Monday, 29 June 2015

Boston and Chicago

Foreground flowers, background skyscrapers
Chicago skyline
I have three simultaneous blog posts brewing at the moment, not including the usual collection of books I've been reading, and I need to knuckle down. As ever, there's a lot going on that I don't or can't write about, which means I often choose to do nothing at all in the times when there is nothing I must do. Writing and blogging has to take its turn among all the other pressures. But I always seem to come back to it eventually.

The hiatus was caused in part by a big trip to America - the furthest distance and longest duration that I can remember. I can usually manage a week away; this one was just over ten days.

Golden domed building on the Common
Massachusetts State House
First half: Boston, where I stayed with my favourite cousin and his wife (E+L) and three teenage children, all of whom appear to lead a life without a minute's pause except for sleeping, and without direct observation I'm not sure there was much of that. They get home from work and drive up to three children plus friends to many different places, feed and walk the dog, select any number of different dinner options, argue, settle arguments, find lost possessions, buy new ones, plan for the following day/week/month, pack bags for up to three different camp/summer holidays, and even socialise.

Path and flowerbeds on a sunny day
Boston Greenway
Without children my life is comparatively sedate, with the provisos I have mentioned at the start of this post. I get home from work, have something to eat, then read or blog or listen to the radio or podcasts, and very occasionally half-heartedly clean or tidy something. I haven't even been to badminton for a while because I'm trying to fix my tennis elbow. I have been running, but I try to do that in the morning if I can. I could probably fit a lot more in if I had to, but luckily I don't have to.

It's easy to walk around Boston despite my terrible sense of direction, and I wandered about quite aimlessly for much of the time, just enjoying the vibe of a foreign city, On various days I followed the Harborwalk, ate in the North End (alone and with E+L) and at Quincy Market, visited the Museum of Science and the Museum of Natural History (which is in Cambridge on the Harvard University campus), and joined a tour of the Massachusetts State House.

A sculpture of a boat with the harbor and skyscrapers in the background
Boston Harbor
The Museum of Science was no better than OK, and this impression is reinforced by the fact that five days later I couldn't remember a thing that I saw without looking at the website. The best bit was called 'The Photography of Modernist Cuisine' which had interesting pictures of food that were highly magnified or cutaway sections e.g. of food in a pressure cooker or blender. Another interesting bit was all about mathematics, and there were live demonstrations of lightning and a snapping turtle. The Imax film about humpback whales was OK, but the Clam Chowder in a bread bowl and the Boston Cream Pie from Quincy Market were better, and more memorable.

The Museum of Natural History in Cambridge features perfect scientific models of plants and their components made entirely out of glass. They were amazing, and the exhibition was only enhanced by a hugely enthusiastic staff member who provided short talks to the crowds of visiting schoolchildren, and when he wasn't talking to schoolchildren he wandered about murmuring "Glass, it's all made of glass." There was much more to the museum than glass flowers and plants, and their stuffed animals in and out of glass cases were presented very attractively.

On my last day in Boston I headed for the Massachusetts State House. As I approached, it appeared to have a whole lot of police and uniformed troopers around, and then I heard someone's voice thanking us all for attending, and some clapping from the crowd. I'd arrived exactly as a ceremony ended.

It turns out that in late 2014 water works in the building led to the unexpected discovery of a time capsule hidden in the cornerstone. It had been buried in 1795 by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, and its contents cleaned and re-buried in 1855, but since then it had evidently been forgotten. It was opened and found to contain newspapers, coins, a state seal, a page of the record from when the state was a colony and an engraved silver plate. The contents were temporarily put on display in Boston, and the ceremony I had stumbled on (and missed) was to re-bury the box. As the crowds dispersed I did manage to go inside and see the Boston House of Representatives and the Senate as well as hearing a bit about the history of the colony pre- and post-revolution.

I volunteered to do the cooking on my last night, but when L came home she invited me to go out to a film festival, at which point I abandoned the cooking (it was very nearly done) and went out to watch 15 short films and an awards ceremony. L had actually been part of a team that created and submitted a film, but they didn't win anything. She showed me her film, and I thought it was at least as good as any of the winners.

Mirror polished bean-shaped sculpture
Shell Gate sculpture, Millennium Park, Chicago
Second half: Chicago. This was my first experience of Airbnb, where ordinary people offer their houses as accommodation for travellers. It worked really well for me - much cheaper and less formal than a hotel or guesthouse, with the option of using a real kitchen. I chose a place that was a little way out of town, but it wasn't a problem.

