Friday, 28 December 2007

On holiday soon

Here I am, last post before going on holiday to Cumbria for a week. Long ago I thought I'd like to become a writer, and made some tentative steps in that direction. One of the bits of advice I was given was to write every day - it didn't matter what, just write something. At the time, I felt on some days there simply wasn't anything to write. Now I have more rubbish to put down than there are hours in the day, and I don't think it's because my life is inherently more interesting.

Christmas passed very pleasantly - when I went to lock up for the night, I discovered the front door still locked from the previous night. The pheasant was delicious; we didn't eat the guinea fowl at the time but it's good cold too. Both taste similar to chicken but with an extra something. The state of the kitchen wasn't too disgraceful at all, but I'm still washing up.

Most interesting present was the Internet radio (Mr A's idea). We now have more radios of various types than is strictly necessary: three ordinary tuners (in my room, the living room and the garage), three digital (bedroom, Mr A's room and kitchen) and a spare with shortwave for holidays, in a drawer somewhere. The digital reception in the kitchen is so bad that we sometimes can't use that radio, so we are trying the new Internet one there. It works off the wireless router, there's a delay while the station buffers, and the sound quality is a bit tinny, but at least we can listen to Radio 4 whenever we want (as long as broadband is there). An added bonus is the ability to Listen Again whenever a radio station offers this feature. The downside is that you have to press a LOT of buttons to change to a channel that isn't preset, select 'listen again' or whatever. If it works out, I get to try the digital one in my room.

Today I need to assemble belongings for the week away, and with no pressure to revise I'll probably do more revision that I've done in the last week. It's going quite well; I've done about half and it's about halfway through the holiday. As the actual exam dates approach I expect that extra tension that should allow me to concentrate a bit better, and in Cumbria I won't have the Internet to distract me, just Mr A and Lola II. And Marcus. And Helen and Gail...

Thursday, 27 December 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book coverThe Vesuvius Club
by Mark Gatiss

"Lucifer Box is the darling of the Edwardian belle monde: portrait painter, wit, dandy and rake - the guest all hostesses must have. And do. But few of his connections or conquests know that Lucifer Box is also His Majesty's most daring secret agent, at home in both London's Imperial grandeur and the underworld of crazed vice that seethes beneath."
This has started well; I hope it proves better than my last three book reading attempts. A Christmas present from Mr A.


Image of book coverSemi-Detached
by Griff Rhys Jones

"Semi-Detached is Griff Rhys Jones's own account of his ordinary suburban childhood; of adolescent scraps and scrapes; of coming of age in the 1960s and 70s; of family and university life and of times lost or at least fuzzy around the edges."
I think I'd like to resign from the role of Lola II's book reporter, reading books she's been given so that she doesn't have to. They're mostly rubbish.

That doesn't apply to the books she's given me that she's read and thinks are good. They're mostly good.

This one was rubbish. It would be of interest only to the people who are mentioned in it, or if you were a teenager in Epping in the late 60's. There was a weak frisson when Lola II's school was mentioned, because Griff nearly went to it. The most interesting sentence was on page 295, where he mentions that in 1975, Douglas Adams (who had been at the same secondary school) was living with John Lloyd, who was going out with Griff's sister. Page 295 is a long way to go for an interesting sentence.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Blogs and Christmas take the place of revision

I should be revising. I have been revising, quite a lot really, but yesterday I accidentally stepped into the blogosphere, where a world of blogs have trapped me ever since. I'm not joking - NINE blogs have captivated me, enthralled me, wouldn't let go of me until they had revealed their stories from start to finish. So I did no revision yesterday, and I risk the same fate today unless by force of will alone I abandon my new World of Blogs in favour of the task in hand - getting to grips with the World of Dietary Reference Values. I shall return to those blogs because I need to know how the story continues, and will link to them if such presumption is allowed.

I reached them via Stephen Fry's blog, where I was idly perusing the comments that readers had left. SF has also prompted me to swap from Internet Explorer to Firefox at last, helped by a web-borne threat that AVG anti-virus picked up. One of his commenters was called Richard Madeley, whom I have a soft spot for, so I followed the link and reached a place clearly not inhabited by the real Richard Madeley (but then I didn't expect it to). I have long been looking for some interesting blogs to read as recreation and to give me ideas, and now I have too many. But they are magnificent.

Christmas preparations are still almost non-existent, although Mr A persuaded me to accompany him on his traditional pre-Christmas alcohol and snack buying frenzy. The first time I saw it was an eye-opener, all those years ago. My conservative consumption habits allow a little luxury, especially in the form of quality rather than quantity, but this was one of those times when I simply hadn't realised how it could be done. A 'lightbulb moment', we call it.

Anyway, on Saturday we drove to Sainsburys, where we were surprised to see some chaps in the car park wearing reflective jackets labelled 'Marshal' holding signs saying 'Spaces here'. We ignored them, but it turned out that there were no parking spaces elsewhere, and rather than humble ourselves by going back, we decided that shopping within would be so very unpleasant that we would do it some other time. Mr A's since been into town on foot, which tends to curtail the frenzy somewhat, given he's got to carry it all back himself.

Having agreed to do the Christmas day cooking as well, and never one to go for tried and tested staples, he's bought two pheasants and a guinea fowl. This morning he was sifting through recipes and buying the last few essentials (no, I've never noticed juniper berries on sale anywhere). I know it will be wonderfully tasty, but my imagination shrinks from the vision of what the kitchen will look like after he's been in there for a day.

Friday, 21 December 2007

New Year is approaching

Mr A and I watched an interesting TV programme the other night, which supplied another piece of the obesity jigsaw in respect of bariatric surgery. The programme was about a 55-stone man and his quest for surgery to enable him to reach a 'normal' weight. He had a very supportive family around him, but during the film you caught glimpses of some of the challenges facing him - the food they made for him was traditional high fat fare and no vegetables; his home was a pub; his father used to beat up his mother (and probably the kids too).

He had to lose 10 stone in order to have surgery, and he did it - at which point, halfway through the programme, Mr A and I looked at one another and said "So why not carry on losing weight like that?" In fact, the lady at the slimming club he joined said just the same, but he went ahead with the operation nevertheless. At the end of the programme he'd reached 16 stone, and Mr A and I had utterly changed our minds.

No, he wasn't offered psychological help (at least, none was mentioned other than the slimming club) but we felt it was too late for that. Despite his caring and well-meaning family, he'd never managed to keep weight off in the past, which made me think that perhaps they contributed to his failure, despite their good intentions? Maybe there are cases where nothing but surgery will work? I still think that if psychological help were offered sooner - he'd been in trouble with his weight since a very early age - then perhaps surgery wouldn't have been necessary.

Anyway, I'm still recovering from this horrible cold, while trying to maintain enthusiasm for revision. Luckily I don't get distracted much by preparation for Christmas, because we don't bother doing much preparation for Christmas. We did spend an hour or two on cards, just in time for first class delivery, but too late for Europe. We don't have any decorations or a tree or anyone coming for Christmas dinner, not even The Boy this year. Mr A's agreed to do the dinner while I carry on revising, and I might not even go with him to his parents on Boxing Day (although I haven't ruled it out). So it's revision all the way, which makes it difficult to devote time to this blog. When the revision's going well I don't want to interrupt it, when it's not then I feel guilty spending time on frivolity.

It would be a shame if all four years of the course end up like this. In previous years exams have been scheduled two weeks after the start of term, and everything ends two weeks later in the summer. As it is, lecturers aren't around if you have any questions, taking time out for celebration or any sort of Christmas or New Year holiday really leaves very little available for revision, and booking a week in the Lake District now feels very risky. Next year we're already committed to going away with the usual crowd of friends, and it won't be much fun if I have exams two days after the holiday ends, as I do this time.

Mum brought this cactus over in full bloom in September. Then it shed all its flowers, but now it's produced another lot!

Christmas cactus with pink flowers

Monday, 17 December 2007

Dead, Alive, Not Very Well

Me. Not Very Well. And Mr A - he got it first. I was feeling smug about just having a bit of a sore throat until today, when my nose started dripping in earnest. And I'm sleep deprived, with Mr A waking me at 4am for the last three days running by snoring like some cross between an elephant and a walrus. Bad tempered, me? Surely not.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

End of term

Slides from the fish presentationThat's it - term has ended! The fish presentation went off very well, along with most of the other presentations in my set. Those who had never spoken from the front of a room and confessed to being paralysed with fear were absolutely fine; only the students whose first language was not English struggled badly. Julia and Alix delivered theirs without notes, about mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, and the effect of birth weight on disease later in life. They were really very good. I was a lot more informal, getting the audience involved too (shout out the name of an oily fish!)

