Benches! Benches! Benches!

So the whole blogging thing kind of dried up for me a couple of years back.
It’s not that I don’t still feel ways about stuff, and I certainly haven’t lost my fondness for absurdly long, multi-claused run-on sentences that make readers think, ‘Christ, are you, like, allergic to full stops or something?” whilst gasping for breath should any of them be daft enough to attempt to read this shit out loud.

But everything is so noisy these days. (I turned 35 recently, so I am half way through my allotted 3 score years and 10, and consequently feel entitled to use terms like “these days”.) The online space, infinite though it may be, seems to be filling up with everyone and their cousin’s hot take on the news of the day. Sometimes this is thought-provoking, engaging, and provides valuable contribution to the global discussion. More often… well, not so much.

So I decided to stop shoveling content into the void, unless I felt I had something real and substantial to bring to the table. And, crucially, that I had the time and energy to reflect on it, and hone it to my satisfaction. All of which is a very plausible way of justifying to myself why I wasn’t going to spend my time on this anymore. Plus Dragon Age: Inquisition came out, so that was 200+ hours gone right there, and then I got super in to the whole Elder Scrolls thing having picked up Oblivion and Skyrim for something like £7 total in CEX, and, well, you get the idea of how I’ve spent my leisure time recently.

But there comes a time when even a dedicated gamer like me wonders if there might not be more productive pursuits through which to while away the hours. A few months back I had suggested to Terry that I would really like to collaborate on something with him. Terry always seems to be doing something interesting and cool, and I fancied getting in on that.

I was anticipating quite the challenge in picking the right project. Something multi-faceted that would provide an opportunity for me to develop new skills. Something involving actual, real-world, meat space, AFK interaction. I wanted a quantifiable way to measure impact. And yeah, I liked the idea of doing something nice. Not particularly clever, or lucrative, but the sort of endeavor that would make people go “Oh, what a lovely idea”.

About a decade ago Terry and I went to a sort of geo-caching type event that entailed running around the Covent Garden area looking for the mosaic tile renderings of Space Invaders which had appeared on walls around Europe. Some years after that we got into the habit of snapping photos of the blue memorial plaques that adorn various buildings, and uploading these to openplaques.org. And then last year the Pokémon GO craze swept the globe. All of these somehow percolated into a simple but immensely rewarding idea: let’s build an open database to track the location of memorial benches.

We aren’t the first people to have this idea. The skeleton came from a hack Terry encountered at a Bath hackathon which we married to parts of the openplaques model.

We liked the idea that this would produce a totally open data set. That anyone could contribute to it or access the content. We also wanted to make the code freely available, so if anyone felt so inclined they could suggest improvements, or even spin it off into a project of their own.

We also decided that this was a great opportunity for both of us to learn and develop new skills. Terry decided he wanted more experience working in the Agile methodology. I wanted to learn some proper programming. So we started with a bunch of user stories. I learnt how to use GitHub, and some HTML, and PHP. I also learned the dirty little secret that a big chunk of learning to code is literally googling whatever you are trying to do and copying off someone else who has done it already.

We built a database in MySQL. We built an interface, and dumped the whole thing online as a rough-and-ready Alpha product. Terry wrote a ReadMe file acknowledging the filthiness of our code and inviting improvements. We took a wander around our local area and uploaded a few pictures of memorial benches situated around the Iffley lock. And openbenches.org was born.

Terry tweeted to his 7,000 odd followers that we had done a thing, and in a surreal turn of events we were invited to record an interview with the BBC in July 2017.

Openbenches was all of about 2 weeks old at this point, and we had barely figured out what we were trying to achieve with this project. But we gamely trotted along to the BBC Radio Oxford studio and recorded a 5 minute interview with Radio Orkney who were interested in what we were doing. Pretty much on the fly we came up with a rationale for our endeavors: famous people get plaques when they die, and other people get benches, commissioned by their nearest and dearest. Memorial benches appear in local beauty spots; in parks and gardens, near canals and rivers, in cemeteries and coastal paths. And we decided to capture that data, and make it available to anyone. It creates an opportunity to get to know your local area, and to connect with the history of your local community. And a way to share the commemoration of loved ones more widely.