As in Boston, my leisure preferences in Chicago included wandering about aimlessly, visiting museums, and food. There also happened to be a four-day festival celebrating all things Puerto Rican in the neighbourhood near to where I was staying, including a parade. I'm not sure what I expected, but after the various floats the parade ended with motorcycles and cars parading past for what seemed like an eternity, revving their engines and spinning their wheels and generally being noisy and unpleasant.

The best museum of the trip was in Chicago - the Field Museum of Natural History, where they have stuffed animals, dinosaurs, and more stuffed animals as well as whole collections that I didn't see, and I spent the whole day there: from 5 minutes after the doors opened to the announcement that everyone should please leave. The explanations and interactive exhibits were well thought out, and there didn't seem to be any school groups, which was a relief. I also confirmed the identities of two animals I'd spotted earlier in the trip - a chipmunk (like a squirrel but smaller with light stripes down its body), and an American Robin (different shape and darker back but with an orange breast).

The worst museum of the trip was also in Chicago - the Museum of Science and Industry, which was very disconnected and too interactive. To get any decent information you had to hang about and watch the videos. The highlights were a hall of mirrors in the form of a maze, and the hatchery where I watched a chick hatch from an egg. Not the highlights I was anticipating from a museum of science and industry. I didn't find the physiology exhibit until it was too late, but I don't think I would have liked it any better than the rest of the collection. It seemed to be designed for people with a very short attention span - I suppose they know their audience.

On my last day I chose local activities - lunch followed by a movie. Not your usual tourist fare, but it's what I like. Throughout the trip the weather was extremely varied, with days of cold rain, as well as humid and overcast but dry, and hot and sunny. As I left for the airport, it was hot, and raining.

Man on motorcycle
In the Puerto Rican parade
I liked Boston more, but that was partly because of my lovely cousin and his family, and partly because the weather, while not perfect, was more comfortable than Chicago. Now it's back to work, and the holiday feeling has already faded away...

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Three notable things last week

Garden border
Back garden, May 2015
Two people I know featured in the news last week. The first was Emma Percy, who hit the headlines by asserting that the Church should feel free to refer to God as a woman. We were at secondary school together, and I met her again a few years ago when she led the memorial service for another schoolfriend's mother.

The second media appearance was by a regular visitor to this blog, known as CERNoise. As the name suggests, she works at CERN and has contributed a guest post to this blog in the past. The Large Hadron Collider was fired up again this week, and is now ready to operate at higher energies than ever before. CERNoise appeared on the BBC Today programme this week (segment starting at 2 hours 24 minutes). Her explanation of the slightly strained nature of her contribution was that it was incredibly noisy in the control room and she could hardly hear herself speak.

The third notable thing was to do with my running. [It occurred to me this week that we used to call it 'jogging' - when did we make that change?] I have an app on my phone that monitors my location, speed and elevation. It is very complimentary about my performance, and tries to find anything to congratulate me for - as well as fastest and furthest in many distance categories it has also commended me on the most outings I have made in a month, number of calories burned, meters climbed and so on.

Anyway, this app - called RunKeeper - also contains a few different training programmes. As I'm planning to Run Forest Run in November, I thought I'd try the plan that offers to help you achieve 10k in under 65 minutes. It is a set of 61 'workouts' over about 4 months at a rate of 4 runs a week. As there isn't a chance that I'll be going out 4 times a week, I have started it already as it will probably take me more like 6 months to get through that many runs.

It starts with shorter, slower runs, but mixes things in an interesting way, giving a bit of variety. The longest run scheduled so far coincided with this week's Parkrun - the regular Saturday morning run that is held every week for all comers. But RunKeeper wanted me to run 8 km, while Parkrun is only 5 km. My solution was to run 3 km from home to the start of the Parkrun - I usually go by bicycle.

8 km is definitely the longest run I have ever done, and it went surprisingly well given that I misjudged the timing/distance a bit and ran for 8.4 km. I was only 40 seconds slower than my best ever Parkrun time!

A couple of weeks ago I volunteered to marshal for Parkrun instead of running, and it was quite entertaining. I went for a lonesome run afterwards, and this is when I realised that after a year, I have actually come to enjoy running - probably because I can do it without constantly feeling like my lungs will burst any minute. So, it takes a year. Definitely worth it.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
"On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. Her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home."
This started well - it has been a while since I read a book that felt so much like a novel, set in an unfamiliar place and time with proper characterisation. In fact until I found the summary above I hadn't realised it was in the 17th century; it felt more like the 19th (but that's a small point). Anyway, on the whole it was a good read, my only criticism being that the mystery of the cabinet and the miniaturist was never resolved to my satisfaction; other readers may find the lack of resolution perfectly fine.

