Saturday, 29 April 2017

A grotesque culinary assault

Normally, when I write about food, I'm writing about LittleBear and his unwillingness to eat anything that other small children might consider normal. And, though I've been tempted to write more on that subject of late, this time I'm writing about one of my own food encounters.

I work in an engineering firm, and my engineering firm follows the age-old British tradition of going out for a pie-and-a-pint on a Friday lunchtime. Now, this doesn't actually have to include either a pie or a pint, but it's nice to have the option. And the pub that we've been going to every lunchtime for more than a decade has become almost as set in its way as we have. So much so, that despite repeated exhortations from their most long-standing customers, they refuse to cook pie on a Friday. Because, apparently, Monday is pie-day. So we have shaken off the shackles of habit and are exploring other local eateries.

To attempt to form a fair and balanced assessment of each establishment, we are making sure that we all choose a different item from the lunch menu, and compare notes on the results. Last Friday I chose the fisherman's pie, something I felt was hard to get catastrophically wrong, but has scope to be done really, really well.

My colleagues variously chose ham, egg and chips, liver and bacon and a burger. It was that kind of pub. And then the food came... a burger, a plate of liver and bacon and... a fish burger? I went all British on the young man bringing the food and very foolishly said, "I ordered a fisherman's pie, but if you haven't got one, I'll just have that instead." He affirmed that they didn't have fisherman's pie, and gave me the fish burger. I was expecting something along the lines of a fishcake in a burger bun, or some form of breaded fish in a roundish, burgerish shape. I am partial to the occasional fishfinger sandwich, so I thought I was more or less ready for anything. I was wrong.  I was not ready for a piece of battered cod perched inside a bun.

Cautiously I opened the lid of the burger bun to inspect the contents. Yes, it was a piece of battered cod, rather as you might expect in a fish and chippie. Lurking beneath it were some slices of tomato and shreds of lettuce. The bun was gently toasted. So far, so not-too-appalling. But, dear God, what was that? It was cheese. Melted cheese on top of the fish. I poked it. I stretched it. I plucked a piece and tasted it. Cheese. On a piece of battered cod.

At this point, I backed away from the whole idea of eating it as an intact item. The textural contrasts on offer were not appealing. But since most of the ingredients were probably inoffensive, I was still willing to deconstruct my own lunch. A few swift manoeuvres later and I had a pretty good toasted bun, a little heap of salad and a piece of battered fish, still irrevocably adorned with cheese, but I could mine my way beneath the insulting upper layer. So mine I did. Right up until I reached the uncooked fish in the middle.

I was willing to overlook the peculiar nature of the meal.

I was willing to overlook the use of cheese on battered fish.

I was not willing to overlook raw fish.

I finally sent it back. And in its place I received the fisherman's pie I'd ordered originally. And it was covered in cheese. What is wrong with these people? Not only did they assault me with a gratuitously unpleasant meal when they could have brought the dish I'd ordered in the first place, but they appear to have a fetish for cheesy fish. There are a very few occasions where fish and cheese belong together:

1. Smoked salmon and cream cheese.
2. Erm...
3. That's it.

There is no occasion when battered cod should be accompanied by melted ersatz cheddar.

Suffice to say, we do not intend to grace the portals of that particular eating establishment with our presence again.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Bad parenting

Getting LittleBear home from school is something of a juggling act. I suspect getting most small children home is something of a juggling act, but this isn't about most small children, it's about LittleBear and me. I collect LittleBear from school in the car, as I come straight from work, even though he cycles to school every morning. So, on top of the normal school detritus of bags and coats and gloves and water bottles, I have to attempt to wrestle LittleBear's bicycle and helmet into the car and then out of it again once home.

And today, on top of the regular school stuff, and on top of the additional bicycling equipment, I also had an unwieldy thing made during "junk modelling". And a huge roll of paper on which one of his little friends and he had created a (more or less abstract) artwork titled "Spring". And an extra bag of books purchased at "Book Savings Club". And my own laptop and lab-book. And my own coat and bicycle helmet, which was still in the car from the morning's ride to school*.

Quite frankly it was a miracle I got it all home, and managed to get it all into the house once home, with only four trips to and from the car.

No parenting failure yet is there? Quite the reverse, a positive parenting success in being home, intact, with all our stuff by 3:20.

