Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Festive seasoning

House with 'snow'
The holiday season is half over, and all has gone well so far. Christmas Day lunch was fine, although at the last minute Mr A proposed that he would construct a pigeon breast starter (with salad leaves to placate me and my weird fixation on vegetable matter). Maybe he decided that there just wasn't enough meat. I really think that if he were allowed, Mr A would subsist on nothing but meat, salty snacks and wine gums. Anyway, against my better judgement, I let him, but I should have made him do it on Boxing Day because he just got in the way when I was trying to coordinate the main course. It was very nice, anyway.

We were very sparing with presents. I ordered a couple of books from Amazon for Mr A. One is about the history of MI5, written by the lecturer at Bletchley Park who spoke so well, and the other is the Booker winner this year, Wolf Hall, a novel about Thomas Cromwell. What you can't tell from Amazon is the size of the books, and while I knew they were both hardbacks, they turned out to be huge: each of them about two inches thick. Very impressive in terms of quantity, and the MI5 one has got the quality thumbs up already.

Mr A gave me three DVD sets, which is a bit of a swiz given that I now have to share them with him. We've already watched quite a lot of Fry and Laurie's Jeeves and Wooster ITV series, which is tremendous. We've been very surprised that Hugh Laurie is so good - I think he's busy in America most of the time nowadays, so we don't see him as much as Stephen Fry, who's on the box every two minutes here. The other two are The Wire and the first series of The Thick Of It. Plenty of economical sofa-based entertainment to look forward to over the coming year.

We've been rather unlucky with the weather, though. Some might be pleased that in the current period of unusually arctic temperatures we have been spared the travel chaos that ensues from heavy snow. We, however, are not planning to travel anywhere, and would have loved to take the toboggan out for a spin, but we have had nothing but a light dusting of snow which has long since disappeared. A neighbour, however, was determined that a white Christmas would need to be arranged, and procured a snow machine (it was more like foam, actually). Their house is in the picture at the top of this post. Very festive.

[The revision is going quite well, although at this stage I am always very nervous and unsure whether there is enough time/concerned that I am blogging when I should be revising/keeping emergency chocolate in my desk drawer/being reminded again of how unpleasant revision is. One factor that has improved the experience was finding an old cartridge pen, and cartridges containing purple ink. Lovely!]

Monday, 28 December 2009

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer

"January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb? As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends — and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is."
Loaned and recommended by Lola II, this is a lovely book, easy to read, just what I needed in between heavy bouts of coursework.

Image of the book cover
Beware of God
by Shalom Auslander

"These stories have the mysterious punch of a dream: a pious man having a near-death experience discovers that God is actually a chicken, searches Home Depot for supplies for an ark, mistakes Holocaust Remembrance Day as emergency-preparedness training for the future."
This book's author has read one or two of his stories on This American Life podcast, and I thought it would be ideal as a present for mum and/or dad. Unfortunately, the podcast stories are edited for the radio audience, and the book is a great deal cruder in its language and choice of topics, and nowhere near as entertaining. So I'm not going to give the book to them, unless they really want to read it. Not recommended.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

I am a Winner

Medal, trophy and sparkly wine bagI have started my revision, but must take a short break to report on various mundane events that have been taking place.

I have won the White Lions badminton tournament (with my excellent partner of course). I was lucky to get a good pairing in the random draw, but I feel good nevertheless. They made us stand on one of the PE benches to receive our medals and trophies, and the sparkly bag contained a bottle of wine. I really like this club...

In other news, I have been alternately revising and finding displacement activities to put off revising. It is really cold, so sitting still at the desk requires four or five layers of clothing including thermals, even though the heating is working quite well. At some point I need to go out to the Post Office, but while I can justify making another cup of tea to put off revising, I really need to find a way to concentrate and stay put at my desk.

I only have two subjects to revise (plus some coursework that doesn't need to be done until February). The trouble is that I don't find Health Promotion particularly interesting or easy to revise. We get extra credit for putting in references, but it feels a bit like History at school - do they want me to remember dates? I can't tell what's important, and might end up writing a lot of irrelevant stuff. There's still time to get it sorted out, but it doesn't make revising easy - not that revising is easy, but I'm more comfortable drawing diagrams of metabolic pathways than describing theoretical models of health behaviour change or World Health Organisation charters.

Oh yes, and it's Christmas soon, and I'm in charge of dinner this year. Mr A has done the last two years based on the need for me to revise for loads of exams, but having only two exams means that I feel able to volunteer this time. We even have a plan for New Year, because the Cricketers is putting on a splendid party including music, games, a quiz, and after midnight we all Conga down to the local dance venue where we have a VIP area to carry on the party.

Must get back to revision now.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Story of a few days' holiday

Prawns in curry sauce with rice and a big bowl of soup
Lola II's computer is slow slow slow. I am at Lola II's flat while she is out at work, because I am a student, and we students have holidays in between frenzied episodes of coursework deadlines and exams.

I just asked Lola II's computer to do more than one thing at a time. It didn't like it much, but had a vague stab at it, and played with an hourglass for a while until I got bored and told it to stop. I want to watch the iplayer version of the Dr Who episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks that I missed on Wednesday, but I think I will have to feed the computer special champagne-and-chocolate-flavoured electricity if I want it to oblige on that score.

So Lola II is moving house in January, and this is a good thing. I'm not supposed to write about it until it has happened because I will jinx the whole affair, but I'm not scared, and her computer being slow makes me want to throw it away and get her a new one in the new house. While she is at work today I am supposed to check out cheaper telephone and Internet packages, but instead I am going to go into town to have lunch. Lola II has only half a pack of dates and some olives in her fridge - she clearly keeps body and soul together with nothing but canapés.

It is later now, and the computer is much faster. This is suspicious - perhaps it is only slow at particular times, when Lola II is at home, and either the computer or the broadband connection is picking on her? Either way, they need to be disciplined in some electronic fashion, and replaced completely in the new house.

While I was out in town I obviously had Japanese food for lunch, and then attempted to buy clothing which I may have to take back tomorrow if it doesn't get the thumbs up from Lola II. I completely forgot about the particular present for Mr A that I might find in a department store until I looked at my list on the way home. I really don't like shopping very much.

It is now tomorrow, and I did manage to watch the Dr Who Buzzcocks episode without incident, and then a DVD of A Room With A View with Helena Bonham Carter looking about 15 years old. Today the computer is moderately fast, but at least I didn't have to watch it struggle into life because Lola II turned it on before I was awake.

During the night I dreamed that I had three assignments to do and only three days, and my tutors commented that it wasn't like me to leave it so late, and I realised that it simply wasn't going to be possible to finish the work, and then I woke up and had to spend some time concentrating on the fact that it wasn't real. I need to do some revision soon, just so I know I will be ready for the exams.

I have just phoned home to see what Mr A has been up to. He has been to a gig! Without me! He went with Smurf and some other locals to see The Stranglers, and by all accounts had a great time. I shall have to think twice about leaving him on his own in future, since the idea is that he misses me terribly and is glad to see me again when I come back.

The clothing was deemed acceptable by Lola II and does not have to be returned, and I am very proud of having found it and bought it myself. Charity shops in the Leamington Spa region will benefit to the tune of four old unflattering sweatshirts, displaced in favour of my two fancy new jumpers on a two-for-one basis as previously agreed.

Lola II and I spent the day doing some of the more difficult things involved in moving house: for example, trying to understand how to dismantle and re-assemble telecommunications systems providing telephone and broadband access to domestic properties. It's not easy at all. Because of all that hard work, it was important that we scheduled some less stressful activity as well. So we went out for Japanese food and watched two films.