I forgot to mention the first Open Day for prospective students and their parents, on Wednesday, when I had my first opportunity to be a Student Ambassador. Because they were short of people I wasn't able to tag along with a more experienced Ambassador on the campus tour, so I was teamed up with another newbie and off we went on our own. The campus is very 'unstructured' with no clear routes to anywhere, so our tour covered about twice as much ground as it should have, to get to all the places we were supposed to show the group. I did find I was talking more to the parents than the students, so I should really pay attention to that! One family I met were farmers from Daventry, whose daughter currently goes to a school where I sometimes play badminton.

To celebrate our survival to the end of term, a group of us older students had arranged to go out for a drink and a curry in Kegworth to celebrate surviving the first term. It was great. Next time I see them will be at the first exam!

Five students in the pub

Shelley, Lizzie, Kate, Julia, Alix

Thursday, 13 December 2007

In reflective mood

While I was toiling away on Mr A's accounts this weekend (for 8 hours!) he was outside fiddling with the car seat. And now it's fixed, for the price of one circlip, rather than £259 for a new seat base + £90 labour + VAT. If it's permanently fixed and will pass muster for the purposes of the MOT, I'm not sure how to feel about the garages that wanted to charge me £350 or the main dealer who agreed with them. My regular garage has always been very pleasant to deal with, and the other garage helped out when the window broke in the summer, but neither was able to diagnose and replace a missing circlip.

Autumn view from a computer roomTerm is coming to an end, and holidays approach, full of revision. I've finished three lots of coursework over the weekend, and the fish presentation is today, and then it's all over until the first exam in January. It's been as interesting as I'd hoped, I've met some lovely people, and learned so much science that I can't believe I ever thought that I was interested in engineering. I was talking to Mr A about that at the weekend - while he was doing his degree in Textiles and Fashion, he was spending all his spare time with cars, and now he's running a business designing websites. I wonder where we'd both be if we'd actually chosen a more appropriate path the first time round.

We were actually discussing this over a pint in the pub next door. We rarely go there any more, preferring to walk up the hill to the Star and Garter, which is much more welcoming. The Cricketers has changed since the new owners took over about two years ago (or was it three?) They introduced a jukebox and a large screen for sports, let the decoration deteriorate, and didn't keep the beer very well. Recently there were times when none of the real ales was available, and then they took one of the three pumps out altogether. The pub is now closed in the afternoons, and at 7pm on Sunday as well. There's never anyone inside when we walk past, and recently (when we were the only customers), the bar staff were having a row. We hardly ever see Fraser the landlord, and there are different bar staff there all the time, although occasionally Nobby and Sue are around. Whether it's the smoking ban or just that a sports bar isn't what's needed round here, it just doesn't look like they can be making any money. Perhaps having the bowlers over the summer means they don't need to try so hard in the winter? Whatever the cause, it's worrying to have a business looking so fragile, especially in the building next door.

Monday, 10 December 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book coverHave I Got Views for You
by Boris Johnson

"A witty anthology of pieces comprising Boris Johnson's thoughts on everything from the presidency of Tony Blair to the idiosyncrasies of modern British culture. "
This is slightly irritating, because of his arrogant self-important writing, but it's better than that French lapidiary Chinese box affair. I had to give up on that one.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Good news

Having waited so long to hear the good news this will probably be a bit of an anticlimax, but a few nice things did happen last week.

First I heard from an old friend, Mark, who used to work with me at RNIB back in the old days in Liverpool. He left RNIB to work at Mencap and seems to have done very well, and also got married quite recently to Lorna. I wasn't expecting to hear from him out of the blue, but the reason is that he's returning to RNIB, to a job vastly superior to the one he left, but based at the school in north Coventry where I worked until we moved the office to Birmingham. He wanted to know a bit more about the different areas where he could live, so after passing on the bad news about public transport, I recommended Earlsdon. I don't think he's starting for a little while, but it will be nice to have the opportunity to see him a bit more, and to meet Lorna.

On Monday night I went into Birmingham to meet up with Steve and Sally from RNIB. We wandered around the German Christmas Market and had a mug of glühwein before crossing the border to France and having dinner at Cafė Rouge. The gossip from RNIB is always very tame and there's never enough scandal, but the accessibility work we started is still going strong, so that's good. Nobody has been recruited yet to join the team so Sally is completely overwhelmed with work, but she's shown what she can do to the Chief Executive and the Committee.

At school I attended one of the presentation sessions when about 10 students did their presentations. Subjects ranged from Vitamin A in GM rice, to whether a vegetarian diet can be adequate, whether we can delay the effects of aging using nutrition, how to prevent obesity in children, and the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. The quality of delivery was variable, as you'd expect, with my older compatriots being an order of magnitude better than the youngsters. Some of them were pretty good though, and I imagine the girl who brought some real garlic to her talk about the benefits of eating garlic got some extra points for that. Several of them clearly hadn't practised saying things out loud, and one poor girl was so bad that as yet another slide came up, full of impenetrable text, you could feel the whole room sighing. The applause at the end of that one was heartfelt. My fish presentation is scheduled for the last slot in the last session on the last day of term, so I expect I shall experience a huge surge of freedom when it's over!

We actually got some marks back this week. One piece of coursework from Dietetics gained me a 2:1 (very nearly a first), and the other was the Biology multiple choice from last week where I got a tremendous 84%, making me wish it counted for more than 10% of the overall mark for that module. Some of the other students had a very bad time in that exam, especially the ones who hadn't done biology recently. Stop press: today I got another score from another titchy multiple choice test, the one about the rabbit gut, and that mark was even better!

Dad and Mum

I'll just finish up today by putting on record how lovely my parents are. Of course, they're always lovely, but I'm so grateful for their encouragement and support and compliments at the moment, and especially for their phonecall on Sunday!

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Weekend in Sleaford

Ooh I'm tired, but it's been a splendid weekend. We journeyed forth to Sleaford in Lincolnshire, where Chris, one of the chaps who took part in the Plymouth-Dakar charity run a couple of years ago, was having his 50th birthday party. Since the African event there have been a couple of reunions that I haven't attended, so this was the first time I'd met any of the people, apart from John who was Mr A's partner in the adventure, and John's wife Sue. It was enormous fun, and this from someone who has a fairly serious aversion to parties of any kind.

After meeting some folks in Chris's house, including his mum and dad (a retired bishop), the main event was held in the function room of an Indian restaurant. Apart from food and drink (blessed by the ex-bishop), there was much musical entertainment, all from Chris and his friends. First up was Jack, a singer with an unfathomable accent (maybe it was Lincolnshire?) who sang a few numbers with a backing karaoke-style track, and had a great voice. The only downside was that it made it impossible to talk, and I'd only just met all these people, so I didn't find out much more about them until several hours later.

After Jack, Chris and various friends played a few songs with guitar, mandolin, violin and drums. The balance was all over the place and they couldn't really hear what they were doing so the tuning was terrible. Then a three-piece 'skiffle' band took a turn, including a guitar, a washboard and a broomstick with a piece of string attached top and bottom that played the bass line, except it didn't really because they couldn't hear themselves very well either. This was all the lead-up to the highlight - Elvis himself! Remarkably similar in physique to the first singer (and to Elvis in his later years) and with a similarly good voice (and he could sing in tune as well) he did a great job attracting people onto the dancefloor, including Mr A and me for the last number of the encore. I always enjoy people's reactions to Mr A's dancing style when they haven't encountered it before. 'Enthusiastic' was how one person put it. Of course, to me it's still unique and endearing, because I love him. And there was enough space on the dance floor for me not to worry about him accidentally hitting someone.

After Elvis had finished, anyone was invited to sing or play, and unfortunately three young lads thought they'd have a go with a song by Green Day, one on guitar and two of them reading the lyrics off a mobile phone, and everyone was much too nice to ask them to stop the terrible noise. Then Chris and his friend Jim had another go on guitars, and then at last all the music stopped so I could talk to some of the other guests, who were great fun. We saw them again at Chris's house this morning, and much friendly derision was directed at Mr A about the video he'd taken on the Plymouth-Dakar trip, and how two years have passed, and still no sign of any edited footage. We've almost agreed to have a party around Mr A's birthday time in August next year, when there might be something to show people. And pigs might fly.

When we got home, not only did I clean the kitchen, hall and shower room floors, but I even went out and washed the car! I put it down to forgetting to take any decaffeinated teabags with us, and therefore consuming as much caffeine in a morning as I'd had in the last six months. Hence my current fatigued state. I know I was going to write about last week's good news, but you'll have to wait a bit longer, and if you're really lucky, I'll still remember what I was going to say.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Bad news

The bad news about the heating came early in the week, one of a succession of events that mean increased expenditure, starting with the car. That saga still continues - the diagnosis of complete replacement of the whole seat base was repeated by the man at the VW main dealer. He also expressed the opinion that it is quite reasonable to have to replace both electric windows after just six years of very occasional use. I tend to disagree. Mr A's had another look at the seat, and we still think that all that's needed is one circlip, which I hope will be addressed this week.

