Sunday, 27 April 2008

Digestion: the facts

This is the same part of the course as the heart and lungs I've written about before, and seems particularly suited to laying out in bullet points. It's also extremely interesting, finding out about bits of my body that I hadn't really thought about before. I have moved on to the subject of digestion, which has thrown up many nuggets of fascinating information for use in pub conversations.
  • The technical term for swallowing is 'deglutition.' Swallowing is the most complex reflex in the body, employs about 25 separate muscles, and once initiated it cannot be stopped.
  • The three pairs of salivary glands in the mouth produce saliva of different viscosities. One of the many functions of saliva is to dissolve food so we can taste it.
  • You can start or stop chewing voluntarily but it's mostly automatic, a bit like breathing, which must be why it's almost impossible not to chew sweets or gum when they are in your mouth.
  • The oesophagus doesn't do very much except peristalsis and secreting mucus, but presumably causes much dispute between American and English spelling pedants. Same goes for faeces, caecum and diarrhoea in the digestion department.
  • The commonly asked question "Why doesn't the stomach digest itself?" is easily answered when you look at the detail. A protective layer of alkaline mucus is secreted to line the stomach wall, and the digestive enzyme pepsin only works in strong acid. Pepsin is secreted in an inactive form as pepsinogen, and only becomes a protein digester when it meets the strong acid environment of the stomach. The same sort of thing happens in the intestine, with trypsinogen converting to protein-digesting trypsin only in the presence of enzyme enterokinase.
  • Stomach and intestinal secretions are stimulated by lots of things: sight, smell, taste of food, the action of chewing and swallowing, the distension of the stomach, the presence of protein and fat in the small intestine. The autonomic nervous system, a load of neurotransmitters and a bunch of hormones all get involved.
  • The liver produces bile the whole time, but when the Sphincter of Oddi at the bottom of the bile duct is closed it can't flow out into the intestine, so it backs up and is stored in the gall bladder. If that has been removed, the bile just backs up into the liver. Not a problem, because bile doesn't contain any digestive enzymes.
  • The cells lining the small intestine are sloughed off and replaced every three days or so. We even digest and reabsorb anything that's useful from these dead cells.
  • There's loads of spare absorption capacity in the small intestine, so you can cope when up to half of it has been removed, except for one section at the end which is the only place where bile salts and vitamin B12 are absorbed.
  • Most of the time, your large intestine is absorbing water without moving the contents along ('haustral contractions'), but after a meal it carries out a 'mass movement' and shoves the contents a long way forward. This is why some of us always feel the need for a Number Two after breakfast.
  • The stomach is passive during vomiting - it is simply squeezed between the muscles of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.
I'm not getting on fast enough with revision, and find it pretty hard to focus at the moment. Just one more week of teaching left, and then a week when I hope I'll be scared enough to knuckle down properly.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Toothache, coursework, and the pub (again)

I know, I shouldn't be here, but I'm finding it difficult to work because I've got toothache. I'm dosed up to the eyeballs with painkillers and it doesn't hurt much except when I chew, so it should help the calorie reduction plan too. On the plus side I was very pleased to find that my shoulder is feeling much better, until Mr A pointed out that the painkillers might have something to do with that.

The week has dragged by - after ten weeks I seem to get tired of stuffing new things into my head and the last two weeks of a semester are a bit difficult. I have handed in the last lot of coursework, and sent a letter of complaint about the standard of lectures delivered by one of the lecturers. I can now bring you the Norovirus leaflet, which I am quite pleased with.

Norovirus leaflet
So if you ever get sick on a cruise ship, that's what you do.

Other highlights this week have been rather too many trips to the pub. We didn't mean to go yesterday, but when we were putting the recycling out (don't get me started on that subject) we noticed that H and C across the road had a huge pile of bricks in their front garden, and there were assorted building noises coming out of their house. They invited us in to inspect the works: they are doing some drastic remodelling, and seem to have taken all the downstairs walls out. Our house matches theirs in external design and decoration, and they hadn't had a look round our house yet, so we invited them over for a viewing, and then it was an easy step to agree on a swift drink.

