You’re not wrong; you’re just an asshole

Recently I got a parking fine. This was because I was parked somewhere at which I had to display a ticket (even for the allowed free duration) and I was not displaying a ticket, so the fine was completely correct. However, I appealed, sending the below covering note.

Hello, folks. We got a penalty notice yesterday, and I’m not challenging that the ticket is correct; we were parked and weren’t displaying a ticket, and if you reject this appeal of course I’ll pay. I would like to explain, though, that it wasn’t out of malice, and we were within the free parking period. My wife and I were taking our baby daughter swimming for the first time at the Olympia pool, and we were a bit stressed and anxious, and as we juggled bags, baby and plans for making the experience as smooth as possible for her as we got out of the car, we just forgot to get a ticket for free parking. About 45 minutes later we came out, went to Marks & Spencer to get lunch, and only as we were walking back to the car I spotted the pay stations and I suddenly realised I had forgotten to get a pay-and-display ticket. We were parked well within the free time allowed, but just forgot to get a ticket to confirm. Time-stamped receipt from pool attached; sorry, we didn’t take a receipt from M&S. Thanks for your time.

My appeal was rejected, and this was the explanatory letter I got from UK Parking Control Ltd.

Dear Mr Phin,

Thank you for your recent communication concerning the above Parking Charge. Please rest assured that our Appeals Manager has personally reviewed this case and carefully considered the various points raised. Our view, however, is that these particular circumstances are neither unreasonable nor unjust and so we will not be waiving this parking charge in full.

As per our client’s instruction, all vehicles must display a valid pay and display ticket to park within this area. Unfortunately when your vehicle was photographed no valid ticket was being displayed. Your vehicle was left unattended on Private Property, therefore giving you no authorisation to park. There are sufficient signs warning vehicle drivers that should they park their vehicle without displaying a valid ticket this will result in a Parking Charge being issued to the vehicle.

You will be aware from the Parking Charge that we offer a discount for parking charges paid within 14 days. As you lodged an appeal, we are prepared to extend this period for another 14 days from the date of this letter. But if we do not receive your remittance at the reduced rate of £60.00 within this period, the full amount will then become payable and we will put the matter in the hands of our Debt Recovery Agents.

We appreciate that this is not the outcome you will have hoped for. Unless you have any additional information that you have not already brought to our attention, this decision is final. Although further correspondence will be noted and filed, please do not expect any response from us except where you have provided new evidence to substantiate your case.

We hope you will take advantage of the extended discount period and will send your remittance promptly. Yours faithfully,

And so, of course, I paid the sixty quid, because to paraphrase The Dude, UKPC isn’t wrong; it’s just a shower of officious, unpleasant little assholes.

Ada wearing a knitted hat with bear ears

Year one

Our daughter turns one today. I have learned some things about babies, parenting, myself, my marriage, and my ability to form coherent blog posts in the 364 days since she was born, and so allow me to glug some of my brains out into this post.