On Saturday night the boiler started to make a loud noise and stopped generating any heat. We had no heating or hot water from Sunday to Thursday, which wasn't too bad for me because I was at school and could exercise and shower at the gym. Mr A had to go for his Driver Refresher Course in Dorset on Tuesday, so took the opportunity to visit friends and use their washing facilities, as well as avoiding three points on his licence. The rest of the time, he just had to live in his room with a fan heater during the day, while we sat on the sofa under a duvet with the fire going in the evening. To be honest, we do that anyway most nights. The boiler's fixed now.

The day after we had that little bit of snow last week, we came down to the kitchen to find that the roof had leaked. The roofer came this morning, and initially thought that we had the option of patching it up. Further inspection, however, revealed clues that all was not well in the layer below the felt, and it's going to need to be completely replaced. This isn't entirely unexpected - when we bought the house, the documents showed the roof had last been maintained in the 1970's, with a predicted lifetime of about 20 years at most.

It hasn't all been bad news this week, in fact there's been some very good news, but I think I'll leave it there and write about the nice things in another post.

Friday, 23 November 2007

First exam

It's been a difficult week somehow. I think I've just done too many things and not spent enough time recovering, so I need to try and ease up next week. It's all fun; I don't want to stop going out in the evenings, but the early starts really wear me out, and it looks as though next semester I'll have to travel five days a week instead of four. As well as having to get up early on more days, this is bad because it's a 25% increase in the cost of fuel, which now costs more than £1 a litre everywhere. It works out at £10 a day in diesel to go to university and back. And based on recent experience, I can't begin to estimate the cost in wear and tear on the car...

So this week I played badminton, revised and had an exam, played squash, went to a wine tasting (I recommend the Argentinian Viognier), went to the gym (twice), had lectures and a practical, and attended Student Ambassador training. Then I received my exam timetable for January. The first exam is on the first day of the new term. The second is on the Thursday, and then the third appears to be on Saturday, at 4.30! I thought it might be a mistake at first, but perhaps not? The last is on the following Monday, so at least there seems to be a free week before lectures start again.

Our first proper exam was last Tuesday, a short multiple choice test on 'Whole Organism Biology' in a freezing cold room, so we were all sitting in coats and scarves. The story is that the heating is controlled on a completely different university site 15 miles away, which I thought was a myth until it was confirmed by the office staff. The actual test wasn't too bad, although the 'negative marking' scheme distracted me a little. The idea is that wrong answers are penalised with a negative mark, as a method of neutralising pure guesswork. The whole thing is only worth 10% of one module, a tiny contribution to this years ultimate total, but it was very informative. I learned the following:
  • Not to forget to bring my official student card
  • Try to ignore the negative marking thing
  • A rubber is vital for multiple choice, as well as a pencil and pencil sharpener
  • Woolly hat, fingerless gloves and thermals are also essential exam equipment.
After the test, when I would normally want to wind down in a quiet place with some music, we went straight into a practical on plant hormones - not too bad in the end, but it was pretty hard to concentrate.

Of course, this wasn't the first assessed work contributing to final marks, but the first we've done in exam conditions. The other coursework has been handed out for us to do at home, and most lecturers have arranged a tutorial session before the deadline to help out with any queries. One tutor was particularly helpful in a tutorial, essentially giving us the answers. This isn't quite how it sounds, because it's not always clear to us novices what the questions are really looking for. The answers I'd already prepared before the tutorial were mostly wrong, either in the level of detail or the aspect of the question that I thought was being asked. That tutor probably doubled my mark!

A highlight of another module was a lecturer who delighted in telling us all about the microbiology of the gastro-intestinal tract, going into detail (with pictures) of all the microorganisms that can cause significant disease. Lovely!

The Dietetics element of the course continues to be interesting, with a couple of Community Dietitians speaking to us about home visiting, obesity management on an outpatient basis, and a discussion about the origins and politics of the NHS. We've talk about the need for counselling skills, learned about the professional bodies that regulate dietetics in the UK, and we've taken a diet history (7 day and 24 hour recall) for nutrient analysis. My aim for this weekend is to get that bit of work written up.

Last thing on Friday was the Student Ambassador training where we learned to balance a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher in one hand while representing the UK abroad. Not really. Student Ambassadors attend Open Days for prospective students and their parents, take them on tours of the campus, and generally answer questions about anything and everything to do with student life. I volunteered because of the lack of older students when I attended an Open Day, which meant I couldn't really get answers to any of my questions relating to living off-campus or managing studies after so long out of full-time education.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book cover
White Teeth
by Zadie Smith

narrated by Jenny Sterlin
"Archie's life has disintegrated. Fresh from a dead marriage, middle-aged Archie stretches out a vacuum hose, seals up his car and prepares to die. With the opening of a butcher's shop, his life is saved, and soon he is on his way to beginning a new life with a young Jamaican woman looking for the last man on earth."
I haven't listened to many serious modern books - the audio medium seems to work better for the classics and for light, frothy detective novels. The previous exception to the rule was "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, narrated by Carole Boyd (Lynda Snell from The Archers), and what a good job she made of it - my best ever audio book, alongside Alan Rickman narrating Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native." I thought I'd try this one to test the theory again, and while the book's not bad, the rule still holds. Oddly, the reading seems to be from a US version: there are little clues like the use of the word 'diaper' for nappy and 'bangs' for fringe.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Bariatric surgery

I'm well behind with news, but then I remember that not everything can go in this blog. Can it be true that some of my life is of no interest whatever, to anyone? So more slash and burn in the garden, the trip to the tip to get rid of the evidence: garden waste, old shoes, radios, cat food (don't ask) and hoovers, Mr A's accounts, playing squash, badminton, the arrival of loads of classical music CDs ordered from Germany - who cares? Apart from me, that is.

At school there has been much learning activity, and one day this week started at 9am and ended after 6pm. Add the extra hour at each end for driving and it's almost as long as most days I used to work, back in those almost-forgotten days of full employment. I was exhausted! I'm looking forward to a night out in Birmingham catching up with ex-colleagues in a couple of weeks when my coursework deadlines are less pressing.

The most interesting classes recently have been around the Dietetics module. We do very little about actual nutrition this year; it's mostly about getting us all up to speed with basic biology and biochemistry. But in Dietetics the group is relatively small, and sometimes we get to discuss rather than absorb what's being pushed at us from the front. One of the lecturers has returned to full time practice in a hospital, but before she went, she told us about her work in bariatric surgery - the 'stomach stapling' or 'gastric banding' surgery that you read about in lurid detail in shiny magazines between stories about WAGs and TV 'celebrities'.

There are government-led guidelines, laid down by NICE - the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence - about who can receive gastric surgery on the NHS, free of charge. To qualify as a prospective patient, as well has having a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or above, "all appropriate non-surgical measures have been tried but have failed to achieve or maintain adequate, clinically beneficial weight loss for at least 6 months." Nothing needs to have been tried previously if BMI is 50 or above.

This is all fine as far as it goes. I don't have a problem with surgery to help weight loss per se. I was concerned to hear that the pre-surgery appointment with the dietitian is only 30 minutes... but my real question was whether the 'appropriate non-surgical measures' included psychological help, or counselling, or therapy. No, they don't. We were told that "there aren't enough places where such therapy could be delivered anyway".

This has seriously blown my mind. No counselling or therapy available, before spending a fortune on an irreversible surgical operation, with all the associated risks during and after the procedure, for people who must clearly be desperate to lose weight, and haven't succeeded before? Aren't we treating symptoms here, rather than the cause?

Nobody would suggest that someone who compulsively cuts himself or herself should undergo irreversible and risky surgery to graft a cut-proof teflon skin onto their body to prevent self-harm. Much more likely is a referral to a psychiatrist, or psychologist, or psychotherapist, or someone who can help with sorting out the reason for the behaviour. Why isn't morbid obesity classed as self-harm, and given appropriate priority and resources, and suitable treatment?

Yesterday I listened to a Radio 4 podcast (how I love them) about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME (that's the official classification, I learned). Not too long ago, there was some debate whether this was real, physical or psychological, or just malingering. NICE officially recognises this condition now, and recommends onward referral to specialist provision under certain circumstances. The specialist in the broadcast (who works with children) was very pleased with this, because she said that very little provision exists, and the NICE guidelines provide a lever that she can use to approach NHS Trusts or whoever, to get funding for more.

So perhaps that's what needs to happen for bariatric surgery. Clearly I'm not in any position to influence the situation, and perhaps I've got it all wrong anyway. What do I know after less than two months at university? It really brought me down to earth - dietitians aren't the paragons of virtue that I'd hoped; the situation is imperfect; people get what they get. I have no idea whether I'm even going to be involved in diet for weight loss in later life, but if I do, I hope this is something I'll be coming back to with a vengeance.