The broadcast went out at the start of August 2017 by which point we’d had about 400 records uploaded. A month later and we are closing in on 2,000. We’ve managed to convince friends, family, colleagues, and random strangers to get involved. On a mini break to East Anglia a few weeks ago we photographed dozens and dozens of benches dotted throughout Cambridge, Kings Lynn, Downham Market and along parts of the Norfolk Coast. A couple of weekends ago we took a day-trip to London and systematically documented the 140 or so benches in Berkeley Square. Over the course of several lunchtimes I recorded the benches in the Oxford Botanic Gardens. We took photo after photo, and then at home we would curl up on the sofa together with our laptops and upload the pictures.

It’s definitely turned into a labour of love. Some benches have made us laugh with their bittersweet gallows humour. Others have been more sobering – particularly where you can tell from the dates that someone has died tragically young. Some inscriptions are already fading to the point they are barely legible. Interestingly, this has added an additional aspect to this project: the physical bench and/or the printed information might be lost, but as long as we have a functioning server we can preserve that memory, and the data is freely available to be copied by anyone. Even if no-one is left who remembers the commemorated individual directly.

Death is sad and painful and inevitable. As an atheist and a rationalist I don’t believe in the concept of an immortal soul. I do not believe that there is any such thing as life after death. But people are connected, and the extent to which we interact in each others’ lives, and the effect we have on other people after we are gone is incontrovertible. So in a small way, openbenches.org is a way of paying tribute to that fact. Gone, but not forgotten. In loving memory.

Thoughts on the post-factual democracy

I’ve had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head since the Brexit result was announced last Friday morning. Beyond a few sardonic comments expressing general dismay, I refrained from posting anything more substantial until I’d had a chance to think things through a bit. I wanted to let the initial shock and anger subside before committing anything to a public forum.

As per the 3rd point in the excellent comment written by Nicholas Barrett in the FT, it’s the notion of a ‘post-factual democracy’ that really chills me. Democracy is frequently described by political wags as the least bad form of governance. But to function properly, it needs an informed, engaged electorate.

However this process becomes polluted when misinformation is allowed to be perpetuated unchecked. The collected works of certain newspaper salespeople have dripped a steady diet of poison into the information system, masquerading as news and helpful discourse, and very little is done to prevent this. On the rare occasions they actually get caught in a genuine factual error, misrepresentation or lie, the apology is usually placed somewhere nicely unobtrusive. (Seriously, if nothing else comes of this, can’t we at least require the correction to have the same prominence as the original statement, and not get buried in the middle pages?!)

Then there are the ‘promises’ made by politicians and campaign workers themselves. It’s almost comical how little genuine recourse there is when someone says something untrue as part of a bid to get them (or their idea) elected.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum there was some coverage of people who admitted to voting leave but claimed to be aghast at the result. There was, predictably, an outpouring of amazed horror from some remain supporters at this. How can people be so callous, foolish and stupid they wondered? And in response came the vitriol and disgust from the leavers. The metropolitan elite, patronising the working classes and rubbing their very disenfranchisement in their faces.

For me, one of the saddest aspects about this is that the post-factual democracy made this clash almost inevitable. If you tell someone they are being lied to, you are accused of condescension. If you try to stop the lies at their source that’s an attack on free speech. If you attempt to counter with your own information it’s propaganda.

I don’t know how to participate in a dialogue where this is the case. I don’t know how to engage in a discussion where neither logic nor truth has a place, but where pointing out their absence makes you the out-of-touch arsehole.