The end of my holiday was spent setting up dad as an ebay tycoon. I have written before about his stamp and coin collection, and the latest idea is to try and sell some of the material through ebay. There is little demand, and most of the material on ebay that we looked at ended up unsold, but it costs nothing but time and effort to have a go.

I'm back home now, and revision should start very soon - I did read half a book on Health Promotion on the train, but blogging must obviously come first. Mr A is pleased to see me, despite having had such a good time without me. We are going to the pub later, where I will give Smurf a good ticking off for leading my husband astray while I am out of town. He will ignore me, we will have a nice beer and then come home and perhaps watch Frost/Nixon.

I will start revising properly tomorrow. Definitely.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Birmingham, quiz, builders and plumbers

It has been pointed out that the frequency of my blogging has decreased somewhat. Well, you know what? my life isn't all that interesting when I'm not learning wild and crazy stuff about dietary assessment, obscure enzymes and epidemiology. If you'd like to know that I did some laundry, went to the Post Office and made two batches of mince pies, then you have a very low boredom threshold.

Birmingham statue, carousel and Town HallIn fact I have been out of the house on more interesting ventures: I went to Birmingham to meet two lovely ex-work colleagues. I went a bit early because the train is cheaper if you don't travel at commuter times. Normally I would have gone to the cinema, but there wasn't really anything I wanted to see, so I went for a wander around the shops. I actually need a new school bag, a cardigan or V-neck jumper, and a particular present for Mr A that I might find in a department store. Shopping isn't among my preferred activities, especially in the run-up to Christmas, so I spent about three hours in shops and bought three pens for myself. They are very nice pens, so that's good.

After I'd met lovely ex-work colleagues, we went for a stroll around the German Market that's an annual fixture around Christmas time in Birmingham city centre, and treated ourselves to a mug of glühwein. Catching up with everything that's been going on brought it home to me that I've been out of work for more than two years - and I don't regret it one bit. Starting a whole new career was a great idea, and I'm continually thanking my lucky stars (and mum and dad) that I'm able to afford it.

Quiz teamMr A and I both attended another quiz with the (old, fat) ex-badminton players and my favourite Bee Lady. They are in line for some mild abuse because a) they like it, and b) they are the ones giving me stick for not blogging. Latest bee fact: the name of the old type of beehive (shaped like a beehive rather than a square box) is a skep. Being winter, there isn't a lot of other bee-related activity to report. As usual, we rated our own quiz abilities a great deal higher than the final score would suggest - we came fourth.

Are you interested in our building/plumbing situation? No, I thought not. Well, I've put in a claim form to the insurance company over the hole in the ceiling and lifted parquet, which means we need two quotes for the work. Alf has been in touch - he's very busy (any decent builder is always very busy) and can't do anything for us until January at the earliest, but he did promise to send a quote. Nothing has arrived so far. I have details for another recommended builder (but he's very busy), and I must now try him too. Meanwhile, the polystyrene balls continue to block the bath tap, and we still have a lovely hole in the living room ceiling, a damp wall, no door to the loft, a towel radiator in its box in the hall, paint, tiles and an unfinished bathroom. It could be a lot worse - the house is warm and we live very well. I cooked braised pheasant at the weekend.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


Table setting at the badminton party
Term has ended now, and Mr A can definitely tell by my mood. No longer preoccupied with whatever coursework is hanging over me, I smile at him when he asks what plans I have for the day. I managed to hand all the coursework in early, so I even spent an afternoon on the sofa watching a film, and an evening at the badminton club's Christmas party.

For someone who doesn't like parties, this was quite a step. I made the decision quite late, and only when it became clear that a) I would already have finished all my coursework, and b) partners were not invited. This makes things much easier - I wouldn't have a load of strangers to talk to, and I wouldn't have to worry about Mr A having a load of strangers to talk to either. So my next problem was what to wear.

The men had decided to dress up to the extent of black tie, so my usual level of attire wasn't going to be sufficient - the women would definitely be wearing sparkly tops and make-up, and I would stand out in a polo shirt and clean trousers. Mr A gave me a hand with choosing a jacket, and I cleaned up some silver earrings that had gone black.

It was a lovely evening, with unusually good food for a large hotel-catered Christmas event. We occupied two tables out of about 40, there was a band and a disco, and it all went on until after 1 a.m. I made the mistake of dancing too soon after dinner, and suffered from horrendous indigestion all evening. But apart from that, it was great.

Next day was yesterday, the last day of term. Two thirds of the 9.30 a.m. lecture class was still working on the coursework that had to be handed in by 3 p.m., so the audience was small, but I stayed awake somehow. I had to have a sleep in a layby on the way home, though, and another couple of hours extra sleep later in the afternoon.

Fully recovered this morning, I'm going to enjoy about a week without homework or revision, then get stuck in again for the two exams I've got in January.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Over the last few months, Mr A and I have treated ourselves to a number of comedy gigs at Warwick Arts Centre. We have seen Reginald D Hunter (and support), Milton Jones (and support), Adam Hills, Rob Brydon (and support) and Marcus Brigstocke. It has been quite the most concentrated set of visits to one theatrical venue that I can ever remember.

Warwick Arts Centre is on the campus of Warwick University, which is technically located in Coventry rather than Warwick. This gives comics a little trouble, because traditionally a performer will start off with some 'local' jokes, picked up through reading a local paper or asking a local resident about local issues. This would work for a venue in a town centre, where the majority of the audience will have experience of that place. But I think the WAC audience consists of mostly middle class professional people from Warwick, Leamington, Kenilworth, and Warwickshire villages. Coventry residents and Warwick uni students are in the minority. Mr A and I never visit Coventry - the nearest I get is the ring road on the way to some badminton venue.

[One comedian we saw a few years ago misjudged the audience spectacularly, because presumably he thought a campus gig would be full of students. He made some 'hilarious' comments at the expense of taxpayers, which were met with unsmiling silence since the 99% taxpaying audience didn't find the idea of ripping off taxpayers very funny.]

Anyway, here's how it went:

Reg D Hunter was very good, despite our seat location in the front row (the tickets were returns, I had no choice). Proper funny. His support act was unpleasant though - a shouty, opinionated, hairy Australian delivered a ranty set including diatribes against 'political correctness' and 'health and safety', both of which are NOT utterly pointless.

Reg D Hunter: 8/10. Support act: 1/10.

I love Milton Jones for his very dry one-liners - he reminded me of Tommy Cooper's way of throwing out a line that you realise a second or two later is hilarious once you've worked it out. His support act seemed quite young and inexperienced, which put me on edge in case he bombed, but he just about got through.

Milton Jones: 7/10. Support act: 5/10.

Next came Adam Hills, who did the whole gig himself, no support, and was pretty good. It was a shame, though, because although it's traditional to pick on people in the front row of comedy gigs, he chose to pick on a 17 year-old lad who really didn't want the attention. He should have let it go and moved on, but he persisted, even into the second half, and Mr A said he just stopped enjoying it because this lad was having such a bad time.

Adam Hills: 6/10, but would have been higher if he'd left the boy alone.

Then Rob Brydon, who's actually famous. Nobody's heard of Milton Jones, but once you mention the Welsh one in Gavin and Stacey, people know Rob Brydon. He had a very funny and expert support act, whose best line was at the start when some latecomers arrived: "Rob's not here so we're all having a go - I'm from Row G." Rob himself did about 90 minutes after the interval - in fact, it ended so late that we couldn't even get a pint in the pub when we got home. He was the most actorly and rehearsed, even though there was a fair amount of audience interaction - again, interacting with the middle classes isn't very funny without a lot of rowdy students.

Rob Brydon: 8/10. Support act: 7/10.

