Time for a diet?

Diet is a concept I always find inseparable from the words “of worms” – a less than tasty option, but one which might well lead to weight-loss.  I do seem surprisingly prone to such foolish memes.  Earlier today, I learned that part of the scherzo from Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D was used in the musical Kismet (or should that be Kiss Me?) as the basis of the ventriloquist’s least loved song, “Baubles, Bangles and Beads”.  I now find I can only think of the composer as Gorodin (best said with the teeth clenched): yes, a mere 62 years after Educating Archie hit the BBC Home Service, I am now trying a vent act in text (and I bet you never saw my lips move!).

I would seem to have digressed further from the plot than is traditional, even for GofaDM, for this was to be a post about cycling.  A little earlier in the week, the Guardian reported (as I’m sure did other organs of the fourth estate) that there had been a rush to the cycle shops of this sceptred isle following Bradley Wiggins’ victory in the Tour de France.  Whilst wishing to take nothing away from Mr Wiggins – as a cyclist myself I’m frankly amazed that anyone can perform to that degree for that long and can only imagine the state of his knees and backside – I do wonder if this is really the correct explanation (or at least, the whole explanation).

This last week I had reason to have some work done on the warhorse: my heaviest duty velocipede.  Doing so, I discovered that my local cycle shop – the excellent Cambridge Cycle Company – had seen a major (and much needed) upsurge in business.  They had a much more convincing explanation: viz the sudden cessation of continuous heavy rain and the shamefaced re-appearance of our local star in the skies above South Cambs.  It may be that the fortuitous combination of victory in France with this shift in the weather increased the effect, but I would hazard that had the Tour de France taken place a few weeks earlier, the exploits of Messers Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish would have had a much diminished impact on the cycle traders of the UK.

Anyway, my reason for taking my cycle to the shop was unrelated to the Tour de France or the weather: I know what happens when warhorses are taken to France and I continued cycling through the recent record-breaking moistness.  No, I went to take advantage of a serious discount on Ridgeback titanium bike frames and so the aluminium of the warhorse has now been transplanted with light and durable titanium (proof against sea water, chlorine and aqua regia – not that I plan on taking it near any of these as my own frame is rather less durable).  So strong and corrosion-resistant is titanium that this frame should “see me out”: a phrase I wasn’t expecting to use for a good many years yet  (though, it is some comfort that the same would have been true had I acquired the frame when still a teenager).

As part of the delicate surgery on the warhorse, a couple of other issues with its existing components were discovered.  I had somehow managed to break both the saddle and the bottom bracket (oh yes, I have all the jargon): and also contrived to remain blissfully ignorant of both facts.  I like to imagine that my frame is somewhat sylphic, but both sets of damage would be expected to arise from a rider of more than usual girth and mass. Perhaps it is down to the power of my pedal strokes?  Or am I just like catnip to the Higgs boson?  If so, then perhaps a dream job at CERN is closer than I think: even if only as an experimental subject.  I suspect that more prosaically, it may only be an indictment on the condition of the roads of South Cambs: where’s the Olympic regeneration when you need it?

Five old rings

I am hoping this title will allow me to stay free of the clutches of the LOCOG brand police, but this will be a post about the orgy of sport (and pseudo-sport) about to engulf London.

This evening we will have the Opening Ceremony, though this seems slightly tardy as the sporting events started a couple of days ago.  Oddly, these events, which form part of the London Olympics, have been held in places as far afield as Cardiff and Glasgow – the latter being almost 350 miles from London.  I think that even Ryanair would be a little embarrassed to land in Glasgow and claim it was a London airport – or perhaps not, “Welcome to London Prestwick”, anybody?  Forget building new airport capacity in the Thames estuary or expanding Heathrow, let’s build the new London airport in South Ayrshire!

I had thought that hiding out in South Cambs, I would be relatively unaffected by the “games”, but it seems not.  Strange foreign and retired buses have been sighted around Cambridge this week – visitors from Lincoln, Northampton and the scrap-yard – and I had vaguely wondered why: there had been no obvious increase in service frequency that would require extra vehicles.  My local free paper explained the reason: our nice new buses have been taken to ferry athletes around “London” – though if they were real athletes they’d make their own way (though I will accept it is quite a long walk/bike ride/swim to Glasgow).  Surely, athletes (and officials) cycling (or walking) along the special Olympic Lanes around London would be a much more inspiring sight than seeing them imprisoned within buses or limos?  Would this not provide a stronger message leading to a long-term boost to the nation’s fitness and cleaner air through reduced car usage?  Let’s keep the Olympic lanes, but allocate them to human-powered modes of transport!