  • There is a point somewhere on the continuum between ‘it is hard’ and ‘we found it hard’ that is objectively true; a fulcrum whose position would tell me the extent to which we particularly just made heavy weather of the experience of the first few days, weeks, months, and to what extent it’s just a spectacularly challenging gig. But I’m jiggered if I know where it is.
  • You forget what made it hard. You can call up impressionistic washes of anxiety and pettiness and novelty and failure (and happiness and delight), but you can’t remember the specifics. This is good, as it’s the only way our species doesn’t dwindle in a kind of reverse Fibonacci; you need people to forget so they voluntarily have more than one child to balance out eventually losing the two who made that first one.
  • There will be a neat mathematical model too to describe the toughness of the challenge – some inverse square shit that I should be able to call to mind in a more specific way. Basically: it doesn’t get easier in a linear way. At least till now it’s gotten easier on some sort of accelerating curve. The first six weeks were black and the subsequent six months horribly difficult, but the last three months have brought increasing contentment and joy amidst the wrangling. The stage we’re only arriving at now is the one which I naively thought parenting-from-day-one was like: requires huge commitment, patience, hard work and attentiveness, but there’s a lovely, sweet, kind, curious little kid with a deliciously absurdist sense of humour and a killer chuckle in the middle of it all too. In the early days the sheer unremitting terror of being solely responsible for this new life was, for us at least, suffocatingly hard; you’re caring for a little thing that does not work like anything you’ve interacted with before, and it couldn’t matter more that, at best, you get this wrong only in small ways.
  • Once you’ve worked out that mathematical model, you can apply it verbatim to your perception of time. I remember completely clearly, once we were discharged from maternity care, knowing that our next allotted chance to talk to a doctor was at our daughter’s 6-week checkup and thinking that was an insupportably, unimaginably long time to hold out. A day was lifetime, a week an aeon, a month an eternity, and if you’d asked me up even into the spring of this year to imagine her first birthday I wouldn’t have been able to in any but the most abstract terms. “Take each day at a time” isn’t glib, facetious advice; it’s a survival technique. Duties and time seemed to yawn relentlessly, chillingly out in front of us, but I am not intimidated by the idea of another year now; I’m excited.
  • Caring for your child and watching them change and grow and learn every single day is a godsdamned privilege. I keep saying it; it keeps being true. This trusting, loving (grizzling, shitting) little thing has no agenda, no plan. It just is. It just be’s. And you’re there right alongside it, helping, yes, and guiding, supporting, sure, but most of all watching as before your eyes a person is building itself, by the accretion of a thousand tiny moments, interactions and decisions. Everyone else gets to see my daughter; I get to see how she figured out how to be herself.
  • Parenthood strips you down. It forces you to confront often unsuspected truths about yourself, some of which you can draw great pride from, and some which are deeply shameful. I am ashamed of my temper and my pettiness, but I am proud that no matter how deep I’ve dug to just keep pushing forward, there has so far always been a deeper reserve I can scrape down to when something harder comes along.
  • I keep discovering new ways in which to find my wife remarkable. I wouldn’t, couldn’t do this with a lesser woman.
  • And here’s the most important thing I’ve discovered in the first year of my daughter’s life: she’s wonderful. She is full of wonders. That kazoo-like chuckle, deep and cheeky, that makes everyone else laugh too. The fact that she started proffering her toys and food to us to share without us even thinking to teach it, and being pleased when we enjoy them. The new tricks that astonish and delight us by their very unexpectedness: yesterday, plucking a tissue from a box, holding it to her nose and blowing a raspberry in mocking imitation of me with a cold – then looking at us all Fozzy Bear to see if we agreed that what she did was funny. The little curls at the back of her head. The perfect handprint on her face that persists for hours from where she slept with her head resting on overlapped hands, like a painting entitled The Sweet Purity of Youth. The tiny, tiny snores. Her saggy baby bum. And a hundred, a thousand more.

Friends, family, even total strangers who follow either of us on social media will know that we found being parents to a newborn gruelling, mystifying and disenfranchising. But it’s done now; check! Time – long overdue, you might say – to formally flick the switch and disable crisis mode. Time to realise that our life is not dazzlingly, incomprehensibly different to how it was before, it is now merely different to how it was before, and for the best of all possible reasons. Time, in other words, to start enjoying being parents. I love you so much, Jenny; I love you so much, Ada.

Name and shame

Vervet monkeys have a proto-language, a series of different calls they can make to warn the troop of a specific danger. The call for ‘eagle’, for example, triggers them to look up and to scamper for cover.

I’ve been thinking about the word ‘demagogue’, in light of the Brexit campaign and of Trump’s improbable rise. A demagogue is someone who builds power by appealing to emotions and prejudices rather than to reason, and it’s a word I knew but which had slipped from my mind.

As much as I find demagoguery distressing and worrisome, working as it does hand-in-glove with an unsettling and seemingly growing anti-intellectual rhetoric, I take comfort in the fact that we have a word for it. It says that, as a culture, we are on to you, sonny-jim. We recognise what you’re doing. We know its danger.

We might not all react in as sensible and predictable a way as the vervet monkeys do when one of their number shouts “Snake!” but at least we too have a word we can shout, because we’ve seen this slimy, venomous behaviour before.

