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