Image of the book cover

Paradise Postponed
by John Mortimer

narrated by Paul Shelley
"When Simeon Simcox, a socialist clergyman, leaves his entire fortune not to his family but to the ruthless, social-climbing Tory MP Leslie Titmuss, the Rector's two sons react in very different ways."
I wasn't sure I liked this book when I was half way through, mostly because of the way that he writes the character of the aspiring, calculating and cynical Leslie Titmuss. A perfect politician, Leslie is quite open about how he manipulates the family of the chair of the local Conservative association - for example, he marries their daughter by the ruse of pretending that she is pregnant. The Rector's family is equally well described but slightly more attractive, and the mystery of the will was just enough to keep my interest alive in the face of the unattractive characters portrayed.

Image of the book cover

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

narrated by Simon Vance
"A colonel receives five seeds in the mail, and dies within weeks. A young bride disappears immediately after her wedding. An old hat and a Christmas goose are the only clues to a stolen jewel. These mysteries - and many more - are brought to the house on Baker Street where detective Sherlock Holmes resides."
A nice set of short stories, some well-remembered (the speckled band, the copper beeches) and others I'd forgotten. Have I mentioned that the narrator is rather good? I've listened to only 18 hours of the massive 58-hour set of books; plenty left to enjoy!

Image of the book cover

The Return of the Soldier
by Rebecca West

narrated by Nadia May
"Captain Chris Baldry, a World War I soldier, is sent home with a severe case of shellshock amnesia. Recoiling from the horrors of war and disillusioned with years of superficial married life, his mind has regressed 15 years into the past."
This is a short book, but beautifully and poetically written, The soldier in question has returned from war with shell shock in the form of amnesia, and remembers nothing of the past 15 years in which he lost the love of his life, married a different woman, and had a son who died. His wife is appalled at his wish to be reunited with the woman he had loved before her, not least because she is dowdy and ugly. But it isn't the story that drew me in, it's the gorgeous quality of the writing; words to conjure sunlight, shade, beauty, love and war.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Happy 82nd birthday

Table loaded with birthday feast

We'd been planning for ages, covering all eventualities and managing food, drink, venue, helpers, invitations, music and slide show. At last the day came, dad in his finery (suit) and ready for all comers.

The weather was beautiful, which was lucky because it really helped to use the garden as well as the house. Sister D brought wine and all the food from the caterer, we had a helper who offered drinks round and did lots of washing up, Lola II brought chairs, laptop, and created the slides for the presentation, I brought soft drinks and we all brought glasses, cutlery, dishes and tablecloths. Tablecloths were a good idea - we ended up having to disguise the ironing board because we didn't have enough tables.

This was dad's 82nd birthday party, which took place on Sunday. I came down to London ahead of the event and spent Friday night and Saturday with Lola II and Mr M - as usual, the food was among the highlights of the trip. My first meal with them was some of the best ramen I have ever had, Lola II took me to her new fitness club where we did an 'Aquafit' session in the pool then jacuzzi and sauna. After a coffee we went to Richmond on the bus (note to self - never go to Richmond on the bus at midday on Saturday because it will take an hour instead of 20 minutes) and ate at an open air Bavarian restaurant facing the river - luckily the weather was perfect. Two excellent meals - and then the party.

All the guests arrived, lunch was delicious, everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves, dad gave an illustrated talk mostly about his early life, we all had tea and went home. There was enough food left over for us all to take away lunches for the rest of the week. I think it went better than any of us had hoped.

Happy birthday dad!

The birthday boy

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Royal Mail apologises

This arrived on Thursday:

Torn envelope and letter headed 'Our Sincere Apologies'
Click on the images to enlarge them

The envelope was inside the plastic bag, and its flap was torn as shown in the picture. It was postmarked June 2014, and was a lovely thank-you card from Hugh (thank you, Hugh!) with an appliqué flower. There was also another letter:

It must have felt a bit like something was enclosed with the card because of the flower. You read about this sort of thing, but it's interesting to see the actual evidence of the crime.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Weekend in Rugby

So I went to Rugby for a weekend to mooch about and get to know the town. I had a surprisingly good time - I wasn't expecting to enjoy myself quite as much as I did. I put some of the enjoyment down to the fact that I planned in advance more than usual, checking out places of interest, food emporia and even booked a ticket to the theatre. The weather was cold but mostly sunny, and even when it wasn't sunny it didn't rain much.