Letter to my MP and MSPs following EU referendum

I voted in the EU referendum to remain, and the turmoil and ugliness that has followed in just the few days since the result was announced further strengthens my belief that an outward-looking, collaborative, humanitarian approach is the correct one.

Though born in Scotland, I was living in England when the Scottish referendum was held, but had I been able to vote I would have voted to remain a part of the UK – for basically the same, broadly federalist reasons. However we choose to move forward – with the Scottish government stymying a UK government that has chosen to listen to the referendum, in order to hold the UK and the EU together; with Scotland breaking up the union but quickly joining the EU; with chaos; or with another path I haven’t envisaged – what I hope for more dearly than anything is that when the dust settles I find myself living in a country which is characterised by compassion, respect and a cheery, hopeful confidence.

I ask that as we navigate the coming weeks and months you strive to maintain a high standard of debate, and, whatever route we chose, that the destination is one which is welcoming, progressive and kind.

Thank you for your time and for your service.

VR

I tried a VR headset for the first time the other day. It was ‘just’ a Gear VR, and the scenes I was shown (by Keith, whose it was) weren’t even especially dramatic; the first was a pano shot outside the LCC. And I could totally see the pixels of the screen a few centimetres from my eyes. And I was aware there was dust and hairs on the lenses, which of course stayed in the same place no matter where I pointed my head. And yet.

Within five, ten seconds, the real world had dissolved almost completely away. Keith, in meatspace, said something and I turned to reply, and was hit with a quietly vertiginous feeling when of course he wasn’t there in my field of view. He then loaded a virtual art gallery, and again, that vertiginous feeling as I turned, saw a doorway, and started to walk towards it. I didn’t actually even take a step, but I’m completely sure, had I been strapped to monitors, that you would have seen subvocalisation-style indicators – a muscle twitch here, a slight inclination there as my body prepared to shift its weight – that I had for a split second started the process of propelling myself towards the completely fictional doorway.

In other words: I was struck – really quite viscerally struck – that while simultaneously I had all the usual cues that told me I was using a computer, and that I was looking at something not real, something about the fluidity of the head tracking and the particular gullibility of the mind when it comes to this kind of simulation made me override those instantly. It was a strange experience, and one that made me think: if this is what VR looks like now – now when you can see the edges and when you can’t move and when what I tried is still pretty low-end and niche – and yet even in this comparatively nascent state it can remove you so convincingly from the real world, then by all the gods VR is going to be deeply seductive by the time my six month-old daughter is grown up.

Calculating appointment slots using Numbers

I have the honour of being an associate lecturer at the LCC, and a job I had to do yesterday was work out one-to-one tutorial slots for my class of 32 students. We have a total of six hours for these, and I needed to divide the time up equally between them and generate a list of times for the appointments. Rather than mucking about with bits of paper or manual calculation, here’s how I did it in Numbers; it’s likely Excel is similar,* but I haven’t tried it. In the screenshots for the guide below, I’ve hidden the first couple of columns, as they contain sensitive data – the one name showing in the formula is fake – but otherwise this is live.

Appointment slots tutorial 01

01: In cell C2, I enter the start time, 13:00, and set the format for columns C and D to time. Then click in cell D2 and type ‘=’ to switch to formula mode, click in C2 to say you want to use the value from whatever’s there, then type ‘+’ because you want to add time to it, then start typing ‘DURATION’.

Appointment slots tutorial 02

02: Because we know we have six hours and 32 pupils, I can have Numbers do the maths for me rather than having to work out how many minutes that is for each, dealing with fractional minutes and rounding errors. Click the Hours lozenge and type ‘(6/32)’ so the calculation is done for you – Numbers replaces the slash with a proper division symbol 😍 – and leave the other lozenges. You could replace them all with ‘0’, but there’s no need to.

Appointment slots tutorial 03

03: Now since we know when the first appointment ends, we know when the second starts. Click in cell C3 and type ‘=’ and then just click in D2. (You could get fancy and introduce buffers here with additional duration values, but I didn’t need to.)

