered a few of them in an argument in the comments. For years to come, he’d go on to refuse to play some of the most fantastic computer games to be released on principle.

Looking Forward

Things change. I can’t remember the last time I saw Paul playing a video game that he didn’t buy on Steam, for one (except for a handful that he bought from Good Old Games – which is well worth visiting, if you haven’t already).

Some things stay the same: Half-Life 2 remains one of the best first-person shooters ever made, and has been followed by two spectacular sequels (Episode 1 and Episode 2) and a number of spin-offs (including the mind-blowingly awesome Portal, which stole my life for a while, although not for long enough to make my 2007 list of life-stealing games). We’re still all waiting on the much-delayed Episode 3, though…

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

On This Day In 2009

Looking Back

On this day in 2009 I’d just announced that Claire and I had broken up after our seven year relationship. I attacked Virgil‘s omnia vincit amor (love conquers all), countering that our love for one another was not sufficient to prevent the difficulties we’d been having. That the breakup was among the most structured, carefully-negotiated, and amicable of I’ve ever heard detracted only a little from the pain of the ending of the romantic part of our relationship.

You’ll note that I’ve always been careful not to say that our relationship ended, because it didn’t. It changed: we transitioned (bumpily, and with difficulty) from a romantic relationship to a friendly relationship. You’ll also notice that I don’t use the term “just” friends unless that clarification is absolutely necessary (after all, why are friends “just” friends: what’s wrong with friends? – I’ve another blog post on this very topic under construction).

Looking Forward

It’s gotten easier, over this last year, to deal with the breakup: but it’s still hard. We had a huge place in one another’s lives, and that doesn’t simply evaporate. From my perspective, at least, I still feel at least a little bit “derailed”: like, if you asked me 18 months ago about where I’d be living now, or what I’d be doing, then I wouldn’t be able to say with any certainty that it would be this life I now have. That’s not to say I’m not happy: I’m enjoying what I’m doing now (although a little more free time wouldn’t go amiss!). It’s merely that I haven’t yet fully got used to the fact that I’m not quite living in accordance with the same plans that I used to have.

There are folks who’ve criticised our breakup, saying that we’d both have recovered from it better had we tried harder not to keep in contact, not to remain friendly, etc. I don’t know whether I agree or not – but I dispute that it would have necessarily been better. One thing that’s actually been really helpful over the last year (for me, at least, and I’d guess for Claire too) is that we’ve been able to get support from one another. That’s a remarkable and unusual thing: but then, we were a remarkable and unusual couple.

And isn’t supporting one another what friends do?

Getting better all the time. Sorry to mope.

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

On This Day In 1999

Looking Back

On this day in 1999 I sent out the fourth of my Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth e-mails. I wasn’t blogging at the time (although I did have a blog previously), but I felt that it would be nice to do something to help keep in touch with my friends and family “back home”, so I came up with Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth. Every day I’d send back a bulk e-mail about something that I’d gotten up to during my first months at the University. Some of them were pretty tame, but some were more spectacular, like the time some of my hallmates and I tried to steal a golf course, piece by piece. Many of them just appear dated, like the one where I balk at having over 3.25GB of digital music. I was having a great time, and I wanted to share it with my friends, even when my college-mate Richard wrote to say that he didn’t believe me.

When I finally got around to re-integrating my old blog entries (well, the ones I could recover) from the last millennium into my new blog, I also decided to include the Cool Thing Of The Day, with a few minor amendments.

The dates on many of them aren’t actually accurate, because when I re-imported them I made the assumption that I sent one every day, which wasn’t the case (it was actually one every two or three days, and they went on into 2000, which isn’t correctly reflected any longer). However, the date for this particular one is pretty close. On this day in 1999, I bought tickets to see Craig Charles during his Live On Earth tour, at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

Looking Forward

When we actually went to see Craig Charles, it was after a couple of heavy nights partying all around the UK, to celebrate the birthdays of my friends Andy and Reb (Reb would later go on to become my girlfriend, although we had a friends-with-benefits arrangement going on for a long while before then). We started the party in a few London pubs and a club, and then Andy and my friend Gary sobered up as fast as they could to drive back to Aberystwyth, arriving just before the sunrise, while Reb and I took the train behind them.