I don’t have a good solution to this. All I know is that if we want to recover a democracy where information and expertise are valued commodities we need to engage with people. The people that Gove claimed were ‘sick of experts’. And we need to do it in such a way so as not to patronise or belittle them. Because I really don’t see this getting better any other way.

Cosplaying Link at Warwick Castle

Hi! It’s… been a while!

As many of you know, gaming is a huge part of my life. It’s my safe place, keeping me sane when other parts of my life feel like they’re spinning out of control. It’s what I do to relax, and to have fun, and accounts for a reasonable quantity of the past 18 months or so since I last posted anything here.

After a rough few weeks, culminating in my failure to get a job I *really* wanted, Terry went onto that Internet they have nowadays and bought me a little present. Cos that’s the kind of husband he is!

I am now the proud owner of an officially licensed Legend of Zelda Link cosplay hoodie! It features an embossed Hyrulian Shield on the back, a long tapered hood and detailing on the front to represent a satchel & belt. It is AWESOME!

On a related note to the disappointing past few weeks, we decided to treat ourselves to a night away. Which is how we came to Warwick Castle on an unseasonably chilly April Saturday ready to explore, learn, and basically tear around the place like a couple of loons!

It should be noted that thanks to an encounter with the hotel Nespresso machine I was bombed out of my head on coffee and sugar. I was so hyper I clocked a few middle age parents with a gaggle of unruly tweens giving Terry a pitying look. I didn’t care. I was Link! Hero of Time! Defender of Hyrule!

But I’m not much of a hero without a sword. So first stop is the gift shop where I get the ‘blue’ sword, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Master Sword itself! The texture of the foam makes it look really cool in the photos, almost like it’s been added in using old fashioned cell animation! Sidebar: Lots of Merlin Entertainment’s signage refers to Knights and Princesses – bleugh! But the toy sets in the shop have been labelled as ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ which is progress of a kind I guess. #lettoysbetoys

Sword in hand, I pose for a couple of photos in the courtyard

And under the portcullis
Portcullis

And get a cool shot next to a display of shields.

We walk around the state rooms and found the dining hall – almost a dead ringer for the one at the Knight’s Academy in Skyloft!

Me having slain an army of Darknuts!
Armour

We join in a free tour which covers some of the history. For our slightly exorbitant entrance fee we want to learn something!

We paid extra for the Dungeon tour. They won’t let us take our own photos in there, so sadly no opportunities for me to pose slaying a ReDead. I’m totally in character by now, but I get the feeling the actors in the exhibit think I’m scene stealing a bit. C’mon guys – haven’t you ever heard that improv is all about saying Yes!

They have a display of the birds of prey on. We watch the show, which is included in the entry price and frankly way better than the dungeon, and includes an owl just like the one which hangs out near Lake Hylia!
Owl

Over at the bird enclosure, Terry took this awesome photo which looks like the Eagle is perched on my arm.
Eagle

Lots of walking through gaps in hedges!
Secret Passage

Then we’re off climbing the ramparts!
Skyward Sword

From the top of Guy’s Tower I survey my kingdom!
Top of castle

We’re pretty exhausted by now. Last stop is the maze where we got two of the best photos of the day!

Shout out to Windwaker!
WindWaker

And finally no Zelda level is complete without a jumping puzzle!

Took my wife Cosplaying at Warwick Castle

Thanks to Warwick Castle for a great day out, and Merchoid for fantastic customer service! And to my truly wonderful husband for buying the hoodie, taking countless photos and generally being the best Squire a Knight could ask for!

Fronius: winning at swag #NaBloPoMo

Earlier today, Terry blogged about footling around with the API on our Fronius inverter which is hooked up to our solar panels. For him, the ability to live tweet how our solar panels are doing was a massive plus when deciding which inverter to install.

I confess this was one of those occasions I admitted that his technical expertise & enthusiasm had vastly outstripped my own and so I just let him get on with it. So I had no idea that, as an extra marketing strategy, Fronius has a line of merchandise given away as a thank you to their customers. A couple of days after the install, the lovely Paul from Sims Solar popped round with the certificate for the Feed In Tariff, the instruction manual & some swag!

