Friday, 26 December 2008

Mostly rubbish presents

Red berries on a shrub in the garden
Christmas: been there, done that. It gets better each year, or else I just get used to it, and yesterday was pretty good. I took the day off work (!), stayed in bed until 9 a.m. and made scrambled eggs with smoked salmon on toast at about 10 a.m. We opened our presents next.

We only give and receive presents from each other and Mr A's family. I'm glad we don't have high expectations, and I hope the family doesn't either, because this year's gifts were absolutely rubbish. First of all, Mr A realised earlier this week that not only had he forgotten to take his son's card with him last time he went to Manchester, he had completely neglected to buy him any kind of present at all. Mr A sent books to his parents, looking good as new but actually purchased from the local Oxfam bookshop. His sister had asked for liqueur chocolates and a book about birds, but he'd forgotten about the bird book and couldn't find any liqueur chocolates in town. I found some in the greengrocer, not the first place you'd think to look.

In return, we received a Sainsburys gift card from his parents. While it's very kind, this is a non-present, because we just buy regular groceries at Sainsburys. Sister gave me a scarf and a calendar, which I shan't complain about because I don't ever get her anything. She gave Mr A some liqueur chocolates, which had been arranged in advance, but - Mr A's not drinking for six weeks, ever since the blood tests showed a high level of some liver enzyme. The doc was pretty casual about it, saying that Mr A needed to cut out alcohol for six weeks but could start in the New Year. Mr A thought he might as well start straight away, so he's not had a drop for about ten days now. So no liqueur chocolates for him.

On the same theme, The Boy sent us books from Amazon. Mr A opened his first, and found two: a Liver Detox diet and a Liver and Gallbladder Miracle Cleanse. He wouldn't even open them. I had a look inside - the detox diet is fine, it just suggests the usual healthy eating with extra faddish nonsense, but probably not harmful. The miracle cleanse is another matter altogether. The same author has written a book about diabetes, where he suggests that diabetes is not a disease: "diabetes is a complex mechanism of protection or survival that the body chooses to avoid the possible fatal consequences of an unhealthful diet and lifestyle." This is not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. The non-production of insulin is a serious matter and can lead to brain damage and death. It is not remedied by a 'healthful lifestyle', nor has the body 'chosen' diabetes in response to an 'unhealthful diet'. It's written by a man who describes himself as a 'medical intuitive'. Utter tosh.

To be fair, I doubt that The Boy has read the miracle cleanse one, although I know he has done the detox thing a couple of times. He also sent a second book parcel, to me this time, containing the latest Stephen Fry book about America and a war book for Mr A, much more likely to please him.

I haven't even mentioned the extra random presents that Mr A brought back from a friend he stayed with in Manchester, who'd said they were just surplus books, wrapped nicely. I thought that was quite a good idea, and a good way to circulate books if they'd been read and you didn't want to keep them. When I unwrapped mine, it turned out to be about Eric Cantona, the French footballer who played at Manchester United in the eighties. Oh dear.

The presents we gave each other were much better, and consisted of DVDs: Band of Brothers, a box set of Anthony Trollope from the BBC, the first series of the Onedin Line from 1971, and Brideshead Revisited (not the recent film, but the series with Jeremy Irons).

After the present opening, we planned the day. Smurf had told us that the pub was going to be open for a couple of hours, so we had to go there and say hello to all the regulars. Around this fixed point we worked out the timings for the guinea fowl and got all the veg and stuffing ready. We did a bit of reading, watched some of our DVDs and a bit of TV, went for a walk around town, and that was it.

We never had a tree or decorations when I was growing up, so I've never bothered, and because I've never bothered, neither has Mr A. He misses all the fuss, though, so next year he wants to do it all properly - tree, decorations, have the family round, walks, games, endless food and drink, the lot. I'll give it a try, you never know, I might like it.

Today's another day, though, despite the attractive selection of films on TV and the heaps of new DVDs calling from the living room. I'm back at my desk, looking forward to revising the advantages of expressing transgenic proteins in chloroplasts rather than the nuclear genome. Then I'll be packing for our week's holiday in Shropshire. Unless there's some sort of Internet access, I'll see you in January. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
The Single Helix
by Steve Jones

"From chaos in the heavens to the fight against creationism, from optical illusions in tartan to the mathematics of elections and what rules the sex lives of cats, The Single Helix is a scientist's look at sciences other than his own - and as a result its author has been forced to make the complicated simple enough for even a biologist to understand."
This is like a book of short stories: there are a hundred articles of about three pages each, picking on random scientific subjects and offering a few nuggets of information. Easy to read, enjoyable too, but ultimately for sharing, not for keeping and re-reading.

Image of the book cover
I Think There's Something Wrong With Me
by Nigel Smith

"On 15 November 2001, Nigel Smith was rushed to hospital with a brain lesion so big the radiologist thought the scan had been taken post-mortem. In the months that followed, there were times when Nigel wished it had been. He’d never needed a life-shattering illness to teach him that he should have spent more time smelling the roses."
Black humour at its blackest. You know that an extended stay in hospital will be unpleasant, undignified, painful and depressing, and not just because of the illness you've got. He does give us some of the gruesome stuff. We often consider blindness, deafness, being unable to walk as being serious disabilities; he is unable to swallow, and therefore condemned to never eat again. And while it's a relatively happy ending, it's not sugar sweet.

Note: no concessions to the festive season on THIS blog, I'm revising today, hence the early post. I think Mr A is probably taking it easy.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Concert, coats and brussels sprouts

The last few days have been very, very enjoyable. I've been having a great time.

I went to London on Thursday to see Lola II in concert, and at the same time was able to see all the rest of my London-based family (except nephews and nieces), plus a few other friends too. Lola II's concerts are a termly event, and there's usually something to enjoy and something to smile at even if the musical quality isn't up there with the professionals.

Last time I was at one of her concerts, one of the solo pianists was playing from memory rather than from the music, and got stuck in an awful circuit where for some time she couldn't find the way to the end of the piece. This time, one of the ensemble actually started playing from the wrong music, and one of the clarinettists of a trio was so nervous he could hardly play. But no matter, it was lovely.

Lola II and I stayed up talking much too late, then on Friday we went to the new Westfield shopping centre in Shepherds Bush to see a Personal Shopper at Debenhams. I have such a problem with shopping for clothes that I can barely manage it, and much of my wardrobe dates back to the early 1980's. The Personal Shopper service lets you talk to a human about your size and tastes and what you'd like to buy, then they let you sit in a room with a nice hot drink and clothes are brought from the store for you to try on. The service is free and there's no compulsion to buy, and Connie was really good. Despite being a fashionista herself, she clearly understood what sort of person I am. A 'natural', apparently - someone who cares more about comfort and practicality than fashion or looks.

I was looking for an outdoor jacket and coat, and I ended up buying a wonderful bright red jacket for everyday wear, to replace my previous one that is comfortable and practical but universally disliked - apparently it makes me look even older than I am. Anyway, I was hoping to find a smart long woollen coat and a light raincoat as well, but nothing worked for me.

The trouble is that my horizontal size doesn't match my vertical size - if the shoulder seams sit on my shoulders and the sleeves are the right length, it doesn't do up round the front. If I can do the buttons up, then the shoulder seams are halfway down my arms and I can't find my hands in the sleeves. I require something from the 'petite' range, which is often very limited. The best bit of the day was when I tried on one coat with poppers instead of buttons at the front. Connie and Lola II thought it looked pretty good, but I took a deep breath and the front flew open.

Luckily, one of the loveliest coats that didn't fit me fitted Lola II, even though officially she wasn't the one doing the shopping. So she bought a coat as well. Both of our purchases were significantly reduced from original prices, and there was even an additional 20% discount going on. What a bargain.

At home on Saturday, I set up the computer network again - although I still haven't tried sorting out the printer. At least I'm back in my own room rather than sharing Mr A's office, which is good for both of us. I've done some revision, which has been really interesting and doesn't feel like revision at all, and we watched a great film (Eastern Promises). I watched one dance on 'Strictly' as they call it now, and that was plenty. I haven't watched any other programmes of the series, or any of the spin-off daily shows, or any of X Factor at all. I'm glad we're being surveyed for audience figures, to offset the rest of you.

