It’s (approximately) our 0x10th anniversary1,
and, struggling to find a mutually-convenient window in our complex work schedules, we’d opted to spend a few days exploring the Isle of Man. Everything was fine, until we were aboard
Once everybody was seated and ready to take off, the captain stood up at the front of the ‘plane and announced that it had been cancelled2.
The Isle of Man closes, he told us (we assume he just meant the airport) and while they’d be able to get us there before it did, there wouldn’t be sufficient air traffic
control crew to allow them to get back (to, presumably, the cabin crews’ homes in London).
Back at the terminal we made our way through border control (showing my passport despite having not left the airport, never mind the country) and tried to arrange a rebooking,
only to be told that they could only manage to get us onto a flight that’d be leaving 48 hours later, most of the way through our mini-break, so instead we opted for a refund and gave
We resolved to try to do the same kinds of things that we’d hoped to do on the Isle of Man, but closer to home: some sightseeing, some walks, some spending-time-together. You know the
A particular highlight of our trip to the North Leigh Roman Villa – one of those “on your doorstep so you never go” places – was when the audio tour advised us to beware of the snails
when crossing what was once the villa’s central courtyard.
At first we thought this was an attempt at humour, but it turns out that the Romans brought with them to parts of Britain a variety of large edible snail – helix pomatia –
which can still be found in concentration in parts of the country where they were widely farmed.4
Before you think that I didn’t get anything out of my pointless hours at the airport, though, it turns out I’d brought home a souvenier… a stinking cold! How about that for efficiency:
I got all the airport-germs, but none of the actual air travel. By mid-afternoon on Tuesday I was feeling pretty rotten, and it only got worse from then on.
I’m confident that Ruth didn’t mind too much that I spent Wednesday mostly curled up in a sad little ball, because it let her get on with applying to a couple of jobs she’s interested
in. Because it turns out there was a third level of disaster to this week: in addition to our ‘plane being cancelled and me getting sick, this week saw Ruth made redundant as her
employer sought to dig itself out of a financial hole. A hat trick of bad luck!
As Ruth began to show symptoms (less-awful than mine, thankfully) of whatever plague had befallen me, we bundled up in bed and made not one but two abortive attempts at watching a film
Spin Me Round, which looked likely to be a simple comedy that wouldn’t require much effort
by my mucus-filled brain, but turned out to be… I’ve no idea what it was supposed to be. It’s not funny. It’s not dramatic. The characters are, for the most part, profoundly
uncompelling. There’s the beginnings of what looks like it was supposed to be a romantic angle but it mostly comes across as a creepy abuse of power. We watched about half and gave
Ant-Man and the Wasp:
Quantumania, because we figured “how bad can a trashy MCU sequel be anyway; we know what to expect!” But we
couldn’t connect to it at all. Characters behave in completely unrealistic ways and the whole thing feels like it was produced by somebody who wanted to be making one of the
new Star Wars films, but with more CGI. We watched about half and gave up.
As Thursday drew on and the pain in my head and throat was replaced with an unrelenting cough, I decided I needed some fresh air.
I find myself wondering if (despite three jabs and a previous infection) I’ve managed to contract covid again, but I haven’t found the inclination to take a test. What would I do differently if I do have it, now, anyway? I feel like we
might be past that point in our lives.
All in all, probably the worst anniversary celebration we’ve ever had, and hopefully the worst we’ll ever have. But a fringe benefit of a willingness to change bases is that we can
celebrate our 10th5 anniversary next year, too.
Here’s to that.
1 Because we’re that kind of nerds, we count our anniversaries in base 16
(0x10 is 16), or – sometimes – in whatever base is mathematically-pleasing and gives us a nice round number. It could be our 20th anniversary, if you prefer octal.
2 I’ve been on some disastrous aeroplane journeys before, including one just earlier this
year which was supposed to take me from Athens to Heathrow, got re-arranged to go to Gatwick, got
delayed, ran low on fuel, then instead had to fly to Stansted, wait on the tarmac for a couple of hours, then return to Gatwick (from which I travelled – via Heathrow –
home). But this attempt to get to the Isle of Man was somehow, perhaps, even worse.
3 Those who’ve noticed that we were flying EasyJet might rightly give a knowing nod at
4 The warning to take care not to tread on them is sound legal advice: this particular
variety of snail is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981!
5 Next year will be our 10th anniversary… in base 17. Eww, what the hell is base 17 for
and why does it both offend and intrigue me so?
I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was supposed to be on the Isle of Man with my partner, celebrating our 0x10th anniversary. But
this week’s been a week of disasters: my partner lost her job, our plane to the Isle of Man got cancelled, and then I got sick (most-likely, I got to catch airport germs from people I
got to sit next to on an aircraft which was then cancelled before it had a chance to take off). So mostly this week I’ve been sat at home playing video games.
