10 years old

My little blog is 10 years old today. Blimey.

That’s a total of 728,396 words, over 3,502 posts. Plus 6,828 comments, and over 35k words sitting in unpublished drafts.

‘Wonga’ wasn’t really a popular word when this site started. Now it has connotations, and I sometimes worry new people must think it’s all about me spending money, or something. I even got a confused email about this once. In reality it was just a funny sounding word, and I liked it.

This site’s seen me leave home, start and shutter my own business, get into my long-term interests of Humanism and dancing, study for a part-time degree, have a few spectacular crushes and one terrible break-up, first-draft two novels, get seriously into photography to the extent that I was photographing weddings and holding my own photography exhibitions, move to London, transition from angry-atheist to what I’d previously have called an accommodationist, and start work at the BHA. Quite a bit.

I look back on the early posts with some pride, and the occasional cringe. I was probably too open. Definitely too emotional. I’m certainly never going to be able to run for public office. Not that I intend to, but, you know. The passive aggressive martyr posts of my early twenties are a particular highlight. As are the many opinions that obviously came straight from other people. And the angry-atheist stuff just isn’t me any more.

But there’s plenty I’m proud of, too. My post on an attempted phone scam got me onto BBC Breakfast, and hopefully helped some people. The Derren Brown post became a chatroom in a ‘little corner of the web’, with hundreds of comments. And I’ve made really good friends; the old Bloggers4Labour group was the first time I’d really socialised in the real-world with new people, and I doubt they realise quite how much of a difference this made to my life (thanks particularly to Mr Skuds for encouraging me). And I had a lot of discussions about religion, and free speech, and morality. I had fun.

But by far the most searches to the site still come from ‘strictly come dancing tickets’, due mainly to a seriously effusive post about my trip to see Strictly in 2006 (the second sentence of which is definitely going to come back to haunt me).

Obviously I don’t write as much as I used to. For a few years it was multiple posts per day (self-employment rocks), but then Twitter quickly became the medium of choice for quick thoughts, and at a certain point I stopped finding my own long-form opinions that original or useful. But I still like writing up interesting things I’ve done, both as a diary and for friends and family. And I still love writing. When I can’t dance, and all the humanist goals have been achieved, I’ll use one of my lifetimes to finish those novels.

Thank you to everyone who has read, or commented. I like to think I still pop up in a few people’s feedreaders. It’s very nice of you.

Dapper Day 2013

Me at Dapper DayI first heard about Dapper Day via Boing Boing, who described it as:

a day when masses of well-dressed, nattily turned out happy mutants converge on Disney parks to enjoy a day in fine style.

Obviously this attracted my attention. I was in Disneyland Paris last year, and enjoyed it a lot. And I am, you know, occasionally a fan of dressing up. Therefore: win. But, as ever, the problem was finding companions.

I’m generally happy to do things by myself, since the alternative is not doing them at all. But I couldn’t go alone to this. Walking around the park all dressed up, I could cope with. But standing in long queues on my own all dressed up, not so much. So I launched a mission to find co-adventurers, aware this was a bit of a long shot. I’d had a summer of difficulty finding people to do free London stuff with, let alone a not-cheap trip to France. Yet – amazingly – somebody volunteered immediately, and stuck with it as quite a few others faded in and out. Hooray! I’m very grateful.

Five weeks later I was on the Eurostar, and full of bounce. A nearby 2-year-old nearby explained to me very seriously that she was travelling to Disney Zoo to see Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck. Which, to be fair, is pretty unassailable logic. She wasn’t as excited as me, though. I’d spent a bunch of evenings trawling Oxford Street for dapperness, then going home and deciding this was insufficiently resplendent and I must do better. I’d worn stupid shoes to work for a while so that I could actually walk on the day itself. I’d bought a cummerbund just for the bow tie that came with it. SERIOUSLY. A CUMMERBUND. WHO BUYS CUMMERBUNDS. And I had my secret weapon: a gold pocket watch that I actually really like and am trying to think of a way to wear in general life without looking like a massive douche. I was ready.

And much fun it was. It was wet. Very wet. But we had a hat and a parasol, so who cares about wet. We got some properly excellent double-takes from adults and outright gawps from children, plus a family who asked to take our photos as we were ‘far too cute’ and ‘should never wear anything else ever’. There were also some ride operators who knew about the day, and when we walked past Captain Jack Sparrow he spotted my friend and very obviously looked her up and down. Although thinking about it that is probably his job. But still.

There was a dearth of dapper, though. We were briefly concerned it might just be us, until we spotted some finely attired visitors on Main Street and gave them an awkward wave. Then we got worried that they might be incidentally dapper, and we looked weird. There should be a hand signal or something. But upon heading to the planned rendezvous points we were indeed not alone. There were about 50 of us, and everyone else was French and didn’t speak much English, but nevertheless were able to say they thought I look like David Tennant so are very lovely people and friends for life. We took over one end of the paddle steamer, then had a mass ride on the carousel, which was of course excellent because everything is excellent on a carousel, posed for group photos in the castle, and generally walked around feeling quite happy. It was delightful. If wet.