Andy holding a stalk of Brussels sprouts in the kitchenThis morning, we went into town because I was pretty sure that there was an extra Farmer's Market alongside the Christmas Market, and there was. So now we have Brussels sprouts in their native form and carrots with dirt on, plus two partridges for tonight (I don't think I've ever tried partridge), a guinea fowl for Christmas dinner, and a brace of pheasant for the freezer, all for not very much money at all.

Last of all, I should be able to upgrade to a new mobile phone plan with more minutes and texts costing about half of what I'm paying at the moment, including a new phone. So it's been a good few days.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
by John Buchan

"In Greenmantle, Richard Hannay, hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, travels across war-torn Europe in search of a German plot and an Islamic Messiah. He and his three colleagues move in disguise through Germany to Constantinople and the Russian border to face their enemies: the grotesque Stumm and the evil beauty of Hilda von Einem."
These books are so evocative of their time, written in the early years of WWI. He writes about hiring a car as if it were an everyday event, even though cars have been around for only about 20 years, and then the next minute they're riding horses. It wasn't so much the story as the atmosphere of the book that kept me reading - the plot is very strategic and tied up with the war, and nowhere near as accessible as The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Image of the book cover
by Robert Harris

"March 1943, the war hangs in the balance, and at Bletchley Park a brilliant young codebreaker is facing a double nightmare. The Germans have unaccountably changed their U-boar Enigma code, threatening a massive Allied defeat. And as suspicion grows that there may be a spy inside Bletchley, Jericho's former girlfriend disappears."
Another book chosen following my visit to Bletchley Park. Some of the real facts are woven in with a fairly decent crime story. This is the first Robert Harris I've read, but I have another two waiting, and on the basis of this one I'm looking forward to them.

Image of the book cover
The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood

"The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs..."
This was faintly disturbing to read. Well written, no doubt about that, but not a comfortable story by any means. Sitting here wondering what I want from a book, I come to the conclusion that I don't mind a bit of unpleasantness or the worst facets of the human experience, but I don't want the whole book to be like that, with no goodness or kindness or redemption. It doesn't have to be a happy ending, but when there's virtually no happiness throughout, it's not what I want to relax with on the sofa in the evening.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

I've said it before and I'll say it again

Blue plaque: 1960something 'til now LOLA (brain the size of a planet) Lived here in Leamington
That Lola sister of mine is top notch in my eyes. Here's a little something I came across in Leamington Spa...

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Another pub quiz

Last night, very unusually, we were invited to the pub quiz next door at The Cricketers. I would have been playing badminton, but the roof of the hall was leaking, so I went along with Mr A and joined what turned out to be a team of eight, all very senior in years, except for one 'youngster' who could have been in her 30's. She turned out to be a great asset in the round that expected us to know things that had happened in the TV and music world in the last 20 years.

It was a strange evening, but I just love everything that goes on in the pub. I love that we can go there and join in whatever's happening, without worrying about it or needing to know anyone before going in. As it happens, I vaguely knew most of the team - R from round the corner, P from up the road, the chap from the big house on the corner whose son in law we may ask to do some carpentry around the house, and his wife, and their daughter (the youngster). We were sitting right at the back of the pub together with another team, and it was quite hard to hear the quizmaster, so the eighth member of our team, who was also the oldest, was standing at the bar so as to hear better. And so he could go outside to smoke.

It was both the most competitive and the most anarchic quiz I've experienced for some time. Our Team Member at the bar was actually sharing answers with another team, which seemed to be even larger than ours and contained most of the pub staff, plus many of the regulars, and the previous owners. One of them continually refers to the fact that I was at Cambridge Uni (he was at Oxford) and it's very wearing. Every time he walked past he made some comment, but most of the time I couldn't work out what he was going on about.

Our team was mostly deaf, the PA system didn't deliver sound to our corner very well, the neighbouring team were young and quite noisy, and in true pub quiz style, we had to share our ideas by whispering. There was a lot of "No, I said BERKSHIRE!" "What question number is this?" "Did he say 'Bad Claus' or 'Fred Claus'?" "Who?" P was absurdly competitive, and at the end was certain that we had won, overlooking the fact that in the music round we'd hardly got any questions right at all.

My favourite question was "What is the biggest prize on 'Deal or No Deal'?" P came up with the suggestion of £250k, and we all looked at each other blankly. It turned out that not a single one of us had ever watched this hugely popular TV programme, and then P admitted he'd only seen it once and wasn't really sure.

For some reason there were some trinkets that had come out of Christmas crackers lying around, so when the stress levels rose too high, Mr A and I amused ourselves with the little plastic toy that you could put round your finger and made it look like you had a nail going right through it. Every now and then one of us would slip it on and make 'ow ow ow' noises to the other, demanding an ambulance. We found it hilarious, the others looked baffled. The ones who could hear us, anyway.

We ended up coming joint fourth, only three points behind the winners. There was chocolate for prizes, so I dutifully put mine aside for later, seeing as I'd had double my quota of beer for the evening and hadn't even been able to play badminton to compensate. I love that pub.

On a wholly different note: Oliver Postgate's death was announced today. What a great man.

Bagpuss and friends

Friday, 5 December 2008

End of term review

It's been a week since my last post, which is the biggest gap I can remember in ages (apart from when we went away on holiday). While not much has happened that is suitable for blog inclusion, there are plenty of interesting things to write about from my course. The difficulty is that to write them down properly I have to review my notes and do a bit of research, and I still don't have enough time for that. The last piece of coursework is due to be handed in next Friday; it's about the production of an orally administered Hepatitis B vaccine in potato, and I've been working on it all afternoon.

Here's a quick review of the last ten weeks or so:
  • Most lectures have been interesting, and most lecturers have been good, immunology being the notable exception. It's still an interesting subject though, so I'm actually looking forward to going back and revising it.
  • There have only been two practicals all term, plus we have one workshop on Friday. Luckily we've been able to choose our practical groups, and even more fortunately I've been able to work with Ally and Dipti, who are both hardworking and clever. This has meant that we've got good experimental results, and therefore high marks.
  • The last week or so has been really cold, and our house is old. It's not sensible to heat the whole house during the day, so we work in Mr A's study with a fan heater. While we are both fairly resistant to cold, it is much less fun than when it's warm.
  • We've done nothing about any home maintenance. The exterior and interior decoration and state of repair is shabby, poor and deteriorating, but it just doesn't get priority, because it's such a pain to organise, and neither of us enjoys it.
  • I didn't join the university gym this year after all. Instead, I've been to an aerobics class once a fortnight, so combined with badminton club nights and matches I've been exercising sufficiently without the gym. Badminton and aerobics are much more fun than using boring treadmills and lifting weights, although I'm only just getting past the stage in aerobics where I'm going in a different direction from everyone else and still trying to coordinate arms and legs.
  • The dieting regime seems to be working, although I can't be certain because I've only weighed myself once since the start. It's very dependent on state of mind - sometimes it's easy peasy to eat the right amount and stop, other times it's like the worst torture. And I can't work out how to change the state of mind from negative to positive, it just seems to happen, or not happen.
  • I'm still enjoying blogging and reading other blogs, and even managed to cut down on the number of blogs in my feed reader. I'd like to write more, but I hope you appreciate quality rather than quantity.
  • My new laptop is still great, I'm just getting used to a few of the new features and trying to recreate my established working methods. Sometimes the most trivial things cause problems: I have a colour scheme in Outlook to denote coursework deadlines, and all the labels changed when I moved from 2003 to 2007. I have discovered that simply connecting a second monitor is enough to provoke Vista to add it to my desktop area - it used to be possible in older versions of Windows, but it was never this easy to achieve! We still haven't done anything about the home network, but I don't often need to print anything.
  • I have new specs! They are very nice, but need further adjustment because they constantly drift down my nose and drive me mad having to push them up again.
  • Mr A is not so happy most of the time. He is pushing himself hard to stop his business from foundering, and has received very generous help from his friend Graham in Manchester, including the loan of a car in place of the van that has now been sold. I think it will be OK in the end, I just don't know when that time will come - I suppose I'll recognise it when it happens. It doesn't help that he picked up a cold when he was in Manchester this week.
  • Social life: what's that? Since the party in the summer when we discovered that we do have quite a few acquaintances, we haven't seen many of them at all. Apart from family visits and one trip to the south coast, we haven't seen anyone much. It's still very pleasant to go to the pub for an hour or so every now and then, there's always someone to talk to that we vaguely know. Smurf gave me a bottle of beer from my favourite Warwickshire Slaughterhouse brewery last week, which was nice. The rest of the time we sit on the sofa under a duvet in the evenings, reading books, watching DVDs or the odd TV programme.
  • Last Saturday Mr A and I actually went to a gig, and it was brilliant for so many reasons. Firstly, it was one of our favourite bands, Alabama 3. They aren't that well known, but we saw them first at a festival and we love all their music. Secondly, it was at a venue called The Assembly, within walking distance of our house in Leamington! That's the best part - going to a really good gig and then walking home in five minutes instead of walking back to the car through some horrible city centre and driving for ages in the middle of the night. The venue is newly refurbished and it was the first time we'd been there. One of the bar staff from The Cricketers was there, so we said hello, and discovered that he'd just been appointed Bar Manager. Five minutes later, we spotted Smurf there too - he knows the people who run the place, and in fact I think that he knows everyone in Leamington. It was a cracking gig, and we did lots of dancing.
  • The regular Wednesday pub quiz attendance has ended with two of our four regulars departing for Germany when their employer moved them there. I shall be seeing Suze again soon, though, she's coming round for dinner in a couple of weeks.
  • I'm looking forward to the New Year, when we're going away for a week with friends to a big house in Shropshire. Plans for 2009: first revision, then exams, and then onwards with some new modules. Life in general: keep Mr A going, keep enjoying my course and getting good marks, keep exercising, and keep the budget straight. Should be fun!