Now we come on to Marcus Brigstocke. I've had tickets to see Marcus before at WAC, but forgot to go, which was one of the most furiously annoying things that has ever happened to me. I have seen him before, at Ealing Comedy Festival with Lola II and nephew 1, but that was just a short set and he wasn't even headlining. I loved it. The interesting thing is that he was probably just as shouty and opinionated as Reg D Hunter's support act, but this time I agreed with him, so that made it OK.

Marcus Brigstocke: 9/10.

I rather prefer comedy gigs to music, although it's hard to beat some good old-fashioned dancin'. Previous comedians wot I 'ave seen over the years have been:
  • Paul Merton - obviously a consummate professional
  • Eddie Izzard - I probably laughed the most at this one
  • Ed Byrne - pretty good even before he was very famous
  • Ross Noble - can go a bit off track, but funny nevertheless
  • Lee Mack - love him
  • Rich Hall - love him mo'
  • Steve Coogan - a long long time ago when he was doing stand up, not great
  • Jack Dee - I actually can't remember much about this one, because I was only there for the support act who was:
  • Richard Morton - hardly well-known at all, but I think he's wonderful
  • Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis - a double act really helps with stand up
  • Bill Bailey - impressed at his musical skill as well as the surreal comedy
  • Dr Phil Hammond - this is the one that my parents should see, but he doesn't seem to be touring any more
  • A recording of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue: Graeme Garden, Barry Cryer, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Tony Hawks on this occasion, with Humphrey Lyttleton - what a wonderful show that is
  • Richard Herring - a very little gig, but it was in Leamington (reviewed here)
  • Jeremy Hardy - he's a very funny man
  • Sue Perkins - I expected to laugh more than I did at this one
  • Linda Smith - I loved her, but sadly no longer with us
  • David Mitchell and Robert Webb - Their live gig didn't grab me like their TV stuff does.
There are more, but I haven't included the ones where I remember I was there but can't remember anything else about it. I'm quite surprised, not just at the number of different comedians, but also at how clearly I remember the gigs, some of which were over 15 years ago.

Friday, 4 December 2009

A short break and a presentation

Last weekend, we were supposed to go camping. I know, November isn't a traditional camping month, but we were going to have a big wood fire and sit around with a load of friends keeping warm by dint of conviviality, conversation and alcohol. But the forecast was for rain and more rain, most of the friends had forgotten that they'd agreed to come, and the ones who remembered didn't much want to sit in the rain and then sleep in a wet tent. So Mr A, Lola II and I were at a bit of a loose end.

Mr A and me eating sherbet fountainsWe decided to go to stay with Lola II, eat Japanese food, see a film (The Men Who Stare At Goats - Mr A and I liked the film; Lola II was less keen), eat a fried breakfast, go to the Science Museum and then eat more Japanese food before coming home. At the museum we split up so that Mr A could get his fill of Planes and Cars and Engines while we looked at Health, Medicine and Time. We met up at one of the cafés, where we discovered Sherbet Fountains that still had wrappers made of paper! We felt obliged to sample them, simply for the sake of nostalgia.

Returning to our dilapidated country mansion on Sunday night (no, Alf has not yet told us when/if he will finish our bathroom and mend the hole in the ceiling), I look forward to the torment of the Ethics presentation, and do one more practice before the big day.

So, our presentation about the ethics of force feeding patients with anorexia nervosa. It's a pretty serious topic, and the literature describes how terrible life can be if you're living with a condition that doesn't let you eat, and makes you vomit, exercise, or eat laxatives if you do eat. You are totally cut off from most of the activities of daily living open to the rest of us, either because of fatigue, illness, self-consciousness about your emaciated appearance, or the fear that eating will be required.

The group comprised just four people in the end - one girl assigned to our group has actually now left the course. We decided to act out a case study, to try and bring a bit more engagement and interaction to the presentation, which was mostly just Powerpoint bullet points. It was a pretty ambitious idea, and it mostly worked, except that one of our group had a fit of giggles. I was pretty cross about that.

It is fairly typical of my attitude to some of the students at the moment: I wish they would grow up. I can't be too critical out loud - after all, I was much more irresponsible at their age - but I'm losing patience now. It's nearly the end of term, which always makes me very tired, so I just have to hang on for another week and I won't have to see them again until the end of January.

Coursework is nearly done - if I can just concentrate properly, it will probably take another two days. Yesterday we were given some more, but it doesn't need to be handed in until February, so I can do it over the holidays along with my revision. And one of the modules is now exclusively taught by my favourite lecturer in the world, who also happens to be my personal tutor as well, so Friday mornings are still a haven of bliss in a sea of pain.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
Catch 22
by Joseph Heller

narrated by Trevor White
"Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. 'That's some catch, that Catch-22,' he observed. 'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed."
I can hardly believe that this book was first published in 1955, well before I was born - it seems as up-to-date and relevant now as it was then. I first read it long ago, probably while I was still at school. My copy was printed in 1979, and it looks like I bought it second-hand for £1. It became one of those that I always call to mind when asked for 'favourite book'. I deliberately didn't go to see the film that came out a while ago, and I haven't read it in print form for a while, so I thought I'd re-read it in audio form on the hour-long journeys to uni and back.

It's been one of the best books I've listened to - nothing is lost in the move from print to audio. Over the last month or two the characters came alive all over again, the madness, stupidity, incompetence, frustration and fear of war are conveyed graphically, dramatically - it could be happening today. Although of course, it couldn't, could it? Surely Joseph Heller has taken the reality and exaggerated it just enough to remain plausible?

I cling to the belief that people don't behave in this way, couldn't be so crazy, the situations must be the product of imagination. And yet, and yet - the mortal fear of being shot at while flying a mission over a target is so real, perhaps the rest has a grain of truth too? It was written very close to the end of WWII and I don't know what part Joseph Heller played in that conflict. I sat in the car once I'd reached my destination, just to listen to the last 10 minutes.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

I've been working

What can I say - I've been working. Not working all of the time, that's impossible, but quite a lot. No time for taking photos, even if the weather were clement, which it definitely isn't. And I can't be bothered to scour the archives for something suitable today.

The Ethics presentation is coming along quite well, and I've started 'Mrs Sparrow 2 (The Revenge)' as well. I've even had a go at Epidemiology, which is all about reading the Methods section of some academic research papers and then answering questions like 'What sort of study is this?', and 'What are potential confounding factors?' I like this coursework best of the three, it's logical, and by the end of it I will feel that I have learned something useful. I'm learning useful things with Mrs Sparrow too, but I don't find it as easy.

Placement allocations have come through, and I will be spending 12 weeks over the summer commuting to Northampton, which is the nearest placement to my home. To be honest, it's a bit scary to imagine taking on the responsibilities of a real dietitian, plus the fact that full time work plus homework seems almost impossible to conceive. I'm sure it will be fine, after all, it was only two and a half years ago that I was working full time. Seems like much longer.

No further progress on the house, except I need to fill in the insurance claim form, and we are waiting for Alf to let us know when he might be able to fit us in and finish the bathroom. The hole in the living room ceiling deposits a light scattering of debris on the floor every now and then, but we just sweep it up.

Friday, 20 November 2009

It's about the house again

Tiered houses and gardens on a steep slope
Stop press news: our decorator resigned. She works with the builder who has now been replaced, and she didn't feel comfortable with the situation. Fair enough. Despite this, things are gradually improving: Alf came round to look at some of the work that needs doing, which has been accumulating over the seven years we have been living here.