Pub interior
The Merchant's Inn
On Friday night I started with some basic orientation and wandered about the town centre for a bit. There were a few places I was looking for, and I ended up eating chilli with a half pint of Doom Bar in The Bank. I wasn't intending to do much more, but on the way back I passed The Merchants Inn, which is renowned for its beer, and it was early so I went in for a cheeky one. They have a vast range of beers, including more than one type of mild! So I had a half of Moorhen Mild, which was very tasty. That's a very fine pub indeed.

I went into a supermarket that a patient had mentioned - it is amazing. It stocks all manner of Eastern European food, mainly from Poland but also from Latvia, Lithuania and Romania, and seemingly no UK brands at all unless they are sourced from these countries (so for example I think I saw a Polish version of a Kitkat). There was half a wall of different sausages in the self-service chilled cabinets down one side, and then another half a wall of more sausages on the other side ready to get sliced for you. There were many, many unfamiliar products and several that I couldn't identify at all.

Best of all, for the first time since our trip to Lincolnshire, I found the frozen curd cheese desserts we first tasted there. Lola II and Mr M have been into every Polish shop and supermarket in London and failed to find any; we have now found our source. What's more, I found the same desserts in a second, similar shop in town, and I reckon if I'd bothered to go into any others they'd have been there too.

Colourful fish-type creature
On Saturday I'd planned to go to the Visitor Centre, Art Gallery and Museum, which are all in the same building along with the town library. The Art Gallery wasn't bad, and along with its pictures it had quite an entertaining selection of papier mâché creatures. The Museum was just one room with stuff in cases as per any local museum, representing local industry. In Rugby this comprises engineering (various light and heavy engineering firms - Frank Whittle designed his first jet engine around here), telecommunications (including GEC), the railways, the cement works, and the game of Rugby including the manufacture of rugby balls.

Silver trophy in case
As might be expected, the game of Rugby features heavily in the tourist attractions of the town, including the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum and in the tour of Rugby School. The museum caters for the enthusiast, and I've never been particularly interested in the game, so the couple of rooms of memorabilia held little interest. I watched the film of how a rugby ball is constructed by hand - or perhaps how it used to be constructed by hand, it's probably all done by machine nowadays.

Chapel interior with pews and stained glass window
The guided tour of the school was much more interesting. Rugby School was founded much earlier than I realised (in 1567) in order to provide a free education for local boys in what was then not much more than a hamlet. It moved to its present site in 1750, which at the time was on the edge of the growing town, but is now very central as the town has expanded. The architecture is beautiful, much of its decorative brickwork designed by William Butterfield, but adorned with ivy and wisteria in a very attractive manner. I went on a tour of the main school site, although there are many other buildings belonging to the school scattered about the town. We went into the chapel, an (empty) assembly room with 19th century graffiti on the walls, a couple of courtyards, and one of the older classrooms which was a peculiar mixture of ancient books in bookcases, a blackboard, a jury-rigged data projector, a whiteboard, modern tables and a stained glass window featuring 18th and 19th century headmasters.

Statue of Webb Ellis carrying rugby ball
Obviously there is much emphasis on that cheating footballer William Webb Ellis who is supposed to have picked up the ball and run with it in 1823. In fact, he is probably unrelated to the development of the game, the attribution being made by another pupil long after both had left the school. Anyway, other notable alumni include Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown's Schooldays), Rupert Brooke, Neville Chamberlain, Lewis Carroll and Salman Rushdie. I'm thinking of reading Tom Brown's Schooldays again, although the tour guide's opinion is that the first part of the book is pretty uninteresting.

The weather was cold enough that I was now looking for a warming lunch. I'd had a cooked breakfast in a generic cafe, but a late lunch was planned at a well-regarded vegetarian restaurant called Summersault. I had a big bowl of cauliflower and fennel soup with a delicious bread roll that had a seam of real olives inside it.

I'd done a whole lot of walking around by now, so nipped back to the hotel to change before going to the theatre to see 'The Diary of Anne Frank'. I thought I'd have a nap, but realised I'd better set an alarm, which woke me in good time to get ready. The trouble was that I didn't get up straight away, so woke with a start 20 minutes before the performance was due to start. I got there just in time, and the performance was very good, especially of the young actor playing Anne, but I knew the story wasn't going to end well. If I'd delayed my visit by a week or two I could have had a less depressing experience with 'Hairspray'.

