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.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

A philatelic story

This post is about my dad, and written by him.

I have been collecting stamps for most of my life. It started in earnest in 1948. We were under Arab siege in Jerusalem and the People's Directorate established a postal service and produced stamps - Jewish National Fund stock overprinted 'POST'. Here was a chance to start a collection of a new country from the very beginning.

The Jordanians were lobbing 3" mortars shells into the city, but at 15 years one is not fearful. So I hurried the 2 miles to the post office to buy the series of 3 values - on two different occasions (they changed the design) and to post the 'first day covers' to myself.

Various other Jewish sites issued their own stamps: Haifa, Safed, Rishon le-Zion - partly for postal service for their isolated residents and partly as a source of income from local collectors. Some weeks later the State of Israel was declared and the regular stamps arrived in Jerusalem.

My father had been an employee of the Palestine Mandate administration - which ceased on 15th May. He was now unemployed, pending the establishment of the Israeli structures. We had no income and the new stamps were expensive - so I did not buy them. Later I had to pay much more.

But soon I kept buying new issues as mint stamps and first day of issue covers. I became a member of the British Association of Palestine-Israel Philatelists (later the Holyland Philatelic Society) and I edited their Bulletin for a time. And later I added two other new stamp issues: the United Nations, and the Channel Islands. And as I resided in Britain, I also collected GB. When Britain started various devices for the mechanical cancellation and sorting of letters, I found it very interesting and joined the Postal Mechanization Study Circle.

It was clearly the thrill of collecting, and the possession of 'complete series', that motivated me. My family was totally indifferent, and time marched on. I stopped my subscriptions for new stamps. At the same time, the world scene of philately changed.

First, excess stamp issues just milked collectors: Who is interested in 'space exploration' issued by Yemen?!? And the designs were becoming far less attractive. Second, e-mail cut out much of the use of the little colourful labels and the conveyance of paper letters: the aggressive postal workers on strike are cutting off the branch on which they are sitting. And third, youngsters have shifted their time, interest and passion from philately to computers and ipods.

My wife has promised that if I die before I have disposed of my collection, it will all end up as a spectacular bonfire. So I am going to sell the lot, while I keep swallowing my pills and taking care when crossing the road, until it is completed.

If anybody among my readers is an interested collector, do drop me an email - maybe we'll find someone who would appreciate this type of collection. The mainstream dealers aren't showing much interest so far.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

More about me

Top of a pie with 'Lola' spelled out in peas
Here's a bit more about stuff I do and don't love. Weddings took up a whole post of their own - this time, it's food.

Things I love

A really good meal in a restaurant

I like the idea that the amount somebody is prepared to spend on a good restaurant meal tells you something about that person. I think my maximum spend with Mr A has been at Le Manoir de Quatr' Saisons, which is Raymond Blanc's gaff in Oxfordshire, but unfortunately it wasn't that good a meal. I've just read the Amateur Gourmet's account of his meal at El Bulli (independently judged to be the best restaurant in the world), which sounded utterly mind-blowing. I don't think I could spend that much, even if I were really wealthy. The best 'expensive' meal I've ever had was with Mr A and Lola II at Damian Hurst's restaurant 'The Pharmacy', which no longer exists. One of the cheeses I ate there was truly unbelievable. And the company was very lovely too.


Plain dark chocolate mostly, but I don't mind tainting it with raspberries, coffee or orange now and then. I suppose I wouldn't turn down milk chocolate if it needed finishing, but I wouldn't include white chocolate under the heading 'chocolate'. On one shopping trip recently, I couldn't decide which sort to buy, so I got one of each type of dark chocolate and did a taste test. My preference was for Divine, Mr A liked Galaxy Dark best. Bournville was a bit too rich; the 'value' brand, while very cheap, was a little bit nasty, and the own brand was fine. I didn't include Green and Black because if that turned out to be the best, I'd face financial ruin.

Things I don't love

A meal that isn't very good

A mealtime is an opportunity to enjoy food; given that eating too much makes you fat, I don't like to waste a meal on food that's not very nice. In the UK we are very price-conscious; cheap food and half-price offers tempt me as much as anyone, but sometimes the price matches the quality. The trouble is that it's difficult to define 'quality' and even harder to find it. My favourite greengrocer in Leamington, Clarke's, has a huge turnover of fresh fruit and vegetables, plus the slightly older veg at knock-down prices, and always some interesting items you wouldn't find elsewhere: fresh dates, mixed wild mushrooms, I've even seen durian fruit in there. There's usually a good selection of local produce. But none of it is polished or pristine, it's all ripe and ready so it doesn't keep, and you won't find anything organic. Last time I was there with Mr A, the owner (the eponymous Clarke) came over and gave me a hug. You don't get that in Sainsbury's.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Tales of volunteering and elves

View of the Isle of Dogs/Canary Wharf
Another week has gone by and I haven't had two minutes to sit and blog, let alone cruise the Interwebnet in my normal fashion. I've had a visit from my parents and then three days volunteering at a conference, followed by a day and a half with Lola II. Today I'm at school, but only for admin-type things - teaching starts on Thursday.

