The artist as canvas

Some might suggest I have rather been neglecting my canvas of late, and I suppose that they would have a point.  I have been considering whether GofaDM needs a change and part of me feels that the more diary-like posts should be shown the door (and, if necessary, encouraged to use it).  However, without the impetus provided by the events of my so-called life I fear that the muse would have meagre rations indeed to use for sustenance.

As a relatively recent post suggested, I am keen to avoid becoming any more of a caricature of myself than is already the case.  I am too young (in my own eyes) to start ossifying and living within the constraints of an ever diminishing self-image.   In consequence, I may be a little too keen in my pursuit of novelty, but I’ll let you be the judge…

I am currently in Edinburgh, ostensibly to combine catching up with friends with the multitude of delights offered by its annual Science Festival.  Being the butterfly-minded creature that I am, I have also allowed my attention to wander into history, the visual arts, dimmer switches for LED lamps and cinema.  I have also discovered a hitherto unknown talent when it comes to estimating bolt sizes.  Oh yes, I am the complete package!

This very lunchtime, my desire for the new led me to sample a smoothy containing a selection of fruits, ginger and – controversially – spinach.  It looked worrying, but tasted rather fine.  Bouyed by this success, my main course contained blue murder: surprisingly quiet and I assume it to be some sort of cheese.  My dessert was chocolate cake containing avocado – rather tasty and presumably healthier than usual – garnished with white chocolate and horseradish ice cream (they were out of marmite ice cream: this is not a joke).  The ice cream, I feel, was more of an acquired taste and each mouthful remained as unexpected as its predecessor.

However, my most exotic new experience came yesterday evening.  As part of the Science Festival I went to an evening of anatomy and body painting.  At this I learned much about the shoulder and its environs and about how relatively flimsy is the join between my arms and the rest of my body (NB: this is not unique to me: everyone’s arms are broadly the same in this respect).  I wound up acting as the model for our teacher (and so the whole class) as she painted my bones, muscles and fascia onto one side of my upper body.  My friend attempted the same on the other.  He did a rather better job than I had expected as the image below illustrates (those of a nervous disposition should look away now).

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The Illustrated Man

Why, you may ask, is he in the position known to the yoga enthusiast as Downward Facing Dog (or as close as he can manage at his age)?  According to our tutor, this would better display my body’s underlying structure and, to illustrate this claim, she is pointing out my thoracolumbar fascia.  I’m not entirely convinced this could not have been achieved without my blood rushing to my head, but didn’t feel certain enough of my ground to argue the point and at least my calves benefitted from a decent stretching.

I rather enjoyed the whole sensation of having my body painted and am inordinately pleased with the results.  Sadly, social convention – and the Edinburgh weather – meant I did have to replace my clothing before I ventured outside.  Concern for my bedsheets also meant that I had to shower, destorying the artwork,  (just) before bed-time.  The paint came off very readily in warm water and produced some lovely rainbow colours in the bath before they disappeared down the plug-hole.

What we have learned from this experience is that I am far more of an exhibitionist than even I had imagined.  If anyone is need of a body to paint, I can make myself available at very low (or no) cost.  The session was filmed by the Festival and, unless I am demoted to the cutting room floor, I may have a somewhat starring role in this celluloid gem.  I was also rather extensively photographed by my fellow students and so it is no longer just the back of my head which has acquired an unexpected degree of fame.  I now find myself, perhaps, rather less opposed to the concept of tattooing than might once have been the case – but the permanence remains an issue, I am as inconstant as the wind so I think I’ll stick to being painted as a more fleeting work of art…

Festive science

The timing of my recent trip to Edinburgh was arranged to coincide with the Edinburgh Science Festival – an event I first encountered by accident in 2014 when I was visiting Auld Reekie to indulge my Passion for the Dunedin Consort and Bach.

The range of events and topics did not disappoint and I thought I’d share a few of the “useful” things I learned.

I have already mentioned the Antibiotics Apocalypse talk which as well as sowing fear of the future also explained rather nicely why relying on market forces for new antibiotics might not lead to success.  If a company comes up with a drug to treat high blood pressure (for example), the patients will take it every day for the rest of their lives.  If you discover an antibiotic, patients will take it for seven days and then stop – but it is worse than this, in order to minimise the development of resistance, a new antibiotic will be used as little as possible and only when all existing options have been exhausted.  Whilst this make a lot of sense for the future health of the nation (and world), it is not a great commercial outcome for a corporation!

At a talk about food, I learned how to prepare a wide variety of offal (though played the mostly vegetarian card to avoid eating it) and the important rules to live by when dining on road kill.  I was even offered the chance to sample some satay squirrel – having previously seen a live squirrel necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy).  This was probably the best talk of the week – against some strong competition.

At a talk on artificial intelligence, I learned the amazing fact that Szechuan pepper stimulates nerves in the skin which normally respond to vibration – so if you rub your lips (for example) with the active ingredient it produces a tingling feeling indistinguishable from vibration (apparently at a frequency of roughly 50Hz – but a great deal safer than licking the mains).  I also discovered that if you apply an external source of vibration to your arm (at the right point) you can stimulate the muscle spindles which the body uses for proprioception.  This means that you could make people believe (when blindfolded) that their arm was somewhere else and, with a little cunning, make them believe their index finger was twice as long as in reality.  This is crying out to be used in a “magic” trick by Derren Brown (or someone of that ilk).