Appointment slots tutorial 04

04: Now click D2 and hover over the bottom edge of the cell. Note the little yellow blob that appears halfway along, then drag this down the full length of your To column. Release, and it will populate them all with duration values based on the value in the cell immediately to their left, in column C; they’ll all just be duration values at this stage rather than times because they don’t have a start time to calculate from, but we’re about to change that.

Appointment slots tutorial 05

 

05: Now do the same thing in cell C3, which will fill down the formula that says ‘for this cell’s value, look at the cell one to the right and one up’. This will give the formulas you copied into column D a figure to calculate from, and so those time values will now complete as well.

There you go. Quick, easy, exportable. You could probably get even smarter with the ‘(6÷32)’ bit if you wanted to keep thing more dynamic, holding the value for the number of hours in another cell and referencing it, and calculating the 32 automatically with a Count formula, but this was enough for me.

* Numbers’ formulae operators tend to work almost identically to Excel’s, which is handy when trying to work out how to do something through Googling, in part because there’s far more material for Excel, but also because dear god, Apple, calling your spreadsheet app Numbers is not SEO-friendly.

Pitch perfect

I’m extremely fortunate that I rarely have to pitch story ideas to an editor to generate work – most of what I do is offered to me to accept or decline as loyalty, interest, other commitments and my bank balance dictate – but as a general rule, on those occasions when I do, I pitch several ideas at once, and they tend to fall into four main categories.

  • Ideas that are easy money (though are still something I think they and their readers will like), usually because they require minimal research or asset-gathering
  • Ideas that will be a pain in the arse to research and write but which are interesting and which stretch me, professionally, and so are worth the arse-pain
  • Ideas that mean me getting to do or use something I’m interested in at a personal level
  • Ideas that I think are important and that have either been covered in an opaque, unsympathetic or generally unuseful format hitherto, or just plain haven’t been covered – at least in a high-profile enough place for enough people to have seen it

Congratulohno!

I found out today that a friend and his wife are pregnant. Indeed, very pregnant. I congratulated him, of course, since there’s a better than average chance that at our stage in life, this is welcome, longed-for news.

But I wanted also to commiserate. Which is hard. In part it’s hard because no soon-to-be parent wants to have any more apprehension and fear heaped on them, in part because I was totally blindsided by how hard I found the first few weeks and months, and, crucially, in part because it’s not as simple as “it’s awful” – or even “but it has its rewards”.

It’s so fucking complicated.

It used to be that when someone told me they were expecting, I would of course congratulate them, but it would mostly – and don’t worry, I hate myself for this – it would mostly be a learned reaction. I didn’t feel bad for them; I felt little for them. It was, to me, a remote and irrelevant thing.

Then, we decided to try for a child – a decision that boiled down basically to “you’re never ready” and “I’m months away from being categorised as a geriatric mother” (which happens at 35, incidentally) – and when we had trouble conceiving and started the process of exploring our options, news of a friend’s pregnancy gained another unpleasant dimension. I knew that telling my wife would knock her back, would once again start thoughts about our situation and why getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as we’d been warned in sex-ed classes.

Now, news of a friend’s pregnancy boils up a visceral knot of reactions. Delight, of course, and excitement on their behalf about the adventure they’re about to embark on, but also a gut-punch reminder of how disorientating and disenfranchising and alien the first few weeks is. Or at least, was for us.

They might be fine! They might not have our medical challenges, our neuroses, our hang-ups, our problems. They might, in short, be more natural parents than we are, and find the process at worst tiring.

Perhaps the most challenging thing about my reaction to the news, though, is that I never really know now what my reaction is going to be, because my own situation, with my soon-to-be-six-month-old daughter, is such a shifting and ill-defined one. It’s not resolved. It’s in turn magical and difficult and fun and tortuous, and I need the hindsight of 25 years to know what I think about it. And that helps nobody, now.

It gets easier

I’m writing this in part to reassure friends with babies younger than Ada (which includes BABIES AS YET UNBORN, WOOOOOOOO!) who may find or might be finding things tough going – and who might still be haunted by our ashen faces and shakily-recounted tales of bafflement and exhaustion – and in part just for the exercise of marking this time and exorcising this stuff from my brain. (I actually started writing it a month ago; it just took a while to find space and time to complete.) Here, then, is why things have gotten easier.