Mum and dad's visit progressed in the usual way. They bring items to be put through a dishwasher cycle and things for me and Mr A they'd been saving up since I last saw them - chocolates and a floor mop and bucket this time, but it could be anything. I hand over things I've been saving up since I last saw them, then we have lunch, everyone has a nap and they go home. This time lunch was particularly splendid, at the Restaurant in the Park, given that we'd enjoyed it so much on the Taste Trail. It came in joint first place along with Sabai Sabai, which was the place with that amazing carrot sculpture.

View down a very long balconyI actually drove mum and dad back to London this time, since I was going to be doing a stint of volunteering there. I was helping out at a conference, mostly guiding and directing people around the venue, but the special part was that it is a conference that I used to run, and many of the events team, exhibitors and delegates are old friends. It was held at the Excel Centre, and apart from views of the O2 arena, the Isle of Dogs and the Thames barrier, apparently this venue has the longest corridor in the world. I saw it; it was indeed a long corridor, with a corresponding long balcony looking out over the Royal Victoria Dock.

Me at the station in high vis jacket and walky talkyI had extra fun at the Docklands Light Railway station. Members of the general public aren't allowed to wait about on the platform to meet people, so a few of us were 'platform trained' by a lovely lady called Jeanette. I now know where the button is that will stop any trains moving in the vicinity of Custom House station. I got to wear a high visibility jacket and a walky talky, which made me very important. Well, not that important if I'm honest, but it was great fun.

The whole volunteering thing was exhausting and lasted three whole days - I was so tired I could hardly speak by the end of it. But I caught up with news from my previous workplace, while trying very hard to steer clear of the politics.

I don't think I've written before about the elves who inhabit our lives. Last year, when I went camping with Lola II, we unexpectedly found single chocolates under our pillows in the tent. I was expecting the Tent Elf's deliveries each evening, but during the course of the day Lola II forgot about it, so it was always a lovely surprise for her. Until the last night, when clearly she'd remembered the routine, and she found a chocolate under her pillow while all I found was an empty wrapper...

The Tent Elf isn't the only member of the elfin family. Mum, dad and Lola II all discovered that the Computer Keyboard Elf had visited while I was staying with them last week. But mostly, the elves we meet are Pillow Elves, who leave a chocolate under your pillow. Until last week, when a new variety appeared. I was staying at Lola II's during the conference, but I was so tired that I failed to detect that some sort of mutant variety of Elf had secreted an aubergine under the pillow! Lola II said that I could never be a princess...

After such a long trip it was great to get home on Sunday and catch up with all of Mr A's news, pay a quick visit to the pub and then chill on the sofa. Today I've come into university to do a session with this year's new intake of mature students, and then go to a meeting where we can discuss those difficult module choices. Then I have just two more days of holiday freedom until my third year begins in earnest on Thursday.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Module choices and general news

There's been a lot of everyday stuff going on in the background, behind the big events like camping holidays and food festivals.

A room containing stuffed deer heads and a stuffed badgerFor the whole of Friday and Saturday I was working at the Sutton Bonington campus of Nottingham University as a 'Student Ambassador', meeting prospective students and talking about the course and about life at university. I'm particularly keen to talk to the mature students, because all the other ambassadors are in their early 20's and can't really talk about how to fit a real life with family responsibilities alongside a full time degree. For a change, the weather was glorious. And there was a most interesting meeting of taxidermists taking place in the cafe...

I had access to the lecturers and tutors over the two days, so I could ask their help with choosing modules for the coming year. We are expected to gain 120 credits in a year, from modules that award either 10 or 20 credits. Ideally, these should be arranged so that we can do 60 credits in each semester, but next year the compulsory modules are very unevenly spread, so that the majority of credits are in the second half of the year. We must choose an additional 20 credits from modules in almost any course in the whole university, but they have to fit with the compulsory module timetable.

