Monday, 31 March 2008

One hundred posts

This is my 100th post, and by way of celebration today I achieved my ambition of adding a background image and removing those pesky roundy corners. Hooray! and happy anniversary to me.

Blogging has been an interesting hobby, and I'm still enjoying writing. I'm happy with my few visitors: about 100 pageloads a week from between 5 and 15 visitors a day, although the numbers seem to have declined recently. I'm guessing it's probably linked to how many comments I leave elsewhere! Lucky that I'm not doing this for the glory, although it's nice to think people read what I write.

The weather has turned half decent at last, and I've reached the end of my tolerance for revision. I didn't give myself any days off for the last two weeks, so after today, when I'm going to have a final push at biochemistry, my holiday starts. Off to visit family and the British Museum exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors from China, then back home to pack and away to France for our snowboarding trip.

I'm looking forward to it with the familiar mix of joyous anticipation and trepidation - I hope there will be enough snow, I hope the accommodation will be OK (we're in a chalet this time), I hope we don't break any part of ourselves, I hope nothing goes wrong with Mr A's business while we're away... He says it should be much better this trip, and he won't be spending so much time in piste caf├ęs on the phone sorting out work issues. I'll believe it when I see it. But I do love skiing - we'll see if snowboarding is as much fun.

As a final celebration of the 100th-post milestone, here's a picture of me outside the main campus building, taken to accompany my piece in the University's Biosciences marketing brochure about being a first year mature student.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

More food poisoning

Toilet with multiple toilet rollsA never-ending stream of diarrhoeal agents emerges from my revision of Food Safety: the latest food- and water-borne pathogens I've looked at are common in less developed countries, and include Vibrio (cholera), Shigella (bacillary dysentery), Cyclospora (a parasite) and Hepatitis A.

Then there are more examples specifically of toxin-forming bacteria that we get over here: Bacillus cereus (typically found in reheated rice), Clostridium botulinum (causes botulism), Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus. E. coli O157 was first recorded only in 1982, and we examined two UK outbreaks: one in Scotland in 1996 which wasn't handled very well, and the second in Wales in 2005 when some lessons had been learned. I've been washing my hands much more frequently recently.

Lastly (for the moment anyway), enterotoxins from non-bacterial sources. Deadly aflatoxin from fungus Aspergillus flavus, poisonous mushrooms like the fly agaric and ink cap, toxins from planktonic algae that are accumulated by shellfish, and the old favourite: pufferfish or fugu, which uniquely (in this context) doesn't give you diarrhoea. It kills you by paralysing you with a neurotoxin instead.

It's a wonder any of us lives to old age, what with having to eat something every day that might have fatal consequences. I'll be glad when this module is over and I recover my sense of proportion. Perhaps next term we can cover all the food-borne microorganisms that are delicious and don't harm us, like those in yogurt, bread, beer, blue cheese...

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Fancy blog background... not

My thanks to Tina, Aims, TBNIL and Babooshka who continue to leave comments for me, and to others who I know lurk silently. I can tell it's revision time because I'm using blogging as a displacement activity, but I'm very short of witty repartee at the moment so I haven't replied to any comments.

To be fair, I have read a bit about bacterial food hazards: Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, and got cross with the lecturer for having such terrible slides. I missed nearly a whole day of revision by food shopping when I should have been looking at statistics, except I did read one chapter of a book that explained variance and standard deviation really well. Then I went to Lola II's house as a surprise, and watched mum and my nephew Philip painting her hall, while I was on the sofa reading about hospital food. I've also reviewed some mystifying energetics equations - why would I want to know about the potential differences of various redox couples? How will that benefit my life? And more importantly, how can it possibly help me to answer Biochemistry exam questions?

I've been diverting my attention from schoolwork in other ways by trying to upload a background image to my blog. I nearly managed it too, except for two annoying things:
  1. My image wasn't wide enough so it started to repeat down the right side of the page
  2. The template achieves its 'roundy edge box' appearance by putting a little triangle of the background colour on each box corner as well as a thick border of background colour around the box.
My desire to have a lovely background is far stronger than my HTML skills, so I've reverted to the old template while I make the image wider and try and work out how to get transparent sides and corners on the boxes. Or I suppose I could choose a different template without the roundy corners. En route to this lack of success, I also managed to download a Google application called Picasa which I don't think I really want. All of this takes time that I should be using more wisely, so I spent a happy half hour drawing up a lovely revision timetable.