I finally made Smurf check out all that I've been writing about the Cricketers, including his picture. He wasn't too impressed with the picture, so I agreed to create a new version. One thing led to another, and Mr A and I ended up on a backstage tour, including a viewing of the new equipment in the pub kitchen and the beer cellar, and some of the pictures and memorabilia that will be on display, from a father and son who played cricket for Warwickshire and England (can't remember their name but I think it may be Smith). The main bar has had a coat of paint on the walls and looks much better, there are plans for blinds instead of curtains and the bar itself is going to be sanded down and re-varnished. We're back to four pumps for the real ale, and they are really good, including Saddleback from the local Slaughterhouse brewery, Timothy Taylor's Landlord, and Charles Wells' Bombardier.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Revision time again

All last week's posts were about the holiday the week before, but I don't have much to write about last week. It's revision time again, so the time I spend not doing revision is scary time when I feel guilty, and worry that I will be sitting in the exam hall, unable to do myself justice, because I haven't spent enough time revising.

So all last week I felt guilty because I wasn't doing any revision, even though I was finishing up three lots of coursework that needed handing in. Luckily, I got started at the weekend so I feel a bit better now, with the completion of biochemical paths in respiration and a number of different food poisoning facts. But this good behaviour must continue, and that is bound to result in a reduction in blog strength and frequency.

There really is a lot to learn, and I have six exams, one of which supplies 100% of the mark for that module. I have two more weeks of lectures (new material! help!) then one week clear before the exams begin on 12 May, and my first exam is 9 a.m. on that day. It all ends on May 29, so I need to be a little quiet between now and then.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
by Jon McGregor

"On a street in a town in the North of England, perfectly ordinary people are doing totally normal things - children play cricket, window-frames are painted, a couple argues, students pack up their belongings, and nameless people pass each other like every other day, interweaving yet never connecting."
This was recommended by fellow blogger travelling, but not in love, so I mooched it for free from Bookmooch (how I love that website). The book is a very poetic experience; the style is unusual, and I'm not sure I liked it, but I think I did. I have to admit that I prefer more Plot and less Style.

Image of the book cover
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
by Marina Lewycka

"'Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six.' Sisters Vera and Nadezhda must put aside a lifetime of feuding to save their emigré engineer father from voluptuous gold-digger Valentina. With her proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, she will stop at nothing in her pursuit of Western wealth."
I'd actually given this to Mr A for Christmas, based solely on good reviews I'd heard and the title mentioning motor-driven transport. He read it and finished it, which was a good sign, but it wasn't what I expected. It was mostly depressing, full of horrible people tormenting one another, and the fact that it ended well didn't make up for how nasty it had been before.

Image of the book cover
Notes from an Exhibition
by Patrick Gale

"When troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies raving in her attic studio in Penzance, her saintly husband and adult children have more than the usual mess to clear up. She leaves behind her paintings of genius - but she leaves also a legacy of secrets and emotional damage it will take months to unravel."
I've read a few of Patrick Gale's books and enjoyed them all, and this was no exception. I'm no artist, nor even an admirer of art, but I found myself not only visualising the abstract paintings described, but even wishing I could see them for real. And here endeth the Christmas presents, and also the lightweight holiday reading.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Snowboard holiday part 2

Snow scene: trees and a stream
Have I mentioned how much things cost in Meribel? We had been counting on Italian prices, but these were very French, and the strong Euro didn't help. Snowboard lessons cost an arm and a leg, which may explain why we fell over so much. Lunch on the first day was a bowl of pasta - a very nice bowl of pasta, but it still cost more than 15 euros. We had packed lunches after that.

The holiday wasn't exclusively made of hindsight and "if only..." On Wednesday night, Tim had enticed us into buying tickets to see Rich Hall, by letting us have them at a reduced rate. The hall wasn't large and it wasn't full, and I'm sure Rich Hall is used to playing to much larger rooms, but he did a great job and it was a wonderful show. It was very strange to be at a comedy gig in a ski resort, though.