Sculpture of horn player in the park
Sunday started with an impressive vegetarian breakfast at Bacco Lounge. What I'd planned for the day was to follow the 'Path of Fame', a walking tour through the town featuring a whole lot of brass plaques set in the pavement to celebrate rugby players over the years. In the Visitor Centre they updated me with the news that all the plaques had been removed, but I could have a booklet with the route in it if I wanted. In fact this was fine, because I wasn't particularly interested in the sportsmen but the booklet had interesting information about the town. It pointed out features of buildings and I saw a few nice sculptures and public art and a couple of little parks.

I tried to do a bit of shopping over the weekend, but my poor shopping skills meant I managed only food and socks. Back at the Eastern European supermarket I treated myself to a stock of curd cheese ice creams as well as a pack of ready-made pierogi, sausage, smoked cheese and pickled herrings. I tried shopping for household goods but made little progress. So it was time to come home.

The weekend was pretty good, and certainly more fun than I had expected. I put it down to planning ahead, while acknowledging also that it was very fortunate that most of the time it didn't rain.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Segway polo

Line up of all the players + Coach
Fully accredited members of UKSPA, May 2015
A while ago when I was entering my 50th year and feeling somewhat over-wrought, I decided to make a list of things I'd like to do. A bucket list. I didn't assign any timescales, and I don't feel any particular pressure to achieve them all, particularly if they turn out to be difficult or expensive or unrealistic.

There were only twelve things on the list, and I achieved the first one last year when I first ran 5 kilometres. As I said at the time, and have been saying ever since, that should have been the end of it, but somehow I've carried on running. In a strange way I've started to experience what might be called 'enjoyment' - not generally while I'm running, but for most of the day afterwards. I've even signed up to Run Forest Run in November, which is 10k plus an obstacle course - an account of last year's race is here.

Now I have been able to cross another item off the list. This one feels a lot like an event from my teens and twenties: those of a certain age may remember a TV programme called 'Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead' (usually abbreviated to 'Why Don't You'). I used to watch this occasionally, but I remember one episode in particular. It featured a group of kids on unicycles, and I think they were playing basketball or something similar. When I saw that, I instantly wanted to do it. By an astonishing coincidence, the college I attended years later had a unicycling club, so I was absolutely thrilled to be able to realise that long-held dream.

I had a similar feeling when I first encountered the Segway. Unlike the unicycle experience, I can't remember exactly where or when that was, but it must have been after 2001 because it seems that is when the Segway was launched. So having a go on a Segway was an item on my list of things I'd like to do.

The Segway is prohibited from public highways in the UK, but is used for guided tours in several European cities. I think Mr A and I first saw this opportunity when we visited Bruges, but unfortunately the cost was so high that I didn't feel able to justify it, especially as we would have to do as we were told and follow the guide at a sedate pace rather than, for example, seeing how fast we could go backwards...

I mentioned this recently to Lola II and she egged me on towards Google, which led to the utterly unexpected but fantastic discovery that a) there is a recognised sport of Segway polo, and b) the centre for Segway polo in the UK is... my home county of Warwickshire. This felt like finding out all those years ago that the place where I happened to be living had a unicycle club. So of course, I had to find out whether I could give this a try, or whether like city tours, it was beyond my reasonable budget. I emailed the UK Segway Polo Coach, who replied very promptly.

At the time, they were offering interested parties like myself the opportunity to join in a training session with more experienced players, for 2 hours and not that much money. At the same time they were up to their necks in organising an international tournament. I couldn't fit in with the dates on offer before the tournament, so I went along to the event to see how Segway polo was played.

Four players in purple and black strip riding Segways, followed by sound recordist also on Segway
The BBC Click team plus sound man
It was held in Rugby, about 30 minutes drive from home, on a fairly cold and blustery day in April. The UK Segway Polo Association did a great job of organising it, and there were two teams of TV cameras, one from the Gadget Show on Channel 5 and one from BBC Click, who even entered a team into the competition. Although I wrapped up pretty warm it was really too cold to stay for the full competition, but I certainly got a flavour of it, and in a tiny roped-off section of the car park I had my first go on a Segway. For a machine that appears to be inherently unstable, it was remarkably easy to ride and steer. I'd say that anyone able to stand could easily get the hang of it within a few minutes.