Today I should be looking at Physiology, but it's nearly lunchtime...

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Hospital food

More revision, Food and Catering module, all about how to feed people in hospital. Here's a quotation from Florence Nightingale in 1859:
"Every careful observer of the sick will agree in this, that thousands of patients are annually starved in the midst of plenty, from want of attention to the ways which make it possible to take food."
Things hadn't changed much by 1994, when it was found that of 500 patients admitted to hospital, 40% were malnourished, and by the time they came to be discharged they'd lost an average of 7% more weight. There have been numerous reports since then: "Hungry in Hospital" (1997), "Hospital Food as Treatment" (1999), "Managing Nutrition in Hospital - a quality service" (1999), leading up to the Better Hospital Food (BHF) Initiative in 2001.

Some in the UK may remember this initiative because it was headed by celebrity chef Loyd Grossman. Success was somewhat compromised when some of the recipes weren't executed in the manner intended, even where hospital kitchens still existed - newer hospitals have been built without cooking facilities, intending that food should be bought in chilled or frozen, with on-site facilities only for storage, defrosting and heating. The principles of BHF remain though, and seem very sound: protected mealtimes when nobody should be hauled off for X-rays or tests, and red trays to indicate people who need help to eat, for example.

It's not just England or the UK: the Council of Europe even published a resolution in 2003, under the heading "Food and Nutritional Care in Hospitals - How to Prevent Undernutrition", and listed 10 key characteristics of good nutritional care in hospitals. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence drew up guidelines for nutritional screening in 2006, and the Department of Health has published "Improving Nutritional Care" in 2007.

I read a whole 60-page report on "Delivering nutritional care through food and beverage services", published by the British Dietetic Association in October 2006. It turns out that hospital dietitians play a key role in planning hospital menus, in conjunction with clinicians, nurses, patients, and most importantly, hospital catering managers. It's certainly a challenging business, with the hugely diverse hospital population, all of whom are ill or disabled in some way or another, many very old or very young, and everything in between. Just being in hospital is enough to put most people off their food, with the bedpans, noise, smells, and strange environment for meals - I don't normally eat my dinner at a time not of my choosing, in bed, and in a room full of strangers.

You might think that skipping a few meals shouldn't be a problem for our obese society, but actually living off nothing but body stores of fat isn't recommended; we do need a certain amount of vitamins and protein, especially when ill. Then there are those who need food that is low protein, low fibre, low fat, low sodium, low sugar or gluten-free, who have allergies or intolerances, who want vegetarian, vegan, kosher or halal food, as well as that undernourished group I mentioned at the start who need a high protein and high calorie diet. I certainly have a lot more sympathy for the hospital caterers now.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Cambrian rally, 2004

Mr A's off on a bike rally today, so I found this amusing account that he wrote of another such occasion in 2004. Never mind if you have no idea what he's talking about half the time, neither do I, but they really seem to be having fun. In case it helps: Mr A's bike is an Elefant, PB is a motorcycling journalist and a chum, and JM and PK are other biker pals. In the picture, Mr A's on the right, going for the overtake...

Andy going for the overtake
The highlights:

It absolutely pissed down on Saturday.

It was a fantastic course.

I caught and passed PB and his mate, PK, on one of the specials.

I caught and passed JM on one of the specials.

I did two thirds of the event stuck in third gear.

For the detail, read on.

Well, shit weather or what, I'd been studying the weather forecast all week and on Thursday there was a glimpse of hope that the weekend would be sunny and fine in Llandovery, but it was not to be.

However, we are running ahead of ourselves. Friday was spent in the usual panic attaching tools, tow straps, on to the 'Fant and more to the point, attaching two spare inner tubes in a bag to the rear rack, so I could lighten the load I was carrying in my rucksack. All this despite the bike being essentially ready and prepped. So it was up at 5.30 to attach the trailer to the car and scoot off down the motorway. Despite the M42 being closed at junction 1 (so, a bit of a detour involving some country lanes), I managed to arrive at the Rugby Club, Llandovery, where scrutineering was taking place, in good time.

Great, unloaded the bike, rode round to the scrutineering queue, engine off, whip my leg over the saddle to dismount, catch it on the large bag zip-tied to the rack, and that's it, down the bike goes with resounding crash.

Bugger, nice start.