I didn’t take many photos as there were a couple of official photographers, but their photos have yet to turn up. Grrr. Here’s an idea of how we all looked, stolen from Facebook:


photo (3)

So, in summary, it was ace. Entirely worth it.

I do note that the US Dapper Days attract a lot more people, though. This year they filled the paddle steamer:


I am plotting a trip to LA.

Not hot

I don’t like spicy food. Even the really ‘mild’ stuff  just tastes of hot – I don’t get any flavour from it, and I find eating it pretty unpleasant. I used to wonder if I was doing something wrong, or just not putting the effort in. But in the past few years I’ve realised I just don’t experience what everyone else seems to. It’d be interesting to know what’s going on here, and this article on a competition to eat the world’s hottest peppers is a good start. It explains that the hotness of a chilli is down to the amount of capsaicin it contains, and that people vary in how much they can take:

What accounts for the seemingly vast range in people’s tolerance for capsaicin? Some of it, of course, is genetics. Just as the number and density of taste receptors varies from tongue to tongue, so does the pain receptor count. (But not in a correlative way; so-called supertasters are not necessarily more sensitive to capsaicin.) According to Bryant, tolerance is more built than born. Just as bagpipes and muskets may damage auditory nerves, capsaicin gradually destroys the pain receptors that respond to it. Bryant gives the example of Mexican children introduced to capsaicin as young as 4 or 5, in the form of chili candies. By the time they’re adults, their receptor load has been devastated. “What would scorch your palate off is a pleasant burn to them.”

Burns regularly eats hot Thai, Indian and Mexican food. That she had sought out a Fireball Chili to try while visiting the nearby state of Sikkim suggests “chilihead” proclivities. Which raises the question: Are there people for whom searing oral pain is a positive experience, or are chiliheads simply people who’ve destroyed so many pain receptors that a superhot, to them, is like a jalapeño to you and me? There is also, Bryant points out, huge variability to what one defines as pain. “And then there’s the macho aspect,” he says, such as denying the pain to impress your dinner companions: “I don’t know how many people eat hot peppers in isolation.”

Food science has a theory called “dynamic contrast.” It holds that the human tongue likes variety and surprise. It likes a little salt with its sweet, a little crunchy with its creamy. Though technically an irritant, chili adds spice, literally and otherwise. Psychologists have other ideas on the topic. Some have explained the chili pepper’s popularity by way of the “risk-taking personality”: superhots as the edible version of sky diving.

The hottest pepper in the world is the Naga King Chili, and there are competitions where people eat as much as possible. The after-effects are quite the thing.

What not to wear

Last summer I got a clothes consultation for my birthday. One of those Trinny-and-Susannah things where someone tells you which colours suit you, which styles of clothes are most flattering, etc. I was intrigued. Obviously I have no clue about style, and I generally feel like a dork no matter what I wear, so this seemed a good way to fix that. I’d been in London a year, had some money saved, and was trying to feel more confident in general. Plus I was going to the Miami dancing competition that summer, and I figured it’d be nice to not feel silly at the surrounding social events. So this was a really well-timed present, and I was quite looking forward to it.

I booked an appointment with the very nice consultant, and after many scheduling and location problems we decided the best location would be my office. The day came and it was pouring with rain, and when I opened the door the first thing she did was apologise for being a bit windswept and not looking very glamorous. Which was obviously not a thing – it’s sad that there are obviously people who would judge her like that – so I did my best to be reassuring while heading to the room least likely to have random visitors turn up at 7 in the evening1.

She sat me down in front of a large mirror, turned on a portable daylight bulb, and draped a hairdresser’s cowl around me. She then held various coloured cloths under my chin, murmured positive or negative noises, and sorted the remaining colour packs in response to her assessments. Clearly there was theory to this. She honed in on a selection.

“Ok, you definitely best suit the ‘dark summer’ range of colours. And based on your skin tone I’d definitely say your go-to colour is…”

I’m thinking orange. Bright blue. OR electric blue. Yes! That’d be great. Something interesting, anyway.

“…grey. Charcoal grey. Here’s a swatch of that so you know what to look for when you’re clothes shopping.”

Grey. For god’s sake. It’s a step up from beige, I guess, but fine, whatever, if that’s how it is. I’d been trying to judge which colours worked and which didn’t, and had come to the conclusion that there’s a gene for it and I don’t have it. So I was entirely happy to be told the correct answers.

I was given a pack of colour swatches to keep in my bag, and these turned out to be amazing in their inability to match any clothes ever. But at least in theory I knew what colours I should be wearing.