Some of it will be fresh in your minds: the bathroom, the hole in the living room ceiling. Other stuff I have mentioned before: the loft ladder and the parquet, which has swelled following the water leak making a patch of floor dome-shaped rather than flat. The rest of the work that needs doing takes the form of a long-term project to keep Alf well remunerated for the remainder of his working life - essentially all the damage repair, reconstruction and decoration in all of the rest of the house, inside and out, except for the three rooms we have already done. And it looks like we have some damp in an outside wall. Now Alf needs to tell us when he can start.

The other brief interlude I have failed to mention so far was a chap who came round last week to talk to us about our Russian Vine. This is a prolific trailing weed that brightens up the autumn by producing foliage and white blossom all over the back wall. Our recent visitor owns the nursing home whose garden backs onto ours and the pub's, and whose problem is that this vine is gradually knocking down his wall. We went round to have a look, but the roots and trunk of the plant actually lie somewhere between all of our walls, not in any of the three gardens. So it looks as though the problem will only be solved if the plant is killed.

Are you fed up of these house-related stories? Well, we went out last night to a pub quiz with the ex-badminton crew. We picked up some fresh Bee News (on mating with the Queen Bee, the lucky drone is rewarded by imploding) and we were doing pretty well in the quiz, in joint first place at half time. Unfortunately, the picture round crushed us into fourth place. It was a great night out nevertheless, but not enough sleep on a school night and two long lectures today about the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease means I'm looking forward to a lie in tomorrow.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

It gets worse before it gets better

I awake Monday morning, 6.30 a.m., and blearily descend the stairs to find a small pool of water collecting in the corner of the living room, beneath the bathroom. Looking up, there is a distinct bulging in the ceiling above. I put a bowl underneath the drips, alert poor Mr A to the situation, and bugger off to school. We are taught a great deal about cancer. One student, in tears, has to leave the class.

I phone home - Mr A reports that the plumbers have fixed the leak, the heating downstairs is working, and hot water is mostly flowing from the hot taps once more.

I meet with two others from the group I will be working with on the Ethics presentation, and talk about Anorexia Nervosa for a bit - we go and see the tutor, and discuss (among other things) what our options are if the other two people in the group, who have not been able to come to our planning meeting, fail to attend any more meetings. On the way home, I am contacted by another student who lets off steam about her Ethics group, which sounds as difficult as mine but in an entirely different way. It's another difficult day.

At home I greet Mr A with some relief, and we philosophically review the damage to the living room ceiling. We are not sure how fixing the leak cured any of the other problems, but since they are mostly cured, we will not tempt fate by questioning further until the plumbers visit us again to install the new bathroom radiator. Mr A attempts to run a bath, but the flow from the hot tap is so slow that he resorts to filling buckets with hot water in the kitchen and carrying them up to fill the bath. He is determined to have a bath. A small polystyrene ball emerges from the kitchen tap.

At the weekend we did manage to choose paint colours and tiles, which seems very optimistic given the amount of work still to take place before these can be applied. In addition to the restoration of a bath panel (this time removable), completion of the woodwork and skirting (this time under the direction of Mr A), further investigation of the hot water flow to the bathtaps, stripping and painting walls and ceiling and laying down the floor, we now have a hole in the living room ceiling to be fixed as well.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The bathroom, and associated grief

Red berries among dark green leaves
It's been an eventful week in the life of Lola Towers. She has been poked, prodded and violated in all sorts of ways, and is now sulking, refusing to reveal the secrets of her piping. For this weekend, at least, her inhabitant, the long-suffering author and student Lola, will have to endure a total lack of central heating and hot water downstairs. Mr A: not so much, he's gone away until Saturday night.

Last Monday, the builder arrived to work on the bathroom - sealing properly around the bath, restoring the tongue-and-groove woodwork, and in principle, removing the existing radiator in preparation for installation of a different one when the woodwork is complete. I was off at uni for the day, learning about Ethics, Nutrition in HIV/AIDS and working with my group on the introduction to our coursework on Gene Polymorphisms in Lipoprotein Metabolism. It was a tough day.

Mr A phoned me before lectures started - he was concerned about the skirting board that was going to be fitted. Unfortunately, he failed to convey his concerns to the actual builder, so the skirting board was installed, and he didn't like it. The other issue was that the bath panel had been built without the agreed access to the pipework behind it, and we were still hoping to investigate the poor flow to the bath taps. All had been glued and nailed thoroughly - both access under the bath and removal of the unwanted skirting meant the destruction of the whole panel. The builder had only been able to work for half a day, and he hadn't done anything about the radiator.

We went to see our decorator, who told us that she and the builder had decided (without consulting us) that the under-bath access was impractical, so they hadn't implemented it. We went away to think about this, while anticipating another visit from our lovely plumbers. This was on Thursday, with the objective of replacing our hot water tank, which was old, seriously corroded, and poorly insulated.

Again, I was away all day, learning about Regulation of Protein Expression, and Settings for Healthcare Promotion, and creating the index for our group coursework. Another tough day. I arrived home to find notices all over the place from Mr A telling me not to turn on the heating. He had gone to a meeting, returning very late. I had been quite looking forward to a shower...

The tank replacement job was due to be completed on Friday - another day at uni for me, learning about Nutrition in High Risk Pregnancies and finishing that damn coursework. Within my group, I had worked before with only two out of the four. It didn't go all that smoothly in the end, the workload wasn't divided equally at all, and we only managed to get it finished with an hour to spare before the deadline. Not what I'm used to at all. One of the group (whom I had worked with quite a bit before, we get on very well) told me later that she'd never heard me swear before. It's an interesting prelude to my other group assignment, for which my first meeting (with entirely different people) is on Monday.

I got home on Friday afternoon to find the lovely plumbers unexpectedly still there, but looking rather tense. In the next hour or two, I learned a great deal about plumbing systems. 'Dropping the tank' means to drain all the water out, for the purpose of doing some sort of remedial work. Hot and cold water and central heating systems have entirely separate header tanks. We have a rather old house. If someone, say a previous 'workman', insulates your tank with polystyrene but fails to do it properly, then a load of small polystyrene balls fall into the water in the tank and float on the top. When the water is drained out of said tank, your system will fill with small polystyrene balls. This will clog things up something rotten.

So at the end of Friday, we have a number of issues.
  • We have a new hot water tank: nicely insulated, should save us a load of money.
  • The flow of hot water to many of our household taps is seriously compromised, presumably by polystyrene balls, potentially inside pipes and taps themselves.
  • The routing of pipes around the house is somewhat obscure, given its age.
  • Something has also happened to the central heating (to be honest, I'm not sure how this is related to the tap water problem) which means that upstairs radiators are hot and downstairs radiators are not.
  • I had a shower in the sports centre after my badminton match.
  • The new bathroom radiator is still in the hall, in its box, although the old one has gone now.
  • The skirting board/bath panel issue is resolved.
We like the plumbing brothers A and M, and got hold of them through a very reliable chap (let's call him Alf) who's done a lot of good quality work for us in the past - our kitchen roof, rendering an outside wall. The builder and decorator came via a different recommendation, and we don't trust them so much. Turns out that Alf does carpentry too, and has capacity to fit us in. So the plan has changed somewhat:
  • The plumbing brothers A and M are back on Monday, and will sort our problem out somehow - although I'm anticipating that some collateral damage will ensue, both to the house and to the bank balance.
  • We pay the builder for what he's done so far, and say thanks, but we'll take it from here.
  • We get Alf in to finish the structural work around the bathroom, and see if he's interested in helping us with various other jobs that have been waiting for a long time (e.g. loft access and decaying parquet).
  • When all is well in the plumbing and woodwork departments, the decorator can come back in to do the bathroom, if Mr A wants her to. Otherwise - well, we've lived with shabby decor for coming up to seven years, so we can manage a bit longer if we need to.
I'm now just realising the implications of the compromised water supply. A (of A and M plumbing brothers) thinks it might be OK to run the dishwasher as long has it has a filter on the incoming supply, but I may be taking a bath together with our dirty dishes later...