Despite this astonishing display of incompetence, the bike passes and I wheel it back to meet up with JM, who is also competing on his E900.

20 minutes later our start time clicks up, we zip out of the car park exit gates.

It was only 7½ miles to the start of the first off road liason, so it was pretty easy to find it using the road book. Once in the forest most turns were marked or arrowed so navigation was pretty easy. This first off road section runs down an easy track to a sharp right turn on to a single rut running along the bottom of a valley. It was in many ways the most exhausting bit of the whole event, requiring a fair amount of footing along, as it was wet and muddy, and the rain had started pouring down. However, there was only one tricky bit, a big puddle, just after which some twat, of course, had stopped to clean his goggles. Bit of manoeuvring got round that bunch of obstacles, and we were off and running.

The rest of the route was an easy couple of miles of forest track and we were out, on to the tarmac again.

Bit of milling about with the road book at this point, as the distances seemed a bit out, then we found the start of the first special. This was short and sweet, a series of turns on a nice, shale fire road 2.6 miles long. Loads of fun.

After the finish, it was a couple of miles to the next challenge, a short, sharp climb that got rougher towards the top. This was pretty steep, so it was second gear, throttle on and blasting, hanging on to the bars and looking for the crest, to be greeted with a bloody great board taking up half the track saying: Photo!

Oh well, you do your best, bit more wheelspin and wrestling with the bars to look good, and we were out onto the top.

From there the course ran down a single steep rut on to slimy sand littered with cut tree branches. I was getting confident by this point, cracking on a bit, sure enough one of the branches was my downfall, the front wheel sliding out on one and I was down.

This off bent the gear lever through 180 degrees, so I floundered on in whatever gear I was in to a flat bit of track and used a ring spanner to straighten it.

Must get that folding tip gear lever made up that I've been planning.

There followed a couple of miles of slippy, rutty track that was a bit of an arse and then back onto fire road.

There then followed a navigational debacle on my part, despite the super expensive all singing and dancing nav/dashboard. The Touratech ICO suffers from an incredibly loose contrast knob, so much so that as soon as you set off it vibrates round and the screen goes blank. I had temporarily fixed this some months ago with a little bit of gaffer tape. Sure enough as soon as I started the event it came loose. Now the key to the road book gig is reading the instructions while comparing your own distance travelled via the trip. I was reduced to having to reach forward now and then to check my distance travelled, which collided with my natural desire to nail on and have a good time.

The result was half an hour milling about in the forest trying to find the way out, during which I lost contact with JM.

When I finally found the exit with the aid of a marshal I happened to turn out on the road behind a KTM 950 and GS1150. 'Ah well, I'll tag along behind these two' I thought. 4 miles of tarmac took us to a long gravel/rut climb next to some trees. I must admit at one point on this climb I decided to nip past these two, I hopped into the other rut, hammered up it, and as I was starting to pass I hit a big rock, rotated 15 degrees and found myself looking at those exciting Go!!!!! graphics on the side of the KTM.

I decided to calm down then, it's all very well T-boning some bloke on his 6-year-old XR250, ah, yes, all in the spirit of the event. But an eight grand KTM might be a different matter.

More track and a bit of a detour which had some baffled riders manhandling various BMs, KTMs, and Cagivas around in a pitch black forest, over a collection of slick mud ditches, took us to the start of the second stage.

At this point I realised it was PB and PK I'd been following, and tagging along behind was a mate of theirs on an XR400. I let them all line up as a group at the start and then sat behind them.

PB was the first away, followed by PK and then XR400 man. Then I'm up waiting for the green light. The road book is telling me this is a 10 mile stage and we have already covered the worst terrain, so it should be good.

The green light goes and I'm off, giving it some but trying to be smooth while enjoying the sliding around on the corners. After half a mile I pass XR400 man, Wow, he must be cruising. Another couple of miles and I glimpse a helmet in the distance, blimey, that can't be PK? It isn't, it's a travelling marshal. The world returns to reality.

Another couple of miles though, and I see the tail of a KTM disappearing round a corner. I can't believe it, I slowly reel him in, and I can see PB ahead of him. Ah, there must have been a burger van near the start and they have detoured, that can be the only explanation.