And no parenting failure when reading with LittleBear, or playing football, or building a dinosaur den in the playroom, or feeding him dinner, or bathing him, or putting him to bed.

And then I needed to pop down to the local shop for some bits for dinner. And since it was still light and the weather was relatively clement, I went on my bicycle. I was about to set off when I realised all my shopping bags were in the car, so I paused to grab a bag.

And here is where the parenting failure was identified. It had actually occurred at 3:20, but only revealed to me at 7:45.

I opened the car, and a little voice miaowed at me.

My poor, stupid puss had climbed into the nice warm car while I was unloading all our stuff, and I'd failed to notice him and locked him in there for four and a half hours.

To make me feel even more of a heel, my poor, stupid puss now loves me more than ever, and wants to be with me all the time, because I rescued him from his prison. I am trying to console myself with the fact that poor, stupid puss was happily curled up in LittleBear's car-seat and didn't seem particularly distressed, but the guilt was sufficiently overwhelming that I was forced to share my salmon with him. And now I'm hungry.

* I cycled to school with LittleBear, pelted home, hurled the bike in the bike shed and drove to work. Hence the bike helmet ending up in the car. It makes sense in my world.

Still angry

[Foreword: I wrote this in October 2016 and never published it. It seemed a bit rabid, even for me. And then I came close to writing all the same things all over again now that we're faced with a general election and the probability that the government will increase their majority and use that majority to claim it's time the minority "shut up". I refuse to shut up. I refuse to be told that it's not right for the opposition to oppose. I refuse to sit down while prominent newspapers refer to democratic opposition as "saboteurs" and require them to be "crushed".]

I don't suppose it escaped the notice of anybody reading this blog that I was just a little bit anti-Brexit. Or that I was more than a hint upset at the outcome of the referendum. And it probably won't come as a huge surprise to hear that I'm still not exactly happy about the result, or about the words and actions of our political overlords.

There's one particular thing that's really, really, really winding me up at the moment though. It's not the tanking pound, it's not the xenophobia, it's not the insulting attitude to "foreign" doctors within the NHS, it's not even the embarrassment of having Boris Johnson representing us on the world stage. Those things are all separately worthy of my ire, but they're not the things that are niggling at me like a tiny pebble in the shoe of life. The thing that's currently pushing my blood pressure up is the attitude being shown towards anyone who voted "Remain".

According to Paul Dacre, the poison-peddling, scum-swilling, EU-subsidised* editor of the Daily Mail the "Bremoaners" are whinging, contemptuous and unpatriotic. Obviously I shouldn't pay any attention to what that particularly odious man, and his vile rag, say. Except he either reflects or informs the views of an alarming number of people. And that alarming number of people include those who say that Remain-voters should "get on with it", or "shut up and stop being sore losers", or that we were "wrong" because more people voted Leave than Remain, or that we are damaging the economy by complaining, or that we are a sneering metropolitan elite, out of touch with reality, or that the "overwhelming majority" voted to Leave the EU and we should just leave now and make the best of it.

Let's get some things straight:

1. Majority opinion does not confer "rightness". All it does is indicate the views of the majority, and there is nothing to pre-suppose that just because most people believe something it automatically becomes true or right. People, and I generously include myself in that, are quite capable of being very, very wrong, in very, very large numbers.

2. As a Remain-voter, of course I think voting Leave was the wrong thing to do. If I thought leaving was the right thing to do, I'd have voted Leave. The outcome of the Referendum did not make me shrug my shoulders and think "Aw, shucks, I was wrong." This is not "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" There was not a right or wrong answer, revealed only after we'd had a go at answering the question. And, I am completely entitled to continue holding my opinion, and disagreeing with yours.

3. Me disliking the outcome of the referendum, and fearing for the political, social and economic consequences has absolutely no effect on the value of the pound. Or on the likelihood of multinationals pulling out of the UK or not. I have not suddenly jacked in my job, stopped spending in local shops, given up paying taxes or in any other way ceased to be a contributing member of society and the economy. I am, in fact, working just as hard as ever, building scientific instruments for export. Stop trying to blame other people for the consequences of the political acts of this government. Political acts being undertaken based on your vote.

