Monday, 23 February 2015

Pre-historic travels

This post is going to be a little out of the ordinary, partly because it's a "request-post" and partly because it's delving deep into the past. "Request post?" I hear you ask - "we didn't know we could request posts!" Well, don't get your hopes up, I won't be writing interesting and illuminating things just for any old person, only for special people. Or ones who ask really nicely.

So the request has been put in by my lovely young cousin, not only because she's special, but also because she asked very nicely. She's in fact a completely amazing person. She's 12 and has already raised money for leukaemia research by shaving her head, and is currently raising money to participate in a World Challenge expedition to Cambodia and Thailand to explore other cultures and help other people. Since she knows that I went on an expedition to Uganda back in the mists of time, and since I'm supporting her fund-raising as a "thank you" to her grandparents who supported my expedition, she's asked to know a bit more about what I did all those years ago...


A long time ago, in a continent far, far away... OK, perhaps it was 1997 and equatorial Africa, but you get the idea. It was before my cousin was born, so that's more or less pre-history these days isn't it? I'd just graduated from university, and having worked in an industrial placement for a year before university, and indeed during my university holidays, I decided that if I was going to have any kind of adventure, this was the time to do it.


I've always had an affinity for Africa. My father was South African, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and random other affiliated family members were all South African or Zimbabwean and though my father had settled in England after marrying my mother, the rest of the family still lived there, and we went to stay every other Christmas, and I have always loved it. I love the quality of the light, the smell of the parched earth as the first heavy raindrops hit the ground, the space, the birds, the animals, the bushveldt and the highveldt.

Crossing the equator


 Any of you historically-minded, politically-aware types will have spotted that if I left university in 1997 and had spent the years up to that point visiting South Africa every other year, I was basically there during the height of the apartheid regime. So my exposure to anything other than White Anglo-Saxon Protestant South Africans was somewhat limited, something of which I was always painfully and slightly shamefully aware. Now was an opportunity to go to a part of Africa that would allow me meet the other side of Africa, to discover more of the continent, and at the same time to do something useful. So I applied to take part in a Frontier conservation expedition to Uganda. (I should point out at this point that from the looks of the Frontier website, they've changed their focus somewhat in the past couple of decades, their by-line used to be "conservation through exploration" or somesuch).


The expedition was ten weeks, camping on the Ssese Islands in the north-west corner of Lake Victoria, and carrying out baselines biodiversity surveys of two areas on Buggala Island. Our work was linked to Kampala University, to provide them with data that would allow them to monitor whether the native environment of the islands was being dedgraded over time. Only by knowing what's there can you know if it's disappearing.

African Paradise Flycatcher

Some of the work was an absolute delight, enchanting and magical. And different people found different aspects of the work enjoyable. For me the absolute highlight was working with two ornithologists who came to join us to net and ring birds. Alongside them I was able to hold and release back into the wild the most beautiful, delicate, fragile birds - an experience it's hard to describe adequately. The silk-soft feathers, the extraordinary lightness, the warmth, the tiny fluttering heartbeat.

Some of the work was back-breakingly hard. We cut transects through the forests and swamps to carry out vegetation surveys. This involved hacking through dense vegetation, often up to our thighs in mud and water, and counting every trace of tree and sapling within 5m of the path: alive, dead or felled. The path had to be cut due east-west, and run for 500m, with the vegetation survey divided into 50m sections. And to do all this what equipment did we have? Several pangas (machetes), one compass, one 30m tape measure, a pad of paper and a pencil. It's suprisingly difficult to hack your way through a swamp in a straight line for 50m with only a 30m tape measure. And it's even harder to keep accurate notes in the pouring rain standing knee deep in swamp. Oh, had I not mentioned the rain yet? Don't worry, I'll get to the rain soon. It was the rainy season. The rainy season in equatorial Africa is really rainy. Rainer than that. Nope, rainier than that too.
Actually rather a nice swamp. Wet though.