It's at this point I make the classic mistake, instead of thinking 'well, I've been catching him so if I stick to the same pace I'll go past', I speed up, next moment PK's diving into a corner, I've left it too late, the rear wheel comes round and I'm off. Drat, drat and double drat, I jump up, heave the bike up, hop on, hit the starter, she's running again. The gear lever looks like something Uri Geller's been at, so I just dump the clutch and the bike gets going, the gear I'm in seems to allow me to go reasonably fast, but a few experimental prods at the gear lever prove fruitless. Oh well, better just get a move on.

I hack on some more miles and damn me if I don't see PK again. Right, better get it right this time. Bit of tussling and I'm past him, and I have PB in my sights. At this point the track goes 90 degrees right round a pile of logs, I swing wide to check the lines and get the bike lined up to get the power on, and....the back breaks away in a lurid slide. The bike's at that point when I'm thinking 'that's it, I'm down (again)' and it starts coming back. Of course, while I'm busy seeing how well I can fish tail, PK goes past again. Noooo.....

So, I have to battle past him again and start creeping up on PB, it's tricky at this point as the track's really slimy under some trees, but after a little wait it opens out into two ruts, and I nail it past him. Fantastic.

Then the finish is in sight. The usual muddy chicane to the finish light beam, I drop into it and sure enough, stall out 12 inches short of the beam. Frantic thumbing of the starter gets me going again, jolly annoying though, I put another 20 seconds on my time.

In the finish area there a bit joshing and photo taking with PB and PK, then I get down and check out the gear lever situation. It's rock solid. I know what's happened, as JM and I have a mutual friend who crashed an Elefant on the Dyfi and did the same damage. As the bike has a rigid gear lever a crash on that side can send a shock force down the shaft to a little collection of selector levers inside the engine casing. These then jam up and you have to take the whole lot apart to free it up. So, looks like I'm in third gear for the rest of the event.

From there it's a short trip to the lunch stop which is packed with nearly a hundred bikes, and a burger van. I catch up with JM, who has also had a good morning, the highlight being overtaken at speed by a maniac on a KTM who then found a gate closed across the track. Cue bent gate with a KTM on one side and the rider on the other. JM then trickled round the open side gate. Cheers mate, see you later.

During most of the morning excitements it's been pouring with rain, this continues during lunch, and when we set off to explore the woods again. The afternoon is essentially a bunch of fire roads in more pouring rain. By four o'clock we have got lost with a group of riders (me and my useless trip again). All this time I've been starting the 'Fant with the clutch in and it's been hammering the battery. Finally we have gone through some gates to find a farm and the group is turning round to head back, I hit the starter, dead battery. The group has gone, leaving JM and I. So we dump my bike, and JM gives me a pillion. We head out the other way, reasoning, farm, tarmac must be near, and sure enough couple of minutes later we're on the road back to Llandovery.

It's a grim journey, there are no pillion footrests and JM's getting hell from the pouring rain. Finally we are back and pick up my car and trailer. We head back, pick up my bike and retire hurt.

Everybody passes a pleasant evening, we spend it chatting to a guy who is there with his girlfriend and has been competing on a KTM 950 in his first off road event and having a real good time doing it. I hear later that PK glimpses me in the pub, obviously out of my body armour, and comments that he is shocked to see that I look like a skinny teacher. Cheeky monkey, I can see fisticuffs in the future.

Next morning dawns dry, the weather forecast is good, JM's got a spare battery so I decide to try to complete the second day. So it's lights off, heated grips off, take the bulb out of the rear light as the brake light's stuck on (as usual) and stop as little as possible to preserve the battery.

The first muddy single rut section has dried out a lot and is now really a piece of piss, though I still manage to fall off by trying to get onto the pegs at an inappropriate moment. The first special goes well, third seems to be fast enough to get a time that is not too embarrassing. The big climb is a bit of a challenge, as I have to hit the bottom faster than normal, I get up it OK, with a bit of judicious clutch slipping, only to bin it at the top.

Still, made it.

I've sorted the trip out with a new strip of gaffer tape, so navigation is now going well, in fact it's quite enjoyable. An hour or so later and we are at the start of the second special. JM gets off first, with me following.

The first part of the special is enlivened by the sight, on one of the corners, of two blokes struggling to drag a bike out of a hole. Two looks enough to me so I keep the power on. Later I find out the bike was a BM 1100, so maybe I should have stopped to lend a hand. Yeah, right.