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Module feedback, dinner and a Wii

They closed the M1 on Thursday, and instead of one hour it took nearly 3 hours to get to university. I leave very early, so I only missed about 20 minutes of my first lecture, but it was one I was actually looking forward to, about the immunology of reproduction, delivered by a 'good' lecturer. I got there for the bit about Rhesus blood groups though. Then we had an hour and a half on equine viruses from a very entertaining man who demonstrated the principle of a decision tree with the following:

Do you have chills? Yes/No
Are they multiplying? Yes/No
Are you losing control? Yes/No
The power I'm supplying, is it electrifying? Yes/No
If Yes: you're the one that I want
If No: you're not the one that I want.

Despite the humorous nature of the lecture, and although equine viruses are quite nasty and have parallels with human viruses, I didn't feel that I learned very much about immunology.

At the end of each module, we get to fill in a feedback form where we can leave comments. This was the module I was most dissatisfied with this semester, so I had a lot to say, and was still writing when the 'bad' lecturer came back to collect all the forms, and asked me how things had gone. Having had such a terrible journey and having just finished writing a huge (yet constructive) rant about his teaching, I wasn't in the best of moods, so I just said the last lecture was quite entertaining, but perhaps not terribly relevant. He started to try and argue with me, so I told him about my morning. Poor chap.

Yesterday was much better, and ended with dinner with some friends, where I got to try out a Wii. This is a computer game system with a handset that detects motion, and I had a go at the Wii Fit as well, which has a platform for you to stand on. We had a game of tenpin bowling - I was pretty bad at that, but then I'm pretty bad at the real thing too. I got hit with a lot of virtual football boots and missed most of the virtual footballs, fell off a virtual tightrope, managed one virtual ski jump out of four tries and slalomed quite successfully down a virtual hill. My Wii Fit age is 8 years less than my real age, so that was nice. It was great fun, and quite amazing what can be achieved with technology nowadays.

I should mention the amazing food that Sal cooked up, because she has been known to pay a visit to my blog. Full Indian dinner complete with illustrated menu card, and it tasted amazing. Even the naan bread and the ice cream was home made. I may never need to eat again.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

My new laptop

The future is here, the future is a shiny black and gunmetal grey laptop. With Windows Vista, which is making me cross after being so comfortable with XP, and with a laptop keyboard where the bottom left key is Fn rather than Ctrl so none of my keyboard commands works first time. But best of all, there's a camera built into the lid, with which I can take amusing photos using the supplied software.

Hilarious photo of me with a bag over my head and holes cut for eyes and mouth
I've installed Firefox and iTunes so the important stuff is up and running, but I don't have any work-related software yet (Word, Excel, Powerpoint) so I'm still having to use the old one. Plus we've discovered that it wasn't a broken network card, it really was the network cabling downstairs that wasn't working, so I'm going to be sharing Mr A's office until we can get that replaced. And we haven't worked out how to network a Vista PC into the existing XP workgroup so I can't use Mr A's printer. But I can get to my podcasts and blog, so that's OK then.

I really must get on with some homework now.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Whole lot of nothing

There's been a whole lot of nothing going on for a week or so. When I say nothing, it's not nothing at all - there's been school, homework, badminton, aerobics, a visit from Lola II and a trip to Manchester to visit Hugh and Bernadette. But nothing notable that seemed worth blogging about.

School and homework has been very busy. I've completed two online assessments, and I'm trying to do as much Psychology coursework as possible before next Wednesday, because there's an issue about handing in coursework. Most lecturers use a sealed box - you stamp the time and date on your work and post it in the box any time. For some reason, the Psychology lecturer wanted us to hand over the work personally at a specified date and time, but I don't want to have to drive for an hour each way just to hand in a piece of work. There will be a way round this, even if I have to ask my lovely tutor to hand it in for me. There will be more options if I get it finished early, and I need to get started on the GMO coursework as well.

I've been to see my tutor a couple of times recently, to get his support for a parking badge for the main campus, and to change my module choices for next term. I checked out the 'Communicating Biosciences' module that I'd signed up for, which contains stuff that I thought I'd like - writing articles, doing a presentation. On closer scrutiny, there's quite a bit I don't like - working in groups, creating a lesson plan - so I checked out what the alternatives were. The timetable is really restricted next semester, and there were actually only two possible options: more biochemistry, which includes quite a lot of lab work, and a computing module. I went to see the computing lecturer, and decided to go for that one.

There have been online assessments in Immunology and Biochemistry. The Immunology one was about different techniques that are used to detect disease (e.g. HIV), pregnancy, allergy, and proteins and cells within biochemical systems. Not bad, except for interpreting the dot plots resulting from flow cytometry. You can look it up if you like, but it's pretty baffling. The Biochemistry one was a set of questions about a published research paper which described two experiments to determine whether the calpain-10 protein plays a part in glucose metabolism. The first time I read the paper I understood about one word in ten; it was quite satisfying by the end of the process when I could just about follow what was going on.

The exam timetable is out, and my exams are spread over the full two weeks in January, so there won't be time for a proper holiday afterwards. I'm having a mini-break with Lola II in the middle, though. She came to Leamington for an optician appointment, and I took the opportunity to choose new frames for my glasses. My current pair has half the coating scraped off on one lens, and the frames themselves are looking much the worse for wear - I've always had metal frames before, and these plastic ones really don't last as long. They're more comfortable on the nose, though.

I'm on tenterhooks because my new laptop is due to be delivered any minute. The DHL website said it was out for delivery yesterday, but it didn't arrive, and at the end of the day the tracking site said there had been nobody to take delivery so they'd left a card. There was no card, and someone was at home all day, so I sent a comment to that effect and suggested that they might not have found the correct address. The site says it's out again for delivery today, but no sign of it so far.

Plants on the biosciences campus
Plants at the SB campus

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

A taste of psychology

This isn't how it's supposed to be done, you deserve something a bit lighter, with pictures, about some trivial thing that's happened to me. But, hey ho, you get another heavy university lecture...

The Psychology lecture was interesting the other day. We were looking at stress and its effects on eating. There was quite a lot of stuff that you'd expect, and the usual equivocal evidence that seems endemic to psychology, given that we can't open up the brain and see for ourselves what's going on. It's frustrating to have to rely on what people say.

Yes, most people tend to eat more when they are stressed, and some tend to eat more when their mood is good, but some will eat less when they are depressed, and I can certainly eat less when I'm happy. So that's all four possible combinations, and anyway self-reported food intake is always horribly inaccurate, and more so when the person is depressed.