A third aspect of the work was interesting, and in a completely different way, very challenging. As we were surveying both the flora and fauna, we had to accurately record the types and distributions of creatures in our survey areas. Birds we were able to spot (and for a short period net, ring and release). Everything else we had to kill and preserve to be taken back to Kampala University for formal identification and cataloguing. This may seem a little harsh, until you realise, for example, that there are some species of shrew that can only be distinguished from their skull shape. There was also a possibility that, being an island, there were species on Buggala that were in the process of evolving away from the species on the mainland and could be caught in the act. So, we set traps of all shapes and sizes, and checked them three times a day, collecting, killing, recording and preserving all of the creatures we found. That included snakes, lizards, shrews, mice, rats, frogs, toads and even one small crocodile. I never thought when I set out that I would become proficient at injecting preservatives into the major muscle groups of a frog, or removing the skull from a shrew intact, without damaging the skin (tip: essentially you take it out through the mouth). I'm not sure that this aspect of the work was entirely pleasant at all times, but it was interesting, precise, methodical science that appeals to the interesting, precise, methodical side of me. It was also ultimately successful, as we later found out that at least one of the rodents we slaughtered collected was identified as a new sub-species, unique to the islands. I am also particularly proud of having led the bird-spotting activities and helped to add 32 species to the list of birds recorded on the islands.

Pickled frog anyone?


There were a group of twenty volunteers taking part in the project, mostly either pre- or post-university, and we were working under the guidance of several experienced team-leaders. OK, one experienced team-leader and one new team-leader who was woefully ill-informed and knew considerably less about almost all matters botanical and zoological than the rest of us. But we ignored her. I mean, she actually asked "Is a lizard a reptile?" How was I supposed to respect her after that?

We divided our time between two sites, both of them based next to villages - Kidiba and Makoko.

Part of our work was to talk to the locals and discover how they used the land and its resources, what they valued, what they didn't, what they used and what they ignored. We also attempted to understand their superstitions regarding certain animals (particularly reptiles) and if we could to persuade them not to simply kill them on sight. That was a tough one, not only because it's hard not to appear to be an ignorant, arrogant foreigner, swanning in and telling people they're wrong, but also because we were merrily going about the place trapping and killing the local fauna. Do as we say and not as we do? That aside, meeting people living in such an isolated area, seeing how they lived and where their priorities lay was enlightening and humbling. There were negligible creature comforts - nothing as exotic as electricity or running water. In fact the only water was taken directly from the lake, and whereas we treated our water with iodine (and still came home with a variety of exciting tropical diseases) the locals simply drank the water direct from the lake. AIDS was endemic on the island, with an estimated 20% of the population being HIV positive. Malaria and bilharzia were rife, and who knows what other diseases. And yet... there are universal human traits that shine through no matter the circumstances. The desire to sing, to dance, to laugh. The need to adorn and decorate yourself and your home. The joy of a child running through long grass. The fascination with the unknown (in this case us) that leads to both confusion and laughter at the absurdity of other people.


Ah, no, I meant "weather", but "whether" fitted the theme of my headings better, so I went with it. There really was a lot of weather. Mostly it was warm, and a lot of the time, particularly in the afternoon, it was sunny. And when it was both warm and sunny it was absolutely glorious. And then there was the rain. Oh, the rain. Torrential, lashing rain. Rain that required us to leap up in the night and dig additional trenches around our tents to divert the rapidly-forming rivers from flooding us out. Rain that created ever deeper and swampier swamps for us to wade through. Rain that meant that our boots never dried out and eventually began to rot on our feet. Wind that whipped the rain under the tarpaulins of our tents and then in one mad flurry ripped the tent pegs from the ground leaving the tarpaulins lashing back and forth and the rain teeming down upon us and the lightning cracking above us. It was nice when the sun shone though.

The Long House. Our not-exactly-watertight home.
Working in the sun was quite lovely though
Now that I've put that picture of "the long house" in, I can't help myself but mention the smell. Oh the smell. 10 weeks, intermittently submerging ourselves in swamps, getting hot and sweaty, living on a diet of beans and rice and only washing in a bucket of cold water every few days. I don't think there are words to describe the... fug... that evolved in that tent.

 And me?

When I set out on this expedition, I didn't know what to expect. It was not like anything I'd undertaken before. I'd travelled before, but always in a safe and controlled way - visiting family or friends, or on an organised trip, again either with family or friends. I'd been away from home for extended periods before - I lived away from home for a year before university, and had then been at university for three years. But those were both close to home, in my own country.

