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!