But the dog needed a walk, and my partner needed to go to the supermarket, so I had her drop me and the geopooch off in West Witney to find the hashpoint and then walk to meet them
after she’d collected the shopping. I couldn’t find my GPSr, so I used my phone, and it was reporting low accuracy until I rebooted it, by which time I’d walked past the hashpoint and had to
double-back, much to the doggo’s confusion.
I reached the hashpoint at 14:16 BST (and probably a few points before than, owing to my navigation failure). I needed to stand
very close to the fence to get within the circle of uncertainty, but at least I didn’t have to reach through and into the school grounds.
Over the last three or four years I’ve undertaken a couple of different rounds of psychotherapy. I liken the experience to that of spotting constellations in the night sky.
That’s probably the result of the goal I stated when going in to the first round: I’d like you to help while I take myself apart, try to understand how I work, and then put myself
back together again.1I’m trying to connect the dots between who-I-once-was and who-I-am-now and find causal influences.
As I’m sure you can imagine: with an opening statement like that I needed to contact a few different therapists before I found one who was compatible with my aims2.
But then, I was always taught to get three quotes before hiring a professional.
It’s that “connecting the dots” that feels like constellation-spotting. A lot of the counselling work (and the “homework” that came afterwards) has stemmed from ideas like:
This star represents a moment in my past.
This star represents a facet of my identity today.
If we draw a line from one to the other, what does the resulting constellation look like?
I suppose that what I’ve been doing is using the lens of retrospection to ask: “Hey, why am I like this? Is this part of it? And what impact did that have on
me? Why can’t I see it?”
When you’re stargazing, sometimes you have to ask somebody to point out the shape in front of you before you can see it for yourself.
I haven’t yet finished this self-analytical journey, but I’m in an extended “homework” phase where I’m finding my own way: joining the dots for myself. Once somebody’s helped you find
those constellations that mean something to you, it’s easier to pick them out when you stargaze alone.
1 To nobody’s surprise whatsoever, I can reveal that ever since I was a child I’ve enjoyed
taking things apart to understand how they work. I wasn’t always so good at putting them back together again, though. My first alarm clock died that way, as did countless small
clockwork and electronic toys.
2 I also used my introductory contact to lay out my counselling qualifications,
in case they were a barrier for a potential therapist, but it turns out this wasn’t as much of a barrier as the fact that I arrived with a concrete mandate.
I managed to dodge infection for 922 days of the Covid pandemic1,
but it caught up with me eventually.
Frankly, it’s surprising that it took this long. We’ve always been careful, in accordance with guidance at any given time, nd we all got our jabs and boosters as soon as we were able…
but conversely: we’ve got school-age children who naturally seem to be the biggest disease vectors imaginable. Our youngest, in fact, already had Covid, but the rest of us
managed to dodge it perhaps thanks to all these precautions.
Luckily I’m not suffering too badly, probably thanks to the immunisation. It’s still not great, but I dread to think how it might have been without the benefit of the jab! A minor fever
came and went, and then it’s just been a few days of coughing, exhaustion, and… the most-incredible level of brain-fog.
I’ve taken the week off work to recover, which was a wise choice. As well as getting rest, it’s meant that I’ve managed to avoid writing production code with my addled brain! Instead,
I’ve spent a lot of time chilling in bed and watching all of the films that I’d been meaning to! This week, I’ve watched:
Peggy Sue Got Married (y’know, that other mid-1980s movie about time travel and being a teenager in the 1950s). It was okay; some bits of the direction were
spectacular for its age, like the “through the mirror” filming.
Fall. I enjoyed this more than I expected to. It’s not great, but while I spent most of the time complaining about the
lack of believability in the setting and the characters’ reactions, the acting was good and the tension “worked”: it was ocassionally pretty vertigo-inducing, and that’s not just
because I’ve been having some Covid-related dizziness!
RRR. Oh my god this Tollywood action spectacle was an adventure. At one point it’s a bromantic buddy comedy, then later
there’s a dance-off, then for a while there’s a wonderful “even language can’t divide us” romance, but then later a man picks up a motorcycle with one hand and uses it to beat up an
entire army, and somehow it all feels like it belongs together. The symbolism’s so thick you can spread it (tl;dr: colonialism
bad), but it’s still a riot of a film.
