Sunday, 21 June 2015

A scientist in a world of religion

I've said bits of this before, but a month after submitting my last assignment is about right for some more serious reflection.

I'm a scientist whose pretty much worked in science for the last 20 years. I'm not a bench, lab or field scientist (though I've dabbled with all of them), I'm an applied scientist. Sometimes working in my specialty, sometimes working from first principles.

So why do a course in religious controversies... A332 is it's code number.

Why not? Is my first response... My more considered, with that wry smile my friends know and fear, is I'm doing this OU degree for the challenge, the fun and to regain some of that love of learning that it's so easy to lose.

I'd also classify myself as a confident, but not overly strident atheist, frankly I don't care what you believe, I do care if you foist it on others or make people live by your rules.

I'm by inclination and training I'm an analyst, but I'm an extrovert who learns discussion. So the OU is a strange experience, much of it on my own. At this point I should thank my climbing friends and lunch partners, they've been battered this last year as I've finessed arguments, and looked for them to prod for rot.

So, what have I learned - nuance. It's very ready to take a simple reactionary position, based on your perceived position. This course has been excellent in challenging us, it's willing victims, to go behind the headlines - was Ghandi a great man, or a politician with an eye for young ladies; did the Romans think Jesus mad; what impact do multicultural policies have, for the good of society or the bad; what drives people to be suicide bombers and how does ask this affect, at one extreme the individual, and at the other, international politics.

So into this I did go. With a little trepidation, how would an atheist fare? First up I wasn't alone, second up very few people ended up being challenged on what they believe.  The formal OU forums had a curious feel at times when some individuals chose to forget that the art of communication is adapting to your audience, or tried to impose a world view on others. Yes, it went to the moderators... I don't know what formally happened but the individual disappeared for a while and life returned to normal.

The informal forum on Facebook, had I think less issues, we had the odd argument and some strident people turf up, but the shared interest and willingness to learn from each other made it a safe haven as journal papers, TMAs, the EMA and dreaded Harvard referencing got on top of us.

The online communities are characterised by their robust politeness and willingness (odd individuals apart) to recognise that in the OU we all have different backgrounds and that means we have to explain and change how we explain our positions much more than in any other academic discussion.

My course feedback suggested they need to tweak the bits on Dawkins & Darwin. It may have been deliberate to show one side of the argument, but unless you knew or were inclined to check it could easily have been accepted as fact - it's the nuance that is critical. My essay on that bit got my favourite comment ever from a tutor "wow!".

My tutor group was a good mix, of good people, with the bunnies of two groups trying to meet up so we had extra brains. Salford uni on a study is never going to be buzzing, but the debates provided a spark in barren wasteland (trust me, you can't buy coffee!! The tutors bought biscuits).

So, the long wait for the final results had started, somewhere in the country a marker is, probably with a well deserved wine in hand, giggling through my 3000 words. I enjoyed writing them, I just hope they answer the question in a way they appreciate.

So, thanks to the forumites (official & unofficial), my tutor group and tutor. My marks are my fault, but you made it a blast!!! And I now get even more angry at poor reporting, it used to just be science, now its religious did as well!!



Friday, 19 June 2015

Now things get interesting...

Well, the race strategy worked, and my ability to judge things was tested and didn't fail.  The Rock and Roll Marathon Weekend in Liverpool was many things but flat and cool it wasn't.

A great fun 5K, racing a quintet of Disney Princesses and a large number of Elvis', complete with a stupendous arena finish with black lights and pounding rock music... It doesn't get much better than that!

Apart from it does...

Because after the 5k comes the main event - for me a half marathon... Liverpool Half Marathon's have a couple of interesting elements - mostly the hills, definitely the parks (and the humidity) and the headwind along the prom.  And yet, with bands blasting out at regular intervals, well stocked and volunteered water and fuel stations it was fun - and my fastest half in Liverpool by 5 minutes, and 10 minutes faster than the flatness of Cambridge.

