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.