Red berries on treesAll of my fellow students that I have spoken to have spent hours - days - trawling through the module catalogue and timetables to find acceptable modules that fit, just as I have. There are hardly any - a few in the School of Psychology, a couple in the Business School, but no modules that appeal to me. I ended up with Plan A: Molecular Nutrition (20 credits, level 3, full year), or Plan B: Macromolecules (10 credits, level 2, autumn) and Introduction to Practical Biochemistry (10 credits, level 1, autumn).

Plan B would win easily except that it is by no means certain that I will be accepted on the modules, Practical Biochemistry is on a more distant campus on Friday afternoons and will lead to an extremely unpleasant journey home every week, and my lovely tutor whom I trust is very unenthusiastic about the idea of me doing Plan B and is very keen on Plan A. But choosing Plan A means I will be doing a level 3 module instead of easier levels 1 and 2, and I will have just two exams in January but five in May. Four exams last May almost killed me. I'm still thinking about it.

Weather vane against brilliant blue skyI took my camera on campus on Saturday because the weather was so fine, and snapped a few pictures during the day. This weather vane is mounted on top of the 'Amenities Building', which houses a cafe, bank, bookshop and offices, and I hadn't really noticed it before. It wasn't until I looked more closely at the picture just now that I discovered that the design was quite unusual, presumably reflecting the agricultural focus of the historical Sutton Bonington site. Click on the photo and enlarge it within your browser to see what I mean.

  • Our very old bath has sprung a leak and we're going to take the opportunity to replace the bath, sink, toilet, radiator, bathroom flooring and walls, so we're looking for reliable plumbers (one quote already in), and then we'll need reliable decorators.
  • I've continued to make progress with my clothing quest, although I've exhausted Leamington's charity shops for the time being - I tried Solihull, but the charity shops there were hopeless and I went to BHS for black trousers instead.
  • We've managed to give away one wheeled office chair, and sold another one.
More general news: some regular readers may remember that back in January, Lola II achieved some level of stardom by featuring on podcast Answer Me This. She has reached the same heady heights of notoriety in episode 108, starting just after 19m 30s. I shall repeat the warning to those of a sensitive nature - the website and the podcast are very naughty indeed in both language and choice of subjects. Just go to 19m 30s and listen to Lola II's bit if you didn't like it last time (you know who you are, and don't complain that they didn't answer the question properly - it's not supposed to be an educational show.)

Lastly, a little splinter of ipod news - I've been in touch about redeeming our Points, and I'm now waiting until 24 September when I get a whole lot more. The minor problem with that is that Apple have gone and released a new higher capacity ipod (at a higher price) that I don't necessarily want or need. I'll let you know as soon as there's any more to tell.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
Deal Breaker
by Harlan Coben

"Investigator and sports agent Myron Bolitar is poised on the edge of the big-time. So is Christian Steele, a rookie quarterback and Myron's prized client. But when Christian gets a phone call from a former girlfriend, a woman who everyone, including the police, believes is dead, the deal starts to go sour."
This was a good read, taking a fraction of the time that it takes me to read more 'worthy' novels, like those of John Buchan. But does that mean it's pulp fiction, not to be taken seriously? I'm not sure. Anyway, it's a straightforward murder mystery, the plot is complex enough to be interesting, but I can still understand the 'reveal' when it comes. Good for reading on the sofa while Mr A watches yet another John Wayne classic, Rio Bravo this time.

Image of the book cover
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

"1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier. Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall. The book's narrator is Death itself, regaling us with a remarkable tale of book burnings, treachery and theft."
I can't deny that this book ends badly in two ways: 1) very nearly everybody tragically dies, and b) after nearly everybody has died, the author rather unnecessarily rushes through to the end. But up to that point, it is an engrossing story narrated in an original and interesting way.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Camping in Somerset

View past caravans out to sea with a cloudy sky
I met Lola II off the train in Taunton on Friday, and we spent some time in the town wandering in and out of shops, before heading off to the campsite, which was on the West Somerset coast near Watchet. We were directed to the bottom of the field where it was less windy, but the slope was too much for us, so we went higher up where there was a flat bit. We did get hit by quite a bit of wind, but we survived, and from our tent we could see and hear the sea and the gentle toots of the steam trains on the nearby West Somerset Railway.

The weather was incredibly changeable. One minute the sun was out, the next it was cloudy, then windy, then it rained a little bit, then it was sunny and rainy, then cloudy and windy, and every other combination you could think of. At various times we were wearing anything between a T shirt on its own or six layers including a raincoat.

Me next to sculpture of giant hands holding a mapSaturday took us to Minehead, which was another very nice town, on the sea, with parks and shops and stuff to do and see. As we passed a church, there was an advertisement for a concert later, featuring Glenn Miller classics, and we decided it was worth a try for that evening's entertainment. After driving all the way to Wellington and finding it essentially deserted, we came back to Minehead for the concert.