My favourite comedian, Marcus Brigstocke, is heavily involved in the organisation of the Altitude Festival, and Tim even offered to introduce me to him, but he wasn't appearing until the following week. Doh. I kept an eye out for Marcus on the slopes, and wondered what were the chances of accidentally sitting next to him on the ski lift, but it didn't happen. As I returned from the toilet after a lunch stop on Thursday, Mr A told me that while I was gone, Rich Hall had just emerged from the ski lift, and Lee Mack was still there. I'd have said hello to Rich Hall, but we didn't see Lee Mack's gig so we left him undisturbed to ski away.

On the last day, we woke up to torrential rain, which cleared briefly after breakfast, so we hauled ourselves out. Mr A was feeling very poorly. His whole lower lip had erupted into one huge cold sore, which is usually a symptom of his system fighting off some other bug or generally being worn out. Before we even reached the bus stop, Mr A decided it was too much for him, and threw in the towel. I didn't feel confident enough to be boarding on my own, so I thought I'd exchange my board for skis for the last day. It started to rain again, heavily, and by the time I'd reached the hire shop I'd lost the urge to ski alone, in the rain, so I decided to return the gear and go back to the chalet.

It turned out that at the start of the week we hadn't been directed to the desk where hired goods were supposed to be registered, so returning the board and boots was more complicated that it could have been. This appeared to be my fault, according to the very disgruntled clerk, who muttered something about 'no insurance', while I inwardly relished their annoyance at not extracting yet more money from us. It carried on raining, hard, all day, while Mr A slept on the sofa and I did some homework - vitamins A, C, D, E and K and some minerals too.

So it has been an interesting and mostly enjoyable experience. Crystal has been totally incompetent throughout. Meribel is a custom-built ski village, catering solely to the influx of winter visitors, and is functional, fairly efficient and soulless. And very very expensive. On the positive side, Tim and Hugo turned out well, and we were lucky enough to be sharing the chalet with very congenial people. Spending a day off the slopes would have been awkward in a hotel, but is fine when we can make our own tea and coffee and sit on the sofa looking out of the window revising.

The main mistake we made was that we should have had some snowboarding lessons before we went out, just to get the basics and some balance. We did that before our first ski holiday, so I have no idea why it didn't occur to us this time. As it was, we were a) completely exhausted after about three hours of boarding, and b) limited to pretty much one nursery slope for the whole week. And the resort is HUGE - we took a gondola up to the top a couple of times, so we saw all the lovely slopes that we were much too incompetent to slide down. Perhaps next year...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Snowboard holiday part 1

Our chalet nestled on the snowy slopes
We made a number of mistakes on this holiday, and with hindsight we would have done it very differently if we were to do it again. Despite this, it was a pretty good holiday!

First of all, we booked late, and there turned out to be a very limited choice of packages. We chose a chalet in the French resort of Meribel. We had to fly from Manchester, but that wasn't too bad because we stayed with Mags and Lisa the night before; they treated us to a curry, and even gave us a lift to the airport. With hindsight again, curry was a poor choice for the night before a flight and a coach transfer and a small chalet where we would be meeting new people.

The tour company, Crystal, did not impress us with any aspect of their organisation: the lack of any information whatsoever about the resort and its facilities, the late delivery of lift passes so we nearly missed the start of our first snowboard lesson, the total absence of any rep after the initial meeting, which didn't even take place until after the first day on the slopes. The contact phone numbers in the chalet were wrong, the chalet 'host' Tim had only started working for them that morning, the chalet hadn't been cleaned properly, and we'd clearly been spoiled by our experience in Finland, where the chalet had been spacious and immaculate. This was more like a youth hostel, with just one shelf to store our belongings, one small towel each, and no bathmat.

It didn't get much better in the hire shop. We handed over our board and boot rental slips.

"Boarding?" queried Monsieur Le Rental, suspiciously.

"Oui," we replied.

"Boarding?" he asked again, a little aggressively this time.