However, the final straw came earlier in the week when I bought my copy of the Mortician’s Gazette (aka The Radio Times) – still the only listings magazine which gives any degree of coverage of he radio.  The price had increased by more than 40% – not because it was listing any more television or radio, in fact, in many ways rather less as several channels are showing nothing but the extended sportsday – but presumably to fund the unwanted Olympic supplement.  Surely, as little more than extra advertising, this should have reduced the cost of the publication rather than increasing it?

My own protest is limited to refusing to buy anything from any company sponsoring the games – not much of an imposition as I would be avoiding the vast majority of the corporations involved regardless of their sport-bothering commercial activities due to more quotidian issues with the products or ethics.  However, in conjunction with a refusal to buy bottled water (we have perfectly good di-hydrogen monoxide available from the tap) or any liquid which claims to provide some health benefit, this did make it rather tricky to acquire a cold (non-alcoholic) drink on Tuesday night to refresh me after a rather warm ride into Cambridge to see an excellent concert structured around Paganini’s time in the UK.  Some days, I do wonder if I suffer from a form of OCD…

Still, I wouldn’t like to leave you with the impression that the Olympics have brought nothing positive to the country.  As an all too regular visitor to Woking, I had almost grown inured to the quality of the roads in that Surrey town: roads that most developing nations would be embarrassed to host, roads so poor that the speed bumps provide the smoothest portion of any driven or cycled journey.  Well, some sort of sporting endeavour is taking place in the environs of Woking, and the good burghers of that town were concerned that the world-at-large would seem their secret shame were there to be any helicopter coverage – and so, by the last time I visited many of the worst offenders had been miraculously re-surfaced.  £15 billion well spent.  (OK, perhaps they could have re-surfaced the roads slightly more cheaply – but it’s the thought that counts!).

Adventures in organic chemistry

Fear not, this will not involve adding colourless, odourless chemical A to colourless, odourless chemical B (via pipette) to produce colourless, odourless chemical C.  Or at least, that is my main recollection of organic chemistry at school – with only the blackboard to convince you that C had indeed been produced after the long minutes of titration.  Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, we did once make an ester which was not odourless.  I fear even this limited excitement may be denied students of chemistry today – part of my last OU Day School took place in a chemistry classroom and not a Bunsen burner or chemical was in sight, just a rather small (and empty) fume cupboard.  Where will the next Andrea Sella come from, if this is the way the young experience chemistry?

Oh no, my experiments took place in the moderately well-equipped laboratory that is the kitchen of Fish Towers.  Sadly, no Bunsen burner; a ceramic hob just isn’t the same.  Some of you may cavil that my works are mere cookery, and not organic chemistry at all – but I would respond by asking what is cookery other than applied organic chemistry with a (hopefully) delicious result?

The first took advantage of the sudden, miraculous appearance of summer, to make a semi-freddo – something I’d been meaning to do for several years.  This process used every bowl I own and every whisking device at my disposal – and I quickly decided this would be my one and only venturing into the world of the half-frozen.  Well, that was until I came to eat the fruits of my labour after it had spent some hours languishing in the freezer.  Sadly, it was seriously delicious – and so it should be, using as it did a pint of double cream, four eggs as well as a vanilla pod and a little sugar.  Given its very low sugar and almost non-existent salt content, from a certain perspective it could even be considered a healthy option.  I think halving the ingredients would make its future manufacture a more practical option (assuming further summer is delivered to South Cambs) – but perhaps I should also investigate the related concept of the parfait.  I’m not sure this is much lower in fat, but its construction does seem possible with a lower whisk and bowl count.

My other culinary experiment of this last week was the roll.  I’ll admit it may seem rather prosaic, but I’d never made them before – and I was looking for a home-made bread product that would allow the slow consumption of the still fresh article over an extended period.  I have made loaves, halved them and then frozen one half  – but dividing a load any further (without a specialised slicing machine) does not seem a very viable option: any middle portions of the load tend to lose too much structural integrity.  So, I turned to the humble roll   – the bread maker forms the dough and I then divide it into unevenly sized rolls, prove and then bake them.  A slightly more interventionist process than the basic loaf, but a more flexible end product.  At this stage, I am using recipes provided by Mr (or Mrs) Panasonic as I was breaking new ground – but greater customisation may be introduced in subsequent batches.  Once again, a highly successful and tasty experiment – and with very modest workload for the dishwasher in this case.  I may also have gained important insight into the proving process which may yield dividends in future bun making -it all comes down to air (or such is my current theory).

