Thursday, 29 May 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain

"When Connecticut mechanic and foreman Hank Morgan is knocked unconscious, he wakes not to the familiar scenes of nineteenth-century America but to the bewildering sights and sounds of sixth-century Camelot. Although confused at first and quickly imprisoned, he soon realises that his knowledge of the future can transform his fate. But the Connecticut Yankee wishes for more than simply a place at the Round Table. Soon, he begins a far greater struggle: to bring American democratic ideals to Old England."
Hank never gives up his wonderful way of talking to the 6th century English using his 19th century vernacular: "Do they knock off at noon?" "Where do they hang out?" despite being met by baffled incomprehension. He likens their speech to a version of English that is closer to German: "Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."

I've really enjoyed this, until quite near the end when it starts to get a bit violent. I first read it when I was much younger, and didn't understand half the jokes. I'm fairly sure my limited knowledge of Mark Twain's America means I've missed a few this time too.

Image of the book cover

Eats, Shoots and Leaves
by Lynne Truss

"When social histories come to be written of the first decade of the 21st century, people will note a turning point in 2003 when declining standards of punctuation were reversed. Linguists will record Lynne Truss as the saviour of the semi-colon and the avenging angel of the apostrophe."
I got this out of the library to read the first time because it was causing so much media fuss - I didn't want to follow the crowd and buy it. [Pity I didn't follow the same principle with the Da Vinci Code; now I'm left with a copy I don't want and nobody is going to take off me.] It was brilliant, so now I've mooched it from Bookmooch (I can't publicise that site enough!).

What I didn't know, because the library book didn't have it, is that the paperback comes with a Punctuation Repair Kit - stickers with punctuation printed on it plus some stickers to obliterate punctuation in the wrong place. I love it!

Another reason I wanted to read the book again was this blog. It's been a long time since school, and I used to know the rules for punctuation, but then I found myself using quote marks and brackets and I didn't know whether to put the punctuation inside or outside when I finish a sentence (like this). (Or this?) And where does the punctuation go with quotes? I'm going to have to get used to the answer, which includes 'double' punctuation, which looks very odd to me. There's an example at the end of the last paragraph but one.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Team Next Door

Now, I wouldn't like everyone to think that we spend all our spare time in the pub. Oh no, sometimes we sit on the sofa and read books or watch a DVD, very occasionally we turn the TV on and wince through all four channels (yes, we have only four!!) and then turn it off again until the news comes on.

But twice this bank holiday weekend we have found ourselves in the pub. It's a wonderfully congenial place, there are always people to chat to, and Smurf and his business partner Mark will always be ready with a joke or some gossip.

On Friday I particularly wanted to see if our neighbours R and S could spare the time to come with us, because a "For Sale" board had appeared on their house, and I was wondering where they were thinking of moving to. It turns out that a house three doors away has come up for sale, so they weren't thinking of moving very far! The market at the moment is terrible, so there are a million ways it could NOT happen, and only one precarious route to success for them.

We also got chatting to another local chap, whom we knew only as much as saying hello while he was painting the exterior of another house down the road. Our house is in need of external painting (and a whole lot of other maintenance) so I wondered if that was his full time job. I have his card, and will get in touch after the exams...

I came home suffused with a rosy glow, not just from the beer but from the act of social intercourse. Chatting to the people who live around you and getting to know them better produces that sense of community that politicians talk about as if it will stop all crime and produce world peace. In reality I know that if I need a favour, there are quite a few people I could ask, and I'd take any opportunity to help them out.

Last night we returned to the pub because they were putting on a quiz. With only two of us making up our team, we knew we didn't have a chance - there are huge gaps in our general knowledge concerning all forms of sport, music since 1990, and anything on the TV that isn't in the ten o'clock news. We know the names of all the BBC weather forecasters but not a single band that's in the charts.

Well, our fortunes were mixed. 'Team Next Door' scored zero out of ten in the music round, and would have been similarly stuffed in the sports and leisure round without a bit of illicit help from Mark - apparently, the first match that was settled on penalties in the 1984 European cup was Liverpool against Roma. But we also got lucky. One of the rounds was putting names against pictures of classical and modern authors, another was all about science, and the last round was a bonus one where you gained an extra five points if you got eight questions right and none wrong. We came first, and won forty quid!