Cyrano, which I feel was under-rated but that could just be that I have a soft spot for the story… and a love of musical
Also, at times when I didn’t think my brain had the focus for something new, I re-watched Dude, Where’s My Car? because
I figured a stoner comedy that re-replains the plot every 20 minutes or so was about as good as I could expect my brain to handle at the time, and Everything Everywhere All At Once which I’ve now seen three times and loved every single one: it’s one of my favourite films.
Anyway: hopefully next week I’ll be feeling more normal and my poor Covid-struck brain can be trusted with code again. Until then: time to try to rest some more.
1 Based on the World Health Organisation’s declaration of the outbreak being a pandemic on
11 March 2020 and my positive test on 19 September 2022, I stayed uninfected for two years, six months, one week, and one day. But who’s counting?
I’ve been having a tough time these last few months. Thanks to COVID, I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
Times are strange, and even when you get a handle on how they’re strange they can still affect you: lockdown stress can quickly magnify anything else you’re already going
We’ve all come up with our own coping strategies; here’s part of mine.
These last few months have occasionally seen me as emotionally low as… well, a particularly tough spell a decade ago. But this time around I’ve
benefited from the self-awareness and experience to put some solid self-care into practice!
By way partly of self-accountability and partly of sharing what works for me, let me tell you about the silly mnemonic that reminds me what I need to keep track of as part of each day:
GEMSAW! (With thanks to Amy Blankson for, among other things, the idea of this kind of acronym.)
Because it’s me, I’ve cited a few relevant academic sources for you in my summary, below:
Taking the time to stop and acknowledge the good things in your life, however small, is associated with lower stress levels (Taylor, Lyubomirsky & Stein, 2017) to a degree that can’t just be explained by the placebo effect (Cregg
& Cheavens, 2020).
Frankly, the placebo effect would be fine, but it’s nice to have my practice of trying to intentionally recognise something good in each day validated by the science too!
I don’t even need a citation; I’m sure everybody knows that aerobic exercise is associated with reduced risk and severity of depression: the biggest problem comes from the
fact that it’s an exceptionally hard thing to motivate yourself to do if you’re already struggling mentally!
But it turns out you don’t need much to start to see the benefits (Josefsson, Lindwall & Archer,
2014): I try to do enough to elevate my heart rate each day, but that’s usually nothing more than elevating my desk to standing height, putting some headphones on, and dancing
while I work!
Understandably a bit fuzzier as a concept and tainted by being a “hip” concept. A short meditation break or mindfulness exercise might be verifiably therapeutic, but more
(non-terrible) studies are needed (Vonderlin, Biermann, Bohus & Lyssenko 2020). For me, a 2-5 minute
meditation break punctuates a day and feels like it contributes towards the goal of staying-sane-in-challenging-times, so it makes it into my wellbeing plan.
Maybe it’s doing nothing. But I’m not losing much time over it so I’m not worried.
During my 20s I gradually began to suffer more and more from “winter blues”. Nobody’s managed to make an argument for the underlying cause of seasonal affective disorder that
hasn’t been equally-well debunked by some other study. Small-scale studies often justify light therapy (e.g. Lam, Levitan & Morehouse 2006) but it’s possibly
no-more-effective than a placebo at scale (SBU 2007).
Since my early 30s, I’ve always felt better to get myself 30 minutes of lightbox on winter mornings (I use one of these bad
boys). I admit it’s possible that the benefits are just the result of tricking my brain into waking-up more promptly and therefore feeing like I’m being more-productive with my
waking hours! But either way, getting some sunlight – whether natural or artificial – makes me feel better, so it makes it onto my daily self-care checklist.
Acts of kindness
It’s probably not surprising that a person’s overall happiness correlates with their propensity for kindness (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener 2005). But what’s more interesting is that the causal link can be “gamed”. That is: a
deliberate effort to engage in acts of kindness results in increased happiness (Buchanan & Bardi
Beneficial acts of kindness can be as little as taking the time to acknowledge somebody’s contribution or compliment somebody’s efforts. The amount of effort it takes is far
less-important for happiness than the novelty of the experience, so the type of kindness you show needs to be mixed-up a bit to get the best out of it. But demonstrating kindness
helps to make the world a better place for other humans, so it pays off even if you’re coming from a fully utilitarian perspective.
I write a lot anyway, often right here, and that’s very-definitely for my own benefit first and foremost. But off the back of
some valuable “writing therapy” (Baikie
& Wilhelm 2005) I undertook earlier this year, I’ve been continuing with the simpler, lighter approach of trying to no more than three sentences about something that’s had an
impact on me that day.
As an approach, it doesn’t help everybody (Zachariae 2015), but writing a little about your day – not even
about how you feel about it, just the facts will do (Koschwanez, Robinson, Beban, MacCormick, Hill, Windsor, Booth, Jüllig &
Broadbent 2017; fuck me that’s a lot of co-authors) – helps to keep you content, and I’m loving it.
