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 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:


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.


Amongst the outpouring of grief, celebration of life, & criticism of other people’s reactions (see Richard Herring’s Twitter feed) an interesting but ultimately rather sad discourse emerged today about the nature & treatment of mental illness. On the one hand, there has been the expected contingent of uninformed trolls, spouting offensive crap demanding to know how it can be that a rich, sucessful, white, male celebrity has the timerity to be depressed about anything. How dare they!

There have also been the more compassionate voices pleading that anyone out there with suicidal thoughts remembers that support is available, and that they don’t have to suffer alone.

Concerningly though, a 3rd strand to this discussion has bitterly sought to highlight that this so called ‘support’ is frequently unavailable or inadequate.

I have quite a few friends who have varying levels of mental health issues. Some of them feel that they have received a decent level of treatment from their medical practitioners. Others have struggled to get any recognition for their problems at all. From this I surmise that it is something of a crapshoot as to whether you will receive the help you need, even if you are in a state to both acknowledge that help is needed and to ask for it.

One might be forgiven for coming away from the media (both social and er, the old fashioned kind) today feeling dispirited about humanity, in large part because of all the other atrocities taking place around the globe at the moment, and not just the tragedy of one beloved performer. And for all the well meaning messages about asking for help, if you don’t have any confidence that the help is there even if you do ask for it, I imagine that is of limited comfort.

I have no direct experience of mental health support, so I don’t feel remotely qualified to state that the current provision is or isn’t working, other than my 2nd hand experience of other people who clearly think that it’s not all it could, or should, be. I do think this is one of those cases where it’s easier to measure failure than success. That the headline grabbing times when nothing works can drown out the daily occurances of people fighting and winning against the black clouds that surround them. When just getting through the day is an achievement, I can’t imagine how much harder it is to feel like you’re surrounded by people saying the whole system is broken.

Someone I know suggested on Twitter today that if you don’t suffer from mental health issues then take the opportunity to reach out to someone who does. So to any of my friends who need it, consider this an open invitation. I can’t guarentee I can help. I can’t guarentee anyone can help. But I am happy to try.

On Stewart Lee

I want to find Stewart Lee funny. He’s clever, he’s meta, and he’s not popular enough to count as mainstream so liking him still has a certain cache.

I read his book a while ago when he talked about zooming out from the comedy so you can see the writing in the margins. I can see where he was going with that. I listened to his bit about how he could be a librarian but you’d have to understand how traditional librarians operated in order to really ‘get’ how his brand of librarianism worked. That was pretty funny. I enjoy the quasi-confessional, quasi-therapeutic moments with Lee discussing his method with Armando Iannucci on Comedy Vehicle (although latterly some bloke in glasses because Iannucci appears to be busy with Veep these days.) I appreciated that.

The problem is that I kind of don’t find Lee funny. I cast no aspersions on his artistic integrity or intelligence. He clearly has both in abundance. But I can’t really get over the fact that for every 7 minutes of performance there’s approximately 45 seconds worth of actual material.

The past 25 minutes have cemented this for me. Because I’ve had a tough day at work, & I decided to have a few drinks this evening. I am, as a matter of fact, slightly tipsy. And I’ve realised that I have laughed more in the past 25 minutes at Stewart Lee than I ever have before. Stewart Lee is funnier when I’m pissed. Which is usually the mark of a substandard comedian. Lee got funnier the drunker I got. I *want* to like him, but the evidence suggests that in order to do so I have to engage with him on the same terms as I would with, say, Russell Howard.

I don’t get that with Richard Herring. He tells better jokes about exponential mathematics. And the drunker I get when watching Herring, the less I realise I’m understanding. I find that funny.

Kissing Grandparents

I just read a brilliant article on the Guardian. Last year I might have just shared on Facebook with an exuberantly punctuated ‘This!’ But a) saying ‘This!’ is a bit passée now or so I am given to understand, and b) I’m starting to get a bit of time back to do some blogging and this is as good a topic as any to kick off the New Year.

So, tl;dr the article contends it is contradictory to teach children about consent and maintaining control over their own bodies whilst ‘forcing’ them to bestow physical affection on Grandparents (or for that matter any other relative.) This is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Furthermore I was impressed at the clarity of Barbieri’s argument, and the inclusion of the disclaimer at the start, presumably designed to mitigate against the criticisms which sadly would come anyway. I was disappointed by the comments expressed horror that the author dare condemn such innocent activity, branding her opinion ‘perverse’ and ‘troubling’.

Once I stopped spluttering with indignation and exasperation on the writer’s behalf I started to unpack why I was having such a strong reaction. Firstly it’s because I feel she is quite definitely, uncontroversially, correct. It is inherently contradictory to teach children that they should have autonomy over who touches them and how, whilst at the same time placing social pressure on them to kiss & cuddle family members against their will. Whether or not that is a contradiction which society chooses to accept is perhaps a matter for debate but nevertheless it is surely undeniable that to do this is teach children a certain behaviour is bad unless an adult chooses to override that for their own spurious reasons.

Secondly, contact with another person doesn’t have to be sexual to be unwanted. Despite the interpretation of this article by many of the commenters, Barbieri does not say anywhere that hugging between family members has a sexual component. Insisting that if a child does not want to kiss granny then he shouldn’t have to, does not imply in any way that granny has paedophillic designs on her grandson. What it is doing however is teaching the child that their feelings about whether or not they want a particular form physical contact is, if not irrelevant, then at least secondary to the feelings that an adult has on the matter, whether that’s hurting Uncle’s feelings or embarrassing Mummy because little Timmy suddenly shies away from a whiskery peck like a spooked horse.