4. Sixteen million, one hundred and forty-one thousand, two hundred and forty-one people voted to Remain in the EU. This is not an "elite". This is not a small slice of over-paid, over-educated urbanites who patronisingly think they know best. This is not the top 1% of earners in the country. This is not sneering, public-school-educated, home-counties dwellers. This is a large swathe of the country.

5. A split of 51.9% to 48.9% is not an "overwhelming" majority. It is a small majority. And if the split had been the other way, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that those who voted Leave would be vociferous in demanding that their point of view was heard and respected. And they would be right. If the result shows anything, it shows that roughly similar numbers of people voted pro- and anti-EU. If we'd narrowly voted to remain, I'd fully expect our elected government to be working to reform the EU in the knowledge that nearly half the electorate were unhappy with our membership. And in the current situation, I expect our elected government to attempt to extricate ourselves from the EU while retaining strong links in the knowledge that nearly half the electorate were happy with our membership. Yeah, good joke isn't it?

6. The answer "No" to the question "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?" is not a mandate to do anything the government feels like. Repeatedly gibbering "Brexit means Brexit" sheds no light whatsoever on the subject. The electorate expressed an opinion on membership of the EU. It is an outright lie to claim that that opinion can be taken as a mandate on immigration, the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice, the Single Market, financial passporting, customs union or any other matter. The people were not explicitly asked about any of those issues, so cannot be deemed to have given an answer on them.

7. Why the hell should I shut up? Since when did being in the minority suddenly mean I have to be silent, bowing obsequiously to the vocal majority and their mighty opinions? Isn't it at the very heart of democracy that I should have the right to hold and express whatever political opinion I want?**

* Yes, that's right, Paul Dacre's estates received £88,000 in agricultural subsidies from the EU in 2014. Nothing like a nice bit of pocket-lining hypocrisy with your morning coffee.

** Within reason, and within the bounds of the law, obviously.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Play up, play up and play the game

LittleBear has invented a new game. He's often doing that, and they're generally games involving some form of make-believe, and invariably require me to crawl around the floor and/or be surprisingly stupid. I'm getting pretty good at both of those things. Now, however, he's invented a game with rules for us to play. The first set of rules resulted in an unwinnable game, so they had to be modified. The second set of rules resulted in a game that was not biased heavily enough in LittleBear's favour, so they had to be modified. The third set of rules are just right. And quite complicated.

Essentially it's a game of chase. Involving an extinct crocodilian. And a football.

Look, I said it was complicated, OK?

How to Play:
Player 1 attempts to get from one end of the garden to the other, without being bitten by the Sarcosuchus. Player 2 is holding the Sarcosuchus.

If Player 1 is bitten by the Sarcosuchus, his or her feet are instantly stuck to the ground, and can only be released by Player 1 catching a football. The ball is kicked by Player 2.

If Player 1 does not catch the football, Player 2 receives 1 point.

If Player 1 catches the football, and is bitten on the next "run", his or her feet do not have to remain in one place when attempting to catch the football.

If Player 1 successfully reaches the end of the garden, he or she "steals" 1 point from Player 2.

How to Win:
Player 1 wins if he or she catches the ball on three consecutive attempts.


Player 1 wins if he or she reaches 5 points.

Player 2 wins if he or she reaches 10 points.

The keen students of Game Theory will have spotted the point in this game at which it is impossible for Player 2 to lose. Player 2 can, and does, kick the football in any direction. Player 1's feet are "stuck" to the ground. Player 1, unsurprisingly, despite comedic and valiant attempts to hurl herself on the ground without moving her feet, is unable to catch the football. Player 2 receives a point.

The absence of any defining rules for the starting positions for Players 1 and 2 allow Player 2 (and the Sarcosuchus) to start approximately half an arm's length away from Player 1, thus rendering escape well nigh impossible.

Unfortunately, this game was so much fun that Player 1 and Player 2 were forced to swap roles, requiring muggins here to occasionally catch LittleBear, in a manner that wasn't deemed "unfair" and then kick a football in such a way as to be just hard enough to catch that LittleBear didn't feel I wasn't trying, but not so hard that he actually couldn't catch it. And I can assure you that my footballing skills fall well short of that targeting nirvana.

It all ended in tears.