It turned out that my biggest challenge was not the limited and tedious diet. It wasn't the hard physical work. It wasn't the weather. It wasn't the total absence of creature comforts. It wasn't learning to trap and kill small animals. It was overcoming my own demons. It was fighting against the voices inside me that tell me that I can't do it. It was battling anxiety and a crippling lack of self-confidence. There was a day, after about a week, when I sat sobbing on my bedroll, when I should have been heading out to check the traps. I was utterly convinced that I shouldn't be part of the expedition, that I would never be "one of" the other volunteers, that I would never make friends, that I would be ignored (or worse, laughed at) by everyone else, that I would simply not be able to function. The girl who slept beside me in the tent happened to come back at that point and find me. With infinite gentleness and sympathy she talked me round, and as has happened so many times since, she tried to fathom how my view of myself could differ so markedly from how others see me. She tried to show me how she saw me. And as has happened so many times since, I tried to believe her, and yet couldn't quite. 17 years later, I am still friends with some of the people from that expedition and I might finally admit she was right. 17 years later, I still battle the same demons. 17 years later, I have sought help and found ways to try and change my way of thinking about myself. But that's a story for another post.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Why reading books is bad for your health

No! Not those books. Not real books, that you actually enjoy reading. You only need to see my house to know I can't possibly mean real books. The room I'm writing this in has floor-to-ceiling shelving either side of the chimney, plus I've re-interpreted the concept of the occasional table to be more of an occasional bookcase. I mean, what's the point of having a piece of furniture that's just for putting a drink on if you can't also store books in it? The room next door? Two bookcases and another wall of built in shelving. The bedrooms? More bookcases. No, I lie, our bedroom has a bookcase deficit and therefore merely has random piles of books on top of every surface. So, rest assured, I don't mean that real books are bad for your health.

Actually, those ones might be bad for your health now I come to think about it, or maybe just my health. I've been known to spend entire holidays in the Lake District, holed up in a cottage reading Dick Francis books rather than doing something improving like Going For A Nice Long Walk. I could try and claim that that was because it was raining and I'm a fair weather walker. But it wasn't always raining. Even in the Lake District it doesn't always rain. Just mostly. And it doesn't explain going out for a nice long walk, with a book, that somehow turns into two short walks punctuated by sitting on a sunny rock reading a book for a few hours. So, I'll admit, even the right kind of books can perhaps have a detrimental effect on the amount of exercise I get. Not to mention the evenings I sort of forget to cook dinner because I'm reading and end up having toast and chocolate biscuits because I can't be bothered to cook anything else. Doesn't happen so much now I'm married to BigBear and have a LittleBear around the house too. They're much less tolerant of meals not appearing.

No, the books that I'm talking about are the ones that tell you how to raise your child. Oh yes, those ones. The ones that are always, always wrong. How do I know they're always wrong? Because unless you wrote it yourself, it's not about your child. It's either about the author's child, or about some mythical ideal child who the author believes should exist or is actually delusional enough to believe does exist. And those other children are not your child. Yes, they might have some things in common. Like having two ears, a nose and a mouth. Or having a predisposition for commenting loudly on the appearance of complete strangers. But once you get down to the detail, they might as well be about an alien. LittleBear, when being put to bed, currently insists that he must point a finger towards his bed as I'm holding him, and that as I lower him towards the mattress, the pointing finger must touch down first. You're not going to find that in any parenting manual on how to have a smooth and hassle-free bedtime now are you? And I wouldn't dream of suggesting anyone else should do it, because it's LittleBear's foible, and it will indubitably vanish as mysteriously as it appeared. It merely highlights the futility of attempting to produce any kind of one-size-fits-all instructions for a child.

Hold on though, that's just pointing out the woeful inadequacies of parenting manuals, and not actually explaining how they can possibly do you any harm isn't it? Perhaps that's true for the secure and confident parents out there, but let's be honest, how many sleep-deprived first-time parents are that secure and confident in knowing what on earth they're doing. (And if you are, please feel free not to tell me so. Really, I don't want to know how splendid you are and how pathetic and useless I am. I've already mastered that one thanks.)