At a talk on femmes fatales, I learned all I need to know about poisoning using arsenic and the issues that might arise (a lot of mess) and the defence to use in court (just refer to Styria where arsenic was used to improve complexion and muscle tone).  I also got to taste flavoured gin and left with a plaster cast of the end of my index finger – I’m not entirely sure how either of these related to murderous madams, but they made for a fun night out.

Finally, at a talk on potential global geological disasters – including meteor strikes, super-volcanoes, mega-tsunamis and huge earthquakes – man’s dwarfing by nature was laid bare.  One potential disaster would be for part of a mountainside in the Canary Islands to fall into the Atlantic ocean – this could produce a mega-tsunami which would take out most of the eastern seaboard of North and Central America (among other things).  In common with all the potential disasters, many have suggested the use of nuclear weapons as a possible solution to geologists: I’m sorry to report that this will make matters worse (and more radioactive!) in all cases (despite what you may have seen in the movies).  In the case of Las Palmas, some have suggested removing the mountainside in question using diggers and trucks.  Even assuming an infeasibly rapid rate of removal, this would take a minimum of 10 (and perhaps as much as 35) million years!  We may like to imagine that we can destroy the planet (or are already giving it jolly good go), but in many ways even doing our best (or worst) we are desperately ineffectual: the planet is likely to be here long after we’ve gone.  The best (or worst) we can hope for is to have a short-term (in the geological context) impact on the climate and mix of living species – perhaps enough of an effect finish ourselves off, but all pretty minor in the 4.5 billion year history of this lump of rock.

Cold comfort

Some readers may have been wondering about the break in service here at GofaDM, most (I suspect) will have just been enjoying the peace and quiet.  A few may have correctly guessed that my cold, once eliminated from my sinuses, did not do the decent thing and leave my body.  No, instead it chose to begin a seven day residency in my chest and throat – which has meant me spending much of the last week coughing (both day and night).  I have also had much reduced appetite – though in some ways, for a chap trying to base his diet on local fruit and veg, this is about the best possible time of year to eat rather less.

I am far from alone in suffering under a prolonged cough, based on my friends and family, I am thinking of naming 2015 the Year of the Cough (though I note that our Chinese friends went with the Goat).  Indeed, I spent last week staying in an unseasonably warm Edinburgh with friends who were both similarly afflicted.  Obviously, this rather limited my scope for sympathy – but the excellent Edinburgh Science Festival provided further restrictions on traditional responses to a nasty cold.

A common response is to seek an antibiotic prescription from your doctor – rarely useful as most colds are viral in nature and antibiotics can (at best) see off bacteria (and perhaps archaea? fungi?).  Having been to a brilliant talk entitled Antibiotic Apocalypse! I was fully aware of the risks to both patient and society of unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics.  I could have been suffering from “strep” throat, but since it seems to have largely cleared up with the benefit of time, some menthol sweets and a lot of hot drinks (many containing honey and lemon) that now seems unlikely.

It was also very hard to wallow in self-pity after going to a talk on Motor Neurone Disease (or ALS for any American readers).  This would tend to put one’s minor ailments in their place at the best of times, but the fact that I spent a good hour sitting within a few feet (at times less than three) of a chap who really was dying (and fast) really did make it impossible.  He – Gordon Aikman – is a one time national gymnast and is still barely thirty: which certainly reminds one of the capricious (and cruel) nature of Fate.  The talk was fascinating and rather affecting: we know neither what causes MND nor can do anything to prevent its progress and Stephen Hawking is certainly not a typical sufferer – half of all patients die within 14 months of diagnosis and very few live for as long as five years.  It is surprisingly common – with some 400 current sufferers in Scotland alone.  Given our extensive ignorance and the swift, debilitating progress of the disease, efforts focus on improving the (all too short) lives of patients and basic research to try and understand why neurons in the motor cortex and spine start dying.  Some of the former efforts can be quite simple: for example, arranging for patients to have a single appointment to cover everything rather than forcing them to waste their very limited remaining time visiting five different specialists.  Others are more complex, including an attempt to use modern technology to allow sufferers to keep their own voices – rather than a standardised electronic voice – which improves quality of life for both them and their friends and family.  It certainly made me think how important it is not to waste NHS money on things which benefit neither patients, medical staff nor tax-payers.  It marks the current government’s awful, bodged attempts at soi-disant reforms (which seemed cunningly designed to help none of the traditional stakeholders even had they worked) as particularly wicked – they have probably set back real attempts to improve the financial management of the NHS by decades.  It also threw into sharp focus the trivial nature of any of the election debates on the subject of the NHS.

Anyway, lacking a decent route to self-pity and unaided by antibiotics, my immune system has had to do some work and see off the invaders on its own.  It does finally seem to be gaining the upper hand and (according to at least one test) I am now restored to 75% of normal function.  As a result of my reduced depletion, blogging should be fully restored.

The illness was not a complete dead loss as it led me to discover Belvoir Fruit Farms’ Ginger Cordial – which I purchased for its medicinal properties (well, a chap can dream), but which turns out to be worryingly delicious (at least when taken hot, I have yet to try it cold).