A video, in which I rant about the challenges of carrying two-childrensworth of school gear while dragging our dog, herding somebody else’s dog, and trying to stop the kids from
fighting. Some mornings it’s easy. Today… it was not. Also available on YouTube.
Full transcript of the audio (except for the ocassional snorting sounds of our noisy Frenchie as she snuffles about in the background):
The morning school run is never effortless. But some days it’s easy.
Today was not one of those days.
It’s a Wednesday. So, for some strange reason, that’s the heaviest-laden day. And so, with the eldest child on her bike and the youngest on his scooter I set off, pulling the dog, and
carrying a PE kit, two book bags, two water bottles, and a guitar.
I should have realised early on that today wasn’t going to be a day that the universe smiled on me when the dog immediately ran off into a ditch to take a dump and I had to clamber down
into the ditch with a poop bag to fill it.
But while I’m coming out of the ditch I discover that the youngest child has zipped off up ahead in an effort to ram into his older sister and in doing so has inevitably flipped himself
over the handlebars of his scooter and is now lying, crying, in the middle of the road.
So I go over to him dragging the dog and carrying a PE kit and two book bags and two water bottles and a guitar and a bag full of poop and as best I can, carrying all those things,
console him and eventually, with some encouragement he’s able to get back up and carry on walking to school, but says he can no longer scoot, so I have to carry the scooter.
Now I’m dragging a dog and carrying a poop bag and a PE kit and two water bottles and two book bags and guitar… and a scooter… and that’s when the oldest child manages to throw the
chain off her bike.
Now she’s had little experience, in her defence, of the chain coming off her bike. And so she does the absolute worst thing possible which is tries to pedal as hard as possible to solve
the problem which makes it much worse. By the time I get there the chain is royally snarled between some of the sprockets and their housing, so I put down the guitar and the bag of poop
and I hand the lead to the younger child so that I can try to unpick the older child’s chain from her bike, getting myself covered in oil.
And that’s when I notice the commotion up ahead. There are some workmen who are rebuilding the wall outside Letterbox Cottage, and – up ahead of them – barking furiously, is a small
dog. This dog is Lovey, and she belongs to a friend of ours. And she’s probably the best example of whatever the opposite of nominative determinism is. Because Lovey is a truculent
little bitch. Lovey is a tiny small yappy dog who will start a fight with other dogs, try to see off workmen (which is what she’s doing at the time), and she’ll bark at passing cars.
And right now she’s running free, unattended, in the middle of the road. And one of the workmen says to me, “Oh, do you know who’s dog that is?” and I have to admit that yes, I do.
So, dragging our dog and carrying a PE kit and two book bags and two water bottles, a guitar, a scooter, and a bag of poop, I have to help round up this lost dog, who – if it gets too
close to our dog will start a fight – and get it back to the house where it lives.
So the younger child and I manage to succeed in our mission and return this lost dog and get back on our way to school and it’s there that we finally catch up with the older child who’s
gotten bored and cycled ahead. And when we catch up to the older child with me dragging the dog and carrying a PE kit and two book bags and two water bottles and a guitar and a scooter
and a bag of poop… she looks up at me and says, “Ugh! You took your time!”
Suffice to say, it’s a good job I Iove those children.
Lacking a basis for comparison, children accept their particular upbringing as normal and representative.
Kit was telling me about how his daughter considers it absolutely normal to live in a house full of
insectivorous plants1, and it got
me thinking about our kids, and then about myself:
I remember once overhearing our eldest, then at nursery, talking to her friend. Our kid had mentioned doing something with her “mummy, daddy, and Uncle Dan” and was incredulous that her friend didn’t have an Uncle Dan that they lived with! Isn’t having three parents…
just what a family looks like?
By the time she was at primary school, she’d learned that her family wasn’t the same shape as most other families, and she could code-switch with incredible ease. While picking her up
from school, I overheard her talking to a friend about a fair that was coming to town. She told the friend that she’d “ask her dad if she could go”, then turned to me and said
“Uncle Dan: can we go to the fair?”; when I replied in the affirmitive, she turned back and said “my dad says it’s okay”. By the age of 5 she was perfectly capable of
translating on-the-fly2 in order to
simultaneously carry out intelligble conversations with her family and with her friends. Magical.
