State of the CatHive, May 2015

24 May 2015, 4:25 p.m.

There's been a lot of change here recently: David moved out, Kelsey moved in, the cats hit their first birthday.

As regular readers of this blog have probably noticed (and if there are any regular readers here, I apologise for not being a regular writer), I live in a shared flat affectionately named CatHive. I suggested calling it CatHouse when we first moved in, but this was vetoed. Besides, everybody likes bees. Until a week ago, the residents here were my partner David, our friend David, me, Sinister and Dexter. David moved to Z├╝rich to work for Google, but quickly decided that it wasn't a good long-term plan for him and quit. Starting in January, he spent most of his time in the CatHive living room, working with stunning dedication on his project Hypothesis, while David and I tried to come up with reasons for him to stay in Switzerland. Unfortunately, the land of chocolate and high prices is not an attractive living spot when you don't speak the language or have a regular income, and we did not succeed. Horrible election results notwithstanding (and oh boy, did we get drunk that night), David has returned to the UK.

Luckily, several months ago, he met an awesome American postdoc, Kelsey. David immediately realised she was what, back in Cambridge, we would have called podpatible, and introduced us all without delay. It turned out that Kelsey's living situation was not ideal. I'm pretty sure that all of us thought, wistfully, "What would happen if Kelsey moved in here...?" — then we realised that this was a perfectly plausible thing to happen. As well as being generally great, Kelsey has always lived with cats, so Sin and Dex were actually a draw rather than the disadvantage we'd assumed they'd be in finding a new flatmate. What's more, she's an entomologist and botanist, so the household name has become even more appropriate.

Sin and Dex are a year old now and thus should properly be called cats, not kittens. This has not changed our habits, however, and the herald of a cat's presence remains the cry of, "Oh, kitten, no!" They have grown into enormous beasts, Sinister especially, and we suspect he has at least one more growth spurt to go. Since we don't know anything about their paternity, perhaps their father was a bear or a wolverine?

Sinister is a plush, beautiful, barrel-shaped cat, with a double layer of downy fur and pale green eyes. He makes a good pillow. He's not fat, exactly, just made up of more than the usual amount of cat. We were loath to stereotype, but of the pair, he is definitely the less intelligent. Instead of drinking from the bowl in the normal fashion, he stands with one front foot in the water and licks the top of it, presumably filtering the water through its copious fur. He understands what doors are for but has not really learned how to use them. He still chases his tail, though only when on top of the tall bookshelf. When he is disturbed by some great disruption to the natural universe (the neigbours' robot lawnmower, say, or me leaning out of the window to open the shutters), he meows loudly and repetitiously until order is restored. This is actually a good thing, because for the first half of his life he somehow had trouble raising his voice above a high-pitched, breathy whisper that was very incongruous to his stature. Sinister does not like being picked up, but is very affectionate in the morning, presumably having forgotten overnight that people exist. He will jump on the bed, bat you in the face until you rub his cheeks, and roll over on his back, purring wildly (and shedding).

Dexter, meanwhile, is a smooth, slinky creature with enormous orange eyes, usually in an expression of doleful distress. (This is pure human pattern-recognition, I know.) He is smaller and slimmer than his brother, although he does seem to be filling out and recovering from the medical problems he's had in this first year. Many are the times we have decried the cat-assembly skills of his mother, who has created not one but two litters without having any official qualification in the area at all. At first he peed too much, often on a bed or sofa, and then he peed too little and swelled up like a balloon. At his worst, he hobbled about with a bulge like a football on one side of his frame, obviously in discomfort and unable to solve it himself. We took him to the vet and the animal hospital for blood tests, x-rays, ultrasounds and finally a CT scan, which showed that his plumbing was in the right place but, for some reason, failing to direct the flows correctly. Luckily, we've found a combination of drugs that work for him. Freeing him of his undescended testicles has also helped.

Despite being officially the brighter of the two cats, Dex does not understand that taking his space food twice a day is good for him, and requires ever more complicated methods to get it into him. I think even scruffing is starting to lose its efficacy. Still, he developed his own method for opening David's and my bedroom door, and now even knows that if it won't open, it's locked and there's no point trying again. Dexter is narrow enough to get a good seat on my shoulders and will ride along there while I go about my business. He likes to chase small rattly things across the floor; at the moment, his favourite toy is the wire cage from a bottle of sparkling wine. Sinister's favourite, most prized toy of all time is a cotton bud, with which things he is obsessed. He'll walk around with one hanging out of his mouth, can be tempted out of any hiding place with the promise of one, and, er, likes to eat the cotton bits off the ends. We try to buy the kind with cardboard sticks rather than plastic. It doesn't seem to have done him any damage so far.

We had a combination leaving party for David + birthday party for both Davids and both cats a couple of weeks ago. It was warm and dry enough to inaugurate the grill for the summer. I hope there will be many more such occasions this year.

At work, I've been splitting my time between a large API project, written in PHP using Symfony2, and a few smaller Open Data projects. This has been good in terms of keeping things interesting and filling my time, not to mention getting to work with the awesome API team while the number of Open Data developers dwindled for various reasons. It's been hard for the same reasons, though, and now we're gearing up for a huge and fairly long-term Open Data job, which means I have to make a decision. Should I switch full-time to Open Data, where I can code in Python and work towards something I really believe is important? Or should I stay with the API squad, where I have to write PHP but the team spirit is amazing? I mean, there are some good devs working on Open Data too, but things have changed a lot since the great restructuring in November: people have left, new people have joined, there have been politics and stress — not from within the company, but regarding clients. The API is for a large business, but as companies go, this is one I feel pretty good about working for. Plus, my PHP skills are much lower than my Python ones, which means I'm at a steeper and more exciting part of the learning curve there. Hrmpf.

I think I will try to spend a few months on Open Data and then come back to the API. I hope everyone will let me do this.

Otherwise, I've been reading a lot and tentatively sticking a toe out into writing more — including fanfic! The thought makes me simultaneously very nervous and very excited. That's especially the case since the character I'm trying to write about is one by whom, I feel quite strongly, the original author did badly. Wanting to correct this makes me pretty worried about doing the same thing. On the other hand, it could also let me find other people who love the same character, and open up lots of good discussion about them. A friend offered to beta any fic I come up with, completely unprompted, and that gave me ... well, this was on Tumblr, so I guess I can just say it gave me lots and lots of feels.

What else have I been doing? Trying to learn Spanish with Duolingo and going to conferences, it seems.

In April, I went to the Lonestar PHP conference — in fact, I was sponsored to go there, which is incredible. It was my first time in Texas. I played cornhole, ate tortillas, talked to loads of people with amazing Southern accents, experienced my first tornado warning and went to Walmart. Also, I learned a staggering amount about PHP. I had a terrific time! Directly afterwards, David and I went to A MAZE Berlin, the indie gaming festival, which was also fantastic. I will link to his blog post about it instead of writing more here. Last weekend he also demoed Airships, his game, at Fantasy Basel, where I saw my first real cosplayers, including a fem Triangle Head and a pirate Deadpool! Finally, in a week or two I'll be giving my first conference talk ever. It'll be at DjangoCon Europe and the topic is Hypothesis, which brings this long post full circle. I'm looking forward to it a lot and I really ought to make some slides for it soon. Wish me luck.