Thirdly, what kind of well-adjusted adult is incapable of forgoing their own whimsical preferences if it’s upsetting to a young member of their own family? I suppose I can understand that an adult might feel a momentary sense of rejection if their well intentioned display of affection is met with a less than enthusiastic response. But if a child says “No, I don’t want to” then, seriously, what kind of responsible adult responds with anything other than “Ok, you don’t have to”. Said, I might add, in a manner which clearly respects the child’s wishes as opposed to a pleading, emotionally blackmailing display of disappointment designed to guilt the child into doing it anyway!

Children can be capricious, hurtful, mean and self-centred, and part of responsible parenting involves teaching them about how other people’s feelings matter, and the importance of being polite. But surely learning that autonomy over one’s own body is important is the foundation for learning that on must respect the autonomy of other people as well.

2013 – the year I got a new job.

In a rare moment of wakefulness past my usual bedtime, I saw in 2013 with some good friends in Woking. It was a lovely evening at home, made all the more festive for the bottle of Lanson Black Label champagne. I was fairly relaxed after my customary Christmas break stretching from Christmas Eve through to 2nd January (one of the perks of working in the Higher Education sector – Universities tend to shut down completely over the festive period.) But I also felt nervy about returning to work.

Since about September 2012 my colleagues and I had been trying to do our work, but substantial change was in the air and it’s hard to stay focussed when you don’t know what your job will consist of a few months down the line. We had been faithfully promised that we would know our fate by the time we broke up for Yuletide. Whether the news was good or bad, decisions concerning the new operation would have been made, and planning would start in earnest. To no-one’s tremendous surprise the deadline came and went and nothing actually happened. So we all sloped off for the break none the wiser.

Come the end of January Terry & I headed off on a proper holiday. Still we knew nothing, and by now we were getting pretty bored of being jerked around by the DfE. I returned to work in early February, established that we still had no idea what our jobs would be, if we would want to do them or even if they would actually exist. And that’s when I started thinking.

At this point I had worked at the Institute of Education for four and half years, administering a programme of Continuing Professional Development to teachers and technicians working in Science education. It had been a varied role, I had learned a lot, made some very good friends and generally enjoyed it. But returning to work that February for the first time I realised I really didn’t want to go back into that building. Not just the normal end of holidays blues, but a deeper malaise signifying that I was no longer happy in my job.

But there’s a recession on. I was bloody lucky to have a job at all, and it felt childish to indulge in existential angst about whether every waking moment spent within those solemn grey concrete walls was any fun. Plus whatever lay ahead it was likely to involve a lot of work, and I was riddled with guilt at the prospect of leaving friends and colleagues in the lurch. So I spent an unhappy 6 weeks miserable, bored, anxious but in a state of semi-denial that anything was wrong. My ever-patient, ever-supportive husband gently suggested that I polished up my CV and started seeing what had available. In the meantime work was getting worse; everyone was tense and short-tempered and now in March we were still in the dark about what would happen in the Brave New World as we not-very-cheerfully had taken to calling it. Eventually I saw sense and agreed the time had come to Start Looking.

In a break with tradition, Terry was staying still, career wise, and getting on pretty damn well at O2 in Slough. So we figured out where I might be able to work which wouldn’t drag him away. Analytical types that we are, we overlaid the UCAS map showing all HE institutions in the UK with the Mapumental tool which draws circles according to commuting times via public transport and another which shows distance by driving time. With our parameters set, 3 areas seemed likely candidates: staying in London, moving to Reading or moving to Oxford.

I wasn’t crazy about sticking with London. South West Trains’ quality of service had been steadily declining, in direct opposition to the cost of the tickets, and I was aware that the daily grind of the commute was not helping my mood. I submitted my first job application to Reading on the 1st April 2013. I didn’t hear anything back, (correctly) assumed I hadn’t been shortlisted, asked for feedback (was told I had been a decent candidate but it was a very strong field blah blah blah) and resolved to Carry On Looking.

A few scant weeks later I put myself forward for a job running one of the largest and most prestigious scholarships at the University of Oxford. I was stunned to be shortlisted, which consisted of a substantial pre-interview task, a pre-interview computer test, a presentation and then the interview itself. It was hands down the most gruelling job application process I had ever gone through, but it seemed to go well. Really well actually! I left feeling cautiously optimistic, and then, because it happened to be my birthday, I went to the pub and got drunk.

I received the rejection letter at 16.15 the following day and had a beautifully restrained little cry in the corridor at work (think Emma Thompson in Love Actually!) There was the normal gubbins about the panel having a really tough decision to make and would I please consider other posts. Blah blah blah.

Ever my guiding star – Terry had a different interpretation of this missive. Where I had assumed polite smoke-blowing, Terry was sure there was real intent behind the invitation to apply for another position which had been advertised at the same time. And so I re-jigged the stuff I had submitted before, hit the Send button, and waited.

Whatever they had liked about the previous application was clearly still there, as I got shortlisted again, and went through the whole pre-interview rigmarole once more. I was a little better prepared, a little less nervous and felt like I had given the best account of myself possible in the interview. I felt optimistic, but was determined not to get my hopes up too high. A friend was celebrating her birthday in Soho that evening, so I resolved to make my way back to London and get drunk.

Which is in fact what transpired, except that during the intervening 2 hours The University of Oxford rang up and offered me the job and my life changed.

I handed in my notice, hunted for, found and bought a house in the 3 months it took me to leave my job and moved to Oxford 11 days prior to starting in the Graduated Admissions and Funding team. I’ve barely stopped since, what with learning the ropes of my new role, settling into the house, and getting to know a brand new city. As such, many other things such as blogging and going to the gym have fallen entirely by the wayside, so I hope to start easing my way back into normality in 2014. It’s been a turbulent year, but I can honestly say that while I am exhausted, I am finishing 2013 much happier than when I started.