So I got in touch with the Coach again after the tournament, and asked when we might be able to have a go - but things had changed. Due perhaps to the publicity, or from understandable concern about health and safety, he now wanted new players to undertake a training course before going any further, and this would now cost a great deal more than he had quoted me when I first enquired. While I thought I could get a group together and have a go for £20 a head, this seemed most unlikely for £120 each. We negotiated, and reached a very acceptable compromise. I canvassed the people most likely to be up for this kind of nonsense - my badminton-playing friends - and they responded with enthusiasm. So off we all went to the all-weather pitch at a local sports centre on Bank Holiday Monday.

First we had to sign what we referred to subsequently as 'the death waiver' - a fairly strongly worded agreement that we understood the high risk of serious injury or even death and we weren't going to blame the organisers. Then we started - first some drills around markers to practise speed, turning and stopping, then we were given our mallets to practise dribbling and hitting the ball. And then - the first casualty, with player, Segway and mallet ending up some distance from one another, and the player seriously winded. It wasn't a collision (all our other mishaps involved more than one player), but it was actually the worst injury, with a suspected cracked rib. He still played on for the rest of the session, though...

Eventually we were deemed to be skilled enough to have a go at a real game. Segway polo is played with a series of chukkas lasting 8 minutes. There are five players including one in goal - we swapped about because the goalie doesn't have as much to do as the others on the field. I was in one of the first serious crashes on the pitch, and the best tactic (developed with practice) is not to try to hang on but to part company from the Segway as gracefully as possible. I still landed pretty hard, but I was only the first of many. We weren't supposed to crash into one another, but we weren't very good at anticipating what other players were going to do, or looking in the right direction, or turning and stopping as quickly as we needed to, so there were plenty of incidents.

It was pretty difficult to score a goal, not so much due to the skill of the goalies but because were were all a bit rubbish at hitting the ball with the mallets in a predictable direction. The two sides picked at random were evenly matched, so at the end of what seemed like a very long time the score stood at 2-2 and we finished with a penalty shoot-out at an undefended goal. By this time, I was really tired and fairly sore - my collection of bruises is quite impressive, but not as impressive as those acquired by the player with the cracked rib.

Overall I enjoyed it immensely. Would I do it again? We'll see...

Lola I on Segway with mallet

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Making plans

Skyscrapers towering over the water
Canary Wharf, March 2015
A significant event took place this week - Tech-boy over the road dealt with my PC! Mr A recommended him and made the arrangements, and he took my slower-than-a-snail laptop and reinvigorated it with a new hard disk and operating system. It now boots in real time rather than geological time and the little issues it had with launching various applications have mostly disappeared. My PC hero is the eldest son of one of our neighbours, keen on motorbikes, and Mr A has let him use the garage and helped with various matters relating to internal combustion engines and their associated motorcycles. He is also delightfully polite and helpful. I have given him more money than he strictly deserves (he was happy to do the job for nothing) on the basis that I will pester him at any time when I have technology-related problems.

The only slight impediment to boundless joy is the need to reinstall a few key applications and transfer a load of data over from the old hard disk. It's not going too badly, although I had forgotten how much I had tweaked and tailored the interface. Just when I need to do something (scan, print, edit photos etc) I realise that something is missing e.g. the printer needs installing or the software application isn't there. There will be many situations over the next few days and weeks that will catch me out. But on the whole it's a great improvement.

So two nights with no PC and then a sunny weekend meant quite a lot of work in the garden, filling rubble sacks with vegetation - one carload has gone to the dump already. The lawn is mowed and strimmed and further operations are planned, including the deforestation of the paved areas and possibly training the wisteria so that it doesn't take over the whole garden. I missed my opportunity to prune the rose, so it is forming a wall between our garden and the neighbour's that is now about 15 feet high. There's a lot of rose bush out there.

It has been raining quite hard on and off so I have put off the next stage of guerrilla gardening, and resolved to do a whole lot of the desk work that has been waiting along with further indoor spring cleaning. I have had a bit of a blitz and have cleaned many of the windows that have not seen soap and water since our house was painted, and that was a few years ago. It is still a novelty to be able to view the the scene of devastation that is the garden through clean windows.

Desk work included an assault on holiday plans, where dates and/or accommodation had not been finalised. Both are clearer now for holidays in May, June and July, there is already a firm plan for New Year and I'll look at a ski holiday for 2016 at a later date. Now I'm busy reading a travel guide book and websites with tourist information. I'm also spending next weekend in the town where I work, because I'm often talking to patients who assume I know all about the shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs in the area. So I'm going to have a good look around and get familiar with at least some of the local attractions.