For those disappointed by my rather limited experimental palette, I can recommend the blog-work of James Devine: a very tall chap with an engineering bent who has the great good fortune to work for CERN (and had the less good fortune of meeting me when I visited 18 months ago).  He performs proper experiments for fun (not just work) of a form I have only dreamt about – and only occasionally do these exploit the fact that he has rather more access to particle accelerators than do I.  I am somewhat jealous of his perspicacity – though try and comfort myself with the fact that his essays on the art of Benin are probably less well reviewed than mine.  His latest work is on the subject of cooking – though he has gone for sous-vide whereas I usually balk at a the hassle of a mere bain-marie.  Once again I find I must try harder: should I be studying engineering rather than the Arts?  I suspect I have significantly more chance of becoming an engineer than I an artist – though who knows what hidden talents I may have…

In training

Not in my case for the Olympics – I fear I may have left it a little late, despite my natural athleticism (well, I was never picked last for any sports team – close to last, yes, but never actually last).

No, I am training myself for the orgy of going out of an evening (and often the afternoon and late morning too) that is my annual trip to the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe.  At my age, a little preparation is important before any major period of exertion – even if most of that exertion is sitting down, there is still the whole issue of being up past my normal bed-time.

Luckily, Cambridge is here to help, with this last week seeing the start of the excellent Cambridge Summer Musical Festival and also playing host to the Cambridge Comedy Festival.  As a result there have been plenty of nights out for the author – and even my car has seen some action given the rather wet evenings that were very much the norm until the summer arrived on Saturday (not sure how long its planning to stay, but I’m trying to be Zen about it and live in the moment).  This has had an impact on blogging activity and I trust you are suitably grateful at the reduction in output.

My musical highlights, other than a surfeit of Bach with Floriligeum, would be the guitarist Stewart French and the pianist Karim Said.  In the case of Mr French, it is partly the solidarity one feels for a fellow Oxford mathematician, but more seeing a classical guitarist up-close brought home to me just how difficult an instrument it must be to play well (and play it well he certainly did).  It looks to be absolutely agony for the fingers of the right hand at least, though perhaps years of practice would help with that.  He also showed that the guitar is not a bad substitute for the harpsichord – which makes a certain sense as they are both plucked string instruments – and is a darn site cheaper and, as a further bonus, a guitar already lies within my possession.  Only 10,000 hours of serious application (well, according to one M Gladwell, Esq.) stands between me and one of my earlier blogged dreams!  The even more youthful Mr Said has performed the minor miracle of making me re-consider my dislike of the later Schoenberg (yet another shibboleth shattered) with his excellent introductory talk prior to performance of the Opus 25 Suite for Piano.   That piece would certainly bear a second listen, and I fear may act as a gateway drug to Opus 26 and beyond.

Comedy-wise, I’ve tried to see new acts given the extremely reasonable prices of the CCF – £10 for 2 acts (even if they are practising material for Auld Reekie) strikes me as a jolly good deal in this day and age.  My top recommendation would be “The Trap”, a three-man sketch team (collective?) – I’d never heard of them until last week, when I caught a 30 minute sketch show they had done for Radio 2 on the iPlayer (thanks to a couple of recommendations I saw on Twitter) which was far better than the vast majority of radio sketch fodder.  I tried to see if they would be on in Edinburgh – but no sign in my Fringe brochure (though they are appearing!) – and then I spotted that they were a late replacement for another act at the CCF.  Serendipity: more than a dodgy film from the early noughties!  “Bad Musical”, the live show I was lucky enough to catch, was an absolute scream – some very clever wordplay and silliness galore.  Searching the web it would seem that they are far from new, and have appeared in several examples of radio fun I’ve enjoyed over the last decade which just goes to show what a very poor witness I would make if ever called upon to testify (though some of their names do seem slightly familiar).

So, I feel my going-out “muscles” are now becoming well-conditioned ready for the fray.  Based on last year, I probably ought to do something about beefing up my ankles – we don’t want a repeat of last year’s swelling incident.  Perhaps it’s time to trying brushing my teeth whilst standing on one leg again  – well, it seems to be that or playing around with a giant rubber band according to the fount of knowledge that is the internet – if you hear a crash, you’ll know things have not gone entirely to plan…

Fork Wits of the world, unite!