So that was very nice, but I usually play badminton on a Monday so we may not be able to return in a fortnight and defend our title. And today it's back to the world of revision: Biochemistry, and the biosynthesis of lipids and nucleic acids.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Search terms

After the fifth exam yesterday (which went particularly well), I decided I'd treat myself to a day off. So today I'm free, and guess what, after a week of blue skies and sunshine, today is grey and rainy. I'm going outside later anyway, to see what the world looks like after three weeks of imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Statcounter has at last come up with some search terms that have taken people to pages of my blog. Not that they will have found the answers there, but it is a stunning collection of the stuff that is typed into search engines - I do wonder what some of them were actually looking for. Here's just a selection of the ones I like the best.

Quite a few about food poisoning, especially rice. Well, I did go on about it, I suppose.
  • day old rice poisoning
  • blogging my food poisoning
  • rice botulism
  • safe to eat reheated rice
  • picture and label of a norovirus
  • norovirus blog 2008 uk vomit smell bad
  • food poisoning reheated rice
Some random ones: I can see why these were drawn to my blog.
  • can i commute to birmingham from leamington?
  • meribel hedge fund
  • wind knocked out of you expiratory reserve volume
  • interesting facts about the large intestine during digestion
  • rag week jokes
  • dead cells dropped off and collect in top of leg
  • life of toothache
I particularly like these ones that include 'Lola' in the search. It's always nice to have a name that makes you smile, but when it gets typed into a search engine, well, I have to wonder what it is that is being searched for. Especially the last one.
  • lola diving heater
  • birmingham lola's bar music
  • lola snowboard
  • lola love before surgery

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Status report

State of health - in recovery. Still coughing, and there is some limited nose-blowing activity. Today I seem to have done something minor to my back, which is twingeing, but I'm hoping that it's just because I'm sitting down all day at the moment.

State of house - filthy. Even revision is better than cleaning.

Wisteria and garden furnitureState of garden - glorious. The wisteria and ceanothus are in full bloom, along with some cornflowers I'd forgotten I planted last year, so we have a very purple theme. By the time I'm able to get out there, it will all have faded, but the trailing rose is absolutely covered with buds, and looks like it will put on an unbelievable show for us. If it waits until June, I'll even be able to enjoy it!

State of brain - fully immersed in revision, virtually no other topics of light conversation.

Four of the exams are over now, with two to go. The first one was Physiology: all the heart, lungs, digestion and kidney stuff. Unusually, there was no coursework associated with this module, which was assessed in its entirety on the results of 55 multiple choice questions. This suits me fine, I'm good at exams, but others of the group are rather worried about their performance.

The second exam was for the Data Transfer, Analysis and Presentation module, which includes the use of Access and Excel to collect and analyse data, different statistical tests, and Powerpoint graphical stuff for the presentation of results. 60% of this module was assessed via the easiest coursework in the whole world, so I'd already got those marks before even sitting down for the exam, which was unbelievably easy. Although one of my friends said she hadn't got through all the questions.

Yesterday was Food and Catering, and I don't think I covered myself with glory in that one. I timed things quite badly and by the end my handwriting had turned to scribble just to get some of the stuff written down. I hope they can read it. There's a cash prize for the best mark for this module, and although my coursework was OK, I don't think I'm in the running for first place.

Today was another multiple choice exam, on Food Safety, which was the Wednesday morning ordeal listening to a catalogue of all the things that can kill you. Usually I will head home straight after an exam, I don't enjoy the post-mortem that always happens, but this time I stayed for a cup of tea with some of the others. Given that none of us actually knows who's correct, it was interesting to hear some of the reasoning behind our random choices!

The next exam is Nutrition on Thursday afternoon, and then a whole week before the last one, Biochemistry. Neither of those is multiple choice, and Biochemistry is going to be a real doozy. I'll be ready for it, though.

Ceanothus close up

Friday, 16 May 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
by Kate Mosse

narrated by Maggie Mash
"July 1209: In Carcassonne, a sixteen-year-old girl is given a mysterious book by her father which he claims contains the secret of the true Grail. July 2005: Alice Tanner stumbles upon two skeletons during an archaeological dig in the mountains outside Carcassonne. Too late, Alice realises she's set in motion a terrifying sequence of events that she cannot control."
A modern book recorded in digital format for a change, so I don't get the 'transferred to MP3 from cassette' sound quality. And it's quite good, really. Not a classic by any means, but I did want to know what happened at the end, and it wasn't too much of a letdown. I doubt that I'll listen to it again, though.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Bletchley Park

Our visit to Bletchley Park on Sunday was really good, despite my poor state of health. I had booked and paid for it six months ago, long before the exam timetable was confirmed, so it was rather disappointing to find that my first exam was scheduled for 9 a.m. the next day. Having decided that we would go, it would be OK and "if I haven't learned it by then it will be too late", we went, it wasn't, I hadn't, and I felt like living death.