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Molecular Nutrition coursework

Diagram of effect of MTP gene polymorphism
I threatened it, then I thought better of it, and now the threat comes true: a post about microsomal triacylglycerol transfer protein (MTP). You lucky, lucky readers.

This is for my benefit, not yours, of course. I don't imagine anyone who might read my blog would be even passingly interested in this obscure enzyme, but today my essay has to be finished. It is taking longer than is plausible, so writing down what I know at this point might just crystallize my knowledge and allow me to finish the damn thing a bit quicker.

What MTP does is to take the molecules of fat that we've eaten and digested and absorbed, and shuttle them into structures called lipoproteins. Because fat is insoluble in water, and therefore doesn't dissolve in blood, it must be transported around the body in a form that is soluble, which is what the lipoprotein is. (You will have heard of at least two sorts of lipoprotein: LDL and HDL, which are low-density and high-density lipoproteins. HDL is the one we need more of; LDL is the undesirable one.)

A lipoprotein is formed from a membrane 'shell' that is made of the same stuff that all our other cell membranes are made of (phospholipid and cholesterol), and contains lipid (fat) molecules and more cholesterol attached to lipid. (If we take up too much cholesterol it ends up in LDL, and this is a Bad Thing because it finds its way into artery walls and causes atherosclerosis, thrombosis and heart attacks. HDL is a Good Thing because it travels round the body picking up cholesterol and delivering it back to the liver, out of harm's way).

So MTP hooks up to a protein called apolipoprotein B (apoB) attached to a bit of membrane, and scoops up lipid (triacylglycerol) and shoves it inside the membrane, filling up the lipoprotein. Hence 'triacylglycerol transfer protein' - 'microsomal' just tells us where it is located.

So far, so good. The essay I have to write is about gene polymorphisms in lipoprotein metabolism. In real words, this means it's about any differences between the DNA code for MTP that make a difference to its effect on lipoproteins in the body.

A gene is just a string of DNA 'code' that is represented by four letters: C, G, A and T. Inside a cell, the DNA code is transcribed into RNA and then translated into amino acids to make a protein. There are a number of different regions in a gene: a region indicating where it starts, where it ends, and a preliminary bit called a 'promoter'. Turning genes 'on' and 'off' is often done in the promoter region - something binds to the DNA promoter that prevents the gene being decoded and turned into protein, for example.

In the gene promoter for MTP, there's a polymorphism. This means that in a proportion of people, at position 493 the string of DNA code contains the letter G, but in others it's a T - the official name is MTP -493G/T polymorphism. Because we've got two copies of every gene, we might have combinations GG, GT or TT. All are good enough for the decoding to go ahead and make MTP, but it turns out that if you've got the letter G, it isn't quite as good as if you've got a T.

[Just writing this has already highlighted something I need to clarify: MTP is actually made of two proteins linked together... I need to clarify which of the two genes I'm talking about in my essay. And just for interest, if your version of MTP is seriously garbled, you get something called abetalipoproteinaemia, in case you fancy looking it up. OK, move on.]

The main trouble is that there are literally millions of different factors that affect gene transcription and translation - some are other gene combinations (e.g. our ethnic background), and some are 'environmental' - how much fat we eat, how much exercise we do, whether we smoke or drink alcohol, even our income and where we live have an indirect effect. The researchers try very hard to separate out the genetic factors from everything else, matching their experimental group with people who are similar in every respect except the G/T polymorphism. This is, of course, impossible, but if experiments are done on enough people, statistical trends should emerge.

The work I'm looking at has focussed on two different diseases: non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and diabetes. NASH is a disease of the liver, where an accumulation of fat has progressed into more serious symptoms, sometimes resulting in cancer. You will have heard of diabetes, where either the pancreas isn't producing insulin in response to glucose, or the insulin it does produce isn't dealing effectively with the glucose.

They think there is a link between NASH and diabetes - having one condition predisposes a person to getting the other. The research about the MTP G/T polymorphism has been looking at whether MTP has an effect on something that then causes both NASH and diabetes. The research suggests that it might be that the GG version of MTP (two copies of the gene with G at position 493) has an effect on two types of lipoproteins (resulting in more oxLDL and less HDL-C), and that these not only affect the liver but also pancreatic beta-cells, which are the ones that produce insulin.

That's it. I suspected it wasn't a very interesting choice of topic, and now that I've written it down, I can see that it really isn't a very interesting choice of topic. Too late now. This has helped, so that's good. But I still don't know why MTP isn't called MTTP...

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Weekend: Disc Golf, Cake and Chinese food

Lola posing with metal sculpture of disc golfer
A brief respite before I get down to work again. Two of the pieces of coursework are handed in; the next isn't due until next Friday, but I have already had a good deal of trouble with it - there's a lot to do in just a week.

Ugly cupcakes with runny icing, chocolate buttons and a birthday candleSo, the weekend. It was fun. Lola II and nephew Phlop were here; we made carrot cake cupcakes, which tasted OK but frankly looked quite horrible. They had slips of paper cunningly secreted beneath offering amusing topics for discussion. Many of them were not eaten, due to their unattractive appearance. We also made a lemon cake, which was both attractive and delicious, so we ate all of that one. After Disc Golf.

Line up of Disc Golf playersDisc Golf is a sport that is played a bit like golf but with small frisbees for balls and baskets for targets. I have no idea whether it is a popular well-known sport or not - there just happens to be a handy course just north of Leamington. It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon, weather was clement throughout, and rather a fun time was had by all. The boys among us performed a great deal better than the girls, and I rather surprised myself by being truly bad at it (one of my throws landed further away from the basket than where I started) but not caring. I just enjoyed it.

Supper was in the pub, which was unexpectedly hosting a Halloween party. Probably not that unexpectedly, since it was Halloween and there were signs up, but we haven't been to the pub for a while, what with my oversize workload. I rather wished that we had known in advance and planned it into the schedule, because there was dressing up, singing, dancing and friendly people, but we were in civvies and rather tired, so we ate up and left them to it.

On Sunday we were up and driving down to Lola II's house for a family Chinese meal, to celebrate mum's birthday - well, that was the excuse, but it's good to get together every now and then. After a small hitch when we discovered that the Chinese takeaway we'd used before no longer opened at weekend lunch times, an alternative supplier was found and the food was fine. Everyone forced down at least one cupcake, niece J had more than one, and we looked through the family 'treasure' and talked about what we might do with it.

The image at the top is of Lola II and a sculpture on the Disc Golf course (can you tell which is which?) I shall leave you with a classy shot of me, mid-throw, only slightly blurred, hilariously composed by Lola II. Shows my best side, I think.

One leg in midair

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Too busy

Absolutely no time to compose any thoughtful well-considered prose. I did have a great weekend, involving Lola II, a nephew henceforth to be known informally as Phlop, the sport of Disc Golf, an unexpected bit of a Halloween party in the pub, a Chinese lunch with most of my immediate family, and the end of two pieces of coursework - or so I thought.

Yesterday was a marathon session at the main university campus, and based on further information received, I need to review one of the pieces of coursework I thought I'd finished. I have been given even more coursework to do, and have been placed in a Group From Hell which has to produce a collaborative presentation.

Onwards and upwards. It's a real slog this term, although I shouldn't give the impression that it's not interesting. We're doing much more relevant and practical things now, building on the theoretical foundation of the first two years. I'm just tired, and I'd like some time off!