The most interesting observation was that fear and anxiety are incompatible with the physical act of eating. It isn't possible to be afraid or anxious while you are actually putting food in your mouth, chewing and swallowing. On reflection, this seems eminently true, I don't think I could eat if I were truly afraid, but the converse is more prevalent - we sometimes eat because to do so makes us less anxious, at least temporarily. Eating banishes anxiety and makes us feel better for a short while.

Another interesting proposition is the Dietary Restraint hypothesis. This suggests that if you constantly restrict your intake through conscious control of eating, then the physiological satiety signal (that is, your body rather than your conscious mind telling you when to stop eating) may become weaker or disappear. If your psychological state is disturbed by stress or emotion, then your conscious control of eating may be disrupted. In the absence of the physiological signal, you have nothing to tell you when to stop, and you carry on eating beyond what is necessary for satiety. Sounds good - but that's as far as they've got in the research, there's nothing yet to suggest what to do about it.

The psychology teaching in this module is based entirely on research evidence and theories about eating: the influence of stress, gender differences, social inequality. It's all been very interesting, and I know it can work to change eating behaviour, plus there seems no other long-term non-invasive way (although the fat-inhibiting drugs do quite well). I was convinced before I started on this course that losing or gaining weight is a psychological issue, and nothing has changed that view so far. What you choose to put in your mouth is dictated by your brain, and nothing else. Brains are a terrible nuisance, though, and rather difficult to control.

I've seen several recent articles, however, claiming that gastric bands and bariatric surgery produce the best results for weight loss. The evidence simply isn't there for less invasive methods, because the research hasn't been done. I still have equivocal views about gastric bands, and I have nowhere near enough knowledge and experience with cognitive therapies, but surgery still seems very drastic, especially as the risks of anaesthetic are multiplied when the patient is obese, which these patients obviously are.

On a more practical note, in the Psychology module our performance is assessed entirely by coursework, with no exam. While this reduces the pressure in January, when I have four exams, I realised that I ought to be spending as much time on the coursework as I would have spent revising for an exam, and what with me being a swotty swot swot that's quite a lot. Our first coursework assignment was worth 25% of the module mark, and I didn't do as well as I would have liked. This is understandable - I've never studied psychology before and wasn't sure what was required, and the summary of our marks for the assignment showed that nobody did very well. The second coursework counts for the remaining 75%, and contains six questions. It's going OK, but I still can't tell whether I will improve my mark. It's not like learning the reaction sequence for conversion of glycogen to glucose...

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Blood type matching

Blood cellsI've been swotting up on five different techniques used in immunology to detect various proteins in blood, hair, food and other samples. This is because I have to do a test on them next week, and mostly it's just been a question of looking through the lectures and making notes to help me remember. Towards the end of the day I had a look at what a couple of text books have to say, and this is where I came upon a little tiny snippet of interesting information, about blood typing.

This is about how they work out the different blood groups: A, B, AB and O. The A and B labels relate to two proteins on the surface of red blood cells. People with blood group A have A proteins on their red blood cells, people with blood group B have B proteins on their red blood cells, while people with both are AB, and if neither is present then they are group O. So far, so good.

The basis of working out which you are is down to the immune system, which is finely tuned to determine 'self' from 'non-self' based on various immune cells in your body coming into contact with other cells, proteins, viruses or whatever. This is done intensively at the start of life, so that anything that reacts with 'self' is targeted for destruction - one of our other lectures covered this but I haven't reviewed it since, so I'm a bit vague on how that's done. What you end up with is a trillion zillion antibodies that recognise anything that isn't you, based on what your immune cells have interacted with up to that point in life.

So, people with blood group A have antibodies that recognise protein B, because it isn't A, so indicates 'non-self' and needs to be zapped. Similarly, people with blood group B have anti-A antibodies, people with group O have anti-A and anti-B, and AB don't have either anti-A or anti-B. Are you keeping up? Nearly there.

What I never thought about before was why group O people always have antibodies to A and B when they might never have come into contact with A or B proteins? And similarly, why group A always have anti-B and B's always have anti-A? It turns out (according to the textbook) that common gut bacteria have proteins that are similar or identical to A and B, so they stimulate the formation of the anti-A and anti-B antibodies. What this doesn't explain is why the bacteria don't cause trouble in AB people who don't have antibodies to A or B - presumably they aren't harmful bacteria.

I'm pretty sure that the immune system can generate random antibodies for things it hasn't come into contact with yet, so maybe this bacterial explanation isn't the full story. But it provoked a glimmer of interest in a pretty dull day. The language of immunology is impenetrable, and there are millions of factors with indistinguishable names, acronyms and abbreviations.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
Hokkaido Highway Blues
by Will Ferguson

"After too much saké, Canadian travel writer and English teacher Will Ferguson finds himself following the Cherry Blossom Front, the route Japan's celebrated pink sakura follows. It announces spring, flowering in a wave from the southern tip Cape Sata, through Kyushu, Honshu and Hokkaido islands, to Northern extremity Cape Soya."
This is another book that Lola II has lent me to read, but unlike the others that she's unloaded on me, she's actually read and enjoyed this one and wants it back! She was an English language assistant for a year in Japan, and she said it reminded her of her time there. I only visited for a week or so, but it left me with a longlasting love of sushi. Anyway, it was a nice book to read, full of self-deprecating humour, even though he includes accounts of himself being incredibly rude to Japanese people who are attempting to practise their English, or just being Japanese in an annoying way.

Image of the book cover
The Hippopotamus Pool
by Elizabeth Peters

narrated by Barbara Rosenblat

"A masked stranger offers to reveal an Egyptian queens' lost tomb - and Amelia Peabody and her irascible archaeologist husband Emerson are intrigued, to say the least. When the guide mysteriously disappears before he can tell them his secret, the Peabody-Emersons sail to Thebes to follow his trail, helped - and hampered - by their teenage son Rameses, and beautiful ward Nefret. Before the sands of time shift very far, all of them will be risking their lives foiling murderers, kidnappers, grave robbers, and ancient curses."
My first audio book from Audible was one of this series, so a year later I thought it was time for another. This one's not as good as the other, but still OK. It's a bit disturbing, however, when she writes about the visiting Inglesi in Egypt forcing their way into native houses, confiscating forged antiques, as if that were their right. The inhabitants in question are painted as incorrigible villains, but even so...

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Patagonia Lola Life Jacket

When I read this, I truly thought "At last, a jacket for Lola Life. And it's from Patagonia, which makes it a little more exotic, if not exclusive. I need just such a jacket to accompany this world-beating blog." (Or as one correspondent has phrased it, "worthy of any newspaper or BBC journalist." Thanks, Rog.)

I don't think I will be wearing my Lola Life jacket at any formal or informal gathering, unless, perhaps, I am invited to join a Russian oligarch on his seafaring yacht.

And, also from Patagonia, another attractive product: Women's Serenity Tights. "Bend forward into Uttanasana and follow the breath inward." You can't say fairer than that.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Bioscience update

Life goes on at Lola Towers, much the same as ever. I journey forth each weekday, intent on absorbing yet another dose of Bioscience, and often I am rewarded with fascinating information from articulate lecturers.

Sometimes it's difficult to see the relevance to nutrition and dietetics. Today we were treated to a couple of hours about the different factors released from embryonic precursor cells which determine their fate as cardiac or nerve cells, and last week it was muscle cells. Very interesting, even though I'm not sure what it's going to be useful for. In Psychology/Sociology, we talked about the research evidence on social class as a determinant for diet choices - again, interesting in itself, but requires care when applying the principles to dietetic practice.

On Monday we had one of only two practical sessions this term, and it was rather fun. Cleverly, the lecturers are awarding the majority of marks for accuracy and technique, which meant that we couldn't get away with our usual sloppy attitude to pipettes and test tubes. We were given five different unidentified samples containing carbohydrates, and our mission (should we choose to accept it) was to apply various enzymes and determine which was which. If incubating a sample with lactase produced a positive result when tested for glucose, then that sample was likely to be lactose*, and so on.

Immunology continues to be a disaster area. The lecturer presents us with screens full of detail: genes, proteins, complexes, incomprehensible acronyms and abbreviations, and hardly ever takes a step back to outline the big picture. It's as if someone is trying to explain the workings of the internal combustion engine by talking about the fuel/air mix, the voltage in the HT leads and the pressure profile in the piston, rather than saying what these components are actually for and how they contribute to the function of the whole engine.