It is high “tine” those who indulge in cutlery-based humour had a forum to share their ideas, perhaps headquartered in Sheffield.  OK, enough with the cutlery, this is a post about stupidity – but one anxious to retain a PG rating.

As I left ASDA today (it don’t use it for much, but they do offer very cheap anti-histamine), I had the misfortune to see the main headline of the Daily Express.  This was so flawed in almost every possible way that I felt the need to post about it.  I’m sorry to pick on the Express, a mere 15 years after the death of Princess Diana and when the wound is so obviously still raw, but if no-one corrects their work they are never going to learn any better.  For the sake of political balance, I should also pick on a rabidly left-wing “news” paper – sadly, these are much harder to find, but I shall keep an eye out for a copy of Socialist Worker (assuming it still exists) to maul with my heavy-handed sarcasm.

The gist of the headline in question was to announce that as (finally) a majority of our exports were to non-EU countries we should now feel free to leave the European Union tomorrow without a backward glance.

The first issue one might take with this is the idea that we are in the European Union purely for financial gain.  I’d like to believe that we have slightly broader interests in membership, though accept that this may be down to the roseate tint to the glass of my spectacles.  I certainly think some of the members are slightly less mercenary about their membership with political motives in addition to the purely monetary.

However, let us put this quibble aside for the moment and accept that the UK only does anything for direct financial gain to the country, that our membership of the EU is purely mercenary and that the only advantages that accrue are the purely monetary.  I am no economist, but it seems that membership has a few more financial consequences than easing the export of our goods to the continent.  I have no idea what the total net benefit or dis-benefit of membership of the EU brings to the UK – nor even the narrowly financial component thereof – and I’m pretty sure the Daily Express doesn’t either, but I very much doubt it can be explained by the destination of our exports alone.

Ignoring this small fly in the otherwise excellent ointment, let us assume that the only reason for still being in the EU is that they had hitherto taken at least 50.1% of our exports.  Since the paper is describing the change to this status as “news”, I assume this change is recent (perhaps a dangerous assumption but it was enough to displace the Princess of Wales from the front page, so it must have seemed important at the time) and so exports outside the EU probably only represent a very modest majority this point.  So, I presume we are to assume that the potential loss of roughly 49.9% of our export business is of no consequence whatsoever?  Presumably, those traitorous companies (and their employees) who are foolish enough to sell their goods or services to the EU really don’t deserve to continue in business a moment longer.

Of course, total exports themselves should be of only modest interest to the UK.  I could make a sizeable business exporting brand new Ferraris at £10,000 each.  It wouldn’t be a very sustainable business or terribly positive for the UK economy, but it would represent a lot of exports (until my money ran out, after about tP seconds) if at some cost to our balance of trade.  Still, it seems the Express is very wisely holding itself aloof from the grubby world of business, profitability and this country’s potential future trade deficit.

I have no idea whether leaving the EU would benefit me, the readers of the Daily Express or even the country as a whole.  I’m not sure I have terribly strong views either way: I can see positives on both sides and have no real way to prioritise them without an awful lot of research (and perhaps not even then).  I’m pretty sure that leaving will be pretty costly in the short-term as such major changes always are – and so doing it in the depths of a recession may not be ideal.  However, it seems pretty clear that making such a fundamental change without any planning just because a single, unrepresentative statistic has briefly changed would be rather unwise.  Might I recommend the excellent More-or-Less podcast to the journalists of the Daily Express to allow them to come to slightly better grips with the meaning of basic statistics?  I realise this is produced by the much hated, Marxist, federal-Europe-loving BBC but despite these impediments does seem remarkably even-handed in its pillorying of numeric idiocy.

Purchasing

The current G4S Olympics debacle (can I use the word debacle, or have LOCOG been granted all the rights to it?) did make me wonder if at any time in the last 20 years (say), any UK government contract has been delivered on time, for the cost originally agreed and representing the entire scope of work specified in the contract?  I have a nasty feeling that the answer will be firmly in the negative.

I will admit that I am no expert in the field on purchasing – I still like to work within the Corinthian spirit of the amateur game – but I feel it is high time the government made the commitment to turn professional.