Lola II wanted to sit near the front, and I was quite looking forward to the music, but the band was a bit rubbish. After the first song (a Blues Brothers number) I turned to find Lola II's face streaming with tears as she attempted to suppress her laughter. Shortly after the fairly random introduction to 'In The Mood' she fled from the pew, and tried to compose herself outside. A concerned churchgoer followed her out to make sure she was all right, so she had to pretend she was ill. She spent the rest of the concert at the back of the hall, in disgrace as far as I was concerned.

She actually had a much better time than I did, since I was now on my own at the front. I quite enjoyed most of the songs, but what I found most incongruous was the presence in the semi-religious programme of the late 70's homosexual anthem 'YMCA', and its enthusiastic reception by the audience - the band even played it a second time as an encore. From her vantage point at the back, Lola II said I was the only one among the grey-haired pensioner audience not doing the actions.

We had supper afterwards in a lovely little restaurant in Minehead called Cream, which was depressingly empty on a Saturday night. The owners were very understanding of our indecision when it came to food and drink. These are important choices that are difficult to rush, especially when there are so many good options on the menu. We chatted with them a bit about Minehead and camping.

Band playing on the bandstandOn Sunday we really meant to go for a proper walk. We had maps and directions and everything, and there was a concert on the bandstand in the park in Taunton that didn't start until 3 p.m., so it seemed eminently possible that we could fit in a walk. But we had some urgent shopping to do, and lunch, and then we had to locate the start of the walk but it was really difficult to find a public toilet first, and eventually at about 2.30 we decided to buy a paper and sit in the park and wait for the concert to start.

This band was much better than the church ensemble, and there was lots to look at as we sat on our camping chairs - children doing the funny dancing that children do, babies being cute and charming, an old chap on a mobility scooter who'd gone to get ice cream cones for him and his mate but took too long about it so they were melting all over him by the time he made it back to where his mate was waiting.

Lola II sitting on (bronze statue of) Yankee Jack's lapWe did manage to squeeze in a walk after we got back to the campsite, and wandered around Watchet for a while. On the way back, we met one of the owners of the cafe in Minehead, walking her dog. It's the sort of coincidence that wouldn't seem realistic in a novel.

What with all this walking, it was quite late when we started to cook supper, and we ended up eating in the dark, illuminated only by Lola II's head torch (I'd forgotten to bring mine). Instant noodles with mushrooms, broccoli and prawns - yum.

On Monday we visited Cleeve Abbey, which is a very nicely presented English Heritage site, and then had lunch in Dunster, which is a very picturesque and popular tourist trap of a village because of the nearby castle (which we didn't visit). Then back to Taunton again to deliver Lola II onto the train home.

The best thing about the weekend was that we acquired two new catchphrases, delivered to us as a gift when two brothers were passing our tent on the campsite. The older one delivered a mild insult to the younger one, who took umbrage, and was not reassured to be told that it was only a joke.

"You never make jokes about anyone else," he complained. "Go on, make a joke about someone else! You see, you can't, can you? I hate you!"

"But I love you," replied his older brother. "I'd never spend any time at all with you if I didn't."

We'll have to wait and see if these become as popular in the future as our other regular catchphrases.

Sun setting over Watchet harbour
Note: Lola II took the pictures of me next to the sculpture in Minehead and of Watchet harbour.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Mr A is a winner!

I left you in suspense at the end of the last post:
- will the pan come clean?
- was the ipod found?
- are we going on holiday?
- and what on earth could we all have done in the pub?

The answers in brief are: yes, no, yes, and Trivial Pursuit.

The pan isn't very interesting, so I'll leave it at that. Lola II and I have planned a short camping trip near Minehead at the weekend, so there may be some mucking about to report next week. The ipod news is much more exciting.

Remote control with buttons for Lola and Mr ALong ago, I wrote about how our household is one of those which provides data on what the public watches on TV. We have a remote control with our names on, and when we watch TV we have to press a button to say who is watching. When visitors come, we have to make sure that we register their presence too. Well, we don't watch more than a couple of hours of TV a week, and we definitely don't watch TV with visitors. We don't even have visitors, really, other than Lola II. So it hasn't been much of a chore so far.

We are paid for our participation by accumulating points, and What Do Points Mean?*

Last time I looked at what we could get for our points, there wasn't anything I really wanted. I thought I'd take another look at the weekend, and this time, I noticed that among the Prizes were ipods!