What a difference training makes :-)

As an added bonus there was a pint of cider and the best, blingiest medals EVER!!!

And so after a busy week at work, and no running my thinking goes forward - the next big race is the Chester Marathon.  According the profile, and the views of friends who've run it it's flat. 
I have a two element plan - one build up to a single 20 mile run - looking at the stats from my other marathon training the second 20 miler added nothing, I know its meant to be a confidence thing, but I know I will finish, so this is just about getting fit and leaving plenty in the legs for the big day.
The second element is to get tough, my normal running routes aren't flat - they're in Liverpool but they're not the sort of hills I love to walk up - so when I hit the hills there'll be a run built in.  If I'm doing a multiday walk there'll be at least one hard-day.
So this weekend is the start, a weekend of walking, with a c8mile run in the morning on Sunday.
It won't be fast but it will be fun.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Time for a race strategy...

One of the great things about the Rock and Roll Marathon series is they genuinely cater for all runners, unlike some where the half marathon pacers go 2:15 or faster they have some out to 3:00 and back markers as well -

Which gives me a dilemma:

Start and try and stay with the 2:30 pacers (Ange and Helen),


Start with the 2:45 pacers (Guy and Robbie) and try and have enough in the tank for a fast last 5km along the river...

Partly it will come down to the day.  Partly it will come down to how the horrendous first hill goes, if I'm moving easy and keeping steady up Upper Parliament Street then I'll keep with the 2:30.

Worst case scenario is blasting out (for me) with the 2:15 pacer and then watching the 2:30 & 2:45 go past...

Why not go for the PB?  Basically, cos to do that I'd be running faster than I have in the last month.  I should, being a race tart, get a bit of a lift - it's the ego thing, I have an audience!

Also its a curious thing about half marathons, I don't tend to get good training in for them, my two fastest have come off the back of marathon or ultra-training. So, going out to 13.1 for the second time this year, in much better shape than Cambridge, will be good.  That said Cambridge has two "hills" both bridges you have to get over... Liverpool is not fast and flat, but it is (well the Rock and Roll version) fun and also bling-tastic.

I'll be getting a medal for the half, and one for the 5km on the Saturday... and a medal for doing both... and a medal for doing the marathon last year and the half this... FOUR stonking medals!!!!

And two technical t-shirts... and a free beer... and music, around the course and at the after party!

So, I'm gently carbo-loading, I've a 5km tomorrow evening and then I rest... Well I'm off to the British Cardiovascular Society meeting as a patient "voice" and I have long days of meeting at work...

Then Friday is the Expo, pick up the race packs... Trot the 5km on Saturday morning... then David Sedaris on Saturday night... then run 13.1 :-)

It's easy when you say it fast and don't mention the dilemmas...



Friday, 29 May 2015

and breathe... it's time for fish, chips and curry sauce

It's almost done, the End of Module Assignment - EMA in the secret Open University code language - is written, and a friend is proof reading it before I send it in.  For better or worse its done.

With a course as wide ranging in time, space, and philosophies, I'd be surprised if any of us on the course have taken the same route to an answer, let alone have any commonality in our choice and use of independent references.

So hopefully, I'm a fiddle and a re-read away from finishing my first third year course with the OU.  

Have I learnt anything?

My core of scientific based atheism is unchanged, my belief that the world is held back by the energy wasted on religion is unchanged. 

My appreciation of some people has greatly increased, Rabbi Regina Jonas' story should be taught to anyone and everyone about how you can treat people with inhumanity not just by torturing and killing them, but by trying to forget they existed.  If you read nothing else I prattle on about please look at this one -

I have a wider appreciation of why some people do things that I find truly odd, and I've developed a fascination with the hijab as an art form, seriously the layering, the possibilities for accessorising and then the economic, cultural and religious overlays on that. Watch - 

Throw in properly looking at how fashion can limit how groups interact, and display power relationships, and I'm in a world that sweaty running gear has not equipped me for.