When I started driving, and in particular my first few times on multi-lane
carriageways, something felt “off” and it took me a little while to work out what it was. It turns out that I’d internalised a particular part of the motorway journey experience from
years of riding in cars driven by my father, who was an unrepentant3
and perpetual breaker of speed limits.4
I’d come to associate motorway driving with overtaking others, but almost never being overtaken, but that wasn’t what I saw when I drove for myself.5
It took a little thinking before I realised the cause of this false picture of “what driving looks like”.
The thing is: you only ever notice the “this is normal” definitions that you’ve internalised… when they’re challenged!
It follows that there are things you learned from the quirks of your upbringing that you still think of as normal. There might even be things you’ll never un-learn. And you’ll
never know how many false-normals you still carry around with you, or whether you’ve ever found them all, exept to say that you probably haven’t yet.
It’s amazing and weird to think that there might be objective truths you’re perpetually unable to see as a restult of how, or where, or by whom you were brought up, or by what your
school or community was like, or by the things you’ve witnessed or experienced over your life. I guess that all we can all do is keep questioning everything, and work to help
the next generation see what’s unusual and uncommon in their own lives.
1 It’s a whole thing. If you know Kit, you’re probably completely unsurprised, but spare a
thought for the poor randoms who sometimes turn up and read my blog.
2 Fully billingual children who typically speak a different language at home than they do
at school do this too, and it’s even-more amazing to watch.
3 I can’t recall whether his license was confiscated on two or three separate ocassions,
in the end, but it was definitely more than one. Having a six month period where you and your siblings have to help collect the weekly shop from the supermarket by loading up your
bikes with shopping bags is a totally normal part of everybody’s upbringing, isn’t it?
4 Virtually all of my experience as a car passenger other than with my dad was in Wales,
where narrow windy roads mean that once you get stuck behind something, that’s how you’re going to be spending your day.
5 Unlike my father, I virtually never break the speed limit, to such an extent that when I
got a speeding ticket the other year (I’d gone from a 70 into a 50 zone and re-set the speed limiter accordingly, but didn’t bother to apply the brakes and just coasted down to the
new speed… when the police snapped their photo!), Ruth and JTA both independently reacted to the news with great skepticism.
I am not a “dog person”. I’m probably more of a “cat person”.
My mum has made pets of one or both of dogs or cats for most of her life. She puts the difference between the two in a way that really resonates for me. To paraphrase her:
When you’re feeling down and you’ve had a shitty day and you just need to wallow in your despair for a little bit… a pet dog will try to cheer you up. It’ll jump up at you, bring
you toys, suggest that you go for a walk, try to pull your focus away from your misery and bring a smile to your face. A cat, though, will just come and sit and be melancholy with you.
Its demeanour just wordlessly says: “You’re feeling crap? Me too: I only slept 16 hours today. Let’s feel crap together.”
So it surprised many when, earlier this year, our family was expanded with the addition of a puppy called Demmy. I guess we collectively figured that now we’d solved all the hard
problems and the complexities of our work, volunteering, parenting, relationships, money etc. and our lives were completely simple, plain sailing, and stress-free, all of the time… that
we now had the capacity to handle adding another tiny creature into our midst. Do you see the mistake in that logic? Maybe we should have, too.
It turns out that getting a puppy is a lot like having a toddler all over again. Your life adjusts around when they need
to sleep, eat, and poop. You need to put time, effort, and thought into how to make and keep your house safe both for and from them. And, of course, they bring with
them a black hole that eats disposable income.
They need to be supervised and entertained and educated (the latter of which may require some education yourself). They need to be socialised so they can interact nicely with others,
learn the boundaries of their little world, and behave appropriately (even when they’re noton camera).
Even as they grow, their impact is significant. You need to think more-deeply about how, when and where you travel, work out who’s responsible for ensuring they’re walked (or carried!) and fed (not eaten!) and watched. You’ve got to keep them safe and healthy and stimulated.
Thankfully they’re not as tiring to play with as children, but as with kids, the level of effort required is hard to anticipate until you
But do you know what else they have in common with kids? You can’t help learning to love them.
It doesn’t matter what stupid thing they’re illicitly putting in their mouth, how many times you have to clean up after them, how frustrating it is that they can’t understand what you
need from them in order to help them, or how much they whine about something that really isn’t that big a deal (again: #PuppyOrToddler?). It doesn’t even matter how much you’re “not a
dog person”, whatever that means. They become part of your family, and you fall in love with them.