The first few weeks of Ada’s life were dazzlingly, bruisingly tough for lots of the usual reasons that everyone will experience – the stakes being so high – and for some more special reasons all of our own. Now, with her a little over four months old (as she was when I started writing at the start of December), we’re beginning to catch our breath. Indeed, we’re beginning to enjoy Ada – and girl, if you’re reading this is twenty years’ time on a holoscreen, please don’t read that as us resenting or disliking you hitherto. It was just vast, exhausting work, and newborns don’t give anything back. Like, they’re not required to – “they didn’t ask to be born” – but it means you’re under heavy physical and emotional stress for hours, days, weeks, and the thing that’s at the centre of the maelstrom your life has become could not give one shit. (Except, you know, in the visceral sense.) I am not saying I’m a good person for finding that challenging, but I am saying I did. Which brings me to the first reason it gets easier.

Start the day with a smile

When I go to get Ada from her cot first thing in the morning, she looks at me, a moment passes and then her face splits into the biggest, cheekiest grin I’ve ever seen, she kicks her legs, she stuffs her fist in her mouth in her transports of delight. “Oh my god, this guy‽” she says, correctly identifying an opportunity to use an interrobang even in body language because she is my daughter; “I bloody love this guy!” And thus, whatever challenges and arguments and perplexities had figured so oppressively in the day before dissolve away in a heartbeat, and we begin afresh. But it took many weeks to get to this stage.

Practice makes piss-easy

The first time you sterilise anything, the first time you put on a nappy, the first time you run a bath, hell, the first time you pick up your baby, you won’t really know what you’re doing and so you’ll spend hours, cumulatively, reading manuals and guides, fussing with holds and fits, and ultimately not believing for a second you have done it right at the end of the process. Give it a couple of months, though, and you’ll do this kind of dull logistical stuff without a second thought, and that not only means you’re spending less time on them but you’re also not filling up your mind with fretting about what are ultimately quite minor things. Don’t get me wrong: we still worry about plenty of shit now, but through the mundane act of doing some things many dozens of time we don’t also worry about them at a bald mechanical level.

Tool up

We read books, we stocked up, we thought we were well-equipped. And we were, but only, it turned out, for a small set of scenarios. For example, because reasons, we decided at about week three to feed Ada expressed milk topped up with formula, which meant bottles. Because this wasn’t really a scenario we’d envisioned (because of the conspiracy of fucking silence about how difficult breastfeeding is, for one thing), we had a bit of a mish-mash of bottles we’d just kinda accreted. Once we actually bought good bottles that Ada liked and figured out the correct flow of teats, and then once we’d actually bought enough of them so that we could have the next full day’s worth sterilised and ready before I went to bed rather than frantically washing and sterilising two or three in a rolling dance of clusterfuck, we were golden.

Other stuff that has helped immensely (most of which were discovered as a result of Jenny’s research):

  • Nuk dispensers for formula. Measure the correct number of scoops into these at the end of every day, then the next day when things can be frantic just dump straight into the bottle. (Also, if using powdered formula, buy a Perfect Prep machine or similar. Just do. Ain’t no parent got the brainspace to be boiling kettles half an hour before feeds are required.)
  • Also, Nuk bottle cleanser. ‘Light’, not as foamy as usual washing-up liquid, and has an enzyme that specifically targets and breaks down milk. You can see it happen. Great stuff.
  • Look, I’m going to tell you we bought one of these baby chairs and I’m going to feel the need to justify the price, but we just love it. It’s somewhere to put Ada down while we’re doing other things (which might be simply ’massaging one’s sacrum while staring into the middle distance’), and she loves it too. It will last her for years, and the only bad thing is that it’s a pain to move around. Oh, and the crippling working class guilt about the price.
  • When you buy a sleeping bag or a babygro or whatever, buy the next size up as well at the same time; you’ll need it more quickly than you expect, and having it right there on the day when suddenly nothing fits is a magical gift from past-you.