Unusually for May, it was a really hot day. The schedule started with an hour's lecture, then there was lunch, a tour, and another lecture. Run by the Cambridge University Alumni Association, the lectures were delivered by eminent and knowledgeable people, and the intellectual level was pitched pretty high - this was not tabloid stuff. The rooms where we sat were hot and full to the brim, but it was utterly fascinating.

The first lecture we heard was a fairly lighthearted affair, though. There can't be anyone more qualified to talk about the work of Bletchley Park and MI5 than Professor Christopher Andrew, but he was having fun with an audience comprising Cambridge alumni by making pointed gags at the expense of Oxford, which provided spies only to one side in the war, rather than Cambridge's more even-handed supply to both sides.

Professor Andrew has mixed with the highest and mightiest, including Prime Ministers and Russian defectors, and holds a number of very lofty posts himself. But he celebrated eccentricity, citing the downfall of City finance organisations as evidence that recruiting team players leads to mediocrity and the suppression rather than the expression of excellence.

The tour wasn't very long and it is a huge site, so we actually saw very little. We were taken to see the Colossus machine, which has been rebuilt over the course of a decade. This is a considerable achievement since all hardware, plans, blueprints and circuit diagrams were ordered to be destroyed when the extant machines were decommissioned. The reconstruction team worked from a few illegally retained diagrams and six black and white photos.

Valves, lights, buttons, electric circuits and Tony SaleColossus wasn't involved in breaking the famous 'Enigma' codes, but instead it dealt with 'Lorenz' codes, which were used between Hitler and the German High Command. The ability to break the codes hinged on just one mistake, a chance in a million, when the same message was sent (and intercepted) twice using the same key settings. Without this, there would have been little chance of breaking the code.

You may recall that I was trying to read a book about the work of Bletchley Park some time ago, but it was much too dry to finish. One of the things I did pick up from the book was that many WRNS were recruited to do the donkey work, and spent days, weeks, months and years doing the most tedious chores without being able to tell anyone how vital it was to the Intelligence services. In the reconstructed telegraph intercept station I saw what this involved: the intercepted messages were output in ink onto long ribbons, and the WRNS had to convert these to punched tape. The ink trace was hardly a centimetre wide; it would have been mind-numbing work if that was all you did for eight hours a day , and they were allowed no more than 6 mistakes per 1000 characters.

The second lecture was brilliant too. Frank Carter works for the Bletchley Park Trust, and he actually described some of the theory thought up by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman that was used to decode German messages encrypted using the Enigma machine. He had a dummy box for demonstration purpose, with a keyboard for input and a row of 26 LEDs for output.

By concentrating hard, Mr A and I were both with him as he went through the theory of taking a 'crib', which was a first guess at the meaning of a line or two of text, and turning it into a 'map' showing how the Enigma machine might be encoding it. At this point, the decryption process would show that the guess was correct only by pressing the right letter out of 26 on the keyboard to complete the circuit and lighting one lamp - no other keypresses were useful.

Turing's genius was to focus on 'wrong' circuits rather than the right one, so that 25 out of 26 keypresses provided a good deal of evidence towards which was the 1 out of 26 that was correct. We were nearly lost at the last corner, when we heard how Welchman came up with the 'diagonal board' which made the answer almost definitive with any single keypress. Using this theory, decryption machines called 'Bombes' were designed that ran through the war, and they've reconstructed one of these as well. By the time we'd been to see this in operation, I wasn't fit for any more, and we went home. I'd love to go back, perhaps over the summer. It's only just over an hour's drive away.

So how was the exam? I'd been sleeping really badly because of the heat and having a blocked nose and sinus pain and coughing and the rest, so when I woke up at 5 a.m. on Monday I thought I might as well drive to the campus. I was planning to go stupidly early anyway, because any blockage on the motorways would be a serious problem. So I did a couple more hours revision first thing, and it was fine. I dropped in on my tutor just to make sure that if I got any more ill he would support an application for Extenuating Circumstances. Luckily, that was the worst it got, and I've been improving over the last two days. Next exam is tomorrow, and I've spent quite enough time on writing this post.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Revision routine