There's quite a lot of coursework this term, including a multiple choice test about metabolism in the fed, fasted and starved states, and metabolism during exercise - it's all about how your body switches between storing and using carbohydrate and fat. Unfortunately, I haven't found a shortcut to losing pounds of flab while continuing to gorge on chocolate, so I'll have to carry on with the alcohol/sugar restriction technique. I can't tell you how I'm getting on, not because it's classified information, but rather because I don't have any scales, and it's hard to tell whether my clothes are looser or not. On balance, I think they might be.

The GMO module coursework was set last week, and involves choosing one out of six academic research papers in the general field of genetic modification, and then writing a critique of it, explaining what the research was about and what it found and how that might fit into the bigger picture. It's going to be an interesting project, given that I read the three papers that looked the most interesting and hardly understood a word. I've picked one about the production of a vaccine against Hepatitis B virus that has been engineered into potato so it can be taken orally rather than injected.

Endocrinology is another mystery - the secretions of the anterior and posterior pituitary gland are interesting but not obviously relevant, and I'm not sure why we had two lectures on calcium when that's not really a hormone - or is it? These lectures end at 5 p.m. on a Friday as well, leaving me with the worst possible motorway journey home.

I still love it. I talked to two people about research and PhD's this week.

White-flowering trailing plant in garden
* Lactose is a disaccharide comprising one molecule each of the monosaccharides glucose and galactose. People who are 'lactose intolerant' usually have something wrong with their lactase enzyme, so they can't digest lactose and break it into its constituent parts. For example, people in cultures that historically don't consume milk-based products, like Japan, have no need for lactase, so many people stop making it after being weaned.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

A chef in the making

Another family gathering yesterday. Highlights:
- fantastic food cooked by Nephew P
- the best Balderdash answer from Niece J
- the Hostess with the Mostest, Lola II.

The event followed Nephew P's birthday gathering a few weeks ago, when Lola II gave him a book, Cooking for Blokes. In the Introduction, it says "If someone has bought you this book then you are probably going to have to make one of our recipes." So we all thought it would be a good idea if we fixed up a date, chose some recipes, and we'd all benefit, not just Lola II. Plus mum's birthday is tomorrow, so we could celebrate that too. But after three London trips in not much more than a month, and a painful return journey in torrential rain all the way, I hope I don't have to travel to London again for some time.

Nephew P in the kitchenIt was a fish stew with chickpeas, salad, and a puff pastry apple pie, and I had seconds of everything. So the trip was worth it, despite the rain.

Today I have been rummaging underneath desks amid years of accumulated fluff. I have established beyond doubt that neither the wireless card nor the network card in my PC is working, and that my hard disk is set up in a way that doesn't let me see its contents when connected to another PC via USB. But, while extracting and replacing the hard disk, I must have nudged something else, because (for the time being) the on-board network adapter is working again. I am downloading 16 podcasts and two audio books, and then off to explore laptops this afternoon.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

My Network is Down

Yesterday, in the middle of downloading the Radio 5live Daily Mayo podcast (with Gok Wan, in case you care), a little icon popped up in the bottom corner of my screen, saying "A network cable is unplugged." I saw it happen. The podcast stopped downloading. A window popped up from Outlook: "Failed to connect to network - check your server." Mozilla told me it couldn't find Google any more. All the clues were there.

I went upstairs to check Mr A's Internet access, hoping it was an ISP problem. While that would be worse in the short term, at least I could be pretty sure it would recover eventually. The Internet was still there. Back downstairs, under my desk, the lights were flashing optimistically on the network connectors, and the plugs that route the signal through the house (wireless doesn't penetrate our Victorian walls), and on the router upstairs. But my computer thinks that the network isn't there. A network cable is unplugged.

You take something for granted until it isn't there. I can't believe how much I rely on having a permanent, always-on connection to the world, even though such a thing was almost unimaginable ten years ago. I can't update my podcasts or get the next instalment of my audio book, let alone download lectures from the university system or catch up on my blog reading. I can't even print - the printer is upstairs and I need the network to connect to it. I started researching my new laptop computer options straight away.

I can do most of the important stuff from university, where I am now, or from another computer at home if I can borrow one. But I can't download anything for my ipod without major reinstallation and messing about, and that's my life support system.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Search terms

I love that I can see the search terms that have been used to reach my website. Obviously, 99.9% of them were looking for something else, but I get some entertainment from it anyway. And now, so will you. If you find it entertaining, that is.

The most common hits, used seven times, are:
  • digestion facts, and
  • sushiya leamington
closely followed (with three) by:
  • facts about digestion.
None of these is particularly fun or unusual, in fact I'd say my blog wasn't a bad place to go for the answers to these queries. Some of the others are more traditionally entertaining. Obviously, food and biology feature quite a bit:
  • kilojoules in porridge (I'll look it up)
  • food labeling in hospital food service (interesting question, there wasn't any that I saw)
  • porridge every meal (not a great idea, but breakfast - yes)
  • hospital food as treatment (it should be classed as such)
  • why doesnt trypsin digest the intestine (because trypsin is synthesised and secreted in an inactive form (trypsinogen) and is only activated when in the intestinal lumen, plus the intestinal epithelial tissue is protected to a certain extent by mucus. But actually - it does digest the intestine a bit, the gut wall is sloughed off at a huge rate and must regenerate itself on a daily basis)

Some random ones:

  • diagonal board welchman (that was the trip to Bletchley Park)
  • chubb lock stuck (fixed by the wonderful Dennis)
  • dennis the locksmith canada (oh no, he can't have emigrated already)
  • lab coat rotherham (don't remind me)
  • i love my dentist (well I don't, even though he is a very nice man)
  • leam on me (must be a typo, but quite a nice one)
  • fancy that background history (indeed)
  • turning point in my life mark twain reading (he's good, but not that good)
  • i love leamington (so do I)
  • science news monkeys 10-07-08 (my favourite of this batch, I wonder what the news was?)

There are several people looking for various members of the Lola family:

  • lola winchester
  • lola 13 yo
  • marcus de lola
  • lola certificate
  • lola snowboards
  • lola easy living

and my personal favourite

  • tommy lee lola

And lastly, one solitary searcher using the term

  • lola life.
Just a little snippet to end with, which the distinguished government body the Food and Standards Agency notified me about. Some food can be dangerous. I shall be much more careful with my selection of supplier for any chocolate flavoured nipple spread I might be needing in future.

I hope that 'chocolate flavoured nipple spread' turns up in my search terms before too long...

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
The Mark of a Murderer
by Susanna Gregory

Narrated by Andrew Wincott
On St Scholastica's Day in February 1355, Oxford explodes in one of the most serious riots of its turbulent history. Fearing for their lives, the scholars flee the city, and some choose the University at Cambridge as their temporary refuge. Within hours of their arrival, the first of their number dies, followed quickly by a second. When Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael begin to investigate the deaths, they uncover evidence that the Oxford riot was not a case of random violence, but part of a carefully orchestrated plot."
Compared with other historical thriller books, this places the characters in the 14th century but doesn't really set the scene there - they could be walking round a dirty version of a modern town. For all that, it's pretty good. Apparently it's one of a series featuring the same characters, but the other books aren't available from Audible.

Image of the book cover
The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan

"What shall we have for dinner? Such a simple question has grown to have a very complicated answer. We can eat almost anything nature has to offer, but deciding what we should eat stirs anxiety. Should be choose the organic apple of the conventional? If organic, local or imported? Wild fish or farmed? Low-carb or low-cal? As the American culture of fast food and unlimited choice invades the world, Pollan follows his next meal from land to table, tracing the origin of everything consumed and the implications for ourselves and our planet."
This was interesting - it is a very well-known book in the foodie literature canon. The trouble is, I'm now on my way to being quite a well-read academic in the area of food and nutrition, and it spoils the enjoyment a bit. Every now and then he pulls a statistic or factoid out of the hat, and I am brought up short because I know something, however little, about the subject. For example, the idea that fish oil makes children cleverer (either in the womb or in infancy or childhood). The data just isn't conclusive, but there's enough on each side of the argument to make it easy for an author or journalist to say "Evidence shows..." and make a case for whichever he wants. So I've read the book, and it's interesting and a good read, but now I'm going to get rid of it. If anyone wants me to post it to them, let me know! UK or overseas - Bloggy Giveaway!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Just some stuff about the last week

Thank you for your views on the damp wall - I'm tending to agree with those who think it's rising damp. The external wall doesn't appear to have a damp course, and it's where the outflow from the shower, sink and toilet are situated. It's even possible that one of the pipes is cracked. I'll try to get round to calling a builder to have a look at it.