Anyway, the point is: I suspect nobody has the stuff they need before a baby is born, so don’t even really try. Get the basics (books will tell you what these are) and then just be prepared to make many spur-of-the-moment trips to Boots, and late-night Amazon orders.

We are learning how to parent; Ada is learning how to baby

Newborns are like nothing you’ve ever encountered before, or more precisely caring for one is like nothing you’ve ever encountered before. You’ve literally spent a lifetime learning how to interact with people, and you’ll likely even – as a girlfriend, as a co-worker, as someone with an elderly parent – have spent some time caring for people at some level. Newborns aren’t people. I mean, obviously, they are, but they do not operate like people. This isn’t about babies not being able to articulate “Ah, father; I think the purple dungarees today – I’m feeling vivacious!” or “No, mother, don’t you remember? I took a dislike to Baby Snuggle Book last Wednesday and I simply cannot countenance the woolly sheep today”. No; we know ahead of time that babies can’t talk and that we will have to interpret their needs in other ways. But what actually happens is that they don’t even have the same basic concepts of needs or responses or drivers that adults, children, even toddlers have, and so it’s not even like you can work out what the different cues are and deal with them.

As the weeks ticked by, however, we would more and more often comment “Aw, she’s starting to be a proper little person”, and it was only later I realised that a side-effect of this is that she started being easier to interpret, simply because we’ve had a lifetime of interpreting people. And still this isn’t about knowing specifically what Ada wants; she’s too young, clearly, to form words, and we haven’t properly started with signing. It’s about me doing something funny and her chuckling; it’s about Jenny cuddling her after we’ve given her saline drops to help clear her nose when she had a cold and Ada understanding that a cuddle is comforting; it’s about – oh my days is it – Ada understanding what sleep is.

At the same time as Ada is learning how to be a baby, we’re learning how to be parents. In part we’re just better at mechanics of it, but we’re also just better at knowing how to support each other, how to structure days, how to adapt to the ever-changing process of parenting. We fuck up often, in big and little ways, and there hasn’t been a week where either I or Jenny or both haven’t cried, but we’re now able to at least identify those areas where we need to research more or just sack up more for, rather than just finding literally every aspect of the situation intimidatingly alien.

We are, too, now, the world’s foremost authorities on Ada Margaret Gray Phin. Nobody knows her better than we do, so when well-intentioned advice is offered, we feel confident in listening politely and then quietly, privately ascribing it little relevance to Ada if we believe it’s not applicable. Clearly, we’re not going to dismiss it out of hand, and this doesn’t apply to medical advice or advice from professionals, but equally we’re now experienced enough to know that no, she’s not windy just now; no, that thing she does when feeding doesn’t mean she isn’t hungry; no, there’s no point in trying to get her back to sleep after only a half-hour nap; half-hour naps are what she takes.

What’s more, while in the first two, three, four months we’d live pretty much half-hour to half-hour not knowing what was coming next, she’s settling into routines now, we’re learning her cries (and she’s learning to make different sounds for different things), and we’re using an app to track feeds, sleeps, medication and more so that we can start to see patterns and work out whether behaviours are out of the ordinary.

So: it gets easier. Not easy – presumably never easy – but easier. Everyone told us it would in the first few weeks and months, but we had to live through it to believe it. We have. It does.

Ada sitting up

Yo’ Watch’s so slow it thinks it’s last Thursday

Using apps on the Apple Watch, even with native watchOS 2 apps, is so slow that I have time to launch an app on the Watch, grow bored waiting for it to show the information I want, pull my iPhone out of my pocket, launch the same app, get the info, tap around a bit for more info, get distracted by the telly, put phone down, glance at Watch to see the time, and have to quit out of the still mutely spinning app I launched in the first place.

And yet I still love it – because for me at least it’s not about ‘launching apps and doing things with them’ like on the iPhone, but about glancing at the time and other useful snippets of information, rich and timely notifications, and short, Siri-issued commands. Sure, I’d like it to be faster for apps, but the fact that it’s not doesn’t make it a bad product – for me.