Mum, cupcakes and candles

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Thoughts on being a student

Autumnal tree
Four things I remember most vividly from being a student the first time round, in my late teens and early twenties:
  • Freedom to do what I wanted in my own space for the first time. I could read a book or take a shower at 3 am without any questions asked.
  • A sinking sense of bafflement and perplexity at the subject matter. I really didn't have much of a clue about engineering.
  • Meeting many people who have become long-term friends, who make me laugh and make me think, and who still seem to like me despite everything I've done.
  • The 24-hour nature of the role of student. There are no boundaries to the day, no 9-to-5 routines. No time off. Any time spent having fun was time that I should have spent working, because there was always more to do.
Being a student now is very different in these four respects.
  • Living with Mr A means conforming to conventional behaviour on the whole. This is a shame, but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Most of the time.
  • I absolutely love my course, and unlike engineering, I really 'get' the subject. I do extra just because it's interesting.
  • I don't think that I'll be in touch with anyone I've met through university in five years' time, let alone after 25 years. This is undoubtedly my problem, not theirs.
  • I am able to work in the early morning and into the evenings because at my age I'd rather be sitting at my desk than sleeping late or climbing over the college gate at 2 a.m. And there's nothing on TV worth watching.
Apart from my badminton and mealtimes, I've been working 12+ hour days for the last week, and am set to continue until mid-November, apart from a little break for a family gathering this weekend. I've nearly finished two of the three pieces of coursework, but we are set some more very soon. It doesn't need to be handed in for a month, so I'm definitely taking at least one weekend off.

Friday, 23 October 2009

End of a long week

Spider in the centre of an unfeasibly large web
It's Friday morning, and I'm very tired, sitting in the library anticipating my last lecture of the week.

The coursework situation became critical earlier this week, when I discovered that I was getting nowhere with the gene polymorphism one and I had to phone the supervising tutor. Thankfully, he was very helpful, and I'm back on track, but it feels as though there's hardly any time to the deadline. Instead of Apolipoprotein B I'm going to be writing about microsomal triacylglyceride transfer protein (MTP), and I'm sure I'll provide more details in a future post, perhaps even speculating on why it isn't abbreviated to MTTP.

After our last Diet Therapy lecture there was a short discussion about Mrs Sparrow, whose nutritional requirements (it turns out) have to be justified by reference to the academic literature, which will probably double the amount of time this work will take. Not that I thought it would be trivial, but now it's really something.

At least I'm doing OK with my leaflet about barriers to promoting healthy eating to the Vietnamese population of the UK. If I can get that one finished at the weekend I'll feel much better - unfortunately I don't think that will be possible. I now have the equivalent of a revision timetable to make sure I give enough time to each bit of work.

Apart from all the coursework I've had a good week, with badminton club on Monday night, a match on Tuesday night (we only lost 7-2! Result!) and then I played again yesterday at university with a couple of random postgrads and one of the sports centre staff. It all contributes to the exhaustion, but I definitely feel happier when I've played badminton - three times in a week is probably overdoing it, though.

The spider in the picture at the top built his amazing web in our garden in September. Unfortunately, he built his wonderfully intricate home exactly where I wanted to hang the washing.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

What I've been reviewing

Image of the book cover
Study and Communications Skills for the Biosciences
by Stuart Johnson and Jon Scott

"Written in a practical, motivational style, with plenty of examples and advice to help the reader master the skills being explored, the book explains how to get the most out of lectures, tutorials, and group work; how to get the most out of the vast array of information that is available in books, in journals, and on the web; how to communicate your work and ideas effectively to others; and how to revise for and complete exams to give yourself the best chance of success."
This is another of the free books that OUP have given me to review. I've read it from cover to cover, and even though it's aimed at someone going to university for the first time, it still has some useful advice for an old stager. It has come up with some suggestions for solving the problems I have when researching - I tend to find too much material, and get side-tracked by interesting but irrelevant information. I shall try starting from a textbook and gradually widening the scope, rather than starting with a general search on the Internet or PubMed. There are also some useful ideas about working in groups, and on creating a poster, which is often the way that original research is presented. Altogether, very good value for money, especially as I didn't pay for it.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Third year coursework

Tree stump with leaves growingI have three lots of pressing coursework at the moment, and being the third year, it is all rather difficult. They are all due to be handed in during the first two weeks of November, which doesn't seem that far away when I consider all that must be done by then if I am to achieve decent marks.

The first one involves a case history: Mrs Elsie Sparrow, frail old lady, she's been in hospital and has also lost a lot of weight. We have to fill in a hospital record card for her and... actually, I have to admit that I haven't really started working on this one yet.

I've done much more about the second piece of coursework, part of Health Promotion. It's the sort of assignment where we're given a brief, and we have to go and research it and then produce an original leaflet. It needs to be aimed at health professionals, and provide information about how to promote healthy eating to one sector of the community.

I do find this type of assignment very difficult. I get very involved in the research, and go off at a tangent, and then forget what I've read in which document, which is very bad because it all has to be very tightly referenced. But writing everything down as I read it, which would help with the referencing, doesn't work because at the point when I read something I don't know if I will need it for the final document.

The third bit of coursework is a doozy. I have to say that the lecturers have come up with a great formula: in a group of five we are asked to imagine that we are all speaking at a conference. We are assigned a broad subject, but we have to decide the theme of the conference, and each choose topics that we might present. We don't actually have to create or deliver a presentation, but instead we have to write the abstract as if we were. The assignment that goes in for marking is in the form of 'Proceedings', containing an introduction, contents page, each of our abstracts, and some sort of index.

It combines the same type of research above that I'm bad at, together with the necessity to work in a group. Luckily, the group I have ended up with looks as though it will work well, with people who, like me, don't leave things to the last minute. The subject is a corker: Gene polymorphisms in lipoprotein metabolism. No, we didn't understand it either. I am to write about Apolipoprotein B, and I hope that today I will find out why. Yes, I haven't really started this one either.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The bathroom

Bare boards in the empty bathroomOur bathroom continues to consume time: days and days of choosing baths and toilets and basins, going from shop to warehouse to showroom trying to buy the right bits. We assembled all the different components in the hall and the plumbing brothers A and M looked them over when they arrived - only one missing item, so that was pretty good.

There are so many variables, and it was pure luck that we bought a basin and taps that might actually go together - I hadn't noticed that the basin had a single hole for a mixer tap. It would have been quite easy for us to buy two single ones, but luckily we didn't. And waste pipes, and fixing kits, and valves... When the plumbers had looked over our water delivery system, they recommended that we replace the ancient hot water tank, and that will probably happen in November.

Bare boards and a new bathThis meant that all of my 'spare' time last week was spent on bathroom stuff, and Tuesday and Wednesday were frequently interrupted to look after the lovely plumbers, supplying them with tea and information and porcelain-based items. We have asked a designer/decorator to help us make the room nice afterwards, so she came round too, to see what the plumbers were up to and to make various helpful suggestions.

She was having a cup of tea in the kitchen with Mr A afterwards, and it turns out, almost unbelievably, that she recognised him from when she was at the Central School of Arts and he was at Camberwell College in London in the 1970's, and they lived in the same Halls of Residence. How she could have recognised him is beyond me, seeing as how he would have had some significant hair back then, and was a couple of inches taller because he hadn't yet had his major bike accident, and he said he didn't really talk to anyone when he was there.

A and M working in the bathroomOn Tuesday the plumbing brothers A and M ripped out all the old fittings, and managed to install the new bath and nearly the toilet. On Wednesday, they completed the toilet and installed the basin. They were tidy and polite, they put down dustsheets, they cleaned up when they were finished, and were generally a pleasure to have in the house. Admittedly they did drive me to the edge by talking interminably about bikes with Mr A - they are both keen on motocross, whatever that is.