But this was no ordinary swag! This was actually useful. I got a mug, an in car phone charger & a metal disk the size of a pound coin which magnetically fits into a holder which fits on a key chain: the kind used for accessing supermarket trolleys so you don’t need to worry whether you have a pound coin in your purse or not.

The daft thing is that these things actually aren’t that useful to me. I don’t drink a lot of hot drinks, I don’t drive & I only rarely go to the supermarket as I now do virtually all my grocery shopping online for home delivery. But I can totally see how someone else might find this stuff useful.

I appreciate that a modicum of thought has gone into considering what Fronius’s customers might find useful. That rather than splashing their logo over any random object they have attempted to find items which will get frequent use & might, in some small way, make their customers’ lives a little easier. Fronius, I applaud you!

Tweeting slebs #NaBloPoMo

Sometimes when I get tipsy I @ the celebrities I follow on Twitter. I’m currently sat in a pub round the corner from the Oxford Playhouse (blogging from my phone using the WordPress app! Truly we are living in the future!) I will be shortly going to see one Marcus Brigstock. And so under the influence of a couple of beers I decided to reply to his tweet from a few hours ago:

I’m not really one to get star struck, but, for instance, should Joss Whedon ever respond to anything I said, well that would just make my day! But I have a notion that the more famous of the twitterati probably have some kind of filter on their replies. Or maybe a PA to read them on their behalf.

But a few months ago Terry tweeted Shappi Khorsandi just before her show & she incorporated it into her set. So maybe the same thing will happen to me!

Replaying Wind Waker #NaBloPoMo

A few months ago I was delighted by a rather extravagant surprise present from Terry: a 2nd hand (but perfectly functioning) Wii U console. I had planned on getting one eventually, in readiness for the new Zelda game which is due out at some as yet unknown point next year. But one came up for sale on the AV forums and Terry snapped it up. Not only did we get the hardware; it came with an embarrassment of riches, content wise. I think we got well over a dozen games in disc format, and several more which had been installed into vacant slots on the hard drive.

I spent a thoroughly enjoyable week test driving most of the new stuff to get a feel for whether or not it would be my cup of tea. In the end I think we only took a few games down to our local Game store to trade in for store credit, and the rest were stacked neatly in the (newly built) AV centre awaiting their turn. I learned a lot about my gaming turn-offs and turn-ons  from that exercise, which I will blog about in due course, but if there’s one thing I have learned from doing NaBloPoMo it’s to spread what little creativity you can muster around as thinly as possible if you want to last the whole month.

That was several weeks ago, and with 1 and a half exceptions I have barely touched the new stuff. Because, amongst the games which were pre-loaded onto the machine, was the HD version of Wind Waker. So I have spent most of my gaming time for the past month replaying it, for the 3rd time. The land of Hyrule, or in Wind Waker’s case the tops of the mountains which centuries later would form the tiny islands scattered across a vast open plan world, is my happy place. Despite its propensity to get taken over by the Forces of Evil, Hyrule is where I feel safe.

First and foremost, I game to relax and have fun. Sometimes that means trying new things, but sometimes it means immersing myself in a familiar world. Like re-watching a favourite film or re-reading a favourite book. The fact that I know the outcome isn’t important. The fact that I know the solutions to the puzzles isn’t important, although it’s an interesting reflective exercise to notice the difference between when I am remembering how to do something, and when I am actually re-solving the puzzle because I have forgotten the solution. I also found myself turning to my trusty walkthrough (thank you zeldadungeon.net) at exactly the same point in the trading sequence as when I last played this game about 4 years ago.