After eight or so miles what do I see, but Mr JM, I reel him in slowly, then spend five minutes being peppered with stones until I find a way past on the same two rut section where I passed PB. That made my weekend, I've never caught him on a stage before.

The lunch stop was much more enjoyable, the whole scene lit by watery sunshine as we met up with PB, PK, Derek (a fellow Big Trail Bike Club member) and the guy with the KTM we had been chatting to the night before.

The afternoon was fairly uneventful, with a bit of wandering about and getting lost, a tricky climb and a couple of showers at the end of the day.

Finally back to the Rugby Club Parc Ferme, hand shakes all round, and pack up for the trip home. Heading back it's that warm, post event feeling, heater on and the CD playing the Alabama 3, as I watch Derek overtaking me in the pouring rain on his KTM 950, have a nice trip home mate.

A perfect weekend.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Revising heart and lungs

It's been physiology for the last day and a half: heart, circulation and lungs. Here are some of the more interesting things I am trying to commit to memory:
  • The vascular system is lined by endothelial cells. This is the only type of tissue that is actually in contact with the blood.
  • The heart consists of three distinct layers: endothelium (in contact with the blood), myocardium (the muscle cells), and epicardium (a thin external layer). The heart is contained in the pericardial sac, which is a double layer with fluid between the layers to reduce friction when the heart beats.
  • 99% of the heart is made up of contractile muscle cells, but there are also pacemaker cells that generate the rhythm of the heartbeat. Electrical activity within the heart is not carried by nerves, but by specialised muscle cells.
  • I've learned what the PQRST waves mean on an ECG trace, but it's too long to summarise in a bullet point. You can just about survive without your P wave, but if your QRS complex goes, you need help, fast.
  • At any time, most of your blood (64%) is in your veins. 7% is in your heart, and only 9% going round your lungs. The rest is in arteries, arterioles and capillaries.
  • In the 'fight or flight' reflex, the release of adrenaline restricts blood flow to all your organs, except the brain. Local effects like the reduction of oxygen and increase in carbon dioxide at the heart and skeletal muscles is what dilates those particular arterioles to increase blood flow so you can run away.
  • They used to think that endothelial cells didn't do much except line blood vessels, but now it's been found that they produce nitric oxide (a vasodilator) and endothelin (a vasoconstrictor).
  • The tissue lining the gas exchange surfaces in your lungs has two kinds of cells: type I (where the gas exchange takes place) and type II (which secrete the surfactant that keeps all the air pockets open). Parents of premature babies already know this.
  • Your Total Lung Capacity is the sum of your Residual Volume, your Expiratory Reserve Volume, your Tidal Volume and your Inspiratory Reserve Volume, usually about 6 litres in young healthy adults. It's more efficient to increase the depth of your breathing than the rate, but you know that from experience. It's to do with dead space.
  • Binding of oxygen to haemoglobin and dissociation curves - we did this at A level but it seems more secure in my head now. It's really clever, how oxygen is picked up in the lungs and dropped off where it's needed, all using the power of Chemistry.
This is like having online revision notes - I'm sure I will remember it better for writing it all out like this. Hope it's not too boring for any passing readers.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Norovirus and snowboarding

The Easter holidays have started, but I've been trying to keep working because otherwise I have the capacity to waste the whole day on fiddling about doing not very much.

On Monday I created my informative leaflet on norovirus, aimed at passengers on cruise ships. Norovirus, or Winter Vomiting Disease, is "a contagious disease that is spread by contact with an infected person, by touching contaminated surfaces, or by consuming contaminated food or water." It causes diarrhoea and vomiting, so you can see how it ties in with our Wednesday morning lecture ordeals. Confined living environments like hospitals, schools and cruise ships are vulnerable because it's so hard to clean up.

I had thought of giving the leaflet a background image that gave the impression of speckled vomit, but when I Googled 'vomit' I changed my mind. Instead, it's got a background image of a ship and a picture of the norovirus itself. I was just working out how to save it as an image to upload for your viewing pleasure when Lola II phoned and said I should wait until the handing-in deadline. So you'll have to hang on until mid-April.

Foot in plasterWe've booked ourselves a week of snowboarding at the beginning of April - Yippee! I've never tried snowboarding, but Mr A had a go for a day at the end of our last skiing holiday, when I was laid up with the broken leg. [No, I didn't break my leg skiing, but when we went out for a walk in icy conditions towards the end of the day.] He found the snowboard boots much more comfortable than ski boots on his mangled legs, even the ski boots that he had moulded to the shape of his shins. So we'll try learning to snowboard together, and I can go back to skiing if I don't get on with it.