So now we have a new bath, toilet and sink in the bathroom, although we still have to be careful because there's no flooring down and the wall around the bath isn't yet complete. It should all be over by Christmas.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

"Smoke, foam or bubbles?"

Group of people surrounded by bubbles
Today I am feeling a little low. I think it is partly because the weekend was so much fun, but I have returned to the reality of a lot of work to do, and many reasons why it is difficult to get it done, not least that our bathroom is being ripped out and replaced today.

It was a very good weekend trip: we stayed with J & C, visited Mr A's parents who live in the area, and then onwards to other friends for a most interesting assignment. While sorting out dad's stamps and coins a while ago, we looked through some ancient family heirlooms - old jewellery, little trinkets, that sort of thing. Mr A has an old friend who's an antique dealer, so we arranged to take round the shoebox with all this treasure, so he could look over it and see if there was anything of value in the hoard.

Mr F and Mr A looking over the treasureHe had a great time sorting through the little boxes and bags at all sorts of odds and ends. He was so enthusiastic, and got out his lenses and a little weighing device and his acid kit for testing metals. There isn't anything particularly valuable, although he thought one of the watches might be worth a few hundred pounds.

The real reason for the weekend away, however, was Mr B's 60th birthday party. Mr B is one of Mr A's oldest friends; they used to fix up old cars together for racing, and churned up the New Forest in their Landrovers when that was still allowed. Mr B was the one who invited Mr A to join him on a car rally through Africa, and introduced us to a set of great people who have turned out to be lasting friends.

Mr B is an eccentric chap, while his wife is a solid rock of sensibleness. He has a large workshop full of detritus from 60 years of not throwing anything away - cars (many cars), dressers, biscuit tins, rusty tools, chairs, machinery, bookcases, other random furniture - I'm sure I once saw a piano in there.

Last time we saw him was at the wedding party, where he let on that he had just acquired a smoke machine, a foam machine and a bubble machine. The groom told us how at one point Mr B had approached him, and simply asked "Smoke, foam or bubbles?" After trying for some time to produce bubbles, Mr B realised that he had filled the machine with the liquid that produces smoke.

Anyway, Mr and Mrs B and their two daughters must have put an enormous amount of effort into the party - a marquee, tables and chairs, lights, balloons, food and drink. It even had a pirate theme, although this message hadn't percolated through to us at all, so we were in the minority dressed in standard outfits, surrounded by a motley crew of pirates.

Towards the end of the evening, sitting chillin' in the marquee, we asked Mr B why he hadn't set up any of his smoke, foam or bubble machines? A little while later, smoke started to billow in, and within minutes the entire company disappeared into the fog, emerging from the marquee when it became pointless to remain there, in fits of laughter and coughing. The bubble machine was more successful, especially when paired with the smoke machine to produce smoke-filled bubbles.

uploading ipodStop press: the ipod played perfectly fine with headphones and on my little base station, so I replaced the cassette device in the car that it was playing through, and all is well. Hooray!

[I can't get the image onto the blog without it rotating itself, so you'll have to rotate your head instead.]

Sunday, 11 October 2009

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
The Flight of the Falcon
by Daphne du Maurier

"As a young guide for Sunshine Tours, Armino Fabbio leads a pleasant, if humdrum life, until he becomes involved in the murder of an old peasant woman in Rome. The woman, he gradually comes to realise, was his family's beloved servant many years ago, in his native town of Ruffano. He returns to his birthplace, and once there, finds it is haunted by the phantom of his brother, Aldo, shot down in flames in '43."
This is by no means the best work of Daphne du Maurier - her famous works like Rebecca and Frenchman's Creek are a great deal better. But it is still quite a good read, set in Italy in a town apparently recognisable as Urbino, and with an interesting twist revealed towards the end.

Image of the book cover
The Ladies of Grace Adieu
by Susanna Clarke

narrated by Simon Prebble and Davina Porter

"An enchanting collection brimming with all the ingredients of good fairy tales: petulant princesses, vengeful owls, ladies who pass their time by embroidering terrible fates; endless paths in the deep, dark woods; and houses that never appear the same way twice."
This is just as good as the previous one by Susanna Clarke, and in the same style. In a way it's more accessible because of the short story format, but without my long journeys to university, I haven't been listening to audio books, just podcasts. So it took me all summer to read this in little chunks with big gaps, and the stories lost a bit of their coherence because of that. I'd definitely read it again, though.

Image of the book cover
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy

narrated by Carole Boyd

"Set in Kerala, India, during the late 1960s when Communism rattled the age-old caste system, the story begins with the funeral of young Sophie Mol, the cousin of the novel's protagonists, Rahel and her fraternal twin brother, Estha. Beneath the drama of a family tragedy lies a background of local politics, social taboos and the tide of history, all of which come together in a slip of fate, after which a family is irreparably shattered."
An atmospheric, poetically written book, which skips about in time but never left me confused as to what period we were in. I first listened to this book a long time ago, but never forgot the impression it left - musky and evocative of India.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The ipod story continues

Well, readers, last thing on Wednesday I hopped over to the big electronics store with my stack of vouchers and made my purchase. A lovely, new, shiny, black ipod. I even took photos, on the basis that I would need to illustrate my delighted blogging.

The chosen photo refused to upload to the blog properly - each time I tried, it rotated itself by 90 degrees. I gave up.

Never mind, your loss is incidental, I have a new ipod! I even gave the one I was using back to Mr A. My new ipod sparkled next to the computer as it uploaded more than 3000 songs and podcasts and books and photos (and my calendar).

On Thursday I hitched it up to the car radio and off we went. But I couldn't get the levels right - too loud and the sound was distorted, too quiet and there was a load of hissing. This morning, as I plugged the ipod into the car radio, I noticed that it started playing white noise. There is something wrong with it.

This morning I have lectures, this afternoon I am collecting a bathroom radiator, valves (and lightbulbs) and then Mr A and I are away for a weekend of celebrating a friend's 60th birthday. The ipod saga is not over yet.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Home news

Red and green tomatoes growing in the garden
On the home front, Mr A and I continue to inhabit Lola Towers with enthusiasm.

I managed to sustain three tomato plants over the summer, which continue to provide the odd tomato, although I think it's probably time to bring the remaining green ones inside to ripen on the windowsill.

Next door, Smurf and the pub are flourishing. We don't visit that often nowadays, certainly no more than once a week, but we feel very lucky to have such a good neighbour. When a friend came over for a day's shopping in Leamington, Smurf offered to keep an eye out for the traffic wardens, and move her car if necessary.

We couldn't supply her with a visitor's parking permit because Mr A has bought himself a vehicle and has not yet bought a resident's permit. He has made some big life changes, and is now occupied primarily in studying for an Open University degree in Computing - the first two modules have arrived and are spread over his office.

He is also delivering IT training courses, and so needed some independent transport because I have exclusive use of the car during term times. Unwilling to abandon his biking ambitions, he went for a van just large enough to transport his bike to events, even though he is not likely to be able to afford to ride at many events in the near future. We will be using it to transport wood and camping gear to our next planned camping trip in November, where participants have been promised a fire.

My sporting ambitions continue with the badminton club - we moved to our brand spanking new venue a few weeks ago, and have already lost our first league match. It's a lovely hall, though, and a few new people have joined, so perhaps one day we could end up winning our matches. Last season, we lost all but one match, and would have been demoted if we hadn't already been in the bottom division of the league.