I’m not a “dog person”. But: while I ocassionally resent the trouble she causes, I still love our dog.
Taking a photo of our kids isn’t too hard: their fascination with screens means you just have to switch to “selfie mode” and they lock-on to the camera like some kind of narcissist
homing pigeon. Failing that, it’s easy enough to distract them with something that gets them to stay still for a few seconds and not just come out as a blur.
But compared to the generation that came before us, we have it really easy. When I was younger than our youngest is , I was obsessed with pressing buttons. So pronounced was my
fascination that we had countless photos, as a child, of my face pressed so close to the lens that it’s impossible for the camera to focus, because I’d rushed over at the last second to
try to be the one to push the shutter release button. I guess I just wanted to “help”?
In theory, exploiting this enthusiasm should have worked out well: my parents figured that if they just put me behind the camera, I could be persuaded to take a good picture
of others. Unfortunately, I’d already fixated on another aspect of the photography experience: the photographer’s stance.
When people were taking picture of me, I’d clearly noticed that, in order to bring themselves down to my height (which was especially important given that I’d imminently try to
be as close to the photographer as possible!) I’d usually see people crouching to take photos. And I must have internalised this, because I started doing it too.
Unfortunately, because I was shorter than most of my subjects, this resulted in some terrible framing, for example slicing off the tops of their heads or worse. And because this was a
pre-digital age, there was no way to be sure exactly how badly I’d mucked-up the shot until days or weeks later when the film would be developed.
In an effort to counteract this framing issue, my dad (who was always keen for his young assistant to snap pictures of him alongside whatever article of public transport history he was
most-interested in that day) at some point started crouching himself in photos. Presumably it proved easier to just duck when I did rather than to try to persuade me not to crouch in
the first place.
As you look forward in time through these old family photos, though, you can spot the moment at which I learned to use a viewfinder, because people’s heads start to feature close to the
middle of pictures.
Unfortunately, because I was still shorter than my subjects (especially if I was also crouching!), framing photos such that the subject’s face was in the middle of the frame resulted in
a lot of sky in the pictures. Also, as you’ve doubtless seem above, I was completely incapable of levelling the horizon.
I’d like to think I’ve gotten better since, but based on the photo above… maybe the problem has been me, all along!
I got lost on the Web this week, but it was harder than I’d have liked.
There was a discussion this week in the Abnib WhatsApp group about whether a particular illustration of a farm was full of phallic imagery (it was).
This left me wondering if anybody had ever tried to identify the most-priapic buildings in the world. Of course towers often look at least a little bit like their architects
were compensating for something, but some – like the Ypsilanti Water Tower in Michigan pictured above – go further than
Anyway: a shot tower in Bristol – a part of the UK with a long history of leadworking – was among the latecomer entrants to the competition, and seeing this curious building reminded me about something I’d read, once, about the
manufacture of lead shot. The idea (invented in Bristol by a plumber called William Watts) is that you pour molten lead
through a sieve at the top of a tower, let surface tension pull it into spherical drops as it falls, and eventually catch it in a cold water bath to finish solidifying it. I’d seen an
animation of the process, but I’d never seen a video of it, so I went about finding one.
British Pathé‘s YouTube Channel provided me with this 1950 film, and if you follow only one hyperlink from this article, let it be this one! It’s a well-shot (pun intended, but there’s
a worse pun in the video!), and while I needed to translate all of the references to “hundredweights” and “Fahrenheit” to measurements that I can actually understand, it’s thoroughly
But there’s a problem with that video: it’s been badly cut from whatever reel it was originally found on, and from about 1 minute and 38 seconds in it switches to what is clearly a very
different film! A mother is seen shepherding her young daughter off to bed, and a voiceover says:
Bedtime has a habit of coming round regularly every night. But for all good parents responsibility doesn’t end there. It’s just the beginning of an evening vigil, ears attuned to cries
and moans and things that go bump in the night. But there’s no reason why those ears shouldn’t be your neighbours ears, on occasion.
Now my interest’s piqued. What was this short film going to be about, and where could I find it? There’s no obvious link; YouTube doesn’t even make it easy to find the video
uploaded “next” by a given channel. I manipulated some search filters on British Pathé’s site until I eventually hit upon the right combination of magic words and found a clip called
Radio Baby Sitter. It starts off exactly where the misplaced prior clip cut out, and tells the story of “Mr.
and Mrs. David Hurst, Green Lane, Coventry”, who put a microphone by their daughter’s bed and ran a wire through the wall to their neighbours’ radio’s speaker so they can babysit
without coming over for the whole evening.