And that's the point, whether I was looking at fashion in South East India or working out what the feck dispensational pre-milleniumism is, and its impact on foreign policy, I was in a world that I barely knew, and now know exists.

The challenge of learning something new, outside your comfort zone is one I enjoy.  Yes at times (yoga and intellectual property rights springs to mind) it was a bit of a trudge, but those were the days when I watched the hijab videos and smiled, or re-read Rabbi Jonas' story and got angry.

So what now, now I await the comments and focus on getting a good essay in.

And then I have a summer of fun.  Walks to walk, a half marathon in a couple of weeks, and marathon training to do. And then I'm back in the arts world - Renaissance Art reconsidered, an in depth look at some beautiful art I like, and the new stuff - how it was made, and what meanings were implicit and explicit in the art forms.

So, tonight is Fish Chips and Curry sauce.  I've a 10k to do this weekend (my plan has slipped due to the cold/hay fever combo that has wiped me out this week) it's time to plan adventures big and small (and read some books for fun!).



Sunday, 24 May 2015

Writer's Block and Irritations of Life

The postmodern irony version of this post would be a blank page...

However, I'm hoping my usual mutterings and mumblings will leak into the academic part of my brain and let me get beyond the 10% of my final OU essay that I'm currently stuck on... Part of that's my fault, I'm gambling big with a large multifaceted approach to the question which makes juggling the elements a little more difficult and piecing them together an headache.

However, stuck in the doldrums of the Newfoundland and Rotherham Sex scandals and their religious components is not a place anyone can lurk for long without getting angry...

Which is a slight problem as I'm angry enough this week.  Two promotion applications, two sets of feedback not calling me for interview.  One set I fully accept, its was a tilt at windmills job and the feedback is about what I would expect - need more big team management (as a scientist, I have more management experience than almost all of my peers, as an Administrator less so).  The second, well I was taught on my sifting and interviewing course that you should always remember that people will have put a lot of time and effort into applications and that as someone doing a sift I had an obligation to them, and to the organisation, to give good, actionable feedback and to do it with respect.

Which is why I tend to see red when the feedback is you need to do the job in the higher band, and whoever put it in the system left typos in and didn't have the courtesy of proofreading it (a couple of sentences make no sense whatsoever).

There could be a good reason, but quite frankly none of them stack up against that central ethos of doing a job properly.

Which probably comes across as a bit bitter... and probably is, but I've been passing selection panels for the next band up for a decade, and under our system that means nothing to anyone (apart from me, and a collection of frustrated, and unsure what advice, to give managers). When someone from HR does a career review and comes to the conclusion that I "just need some luck", I drag down my copy of the Civil Service code and look for the references to luck...

Ho hum...

Back to running stuff...

I'm a published running article writer!!!! Odd, I know for a blog starting with writers block...

Like The Wind Magazine is a brilliant running magazine that focuses on the why we run, rather than the how... And they liked and published an autobiographical piece on why I run.

Most of it will be familiar to those who've read this blog over the years, but as ever I hope it shows what can be done from the back of the pack.

I'm in the final bits of training for the Liverpool Rock and Roll Half - after doing Cambridge off the back of one eight mile run, my training for this has gone well... Out to ten miles once, bits of speed work, and back up to team miles next weekend before a short one week taper. 

So all in all a mixed week, and now back to abusive priests and cab drivers...


Of course, me being me my annual bout of hayfever has kicked in so my 5k efforts run last night was a no-no, and Today's 10k run will depend if I can breathe and see... The good news is that I tend to get hayfever for three days...

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Restaurant Review - Maritime Dining Rooms; Liverpool

I do so like a challenge, so following a text from me saying how good my Sunday lunch was a mate sent the challenge back that he "Expected the Jay Rayner style review soon"... So with apologies to my favourite restaurant critic.

The Maritime Dining Rooms at the Liverpool Maritime Museum could easy be yet another National Trust style "tea and bun emporium" with tacky links to the latest displays and a creeping sense of lavender impregnation. 