Despite the catchy acronym (Do I need to come up with a GEMSAW logo?
I’m pretty sure real gemcutting is actually more of a grinding process…) and stack of references, I’m not actually writing a self-help book; it just sounds like I am.
I don’t claim to be an authority on anything beyond my own head, and I’m not very confident on that subject! I just wanted to share with you something that’s been working
pretty well at keeping me sane for the last month or two, just in case it’s of any use to you. These are challenging times; do what you need to find the happiness you can, and
hang in there.
This is Lorcán. Lorcán has cystic fibrosis (CF) Lorcán is two years old. Lorcán has been fighting a potentially life shortening lung infection for the last six months and treatment
There is an amazing drug called Orkambi made by Vertex that is not funded on the NHS, this drug could help Lorcán and thousands of others. Over 240 people in the U.K. have died
waiting for it to become available. Vertex and the U.K. government are letting people with CF die because of a disagreement over cost.
Parents have had to find an alternative way of getting these drugs for their children and the Cystic Fibrosis Buyers
Club have found a generic copy of the drug that individuals can legally import, it is a fifth of the cost. This is however still beyond what we can pay.
I’ve previously shared (one, two) content about my friend Jen‘s two-year-old son Lorcán, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, as well as joining in the
#strawfiechallenge earlier this year. A particular aim of Jen has been to get access to a drug that could add decades to her son’s life, but which isn’t being made available on the
NHS. Running out of options to get access to medicine that could dramatically improve her kid’s quality of life and prognosis,
she’s now set up a GoFundMe and is soliciting donations.
#strawfiechallenge – 1 minute of simulated breathing difficulty in recognition of sufferers of cystis fibrosis
Today I’m attaching a clothes peg to my nose and breathing through a straw for 60 seconds. As I won’t be able to talk while I’m doing this, I’ll type an explanation why:
Like most people, I’ve spent most of my life lucky enough to not really know anything about cystic fibrosis. I first really became aware of it when my friend Jen‘s son Lorcán was diagnosed with it (you may remember I shared a video of hers
It’s a lifelong disorder with no known cure.
It’s a genetic disorder, and as many as one in every 25 people carries the gene that can cause it. Inherit two genes and you’re a sufferer. Among other symptoms, it causes frequent lung
infections and difficulty breathing.
I’m taking part in the #strawfiechallenge as an exercise in appreciating how difficult it can be to cope with reduced lung function. A new drug, Orkambi, is helping to extend the lives
of sufferers in other countries around the world. But it’s not yet available in the UK. :-(
CF sufferers want #OrkambiNow. They need your politicians to act.
Bitesize introduction to the (mostly-unspoken) history of the last century of sanitary products. It wasn’t so long ago – still within living memory! – that doctors’ advice was not to
exercise during your period and that sanitary products had to be packaged in plain containers so as not to embarrass buyers nor sales assistants. Humans have had a long and complicated relationship with menstruation but the largest and fastest period (no pun intended) of cultural
change has been only recently, and we now live in a world divided by a huge diversity of opinion and philosophy on the subject. This video covers only a fraction of the story of the
recent (Western) social change, but it’s still a strong reminder of how far we’ve come as a culture.
An increasing number of people are reportedly suffering from an allergy to the meat and other products of nonhuman mammals, reports Mosaic Science this week, and we’re increasingly confident that the cause is
a sensitivity to alpha-gal (Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose), a carbohydrate produced in the bodies of virtually
all mammals except for us and our cousin apes, monkeys, and simians (and one of the reasons you can’t transplant tissue from pigs to humans, for example).
The interesting thing is that the most-common cause of alpha-gal sensitivity appears to be the bite of one of a small number of species of tick. The most-likely hypothesis seems to be
that being bitten by such a tick after it’s bitten e.g. deer or cattle may introduce that species’ alpha-gal directly to your bloodstream. This exposure triggers an immune response
through all future exposure, even if it’s is more minor, e.g. consuming milk products or even skin contact with an animal.
That’s nuts, isn’t it? The Mosaic Science article describes the reaction of Tami McGraw, whose symptoms began in 2010:
[She] asked her doctor to order a little-known blood test that would show if her immune system was reacting to a component of mammal meat. The test result was so strongly positive,
her doctor called her at home to tell her to step away from the stove.
That should have been the end of her problems. Instead it launched her on an odyssey of discovering just how much mammal material is present in everyday life. One time, she took
capsules of liquid painkiller and woke up in the middle of the night, itching and covered in hives provoked by the drug’s gelatine covering.