In total I played Twilight Princess through 3 times. I played Skyward Sword twice, and got half way through hero mode before realising that it really wasn’t adding any extra to it. I played about 75% of Phantom Hourglass, got distracted (by moving house and starting a new job, so a legitimate distraction) and then months later failed to pick up where I had left off, so I played it through from the beginning again. Similarly I rage quit Ocarina of Time and returned 3 years later, restarting from scratch. I have spent hundreds of hours roaming the hills, valleys, shores, clouds and villages of Hyrule. That’s pretty good value for the £300 the console cost.

Catching arachnophobia #NaBloPoMo

Yesterday I blogged about my experience of overcoming my neuroses and successfully travelling to the US for work. As part of this trip, I also had an encounter with a lesser fear:

spider

They have freakin’ MASSIVE spiders in Florida.

I have no objection in principle to the exciting plethora of other species which cohabit our planet. But I have by custom and habit somewhat limited my up close and personal interactions with them. I am fully aware that in the UK this is a rather overly cautious approach, as there are really not that many things which can kill you. Outside the green and pleasant land I call home however, all bets are off. Florida is basically a swamp, and swamps are full of terrifying creatures. Like frogs. I’m pretty sure the most venomous animal on the planet are frogs. I could google this to check but I’m tired and I want a bath so I can’t be arsed to do proper research right now, ok?

Alright, I just googled it. It may not be a frog. It may be a scorpion. Or possibly a snail, although that really is less threatening, and I would have thought, easier to evade than anything which can scuttle or hop. I’m getting off topic, and I really want a bath.

My point is that I didn’t used to be arachnophobic, although even in my more spider-tolerant days I like to think I would have had the sense to avoid something black & yellow. But, before I met Terry, I was pretty ok with our 8 legged friends. I’d could even pick up the smaller ones and remove them from my vicinity. Larger, hairier ones would get the glass and cardboard treatment, but that’s totally normal.

At the start of our relationship I kinda got a kick out of rescuing him from creepy crawlies. Prompting receipt of this lovely Edward Monk card early on:

As time went on though, I internalised his fear. I had heard that in long term relationship you sometimes start to share attributes. Ideally I would have got something a bit more useful, such as the ability to touch type, or something awesome like his flawless Chewbacca impression. But no, the main habit I picked up from Terry was the urge to run screaming from spiders.

Well, that and blogging.

Business trip #NaBloPoMo

In December 2013 I blogged about how I had spent most of that calendar year finding a new job. I actually posted that one on Christmas Day. I was obviously killing time before Doctor Who started.

When I handed my notice in at my old job, one of the reasons I gave was that the new job included the opportunity for international travel. In the 5 years of my previous role, I had one overnight trip to the National Science Learning Centre and the new job was dangling the tantalizing prospect of a trip to Florida. As it turns out, I ended up flying to New York first, prompting this Facebook status a couple of weeks ago:

Screenshot from 2014-11-02 11:23:50

Awesome right? I was now officially an international jet setter! I was getting paid to travel to New York, where I would co-deliver a couple of general graduate study recruitment sessions, then fly down to Florida where I would tour 4 of the universities with whom I have been working all year, promoting a specific scholarship & meeting with some (very) high ranking members of those institutions to discuss the strategies for raising awareness of this opportunity to their students.

As I posted the above update on Facebook, I remembered that conversation with my former employers about the opportunities this new role would afford me. Here I was, finally about to embark on this exciting experience which was the primary reason I had given for jacking in my old job.

There was just one problem. This was a complete lie. I wasn’t excited. I was terrified.

I didn’t take the job at Oxford because of the possibility for international travel. I took it in spite of that possibility. I very nearly didn’t apply for the job at all because the prospect of taking a trip like this was so scary. Eventually I reasoned that there was every chance that it simply wouldn’t happen. Business trips like this get cancelled all the time for a variety of reasons. I applied for the role as the rest of it sounded genuinely interesting to me, and I thought I could do it well, but I told myself that the line in the job description referencing overseas travel for recruitment purposes was probably only there to entice prospective employees. Even if a trip did take place, I reckoned that there were plenty of other far more senior people who would manoeuvre themselves to go in my stead.