But apparently we have to play again after school tonight.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Surviving the holidays

Picture the scene...

It is the Easter holidays, and therefore LittleBear is at home, in the company of either BigBear or me, for two weeks. And because I have a tactical advantage over BigBear, he spends all day occupying LittleBear while I Arrange Things To Do. Because I've spent a LOT of time at home with LittleBear over the past five years, and I have an arsenal of Things To Do that prevent me turning into a deranged tyrant after the 73rd iteration of pretending to be a rhinoceros who doesn't know how to build lego models. My tactical advantage is not that I know that having Things To Do is a good thing, BigBear knows this, he's not an idiot. My tactical advantage is that I know other people who also possess small children and who also need Things To Do, so I can plan to Do Things together, and ease the pain provide entertainment for my beloved son.

Friday was one such day. I invited a SchoolFriend for a play date (accompanied by his mother, who I have a habit of going to the pub with, I'm not a masochist you know). Naturally, LittleBear, being the contrary soul that he is, about half an hour before SchoolFriend arrived, declared he'd rather not play with SchoolFriend, he'd rather carry on playing with me. But since the rhinoceros was on strike, and I'm trying to instill some social skills in my son, I explained that SchoolFriend was still coming and they'd definitely have a lovely time. And they did. More lovely than I had planned for.

For what may well be the very first time, LittleBear disappeared off to play with a friend without requiring any input from me whatsoever. He and SchoolFriend remained engrossed in playing with lego, while OtherMother and I sat in the sun and drank tea. And then LittleBear and SchoolFriend disappeared upstairs, carrying boxes and boxes of lego with them. Then they reappeared downstairs, once again carting the lego around. And then... then... this is the point where I made a terrible mistake. I'll let you see if you can spot it...

LittleBear asked, "can we see if the lego boat floats?"

You see, it's easy to spot the error isn't it? You can see how things could all go terribly wrong or terribly right at this point, depending upon my answer.

The correct answer would have been, "no dear, don't do that".

The incorrect answer was, "well, I suppose so, but please don't experiment with the rest of the lego, because it's not designed to float*."

To give myself some credit, I did go and check on them once, and there was a shallow pool of cold water in the bath, with the lego boat happily floating. All was well. So I retreated to my cup of tea and natter. And then, just when I least expected it, a small naked LittleBear came charging into the room giggling, then turned and fled, pursued by two alarmed mothers, one of whom was calling out, "has SchoolFriend taken his clothes off too?"

SchoolFriend had indeed removed his clothes. He was wearing nothing more than a beaming smile as he sat in splendour in the bath, surrounded by all the lego you can imagine. And LittleBear immediately scrambled back in with him, and without batting an eyelid, they started attempting to demonstrate which vehicles floated (none by this point, as they'd filled the boat with water) and which sank (all of them). There wasn't the faintest trace of any thought that they maybe shouldn't be in the bath with the lego. In truth, it was both adorable and extremely funny.

We picked our way gingerly across the puddles on the floor, the cast off bits of lego, the plastic boxes, the discarded, soggy clothes and the vague scattering of sharks, and attempted to start removing boys and toys from the bath. And discovered just how cold the bath water was. It was slightly surprising that hypothermia wasn't setting in. LittleBear assured me that it was alright, as they'd put bubble bath in to make the bath warm by insulating it with a layer of bubbles**. The presence of a bottle of foaming soap, a bottle of liquid soap and a bottle of bubble bath on the side of the bath, and the strangely, well, slippery, feel to both children should have alerted me to just how valiantly they had attempted to make bubbles... Suffice to say, all the lego had to have another bath later to wash the bubble bath off, and we had to start a new bottle at (real) bathtime as the bottle I'd bought on Thursday was already mysteriously empty.

Which, as my mother says, just goes to show something or other.

I think it shows that while it is a great relief to have LittleBear finally content to trundle off and play with a friend unaccompanied, this is not the same thing as being safe to trundle off and play with a friend unsupervised. It may also show that my tactical advantage over BigBear is perhaps neither tactical, nor an advantage.

But I'm pretty certain we'll be having SchoolFriend back to play, as they had a lovely time, and it was only water (and a few bubbles). If his mother will let him come again that is.

* The lego boat has a single piece hull and is in fact advertised as "really floats!"