When she bought an unfamiliar lip balm, the lanolin in it made her mouth peel and blister. She planned to spend an afternoon gardening, spreading fertiliser and planting flowers, but
passed out on the grass and had to be revived with an EpiPen. She had reacted to manure and bone meal that were enrichments in bagged compost she had bought.
Of course, this isn’t the only nor even the most-unusual (or most-severe) animal-induced allergy-to-a-different-animal we’re aware of. The hilariously-named but terribly-dangerous
Pork-Cat syndrome is caused, though we’re not sure how, by exposure to cats and
results in a severe allergy to pork. But what makes alpha-gal sensitivity really interesting is that it’s increasing in frequency at quite a dramatic rate. The culprit? Climate change.
It’s impossible to talk to physicians encountering alpha-gal cases without hearing that something has changed to make the tick that transmits it more common – even though they don’t
know what that something might be.
“Climate change is likely playing a role in the northward expansion,” Ostfeld adds, but acknowledges that we don’t know what else could also be contributing.
A little dated, perhaps: I’m sure that nobody needs to be told nowadays that one of the biggest things a Westerner can do to reduce their personal carbon footprint (after from breeding less or not at all, which I maintain is the biggest, or avoiding air
travel, which Statto argues for) is to reduce or refrain from consumption of meat (especially pork and beef) and dairy products.
Indeed, environmental impact was the biggest factor in my vegetarianism (now weekday-vegetarianism) for
the last eight years, and it’s an outlook that I’ve seen continue to grow in others over the same period.
Seeing these two stories side-by-side in my RSS reader put the Gaia hypothesis in my mind.
If you’re not familiar with the Gaia hypothesis, the basic idea is this: by some mechanism, the Earth and all of the life on it act in synergy to maintain homeostasis. Organisms not
only co-evolve with one another but also with the planet itself, affecting their environment in a way that in turn affects their future evolution in a perpetual symbiotic relationship
of life and its habitat.
Its advocates point to negative feedback loops in nature such as plankton blooms affecting the weather in ways that inhibit
plankton blooms and to simplistic theoretical models like the Daisyworld Simulation
(cute video). A minority of its proponents go a step further and describe the Earth’s changes teleologically, implying a conscious Earth with an intention to
protect its ecosystems (yes, these hypotheses were born out of the late 1960s, why do you ask?). Regardless, the essence is the same: life’s effect on its environment affects the
environment’s hospitality to life, and vice-versa.
There’s an attractive symmetry to it, isn’t there, in light of the growth in alpha-gal allergies? Like:
Today – climate change causes ticks to spread more-widely and bite more humans.
Tomorrow – tick bites cause humans to consume less products farmed from mammals?
That’s not to say that I buy it, mind. The Gaia hypothesis has a number of problems, and – almost as bad – it encourages a complacent “it’ll all be okay, the Earth will fix itself”
mindset to climate change (which, even if it’s true, doesn’t bode well for the humans residing on it).
But it was a fun parallel to land in my news reader this morning, so I thought I’d share it with you. And, by proxy, make you just a little bit warier of ticks than you might have been
My friend Jen‘s been blogging and vlogging about cystic fibrosis – which her young son Lorcán has – in order to raise awareness of
it and of a promising new treatment, Orkambi, which would very likely dramatically improve the lifespan and health of chidren like Lorcán… were it available on the NHS. For more
information, including petitions you can sign, see their blog Little Fierce One.
Warning: this blog post contains pictures of urine, invasive equipment, and the inside of a bladder. It’s probably safe for all audiences, but you might like to put
your glass of apple juice down for a minute or two. The short of it all is that I’m probably healthy.
Since my hospitalisation the other month with a renal system infection, I’ve undergone a series of investigations to try to determine if
there’s an underlying reason that I fell ill. As my doctor explained to me, it’s quite possible that what I’d experienced was a random opportunistic infection (perhaps aided by
a course of unrelated antibiotics I’d been on earlier this year or by certain lifestyle habits), but if that wasn’t the case – if there were some deeper explanation for my health
problems – it was important to find out sooner, rather than later.
Early on I had several ultrasound scans of my bladder (at a number of different times and at a variety of levels of fullness) and one of my kidneys, the latter of which revealed some
“minor scarring” of one of them which apparently isn’t something I should be worried about… although I wish they’d started the two-page letter I got with that rather than
opening with, effectively, “Contrary to what we told you at the hospital, we did later see something wrong with you…” But still, good to be reassured that this is probably not
More recently, I went to the hospital to have a “flow rate test” and a cystoscopy. The flow rate test involved the most-ghetto looking piece of NHS equipment I’ve ever seen:
functionally, it seemed to be little more than a funnel on top of a large measuring beaker, in turn on top of a pressure-sensitive digital scale. The scale was connected up to the only
fancy-looking bit of equipment in the room, a graphing printer that output the calculated volume (based on their weight) of the same and, more-importantly, the rate of change: the “flow
rate” of the stream of urine.