Almost hidden on the third floor of the converted dock building, the best seats are those either looking at the iconic Three Graces, only recently spoilt by the black monstrosity of a new build, put up with all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer through an Old Master, or the Albert Dock, surprisingly busy with a range of sailing boats, narrow boats and the occasional giant swan pedalo.

With unfussy, pleasant efficiency the table is taken and menu arrives, only tea as I've a run tonight, and the roast beef is ordered. 

And arrives, no fuss, no condiments - rapidly sorted with a small pot of English mustard, of the type made 24h beforehand with double the recommended amount of mustard.  Hot, but flavoursome, with a viscosity that drapes over the beef like a velvet curtains in a Rubens painting.

The beef is just the right side of pink, thickly cut with well cooked darkened edges. It is appropriately resistant to the knife, textured like beef should be looking like a cross between slowly setting lava and well cut marble.  Robust flavours hold up well against the mustard, the onion marmalade adding body and a slight cut to the rich gravy. The roast potatoes are as they should be, crunchy and brittle on the outside, encrustations of roast potato on the sharp edges braking off at the merest touch, and under the thick layer the innards are steamingly yielding.  The quenelle (are they still called that?) of mashed, buttery swede adds smooth to the crunch and the perfect bitterness of the broccoli.

If the meat on a Sunday roast is the masterpiece, then the Yorkshire pudding is the cartoon.  Sharp edges, soft and succulent bottom (Rubens would be proud), absorbing the last of the gravy, meat bits and remaining encrustations of potato like a luscious edible mop.

Perfection on a plate? I'm not really qualified to say, but it works for me, and for £10 it is very hard to think of anything better.

TTFN I've a five mile run this evening


Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Giant Boobie Blog

It's been a weekend of good running, managing to get out to my running club's monthly 5km - it's still a little odd to think I've joined a running club, but these guys and gals are amongst the friendliest bunch of lunatics you can ever meet...

So, a good 5k, my sixth fastest ever...

Liverpool has a couple of very good 10ks, the Mad Dog up in Southport and the Spring 10k.  A flattish, fastish 10k with excellent organisation and a decent t-shirt, medal and goody bag... complete with a tin of salmon... Not sure why, but hey ho, its protein!

And so on to the giant boobies...

In my runs I've; tangled with Chinese Dragons in Manchester, been tripped up by a banana, been given a dead leg by a dog, chased someone carrying a Angel of the North made out of 4 by 2, been overtaken by a 9' foam nurse and was almost given a horn enema by someone running the London Marathon as a rhino.

Today, however, was the first time I've been sideswiped by a giant boobie... and then almost ran in to the back of another one... The Cop A Feel running boobies are giant boobs, worn like a rucksack and they tend to sway from side to side as the runner carrying them runs...

Which is fine when you know that's what has sideswiped you, that momentary distraction of something cold, mildly fluffy and yielding bumps into your side is an unusual feeling until you can work out what its is...

And despite the obvious distraction it was my 8th fastest 10k.

So all in a good weekend of running, boobs and tins of salmon... next week is back to work, which takes me away and the challenge that running when shacked up in a hotel brings...



Sunday, 5 April 2015

Situation normal... well normal for me...

As some people may have picked up I had a check up this week, to hear the results of the MRI, the 24h tape and the exercise test I had following the last check up.

Well, there are two sides to the data...

The MRI confirms the echo that I have severe pulmonary regurgitation... and also confirms there's no sign of anything getting worse since the last MRI (4 years ago).

The ECG shows very little change.

The exercise test says I'm as fit as a 43 year old without a heart condition.

And I've run a half marathon, a 10k and a night trail run so far this year and am back up to running three times a week.

So, the docs are going to have a case conference, and I'm in the same position as I've been for the last 27 years.  One set of data says there's a need to seriously think about open heart surgery to replace the valve and one set of data says leave well alone - he's running frigging marathons!