This has been a long and busy week, including much intellectual and physical exercise. The lectures have certainly been much more challenging so far this year compared with last, and the difference between the good lecturers and the less good ones is striking. But I didn't do much work at home last week, and our first two coursework deadlines are next week, so I need to get down to it.

After being disparaging about the standard of play at the badminton club, we won our match last week! The downside was that it didn't finish until 10.30 pm, which is well after my normal bedtime. Another evening last week I actually went to bed with a high temperature, which thankfully had dropped by the morning. Last weekend I was in London for family fun, and I'm doing it again this weekend. Along with everyday chores and a couple of visitors, there isn't much time for homework.

That will have to do for now - blogging has had to slip down the priority list, and I've got to pack for my trip, and perhaps glance through my Metabolism notes. I'll take the books with me, there's always plenty of time on the train journeys to do a bit of work.

Building and trees
View of the Food Science building

Monday, 13 October 2008

Home maintenance

The house continues to need looking after. Of course it does, it's the single biggest possession we have, but I do wish it would look after itself.

When a critical event occurs, we can usually deal with it. The replacement of the kitchen roof, repairing the hall roof, and insulating the attic went pretty well. We've decorated three rooms: Mr A's office, my 'study' and the bedroom. The rest is looking very shabby indeed, inside and out. And the shower cubicle is still leaking, despite my sealant efforts. Not drastically, but enough to need more work.

The latest thing to happen is that black mould is growing on the wall of the shower room. The upper walls and ceiling of the shower room are papered rather than fully tiled or painted. Some of the paper showed signs of damp a while ago, but that was before the roof was fixed, and it didn't seem to get any worse afterwards.

View of the wall outside and inside
Mr A and I went out to look at the outside of the wall with the mould, to see if any damp was obvious there. The external wall looks pristine, so maybe it's condensation. From the outside it looks as though the wall has a ventilator opening, but there's no sign of it on the inside. Maybe it won't be a huge deal to add an extractor fan, but I want to know if that will solve the problem.

My other question is whether perhaps the damp is rising from ground level and only showing up on the wall above the tiles. Can it do that on the inside and leave the outside surface untouched?

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Social life

This blog has been a bit heavy on the university stuff for a week or two, but after such a long holiday I felt I had to put everything else on hold to focus back on studying. I'm enjoying it as much as last year, so that's good too.

Life goes on outside university, though. I wouldn't like you to think that's all I've done. I've played in a badminton match, for example. Mr A and I have been to the pub. We've watched some DVD's at home. Both of the car headlight bulbs had to be replaced, and unfortunately not at the same time.

Badminton matches with my current club are not very successful. While everyone at the club is lovely and there's none of the unpleasantness I've encountered in other clubs, it has to be admitted that the general standard is pretty low. I played a few matches for them last season, and I think my partner and I won just one game altogether (each match contains between six and nine games per pair). I doubt that this season will be any better - my partner dropped out unexpectedly shortly before the match; his replacement hadn't played at all for a few weeks and this was his second match ever. Needless to say, we hadn't played together before. A whole season of getting beaten in every game can be quite dispiriting, so I set us the target of getting 5 points in each game - and we even managed it in four out of the six games.

Street in June 2008I haven't said much about the pub recently, but it continues to be successful. There are regular music nights and quiz nights, wine tastings and other events, most of which we avoid in favour of a quiet pint. One evening a clairvoyant had set up shop in one corner, but had no customers at all in the hour or so that we were in the pub (she should have known that would happen...) Smurf continues to take care of a small range of very good beers, currently Timothy Taylor's Landlord, Wells' Bombadier, and Saddleback beer from the local Slaughterhouse brewery in Warwick. Of course there's always a bit of sport, and Smurf warned us that for the match against Kazakhstan today he will be wearing a Borat-style mankini. I sincerely hope that he won't.

Our subscription to Lovefilm provides as many DVDs as we need - and we have over 150 titles on our online waiting list - they are sent through as we return previous titles. Mr A's choices are either black and white classics or war films or both, and I encourage him to watch them when I'm out. My choices are more suitable for both of us - we've recently watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (good), Mississippi Burning (very good), The Bourne Ultimatum (good), Wait Until Dark (OK) with Audrey Hepburn playing a blind woman, and Sweeney Todd with Johnny Depp. Actually, Mr A didn't hang around for Sweeney Todd, too much singing (it's a musical). I liked it, although there was a bit too much graphic throat-cutting. We're also getting through all the episodes of M*A*S*H, right from the very first season.

And I've been to an aerobics class in Leamington, which was great fun, even if it seems to have crippled me further. To be able to use the campus gym I now need to buy silver sports membership rather than bronze, and even though the price is subsidized for students, I'm not there for half the year. If I can play badminton once or twice a week and go to an aerobics class every week, I'd much rather do that than sweat on a treadmill or static cycle.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

I'm working quite hard now

Blog posts are taking a few days more than usual to mature, because I'm actually doing quite a lot of school work already - this time last year we were just finding our feet, and it was quite an achievement to work out where to go at what time with what equipment. Obviously we're expected to know the ropes by now and there's lots to get through this term.

One of the new first year mature students grabbed me in the library yesterday. The panic in her voice was quite disturbing, and I did my best to reassure her. She was going through what most of the older students in my year endured in the first term, wondering whether they had made the right decision, would they actually be able to get through the work, was it all a big mistake? In her case, the questions were presenting themselves a little early.

One difference I've noticed this term is that there is a lot more competition for library books. Last year, the students living on campus used to disappear back to their rooms at the end of lectures, because the library was only a minute away and open until 8pm. Now most of them aren't living locally - some in Kegworth, some in Nottingham - so they have to be a bit more organised about what they will need. I get the feeling that they are taking the work a bit more seriously too. When I'm after a library book, as often as not all copies are already on loan. I still have the option to request a recall, so that the person who has currently borrowed it has a week to return it to the library. But it's not as good.

Stuff we've covered so far:
  • Nutrition, Metabolism and Disease: we've looked at how we store/burn carbs, fat and protein in normal circumstances and in starvation conditions. One interesting thing I learned was that for the first couple of days without eating the body uses protein as fuel, but then conserves protein by switching over to burning fat. The trouble is that the brain can't use fat (other organs can), and we can't convert fat to glucose, so we make ketone bodies instead. I expect that I'll understand the physiology and the pros and cons of the Atkins diet once we get a bit further into this subject.
  • Psychology, Sociology and Nutrition: much better than I was anticipating. This week we talked about the social networks that provide people with support - not directly related to food, but important when we start to think about changing eating habits and the counselling role of dietitians.
  • Biochemistry: not actually done any yet. It's the first time the module has been run in this configuration, and a bit too much time has been spent setting it up. This week all that happened was that the coursework was explained, when we'll be tested on our comprehension of a proper grown up scientific paper published in a journal. We have to go away and read it, following up references and citations, and make sure we understand it - much more difficult than you might imagine, with subjects undergoing "hyperinsulinemic euglycemic clamps for 6 hours with iv infusion of either saline or a 20% intralipid emulsion."
  • Immunology: Second load of lectures today, three full hours of rather complicated stuff about blood proteins, inflammation and haemostasis (blood clotting). Luckily it was all delivered by one of the best lecturers, unlike last week's and next week's lectures, which are delivered by one of the worst.
  • Molecular Pharming: second lecture is tomorrow. The first one was just an introduction, describing different types of genetic modification - for insect, herbicide, bacterial or virus resistance, nutritional supplementation, improved processing qualities, to remove allergens or toxins, and for salt, drought or cold tolerance. There was also a bit of discussion about whether we felt that GM technology was a good thing or not. I suspect that most of the module will focus on the details of the methods used to create transgenic plants and animals, rather than the ethics of it. But I don't know for sure.
  • Endocrinology and Metabolism: still hasn't started, although the timetable has been posted. Lectures are on Friday afternoons, sometimes starting at 2 pm, but in the worst weeks there's just an hour from 4 to 5 pm, and I have no idea why it should be like that. Perhaps we'll find out tomorrow. Talk about the worst time for me to travel 50 miles on the motorways to get home.
On the bright side, I had lunch with three friends today after the marathon Immunology lecture, and it put me in a surprisingly good mood. But it also meant I got home later than planned, and it didn't seem worth starting any difficult work, so I blogged instead. My loss is your gain.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Food Commodities or Molecular Pharming?

