Category Archives: general

How the year began: A dose of flu

2011 began with a dose of probably-swine-flu. “Probably” because the only way you can be sure about that is to send of a sample of the virus for testing.

The experience was different from what I expected. Just before New Year, I caught what seemed like a fairly normal, but feverish, cold. It came on gradually, over several days. When I’ve had proper flu in the past, it’s come on very quickly: e.g. going from being well to being ill in the space of less than an hour. So I was confident that this wasn’t going to be flu, just a cold. My temperature went up to about 100–101 °F for about three days, which is typical for me when I catch something like that. It stays up for about that long, then gradually goes down again over a few more days, and the cold is over (with the possible exception of a lingering cough afterwards).

This time though, once the three days were over, my temperature continued going up. Friends on Twitter became increasingly alarmed as I reported the daily temperatures.  In particular, it tended to shoot up in the evening, during the gap between one dose of paracetamol wearing off and the next being due. It reached 103.4 °F one day; 103.6° the next; 103.8° the next. And of course it did this over the weekend of New Year, in which the Friday and Monday were both public holidays and the doctor’s surgery was closed. I did my best to drink plenty of fluids, slept a lot, and (surprisingly) managed not to feel too horrible by being very careful about how much I ate and when. My technique was to avoid having a full stomach at times when my temperature was likely to go up.

Unsolicited advice abounded of course, mostly boiling down to

  • Drink lots of fluids, which you already know and are already doing as a matter of course, but we still think we should tell you to do it.
  • Go to the doctor, which is physically impossible while confined to bed and which the surgery have specifically asked people with flu NOT to do, so you can make yourself more ill by travelling there, and so you can irresponsibly infect everyone else while waiting to be told to drink lots of fluids which you already know and are doing.
  • Keep your temperature down to stop us worrying, even though it’s a perfectly normal flu symptom and is probably helping to fight the virus.
  • Here are the symptoms of meningitis which you’re already familiar with. Are you sure it’s not meningitis? You should really get the doctor to check that it’s not meningitis, even though you’ve checked the symptoms umpteen times already and definitely don’t have any of them. Even though you’ve not got any symptoms of meningitis, we’re still scared that it’s meningitis.

Admittedly the temperatures were the highest I’ve ever had except for the occasion when I did have meningitis at the age of 17. But I was surprised not to feel considerably more ill at nearly 104 °F than I did. (With the meningitis, I remember feeling horribly ill and disoriented, sitting on the side of my bed with very little sense of where I was or what time of day it was; feeling nauseous and having a severe but bearable headache; not wanting much light because it hurt my eyes; not being able to put my chin on my chest because my neck hurt if I tried; and my father taking my temperature then saying  either “It’s 105!!!” or “It’s 104.5!!!” in a tone of voice that implied that my temperature had no right to be that high. I remember the symptoms coming on extremely fast. And I remember my mind being too fuzzy to absorb whether my father said 105 or 104.5.)

When I was finally able to ring the doctor on the Tuesday, he cheerfully told me that I didn’t need to worry about the high fever “unless you start coughing up blood or anything like that”, and (surprise surprise) that I should drink lots of fluids. Also he confirmed that it was OK to take ibuprofen as well as paracetamol. So I took ibuprofen doses half way between the paracetamol ones, thereby achieving what I now thought of as “low” temperatures around 101–102 °F and avoiding the idiotically high ones I’d been experiencing. (I was also, incidentally, amazed at the dramatic quantities of sweat my body was capable of producing in the process of cooling itself down by two degrees. Ugh.)

A couple of days later, my temperature started heading back down to more sensible values. The most alarming thing was that it showed no sign at all that it was going to do this: the fever simply stayed up on its plateau for days on end, with virtually no change. And I had a nasty feeling that the infection was trying to work its way lower into my chest. I didn’t fancy the idea of getting pneumonia, or the laryngitis that it was hinting at either. So it was a relief when the flu showed signs of finally improving.

When I finally made it back to orchestra, I was a bit startled when several people said they’d never had flu in their lives. Maybe that’s why I got the odd reactions on Twitter, though. I’ve had real flu three or four times, including Hong Kong flu as a child in 1968, and a flu in 1986 which knocked me out for months, so I tend to assume that people have experienced flu and know how to deal with it (namely by expecting a high fever, drinking enough, resting until it’s taken its course, and calling the doctor if anything happens which doesn’t seem normal for flu or which could be a complication).

The flu left me exhausted for weeks afterwards, of course. But it also had a positive side effect: I’d been trying to get down what I think is my ideal weight (the one at which I feel healthiest), and an enforced week of eating next to nothing brought me within a few pounds of that now-achieved goal.

The next event of 2011 is a much more serious one, involving a bereavement in the family, so I’ll write about that in a separate post. I don’t want any hints of flippancy from this post to spill over into that one. The two are connected though, and part of the reason for my extended silence here is that we were hit by that before I’d had a chance to recover my strength from the flu.