He gave a large Gallic shrug and sat us down for our boot fitting, throwing a mystified look at his grinning colleague. "What are these two fools doing?" was the obvious message passing between them. "They are far too old to look cool on snowboards."

We got our boards and boots anyway, and decided to stop for a coffee and a snack. In the creperie next door, we were accosted by a man who worked in the hire shop we'd just left.

"Why are you boarding?" he said. "You were in the shop, you are boarding, yes? Why are you?"

Mr A dutifully raised his trouser leg and displayed his Z-shaped shins (heritage of a major motorcycle accident when he was in his 20's), indicating the difficulty with rigid ski boots. The man turned away without smiling, and went back to his coffee. It seems that in fashionable Meribel, there are those for whom snowboarding is acceptable, and those who must be challenged on their preferred method of downhill conveyance.

Later the first evening, we met the other chalet guests. It was a good crowd, which was very lucky indeed. There were twelve of us, including three older couples and a lovely group of six 'youngsters' in their early twenties.

Tim produced fine food throughout, and it got even better when he was assisted by a second more efficient chalet slave, Hugo. Hugo is in his gap year, and is going to Columbia next, before studying Economics at Newcastle University, working for about ten years, setting up a hedge fund and spending the rest of his life at leisure. Such focus. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes it happen, though, he was much better than Tim at cooking and cleaning and generally being organised. Tim's real life ambition is to be a stand-up comedian, and alongside working in the chalet he was also helping to organise the Altitude Festival, a two-week comedy and music event in French and English.

Andy snowboardingOur first two-hour snowboarding lesson was on Sunday. Natalie told us to expect to be exhausted, and not to do anything else before the next lesson. Having spent about a million pounds to get there, of course we disobeyed, and had another go at the basics she had taught us. She was right, we were wrong, we were completely shattered before the end of the second lesson. So we did as we were told for the third day, and it went a lot better - we could do turns two times out of three on a barely perceptible slope. This is all we needed to get out there onto the proper nursery slopes, where gradients are much more significant.

Arriving at the top of our first independent run without a safety net, one of Mr A's bindings snapped.

The first ski trip we went on, Mr A packed some gaffer tape. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think it was an accident, although how you can pack gaffer tape by accident is beyond me. It turned out to be invaluable - we discovered the ski boot-shin interaction, and Mr A cushioned the area by gaffer taping socks over his shins. We've deliberately packed gaffer tape each year since then, and it's always come in handy, for mending gloves, padding body parts, and mending bindings. So a repair to the binding was swiftly effected.

Boarding in the wild is a different affair from on a lovely safe imperceptible slope with your teacher. I fell over a lot, and it hurt, although the home-made bum protection I'd fashioned from my bike armour worked a treat, and I added two kneepads made out of socks, gaffer taped over my knees. Never go on holiday without a roll of gaffer tape. We improved, and on the last run we both managed to slide away from the top of a chairlift without falling over. Success.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

We're back!

A week away from the computer - that hasn't happened for a long time. But here we are, back from our snowboarding holiday, and very nearly undamaged. Mr A has the worst crop of cold sores I've ever seen in my life, and I have a bruise that runs from wrist to elbow up the inside of my arm. The odd thing is that I didn't hit anything, just pulled the muscle underneath, and I've never had any kind of bruise from a pulled muscle before.

There's lots to write about from a week away, but I only have half a day before school starts again, and a large rucksack full of dirty clothes and no food in the house. There was time for lots of reading, so I'll put a bit of that in. From now on I'm going to write about books after I've finished them, or at least when I'm part way through, so that I can vent my spleen at the same time.

That last Henry James audio book had far too many words in it. I can't bear to think about the number of times that something or someone was described as "exquisite" or "too beautiful". Hardly anything happened, and I didn't even care about the things that did happen. Not a successful audio choice - I kept drifting off, and then realising that I hadn't a clue who 'he' or 'she' was, even if they were "too, too beautiful, you know".

