Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Particle physics, units, and old age drinkers

Internal view of a very technical looking cylinder
I have asked a number of my regular readers/commenters if they'd like to write something. Actually, it was more like, "Please, could you write a blog post? I've got nothing to say and I don't want to lose all my readers."

Here is the first contribution, from old friend and intermittent blog commenter 'CERNoise', who, as the name suggests, works at CERN, the site of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). We went to university (the first time) together, where she distinguished herself by being extremely good at physics, and playing the violin, while I distinguished myself by being extremely bad at engineering, and learning to ride a unicycle.
We particle physicists have invented some strange units over the years, to describe the very small things we study. My favourite unit actually mixes up the very small and the very big. It is the megaparsec-picobarn, and it describes the volume of space that is typically swept out by a cosmic ray particle charging about the universe at close to the speed of light. A megaparsec is about the right size to measure the distances between galaxies, and a picobarn is the cross-sectional area that says how likely the cosmic ray is to interact if it happens to meet another cosmic ray going in the other direction.

Here's a blog entry about barns and LHC records by my friend Jon.
[Ed: I love the ways that scientists demonstrate that they have a sense of humour. Jon's blog post reports that a barn is a unit of area. It was supposed to be something big and easy to hit (as in 'barn door')]
Multiplying a very long distance by a really tiny area, it turns out that a megaparsec-picobarn is still a rather small volume. If I managed to look up the conversion factors properly, it comes out as:

0.000 000 000 003 cubic centimetres.

The UK press is always reporting on warnings to limit the number of units we drink, and they are talking about a unit of volume too, in this case ten cubic centimetres of alcohol, but then mixed up in a small glass of wine, or a larger glass of beer, or maybe even part of an exotic cocktail.

I was at a workshop in Germany in January, and I was trying to work out how many units (of alcohol) were in each bottle of the very nice local beer we were knocking back. None of the other physicists from around the world seemed to come from countries with such well publicised guidelines. They would have been even more shocked to read the latest recommendations that by the time we hit 65 we're shouldn't drink more than 1.5 units a day.

Another ten thousand billion megaparsec-picobarns of your best ale please landlord!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Guide Dogs

Training dog at roadworks
On Saturday, as we walked towards the Pump Room Gardens along the Riverside Walk, Mr A said to me, "I do hope you get a job that means we don't have to move house."

Yes, I know I wasn't going to write about 'what I did at the weekend', but I'm back on one of my favourite topics: how much we like living here. On Saturday, alongside the monthly Farmers' Market, an event was held in the Pump Room Gardens featuring Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and various other worthy and mostly dog-related organisations.

Although I worked for RNIB for 14 years, I didn't have a lot of contact with GDBA. I've met plenty of guide dog owners, but their dogs didn't tend to feature in my work, either in the workplace or in the social context. When given the choice of human or dog as guide, the human wins every time, so I didn't even get to observe anyone working their dog. In mass gatherings such as conferences, the most interesting times were when a scrap broke out among the dogs, or at one memorable hotel-based event when a corridor became impassable because of a smell that had to be traced to a dog, because no human could have produced it.

In my one-to-one assessment work, I went to see a client on a day when his dog had suddenly been taken ill in some way, and while I was there the call came from the vet to say that the dog couldn't be saved. Never having had pets of my own, I had no emotional sense whatever about what this meant, but soon realised with a sense of shame that I needed to come back another time to finish the assessment.

Another assessment visit that sticks in my mind was to see a client in a public sector role, who told me about a recent time when his colleagues thought it was a great joke to take his guide dog and hide it when he was out of the room. The dog was traumatised, the man didn't know what to do with himself, and none of the managers took it seriously. It was the worst case of workplace bullying I have ever seen, but he didn't want to make a complaint. He was looking for work elsewhere, and wanted to leave without any trouble.

Then there was the time when a dog-using colleague sent an email round asking if anyone had a small ornament in the shape of a deer that he could have? When he had been on a visit to a client in their home, his dog had eaten an deer ornament belonging to the client, and he wanted to offer a replacement as compensation. As I remember it, the dog had to be retired after it jumped out of a window, but that might not be entirely true.