So, picture yourself, unsure about basically every aspect of keeping this new creature alive. How often, how much, what, when, how and where should it be feeding. How often, how much, what, when, how and where it should be sleeping. So, off you go looking for answers, and you read one of these books. And it's so beguiling... simple instructions for a peaceful baby... guaranteed ways of being sure they're feeding enough... sure-fire solutions for sleeping through the night. So you start to follow the instructions, and your child just doesn't respond the way Book Child does. Your child doesn't find a warm bath a soothing wind down before bed. Your child finds being naked the greatest affront to dignity and contentment since the year dot. Your child doesn't want to have a lovely quiet feed in a darkened room before bed. Your child actually wants to feed about half an hour after you've finally fallen asleep, just as you're sliding into blissful deep sleep. And as your addled brain desperately tries to work out where it's all going wrong, you draw the only conclusion that makes any kind of sense: It's all my fault. My baby is perfect, and the book is so calm and sensible and right, so it must be me. I must be a failure.

And so begins the self-doubt, the ego-flagellation, the insecurity and the complete confidence that you still don't have the faintest idea what you're doing. And what is more the entire future happiness of this infant is being built upon the foundations of your own ineptitude. Without these books you might have chatted to your friends, to your own mother, your aunts, cousins, siblings, people you met on the bus, and found that each and every baby was different. You might have found that for every ten people you asked, there were at least twelve different answers. You might have found some helpful tips and tricks that you were prepared to try and happily shrug off if they didn't work. But instead you looked to an "expert" and now all you can hear in your own brain is "failure, failure, failure, failure...." And that's seriously bad for your health. Believe me.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Ways in which motherhood has changed me (part 1)

Being a bit bold here, but I think it's safe to say that there are more ways in which motherhood has changed me than can be covered in one post, hence this being part 1, with no assurance that higher numbered parts are ever to be created.

I can already hear you thinking "oh come on, everyone knows all this stuff already". Well, yes, some of it everyone does know, and everyone blethers on about ad nauseam. All that dewy-eyed stuff about it being a love like nothing else on earth, about being willing to sacrifice anything and everything to protect your child, about falling in love the moment you see your baby. Actually, scrap that last one. It's not really true. Not for everyone. Not for me. Not in a real, meaningful sense of the word "love" anyway. I was instantly and irrevocably prepared to do anything to protect that innocent pink bundle, but I didn't really love LittleBear until he started to be a real person, to respond, interact and be his own self. If I'm honest (and I often am) I'd say it was around the 16 month mark that I actually started to really enjoy being a mother. I'm sure I loved LittleBear before that, but I'm equally sure I love him more now, when he's a talkative, independent, funny little person.

I admit my experience was heavily tainted by post natal depression, but nonetheless I'm fighting a one-woman mission to discredit the really unhelpful propaganda that you fall in love with your baby straight away and that it's fun and wonderful and fluffy and amazing as soon as that scrunched-up pink thing first gazes at you. I felt a complete and utter failure as a human being because I wasn't basking in some glow of adoration. I was tired, and in pain and utterly, utterly bewildered about how the hell I was going to look after this little creature.

Then there's all the other stuff that changed. I can never erase the knowledge of how it feels to have cracked nipples. I now have a stomach that is reminiscent of a map of the tributaries of the Mississippi. I have permanent handles just above my hips. OK, so actually those handles are more due to the cake. And perhaps the gin. But LittleBear is exhausting and I need cake to have the energy to keep up with him. And then he goes to bed, so gin. Ergo the handles are because of the cake, and the cake is a direct consequence of this mothering business, so the handles are a direct result of motherhood. Really they are.

But none of this was what I was setting out to explain. We've all got "things" haven't we? You might think you haven't, but I bet you have. Amongst my colleagues, C has a thing about butter - he really hates it when people scrape the top surface of the butter and don't leave it flat. And M has to have a particular knife and fork. And S always has to sit in the same chair, and D always has to play a particular piece of music when building ion detectors. I used to have a thing, and I only discovered I didn't have it any more when we were comparing our things at work. (That sounds a lot worse than I thought when I started writing it...) Anyway, my thing was that if I went out anywhere, I always had to sit in the corner, or at the least with my back to the wall. I felt exposed, vulnerable and very, very uncomfortable if I had to sit with my back to a room full of people. And now, it doesn't bother me at all. It doesn't even occur to me to consider where I'm sitting. So what does this have to do with the existence of LittleBear?