Portsmouth skyline with weather vane and Spinnaker Tower
I haven't taken any photos for a while, so this is another one from Portsmouth, when the weather was still showing the last vestiges of summer. It has been raining all day today so far, preventing me from working in the garden. So that's good.

I did go in for the first lecture in the GMO module on Friday, catching the bus from Sutton Bonington (SB) to the University Park (UP) campus. It was also very interesting, leaving me with a dilemma about whether to continue with this one or go with Food Commodities.

Inherently the GMO subject matter ('Molecular Pharming') is likely to be more interesting, but also likely to be harder. Food Commodities is taught at SB, the multiple choice exam is 60% of the module, and the coursework consists of two academic papers to summarise in one page each. The exam for Molecular Pharming is 50% of the total and comprises two essays out of five and the coursework requires one 2000-word critique of a research paper. Both schedules include visiting experts from the leading edge in the field - the last lecture in Molecular Pharming is from Professor Keith Campbell, who had a hand in the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep.

After much thought and a look at past exam papers and asking the views of a couple of my tutors, I'm going to go with Molecular Pharming on Friday mornings at UP. The other consequence is that I will have a late start on Tuesday, which makes playing badminton on Monday nights less of a problem. But that's not why I'm choosing it.

Interesting to note that my two particular uni friends went to the first Management Science lecture (the module I took against, that has caused me all the trouble about what to choose instead). They both hated it and are now scrabbling about trying to work out what alternative options to try.

So that's the first week over; just ten more until the Christmas break. I haven't had to sleep in the afternoon again, but I do have to go to bed earlier, ideally at about 10 o'clock. I've been sitting on my new exercise ball instead of the office chair, which has helped with the back/leg pain, but is a bit too low for writing or typing at my desk. I can't sit on the ball for much more than an hour, though, and that's OK too because it makes me get up and walk around for a minute or two.

Thursday, 2 October 2008


On Wednesday I was exhausted. Three early starts in a row with more to come, badminton on Monday night, plus the return of my bad leg (caused by a bad back) had wiped me out. So I went to bed in the afternoon and slept for two hours, and when I got up I felt like a different person. It was amazing.

The Food Commodities module started on Tuesday, and was very interesting - we covered a little bit about milk and cereals. This is one of the two optional modules I'm trying out - the alternative GMO one is Friday morning. The trouble is that the first Friday afternoon session doesn't happen until next week - I would love to have the day off, but that would mean skipping the GMO session and committing to Food Commodities. I'll see how I feel later on.

The first lecture about Psychology, Sociology and Nutrition was also interesting, although we did very little except meet the lecturer and consider the question "Why do we eat what we eat?" Then on Wednesday morning we started the next lot of Biochemistry, which looks like it will be as technical as the previous year's course, but no practicals. In fact, it looks like there will be only two practical sessions this semester, which suits me fine.

Today was the start of the Immunology module, unfortunately taught by one of the worst lecturers. He did a couple of lectures in the Biochemistry module last semester, and although I followed his train of thought in the lectures, it proved impossible to revise from my notes and his handouts. Luckily he only teaches four out of nine weeks of Immunology, of which one was today and was a very broad overview.

Having been introduced to five of the six modules for this semester, it looks as though it's going to be pretty demanding. Many students in the year above have told us it's much harder in the second year than the first, and a couple of the lecturers have said so too. I need to find a routine that gets me working during weekdays, rather than in evenings and at weekends. And I need to make sure I don't have to take a nap in the afternoons!

Monday, 29 September 2008

End of the holidays

I had a fine weekend, hacking down more of the garden on Saturday (whoever thought ivy was a good idea...) while Mr A consulted our local landscape gardener friend and then cut some large branches off the ceanothus tree. The large shrub in the border that I mentioned before turns out to be a relative of the honeysuckle and will probably survive a nuclear holocaust, so it should be possible to transplant it across the garden, but if it dies I really don't care too much. I'll do the job soon if I can find the spade - probably in the garage somewhere but sure to be horribly rusty.

Another thing that happened at the weekend was that we borrowed an old Sky satellite box from some neighbours. The previous owners of our house had left a satellite dish behind, and the man who fiddled with our equipment last week said that if we plugged a Sky box in, we'd get some extra TV and digital radio channels for free. He was right! We now have a much wider choice of channels, yet there is still nothing much that I want to see. Mr A treated himself to an episode of 'The Sweeney' while I was away yesterday, which transported him back to when he was a young man learning to drive.

On Sunday I went down to see Lola II on the spur of the moment. She was painting pottery, which she's been doing for a while now, and her work is really beautiful. We had a great lunch at a local pub, and I took a photo of myself on Lola II's phone without her knowing, when she went to the loo. After she'd finished working we went back to her flat, where she showed me her new phone, the new lampshade and blind in 'my' room, and the newly painted kitchen. Lovely!

I made her tidy up her flat and do some sewing, and eventually I relented and helped her with the sewing (tie-backs for the curtains in 'my' room). That's my role in life, as a member of the Tidy Police. And the Secret Self-Photographers, and the Chocolate Elves, who hide a single chocolate in someone's possessions for discovery later on.

Term has started now, though - when the alarm went off at 6.30 this morning it took me quite a while to work out what was going on. I was finally woken properly when someone in my dream said "That's the alarm," but on reflection, I decided it was Mr A. When I asked him just now, he said that he thought it was actually me that said it.

Today was the first lecture in the module "Nutrition, Metabolism and Disease," which will include cardiovascular disease, disorders of metabolism, effects of exercise, obesity and diabetes. There has been a timetabling change - this module was going to be on Friday morning, but has been moved to Monday instead. This is bad, because that means I have to go into school every day instead of having Monday off. On the other hand, the module about GM organisms that I wanted to attend is on Friday mornings, so I might be able to do it after all. The downside is that the GM module is taught on the main university campus, half an hour further away. I have two weeks to make up my mind, so this week I'll go to both and see how I get on.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
It just occurred to me...
by Humphrey Lyttelton

"The legendary band leader and jazz trumpeter, broadcaster and humorist looks back at his extraordinarily rich and varied life and the many colourful characters he has known and played with. During the war, he served in the Grenadier Guards and, on demobilisation, studied for two years at Camberwell Arts School. In 1949, he joined the "Daily Mail" as cartoonist, wrote the story-line for Trog's "Flook" cartoon, and also signed a recording contract with EMI. He had the first British jazz record to get into the Top Twenty in 1956 with 'Bad Penny Blues'."
Much quicker to read than weeks it took me to get through the last tome, only a couple of days for this one. Lovely. I heard that the BBC were hoping to replace him on ISIHAC - my suggestion is John Sargeant, although that was before I found out JS had lowered his standards sufficiently to take part in a popular reality TV dance programme. How the mighty have fallen.

The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan

"Richard Hannay has just returned to England after years in South Africa and is thoroughly bored with his life in London. But then a murder is committed in his flat, just days after a chance encounter with an American who had told him about an assassination plot which could have dire international consequences. An obvious suspect for the police and an easy target for the killers, Hannay goes on the run in his native Scotland where he will need all his courage and ingenuity to stay one step ahead of his pursuers."
This is actually the first book of five featuring Richard Hannay and his adventures, brought together in a Penguin 'omnibus edition'. I had no idea that it was so short, just 100 pages - I read it in just two or three sittings, but it is perfectly formed. Interesting that it was published in 1915, so presumably written about the time of the outbreak of World War One. I'm looking forward to reading the other four.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Trip down south

Our few days' holiday in the south of England already seems a long time ago. We set off at the end of play on Wednesday, and spent the night with old friends in Surrey. We decided to visit Portsmouth the next day, and started at the Naval Dockyards where HMS Victory and the Mary Rose are on show, along with a whole lot of other sea-related artifacts.