Another dog-using colleague had a great store of dog-related jokes, including the one about the blind parachutist. He was able to tell when the ground was approaching because the dog's lead went slack.

Training dog at zebra crossing
Anyway, back to the Pump Room Gardens. I only found out about the event because of my friend's guide dog training taking place in Leamington this week, although there were plenty of onlookers so there must have been some sort of publicity somewhere. Loads of dogs: working dogs, training dogs, puppies, pets, and big boards showing how they are bred, cared for and trained. Tombola, raffles, bric-a-brac being sold in aid of GDBA, other Assistance Dogs, and the usual suspects who turn up when there's an opportunity for a stall: crepes, face-painting, cream teas and Napton Water Buffalo ice cream and burgers.

There was a display arena, where I happened to catch a demonstration of how dogs are trained and their capacity for guiding their owners. There was an obstacle course, and particular demonstrations showing how dogs signalled various hazards and what they and the owner did about them. There was a separate demonstration that included a bus stop, zebra crossing and road works. It's not surprising that GDBA raises so much money: the dogs are amazing, to the extent that it can bring a lump to your throat.

Thursday, 23 June 2011


Celebration lunch
There have been many small achievements and enjoyable aspects of this round of unemployment. Nothing that makes particularly interesting reading, though. I have an enormous list of things that need sorting out around the house - tax return, cleaning the oven, pruning and weeding, scanning old photos - but I don't propose to tell you how I get on with those.

We held a family gathering which included a celebration of three birthdays altogether, and comprised a welcome visit from H&B from the north and the rest of my immediate family from the south. The weather was too unpredictable to sit outside, but we all squeezed in around the table for lunch, some of us went out for a walk around the Peace Festival, came back for tea and birthday cake, and I enjoyed it a great deal.

Lola II and Mr M stayed on afterwards, and helped me try on a huge bagful of hand-me-down clothes from one of Lola II's friends (I'm not proud). Surprisingly, most were too big, although there was a beautiful dress that does fit. Maybe I'll wear a dress again one day. I have shortened one pair of trousers so far - while the friend is nearly the same circumference as me, she is 10 cm longer.

I have put in a further two job applications, making five in all (with just the one interview so far). I've also been in touch with my tutors to follow up on the research idea, but that will be slow to develop. Nothing else going on in the work department.

There's been badminton of course, and I pootled over to see a friend who is in town for the week, training with his new guide dog. I couldn't whisk him away for a night on the town because he has to stay in the hotel with the dog, but we had a chat and a drink in the hotel bar.

This type of mundane diarising is tedious. I'm not that interested in writing it, and don't believe it's all that much fun to read. I have some ideas for future posts, so unless something happens that includes dietetics, the next few weeks may diverge from the usual routine.

Monday, 20 June 2011

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
The Number Mysteries
by Marcus du Sautoy

"In ‘The Number Mysteries’, Marcus du Sautoy explains how to fake a Jackson Pollock; how to work out whether or not the universe has a hole in the middle of it; how to make the world's roundest football. He shows us how to see shapes in four dimensions – and how maths makes you a better gambler."
I felt the book was specifically aimed at young people: each chapter starts simple, but leads up to a problem that is associated with a million dollar prize for the mathematician who solves it. I was reading it in the run-up to my exam, and there were quite a lot of proofs involving equations that needed thinking, which I wasn't prepared to do in my spare time.

Image of the book cover
The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins

narrated by Ian Holm
"Late one moonlit night, Walter Hartright encounters a solitary and terrified woman dressed all in white. He helps her on her way but later learns that she has escaped from an asylum. Walter goes to work in the service of the selfish and unpleasant Mr Fairlie as a drawing instructor and in doing so meets his niece Laura who strongly resembles the mysterious woman in white. The cast is finely characterised, from the intelligent and resourceful Marian Halcombe to the corpulent villain Count Fosco, and the enigmatic woman herself."
This is the second Wilkie Collins I have listened to, the first being another Audible download of The Moonstone, and I have enjoyed both books much more than I was expecting. I believe the author is one of the earliest writers of 'mysteries', living around the same time as Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters, so I was expecting a certain dryness to the Victorian era writing. In fact, I understand that this novel was published as a serial immediately after 'A Tale of Two Cities'. I found it much more engaging than Dickens, and the audio narration was outstanding, as you might expect from Ian Holm.