When LittleBear was a BabyBear, my prime concerns in finding somewhere to sit with him were that there was enough space for me, him, a large bag, several coats, hats, toys, muslins and a pram. Or if not the pram, then enough space to extract a frantic baby from several metres of fabric wrapped about my torso. So about enough space for a family of 6. And then the chair couldn't have arms on it, or if it had arms it had to be VAST so there was space to breastfeed a squirming, kicking bundle without one or both of us being violently ejected from the chair as BabyBear braced his feet against the arm and pushed off. Generally that meant we were lucky to find any place to sit, and I'd be grateful for it. And now that LittleBear rushes in and colonises whichever table strikes him as perfect, while I try to man-handle my bag, his bag, whichever toys he's decided he's too tired to carry, a scooter, a tray of food and drink and a handful of change, I'm basically grateful if I haven't injured any passing strangers or lost LittleBear and getting a chance to sit in any chair is a bonus. (Generally any opportunity to sit in a chair during a day spent with LittleBear is a bonus).

I basically now have so many other things to worry about, that worrying about whether someone is creeping up on me is the least of my problems. I'm looking on the absence of one of my irrational anxieties as a good thing, whatever the reason. And it's definitely thanks to LittleBear. Thank you for giving me more  different things to worry about.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Cutting Edge of Mass Spectrometry

Originally written in August 2007...

To dream the impossible dream

One of my good friends asked me the other day when I was going to post another rant on facebook, which made me wonder whether perhaps I have a tendency to start frothing at the mouth rather too often. But it also made me realise that I do have a bit of a something brewing inside, and that for the good of mankind maybe it would be best to let it out before it becomes too toxic...

As quite a few of you know, I work for a small company and we build mass spectrometers. Big ones, small ones, extremely clever ones, and every now and then, ones that try and solve a problem that's never been solved. And that's where I am now - in the early days of a three year R+D project, of the variety that tries to do something that's never been done. Only our customer didn't actually mention that it had never been done when he asked us to attempt it. In fact, up until quite recently, he gave us the distinct impression that he knew what he was talking about.

Our brief is to spend the next 3 years carrying out R+D and eventually building a new instrument to detect very low levels of a variety of interesting compounds. The customer has provided us with a list of 9 'target compounds', with the usual proviso that they'd quite like it if they could detect, well, pretty much anything as it turns out. The 9 on the list are just the the ones they REALLY want to see.

We've been tackling the first stage of this with our usual suck-it-and-see approach, so have simply been running some calibrated standards of the target compounds through our test instrument, just so we know where we're starting from. Our customer helpfully told us "Ooh, you might find that one a bit tricky. We find it very tricky". "Tricky?" we thought. Pah! We eat tricky for breakfast. So we had a go, and, to no-one's great surprise, we saw absolutely nothing. Since in this instance we weren't entirely sure what we were expecting to see, we went trawling through journals, books, papers and (of course) the trusty internet. And we found that the entire scientific community appears completely convinced of the futility of trying to detect this compound using GC-MS (the technique our instrument uses). In fact, we came across entire research groups who were developing new analytical techniques solely because this particular compound can't be detected by GC-MS. At this stage we decided a phone-call to our customer was in order. It went something like this...

Us: You remember that compound that you said we'd find tricky?
Them: Oooh, yes. It's very tricky.
Us: Well, we're struggling to detect it at all, and were wondering what conditions you used, so we can try repeating your results
Them: I've never actually detected it. It's very tricky.
Us: Ah
Them: But I know a man who thinks he might have done, once, but now he's not sure
Us: Hmmm.

So it currently looks as though we'll be spending the next three years trying to do something widely agreed to be impossible. Motivational isn't it?

To fight the unbeatable foe

Meanwhile, we're also applying for funding from the Home Office to have a Clever Idea that will allow us to develop an instrument that will detect all the kinds of things that people who care about Interesting Things might be interested in. (This is the part where I might start frothing).