Tina has prompted me to pour out my woes this fine morning. I was doing quite well at imagining I was losing weight while actually staying the same. For at least two weeks, however, my routine has mostly been:
1) Get up, make and drink very large mug of tea
2) Sit at desk catching up with blogs and email
3) Have breakfast
4) Get dressed (ha, bet you thought this one had already happened)
5) Sit at desk, stare into space, look at books and lecture notes, write a few things down, think about what is going on in the rest of the world, drink more tea, wonder if it's lunchtime yet
6) Have lunch
7) See 5, except substitute 'supper' for 'lunch'
8) Have supper. Due to my supposed dedication to revision, Mr A often steps up to the plate when it comes to preparing our shared mealtime. The sap. If he only knew.
9) See 5, but substitute 'bed' for lunch'
10) Watch 10 o'clock news or alternative comedy programme if it's Have I Got News For You or QI
11) Go to bed
Repeat, except on Friday and/or Sunday we treated ourselves to a pint in the pub as well. So in terms of reduction in energy intake or increase in energy expenditure (referred to as 'energy balance' in my Nutrition lectures) it's not looking good for the size 10 clothes industry. Or size 12, or 14...

Friday, 9 May 2008

Class of 1975

It's one thing after another at the moment - I've now caught a cold, complete with sore throat and dripping nose. At least it should be gone by the time I'm free to lead any sort of life again.

School building
The school reunion was of the class of 30 girls that I joined at the age of 11. We all remained together in that class until we were 16, and most of us stayed on at school until we were 18. That class was very special, and it was probably because of our form teacher in that first year, Mrs Taylor. She was an amazing teacher and a wonderful person, and last week we all met her again - she joined us in the restaurant.

She is more than 80 years old now, and still amazing. Considering how many pupils she would have looked after, she remembered more names from the photos that people brought than I did. She had always been calm, always supportive, always ready with a smile or a compliment. I had less to do with her than many, given that she taught Art (which really isn't my thing). Even so, she always made me feel special, as if she particularly cared about me, and I'm certain that every girl she spoke to would have felt that way.

As we sat at the table, catching up on the elapsed 25 years, Mrs Taylor leaned over to me, and said quietly, "They called you 'brainbox', didn't they?" They certainly did, and plenty of other names in similar style. I was always top of the class, which was tough on Laurinda and Kate who had to compete for second place.

There were four parallel classes in our year, and for some reason they had very different characters. 1-5 was a bit pathetic and wet, and 1-7 were rowdy and rebellious. I don't even remember what 1-8 was like. We were, and we still are, 1-6. 1-6 was undoubtedly the best. When I walked into the restaurant and saw all these elegant ladies, they looked like strangers with something familiar about them. After about an hour, their faces had somehow morphed into their instantly recognisable teenage versions.

As a class we had our moments. There was the time that Elizabeth climbed out of the window onto the roof of the floor below and got caught, and the mass detention that we were given when Debra's cardigan went missing, presumed stolen. Suzanne's best friend told us that she was off school because she was pregnant - totally untrue, but she had quite a reception when she returned. We had a new French teacher in the third or fourth year, and in one lesson, we made her cry. I look back now and my heart goes out to her, she was doing her best, but a little bit of evil got into us that day. On the scale of school-based misbehaviour, this was very tame, but we were all pretty intelligent and not often disruptive.

The reunion was brought together by Andrea, who performed the same miracle 13 years ago without the benefit of the Internet. This time she managed to find 27 out of 30, and only two couldn't come. Then this week another one emerged from obscurity, just too late to join us.

I didn't actually manage to talk to everyone, even though I was there for five hours. I think only two of us don't have children - the record went to Lesley, who's pregnant with her sixth. I tried to feign interest as yet another photo of two, three or four children was proudly waved under my nose. I was much more interested in how people looked, how their character remained so similar to their school personalities - quiet, flamboyant, thoughtful, loud, glamorous. I was particularly pleased to see Ritu and Sue. Ritu and I played tennis after school; Sue and I played the clarinet together.

And it doesn't end there - I deliberately didn't spend much time with Liz because she lives nearby, and we have arranged to meet up after the exams. With any luck, Roz will join us - she was one of the two who couldn't be there, and she was my best friend for quite a bit of my time at school. Best friends were so important at that age. If you didn't have one, you could be very isolated.