If my very cursory view of the story is even roughly correct, it would seem that G4S provided the lowest bid for security at the Olympics.  However, the actual cost charged by G4S will be many times higher than this (even with penalty payments).  This combination of events is not at all uncommon with poorly drafted contracts, the contractor is able to add significant charges for variations and changes in scope (charges that are now entirely free from the pressure of competition).  Even given this huge increase in the value of the contract, it seems that G4S are still unable to meet their contractual requirements and we have had to call in the public sector to bail them out (why do I find myself remembering about the Banks?  Who will bail out the private sector when the public one has been cut and privatised away?).  To be honest, I’m surprised we still have 3,500 people in the army and police combined, given the aggressive pruning of numbers that has been occurring: let alone that many with free time on their hands.  Presumably, as long as you steer clear of Stratford, now is very much the time to either (a) invade or (b) launch a crime spree – it all smacks of 1066 to me, I think we should keep an eye out for any boats leaving Normandy for the environs of Hastings.

I think I may have the solution to our current economic woes.  Rather than cutting people and services left, (mostly) right and centre, perhaps the government should invest some of the vast quantity of money we give it each year into recruiting some people who can draft and enforce a decent purchasing contract.  When I was younger, purchasing departments were staffed with hard-bitten (often Scottish) men (well, this was the 80s) who would have no truck with the idea that people or companies were essential good or honest.  All purchases were made on the basis of cast-iron contracts, with no wiggle-room for the vendor and swingeing penalties for non-delivery.  Whatever has happened to these fine folk?  Can none be tempted into a life of public service?  Given the amount of money being lost through the current appalling attempts at contracting, we can afford to pay these people the sort of salaries of which bankers and Premiership footballers can only dream – and still be quids in!  This G4S mess alone, if properly contracted, could have freed enough money to support tens of libraries for years to come.

A cynic might wonder if the fact that most of the government have never had a real job, or in the case of the cabinet much in the way of money worries, might be contributory factor? I also worry that the government thinks that the money it disburses (much of it very wastefully) is its own – rather than that hard earned by its less tax-savvy citizens and corporations.  Perhaps if ministers had to personally fund the extra cost caused by their contracting errors, they might take a little more care in drafting the contracts in the first place: if we are to be ruled by the fabulously wealthy, at least we would see some benefit from it!  Over time, my approach might see a switch from government by the rich to government by the competent: though sadly I can’t see this change coming about any time soon as the current incumbents seem unlikely to support its passage into law.

Nothing for a pair

…not in this game.  Where would the world of the catchphrase be without Brucie?  Do I have a catchphrase?  I suspect there are phrases that are heavily over-used in these posts, but I’m too much of a coward to check: unless anyone would care to notify me…

As some may have guessed, this is the post that no-one wants to see but I create as a way of (dolly) dealing with my sense of astonishment.  I have just received back my marked assignment on the art of Benin and my heart-rate has yet to return to normal.  This huge increase in heart rate occurs whenever an email arrives revealing my assignment has returned, marked – and then tends to become worse when I discover that I have once again fooled the Open University with a semblance of competence.  I don’t ever recall this happening at school or university – is this perhaps a normal feature of middle-age?  OK, just me then.  With each essay I grow less confident either that I am producing what is required or that I know what I’m doing.  I also become more frustrated that there is insufficient depth in the teaching materials provided to support my ambitious plans for my latest prose work.  It is often said that you learn through your mistakes and I am now becoming paranoid that I am making too few mistakes: I feel like I am fluking the entire course.  I realise that no-one else cares about my insecurity: the successful, like the thin (another camp into which I fall), receive very little sympathy for their plight.

Anyway, as the title implies (or, at least, will have led the better students to infer), my latest opus once again received 95 marks and some extremely kind comments from my tutor.  It would seem I have some future in art history (should I want it) and can construct a decent argument.  I suspect the remark about my tendency to use “elevated language” will strike a familiar chord in the hearts of readers of this blog, and may only partly be intended as a compliment.

This must all be very frustrating for you poor blog sufferers – to know that I can write half-decent prose, but never to see any examples.  Sadly, the rules of the OU prevent me: I already worry that students more generally are plagiarising this blog for their homework and failing courses as a result (and I really don’t have the mental capacity to process any more sources of guilt).  It is also quite frustrating for a chap trying to decide where to take his Arts foundation course next.  I had been leaning strongly towards philosophy, but now I’m wondering about including a bit of art and I’ve always been tempted by literature and classics.  The only issue about art or literature is that I’m (currently) a bit picky about the sort I’d like to study: basically the stuff in which I have an existing interest, but I suspect higher education doesn’t work quite like that.

I think, for the sake of variety, my next essay will be on the transmission of medical knowledge from the Islamic world to Western Europe.  Unusually, I am already full of ideas for this – which probably means it will be a disaster.  Quick doctor, bring me a leech…