The Home Office arranged a 'networking' day, where they invited the great, the good, and the slightly confused from british industry and academia to come and be told what the problem was. All these bright sparks could then exchange ideas, form collaborations and generally be fruitful. Experts in interesting statistical analyses could tell hardware bods how to extract the last drop of information from their instrumentation, and all would be splendid. Except the Home Office provided no name badges, no lists of delegates, no lists of companies represented, no information whatsoever about who was there and why. Nor did they provide any time or opportunity for the assembled ranks of British R+D to actually talk to each other. And thus they all went home again, none the wiser, and with no new contacts.

We persevered, made contact with some people we've collaborated with before, discovered, to our surprise, that they'd been at the same event and we'd not seen each other. They have rather more, shall we say, commercial nous than us, and we have considerably more unusual technical ideas than them, so together we put forward a proposal to the HO. This met with approval and we moved through from the first 150-odd proposals to the final 20. At which point we were sent the terms and conditions of the contract the HO would like to hold us to.

Since my boss is like me, only more so, he decided to read all 60-pages of legalese. And buried deep within this, he discovered that the HO would demand, as part of the contract, all of the Intellectual Property Rights of the Clever Idea. Now, we have only once, ever, in the history of the company sold our IPR, and that was for a rather odd contract many years ago that wasn't for a mass spectrometer so we didn't care if we never built another one. We occasionally agree to allow the customer the user rights on the IPR, so if they want to build another one of whatever we've sold them, they can. But we charge a hefty premium for that, and they have to have been heavily involved in the design process. We certainly wouldn't want to sign away rights to a new idea that's right at the heart of our core business.

But it got worse than that. They didn't just want the IPR on the Clever New Bit that they'd have been funding. They wanted 'all background IPR' - so all our designs for every part of a mass spectrometer. The very essence of what we do. The amassed knowledge and expertise of 150 man-years in the mass spectrometry industry. Why? So that they can take the designs and have them made by the cheapest sub-contractor without having to pay us any royalties. Basically our dear government wants to systematically and deliberately destroy innovation in british industry just to make sure they get 'the best deal for the taxpayer'.

We've told them in no uncertain terms that we will not be continuing to tender for this contract unless they change to our re-written terms and conditions. Sometimes you've just got to say "Enough" to the government...

To bear with unbearable sorrow

Update in February 2015: It took us four years, instead of three, but we did manage to build the Miracle Instrument. AND we managed to detect the "quite tricky" compound - the first people ever to do so using GCMS apparently. But we weren't able to publish anything about it, because it was secret. And then there was a financial crash, and a change of government, and the funding was cut, and mass spectrometry suddenly became "unfashionable" for detecting "tricky" compounds. There were newer, shinier, sexier ideas. They didn't work, but that's not the point, they were shiny! With better acronyms! And new! So now, 5 years after being "ahead of the curve" (I quote the government's lead scientist on the subject) and a better analytical tool than anything else available, our instrument is sitting in the corner of a lab gathering dust while newer, shinier, more-excitingly acronymed techniques receive funding, and there still isn't a commercially available instrument to do what we did.

And enterprises of great pith and moment 
With this regard their currents turn awry, 
And lose the name of action.

Purchasing Agents - agents of the devil

Originally written in September 2007...

Purchasing agents are parasites on the face of academia. They're like estate agents only less well-informed, less educated, less useful and probably paid more. They exist solely to prevent researchers being able to do their work. Researchers receive grants to buy equipment to enable them to research. Equipment like mass spectrometers for instance. For the most part (and I admit there are some notable exceptions, but we'll leave them out of it), these researchers are experts in their field. They understand the technical challenges and are the people best placed to specify exactly what the equipment needs to do. We spend months working with them to precisely capture their requirements and design bespoke instrumentation that will satisfy their needs. They, meanwhile, acquire funding to buy their new kit. But are they allowed to spend it? Oh no, they have to ask their purchasing agents to do it for them. Bureaucratic, small-minded, pen-pushing idiots who wouldn't know a mass spectrometer if it landed on them (and I wish it would). People who require certificates to demonstrate that our welding has been carried out in accordance with British Standard blah-de-blah. People who want to know if the electronics is CE marked. People who want copies of invoices from previous customers to prove that we're offering them a fair price. People who don't seem able to grasp that WE HAVEN'T BUILT IT YET! How can we possibly certificate the welding on something that only exists on paper? How can we 'prove' the price of a bespoke piece of engineering to you? And no, you can't have a discount either. I don't care if you're a university. The price is the price.