Library

The library at Sutton Bonington

Friday, 9 November 2007

Practical science and coursework

I'm not fond of practicals in the labs. I don't like the feeling of being out of control, and I'm fairly clumsy when it comes to pipetting or handling little bits of glassware. I don't think I've ever seen anything clearly through a microscope and have given up adjusting the lenses, trying with and without specs, using one eye, both eyes, focusing and the rest. The lab work was the part I was looking forward to least about this course.

Having experienced a few practicals now, it's been much better than I feared. I wouldn't say that I look forward to the lab sessions, but the lecturers and demonstrators have been so helpful and approachable that I can usually get explanations when the procedure or equipment are baffling, or when things don't work as expected.

The best thing has been to experience the experiments that I've only read about. As a keen science reader, I'm aware of genetics experiments with fruit flies - now I've seen the results! I've pipetted DNA into an electrophoresis gel and seen the 'barcode' results under UV light! I've used a spectroscope firing different wavelengths of light through a sample and measuring absorbance - actually, that wasn't too exciting. You put the sample in a box, press 'Go' and write down the number that comes up on the display.

The latest practical was one that I didn't anticipate. It was in the physiology lab under the heading of 'Autonomic Nervous System', that's the unconscious control of internal body systems: heartbeat, pupil dilation, digestion and stuff. We were given a short length of fresh rabbit gut, so fresh that if kept in a special solution with oxygen bubbled through it actually contracts as it would inside the now-deceased rabbit. It looked like a little piece of pink macaroni. We dripped adrenaline and acetylcholine into its bath, and measured how it reacted, by decreasing or increasing the strength of peristaltic contractions.

Now that we've done some significant work, the deadlines for handing in coursework have started to come thick and fast. This week I handed in four lots (two of them early), with another one due next week. It actually takes a bit of time to hand stuff in - there's a front sheet to fill in to identify the bit of work and the module and lecturer it belongs to, sign to say you understand the plagiarism rules, fold over the top to conceal your name and make it anonymous for marking, fill in and cut off a receipt to keep, then date stamp both bits. Then post it through a slit into one of the many boxes with labels on the front - this is actually the most daunting bit, making sure it goes in the right box. There are dire penalties for late submission (5% docked per day late) and putting coursework in the wrong box would be the most stupid thing to do.

Car park with holly bush
Holly bush and the car park at Sutton Bonington campus

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Fun and games this week

The fun started on Wednesday, when we came third in the pub quiz, thanks to an unusually large but intelligent team of sober girls and inebriated boys. This was despite the round about fictional bands in novels, TV and film, where we didn't understand what was going on until after the round was over.

Then on Thursday we held a gathering of ex-Avon badminton members who are now too old, fat, lazy or unfit to go to the club any more, plus their partners and me of course. Rog was there too, but left before the photo.

Andy, me, Sally, Pete and Eric
The bad news came on Friday, when I went to a different garage for a second opinion on the replacement of the driver's seat base. They sucked in their breath the way that tradesmen do, and told me to try going direct to VW for a replacement spring, otherwise it would indeed be many hundreds of pounds. I'm very disappointed in VW, which I had thought was a quality manufacturer. Of course things will always go wrong, but to be forced to replace the whole seat base for want of a spring seems very poor. And that's on top of all the other major and minor items that have broken: window mechanisms, aerial, fascia lighting - you can't even change a headlamp bulb yourself, it has to be done at the garage at the usual rates. So the next step in this saga is a call to a VW dealer.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book cover
Blue Shoes and Happiness
by Alexander McCall Smith

"Now that she is finally and happily married to her long-term suitor Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency of Botswana might have expected life to grow more sedate. But the many problems that lead customers to Mma Ramotswe's door seem, if anything, to have multiplied, and no sooner has she settled her traditionally built person into the married state than she finds herself looking into several troublesome matters at once."
I know there are mixed opinions about this series, and it's mocked unmercifully by Radio 4, but I like these books. It's difficult not to hear the voice of the radio satirist sometimes, though.


Image of book cover
Saving Fish from Drowning
by Amy Tan

"Businesswoman, patron of the arts and socialite Bibi Chen has been killed in mysterious circumstances. Her death may or may not be linked to the disappearance of eleven American tourists in southern Burma."
Another one loaned by Lola II. I didn't like it at first, but it grew on me. I still wouldn't give it five stars, perhaps just two or three.


Image of book cover
Life: a user's manual
by Georges Perec

"Such is its scope, such is the marvel of Perec's lapidiary prose that the Chinese-box structure, the jokes and the typographic games enhance rather than diminish the vitality of those who people the puzzle."
Translated from French and two inches thick, I haven't a clue how this book came into my possession. I'm not sure I'm going to like it, given that I don't know what a Chinese-box structure is, and can only guess that 'lapidiary' relates to jewels. But I'm prepared to give it a go.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Loss of a cleaner, gain of a waterproof roof

We've been abandoned by our cleaner. I had the feeling that all was not well - Josie or her husband would ring, or she would just not turn up, or the time would change at short notice, or the day. It's certainly been a luxury having someone else clean the house, and we considered carefully whether to retain this expense while cutting back on everything else. We decided it was worth it, but even so, there were certain disadvantages. Josie had particular views on where things should be kept, and there was no point in fighting it - the toilet bleach lives in the cupboard under the sink, no matter how often it was moved to the bathroom. We often 'lost' things on cleaning day, only to find them 'tidied' into unexpected places. We won't be able to blame Josie if we lose things from now on. And we'll have to clean the house ourselves unless we find a replacement.

The good news is that Alf the builder turned up early this bright, cold morning, and climbed up to inspect the hall roof from the outside. Luckily it was obvious where the water was getting in, and he checked all along the join between the hall roof and the house wall and fixed the flashing properly. What a relief! We have so many little jobs that are difficult to get round to, we don't know many reliable workmen, and I feel guilty because we should be able to diagnose and fix some of these things ourselves, but it's the last thing we want to do on the one day a week that we don't work. Thankfully Alf came on personal recommendation from neighbours, and it was all done in an hour.

So now there are only a hundred and one jobs still waiting. We've already arranged for Adrian to sort out the loft insulation that was so badly done by the dreadful Mark, and fix the loft ladder that was botched by the similarly dreadful Tim, and fit us with a hatch door. There's a good reason why Mark charged so little, even if he did listen to Radio 4. He only really liked painting, so did as little preparation as he could get away with, and the mess he made was world-beating. I love the story from Richard, back when Mark was painting their living room. They were very careful to make him use a dustsheet to try and minimise the amount of mess. At the end of the day as he was packing up, he picked up the dustsheet and shook it out carefully in the living room, before folding it up and putting it away.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Rotherham? ROTHERHAM!?!!!?

We all know where Rotherham is. No? Well it's north of Sheffield, and that's in Yorkshire, nearly Scotland. And Rotherham is where they're sending me for my 4 weeks clinical placement in August, despite my preferences being for Northampton and Leicester (they aren't anywhere near Scotland). I'm a bit pissed off.

Apart from that, everything's going quite well. It was a serious Biochemistry practical this morning, where we did things that scientists do. We took bits of DNA and 'ran' them on a gel and then looked under UV light to see the distinctive 'bar code' pattern. While that was running (it takes about 2 hours) we did some other stuff to analyse a mixture of a large coloured chemical and a small colourless one - they mix them together in the prep room, we separate them out again in the lab. Such is the life of a first year student, nothing ground-breaking, just learning to use a fancy pipette to measure in microlitres.

My draft essay passed muster with just a couple of suggestions, like the inclusion of pictures. Not of fish, unfortunately, so now I've got to find or draw something that resembles an omega 3 fatty acid. I bravely offered some of my fellow students a session on how to use the referencing software for their essays, and they seemed to be pleased with how it went.

While I hope this all sounds quite interesting, I haven't dwelled on the less thrilling aspects, like the talk yesterday from a recent graduate who's been working for Northern Foods. I thought it would be fascinating and an insight into how food is designed and produced commercially, but it was more a summary of her career and the different jobs she's had and how well she's done. She seemed pleasant enough but it wasn't what I was hoping to see.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

My fellow students

I think I've mentioned that there are about 35 students doing the four year Master of Nutrition course that I'm on. Most of the time we're sharing lectures with a hundred others who are doing 'ordinary' Nutrition, Environmental Biology, Microbiology, Agricultural Science, Biochemistry, Food Science and so on. We have one session to ourselves to do Dietetic-related things, and I find that I still don't recognise about half of those present. There are a few who I hang out with, and unsurprisingly we are the older ones and people not living on campus, because we don't have rooms to hide in and we tend to hang around in the cafe and library, and get to lectures early.