Image of the book cover
Life on Air
by David Attenborough

narrated by the author

"His career as a naturalist and broadcaster has spanned nearly five decades and there are very few places on the globe that he has not visited. In this volume of memoirs David tells stories of the people and animals he has met and the places that he has visited."
I listened to the whole 19 hours and 26 minutes in about a week, courtesy of several long car journeys and the kitchen cleaning ordeal, plus the fact that he's a great writer and narrator. Presenting the natural history programmes that he's most famous for was his third career, after a brief post-university stint in a publisher's office followed by time at the BBC as a producer and then Controller of BBC2. While I wouldn't begin to compare myself to the great man, it's encouraging to think that it's never too late to start a new career.

Image of the book cover
Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"From the beginning we are locked into the frenzied consciousness of Raskolnikov who, against his better instincts, is inexorably drawn to commit a brutal double murder. From that moment on, we share his conflicting feelings of self-loathing and pride, of contempt for and need of others, and of terrible despair and hope of redemption: and, in a remarkable transformation of the detective novel, we follow his agonised efforts to probe and confront both his own motives for, and the consequences of, his crime."
I blame the translation for making this a more difficult read than it needed to be. Fair enough that language in the 1860's was not the same as today, but Wilkie Collins managed to write in a style that I could comprehend and enjoy. But the subject matter was a bit depressing too - I should have heeded the title - by the time we'd had the two murders, an alcoholic killed by being run over by a cart and his wife dying shortly afterwards of consumption, it is fair to say I was hoping it would end soon. And it did, but not before another unpleasant chap had shot himself and the murderer had been incarcerated in Siberia for eight years, although peculiarly he was able to sit on a hillside with a woman whom he had previously scorned and suddenly appeared to fall in love with. Avoid.

Friday, 17 June 2011


The main school building on a sunny day
So that's it, after four long years, officially today's my last day of student existence. While I wouldn't rule out any future educational forays, I'm done with study, and especially with exams, for a good while. Having said that, a Dietitian's career includes the maintenance of a compulsory Continuous Professional Development portfolio, but I think I will enjoy the opportunity to carry on learning things, just in a less concentrated way.

I got a First! I was pretty confident, given that up to now I've achieved that level in every module except one, so I would have been pretty cross if I hadn't made it. I was invited to do a viva on Wednesday though. People asked to attend a viva either fall clearly into a degree class, or are borderline candidates who can be boosted into the higher class if they perform well. My confidence of achieving a First was not so great that I felt able to skip the viva - after four years of effort it wasn't worth the risk, so off I went to jump yet another hurdle on the way to the finish line. It was only 20 minutes, but I am truly sick to death of being made to 'perform' for an audience with a marking sheet in their hands.

More good news today: I've been invited to interview for one of the jobs I've applied for. That has made me feel so much more optimistic - up to now my applications have been met with stony silence. There are very few suitable NHS jobs coming through - about one a week, which may be anywhere at all in the country: recent locations have included Wigan, Hull, Chester and Lytham St Anne's. At the moment I'm limiting applications to those that are up to 2 hours travel from home, in the knowledge that I wouldn't be able to commute beyond a hour and would have to live away from home during the week for those further away. The interview is for a job that is about 90 minutes away from my home, but only about 40 minutes from Lola II's house. I'm not making any plans yet; an interview is still a long way from a job offer.

So that's it, the end of my undergraduate journey, and the beginning of a new career. I've had a lot of support along the way, particularly from mum, dad, Mr A and Lola II, but not forgetting you blog readers. I'm not sure what will happen to this blog - I love writing it, but I don't want it to turn into an account of badminton, events in Leamington Spa and 'What I Did At The Weekend'. There are plenty of social events coming up: this weekend we're having a family gathering, there's the Leamington Peace Festival, at least three camping trips and the rest of the summer. But much of the satisfaction for me has been the recording of my journey through dietetics over the last four years, and if I continue, then that is the focus I would like to retain. And I hope you'll stay with me for the next phase of Lola Life.