It was wonderful to see everyone again, and unlike the last reunion, I feel utterly comfortable with who I am. I no longer harbour resentment, or guilt, or the constant need to conceal my intelligence or apologise for the good fortune of my genes. I always got better marks than they did, and while it's not fair, it's not actually my fault. I have reached where I am now through that experience, and it's all good now, even if it wasn't always an easy ride.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Problems, choices

The weekend was fabulous, terrific, I was over the moon and dancing in the street. Today, not so much. I was getting round to a happy post, with metaphorical balloons, flowers and kittens, all about dad's 75th birthday celebration (Chinese food at Lola II's followed by very flaky recorder trios) and the reunion of class 1-6 from 1975 (Chinese food in South Woodford accompanied by prolonged repetitive squealing). Except that Mr A just came downstairs from the office to tell me that one of his most valuable employees is resigning, just as they start working on the biggest contract they have ever won. So I don't much feel like talking about the happy stuff.

There's a bit left over from the end of term to write about that better suits the mood: I managed to choose my optional modules after far too much dithering. In previous years, Dietetics students haven't had any choice, and that's how we thought our course would be run. But things change, and we were given the opportunity to select one module for Autumn and one for Spring from anything that the university offers. It was made clear that it would be simpler for all concerned if we chose a Biosciences module, and easiest of all if we chose the recommended one. I considered the Psychology of Addiction, Arabic for beginners, and Health, Policy and Society from various remote schools before settling on either 'Molecular Pharming: assessing the impact of genetically modified organisms' or 'Food Preservation.' After further discussion with tutors I went with the GMO one. It would have been much simpler to pick the one that was recommended for us, but I know I would hate doing 'Management Science: Food' where the module description was like something from Dragon's Den or The Apprentice.

A few of us decided to go out for lunch after the final lecture of the term last week. It turned out to be just me and three people, but they were among the nicest so that was good. I was even able to provide some gossip, which is very unusual, as I am normally oblivious to stuff that's going on around me ("What, you didn't notice that X isn't speaking to Y and Z has a black eye???")

Anyway, I'd found this out by poking about on Facebook, which doesn't involve looking at or interacting with people: one of the other 'mature' students is pregnant! She already has one child, and lives even further from the campus than I do, so she has at least an hour and a half commute each way plus she has to drop off and collect her son from the nursery. The baby is due at the start of next term, and she was even hoping to miss just one semester and do two semester's work in the spring of 2009, but the authorities have turned that down and she has to take a year off. She must REALLY like working so hard that her head falls off.

I'm now getting the right sort of terrified feeling to get me concentrating on revision, so I'd better get back to that now. Yesterday was eight hours of Nutrition: vitamins, minerals, ways of measuring energy content of food, and how to calculate daily energy requirements. Today I have eight hours of the Food and Catering module ahead of me, which should be much easier on the brain. Gluten in flour used for bread, pastry and sauce, ethnic diets, government policy, 'healthier' eating and food labelling.

I'll end with a lovely spring photo that I took on the river walk when I wandered into town some time last week.

York walk with spring blossom

Thursday, 1 May 2008


Warwick District Council has made a number of changes to their waste collection services, which all came into effect from 1 April, so it's been in place for a month now. The local paper is full of letters from disgruntled taxpayers, and reassuring responses from Council managers. From our point of view it's been a disorganised mess, although it doesn't impact too much on our lives, given that we are a household of two and we don't produce a whole lot of rubbish.

In the lead up to the change, there was a whole lot of publicity about the new arrangements. Households would be supplied with two of the large plastic bins that can be emptied into the truck by machine, along with the 'red box' that most of us already have. One large bin would be green for all organic waste, the other black for non-recyclable rubbish. The red box is for cans, paper, plastic, glass and other recyclable stuff. On alternate weeks, either the black bin or the green bin and red box would be emptied. This sounded good - up to now I've had to take all the prunings from our garden that I can't compost down to the tip in bags in the back of the car. A big green bin would be great.

Then we received our specific instructions. We are deemed to live in an area where houses don't have enough space to keep the large bins, even though we do have enough space, so we have been given grey plastic bags instead of the black bin, and nothing for organic waste. A maximum of two grey bags will be collected each week, and our red box will be emptied once a fortnight, on the Thursdays listed in the notice.

I don't like negativity, so here's the positive angle: we don't have to buy our own black bin bags any more. The full grey bags have even been collected from the street, at least once. I put our red box outside last night just in case, even though today was a Thursday NOT listed in the notice, and it was emptied this morning, although it wasn't emptied last week on the correct date. (All the grey bags put out last night are still sitting on the pavement.)

The paper reported that the Council is pleased with the whole enterprise and it has been a resounding success, with a huge reduction in non-recyclable waste destined for landfill. This is probably because there has been a huge reduction in the amount collected, due to confusion over dates, bins and bags. But we have certainly made a greater effort to separate out cans and plastic to add to the glass and paper that we were recycling before. So that's a good thing.