I suppose one advantage of using equipment like this is that it basically operates itself. Which meant that the nurse was able to give me five seconds worth of instruction and then
leave the room, which saved us from our own Britishness forcing us to make small-talk while I urinated in front of her or something. Ultimately, I turned out to be within the range of
normalcy here, too, although I was a little disappointed to find that the ward didn’t maintain a daily “score board” of flow rates, as sort-of a science-backed literal pissing contest.
Finally came the cystoscopy, and this was the bit that I’d been most-nervous about. This procedure involves the insertion of a long flexible tube into the urethra at the tip of the
penis, under local anasthetic, and pushing it all the way down, through the sphincter, down through the prostate and then back up into the bladder. It’s then used as a channel to pump
water into the bladder, filling it to capacity and stretching out the sides, after which the fibreoptic cord (and light) that runs along its length is used to look around inside the
bladder to inspect for any of a plethora of different problems.
The doctor invited me to watch with him on the monitor, which I initially assumed was because I was clearly interested in everything and kept asking questions, but in hindsight I wonder
if it’s just that he – quite rightly – assumed that I might have panicked if I’d have been looking in the direction of the piece of equipment he brought in and jabbed at my penis with.
I only looked at it while it was on its way out, and my god its a scary-looking thing: sort of like a cross between a tyre pressure gauge and a blowtorch. The first few inches were
painless – the local anasthetic had made me completely numb right up to and including the external sphincter, which is at the base of the penis. However, what I can only assume was the
second sphincter complained of the discomfort, and it stung pretty sharply any time the doctor would twist the cystoscope to change the angle of the picture.
Seeing the inside of your own body is an amazing experience. I mean: it’s not amazing enough to even be worth the experience of a cystoscopy, never mind the illness that in my case
preceeded it… but it’s still pretty cool. The ultrasounds were interesting, but there’s nothing quite so immersive as seeing a picture of the inside of your own bladder, gritting your
teeth while the doctor points to an indentation and explains that it’s the opening to the ureter that connects to your own left kidney!
Unfortunately I neglected to take my phone into the operating room, having put it into a locker when I changed into a gown, and so I wasn’t able to (as I’d hoped) take photos of the
inside of my own bladder. So you’ll have to make do with this video I found, which approximates the experience pretty well. The
good news is that there’s probably nothing wrong with me, now that the infection from earlier this year has passed: nothing to suggest that there’s any deeper underlying issue
that caused me to get sick, anyway!
The bad news is that while the procedure itself was shorter and more-bearable than I’d expected, the recovery’s been a real drag. A week later, it still hurts a lot to urinate (although
I’ve stopped yelping out loud when I do so) and my crotch is still too sore for me to be able to cycle. I’ve also discovered that an errection can be painful enough to wake me up, which
is definitely not the most-pleasant way I’ve been roused by a penis. But it’s getting better, day by day, and at least I know for sure that I’m more-or-less “right” in the renal system,
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been ill. For those who wanted the grisly details, well: here you go.
Warning: this blog post contains frank subjective descriptions of the symptoms of slightly-icky medical conditions including photographs. It’s probably safe for all
audiences, but you might not want to be drinking anything while you read it.
The trouble began, I suppose, about a month and a half ago, when a contracted what seemed to be a minor urinary tract
infection. If you’re a woman then, statistically-speaking, I probably don’t need to tell you what that is, but for the benefit of the men: it’s what happens when bacteria (or,
sometimes, a fungus or virus) infects the renal system: the kidneys, bladder, ureters, and especially the urethra. It’s not pleasant: it gives you the feeling of needing to pee the
whole time, makes it harder to pee, and – when you do – it feels a little bit like you’re piss is made of lava.
Despite it not being common for men (more on that later), I’ve had mild UTIs on a couple of occasions in my life, and I’d always found
that ensuring that I got plenty of water and a full RDA of vitamin C was more than enough to make it clear up all by itself
within a couple of days. So that’s what I started doing. But then things took a turn for the worse: I started getting a stabbing pain in my left kidney. Recognising this as being
pyelonephritis, I went to the doctor who prescribed me a course of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin. Within a couple of days I was
feeling right as rain (of course I continued to finish the course of drugs, although I was interested to see that that advice is
starting to become controversial).