Me on New Year's Eve 2009/10

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The weekend

Bear mascot, trophies and 25th anniversary cake featuring silver shuttlecocks
I'm not sure that I can maintain the prodigious output of this blog in my new state of underemployment. Certainly there are many things I must do which keep me rather busy, but they do not provide particularly interesting reading. I have spent a day and a half cleaning the kitchen thoroughly, with about the same amount to go, and there are no amusing stories to be told about that endeavour. I do get to listen to a whole lot of good stuff while I'm doing it, though - music, radio, podcasts and audio books.

One green and one pink themed raft on the pavement waiting for their turn to launchI have managed to escape from the cleaning drudgery a few times. I walked across town on Saturday to feed chickens belonging to friends. Have I mentioned how much I love Leamington Spa? There is always something going on. This time, I encountered a whole lot of people in fancy dress with their homemade rafts, ready for a raft race down the river in aid of charity.

Raft full of pirates complete with Jolly Roger flagThe five chickens live in their run in the back garden, and were surprisingly pleased to see me, although whether that was because they were expecting to be fed or because they had missed the human company I couldn't say, not being very familiar with the care of chickens. Their clucks are very pleasing to the ear, and I came away with three fresh eggs as well as a feeling of well-being.

I have also been up to Manchester for a 25th anniversary party of the badminton club where I used to play. I have been away for much longer than I spent playing there, but that club remains the best I have belonged to, both in terms of organisation, spirit and social arrangements. If I get a job up there, then Tuesday nights will belong to Nettles Badminton Club. I managed to squeeze in a couple of extra visits while I was there, to catch up with lovely northern family and friends, and I can thoroughly recommend the B & B establishment I stayed at.

A last word for Mr A, who has the first of two exams today with the second on Thursday. Like childbirth (so I understand), the pain of revision swiftly fades, so I can only remember that it is a horrible ordeal and Mr A has been doing little else for two weeks or more. Once the exams are over he continues to have a frighteningly dense schedule of assignment deadlines until the next two exams in October, after which he will be able to take a bit of a break. So I hope that he does as well as he hopes and deserves to.

Raft on river with weeping willow and church tower in the background

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Life goes on

Landscape in the distance framed by branches and foliage
It is just a week since my final exam, and I am already becoming anxious about earning a living. I thought I would enjoy the freedom for a while, but no, I am a natural pessimist. The main NHS jobs list is throwing up no more than one or two suitable jobs a week, which may be short term or temporary, and anywhere in the country. I have three current applications waiting to see if I get any interviews.

I have some other options, although whether they will make any money is doubtful, especially in the short term. The university has been supportive of the idea that my project on visual impairment and food choices is an interesting area that has wider research possibilities, so I have been talking to various helpful people about what we might do about that.

I haven't yet started on cleaning the house, but this must happen soon as we will have visitors in ten days' time. The garden could do with some attention, too, because Mr A is now revising hard for his two exams. He has settled on a new schedule, whereby he gets up at 7 a.m., has breakfast, works until 4 p.m. and then goes for a ride on his bicycle for an hour or so.

My routine consists of getting up and then thinking about all the things I might do in the day. Then I check my email and blog reader, and after that, anything could happen. In the last few days I've had to deliver my coursework and placement portfolios to the university, played badminton, had a very brief interview in the local Jobcentre, travelled to Herefordshire and back, and been into Birmingham where I met various people, bought some badminton shorts, watched an excellent film (Senna) and attended a talk in a pub.

Herefordshire is where my favourite Bee Lady and Landrover Man now live, with enough land to house the bees on site rather than in a local farmer's field, and many foresty walks nearby. We went on a long foresty walk when I took the pictures on this post, and I preached on many diet-related topics before scoffing my body weight in delicious food, pocketing a digital TV box and waddling off back home. It was lovely, and this short description does not do justice to their hospitality. Given that he is a regular and loyal reader, Landrover Man is also welcome to put forward an alternative pseudonym for himself!

Dovecote among foliage

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Vignettes from C placement

Lady with alcoholic liver disease. She hadn't drunk anything alcoholic for six weeks, after 35 years of half a bottle of gin a day. Dark yellow face against the white pillows. They'd drained ten litres of fluid out of her the previous day - accumulation of fluid in the abdomen is one of the symptoms of decompensated cirrhosis - and her eyes were huge, black and yellow. I explained that the liver is the organ that deals with the food we eat and because hers was damaged, we needed her to try and eat as much as possible.