Andy skiingMr A's currently pretty moody about the state of the economy and the prospect of a recession, in case the bank won't lend him money. It does seem like there hasn't been much good news for a while. He went out on his bike, the water meadows were flooded so he got wet feet very early on, then managed to puncture both tyres and had to walk most of the way home through the water, plus he put his back out. On the bright side, we've been able to drown his sorrows at the Cricketers - in under two weeks it's been transformed into a friendly welcoming place, buzzing with customers, and a pleasure to visit.

Monday, 17 March 2008

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of the book cover
A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Husseini

"Mariam is only fifteen when she is sent to Kabul to marry the troubled and bitter Rasheed, who is thirty years her senior. Nearly two decades later, in a climate of growing unrest, tragedy strikes fifteen-year-old Laila, who must leave her home and join Mariam's unhappy household."
Another Christmas present, this time from Peter, and very good (I've actually finished it now). Thanks to BookMooch, I am accumulating books faster than I can read them, but we've arranged a holiday when I should be able to knock a few out.

Image of the book cover
by Bill Buford

"Bill Buford, an enthusiastic, if rather chaotic, home cook, was asked by the New Yorker to write a profile of Mario Batali, a Falstaffian figure of voracious appetites who runs one of New York's most successful three-star restaurants. Buford accepted the commission, on the condition Batali allowed him to work in his kitchen."
No idea about this one, the reviews are mixed, but I like finding out how restaurants work.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Tired and uninspired

It's the end of term, at last. I thought this final week had been particularly hard because of having four early starts (that's 6.30 am), but I've looked at my calendar and there were only three, and I didn't even go in on Tuesday.

I did spend all of Tuesday doing stupid coursework, which involved writing up the results of comparing six different sorts of pastry (Taste: pretty much like pastry) and six different sorts of bread (Taste: pretty much like bread, except the gluten-free one that tasted like old gym shoes). Plus a million calculations of how much of this or that nutrient was in there, and a load of stuff about gluten, and the Chorleywood Bread Process.

Today we had to compare four different sorts of lasagne: ordinary with beef, vegetarian with Quorn, vegan with TVP, and one with beef but gluten free pasta. Guess what? They mostly tasted like lasagne, except the vegan one with TVP which tasted like pasta with slightly sweet dried wallpaper paste. I'm not a fan of TVP.

Apart from the lasagne, we all made three dishes between two of us that included one meat, one fish and one vegetarian, and one had thickened sauce made with cornflour and another with a roux. This is all very educational for an 18-year-old who's come straight from home to university, but I've been making thickened sauces for 30 years and I know how to skin a fillet of fish. For some reason (probably the early starts) I started to get really irritable. Mr A bore the brunt of it when I got home. I can't even remember what I was going on about now.

The Food Safety "you're all going to die" lecture this week was only half about how we're going to die, this time from bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. The other half was more interesting, about how bioluminescent chemicals derived from angler fish bacteria and fireflies are used to test for harmful bacterial activity.

Then there was a terrific lecture about all the dietary aspects of cancer, both causative (being fat, eating fat, salt, alcohol and protein/meat) and preventative (complex carbohydrates, anti-oxidants, fruit and veg). Best of all, it turns out that fibre is a source of nutrients for gut bacteria that metabolise products that are protective against colon cancer, one of which is methane, so farting is now officially GOOD FOR YOU. But bad for anyone within range. And climate change.

My recent activity as a Student Ambassador ("you spoil us") has been to take a group of visitors on a campus tour on Open Days. For the last couple of weeks this has included students and their "guests" (usually parents) who have applied to do the course I'm on. This makes it much more fun, because they've got relevant questions and I stand a chance of knowing the answers. Previously I've been asked what time the canteen dinner is served and where the washing machines are.

While I'm definitely tired, it turns out that I'm not as uninspired as I thought I was. I really like my course.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Rag Week 1984

This memory occurred to me recently, and even after 24 years it still made me smile.

When I was at university, a first year Engineering student, I was completely out of my depth academically but with a pretty good bunch of friends. The university 'Rag Week' used to take place once a year, when students planned all sorts of activities to raise money for charities. [Don't ask me why it's called Rag Week, you can try Googling and let me know.] This particular year, alongside a bed race through the town, the sale of coffee mugs, the 'Rag Mag' full of poor jokes and other such fundraising efforts, the Rag Committee had set up a 'flanning' service.