These mature students have reached this course in all sorts of ways: changing from unsatisfying employment, poor choice of degree first time round, divorce, full employment, an interest in food, FE science degree access courses. One or two are married, some have children, some have actually bought local property and moved to Nottingham. After just three weeks of lectures, most of them seem to be going through a crisis of confidence at the moment.

I'm half supportive and half exasperated: you've beaten off the stiff competition for places: surely it makes sense to keep going beyond three weeks? Nottingham academics have confidence in your ability: that should count for something, shouldn't it? Is it just typically British females whose first thought is "All these other people must be cleverer than me, I just can't do it" rather than "I'm just as good as them, and age and maturity are on my side"? I wish some of them had overheard the youngster asking the lecturer today how to conduct a search for some information about her essay topic, when a draft is supposed to be handed in in two days' time. My older friends have been researching since the moment they were told their essay title.

And yet I remember halfway through my degree first time round I went to my personal tutor and suggested that Engineering wasn't such a good idea for me. I wonder now what would have happened if he'd considered the idea seriously rather then pouring cold water on the idea of changing to another course.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

New Biochemistry textbook

Image of book cover
Biochemistry
by Berg, Tymoczko and Stryer
"The IF2-GTP-initiator-tRNA complex binds with mRNA (correctly positioned by the Shine-Dalgarno sequence interaction with the 16S rRNA) and the 30S subunit to form the 30S initiation complex."
This is the book I collected from Waterstones yesterday. At least there are plenty of 'pictures' (if you can call a diagram of the ribosomal nucleotide sequence a picture). I can't believe I'm trying to understand this stuff. But I am.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

End of another week

I'm really surprised about how little time I have during the week for 'leisure pursuits' such as updating this blog. I thought that being a student would be a bit of a doss for the first year at least, and perhaps it is for the kids who are busy having fun away from home for the first time. It would take up all my time if I let it, probably because I want to squeeze all the juice out of every subject.

In theory, I have all of Monday and two afternoons free, as well as the weekend. I've been playing squash one afternoon, and all the other free time plus some at the weekend has been full of homework. The fish essay is coming on nicely, although I'm finding it difficult to write the thing and stop following up leads to new information. In case you're interested, fish intake plays a part in neural development, but there's no effect on IQ as adults except to impair brain function if you regularly consume fish that contains methylmercury.

One lecture this week was about genetic modification of plants: herbicide-resistant soya, golden rice and so on. The GM businesses' big mistake was to withhold information from the public about which soya was GM and which wasn't, which just made everyone suspicious. In fact, while there are risks of cross-fertilisation with wild plants, and possible effects on wildlife, these would probably be accepted by consumers if they trusted the suppliers to tell the truth.

The plant biology practical on Tuesday was not great, with five simultaneous experiments to do within two hours. I'm still not sure what I was supposed to learn from it, and will have to spend time reviewing what it was all about.

The highlight this week was the second (and final) part of the Basic Emergency Care course, where we revised the main points of last time's assessment of an unconscious patient and CPR, and moved forward into dealing with choking, and systematic evaluation where the patient is conscious. We had some splendid fake wounds to stick on - the burn was particularly disturbing - and I dealt with lacerations caused by an arm going through a window, putting a lovely bandage and sling on my patient.

The Biochemistry textbook I ordered has arrived, and it's two inches thick with tiny writing. Daunting.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Car rant

I'm not feeling very rich at the moment, what with giving up work and everything, and the car seems intent on sucking up every spare penny. The insurance came up in October, and Mr A's extra speeding points meant lots more on the premium, although I did manage to negotiate it down a bit. [Good news today though: Dorset police are offering him a driving course instead of three points and a fine, which is great.] Replacing the window mechanism in the summer was £200, then it needed new wishbone bushes and axle bushes along with a main service (more than £500), and this week it had to have new brakes and a tyre (more than £300). The seat mechanism has broken, which I thought would be a small job, and it turns out that it needs a whole new seat base for about £300 and it's an MOT requirement. I had a huge rant at the poor man at the garage, which I have to say he dealt with very well, but there's no getting round it. I just hope nothing else goes wrong in the motoring department, because my budget is creaking around the edges.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Highlights and lowlights

The time is flying by: with lectures and travelling time and my ongoing fitness push I hardly have any spare time during the week. It's mostly been fun, although I had a dull lecture this week for the first time. The lecturer was using too much technology, breaking up the flow of the information by changing the colour of the pen through the software and using the eraser tools and so on. A lot of the time I was willing him just to get a move on.

I had my first practical, and they eased us in gently with sex-linked genes in Drosophila melanogaster, including a bit of talking from the front and then inspection through the microscope for the phenotypic characteristics. Not taxing at all. I also have an essay to write: "Fish intake and IQ". I have to produce a draft within a fortnight, then the final version, and then deliver a 10 minute presentation to a few of the students and tutors. Considering I've done presentations lasting an hour to rooms containing several hundred people, I'm not too nervous about it.

As well as continuing with my hour in the gym each day, I've joined the campus squash club. This isn't the university one, just a few people informally on a Wednesday afternoon. I last played squash competitively at university the first time round, where Squalid and I used to play before lectures in the morning - that was in 1986 or so. I took my nephew David to a local club once when he was visiting a year or two ago, but apart from that I haven't played at all. Well, this time round, my incredibly competitive nature meant that I managed to beat some of the others, who weren't even born in 1986, but my age and dubious fitness meant that they could probably have played on while I had to stop and remember how to breathe.

Mr A was away in Italy playing on motorbikes this week, and returned in the early hours on Friday morning. He had a great time, and didn't break anything on the bike or himself, so that was good news. The weather has turned so cold and autumnal that it's definitely time to put the trampoline away for the winter; we've taken a delivery of logs and the open fire is back in use.

Friday, 12 October 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book cover
Changing Eating and Exercise Behaviour: A Handbook for Professionals
by Paula Hunt and Melvyn Hillsdon

"Helping clients to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle involves not only the ability to give accurate and up to date advice but also the skills to motivate clients to act upon such advice."
This is from the Dietetics reading list and is pretty readable, although written in 1996 and apparently not updated since then. Perhaps the messages remain the same, although it would be nice to know if the theories proposed are actually effective. Maybe I'll have time to look into it further.

Image of book cover
How to Talk to a Widower
by Jonathan Tropper

"When Doug Parker married Hailey - beautiful, smart and ten years older - he left his carefree Manhattan life behind to live with her and her teenage son, Russ, in the suburbs. Three years later, Hailey has been dead for a year, and Doug, a widower at 29, just wants to drown himself in self-pity and Jack Daniels."
This was a very quick read, but emotionally draining. Novels that contain difficult themes will usually have a couple of moments where the reader will be reaching for a hankie. It's pitifully easy to make me cry; just thinking about something a little bit sad will do it, and I had the kitchen roll to hand all the way through for this one. I felt rather resentful by the end; it seemed a bit unnecessary to lay it on quite so thick.

Image of book cover
The Moonstone
by Wilkie Collins

narrated by Walter Covell et al
"When Rachel Verinder inherits the Moonstone, a huge and priceless diamond, her delight turns to dismay when the gem disappears. But this is no ordinary theft. Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard is called in and immediately suspects an intricate plot."
Just started this, my second audio book. What with the course books, audio downloads and ordinary books I've got four or five on the go at the moment, not to mention about 20 podcasts lined up. Bliss!

The Algebraist
I mentioned this book in an earlier post. Mr A bought it when he was stranded and bookless somewhere, and he didn't get beyond the first chapter. I finished it, despite the weight, and the last 50 pages out of 500 were quite exciting. My niece has written a rather good Dr Who story that involves a large number of characters with interesting names and physical characteristics. She might enjoy the complexity of the plot, so I will offer it to her. Not my cup of tea at all.

Friday, 5 October 2007

One week of Dietetics

It's been a long week, with introductions to and lectures within the five modules that comprise the first semester's work. "Introduction to Dietetics" is a double module worth twice the marks of the others, then there's Biochemistry, "Food Manufacturing, Nutrition and Health", Genetics and Cell Biology, and Whole Organism Biology. The various lecturers have been very different in their style and speed of presentation, although everything's pretty well supported with online resources and copies of presentations, mostly available in advance so far.

[By the way, for those who query the use of the word 'semester': there are two semesters in the academic year, but three terms.]

The Intro to Dietetics module is the only one where the 35 or so first-year MNutr students are on our own. All the rest are in large lecture theatres holding the 250 people who are doing one or other of the Biosciences courses - Food Science, Microbiology, Nutrition, Environmental Biology and so on. They don't half cough a lot. That's probably the worst thing, plus the worry that I might catch something because it definitely won't be much fun being ill, and there's little scope to stay in bed and miss a few days.