It’s a baby monitor, although not strictly a radio one as the title implies (it uses a signal wire!), nor is it groundbreakingly innovative: the first baby monitor predates it by over a decade, and it actually did use
radiowaves! Still, it’s a fun watch, complete with its contemporary fashion, technology, and social structures. Here’s the full thing, re-merged for your convenience:
Wait, what was I trying to do when I started, again? What was I even talking about…
It’s harder than it used to be
It used to be easier than this to get lost on the Web, and sometimes I miss that.
Obviously if you go back far enough this is true. Back when search engines were much weaker and Internet content was much less homogeneous and more distributed, we used to engage in
this kind of meandering walk all the time: we called it “surfing” the Web. Second-generation
Web browsers even had names, pretty often, evocative of this kind of experience: Mosaic, WebExplorer, Navigator, Internet Explorer, IBrowse. As people started to engage in the
noble pursuit of creating content for the Web they cross-linked their sources, their friends, their affiliations (remember webrings? here’s a reminder; they’re not quite as dead as you think!), your favourite sites etc. You’d follow links to other pages, then follow their links to others
still, and so on in that fashion. If you went round the circles enough times you’d start seeing all those invariably-blue hyperlinks turn purple and know you’d found your way home.
But even after that era, as search engines started to become a reliable and powerful way to navigate the wealth of content on the growing Web, links still dominated our exploration.
Following a link from a resource that was linked to by somebody you know carried the weight of a “web of trust”, and you’d quickly come to learn whose links were consistently valuable
and on what subjects. They also provided a sense of community and interconnectivity that paralleled the organic, chaotic networks of acquaintances people form out in the real world.
In recent times, that interpersonal connectivity has, for many, been filled by social networks (let’s ignore their failings in this regard for now). But linking to resources “outside” of the big
social media silos is hard. These advertisement-funded services work hard to discourage or monetise activity
that takes you off their platform, even at the expense of their users. Instagram limits the number of external links by profile; many social networks push
for resharing of summaries of content or embedding content from other sources, discouraging engagement with the wider Web, Facebook and Twitter both run external links
through a linkwrapper (which sometimes breaks); most large social networks make linking to the profiles of other users
of the same social network much easier than to users anywhere else; and so on.
The net result is that Internet users use fewer different websites today than they did 20 years ago,
and spend most of their “Web” time in app versions of
websites (which often provide a better experience only because site owners strategically make it so to increase their lock-in and data harvesting potential). Truly exploring the Web now
requires extra effort, like exercising an underused muscle. And if you begin and end your Web experience on just one to three services,
that just feels kind of… sad, to me. Wasted potential.
It sounds like I’m being nostalgic for a less-sophisticated time on the Web (that would certainly be in character!). A time before we’d
fully-refined the technology that would come to connect us in an instant to the answers we wanted. But that’s not exactly what I’m pining for. Instead, what I miss is something
we lost along the way, on that journey: a Web that was more fun-and-weird, more interpersonal, more diverse. More Geocities, less Facebook; there’s a surprising thing to find myself saying.
Somewhere along the way, we ended up with the Web we asked for, but it wasn’t the Web we wanted.
When I was a kid of about 10, one of my favourite books was Usborne’s Spy’s Guidebook. (I also liked its sister the Detective’s Handbook, but the Spy’s
Guidebook always seemed a smidge cooler to me).
So I was pleased when our eldest, now 7, took an interest in the book too. This morning, for example, she came to breakfast with an encrypted message for me (along with the relevant
page in the book that contained the cipher I’d need to decode it).
Later, as we used the experience to talk about some of the easier practical attacks against this simple substitution cipher (letter frequency analysis, and known-plaintext attacks… I
haven’t gotten on to the issue of its miniscule keyspace yet!), she asked me to make a pocket version of the code card as described in the book.
While I was eating leftover curry for lunch with one hand and producing a nice printable, foldable pocket card for her (which you can download here if you like) with the other, I realised something. There are likely to be a lot more messages in my
future that are protected by this substitution cipher, so I might as well preempt them by implementing a computerised encoder/decoder right away.