GREY. I’m not sure I’m ever going to get over that. Anyway.

But enough of the colour theory – on to what was for me the more interesting bit: what types of clothes should I be looking for? She took various measurements. The conclusions were these:

  • My legs are longer than my torso, so I need clothes that make my legs look shorter and my torso longer
  • My shoulders are wider than my hips, so I need clothes that make my shoulders look thinner and my hips wider
  • My arms are longer than average, so I need clothes that make my arms look shorter
  • My neck is longer than average, so I need clothes that don’t draw attention to that

Basically, if I don’t wear the right clothes I look like a daddy longlegs. Fantastic.

I’ve paraphrased this a lot. She did a very good job of making it all sound positive, but it’s hard not to rethink it in negative terms. Rather than looking for clothes which make me look good, I sometimes feel like I have to wear certain things so as not to look stupid. Which wasn’t really the point.

But the important bit was the advice given in relation to these conclusions: how to achieve these things in terms of fit, pattern, texture etc. And it all seemed to make sense. For example, don’t wear horizontal stripes across the shoulders, as this makes them look wider. She wrote up a nice report for me, and the next weekend I headed to Oxford Street and tried to put these ideas into practice.

This was far harder than I expected. This has vertical stripes, but the colour isn’t quite right. Aha, these jeans seem ideal! But they’re £80. Am I sure enough to want to spend £80? I quickly decided that if I was going to buy a bunch of new clothes I might as well pay her to come with me. So I did. This was quite the expensive jaunt, but I ended up with a lot of new stuff, and was determined to give it a proper go. After all, the anecdotes on the website were all from people delighted at receiving compliments from everyone they knew, and overflowing with with new-found confidence. I wanted that!

Unfortunately, none of it really worked. I tried pretty hard over the next few months, but it never clicked. I just never felt comfortable or confident, and a year later I’m pretty much back to the combinations I wore before, daddy longlegs style. If this were the Trinny and Susannah repeat, they’d visit unannounced and be horrified. It wasn’t a total bust – I have a few nice shirts; I wear blue a lot as that apparently works; and I avoid slim-fit jeans after she tactfully steered me away from those forever – but otherwise, not so much. I guess it just wasn’t really me. In hindsight I generally go smarter than the kinds of things we bought – I should probably have mentioned that to her.

I do sometimes wonder if I should go back and try again. Or try a different consultant. But I’m a bit nervous that there’s some fundamental mismatch between what I need to wear and what I feel comfortable in, and that’s just that. Although the above may suggest otherwise, I don’t actually spend that much time thinking about clothes, but it’d still be disappointing to try and fail again.

All that said: on the rare occasion I go clothes shopping, I do buy grey things – god help me.

  1. got away with that, somehow []


30! Celebrated by going to look at the London Zoo pelicans, who don’t even pretend not to be dinosaurs these days:

Pelicans at London Zoo

Also meerkats, monkeys and a properly epic camel. Then it was off to Burn the Floor, which was bloody amazing – fastest, most intricate dance show I’ve seen, and performed by people who seem to love what they do. Can’t recommend it enough.

Decade’s off to a good start.

Viennese Waltz showdance

This is the Viennese Waltz showdance we performed last weekend. We’d been training for it since Christmas, and I was pretty nervous. We’ll hopefully be doing it again at a competition in the summer. There’s a longer version here with our introduction and a brief post-dance interview, should you fancy that.

I hadn’t worn tails for a dance before, so hired a suit. This was mortifying. The lady was very helpful, but the first thing she did was measure my chest and say ‘you are small, aren’t you?’. I murmured some agreement, and it turned out they don’t do shirts in my size, so it’d have to be too big. Then she held a tailcoat out for me to try on, and once I’d done so she explained how I’d done it wrongly. Apparently I don’t know how to put on a coat.

I was then shown through to the changing room, and told to ‘take my time’. This was a bit odd – how hard could it be? Quite hard. Took ages. Mostly because the shirt used studs rather than buttons, and had about a thousand layers, and was clearly designed as a joke. I gambled (correctly) that the trousers are supposed to come up to your rib cage, but I didn’t even try the bow tie (this was a clip-on, and on the Saturday night took three people ten minutes to figure out).

Then I didn’t know about collars, or cummerbunds. And I put the coat on wrongly again (by not holding the shirt cuffs). But I got there in the end. And tails are a bit like posh capes, so I was happy.