'Flanning', for those unsure of the term in this context, consists of constructing 'flans' from shaving foam squirted from a can onto a number of paper plates, in the manner of slapstick 'custard pies'. The flans are then placed, more or less accurately, on and around the face and head of the victim, covering him or her with foam.

The fundraising angle on this activity was this: anyone could purchase a flanning from the Rag Committee during Rag Week, specifying the victim and when and where he or she could be found. Obviously the more people who witnessed the flanning the better the joke, so the college dining room at the evening mealtime was a very popular choice.

Even then I preferred my own cooking to the bulk catering that most people were fed in the dining room, which was very appropriately known as 'Trough'. I hardly ever ate there. I was with a group of friends one evening, however, and they were relating the latest tale of flanning hilarity.

"I've never seen anyone flanned," I said. "Is it really that funny?"

I was assured that not only was it funny, but unmissable, and I should come along to Trough and see it done, because it was pretty much guaranteed to happen every night. As it was actually supper time right then, and everyone was getting ready to go to the dining room, I thought I'd join them, just this once, to see what this flanning thing was about.

Sure enough, the flanners duly arrived, masked by balaclavas and full length coats, so it was impossible to identify them. There were two or three of them, if my memory serves, and the hubbub in the room died down as they were spotted with their foam payload.

I felt the tension rising as they took their time, walking up and down between the long tables, while everyone wondered who it would be this time. People visibly flinched if a flanner passed behind them, and I enjoyed the spectacle in the sure knowledge that of everyone present, I was utterly safe. After all, I never ate in the dining room, and had only decided to do so on the spur of the moment about fifteen minutes previously.

I'm sure you can see it coming in a way that I totally didn't. Turns out, fifteen minutes is plenty of time for one of my friends to make a swift detour to the Rag Committee flan booking service, and I was covered in foam before I'd even realised what was happening.

I can still remember vividly the feeling of surprise, closely followed by shock and bewilderment, followed by the realisation that it was THEM! they all KNEW! and I had NO IDEA! I felt a very brief flutter of embarrassed annoyance, and I'm not sure if it was the effect of the flanning, or that I had been naive enough to be caught out so completely.

That feeling passed quickly; I had to acknowledge the genius of the plot, and I joined in the laughter.

I'm grinning again now, as I write this post.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

When Mr A's away...

Mr A's been away for a few days, on a road trip with his biker chums to Paris. He should be back in the early hours tomorrow morning. So I've been enjoying the peace and quiet, and how mysteriously the house stays clean and tidy when he's not here.

I got home quite late last night after school, because we had a rather long afternoon practical all about bread, pastry and gluten. We all made bread with different types of flour, and mine was gluten-free, comprising potato, rice, tapioca, maize and sarrasin flour to replace wheat. The bread was edible, but that's about all I can say for it. It was the colour of chalk, and looked like something that had come from the moon.

I've had such a good time today - Dipti came to visit, giving me the chance to show off the sights and delights of Leamington. We had a splendid lunch at Oscar's, I bought lots of vegetables at my favourite greengrocer, we stopped to browse in many boutiques, and finished up with a drink in the Cricketers. Which has now changed hands.

As I passed the pub last night, I remembered that a new owner ought to be in place for his first evening, so I thought I'd drop in to say hello and introduce myself. Mark is the new owner, and Smurf is his pub manager, and both were very happy to chat. And pose...

Smurf posing on the barI think the future of the pub is safe in his hands.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of the book cover
by C.J. Sansom

"Under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: the monasteries are to be dissolved. But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell's Commissioner Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body."
Another Christmas present - I'm not getting through them very fast - but this is one I chose myself. Reminds me of The Name of the Rose so far, but nowhere near as heavy going.

Image of the book cover
The Golden Bowl
by Henry James

narrated by Flo Gibson
"The lives and relationships of Maggie Verver and her widowed American millionaire father, Adam, are changed and challenged by the beautiful and charming Charlotte Stant, who is the former lover of Maggie's husband, the impoverished Italian, Prince Amerigo."
I've enjoyed reading Henry James in the past, so I hope it comes over well on audio. This is his last completed book, I am told, published in 1904.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008


As I've written previously, I've been out and about in the virtual world looking for new and interesting written stimulation. One of the ways I've hunted for new things is using StumbleUpon, which was mentioned by one of the blogs I read, and if I could remember which I would pass on the credit, but I can't remember. There are so many.