We've already been asked to express a preference for the Clinical Placement that lasts for four weeks in the summer of 2008. Unfortunately, because I've chosen a university that is some distance from my home, so are all the placement options. The three nearest are in Northampton, Kettering and Leicester, so I've asked for one of those, but there are no guarantees. I might be sent to Barnsley or Doncaster - if not this time, then potentially on one of the other two placements, which last 12 weeks. No chance of commuting to those locations.

I'm also having to battle with the authorities around funding - not for the tuition fees, which the NHS has confirmed it will pay, but for additional bits and pieces that would just make life easier. Other students in similar circumstances on my course have been offered some of the Maintenance Loan options and some additional dosh beyond the tuition fees, but it looks like I'll have to start writing some letters to the relevant offices, because phone calls have not been effective so far.

On the leisure side, joining the badminton club is hopeless because they meet late in the evening on days that I don't have afternoon lectures. I've toyed with the idea of staying on and working, but when lectures are over by noon and the club doesn't start until 8pm, that's an awful lot of time to spend in the library. So instead, I've been going to the gym, just to work up a sweat and perhaps lose a few pounds, setting a good example to those I may one day advise on health-related matters. It's nowhere near as much fun as badminton, but my trusty ipod makes it bearable. They're building a new sports hall at the moment that should be ready after Christmas, which I hope will improve the shower facilities...

For the weekend, I've got some books out of the library from the recommended reading list, just to show willing. There's one assignment I could make a start on, and I need to go over the notes of one lecture where the lecturer spoke so concisely and went so fast that if you blinked (or someone coughed) then you missed something. Have I mentioned how annoying all the coughing is? But I'm mostly going to relax a bit over the weekend, because I'm quite tired now.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book cover
The Deeds of the Disturber
by Elizabeth Peters

Narrated by Barbara Rosenblat
"When a night watchman mysteriously dies in front of the mummy Lady Henutmehit in the Egyptian room of the British Museum, Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody Emerson is on the scene with her trusty parasol, ready to do battle with the malignant mummy."
My first audio e-book of my monthly Audible subscription, bought with some of my birthday money from Lola. Now I can listen to unabridged books on the ipod during journeys to and from Nottingham, as well as all my podcasts, music and the occasional burst of Radio 4. I used to love talking books when I commuted between Manchester and Liverpool, and I'm really enjoying the experience again.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Saturday, 29 September 2007

End of Week One

The week ended with a flourish - my desire was fulfilled and we actually had one serious teaching lecture, at the QMC Medical School in Nottingham alongside other new students who are medics, physiotherapists, midwives, nurses and pharmacists. But more about that later.

Friday was definitely the busiest day of the week, with various talks starting at 9.30 and hardly a break until 4 o'clock. Some of it wasn't that appropriate to me, but it was interesting to hear how the university has to emphasise a few things that were taken for granted years ago - not just the plagiarism stuff, but the fact that you can't re-take exams until you get the mark you want, like you can at A-level nowadays. To be fair, all this heavy stuff about Academic Offences is balanced by lots of reassurance that there's lots of support provided, and tutors seem very approachable. There's also a great deal of emphasis on the adjustments that can be made for people with disabilities, and how you should always talk to your tutor about 'Extenuating Circumstances', for which there is a standard form to complete.

We had a quick whizz around the library systems, I bought my white lab coat and goggles, and we met all the Nutritional Sciences staff in the lab, who pointed out the most important books. And then off to the QMC to hear about Basic Emergency Care, which is actually First Aid for Health Professionals. Yes, Dietitians are classed as Health Professionals, as we were reminded earlier in the day when we were given out application forms for the enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check. So if you collapse when I'm around, I'm expected to step in and do my best to help you out. My advice is to collapse somewhere else.

The illustrative videos and pictures they showed us were 'interesting' although not necessarily 100% relevant and sometimes just for effect. The snooker ball in the oesophagus and the boxer having his leg broken were particularly difficult to look at - please don't view the YouTube clip if you're squeamish. We saw defibrillation in action (on a dummy), checked each other for a carotid pulse, attempted to clear obstructions by compression of the lungs, and laughed in all the right places at the lecturer's jokes. Actually, he was pretty amusing.

So I survived Fresher's week, and the overall impression is as expected: most students are very young, while some are surprisingly mature, and I'm not the oldest in my group by a long way. Some I've met are slightly annoying, and others seem very congenial, and all female in the 1st year undergraduate Master of Nutrition group so far. I'm really looking forward to the serious stuff starting next week!

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Freshers' Fayres

The Biosciences department has its own little campus out in the country at Sutton Bonington (near Kegworth for those of you that care, between J23A and J24 of the M1). The main university site is relatively close to the centre of Nottingham, so there are two Freshers' Fayres that apply to me.

I went to the University one on Tuesday, and the SB one on Wednesday. I don't know what I was hoping for, or expecting, but the barrier between me and the university in milage and time is rather high. The nice boy from the University Badminton Society was insisting that even my advanced years and dubious fitness are no barrier to a place on one of the teams, because I am a Lady, and Ladies are rare. Trials are at the weekend, however, and team training and matches will be a long way away.

Same for the film society (called Dark Celluloid for some reason), who show films on a Sunday night in a Nottingham pub. I also found the Mature Students Association, who claim to have a Facebook group, but I can't find it, and the Regional Students Association for people not living in university halls. Joining the Snowsports club costs £20 for the opportunity to have cheap lessons and go on rowdy trips with students - I thought about it, but probably won't. So I made the effort, but I don't think I'll be able to get very involved in university things.

SB campus has its own badminton society, though. I met those people on Wednesday, but the club sessions are on Tuesday night, which clashes with my current club, and Wednesday night when I only have lectures in the morning and have been going to a pub quiz in Kenilworth in the evening. A difficult choice.

Today I had to go in for a session about various aspects of IT, then a huge gap, and over an hour on Plagiarism to end the day. I filled the gap with talking to some more students on my course. Nearly everyone seems to be a mature student, with such different stories about how they got to where they are now. One woman is even older than me - she'll be 60 when she qualifies. She doesn't look like it.

The real students who are 18 and 19 years old are drinking all night and look pale and interesting in the morning; they all seem to have lost their voices too. There was an announcement from the SB Guild before the plagiarism lecture, where they announced the line-up for some awesome gig that's happening in Nottingham on Sunday. To gasps from the assembled masses (there were about 300 people in this session), they read out a list of bands and DJs: "...and can you believe it, we're gonna have The Freaks!! Wow!!" The lecturer about to give the plagiarism talk started by saying that he'd never felt so old in his life. I just found it hilarious.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book cover
The Algebraist
by Iain M Banks
"It is 4034 AD. Humanity has made it to the stars ... time is one thing Fassin Taak doesn't have, with each passing day bringing the system closer to war..."
This is 'light' reading in between bouts of Biology, but it's not that light and I'm tempted to give it up for something a little less monumental.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

I Am A Student

It's official, term has started with Week One, which is essentially induction and Fresher's Week.

In fact, I made a start last week with a practice run up the motorway to get the route straight, see how long it took, and to try and sort out the parking permit in advance. It wasn't actually necessary - parking is fairly anarchic for the first week, it seems, but I'm glad I went, because it just gave me a bit of orientation, and the unexpected bonus of my official student ID card. So I could go off to the council offices (for the third time) to apply for my Council Tax discount.

The first real day yesterday was a mixture of paperwork, more paperwork, and people standing up at the front of various rooms saying "Welcome" and very little else. I don't deny that the admin needs to be done, but the substantive content of the day was probably about two hours' worth, and I was there from 9.30am to 5.10pm. The compulsory 'Safety lecture' turned out to be about preventing fires in student accommodation, and wholly irrelevant to many of us who'd been told not to miss it. The most annoying part was that it was timetabled for the very end of the day, so it would have been fine to go home at 3pm when all the other meetings had finished.

The good part was meeting my tutor, and the special session for mature students. There are quite a few - a roomful out of 283 new entrants this year, but some of them are hardly mature at all! My timetable until January is better than I'd expected, with no lectures at all on Mondays, saving 20% of travel time and cost, and allowing for late returns from weekends away. Tuesdays and Thursdays run from 9 until 6, although we've been told that it's rare to actually end that late.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Parents' weekend

There's been a lot going on over the weekend - Mr A's parents arrived in Leamington on Friday. They mostly entertained themselves, but we had a great dinner together at Eleven, one of my favourite restaurants in the town.

Lunch on Sunday was the big affair - we hosted the elder Cadneys, elder Loebls, and The Boy and his girlfriend, so that the parents could meet each other for the first time. I'd planned the food so there was nothing to do on the day, which helped me deal with the whole thing. The guests contributed too - The Boy and girlfriend both had a go on the trampoline, and Mr A's dad wanted to see how the remote controlled helicopter performed, so we went to the park. My parents brought cake and strudel. We took photographs.