Well, I admit that naval history leaves me cold, while Mr A laps up every book ever published on the subject, so a day in the dockyards wouldn't have been my first choice. But in fact, it was wonderful. HMS Victory has been restored and laid out almost as it would have been at Trafalgar in 1805, and a dapper uniformed naval chappie conducted the tour and delivered the script very efficiently, complete with amusing jokes.

Stern of HMS Victory
One of the most interesting bits of the tour was the arrangement of lighting in the hold that contained all the gunpowder, which clearly couldn't be allowed anywhere near a candle or other naked flame, which was the only way of providing light in those days. The lanterns are in a room accessed entirely separately from the gunpowder, then there are two sets of walls containing windows between the Light Room and the Filling Room. There, the charges were filled with gunpowder from barrels, separated from one another with leather sheets to prevent any chance of them rubbing together and producing a spark. The whole of this area was lined with copper, which is resistant to rust, sparks, and rats.

There was lots more to the Victory, and I can highly recommend a visit. We also saw the Mary Rose (which is still undergoing conservation) and some of the treasures they retrieved from that site. We'd been persuaded to buy a ticket for all the Historic Dockyard attractions that is valid for a year, so we came back on Friday to see more. The package includes a harbour tour around the current moorings for Royal Navy ships, most of which made little impression on me, just a succession of grey boats. Then there was the Royal Naval Museum, and more that we simply couldn't fit into two days.

Grey ship
We booked into a B&B for a couple of nights, and after all the exertions of sightseeing for the previous two days we had a lazy morning on Saturday, went out for a walk in the New Forest, visited Mr A's parents, and had dinner with friends in Christchurch. But none of that is very interesting to hear about if you weren't there. By a stroke of luck the weather was wonderful: the last vestige of summer, because now we're home it's turned quite chilly in the evenings.

Plants in the New Forest

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

An award!

You'll see a change in my blog today - a new feature called 'Followers' in the sidebar, provided by Google. Be the first to follow my blog!! Lola II, that means you! If I don't get more than 2 followers, then it will indicate for all to see that people don't follow my blog, in which case it will be embarrassing and I'll take it down. I might take it down anyway. We'll see.

Another change you might see at some point is an award, from Brett. Thanks, Brett! Brett has pledged to post a photograph onto his blog every day for a year. I'm hoping he'll carry on after that, because his photos are always striking and sometimes amazing. Awards fly around the blogosphere like confetti, and until I received one I wasn't sure whether I wanted one, but it feels good. So I might display it, or I might not. I'm definitely feeling equivocal today. Or am I?

We had a nice holiday last week, for a few days in Surrey, Hampshire and Dorset with friends. I might write some more about it, but then again, maybe I won't. That will depend on having time available, although I ought to have enough time because the new semester doesn't start until next week - I thought we would start lectures at the end of this week, but apparently not. I've chosen Food Commodities as my optional module, by the way. It doesn't look very thrilling, but the other options were worse.

Today, along with the long list of fairly trivial jobs I must do (like tying the head of Dennis the Menace back onto the pull cord in the downstairs loo and replacing the car headlight), we have a Man In. Derek is sitting cross-legged on the rug by the TV fiddling with cables and computers and stuff. This is because we have been selected at random to be one of those people who contribute to TV audience figures.

A long time ago a leaflet came through the door saying that if we wanted, we could join the UK's BARB Television Panel; BARB being the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board. I thought that might be interesting, so we agreed to a short interview with a nice lady who explained what was involved. There's a gadget they hook up to the TV, and an extra remote control with a load of buttons to indicate who's watching the box at any particular time. And as a small reward for our efforts on behalf of BARB there are points to be acquired, and we all know that Points Mean Prizes. Luckily, points aren't awarded on the strength of time spent watching TV, because BARB are going to get very little data of that sort from our particular household.

Monday, 22 September 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
by Neal Stephenson

"Cryptonomicon moves conspiratorially back and forth between two time periods - World War II and the present. Our 1940s characters are mathematician and cryptanalyst Lawrence Waterhouse, and US marine Bobby Shaftoe. They're part of Detachment 2702, an Allied group trying to break Axis communication codes while simultaneously preventing the enemy from figuring out that their codes have been broken. In the present-day, their grandchildren team up to help create an offshore data haven in Southeast Asia and maybe uncover some gold once destined for Nazi coffers."
This was recommended by a fellow blogger (Thanks, Aims!) It has been quite an effort to read - very thick, small print, and lots of detail, so it's taken an age to get through, but worth it in the end. I'd need to read it again to get the full story straight, but I don't think that's going to happen. The WWII sections are more interesting than the modern day plot about information and communication in the 21st century, although the theme through both periods is the need for cryptography to ensure that messages are secure and accurate. There's even a little factual appendix about how to create an unbreakable cipher.

Image of the book cover
Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

Narrated by Shelley Thompson
"In 1843, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks was tried for the murder of her employer and his mistress. The sensationalistic trial made headlines throughout the world, and the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and Marks spent the next 30 years in an assortment of jails and asylums, where she was often exhibited as a star attraction. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood reconstructs Marks's story in fictional form."
This started slowly, but has become more gripping as the story progresses. It's slightly spoiled by the audio editing - gaps between sections are not long enough, so it's hard to tell the difference between a quotation at the head of a chapter and the text of the chapter itself. I don't think I've read Margaret Atwood before, but I'll try some more on the basis of this one. I've got 'The Handmaid's Tale' in my enormous pile of books that are waiting to be read.

Monday, 15 September 2008

In the garden

We had a pleasant Sunday at Lola Towers, in the manner traditional of country gentlefolk through the ages: Mr A mowed the lawn and I launched a frenzied attack on the shrubs.

I remember when we first moved in to the Towers; it was the first garden I'd been wholly responsible for, and luckily a manageable size. I thought the plants had grown quite a lot by the first autumn and needed some careful pruning, but I was aware of my previous experience indoors, where plants keel over and die if you don't tend them with the love usually reserved for newborn offspring. So I pruned gently, trying not to give these outdoor cousins any excuse for telling me later that they didn't have enough greenery to photosynthesise.

Obviously, the next year we could hardly see out of the windows for overgrown shrubbery. Ever since then, I have attacked the garden every autumn with barely suppressed mania.Yesterday I filled three bags with just the ivy that has grown since last year when I cut everything green off the plant in the hope it would die. It's been growing for ten years in a very small pot - it has to run out of nutrients eventually, doesn't it?

After the ivy came two of the plants at the garage end of the garden: forsythia and choisya. I'm attempting the strategy of sawing off a third of these each year in the hope that the remaining stumps will offer flowers in profusion on a small bush rather than encroaching ten feet into the lawn. In searching the web for the proper names for these plants, I discover that I should have pruned them after flowering in May, but it is possible to chop them both down to stumps.

Mr A kindly assisted with stuffing all the prunings into bags, which I'll take off to the dump today. We have tried many ways of disposing of the garden cuttings, but taking rubble sacks to the dump is the only practical answer. When I tried burning clippings, all the neighbours telephoned to make sure the house wasn't on fire. We haven't got enough space to compost all the unwanted garden greenery along with lawn clippings and excess kitchen waste.

That was only the first day of the garden campaign: there's much more to do. Ceanothus, berberis, clematis, the other choisya (which is flowering again), bay, more ivy, and aucuba. It will take quite some time, and we're hoping to go away at the end of this week, and then the new term starts. Oh well.

Unwanted shrub in borderI do have one query - there's a large shrub right in the front of the border that I don't want there any more. I also have two mint plants doing quite well in pots (as long as I remember to water them). I wouldn't mind digging the shrub out and putting the mint there instead - is this a good time of year to do it? I'm quite aware of the tendency of mint to take over, but it would have quite a lot of opposition from the other plants there - you can see the rosemary and the sage peeking around the unwanted shrub. To tell the truth, we wouldn't mind if the mint did spread wildly, because we love it. Would the displaced shrub survive if I planted it in the shade where I've cut the choisya and forsythia right back?