It feels as though I have made a lot of positive progress on putting my life in order, which makes me feel pretty good.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Pump clinic

Snowy mountains, blue sky and white clouds
Courmayeur, February 2015
I am lucky enough to have a pleasantly varied job which includes so many different aspects of diabetes. I work with Doctors, Nurses and other Dietitians, we see people with Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes who are on medications alone, medications and insulin and insulin alone, using fixed doses, varying their dosage by carb counting using multiple daily injections or insulin pumps. We see them for individual consultations, in my very low carb group and in group education sessions, sometimes in the hospital as outpatients, in a community clinic and at a GP surgery. And that doesn't include the courses, conferences, study days and meetings with colleagues. Not forgetting that I don't have to do things that I find less congenial, like ante-natal clinics or paediatrics.

One recent meeting was all about updating our service to increase our capacity to see patients who are using insulin pumps, all of whom have Type 1 diabetes (because you don't qualify for NHS funding for a pump if you don't have Type 1). Very few people stop using a pump after they have started, so obviously numbers are increasing, and more children are being started on pumps who then transition to the adult service.

In our service, adults have to attend our structured education before they can have a pump, because it's an expensive and sophisticated bit of kit and we want people to get the best out of it. There's no point having a pump if all you do is give fixed amounts of insulin three times a day with meals; you might as well use a straightforward insulin pen. The pump can give fractions of a unit of insulin; you can extend a bolus over a period of time; you can set up different rates of background insulin over the course of 24 hours; you can adjust the background insulin up or down by a percentage for a period to allow for exercise or illness and much more. So we want people to be able to count their carbs and make informed decisions about adjustments in order to get the most out of the equipment.

This means that our pump clinics contain patients who are generally the most knowledgeable and skilled in carb counting and insulin adjustment. Their level of knowledge and skill does vary, because for example the young people moving from paediatric to adult clinics may have been given pumps without the specialist education if they were too young at the time. But some may have had diabetes for upwards of 50 years; I have been a diabetes dietitian for less than two and a half years. This fact has made me wary of intervening with most patients in the pump clinic.

My colleagues tell me that there is more I could be doing in terms of helping people to use their pumps to manage their diabetes, but before I feel confident to do more I have asked for two things. The first is to attend some sort of insulin pump training for healthcare professionals, and the second is to visit a Diabetes department in a different Trust where they manage pumps, so I can learn from the Dietitian there.

My colleagues are more experienced than I am, but they still feel they could do with knowing a bit more about the range of pumps on the market. Our service tends to favour one particular pump brand, although there are a few others that we support because patients using those brands have moved into our area. So we are setting up an afternoon when the five or six main manufacturers will be asked to demonstrate their products one after another, and we will compare features and costs.

Then there is the way that our pump clinics are organised. With three different overlapping roles - Nurse, Dietitian, Doctor - there can be some duplication. For instance, in order to analyse whether any changes are needed, the data about blood glucose levels, carbs and insulin delivery stored by the insulin pump can be downloaded and manipulated on a computer, which is much easier to do than using the handset. It is also easier to spot trends using graphs, and rates of insulin delivery can be adjusted by drag and drop. But it makes little sense for the Nurse and the Doctor to download and view the same data each in their separate rooms, so they are thinking working together. With two Doctors and two Nurses per clinic it is clear how things might be organised for them, but there is only one Dietitian. I'm not yet sure what I will be doing, but maybe when I've seen what other services do I will come up with some ideas.

Monday, 20 April 2015

What I've been reading

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Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account
by Miklós Nyiszli
"A Hungarian Jew and a medical doctor, Dr. Miklós Nyiszli was spared from death for a grimmer fate: to perform 'scientific research' on his fellow inmates as a research pathologist under the supervision of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele."
My goodness, this book was difficult to read. The author describes what happened in Auschwitz, what he saw, heard and experienced, and it is more direct and real than any other account I have read. Of course we know what went on, but this brought home the cruelty and the scale of the killing - thousands upon thousands of human beings murdered every day, week after week, month after month. I could only manage to read about two chapters at a time. But we must remember these events, for although it seems inconceivable that such a crime could be repeated, it did happen once, and nobody then thought it conceivable until it was upon them.