It went off very well indeed, but I'm so glad it's over.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The weekend continues

Monday became part of the weekend when Lola II took the day off. It was curtain pole time, a simple job involving nothing harder than measuring carefully and drilling two holes for each bracket. Only four holes, what could possibly go wrong?

The measuring was fine, nothing wrong with the measuring at all. Dad had lent us a drill, and said he'd taken out anything that wasn't a masonry bit. There weren't any rawl plugs the right size, but we made a quick trip to the hardware shop to buy some.

To cut a long story short, we ended up with one melted drill bit, one screw head stripped, one bracket securely attached and the other one hopelessly loose, at which point we decided to have lunch and then go out.

After we'd been to the pictures, Lola II and I wandered on to the arranged meeting point in Covent Garden. Much entertainment was provided by the bar staff trying to find, and then charge us, for Stone's Ginger Wine. I don't think it's that well known in Poland.

Andy and I then spent the evening finding out what had happened to each other in the 20 years since we'd last met. There's been a lot. I'm sure we will meet again, but it may be a little while, and in the meantime I really hope that everything goes well for him.

Andy and Lola

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Weekend with Lola II

As usual, Lola II and I managed to have a splendid weekend, full of laughter and silliness and incorporating many of the glorious and mysterious catchphrases that we utilise on these occasions. The purpose of the weekend was just to make the most of my last chance to spend a bit of time down in London before I'm embedded in the library, and also to meet up with Andy, a very old friend that I haven't seen for about 20 years. Of which more later.

We started with a very late lunch, where special guests were Briony and Daphne. Briony's job was then to help us buy some classical music, and in return she received a cake I'd made with the further condition that we were all allowed to try some after lunch.

Today we started by making a very long list of all the things that Lola II needs to do, ranging from re-potting the house plants to facilitating world peace. We started with acquiring a curtain pole and curtain for the spare room, which is where I have to sleep and it's time my room had a curtain rather than a ladder and a sofa cover. The trip to IKEA resulted in a curtain pole but no curtains (out of stock), and a lamp for the spare room. Luckily one of our favourite Japanese restaurants was still open for lunch, so we gorged ourselves on ramen and sushi and other delights before heading back to where the hard work was supposed to begin, via a shop where we hoped to get a large plant pot, but actually bought a shoe rack. This is the sort of fun we like to have.

Lola and the shoe rackWe both needed a rest after such exertions, and it seemed too late to start on putting up the curtain pole, so instead Lola II embarked on a big tidy up. I did plant watering and washing up; there were serious attempts by Lola II to neglect the tidying up in favour of some long story or other, but I reminded her of the need for Focus and Discipline, and worked her until she begged for mercy. Inspiration struck - why not move the microwave to the big hole in the cupboards where the old oven was? Put handbags in the cupboard near the door? Have a basket for keys, phone, travel card? The shoe rack was constructed and shoes ceremonially placed upon it. Decisions were made about disposal of all sorts of rubbish. I mended the shredder. I even let Lola II do all the crossing off the list.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Coffee and lunch with friends

What a splendid day I had yesterday. First of all, Liz Jennings came for morning coffee. Of course she's Elizabeth Smith now, but it felt as if hardly any time had gone by since we were at school together. There wasn't enough time to do more than skim over a few of the highlights of the years since we last met at Andrea's Form I-6 reunion, when we were all approaching 30. We were so lucky to have Mrs Taylor, she was a great teacher and a wonderful lady. She'd told Lizzie that she'd do well to become a teacher, and Liz is just about to embark on the final year of a BA in Early Childhood Studies full-time at Warwick. We talked about my change of career, our families, health and illness - and then all too soon it was time for me to catch the train to Birmingham.

Sally and Steve in front of Cafe SoyaLunch was at Cafe Soya of course, with Sal and Steve. A bit of gossip, catching up on who's done what to whom and how Techshare is shaping up. Carol still struggling to split her time between two full time jobs, and still no recruitment to replace me. We talked about family stuff, anticipating uni - and then the hour was up.

The question of how to occupy myself in Birmingham for an afternoon is an interesting one. The first time I came in for lunch, in July, I went off and saw The Simpsons Movie afterwards, together with rather a lot of children. That was good. The second time, in August, I thought I would check out some light fittings then go to the Birmingham Art Museum, but instead I spent a happy hour at the Blood Donor Centre. This time I considered going to the pictures again, but instead I went shopping. This evil chore was pleasantly interrupted by a very long conversation with Lola (hooray for Orange Magic Numbers), and this must have been a good omen. For the first time in about three years, I found some clothes that fitted me, and I bought the lot. I have a suit, at last!! And it's not because I've changed shape, because I tried two different suits that purported to be the same size, but they weren't at all. Lucky I found the suit that fitted first, because had I tried the other one first I'm sure I would have given up at that point.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Getting ready for uni

The Biology book has been very interesting, and is a bit more detailed than A level after all. There's a whole chapter on plasma membranes which covers some stuff we did (composition, fluid mosaic model, integral and peripheral proteins) but also describes how the two sides of the phosopholipid bilayer have different composition. The technique of freeze-fracture followed by scanning electron microscopy actually allows the two layers to be separated and the surfaces photographed! It also describes the different 'joints' and interfaces you get between cells, which I hadn't thought about before. Some are sealed so that, for example, gut contents can't get round the epithelial layer of cells but has to go through, and others (plasmodesmata) allow cells to exchange contents, particularly in plants.

The suggested reading also mentioned A level Maths, Physics and Chemistry textbooks, and I've borrowed those from Leamington library. I've only looked at the chemistry one so far, and it's very interesting to see what has changed since my A level, 25 years ago. The book describes the probabilistic theory of atomic electrons as well as the old 'shell' theory, and there seems much more emphasis on the shape of molecules - the Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion (VSEPR) theory apparently predicts the shapes of simple covalent molecules.

I've been trying to wade through the admin stuff that has arrived from Nottingham University as well as planning for the start of the course. I finally filled in my ePAR about 'What I Did In My Holidays' and all the rest of it, and went through the online registration. Now I have an Intranet login, and an email account that doesn't seem to work yet, and access to all sorts of student-related information. Including classified ads - perhaps someone will want those curtains and the saxophone?

I've been following up the university parking permit, because without it I'll have to pay £5 a day to park on the campus. The online registration didn't feed through to Saturn, which is what the Estate people use to issue parking permits. The IT Helpdesk helped me to get a bit more registered yesterday, but the message still hasn't reached Saturn. They've suggested that I wait a bit longer. After all, we are talking about a distance of quite a few light years.

I've been busy today in a way that hasn't happened for a while. The rate of getting things done has tailed off significantly since the easier things were finished and rather less attractive jobs remain. I think I'll give up on the light fittings for the time being, and it's unlikely that I'll get on to the serious paint issues in the hallway. I did mend the toilet cistern workings when a plastic thingy snapped in the flush mechanism, and chopped more stuff out of the garden - it just keeps growing.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book cover
Biology
by Linda R. Berg, Eldra Pearl Solomon, Diana Martin
"Biology is an exciting and dynamic science that affects every aspect of our lives from our health and behavior to the challenging environmental issues that confront us."
...and the book's on the "Suggested Reading" list from Nottingham Uni. I managed to get it second hand without the CD. I'm surprised that it doesn't seem much more advanced than A level so far (but I'm only up to chapter 4 of 55.) I'll probably skip the plant chapters.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Human Biology reunion

Only three of us managed to meet up with Mike, our evening class teacher of the last two years for AS and A level Human Biology. Five photographs were taken: Jo looked good in four of them, Joy was great in two, Mike managed two without his eyes closed, but I didn't come out well at all. So I've had to construct a montage.

Joy and Jo on either side of Mike, the teacherJoy got an A, and Jo got a B, and they deserve a great deal more credit than me with all the difficult family circumstances they had to deal with. Joy's staying at work for the time being and reconsidering whether she'd like to change to radiography after all. Jo would like to do A level psychology, but is having trouble finding a course because so many have been withdrawn, so she may do Maths or Chemistry. Good luck to them, and to the others who finished the two years: Sam, Alison and Donna.

But the star of the show is definitely Michael, whose inspired teaching helped us all enormously. Highlights include:
  • The very first lesson and the deconstruction of the word 'polymorphonucleocyte' - I knew this was a teacher I would get on with;
  • The practical exercises like the comparison of mitosis and meiosis using our hands and fingers as chromosomes, paper chains of nucleotide bases on the lab floor, and unzipping his flies to demonstrate DNA replication;
  • Anecdotes - too many to list! But I won't forget the shaving incident associated with the varicose veins, the suggestion that the cricket team should give their shirts to their wives to distinguish by smell, and the timing of conception of his first child according to biological principles;
  • Mnemonics, even if we suspected that the last word of 'Kindly Please Come Out For Good Sport' was not exactly as reported.