One of the many government labs in this country has been trying to buy a large instrument from us since the end of last year, and the current news is that the contract will be delayed until NEXT year. It's already been through a budget-approval board, a board to assess the validity of the experiment to be done (both entirely reasonable), a health and safety review board, a national security review, and an installation review. Now it turns out that it needs to have a panel of purchasing agents involved. Not just one, but several. The money is approved by everyone from God downwards and the researcher is champing at the bit trying to do some more work, but no, some scientifically-illiterate wonk gets to decide when or if we get the contract. Never mind the fact that we're the only people in the world that will make one of these instruments. Never mind the fact that some of the country's top scientists have to sit twiddling their thumbs, unable to make progress for OVER A YEAR simply because they're not considered trustworthy enough to buy their own instrumentation. Let them be responsible for our nuclear deterrent, but for goodness sake don't let them buy a voltmeter!

Once again HM Government does its best to crush British engineering, ingenuity and enterprise under the heel of bureaucracy...

Update February 2015:
They never did order the instrument. They had one of those eensy-weensy accidents that you don't really want to have if you run a nuclear laboratory and the funds were all diverted to making sure it didn't turn into a "holy shit, what have we done?" kind of accident. So maybe it was a good thing they didn't spend their money on a new instrument. But purchasing agents are still a waste of oxygen.

2014 Reading List

I've never kept any kind of record of what I read, or when I've read it, and last year I was interested to see the distribution of my reading, both in my choice of reading matter, and how many books I read in total. The only effect that making the list as I went along had was that I made a little bit of a conscious effort NOT to read lots of books by the same author back to back. Though, to be honest in May and June I went a bit mad on Eric Ambler, Ed McBain, Gavin Lyall and Michael Dibdin, but you can't have everything. The one thing this list doesn't do is give any kind of indication of how much I enjoyed the books, what I thought of them, or whether I'd recommend them to anyone else. So perhaps this year's list will include some thoughts after each book!


Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel
Speaking from among the Bones - Alan Bradley
Standing in another man's grave -  Ian Rankin
Espedair Street - Ian Banks
The 44 Vintage - Anthony Price
Carrying the Fire - Michael Collins


Complicity - Iain Banks
The Red Thumb Mark - R Austin Freeman
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
Full Dark House - Christopher Fowler


Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
The Secret Pilgrim -John le Carre


Where The Bodies are Buried - Christopher Brookmyre
Tomorrow's ghost - Anthony Price
The Stranger House - Reginald Hill
The Secret Servant -  Gavin Lyall
Bring up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel


The conduct of Major Maxim - Gavin Lyall
The Crocus List - Gavin Lyall
Uncle Target - Gavin Lyall
Old Filth - Jane Gardam
Fever Pitch - Nick Hornby
Cosi fan Tutti - Michael Dibdin
The Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch
A Long Finish - Michael Dibdin
The Heckler - Ed McBain


Cop Hater - Ed McBain
Shooting Script - Gavin Lyall
Epitaph for a Spy - Eric Ambler
Journey into Fear - Eric Ambler
Lady, Lady I did it! - Ed McBain
Blood Rain - Michael Dibdin
Crucible of Gold - Naomi Novik


Moon over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch
The Man in the Wooden Hat - Jane Gardam
The Last Runaway - Tracy Chevalier
Stalky and Co - Rudyard Kipling
The Most Dangerous Game - Gavin Lyall


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
The Catcher in the Rye - J D Salinger
The Elusive Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
Enigma - Robert Harris
Eldorado - Baroness Orczy


And then you die - Michael Dibdin
If this is a man - Primo Levi
We are all completely beside ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham


Lord Tony's Wife - Baroness Orczy
The Moro Affair - Leonardo Sciascia
Hide your Eyes - Margery Allingham
Miss Garnet's Angel - Salley Vickers
The War of the Worlds - HG Wells


Last Friends - Jane Gardam
Living Dolls - Natasha Walker
The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
Towards the End of the Morning - Michael Frayn
Kolymsky Heights - Lionel Davidson


The Wake - Paul Kingsnorth
Saints of the Shadow Bible - Ian Rankin
A Delicate Truth - John le Carre
The Flight of the Maidens - Jane Gardam