I only have half the points I need for the ipod I want, and even when if I steal Mr A's points, I still won't have enough. But points can also be redeemed for vouchers for high street electrical outlets! I can buy a brand new ipod instead of something dodgy on ebay, with a proper guarantee, for something like £30.

[The lovely Mr A says I can have his points, and then he can have his ipod back. Although he also says I should have asked him first before replacing all his music with mine. He is right.]

Mr A and a large silver trophy with the Triv boardWell, that really made my day. I felt about as good about life as I had felt bad when I discovered that the ipod was gone. So all that remained was to work out what to do in the evening. We chose to play Trivial Pursuit in the Cricketers.

The game they have is the old version, circa 1980, which suited me because I don't really know anything trivial after that date, and suited Mr A because he is old. Lola II probably knows more than us about modern tymes because she is younger and because she keeps an eye on who's in the news. (During the weekend, she explained both Cheryl Cole and Kerry Katona to me.)

And Mr A was the winner!

I have had one of the best weekends I can remember.

* Prizes.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Lola II is lovely

Lola II in front of a large banana leaf in the Temperate House
The Food and Drink Festival was a two-day event, so I was looking forward to more venues on the Taste Trail with Mr A on Sunday. But first thing, I had to check various ebay auctions I was watching, because I was still feeling the pain of my ipod loss quite acutely. Sitting at the computer in my very unconventional nightwear at 9 a.m., the doorbell rang.

I asked the fully dressed Mr A to answer the door, and five seconds later the lovely Lola II walked into my room.

"This is your Lost Ipod Support Service House Call!" she announced. "What on earth are you wearing?"

I squealed with excitement at her for at least a minute, and jumped up and down, flapping my arms. When I had calmed down a bit, she said "I also have a saucepan that needs your attention."

This was quite true. The saucepan had something firmly encrusted on it, and had resisted Lola II's attempts with various cleaning products. After enquiring of the all-knowing Interwebnet, we decided to attack it with dishwasher powder. Leaving that to do its worst, and after I had dressed, we headed out on the town, promising to phone Mr A as soon as we moved on to the free food.

A tiered stand of pastel-coloured cupcakesFelafel and houmous on the stand with the chatty man

We toured the stalls in the Pump Room Gardens, taking particular note of the cupcake stand and a very talkative chap selling middle eastern delicacies. I had various other tasks to complete in town, and it was too early for the Taste Trail, so we headed off. It was shortly after this that we found ourselves in Marks & Spencer. Lola II worked her magic, and hey presto! I am now equipped with a cardigan. And so is she.

So on to the free food. We were joined by Mr A, and started with Koko's, which reminded us of a school canteen. They had a mini-carvery, with a small portion of beef and half a small yorkshire pudding on a small plate, and help yourself to potatoes, peas, carrots and cabbage. I forgot to take a photo, but never mind, you can imagine a mini roast dinner served by a dinner lady.

Table centrepiece of tank surrounded by ingredientsWe moved on to Sabai Sabai, which I had often thought of visiting, but I do dislike restaurants that feature a large TV screen in the bar area. Maybe I will overcome that dislike in future, because it was really very nice. Apart from the food, we all loved the display that included carrots carved into the shape of prawns, turtles and other sea creatures in a tank, surrounded by ginger, galangal, garlic and shallots. Click on the picture to see it better. You really should, it's beautiful.

There was nothing in the Taste Trail booklet that said you couldn't go to the same place twice - and Lola II hadn't been to the Restaurant in the Park, which had been the best of the day before. Except the deal didn't start until tea time. So we stopped off at the Newbold Bar and Brasserie, and stayed until they started bringing out their free wares, just so Lola II could have a taster...

Four bite-size portions of bread pudding, ice cream and berry icesThe Restaurant in the Park was even better than the day before: they brought enough for all of us so we didn't even have to share this time, and there was even a brass band playing outside. We were nearly full by now, but there was one more place I wanted to try: Bohemia@Willoughby.

This establishment has transformed itself more than once in the last few years. The latest version, with its trendy new name, has large paisley patterned walls in various colours (I liked the shiny black on matt black background), mostly dark decor and interesting chairs, a large TV screen, and banging music. The TV had no sound and was showing something that might have been Eastenders. Like Koko's, it wasn't our kind of place, but let's see what they could do for us.

Both service and food were disappointing. This made us wonder who had made the decision to take part in the Festival, and why they hadn't really followed that through with a strategy to market their wares in the best possible light.

We wended our way home, but Lola II's visit didn't end there. In the next exciting episode, we discover:
- how the encrusted pan turned out
- some thrilling ipod news
- plans for our holidays
- what we all did in the pub.

To be continued...