  • Funding for adult part time education is being cut back, and this year Mike's is the only A level course that is being run part time in the evening at Solihull College. It will probably be the last AS intake. He keeps threatening to retire, so this might be his opportunity, although it will be a huge loss to the college and its students. I was very lucky to have started the course when I did, and even more fortunate to have Mike as the teacher!

    Tuesday, 4 September 2007

    Curtains and other trading activity

    I haven't done a great deal that's constructive for a week or so. My trip into the loft to get the saxophone down revealed a whole pile of curtains that we'd presumably put there 'just in case'. As well as getting the saxophone valued - £250 in case anyone would like to buy it - I've been tidying up the curtains, washing and ironing them to assess whether there's any value there. Four pairs might net me £100 altogether through local paper small ads if I'm lucky; one pair from Mr A's old flat in Burnage is in no fit condition to sell but so far I've had no takers from Freecycle.

    I also found a vintage 1985 squash racquet (wooden) that I thought might produce takers on ebay, but other similar artifacts don't seem to be attracting any offers. I'm not sure where else to dispose of it, other than to a theatrical company as a prop. Other loft-based treasures included the manuscript of the 'book' about my time in Israel I wrote in 1988 - I haven't got round to reading any of it yet - and a pair of high heeled boots. I can't imagine why they would be in the loft. I tried them on for a laugh - 'mutton dressed as lamb' was the phrase that sprang to mind as I looked in the mirror. I must have loved them dearly once, to have kept them for so long and even repaired the heels with electrical insulating tape.

    The other fruitless task that has kept me busy is the search for new light fittings for my room. I suppose that half the problem is that I begrudge spending money on any non-essentials at the moment, but I really can't find anything that I like much anyway. I actually suppressed my thriftiness for long enough to splash out on a new camera, although the old one will still work intermittently if I smack it on the side when it won't recognise the memory card. And the bumph from Nottingham Uni finally arrived, with a list of suggested books, and I managed to get the main one second hand. Pity I can't sell the curtains, the old squash racquet and the saxophone through good old Amazon.

    So I'm eagerly anticipating learning how to use the new camera. I need to read through the Nottingham stuff a few more times too, to understand all the things I'm supposed to do in the new world of e-university. It mentions filling in something called an ePAR, getting an ID card, registering online, buying sports club membership and a parking permit... At least I don't have to decide on optional courses, everything's compulsory for dietetics in the first year (or Master of Nutrition, as they call it). Only three weeks away now - my holiday is nearly over!

    Monday, 3 September 2007

    Bernadette and Hugh

    Hugh and BernadetteI had another lovely visit to Hugh and Bernadette - no fresh orange juice this time, but a pub lunch near Dunham Massey. We had a quick round of whist after lunch, too. Bernadette looked somehow better this time, although I think she was seriously tired after lunch. We did the trip in the brand new adapted Kangoo, but both this and the previous vehicle seem to have the major flaw that there's no assistance or winch arrangement to help the pusher get the wheelchair inside. I keep trying to find ways to help out, but there seems to be nothing for me to do! They'll just have to suffer repeated visits, although I don't know what the new term will bring in the way of spare time for travel.

    Friday, 31 August 2007

    What I'm reading at the moment

    Image of book cover
    Royal Leamington Spa: Images from the past
    by W G Gibbons
    The Domesday Book (1086) records details of "Lamintone" and from 1166 to 1539 it was owned by the Priors of Kenilworth during which time its title became Leamington Priors. Over the centuries there was little growth; in 1663 there were but 46 dwellings while in 1800 there were still possibly no more than 50 (when the population was about 300) ... By 1830 there were 1100 houses in 111 streets and the population was about 6,000.
    I've been meaning to read this since we moved to Leamington.

    Thursday, 30 August 2007

    What I'm reading at the moment

    Image of book cover
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
    by J K Rowling

    I'm half way through the book already, so it shouldn't be long before all is revealed - and, dad, I don't think it was John Prescott what done it...

    Tuesday, 28 August 2007

    What I'm reading at the moment

    Image of book cover
    Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
    by J K Rowling

    The one with Snape teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts and with the terrible thing happening to Dumbledore. I'm just catching up with the story so far before starting the new one (thanks for the loan, Lola).

    Monday, 27 August 2007

    Paragliding in Shropshire

    Mr A's birthday present this year was a one-day paragliding course. We met the group on the Shrewsbury bypass and headed off to the Long Mynd hills, and set up camp on the 'nursery slopes' there. In the morning there were two other first-time learners, but some more joined in the afternoon who had already done half a day on Saturday, but couldn't finish that day because of too much wind.

    It was cloudy and fairly breezy in the morning, and speaking as a spectator I got too hot in the sun and then too cold when a cloud came over in the morning, although the afternoon was better. The participants were far too busy to notice - after learning to fall over safely they had to check over the equipment and by lunchtime were strapping themselves into the harness for a first try at inflating the wing.
    Introductory talk Getting into the harness Some tips from the instructor The wing inflates First steps Andy is airborne

    The wind got too strong and changed direction at lunchtime, so we moved to a different field, where things got really busy. By the end of the afternoon, Mr A had done several 'hops' and on a few of them he was airborne for a good while. Now we have to deal with the consequences - an aching back, bruises from the harness, and an inclination to follow up with more lessons!

    Friday, 24 August 2007

    A day at the zoo and lunch with RNIB

    Me in front of a sign saying 'I am a monkey'I'm getting a bit behind now - on Tuesday, in honour of Ali's birthday, I was invited to accompany her to Twycross Zoo, together with her mum and friend Amy with boys Harry and Sam. The zoo specialises in primates, so we saw many gibbons, chimps, lemurs and monkeys, and the orangutans were particularly lively. Lots of other animals to wonder at, although Harry was a bit too young to appreciate them, and Sam was much more interested in the tractors, diggers and lawnmowers. Ali's mum told us that she liked the kangaroos best - before remembering that there weren't any and she meant to say giraffes. The day ended with fish and chips and an ignominious performance in the pub quiz (relative to our usual high standard, anyway).

    Me in front of a sign saying 'Who are you calling a monkey'Can you believe that I've only just worked out how to add Alt tags to the images in this blog? And it's not even difficult? Shows how far I've slipped since leaving work. On Thursday I went to Birmingham for lunch with the RNIB crowd, who unexpectedly presented me with a card to congratulate me for the A level results. I'm surprised that my head fitted through the doorways after that. Lunch at the delicious Café Soya was splendid, but RNIB is sadly deficient in juicy gossip, or perhaps everyone is just too discreet. Minty is building a Techshare empire with more staff than the rest of the section put together - so this is how my salary is being spent. Sally had some good news about how RNIB is buying software now, and from the sound of it, she is much more diplomatic than I ever could be. With some additional staffing I'm sure she will take all those achievements outside RNIB, and change the world, just like I wanted to before I decided to change direction.

    Thursday, 23 August 2007

    Dead, Alive, Not Very Well

    My camera: previously Not Very Well, now Dead. Happy without a memory card, won't turn on with a memory card. Pants.

    Wednesday, 22 August 2007

    Time with my mum

    It's been a busy couple of days while mum has been visiting - I think I wore her out. Perhaps it was the trampolining... she certainly didn't like it that much. It was nice to have an hour or two sitting on the sofa before she left!

    After she arrived we had lunch, then I dragged her around Leamington doing odd jobs - dropping off my saxophone so it can be valued before I sell it, a bit of food shopping, buying products to descale the toilet. Mum was looking for some special spectacle frames for dad - there are two sets of lenses in the frame, one in front of the other, and the front set is hinged so it lifts up. He's had this type for ages, but it looks like it can't be replaced, because none of the opticians have ever seen anything like it.

    We went on the regular guided tour around Leamington that happens four or five times a week in the evening during the summer. John the guide was pretty good, and although I've been on the tour before there were still some new bits - he pointed out how the parish church was extended, which made sense of some of the old pictures I've seen.

    On Tuesday mum thought it was Sunday, which explains why she was confused when Mr A was rushing around getting ready to go to a meeting at 9 o'clock. We drove off to the Student Finance office in Warwick so that I could prove who I am in exchange for the faint chance of funding, then dropped into Currys on the way home to look at all the different sorts of cordless phones, and then walked to a lighting shop in the hope that I would find something I like for my room. Then it was lunchtime, and then we had that cup of tea and a sit-down. The rest of the family would never have forgiven me if mum had died of exhaustion.

    It was a lovely visit, and I'm hoping we'll do it again soon.

    Saturday, 18 August 2007

    What I'm reading at the moment

    Image of book cover
    The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic
    by Stephen R. Covey
    "Habits are powerful factors in our lives. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character and produce our effectiveness... or ineffectiveness."
    I was given this book at least 15 years ago and it's been in the pile waiting to be read ever since.