If you’ve got kids of the right kind of age, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Spy’s Guidebook (and possibly the Detective’s Handbook). Either use it as a
vehicle to talk about codes and maths, like I have… or let them believe it’s secure while you know you can break it, like we did with Enigma machines after WWII. Either way, they eventually learn a valuable lesson about cryptography.
Sara’s back! You might remember a couple of years ago she’d shared with us a comic on her first year in a polyamory! We’re happy to have her back with a slice of life and a frank n’ real
conversation about having kids in her Poly Triad relationship.
This sort of wholesome loving chat is just the thing we need for the start of 2021.
Start your year with a delightful comic about the author negotiating possible future children in a queer polyamorous triad, published via Oh Joy Sex Toy. Sara previously published a great polyamory-themed comic via OJST too, which is also worth a look.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the messages we send to our children about their role, and ours as adults, in keeping them safe from people who might victimise them. As a society,
our message has changed over the decades: others of my culture and generation will, like me, have seen the gradual evolution from “stranger danger” to “my body, my choice”. And it’s still evolving.
But as Kristin eloquently (and emotionally: I cried my eyes out!) explains, messages like these can subconsciously teach children that they alone are responsible for keeping
themselves from harm. And so when some of them inevitably fail, the shame of their victimisation – often already taboo – can be magnified by the guilt of their inability to prevent it.
And as anybody who’s been a parent or, indeed, a child knows that children aren’t inclined to talk about the things they feel guilty about.
And in the arms race of child exploitation, abusers will take advantage of that.
What I was hoping was to have a nice, concrete answer – or at least an opinion – to the question: how should we talk to children about their safety in a way that both tries to
keep them safe but ensures that they understand that they’re not to blame if they are victimised? This video doesn’t provide anything like that. Possibly there aren’t
easy answers. As humans, as parents, and as a society, we’re still learning.
I’m sure that the graveyard of over-optimism is littered with the corpses of parents who planned to help their children learn self-moderation by showing them the wonders of nature,
but who realized too late that fields of wheat don’t stand a chance against Rocket League. I’m hoping that we can agree that computer games are good, but other things are good too,
cf fields of wheat. I don’t want to have to sneak in my own gaming time after my son has gone to bed. I also don’t want to be a hypocrite; at least, I don’t want Oscar to know that
I’m a hypocrite. Maybe we can play together and use it as father-son bonding time. This might work until he’s ten and after he’s twenty-five.
Robert Heaton, of Programming Projects for Advanced Beginners fame and reverse-engineering device drivers that spy on you (which I’ve talked about
before), has also been blogging lately about his experience of Dadding, with the same dry/sarcastic tone you might be used to. This long post is a great example of the meandering
thoughts of a (techie) parent in these (interesting) times, and it’s good enough for that alone. But it’s the raw, genuine “honesty and dark thoughts” section towards the end of the
article that really makes it stand out.
In these challenging times, and especially because my work and social circles have me communicate regularly with people in
many different countries and with many different backgrounds, I’m especially grateful for the following:
My partner, her husband, and I
each have jobs that we can do remotely and so we’re not out-of-work during the crisis.
Our employers are understanding of our need to reduce and adjust our hours to fit around our new lifestyle now that schools and nurseries are (broadly) closed.
Our kids are healthy and not at significant risk of serious illness.
We’ve got the means, time, and experience to provide an adequate homeschooling environment for them in the immediate term.
(Even though we’d hoped to have moved house by now and haven’t, perhaps at least in part because of COVID-19,) we
have a place to live that mostly meets our needs.
We have easy access to a number of supermarkets with different demographics, and even where we’ve been impacted by them we’ve always been able to work-around the where
panic-buying-induced shortages have reasonably quickly.
We’re well-off enough that we were able to buy or order everything we’d need to prepare for lockdown without financial risk.
Having three adults gives us more hands on deck than most people get for childcare, self-care, etc.
(we’re “parenting on easy mode”).
We live in a country in which the government (eventually) imposed the requisite amount of lockdown necessary to limit the spread of the
We’ve “only” got the catastrophes of COVID-19 and Brexit to deal with, which is a bearable amount of
crisis, unlike my colleague in Zagreb for example.
Whenever you find the current crisis getting you down, stop and think about the things that aren’t-so-bad or are even good. Stopping and expressing your gratitude for them in
whatever form works for you is good for your happiness and mental health.