Unexpected item in post area

On February 13th I received a card in the post. This was surprising. I was deep undercover, pretending to be nonchalant about Valentine’s Day, and this wasn’t helping. So I let myself have a few moments of idle dreaming that it was the start of some wonderful new chapter that would likely be the inspiration for the best romcom ever, probably starring one of the impossibly good-looking identical bearded people from Game of Thrones and ending with an amazingly witty and well lit set piece on top of a London Eye bubble that’d be a bit like Sleepless in Seattle but without Bill Pullman being sad which I always felt a bit bad about and it’s great that he ended up with Sandra Bullock later and ANYWAY then I opened the envelope and pulled out a card with a giant blue heart on the front. This was downright ridiculous. I went through some flights of fancy that render the previous sentence a mere plankton in the ocean of wut before I opened the card and found a wedding invitation. This was disappointing. It’s literally, literally the opposite of a Valentine’s card. Some other people had achieved Peak Couple, and kindly let me know. I vowed vengeance at once, in the form of RSVP-ing with a yes.

Basically my brain has realised I’m going to be thirty soon, and is going quietly but comprehensively batshit. I was standing at the Tesco self-checkout machine last month, and spideysense peripheral vision alerted me to the presence of someone quite pretty at the next unit. And here is an actual thought that went through my actual head: I know, what’ll I’ll do is be really really smooth at processing my shopping.

I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking that’d certainly be one to tell the grandkids. Well, my friend, what you don’t know is that I totally did some research on the Tesco self-checkout machines last year. I say research. Basically I trial-and-errored for a few weeks to find the minimum number of words that Checkout Lady has to say. Here are the results:

  • Paying by credit card: 2
  • Paying by cash: 0

So, yes. I don’t like to brag, but clearly I have the Tesco checkout machine skills. If only I had been able to express this at the time, things might have been different. Maybe I should have some kind of card printed, should the situation recur. Maybe I should send it to my engaged friends. That would show them.

Then on Valentine’s day proper I decided to avoid a repeat of last year’s debacle by watching The Fifth Element, which is clearly the Thing To Do even if I always spend the next week having to resist walking up to strangers and saying ‘MULTIPASS’. But then Tesco had Crazy, Stupid Love for a fiver and I watched that instead and it was amazing and I’m probably not helping my subconscious deal with its trauma am I.

Hopefully I will return to normal sapience in due course. In the meantime, I will reveal the Secrets of the Tesco Machine upon PayPal-based request.

Pickles what

Here’s a lovely post about things the author misunderstood until an embarrassingly late age. The commenters join in with gusto, coming up with gems such as thinking Olivia Newton-John was Elton John’s ex-wife, and that ponies are baby horses. I’m glad lots of people have these. Some of mine:

  • I didn’t know that salmon was pronounced ‘sammon’ till I was 15 or so. Thought they were different things (it’s unclear what, to be honest). This was notoriously revealed in a game of Taboo.
  • I never understood why people said the Superman logo was an ‘S’ shape. I always saw the inverse pattern, which is essentially a bunch of polygons. I think I was about 14 when it finally clicked.
  • “It’s always in the last place you look.” Didn’t quite appreciate this one till, ahem, my late 20s. Ok last year shut up.
  • Not sure when I realised ‘The Beatles’ was a pun, but I remember pretending that obviously I’d always known that.
  • Upon reading the comments of the linked post, I learnt something unexpected about pickles *shameface*

Via defective yeti.

2012, then

Quite liked 2012. Some of the highlights and lowlights:

  • After last year’s resolution to take dancing a bit more seriously, I joined an amazing studio and subsequently danced at competitions in Miami and Disneyland, Paris. This was essentially the best thing ever.
  • I was Maid of Honour at my ex’s wedding, so helped run the Hen Do, as well as taking photos and giving a speech. I’d never done anything like that before.
  • I ran the Questival camping weekend for the AHS.
  • Tried and failed to move onto a purple boat (plans got scuppered after we found too many problems)
  • Spent 90mins in a fMRI scanner as part of an experiment.
  • Helped out at the BHA conference in Cardiff, the AHS conference in Birmingham, and took photos at the Labour Party conference in Manchester.

The first three of those took up all my free time, and as such everything happened fast. That was really 12 months?

I don’t have quite so much planned for 2013, yet. I’m booked in to go back to Miami in August, and there are showdances to practice and perform before then. I’m also turning 30 in May, and it’d be nice to do something special for that.


  • Reply to stuff quickly. I’m getting really bad at this. I tend to see messages come in, and am usually in the middle of something, so I figure I’ll reply later when I can think properly. And then don’t, because when I’m not in the middle of stuff I’m usually asleep. This is rubbish, and causes endless problems for both me and other people. So: the 2-2-2 rule seems a good starting point.
  • See more films, and go to the theatre sometimes. I’m within walking distance of the West End, for goodness’ sake.
  • Try to relax more. I have a habit of taking work home with me, and losing sleep over it. I like that I have a job I care about, but the balance is a bit wrong atm. Dancing has kept me going the last 6 months or so, but that’s suffered sometimes – I was pretty tired at the Disney competition, which was annoying.

Happy new year!