Cool Thing Of The Day died in January, after I became bored of it and was finding it harder and harder to do new and cool things that would justify keeping it on. Many of my friendships with the people who received the newsletter waned, but I still keep in touch with most of the recipients of it, albeit only occasionally.

Craig Charles was pretty good. He later went down to the Glengower Hotel bar and apparently got into a fight with a local.

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

On This Day In 2003

Looking Back

On this day in 2003 I wrote a short blog post about a very important event in the lives of two of my friends. This was the end of the week during which Fiona came down to visit us in Aberystwyth: the week where she first met Kit in person. And the week where they became a couple.

In my blog post at the time that it had been a long time since I’d seen Kit so happy. Normally a reasonably controlled and sedate young man, his mood this week could be better described as “bouncing off the walls”. He’d had a hard few months of unemployment, and the contrast in his mood was spectacular. I also noted at the time that I’d never seen Kit so loved-up: the closest I’ve ever seen him to that sickening lovey-dovey phase that many new couples go through was at about that time.

Kit wrote about the event, too, in his usual charming style; almost downplaying the significance of this awesome event by starting the post with a deadpan explanation, “Well its been an interesting few days. Somewhat busy too – which explains at least partially the lack of posts.”

Looking Forward

Kit & Fiona married in October 2004, and the same folks who’d been around when they first got together made a spectacular road trip all the way to the North of Scotland for the wedding. They still live in Scotland, and we see a lot less of them than we would like. They came down to Aberystwyth early this year, though, and introduced us all to geocaching, for which nobody has yet forgiven them.

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

On This Day In 2006

Looking Back

On this day in 2006 I’d just come to the end of a long weekend of coding and socialising. The code project was, of course, Three Rings, and Bryn and Gareth were helping out with the big push to make the initial release Three Rings 2 a success.

Three Rings is, of course, a project to streamline the administration of helpline services (like  Samaritans) by making it easier for them to manage their rota and volunteer resources. I kicked the project off back in 2002 (based on an idea that Kit and I had discussed as early as 2000), initially only for Aberystwyth Nightline – with whom I was then a volunteer – but it quickly spread and within a few years had become the de facto system for Nightlines everywhere. Later, my work with expanding and enhancing Three Rings comprised a part of my University dissertation.

Among the problems with that early version of Three Rings, though, was that it had never been designed to scale, and so eventually the time came to throw it out and develop a new one, from scratch, in the then up-and-coming Ruby on Rails framework. Gareth was a huge help in the early development, and Bryn got burdened with the task of coming up with a means to convert the data between the old system and the new system, migrating our users across: a horrendous task, because the two systems used completely incompatible data storage mechanisms, and the old system was riddled with quirks and workarounds. This weekend, back in 2006, was the cumulation of that work: Bryn hacking away on his Project: Rosetta system, a stack of Perl programs to translate the data… while Gareth and I made progress on redeveloping features for the new system.

It wasn’t all work, though: we also all took a trip up to nearby Ynyslas, a little way North of Aberystwyth, for a barbeque on the sweeping sand dunes there. As my blog post for that weekend reveals, this involved a fantastic prank in which Claire and I “hid” Jimmy by burying him under the sand, covering his face with an upturned cardboard box, and then frightening the shit out of Gareth when he – having been told that Jimmy hadn’t come – lifted the box to find Jimmy’s disembodied head staring back at him.

Looking Forward

Since that day, Three Rings has continued to grow and expand – it’s now used by a number of charities nationwide, and exists as a company in it’s own right. Gareth and Bryn are no longer directly involved with the project, but parts of their code live on in the system, ticking away in the background.

Ruth now plays a major part in the development of the system, and it actually formed part of her dissertation, too, meaning that my dissertation (which Bryn still has, after he borrowed it to help him write Rosetta) was actually cited as a reference in another document: something which pleased me inordinately.

Claire and Jimmy got together a year and a bit ago, and they’re now living together, still in Aberystwyth (not that you’d know from reading either of their blogs, slackers that they are).

And we haven’t had a barbeque yet since moving to Earth, but weather-permitting, the plan is to do so this week!

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