Extended absence

If you’ve noticed anything about this blog lately, you’ve probably noticed my extended absence. This was not intentional; the last few months have been eventful ones in all the wrong ways, and I’ve simply not had the energy to post the things that I want to post. My next two posts will update you on some of it.

A long-lost newspaper cutting

Talking of things from the past unexpectedly surfacing: here’s a newspaper cutting which I saved in 1985. (Good grief, that’s 25 years ago! Ahem . . . ) I mislaid it for a while, and then was delighted to find it again a few months ago.

It dates from my time living in Bangor, North Wales, and is a letter to the local free newspaper. There was an election coming up. Bilingual leaflets were produced by the parties, in English and Welsh. Well sort of. Here is one resident’s reaction to what came through the letterbox:

Newspaper cutting in deliberately misspelt English, complaining about poor Welsh translations

From the free Bangor newspaper, c. 1984

By the way, some of the spellings in the above make more sense if you’re familiar with the basics of Welsh pronunciation and with the Gwynedd local accent: for example, ffrynt in the first sentence is an almost perfect representation in Welsh spelling of how the English word front would be pronounced locally.

Now the question in my mind is: how bad are the translations in today’s election campaigns? Have they improved at all? My hope is that they have, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that they haven’t.

Anyone know?

Yes, but can you do THIS?

Years ago—maybe ten or twelve years in fact—I read an amazing article in Scientific American about a dolphin which had learnt to do the dolphin equivalent of blowing smoke rings. It was able to make ring-shaped air bubbles in the water, which it would then play with. The article described such scenes as a researcher blowing smoke rings one side of the glass, and the dolphin reciprocating with its air rings. Creating a ring and then breaking a piece of it off to make a smaller ring. Creating a ring and then swimming through the middle of it. To justify its presence in Scientific American I think there was some discussion of the physics of how the bubbles were able to persist in the water.

Frustratingly, I lost the copy of Scientific American after taking it to work to show someone. But I was intrigued by the article and always wished I could see the dolphin in action.

Well, here it is. And I think you’ll agree that what it’s doing is pretty amazing and makes human-blown smoke rings look very crude in comparison–leaving aside the fact that no horrible carcinogenic smoke is involved either:

How many people do you know who can do that? Probably the number of humans who’ve learnt that skill is approximately the same as the number of dolphins who’ve published papers about fluid dynamics.

I found this video quite by chance: my copy of Opera 10.10 updated itself to 10.51, much less successfully than is usual for an Opera upgrade. So, after rather a long absence, I visited the Opera forums in search of anything which might help me sort out the problems. While I was there I visited a friend’s blog which I’d not seen for a while, and there was the video.

So, two sets of thanks are in order:

  • to Yulia, for posting the video, and
  • to Opera, for messing up their upgrade so I would visit their site and find the blog post.

Update: It seems that humans can blow these circular bubbles quite easily after all. The clip on this page about vortex rings from ABC television in Australia includes someone doing just that. It also explains some of the physics, and has shots of some more ring-blowing dolphins. Thanks to Andrew Mitchell for the link.

How to make coffee without losing friends

You’ve probably noticed two trends in the instruction manuals or leaflets which come with consumer items. For one groups of items—mobile phones for example—the trend is towards giving less and less useful information. For example, my new phone has a red light on the side which sometimes flashes. It must do this for a reason, to indicate something, but I’ve no idea what and the manual doesn’t tell me. In fact much of the manual consists of sentences beginning “You can . . .” which mention a particular task but don’t actually mention how to do it.

The other trend is towards giving more and more unnecessary information—for example, telling you that candles burn and that the flame is hot.

Many sets of instructions are also written in barely intelligible English, translated from another language by a non-native speaker of English. Personally I think such translations should be required to meet a minimum legal standard, since confusion can in some cases be dangerous and in others can make certain features of a product unusable. If the instructions for a feature can’t be deciphered, then the feature is effectively not there and you may just as well have been sold a faulty product.

A couple of weeks ago I bought myself a Russell Hobbs coffee grinder, in order to let me drink nice, freshly ground coffee. It works very well.

My first reaction to the instructions that came with it was that it was a breath of fresh air to read ones which were obviously written by someone who knew English. Every word was intelligible.

My second thought was that they were rather detailed, but since a lot of the detail concerned safety and the reasons for various things, that was still OK.

What I wasn’t expecting, though, was the advice on personal relationships in step 20:

Extract from Russell Hobbs instruction manual

Item 16 is reasonable, though amusingly worded. So are items 17 and 18, though the writer appears either not to have heard of semicolons or to have missed an and out. Item 19 is certainly an adequate way of counting approximate seconds. But item 20???

That made me laugh out loud, but I’m wondering how on earth it made its way into an actual instruction booklet. In a draft as a joke when someone had been drinking, maybe . . . but the final booklet? For a well-known manufacturer? Do they know what is going out in their name?

I confess that when I grind the coffee, I don’t count in a “firm, clear voice”. I either time the bursts with my watch, or count quietly and take the risk of people jumping to conclusions.