Image of the book cover
The House at Riverton
by Kate Morton

"Summer 1924: On the eve of a glittering Society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again. Winter 1999: Grace Bradley, 98, one-time housemaid of Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet's suicide. Ghosts awaken, and memories, long consigned to the dark reaches of Grace's mind, begin to sneak back through the cracks."
Another of my never-ending selection of Christmas presents (only one more after this). It was actually very good, well written, and gripping towards the end, when you find out what really happened. Recommended.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Short trip to London

I went by train on a super-cheap deal for off-peak travellers, and the first surprise was that they've remodelled the ticket office in Leamington Spa station.

When I was commuting to Birmingham for four years or so I become a complete train bore. I knew the timetable and where to get on the train for the best/quietest seats and which train to catch if there were delays and who was the more efficient person of the two behind the window selling tickets, and I even got to know fellow commuters enough to nod and say hello. I like travelling by train, but I can't do it any more - I'd have to set out the night before to arrive in time for a morning lecture.

The ticket office is all changed now, with a nice new tiled floor and more space, and they've installed ticket barrier machines so nobody can travel without a ticket, which must make them richer by a considerable amount because it was pretty easy to travel without a ticket before. There are about ten members of staff milling about, helping us provincial yokels deal with the idea of putting a bit of card through a machine to open a barrier, but there is only one person actually selling tickets. So of course someone at the front of the queue is taking ages buying something complicated so everyone in the line starts getting twitchy about missing their train, and we make faces at each other without actually saying anything, like English people do. But I got my ticket in the end, and didn't miss the train, and that's the end of the 'buying a train ticket' story.

Out and about in the Big Smoke then, mixing and mingling with all those millions of people who make London such a crowded and unfriendly city. There is fun to be had too, especially when limiting underground travel and using buses and pavements to get around.

I went to see what is in the British Library, including original manuscripts written by old kings and queens, poets, musicians and playwrights dating back 1000 years. Pretty impressive. I had lunch with Lola II in Camden, although we failed to find a Japanese restaurant that was open and had to settle for Thai. I watched the film 'Juno' in the afternoon, which was a great treat, but makes me slightly guilty that I'm not doing something more cultural and making use of all that London has to offer.

Then I dropped by to see a couple of people where I used to work, and caught up with a bit of the gossip - not a lot has changed since I was gainfully employed. Their enthusiasm and passion is infectious though, and I ended up joining in the discussion about how to change the world for the better, almost forgetting that I'm not in a position to do it any more. I'm still very glad I left, because the world on the whole is quite resistant to being changed by the likes of us, and the bruises on their foreheads from the brick walls are quite evident. My forehead has been healing for nearly a year now, and my enthusiasm and passion for a new career are building nicely.

At the end of this busy day I joined Lola II and my parents at the British Museum, where we had tickets to see the exhibition about the Terracotta Army brought over from China. It was packed with people despite the limited sale of timed tickets, so it was a bit of an ordeal to get a proper view of the exhibits.

At some point after the date that the figures were made and buried, their existence was utterly forgotten, although the mound was known to contain the tomb of the first Emperor of China, who died in 210 BC. Everything else remained undiscovered until the first figure was accidentally unearthed in 1974 by a farmer.

One of the excavated pits containing terracotta warriers and horsesThe tomb itself has still not been excavated, so nothing is known of what is there except poems and writings from the period. They suggest that there is a representation of the world within it, including a palace complex, stars in the skies above (perhaps jewels embedded in the ceiling) and rivers of mercury to represent the Yellow and Yangtze rivers.

All this luxury was staffed by terracotta models of musicians, entertainers, grooms and administrators, and protected by the warriers: generals and other officers, archers armed with crossbows, infantrymen, cavaliers and charioteers together with their horses and chariots. The picture belongs to the British Museum/Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau.

The immensity and scale of an army of 7000 terracotta figures was difficult to convey with the few that were on display plus the other artefacts like stone armour and bronze bells, but they made a good effort and we all enjoyed it.

Now I'm off to sort out all I'm going to need for the next week's holiday, including stuffing body armour out of my bike jacket down some type of underwear to see if it will protect me from boarding-based injury to the bottom. Wish me luck!