"Could you tell me about the liver damage?" she asked weakly.

"I'm afraid I can't, you'll have to ask the doctors when they come round," I said. Who knows when they would come round.

She probably wasn't going to be able to eat enough to avoid malnutrition, even with our concentrated oral supplements. A feeding tube is indicated in these cases, but doesn't always get placed.

Man admitted after being found on the floor 24 hours after he'd fallen in his home, and about 36 hours after he'd been discharged from a different hospital because of a fall. He was painfully thin and slight, black blotches in the wrinkled skin under his eyes. He lived alone, and carers who visited four times a day had found him in the morning.

"I'm a dietitian. I've been asked to see you about your eating and drinking. Is it all right if I have a chat to you now?"

"They won't send me home, will they?" he said softly. "Don't let them send me home."

Lady with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who can hardly breathe, despite nasal oxygen. She is desperate to be discharged because they won't let her smoke. She refuses all offers of nicotine patches. She can't go home with oxygen unless she agrees not to smoke.

Our conversation is short and punctuated with silences while she gasps for breath. I provide her daughter and her niece with leaflets about how to enrich her food, because she will have difficulty eating, given that she can hardly breathe.

Her sister comes to visit one morning. "Where can I find her?" she asks.

Her name is on the board, and I had seen her a couple of days ago.

The nurse interrupts. "When did you last see her?" the nurse asks her sister.

"On Sunday."

"Would you wait just a minute?"

This is not good.

Man admitted for a fundoplication operation. This is because the sphincter at the top of the stomach that prevents stomach contents being regurgitated up the oesophagus isn't working - the muscles spasm and it remains closed so food can't enter the stomach. He'd had a couple of dilation operations over the years but now a more drastic operation had been done.

He was by far the youngest person I'd been asked to see in the hospital, and was alert, coherent, and able to talk. What a treat. The surgeon had asked for dietetic input so that he could follow a totally fluid diet for four weeks while the operation site healed. Luckily, the patient liked milk.

It took the rest of the afternoon for me to come up with something suitable, that would be acceptable for him to follow for four weeks. Even so, we agreed that it wouldn't be much fun. At least it would be only four weeks.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Final exam

Ferns and palms below a vaulted roof
Shall I talk you through the end of my student life? Actually, not quite the end, but as I drove onto the campus at 7.30 a.m. on the day of the final exam, I thought it might be my last visit. Then I met one of my fellow students, who reminded me that we have to submit our coursework portfolios and I hadn't brought mine. So I'll have to make the trip at least two more times: once to deliver it, and once more to pick it up again and/or attend a viva. I haven't signed up for the graduation ceremony.

The night before the exam I had the worst night that I can remember, with about 3 hours uninterrupted sleep followed by about 3 hours dozing and wishing it were morning. On campus very early, because with a 9 a.m. exam I have to leave at least an extra hour in case of trouble on the motorway - missing the start of a lecture isn't usually a problem; missing the start of an exam is unthinkable.

I was pretty tired, and at about 10.30 a.m., halfway through the exam, I had to mentally pull myself together and carry on to the bitter end. It wasn't a bad paper, although even at three hours they give you so much to write that there's never enough time. One lecturer pleaded with us to try and write clearly - after three hours writing non-stop my hand is so cramped that clear handwriting is the last thing on my mind.

Lunch with a friend, a meeting with my tutor about possibilities for research in future, then I drove home on nothing but adrenaline and went to bed. Since then, I have been smiling, and the best part: walking about aimlessly. I went into town, and to Warwick, walked about in the sunshine and just enjoyed the fact that there's nothing I HAVE to be doing, although of course there's lots I could be doing, and quite a bit that I should be doing.

Today among other delightful prospects, I will be treating myself to a trip to my favourite greengrocer. Last time I was there, the manager told me all about his staffing problems since he'd taken over a second shop, and the plans he had for refitting the shop, and the trouble with the tills, and his plans for a day off to go to Bournemouth. Then he gave me a hug. I wonder if all his regular customers get this treatment?