So when the preliminary meetings started being held in early 2014 I made a point of saying that if it all fell through (as I expected that it would – although I kept that part to myself) I wouldn’t be too cut up about it. I contributed my expertise, talking about which universities had been particularly engaged and figuring out which ones to visit. I researched flights and dates and hotels. And somewhere along the line I started to envisage what it would be like to actually do this.

It was probably around early Spring I realised that if I really didn’t think I could cope with this trip I had to speak up before we got too far into the arrangements. Which would mean admitting that I had never wanted to go in the first place. It would mean betraying the trust my new employers had placed in me when they offered me the job. And, more than that, it would mean knowing that I had let my nerves and neuroses get the better of me and actually stopped me from doing something.

And so I made a decision that, even though I had been lying through my teeth when I told my previous boss I wanted to travel, even though I had almost convinced myself that the trip would never come to fruition, and even though the thought of boarding a plane was still making me break out in a nervous sweat, I was going to go on this trip. It would be hard, it would be scary, it would be tiring but I was going to do it. I wasn’t going to let my fear get in my way.

Bravery is sometimes described as the capacity to ‘feel the fear but do it anyway’. As the Doctor puts it during a recent episode, humans have a superpower-esque ability to forget their feelings. I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. The feeling of fear was transitory, but the fact that I took the trip anyway is an achievement that will be with me for the rest of my life.

Jet lag #NaBloPoMo

I flew back from Tampa, Florida yesterday morning after spending just over a week in the US on business. I had woken up at 05.30 Eastern Time the previous morning in an attempt to maximise my chances of catching some zees on the plane. In an unexpected act of financial generosity my workplace had sprung for premium economy seating for my overnight return flight (actual business class was out of the question – I work in the public sector) and I had selected my bulkhead seat on the BA app a week earlier so I had all the legroom necessary for my 5’4” frame.

Thanks to the combination of my trusty neck pillow, the foot rest, a gin & tonic followed by a perfectably acceptable red with dinner, and my sheer exhaustion from the trip, I actually managed to lose consciousness for a good couple of hours somewhere over the Atlantic. My plane landed early, border control was well staffed – so no queueing, and I collected my suitcase in record time. These minor miracles all resulted in catching the coach from Gatwick to Oxford an hour earlier than the one I had expected to be on. In a final confluence of serendipity the clocks went back in the UK while I was away, meaning that the time difference shrank for 5 hours to 4, thus making it 20% easier to adjust back to GMT on arrival. Never before have the deities of international travel made it so very easy on me.

I hadn’t counted on doing anything this weekend. The whole 48 hours had already been written off to allow for the symptoms which normally accompany my jet lag; alternating between shaking, weeping and swearing at anyone (usually Terry) who, with my best interests at heart, refuses to allow me to go to bed at 5.30 in the evening. Instead, I stayed up last night until 10pm (which is pretty close to my normal bed time – night owl I am not) and slept more or less solidly until 8.15 this morning. I now have a free weekend stretching out in front of me, unstructured and free of obligations, with which I can do anything, as long as I stay awake until tonight.

So, perhaps rashly, I am going to take a shot at NaBloPoMo again. I did this 2 years ago, and found it to be difficult but very rewarding. Since moving to Oxford my blogging output has diminished to almost nothing, although ideas continue to percolate. So for the next month I will, attempt at least, to publish a blog post each day. The majority of these will be written on the fly, although I have several drafts saved from the past year or so, which will get roughly kneaded into some kind of shape and then offered up at the alter of micro self publishing.

At best, I hope this will rekindle my enjoyment of writing, and of sharing my ideas. Too often I let the maxim “better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt” prevent me from sharing my views. It’s still something I find scary, but I have spent the past week living a rather different maxim, “feel the fear but do it anyway” and I want to continue in that vein.

And at worst? At least it might help me stay awake.