The most significant improvement to Lola Towers is taking place over the next month or two - we are renovating the bathroom. About a year ago, Mr A applied great gobs of sealant around the plughole to stem the flow of water through the ceiling below. Then a few months ago, the bath itself cracked, and is currently being held together by gaffer tape. We have engaged a plumbing team to assist us, we have bought a bath, a basin, WC, taps, and I shall be collecting a radiator on Friday. Then the decorating team enter the fray, renewing the walls, ceiling and floor.

The latest ipod news is that my vouchers have taken an eternity to arrive thanks to industrial action at the post office. As soon as I can justify a break from thinking about barriers to health promotion in UK ethnic populations, or Mrs Elsie Sparrow the undernourished old lady, I'll head off to choose myself a lovely shiny noise-making gift.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Starting Year 3

Roast pork with knife stuck in it
I imagine some of you may be interested in how the new term in Dietetics is shaping up. It's year 3 out of 4; this year at last we are putting all the theory we have sweated over in the first two years into a practical context.

In two years we have been taught about the chemical properties of nutritional molecules like proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and so on; metabolic systems in the body like how fats are transported in lipoprotein particles of different densities; biochemical pathways like digestion and the disposal of lipids and glucose in cells, and about most of the main organ systems in the body. And much more. Looking back, I have learned an enormous amount, but I also realise how little that is in the pool of knowledge about human health and disease.

The modules this semester are Health Promotion, Nutrition and the Health of Populations, Diet Therapy and Molecular Nutrition. Diet Therapy stands out as the highlight so far - it takes place every Monday until mid-December, and we cover the dietetic principles surrounding real medical conditions. It's where we get started on turning into dietitians who meet and treat people who are ill. Our next clinical placements aren't until next summer, but we're clearly being prepared to go out into the real world.

Health Promotion seems a bit like a continuation of the work we did on Communication Skills, but rather than one-to-one in a consultation or one-to-many in a presentation, it's about putting nutritional health messages out into the wider community, and sets the scene for Public Health Nutrition. The Health of Populations module actually covers nutrition through the life cycle from conception to senescence, and is managed by my favourite tutor, who also wrote the textbook. Molecular Nutrition is about the effects of nutrients at the cellular level - an obvious example would be how glucose triggers the secretion of insulin.

The class is still complete - there have been no dropouts over the summer. We seem to have found our places within the class; there are quiet students and outspoken ones, some that I find sympathetic and likeable, some obnoxious, and some I really don't know at all, even after two years. The workload is certainly going to be heavy this year, and coursework has already been set for delivery by early November and onwards. After a pretty lazy summer, I wasn't really looking forward to all the work, but as usual, it's been really interesting so far.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

School's 90th birthday

Three Old Girls in front of the school
The secondary school I attended from 1975 to 1982 is housed in:
"a building of great character, the former manor of Highams built in 1768, and has extensive and beautiful grounds designed by Humphrey Repton. The school opened in 1919." [From the school website.]
Of course, I appreciated none of this when I was there, but I returned last weekend to celebrate its 90th birthday, at an event run by the Old Girls Association (for it was, and still is, a school for girls only).

View of the school from the back terraceThe main reason I attended the event was that, as an 18th century building, the school had a good deal of character, and I wanted to explore the nooks and crannies: the 'twisty passage' between the dining room and the main corridor to the Hall, the hidden spiral staircases and corridors of classrooms. I was no longer able to join together the fragments of memories of classrooms and corridors and staircases into a coherent whole. The fact that a lot of other Old Girls would be getting in my way was inconvenient, but manageable.

It was hugely satisfying to explore, especially the places we weren't allowed to go when we attended the school - entering by the big front door was forbidden to all but members of staff. As I wandered, I found corridors and rooms existed that I had completely forgotten. For seven years the geography of the school had been imprinted on my brain, seemingly unforgettable, and now I couldn't even remember where the art room had been.

Spiral staircase up to the turretI found my way to the upper sixth form 'flat', right at the top of the building, accessed via a narrow spiral staircase. I imagine that this is where the servants quarters were, in the original manor house. Within this flat is a 'turret' with windows all round, and in my time this area was the preserve of the prefects and Head Girl. Back then, the door onto the roof wasn't locked, although I'm sure we weren't supposed to go out. The views all around were spectacular.

Wooden board with inscribed gold names of State Registered NursesI visited many of the classrooms, strolled down the corridors, climbed up and down staircases with wonderful wrought iron detailing, peered through windows into familiar labs. The 'Honours Boards' showed Old Girls' achievements in the 1950s, including those who had become State Registered Nurses, of whom the most notorious is poor Ina Buckett. We all felt for her - what were her parents thinking when they named her?

Going into the library, I was taken aback by the memory of that exact smell, when I used to retreat there to do a bit of quiet reading. In the geography room, the time when Mr Nivison sang the national anthem of the Isle of Man came to mind. I peered into the physics lab and remembered the rheostats: large cylinders wrapped in wire with a big old slider. I glanced into the biology prep room, where my mum used to work in the last two years of my school career.

French door with stained glass panel of the Essex coat of armsThe medical room was where we lined up for our BCG vaccination, next to the rack where hockey sticks were kept. The Hall, with the same light fittings, same huge steps up to the stage - not bad for more than thirty years' service, although of course we girls weren't allowed on the stage in normal circumstances. It seems the details of where we were and weren't allowed to be are almost more vivid than what I did in the various rooms.

Meanwhile, the formal timetable for the School Birthday continued, and the scarily familiar sound of the school bell called us to assemble in the Hall. The vice-chairman of the OGA proceeded to conduct the AGM in a wonderful, half-serious, half-teasing manner, encouraging us in our rendering of the school songs, which were belted out in the most enthusiastic manner imaginable. This was followed by tea and chat, when I finally got round to talking to those of my peers who were also there.

I have written previously about our class reunions, but for me this event was more about nostalgia for the school building itself. I hardly visited the grounds, which are also amazing, and the newly built (in the 1970's) lower sixth form block, which stands apart from the main building. I didn't go to the brand new sports hall, and missed seeing what is now in the building that used to be the swimming pool. But no matter, I achieved my main aim, and renewed my acquaintance with a quirky but much loved old building, in much the same state of external decrepitude as it was in my day. Some things don't change.

View of trees and distant buildings on the horizon

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

What I've been reviewing

You may notice a small change to the title of this post: instead of "What I've been reading" it's "What I've been reviewing". This is because sometime last year I applied to join the Oxford University Press Biosciences Panel, and was accepted.

What this involves is choosing a textbook from a short list, and then when they send me the book I have to review it, providing promotional soundbites as well as comments and feedback on its design, content and readability, and how it compares with other textbooks and resources.

This was the first book, and it's a cracker. I even get to keep it, as well as accruing credits that I can spend on OUP books.

Image of the book cover
The Human Body: An introduction for the biomedical and health sciences
by Gillian Pocock and Chris Richards

"The human body is an intricate assembly of organs and systems, whose development and ongoing well-being is tightly regulated. An understanding of these biological systems and processes is central to the biomedical and healthcare sciences - in understanding how the body works in health and disease. The Human Body spans human physiology and anatomy, histology, cell biology, pharmacology, and genetics and immunology, to give a complete overview that forms the perfect foundation to any biomedical or healthcare science course."
When it arrived I was delighted - it's a great-looking fat paperback textbook, and I couldn't wait to get stuck in. I've been reading it on and off over the summer, dipping into various sections that are either relevant (the digestive system) or looked interesting (reproduction).

I've looked at sections where the course has been particularly difficult (like immunology) to see if this text explains it any better, and it's quite good. One particular highlight has been an example showing clearly how the body regulates blood volume and concentration (osmolality) entirely separately. I may not sound so very exciting, but I was delighted!

They've sent me a second book now which isn't half as thrilling, but I need to get on with reviewing it because proper university coursework is already starting.