So, I shall wait for the docs to have their "Multi-Discipline Team" meeting and then we may have another chat, if that happens in the next six months great, if not my next check up is scheduled for the week after the Chester Marathon. Ok, between then and now I've got at least one 10k, a couple of half marathons and a long distance path or two, but that's normal.

So how did I celebrate this return to normality - in the only way I know how, a decent lunch followed by buying some running shoes...

As ever Natterjack Running did me proud, I tried four brands, six shoes... and the one's I loved I had to be dragged off the treadmill to stop me wearing them out.  I don't have particularly odd feet, I'm an heavy overpronator with mildly duck-like feet.  Given the miles I run minimalist shoes aren't very sensible, and I like a reasonable amount of ankle support.

So, the ones that won my hard earned cash...

Gel Kayano 21s... The upgrade from last years shoes.  The only thing I don't like?  The inner sole, which is fine I have a gently orthotic foot bed that fits :-)  And boy do they come in a bright colour

I can justify the literal glow-in-the-dark scheme by the number of times cyclists have almost taken me out... but really I just like they, they exude a glow as I run in the dusk that warms the cockles of my heart.

And despite my three a week limit for runs, I cracked in under 24h and took them out for a 5k... and it the fastest 5 k of the year, and a clear sign that things are progressing.  I paid for it on today's run - the hills were deeply unpleasant, but I run a lot more than I did even a fortnight ago.

Which is good news, I'm building up slowly to the Spring 10k and the Rock and Roll half in Liverpool to make them more enjoyable than the Cambridge Half and the Mad Dog (both runs I love, but I don't recommend doing either on bugger all training).

So new shoes, a new zip in my legs and a "hold until called" from the cardiologists all is good :-) So on with the OU essay and back to the miles... And it feels good to say that!



Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The night before a check-up

So, the tests are done...

The 24h ECG - with as ever the surprised look when I hand it back an explain its been for a climb, a walk, a chilli based dinner... oh and a 5 mile run.

The MRI - with the need to raise the issue of treating patients like humans

The Exercise test - 8 days after a half marathon, apparently I'm as fit as someone my age and weight should be...

and its the night before the chat about how its gone and what the pictures of the inside of my heart say.  What I do know is I'm climbing well and back to running three times a week, so there's little externally up with me, which makes the night before more fun and confusing than ever.

A running friend recently asked me what the night before a check up is like - and I thought and said its like a taper.  The taper is period of time between the last training run and the race you've trained for months for. Runners during this period have every niggle, every ache and pain that you fear will mean that you'll under perform on race day or worse miss it all together. 

But its a taper compressed into an evening, the slight twist from the cruciform move on a new traverse at the climbing house - is that a dickey ticker symptom?  The heaviness in the legs - a product of a 90 mile (total walking and running) week - or another symptom.  And so it goes on... the indigestion, the headache...

And so I revert to what I do when I'm in the taper, eat well, try and relax and fondle the race bling from the last year.  Remember what I've done and where I am and that's where its possibly going to be an interesting discussion if they want to do much more than care and maintenance....

That's not me going into denial, its me being pragmatic - four weeks ago with minimal training I ran a half marathon, slowly but I ran the vast majority of it.  My climbing is getting back to where it should be, my vexed moves of compression and pinches still are vexatious but I'm climbing 6a's again.

And so I plan my day off...

Up, run 5 km... Go for breakfast, then read a bit, head to the hospital, wait around, probably wait a bit more, see what the cardiologist says, go and find some new running shoes, have lunch and relax...

Nice and easy when you write it quickly



Saturday, 28 March 2015

Something about work and something about gear

I don't often blog about my day job, mainly because I suspect its rather boring.  However, every so often I'm involved in something I think may be more interesting, or I'm particularly product of.

