Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ni hao

So I went to my first Mandarin lesson this week. A group of parents in my county got together a few years ago to found a Mandarin School, they had all adopted children from China and wanted their families to learn Mandarin and so find a connection with the birth country of their children. It's very cheap, friendly, a little amateurish in its organisation (but in a good way) and so far there are 6 of us, so the level of teacher-student interation is top. So far I can count to ten, say hello and ask someone their name. I know a couple of characters, but in the early days its apparently better to focus on using pinyin and then properly focus on the characters when you've got the general hang of it.

I've also subscribed to Chinesepod after exploring the service through a free trial. The resources look amazing taking you from 'Newbie' to 'Expert' with hundreds of lessons, vocab, transcripts and a big online community. I've signed up to the £20 a month premium package which you can cancel any time - so seems like a good thing to take a chance on. I'm also going to try using Anki a 'spaced repetition' system - kinda like a sophisticated version of flashcards. I wish I'd had it when I was at school!

As you can probably tell I'm serious about this, and I hope I stay that way. I don't speak any other languages (ok a tiny bit of french but I've never been properly motivated to improve it), and having visited China twice in the last year I'm fascinated by the country, and I'd really like to explore it and perhaps live there.

So wish me luck, I'll keep you posted on my progress!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ok, so it's not a virus

Yes, I guess I knew it was going to happen, but I always hope it won’t. But the laws of the CFS universe say most definitely that there can’t be a boom without a bust. I guess this one threw me a little as it isn’t a classic bust, it’s an achy, grumpy no stamina, vertigo bust… it was the achy that threw me, and no brain fog (yet). Anyway, I am officially busted. Sat working in bed with a laptop, trying to finish the report I’ve procrastinated over for nearly a month. The thought of trekking into the office just isn’t pleasant, I’d get there and want to fall asleep. My arse hurts, my elbow hurts. Hubland and I went out on Sunday and after 45 minutes of him driving I was falling asleep on the cafĂ© table before my baguette had even arrived. It’s seriously not fun for me, and it can’t be fun for him either. The sun is shining brightly and all I want to be is asleep. Can’t relax to watch movies or tv either as I feel like I need to do work – and frankly I do. I’m not fully off sick, I’m in that half and half state which is even more confusing.

But this is my life, it’s been my life since I was 10, and yet somehow it doesn’t get any less frustrating or annoying. I’ve stopped being able to imagine what it’s like not to need to lie down after planting some seeds in a seed tray, but that doesn’t stop me trying. I never want to complain as there are people, people I know very well, who are far sicker than I am, and it really isn’t that bad. But it’s my life so I guess I have the right to be a little pissed off.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


It’s one of my guilty secrets, I love disasters. Obviously I’m not too keen on experiencing them myself, but I do have a strange fascination with documentaries about emergencies and disasters (not always so keen on film re-creations of actual disasters, somehow they seem too morbid). I guess there are probably two underlying causes for this interest: the obsessive organiser and planner in me wanting to know how best to survive and the scientific-technical investigation process that unravels the course of a disaster and the reasons behind it.

A new series of ‘Air Crash Investigation’ has just started on the National Geographic Channel. So far I’ve seen how pilot error cause a mid-air collision just outside New Delhi, which reassuringly also showed how new radar technology makes the likelihood of that far lower. Yesterday I watched the mid-air break up of a 747 on the Taiwan Straits – a dodgy repair 22 years earlier had turned into a fatal fracture and the tail fell off at 35,000 feet.

Yes, I know, I’m strange... the Horizon programme on how to survive last night was more useful. So these are my tips: never sit more than 5 rows from an emergency exit on a plane (beyond that survival probability sharply drops off), never stay above the 5th floor in a hotel (the maximum height of rescue ladders), if an alarm goes off or there are other signs of an emergency don’t rely on other people to indicate what to do – get the hell out of there.

Apparently much of the loss of life in the Twin Towers was due to people’s inability to realise and deal with what was happened – people continued writing emails, went to the toilet, shut down their computers before trying to find their way to the emergency staircase. It just didn’t sink in, people’s minds were not prepared to deal with the reality of a major emergency.

One firm had a very high survival rate – only 14 Morgan Stanley employees perished out of 3,500 – because they had an obsessive head of health and safety who drilled them constantly what to do. So they did it automatically, they didn’t have to think, they just knew it was better to get out quickly and ask questions later than to hang around to see if it was a ‘drill’ (although in this case the giant bang and explosion should have given it away).

This inability to act and the problem of peer pressure was demonstrated through a film of the ‘Smoking room’ experiment – where participants were expecting to take part in a social science experiment and were led into a room to fill in forms before the experiment began. Smoke starts pouring in from a corner door. When they were in the room alone 75% got up to raise the alarm within 5 minutes, when the room was filled with actors ignoring the situation only 10% did. Apparently self-confidence is also one of the biggest survival plus points.

So go on, next time you’re on a plane count those seat backs to the exit, in a new building know your exit route... but right now I’m off to buy myself a personal smoke hood.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Cream crackered

Yes, ok, I'm tired now. Having worked non-stop since Christmas, and easily pulling 10 hour days and most weekends for most of February I have officially stopped now. Had a duvet day on Monday and worked from home Tuesday and Wednesday. My brain was so tired, and so full of stuff. Amazingly I haven't had a proper CFS crash, I think this may just be 'normal knackered' which is quite a relief. I am now sat in bed with a ginger cat and my laptop, with hubland is watching football downstairs. I'm browsing for new jewellery (I actually don't have that much, need more earrings) and watching 'Kitchen Nightmares USA' on 4OD.

Although I've enjoyed what I've been doing at work, and learnt so much, I'm pretty hacked off at some of the Senior Management and the general lack of direction for the University I work in. We're not bad, and we're not an ex-poly (which comes with its own challenges), but we're not currently holding our own among what we'd consider our 'peer institutions'... in fact some of our alleged peers have completely transformed themselves in the last 10 years or so while we've stood still. That has finally been brought home to everyone with the joy of the RAE (google it, go on, I dare you) - the funding letters arrived on Thursday and we've lost a big chunk of our recurring research funding. Some of it isn't our fault, the new allocation formula is mad, but a lot of it is.

We don't actually have a strategy, something that tells us who we are and where we're going. We seem plagued by indecision, with Senior Manager's influenced more by an offhand comment from a fellow VC/PVC at a conference than from the advice of their professional staff... and then there is the paralysis from fear and inability to talk calculated risks. I think I'll give it another year, but then if things don't improve it may be time to move on. It can be pretty demoralising to work your arse off in a job that you've been hired to do, present great ideas, beautifully written papers, to do everything you are meant to be doing, and not get anywhere or have your ideas taken seriously when it comes down to the crunch.

I am lucky, with the internal rearrangements that took place last summer, I've got a lot more responsibility and I am glad to be able to say that the people I respect, respect me. So that's keeping me going for the moment. But my work means a lot to me and I can't stay forever in a place that doesn't let me do for it what I know needs to be done.