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Queen Lucia
by E. F. Benson

narrated by Nadia May
"England between the wars was a paradise of utter calm and leisure for the very, very rich. But into this enclave is born Mrs. Emmeline Lucas - La Lucia, as she is known - a woman determined to lead a life quite different from the pomp and subdued nature of her class."
Unfortunately the village is populated by shallow small-minded pretentious snobs, except for the lovely and sensible Olga who settles in their midst and brings a welcome dose of reality to the ludicrous 'romps' and dinner parties and garden parties with which the residents occupy themselves. There are some wonderful characterisations though, narrated to perfection. I particularly loved Mrs Weston in her bath chair with her long-winded accounts of who said what and when they said it. But Lucia herself is awful, and her friend and rival Daisy Quantock is just as bad, and Georgie Pillson not much better. Time will tell whether I am inclined to read more in the series...

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Maid in Waiting
by John Galsworthy
"The Cherrells are cousins by marriage to the Forsytes. When Elizabeth 'Dinny' Cherrell's brother faces extradition to South America, falsely accused of murder, and her cousin is threatened by her mentally unstable husband, Dinny does everything she can to shield them from harm."
This is the seventh book of the nine in the series, and moves away from the Forsyte family, although Fleur still features. Galsworthy writes very sound women as well as men, and the women in this book are at least as important as the men, and much more interesting. It's also fascinating to read how upper class families of the day had access to powerful government officials if they knew the right people - the Home Secretary in this case - and yet complain how they are not given any special status in the eyes of the law: "... one must be careful not to give an impression of favouring privilege -" "I think that's so unfair," interrupted Dinny, hotly.

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Thank You, Jeeves
by P. G. Wodehouse

narrated by Jonathan Cecil
"The manager of the building in central London has issued an ultimatum to either give up the music or clear out, and Jeeves resigns over Bertie's dedicated but somewhat untuneful playing of the banjolele. In high dudgeon, Bertie disappears to the country as a guest of his chum Chuffy."
I'm gradually working my way through the Wodehouse books - this is the first he wrote featuring Jeeves and Wooster, and it is heart-warming that the relationship between the two seems so strong and yet completely understated. Wooster is an ass as usual, and Jeeves saves the day, and they are together at the end and What Ho! all is well with the world.

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A Study in Scarlet
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

narrated by Simon Vance
"Dr. John Watson, discharged from military service after suffering severe wounds, is at a loose end until a chance encounter leads him to take rooms with a remarkable young man. The arrogant, irascible Sherlock Holmes is a master chemist, a talented musician, and an expert on all aspects of crime."
I've invested in the Complete Sherlock Holmes in one audiobook - 58 hours of narration, and tremendous value when you have a yearly subscription. This is the first of all his books, and I've read it many times before, although it struck me this time that Mormons are portrayed very negatively indeed. I didn't check before I bought the whole omnibus, but Simon Vance is a fine narrator, so that's good.

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The Girls of Slender Means
by Muriel Spark

narrated by Juliet Stevenson
"It is 1945; a time of cultural and political change, and also one of slender means. Spark's evocative and sharply drawn novel focuses on a group of women living together in a hostel in Kensington who face new challenges in uncertain times."
Not a long book, and I was a bit concerned about choosing it because I was so disappointed by Memento Mori, but it turned out well. It is set immediately after the war, when London was a mess of bomb damage, everything was rationed and people were somewhat traumatised. The description of a young ladies' hostel in Kensington was perfect, the characters drawn with care and attention, even if there wasn't much of a story to be told.

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The Sign of Four
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

narrated by Simon Vance
"As a dense yellow fog swirls through the streets of London, a deep melancholy has descended on Sherlock Holmes, who sits in a cocaine-induced haze at 221B Baker Street. His mood is only lifted by a visit from a beautiful but distressed young woman - Mary Morstan, whose father vanished ten years before."
Second of the Sherlock Holmes books, and a little pedestrian in its pace and length. Darkly atmospheric though, reprising Holmes' violin playing and introducing his cocaine habit, Watson's eventual wife, and all sorts of exotic travelling types and natives of far-flung islands. The narrator really is good.

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Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar
by Maurice Leblanc

narrated by B. J. Harrison
"Witty and urbane, Lupin stole from the rich through elaborate capers and gave to the poor in bursts of generosity. An inventive genius, a master of disguise and an accomplished actor, Lupin operates in the choice chateaux and salons."
I hadn't heard of this character, who might be described as the French Sherlock Holmes except that he is on the side of the baddies. It's not a bad read, and the great Holmes even makes an appearance in the last story - a little surreal, when one fictional character comments on another created by a completely different author.