I keep thinking that I want to write more. I keep having things that I want to say that take up more space than a Facebook status update. I keep writing things in my head and never committing them to screen or paper. I don't think I'm a born writer. I'm not driven to write, but sometimes words just want to overflow out of me, and I don't seem to have a place to put them. So I'm going to have a go at putting them here. I'm not sure yet what "here" will be. I'm not sure who will come and read it. I'm not sure whether I'll have the time, competence or commitment to update this once I get over the first thrill of something new to do. I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

The Cast

Me - erm, wow, this is harder than I thought. When discussing the subject of feminism with friends recently, I pointed out that I define myself first and foremost as ME, and I try to be the best ME that I can be. And now I have to define what I mean by ME. I'm a physicist. Kind of. A bit of an engineer as well. But since I'm CPhys, MInstP, I'll stick with physicist as my working title. I'm a mother. I'm a wife. I'm also a daughter, sister, aunt, niece, friend.

LittleBear - my three year old son. He is the light of my life, and I adore him in ways I can't express. You'll probably find I write about him a lot. It will be more or less evenly divided into coo-ing (and potentially nauseating) purple prose praising his cuteness and brilliance and growling rants at his irritating behaiour and unco-operativeness.

Husband or BigBear - my own favourite introvert, whose privacy I will largely protect by not writing about him. He manages to be remarkably tolerant of my foibles, which is more than enough reason to love him.

ThatCat - I provide a home for a very furry, very needy moggy. One day I will have nice furniture and carpets. That day will not arrive while I still have ThatCat in the house. He's very cute though so mostly I forgive him.

Others - a random assortment of friends, relations and colleagues will also feature.

What this is

It's going to be my thoughts, feelings, musings and ramblings on anything I feel like. There'll be physics, feminism, politics, parenting, food, families, and Random Other Things. Some of it will undoubtedly be very personal, but personal only in the sense of giving an insight into my psyche, my worldview and my emotions.

My working title for this blog is Mothering Along. Largely because that's what I think I'm doing. I'm muddling my way through life, and particularly mothering, sometimes getting things right, sometimes getting things wrong, mostly not really being sure what counts as "right" or "wrong" but just hoping I don't emotionally scar anyone too badly along the way.

What this isn't

This isn't going to be personal stuff about my marriage, or any other relationship with innocent living beings. Other than my son - he's three and he's fair game. I'll deal with his complaints on the subject when he's older.

It's not going to be a chance to have a passive-aggressive dig at my husband if I think he's not loading the dishwasher the right way. I mean, he doesn't load it the right way, but he already knows that, he doesn't need to read it here. Besides, apparently not loading it the right way is *my* problem, and not his, so that's OK. Seriously though, Husband, if you're reading this, I promise not to complain about you other than in terms that have been mutually agreed in advance.

It's not going to include any detailed rants about any of my colleagues. I know I've frothed at the mouth about work before, and I will again, but this is different. This has the potential to get out into the wild, and to be honest, I quite like being gainfully employed, so I'll try and restrain myself on the frothing rant front. You're welcome to leave now if you were looking forward to that part.

Finding my voice

I've written notes, rants, accounts, journals, technical manuals and stiff letters before. At least three people have found some of the things I've written amusing in the past, and only one of those people was giggling at instructions on operating a mass spectrometer. So I know I can be occasionally witty. I can also be long-winded and verging on pompous. I'll try and avoid those. OK, I'll try and avoid pompous. I think long-winded might just be how I am.

I do have an unfortunate tendency to be overly influenced by what I'm currently reading, and certainly inside my own head my internal monologue adopts the style and voice of my current favourite author. So my challenge is going to be to write as me, not as a weak copy of someone that I admire. I'm not utterly sure I know what my own "voice" is.I'm sort of interested to find out whether I settle into a consistent voice here, or whether I remain a chameleon. I quite like chameleons. I've had them sit on me. Did you know a really good way of finding a chameleon is to already have one? If you take the one you've already got out with you, it changes colour when it detects another chameleon nearby. Doesn't really solve the problem of how you catch your first chameleon. Get lucky I think.

Oh, and I'm putting some old Facebook "notes" here as blog posts, as they were fun to write, and I thought they deserved a new home. Anything old that I drag over will count as "archive material". Just so you know.