** I'm delighted by this thinking, but feel I might need to work on his grasp of thermodynamics.

Friday, 7 April 2017

There's probably an -ism for it

There have been a few things I've read recently that have triggered thoughts about girls and women studying science, and what stands in their way, or whether it matters. And there's a nagging theme running through the things I've read that I'm not sure I have quite put my finger on, but I'm going to give it a go...

Firstly, there's been an interesting study by the Institute of Physics about how to improve the take-up of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects amongst girls at school. Interestingly, the key to encouraging young women to study science didn't really have much to do with the teaching of science. Instead, the biggest impact was when a whole-school approach was taken to identifying and eradicating sexist ideas, particularly the unconscious attitudes held by staff and students, and to boosting the overall confidence of the young women. Not their confidence in undertaking science specifically, but their confidence in doing and being whatever they want. And when given that confidence, and when made aware of unconscious bias and given the language and tools to tackle it, and when free to choose to study what they want rather than what they should, more girls will study STEM subjects. What is more, more boys will study "female" subjects. It's almost as though showing and telling children that we are all simply people, and that interests and abilities are not dictated by gender, liberates those children to follow their hearts and not societal preconceptions.

And then there was an article in the Guardian about the importance of teaching art, drama, music and dance rather than focussing too hard on STEM subjects. And I found it deeply, deeply insulting and offensive. Not because I disagree that there is an important place for the expressive arts in our lives and our schools, but because of the attitude that only the arts can teach creativity, and that science and engineering are not inherently creative but require that injection from the arts. Science and engineering are nothing without creativity, and when well taught, that creativity and inspiration is part and parcel of their study.

I am a scientist, and proud of being one, and I'm damned if I'm going to be told that the only way to be any good at it is to express myself through the medium of dance. There is no more truth in that then there is in claiming that a sculptor can only truly appreciate and work with marble once they have a thorough understanding of metamorphic geology. And there is an absurdity in claiming that teaching STEM subjects without expressive arts subjects will "produce clones of the robots that will threaten our children’s jobs", particularly in a world where ballet schools exist. It's hard to think of a regime more designed to churn out clones than classical ballet training, and an insult to suggest the teaching STEM subjects is destined to create "clones" with no imagination or creativity.

There doesn't immediately seem that big a connection between these two articles, aside from them being vaguely about education and STEM subjects. Except I think there is. I think there's an underlying presumption that still exists, and that even the Institute of Physics buys into, that science is different. That scientists are odd. That we need special measures. That our subjects need tender loving care to prosper in schools and children need coaxing to study them. That there is something wrong with being a scientist, something that makes you other, different, lacking. That left to their own devices, scientists will have no interest in the arts, and vice versa. That scientists are inherently un-creative, uninterested in art, music, dance or drama. That the world is divided into Us and Them, and each must be coerced into taking an interest in the other. It's almost as though C.P. Snow never existed for all the progress we appear to have made in eradicating the concept of Two Cultures.

I may be a scientist and proud of it, but that doesn't stop me from going to classical music concerts, or art galleries. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading the short-listed books for Booker Prize, or practising calligraphy. Being a scientist doesn't mean I have no interest or enthusiasm beyond science, or that I am incapable of appreciating other disciplines. And the same is true (in reverse) for some of my favourite humanities graduates - they possess an intellect and a curiosity about the world around them that encompasses science, language, art, technology, music and much, much more.

So how's this for a radical idea? How about we stop perpetuating the myth that science is "too hard" or that it's only for men. How about we stop pretending that there's a yawning chasm between sciences and humanities and that you're either one of Us or one of Them. How about we treat all our children as people, all of whom have infinite potential and need only to be given the confidence and encouragement to find their own path through life, irrespective of gender or societal expectation. How about we teach our children a wide range of arts and sciences, not because one is "needed" more than other, or more important, or more valuable, but because a broad education provides a richer, fuller life and greater capacity to understand and appreciate the world around you and the people in it. How about we view education as something valuable in its own right, not simply as a means to create fodder for the economy, but as a means to stretch our minds, bodies and lives, to enrich ourselves and our world and to enable every child to fulfill their potential and find their niche whilst being exposed to life's rich tapestry along the way.

Nah, you're right, it'll never catch on...