One of those things was launched this week, the Civil Service's Talent Action Plan.  As some of you know I'm the Vice-Chair of the Civil Service Disability Network and Chair HSE's own network (known as Equal). These roles are ones that I fit in with the day job, which as some of you are probably thinking "What does he do?" is being a Senior Scientific Officer in the Corporate Science Unit of HSE, leading on Knowledge Management and Futures/Horizon Scanning and liaison with the Government Office for Science (told you it was less than riveting).

Behind the scenes over the last six months the CSDN, and our sister networks on other protected characteristics, have been working with Cabinet Office to try and turn a loose concept into something that can work for all civil servants. 

Which is the point some wag would normally point out "what about the white, male able-bodied?" and someone else would say "I just want to do my job, what's this got to do with me?"

To which my answer is a simple one, the Talent Action Plan does contain elements to support the progression and development of under-represented groups though it should be emphasised that there's no golden tickets for people to progress, anyone on a scheme will still have to pass panels etc.

However, the majority of the Talent Action Plan is about making the Civil Service a better and fairer place to work, for everyone.  It's about championing what makes us so good at what we do, the difference perspectives and ways of working that we bring to help us do what we're meant to do.

If anyone thinks I've swallowed a happy pill, don't worry the cynical Rottweiler hasn't been patted on the head, given a Scooby snack and is now curled up in his den.... The Civil Service have said a lot of this before, but they've not given the networks as much input into the developments nor have they given the permission to challenge so explicitly.  As they put it we have to :

The official lunch stuff is here:

So, that's the next couple of years taken care of then....

On to gear...

I have a new Fitbit!!  After two years with my beloved Fitbit One the battery was beginning to drain very quickly so it was time for a refresh. 

The Fitbit range has expanded a lot since I first got my One, and I spent a fair amount of time agonising over the pros and cons of each device, reading reviews and laughing as they obviously didn't understand Fitbit's eco-system or the brain of a runner.

So, I went all in and got the top of the range Surge, the self styled "SuperWatch".  The short version of the features lists is: pedometer, altimeter, constant HR monitoring, and GPS functions.

The pedometer and altimeter give you the classic Fitbit steps taken and floors climbed figures.  The HR is based on light beaming into your skin from the back of the watch so isn't ECG accurate (though to be honest with the amount of scar tissue I have the Garmin wasn't brilliant) but is close (based on a couple of carotid artery measurements at various levels of activity).  I feel duty bound to say I didn't get the HR thingy because of the dickey ticker, but because I'm a data nerd.  The GPS unit is fairly good, I've had faster and slower lock on to the satellites by my other GPS's and the accuracy is as good as many others.

And it all works together, it seamlessly has taken over my old Fitbit account, it links into Boints (free money for exercising - including in the form of vouchers for food!), the runs appear in my Fitbit dashboard and give quite a lot of information.

The "smart" features also work - I can link it to my phone when I'm too lazy to control music playing (I don't run with headphones on, so this is mainly for when I'm in the gym on my wireless headset).  The call notification etc I really don't see the point of, if I'm running I'll pick the call up later.

Are there bits I don't like... Not many, but two worth mentioning - first up, battery life.  GPS is a power hog, and Fitbit reckons you'll get five hours out of the watch in GPS mode.  My marathon PB is just over five and a half hours.  Will it stretch?  I don't know, but I do know I won't risk it, so will pack the Garmin for long runs.   Data downloads, will someone (Fitbit or Garmin) get it sorted so one will upload to the others platform? They even save to the same format, they just don't talk to each other!

Are there extra bits - the silent alarms, the automatic detection of sleep, the food diary built into the app are all being used and used well.

Overall, its £200 that after a month I'm very happy with spending, and Fitbit have themselves a huge fan.

Other than that I seem to be running again,

Trot in London

From Lab to Station

The important thing about these runs is that they were on days when I was away from home, and the easiest thing would have been not to run... The mojo is back, the fitness is coming back (slowly) and the run into the Liverpool Rock and Roll half and all the fun of that has begun:-)

So, time to go... The rain is hammering down, I've a new camera to play with, and the fun of a night run around the local National Trust Tudor House - Speke Hall :-)