StumbleUpon took me to BookMooch - it's perfect! The principle is that you give away your unwanted books, gaining points for doing so, and use the points to mooch books from other people. The only cost is postage - you pay the cost of sending your books but you receive mooched books for free.

I have loads of books that I know I won't read again. The local charity shops have benefitted in the past, but this way I get the books I want to read in return, and the charity shops will still get the heavy ones that are too expensive to post. I put seven of my old books online, and four were mooched straight away, so I've put even more up for grabs. I'm in credit to the tune of about eight books already. Now I just have to decide what I want!

Yes, my favourite middle cousin, I do have too much time on my hands. But soon, there will be exams!

Monday, 3 March 2008

My friend Dick

I've been finding that the blogs I visit are frequented by many of the same people. Now, there is nothing wrong with this, and it isn't all that surprising either, because I tend to find new blogs by following links from blogs I already go to. But I'm feeling claustrophobic, and I'd like to read more blogs that are written by men, so I've been following links all over the place, and haven't found anything suitable. They have been badly written, or too political, or too opinionated (i.e. I don't agree with them), or they just link to other articles, or contain nothing but YouTube clips. So perhaps I should just stick with the women. And Richard Madeley.

Dick (he says I can call him Dick) has written a whole post dedicated to my mum. And on Mother's Day too, not that mum is typical in her celebration of Mother's Day. He's even linked to this blog, and if I'd known in advance I would have made sure, somehow, that when new visitors arrive they would be greeted by the most interesting, witty, attractive blog in the blogosphere, such that they would immediately add me to their Bookmarks and Favorites and Google Reader and pledge to return daily and leave astute and inspiring comments. As it is, they got my thoughts on allergens, digestion, a pub quiz and news of the pub next door, and they buggered straight off again. Oh well.

Richard Madeley Appreciation Society banner
But actually, I am very flattered to be honoured by a post from the great man, even if it was addressed to mum and not me. (She still thinks that even if he does exist he doesn't write it himself.) I am hoping for an invitation to go on his road trip to Blackpool, but perhaps it's a bit of a bloke thing, and they won't want me hanging around while they do manly bonding, including heroic deeds like lighting farts, talking about football and blowing the heads off rabbits.

There are a couple of other men who write blogs that I like: this one, and this, and this one too. And that's not counting Stephen Fry, and my dad, although dad seems to have given up blogging for the time being.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Allergens, digestion, quiz and pub

News from the past week when I was busy writing about Winchester:

An interesting lecture in the depressing series of Wednesday morning's "Things you eat that can kill you," all about allergens. New symptoms for a change, no vomiting, abdominal cramps or diarrhoea - this time you go red, swell up and die instead of dying from dehydration or from toxic bacterial products. And the very first published paper on death from anaphylaxis caused by food was as recent as 1988.

Physiology has moved on from heart and lungs to something more relevant - digestion. We've had two lectures, the first going from the mouth as far as the stomach, and the second dealing with the intestines through to egestion. A very skilful lecturer delivered them: he managed to deal with the subject of intestinal processing and faecal matter without once provoking giggles or snorts among his teenage (and older) audience.

I met up again with the ex-badminton crew, this time in a pub in Grandborough, where we had a great meal and then won the quiz. No thanks to me at all; I didn't have a clue about most of the questions, and for those where my opinion prevailed I turned out to be wrong. I should stick to science, I'm not too bad at that. Can't wait to get back to the regular Wednesday quiz though, I've had to miss the last two because of those stupid vitamins.

It looks as though the pub next door is changing hands. We forced ourselves to go for a drink there a week or two ago, and had a chat with Nobby (the landlord's dad) about what their plans were. He let on that it hadn't worked out how they'd planned, and they were on the brink of selling up so they can leave the pub-keeping business. We suspect that it turned out to be a lot harder work for a lot less reward than they were expecting, and it can't have helped that all the neighbours stopped drinking there. Last night we returned and the rumour was confirmed, the new owner is starting on Friday, and is even someone we know - one of the staff from the Star and Garter, the pub that we started to frequent when the Cricketers went downhill.