Naturally I was a little disappointed when, the week before last, I started getting UTI-like pain again, followed very swiftly
this time by pain in my bladder that constantly felt a little like I was recovering from being punched. Back to the doctor I went, where (after the usual tests to work out what the
most-likely best-antibiotic to use was) I was prescribed a course of nitrofurantoin. I’d never had this particular drug
before, and it wasn’t initially clear which of the escalating ill-effects I was experiencing were symptoms of the infection and which were side-effects of the medication: it started
with joint pain, then nausea, then diarrhoea, then a full-on fever. It was at the point that I was fully-clothed in bed, running a temperature and soaked in sweat but still feeling cold
and shivering that Ruth called 111, who told her to take me to A&E.
(Which, like her care for me in general, she did fabulously well, except for a little bit where she sort-of ran me over in the car park of the hospital: thankfully some
friendly paramedics were standing around and were able to drag me into the building. Anyway, I don’t have much memory of that bit and I certainly don’t have any amusing photos, so I’ll
skip over it.)
A few tests later, the medical staff seemed confident that what I was experiencing was not an allergic reaction to the antibiotic (however, I see that they still made a note of it as a
risk on my notes!) but was a progression of the infection, which seemed to have crossed over from the tissues of my renal system and into my bloodstream and was now generally causing
havoc by attacking the rest of my body. They hooked me up to a drip of an intravenous antibiotic and kept me stocked with painkillers, then sent me up to the urology ward and set me up
with a “bed” (urology mostly deals with outpatients, and so my ‘bed’ was actually a trolley, but they wanted to keep me close to the urologists in case of any complications).
A consultant switched me to a week’s course of yet-another different antibiotic – co-amoxiclav – and recommended
keeping me in for another night. Now, I think that co-amoxiclav is a really interesting drug, so I’m going to be a bit of a nerd and tell you about that for a bit (I promise we’ll get
back to my health in a moment: if you don’t want the science bit, just scroll past the diagrams to the next photo).
Co-amoxiclav is a mixture of two drugs. The first is the antibiotic amoxicillin. Amoxicillin belongs to a class of antibiotics
(which includes penicillin) called β-lactams, which is the most-commonly used family of antibiotics. These antibiotics contain a four-point lactam ‘ring’ (highlighted in blue above),
and the way that they work is that this part of the molecule bonds with a particular protein common to all gram-positive
bacteria. Normally this protein is responsible for producing peptidoglycan, which is an essential ingredient in the cell walls
of these kinds of bacteria, but when it gets locked to a β-lactam ring it stops working. As a result, when the bacterium reproduces the new child doesn’t have a proper cell wall, and
can’t survive long in even the least-hostile environments.
Of course, we’re in a medical arms race right now because some of the bacteria which we’re targetting with antibiotics are becoming resistant. And here’s one what that they’re
doing so: some of these bacteria have evolved to produce beta-lactamase, also bonds with beta-lactam rings, adding an
OH to them and making them useless. Bummer, eh?
The second drug in co-amoxiclav, then, is clavulanic acid, which was discovered in the 1970s and started being added to drugs
in the 1980s. Despite having a β-lactam ring (as you’ll see in blue above), clavulanic acid by itself it isn’t an effective antibiotic (for reasons I can’t quite get my head
around – anyone want to help me?). But what it’s great at is bonding that lactam ring to beta-lactamase, thereby deactivating the bacterial counter-offensive and allowing the
amoxicillin to carry on working, combating resistance.
So what you’ve got in co-amoxiclav is a an antibiotic and a chemical that counteracts the effects of a chemical that deactivates that antibiotic. Wow! It’s things like this
that really make me wish I had a brain for biology!
I was eventually discharged from hospital and released to go home for lots of bed rest and water, along with a further week’s course of co-amoxiclav. Unfortunately it turns out that I’m
one of the unlucky folks for whom amoxicillin makes me dizzy, so I spent most of that week lying down in-between wobbly vertigo-filled trips to and from the bathroom. But it worked!
Within a few days I was feeling much better and by the end of last week I was able to work from home (and actually feel like I was useful again!).
Free of symptoms and off the drugs, I returned to work properly on Monday morning and everything seemed fine. Until, late in the morning, I went to the bathroom and started pissing
Now apparently blood in your urine, while horrifying when it happens to you unexpectedly, isn’t actually a
sign of a medical emergency. I was starting to get bladder pain again, quite intensely, so I excused myself from work and called the urology ward, who decided that I wasn’t in bad
enough a condition to go and see them but sent me straight to my GP, who gave me another fortnight’s worth of co-amoxiclav. They’re monitoring my progress with urine and blood samples
and if by Friday it’s not having an impact, they’re going to want to send me back to hospital (hopefully only as an outpatient) and pump me full of the intravenous stuff again. So…
fingers crossed for a good result out of these drugs.
I was hoping that by this point I’d be writing this blog post and telling you all about how I’d fought the bladder monster and won. But it looks like I won’t be able to claim that
victory for another week or two, yet. All I know is that I searched for “bladder monster” and found
this. Yeah: that feels about right.
So, I’ve not been well lately. And because a few days lying on my back with insufficient mental stimulation is a quick route to insanity for me, I’ve been trying to spend my
most-conscious moment doing things that keep my brain ticking over. And that’s how I ended up calculating pi.
Most of the computer-based systems we use today are hard to explain, but there’s a really fun computer-based
experimental method that can be used to estimate the value of pi that I’m going to share with you. As I’ve been stuck in bed (and often asleep) for the last few days, I’ve not
been able to do much productive work, but I have found myself able to implement an example of how to calculate pi. Recovery like a nerd, am I right?
Remember in school, when you’ll have learned that the formula to describe a circle (of radius 1) on a cartesian coordinate system is x2 + y2 = 1? Well you can work
this backwards, too: if you have a point on a grid, (x,y), then you can tell whether it’s inside or outside that circle. If x2 + y2 < 1, it’s inside, and if
x2 + y2 > 1, it’s outside. Meanwhile, the difference between the area of a circle and the area of a square that exactly contains it is π/4.
Take those two facts together and you can develop an experimental way to determine pi, called a Monte Carlo
method. Take a circle of radius 1 inside a square that exactly contains it. Then randomly choose points within the square. Statistically speaking, these random points have a
π/4 chance of occurring within the circle (rather than outside it). So if we take the number of points that lie within the circle, divide that by the total number of
points, and then multiply by 4, we should get something that approaches the value of pi. You could even do it by hand!
points!). Give it a go, here! When you go to that page, your browser will start drawing dots at random points, colouring them red if
the sum of the squares of their coordinates is less than 1, which is the radius of the circle (and the width of the square that encompasses it). As it goes along, it uses the formula I
described above to approximate the value of pi. You’ll probably get as far as 3.14 before you get bored, but there’s no reason that this method couldn’t be used to go as far as
you like: it’s not the best tool for the job, but it’s super-easy to understand and explain.
Oh, and it’s all completely open-source, so you’re welcome to take it and do with it what you wish. Turn off the graphical output
to make it run faster, and see if you can get an accurate approximation to 5 digits of pi! Or slow it down so you can see how the appearance of each and every point affects the
calculation. Or adapt it into a teaching tool and show your maths students one way that pi can be derived experimentally. It’s all yours: have fun.
And I’ll update you on my health at some other point.
So yeah: that’s not entirely pleasant. A couple of days ago I was diagnosed with what was supposed to be a minor bladder infection and given antibiotics. Then yesterday I became
feverish and collapsed. And now I’m in hospital.
But on the upside, they’ve spent all night pumping me full of some kind of intravaenous antibiotic that must be made from like unicorn spunk and leprechaun tears or something
because it’s frankly magical: feeling so much better today than yesterday.
I’m pretty sure that an outside observer, given the advance knowledge of this blog post, could easily tell when I’m in the process of getting over an illness just by the food I eat. I’m
pretty sure that I have a particular ‘tell’ in the foods I look for when I’m on the cusp of recovering from a cold, like now: or, I suppose, on those rare occasions that I’ll have drunk
enough to be suffering from a hangover.
Take this lunchtime, for example. I’ve been off work for the last couple of days, laid low by what seems to be the very same cold that I was sure I’d dodged when everybody else got it,
last month (I blame Annabel, the contagious little beast, who’s particularly keen on shoving her hands into people’s mouths). Today I’m back on my feet, but working from home: I skipped
breakfast, but by lunchtime I felt able to face some food, and quickly determined what it was that I really wanted:
Egg & Cheese Wafflestack
Serves: 1 unwell-but-recovering person
Preparation: 15 minutes
Difficulty: if you can’t make this, get the hell out of the kitchen
4 × frozen potato waffles. I’m using Birds Eye ones, but honestly, who can tell the difference?
~ 30g mature cheddar cheese, grated or thinly sliced, brought to room temperature so it melts quickly
2 × eggs
A little vegetable oil
Tomato ketchup (alternatively, brown sauce works well)
Grill the waffles in accordance with the instructions. Meanwhile, fry the two eggs (“sunny side up”: keep the yolk fluid). Assemble in stacks, with each stack consisting of cheese
sandwiched between two waffles, topped with an egg and the ketchup. Serve immediately. Eat as quickly as you dare.