June 11, 2007

Chicago

Well…I am finally in Chicago. I can’t quite believe I am saying that, following the endless stream of preparations and the laborious visa application process, but yes, I am finally in the Windy City (which is, by the way, not all that windy) and am engaging in some incredibly hard research at the Newberry Library. All seems to be going relatively ok so far. I have not been robbed, murdered or deported, so I think things are progressing quite well…

Preparations:
Preparing for the trip proved somewhat time consuming. I had thought, rather naively, that I would not require a visa, as I’m only going to be here for 2 months. It transpired, however, that I did require one, as I am studying rather than simply traipsing about as a tourist, so I had to organise this before I left, in addition to filling out a couple of indecipherable US tax forms, booking my flight and sorting out some insurance.

In order to acquire a visa, I visited the US embassy website. Upon doing this, I was immediately greeted by a grinning picture of George Bush, proclaiming proudly that ‘America is not a fortress’. I then went on to see the many forms and documents I had to present to the nice people at the US embassy for the visa application process, which included 2 online forms, a receipt to prove that I had been registered on an online student exchange data base, a form that I had been sent by the library, several passport photographs, proof of income whilst in the USA, and proof that I would leave the country at the end of my visit. I thought that my chances of getting a visa were reasonable, as I did not plan ‘to engage in commercialised vice’, was not ‘a significant trafficker of people’ (I have always confined myself to insignificant forms of people trafficking) and had not, to be best of my knowledge, committed ‘a crime involving moral turpitude’. I did, note, however, that the requirements for my passport photo were quite stringent; I discovered, to my great disappointment, that I could not wear tribal headgear, a traditional facemask or an eye-patch in my photo (I was gutted). I also learned that my face needed to fill at least 50% of the picture, and that my ears needed to be ‘exposed’.

Having more or less negotiated these obstacles, and paid $200 dollars for the privilege, I phoned up the embassy to book an appointment. I then received a nice letter instructing me on how to behave myself when I arrived at the embassy. The letter informed me that the embassy staff would want to take digital fingerprints of all my fingers, and that, should I cut my fingertips in the weeks leading up to the appointment, then I would have to cancel it. It also informed me, helpfully, that there was nowhere to wait inside the US embassy, as a result of which I would have to queue outside, ‘even in inclement weather’, though I was of course not to loiter in the vicinity of the embassy, or I would be moved along. It was not entirely clear from these instructions where exactly I was supposed to stand, but I hoped that this would become apparent on the day. In the event, it did, as the queue stretched all along the side of the embassy. My appointment was scheduled for 12.30, and I was briskly processed in a mere 3 and a half hours, having had a stray battery confiscated in the security hut. I then paid a further £14 for my visa to be sent by courier to my home. It eventually turned up, and, after these minor inconveniences (I will not even go into the 6 separate trips I went on to university house to get them to suspend my PhD funding whilst I am away), I was ready to go…

The Journey:
The flight over was a bit of a marathon. I naturally got selected to be x-rayed and have my hand luggage searched twice on my way to the plane (I would like to extend my special thanks to the nice people at Heathrow for this privilege). Then, when I thought we were good to get underway, the pilot announced that there was some kind of problem closing a door after loading the cargo and that we had to wait on the plane for 2 hours at Heathrow before they scrambled an engineer to fix it, news that did not all please me, as 10 hours is slightly longer than I am comfortable sitting still for, especially as I had to sit next to someone with unnecessarily long legs. On the plus side, I did enjoy seeing the rather spectacular ice-sheets on the north-eastern corner of Canada – one of the small compensations for being squashed next to the window – though this did not make up for the miserable excuse for a curry with which I was fed or the general discomfort of the seat.

When I arrived in Chicago, things got immeasurably more alarming, since my bag was about the last one to arrive in the luggage carousel. I forced myself to stay calm (after all, people hardly ever lose their luggage on flights, do they?) but I started to get seriously worried when the normal sized suitcases stopped appearing and they began unloading large boxes marked ‘fragile’, and, bizarrely, an ironing board from the plane – because obviously they don’t have them in the US. Luckily my bag turned up in the end – even if I was a nervous wreck by that time – and the immigration people let me through with only minor disapproval and glances of suspicion (I had reluctantly decided not to take any explosives munitions or radioactive materials in my hand luggage, which I think speeded up the process).

Accommodation:
I am staying in the Seneca Hotel. It is sandwiched between the John Hancock Tower (one of the highest buildings in Chicago) and Lake Michigan, and my room is on the 16th floor, which I’ve just realised is really only the 15th floor, as there is no floor 13. I think I would have quite scenic views from my hotel window, if only I could work out how to open the blind…

My hotel room is kind of ok, though I’ve still not mastered how all the US appliances work. There are a couple of bedside lamps that seem to be devoid of a switch, and that I have to unplug in order to make them turn off. There’s a strange contraption that might be a tin opener, which seems to require electricity in order to function (I have been reduced to buying a manual one), and the shower is one of those funny joint tap/showerhead ones, where you have to experiment with various levers in order to get water to come out of the shower. Most worryingly, when I plugged in my computer yesterday I saw sparks between the adapter and the socket, which I don’t think can be good. I’ve tried to solve these technical glitches by looking at the little instruction booklet in my room. This is, however, of limited help – there’s lots of stuff on ‘places to worship’, ‘limousine services’ and local florists, but nothing on basic electrical problems – so I might have to use my own initiative…
On the plus side, the TV does work, which is obviously the main thing, so I have access to around 100 channels of really tacky US programmes. I’ve found one channel devoted entirely to poker, another to diagnosing people with mysterious illnesses and another that that concentrates mainly on Pokemon, so it’s all very educational. More productively, I found a channel that televises Formal 1 races in time to watch the carnage of the Canadian grand prix, plus another channel with multiple re-reruns of ER, and another with a good smattering of Friends episodes, so I should have some entertainment whilst I’m here. I also watched a programme about a volcano near Seattle which is apparently going to erupt at some time and obliterate vast numbers of people and, less reassuringly, a CNN report on gun crime in Chicago, which luckily seems to happen on the other side of the city…

To be continued…


January 20, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

On Thursday I went to see Pan’s Labyrinth. I am still mildy traumatised. I had naively thought that this would be a nice little story about a small girl’s fantasy world and a good opportunity to practise my Spanish. I was disabused of this misconception within about 10 minutes, when the chief villain of the piece – the charming Captain Vidal – cudgelled someone to death. I sensed that this might be a slightly less pleasant story than I had imagined and my suspicions were soon confirmed. There was a particularly grim moment when a doctor amputated a man’s leg with a saw without anaesthetic (an operation I did not really need to see in quite so much detail), and another delightful scene in which Vidal tortured someone with a hammer (as you do). All of this gore appeared relatively mild, however, when compared with the most stomach-churning scene of the film, in which the Captain sustained a very nasty knife-wound to the mouth and sutured it himself – an operation which seemed to last for a good 5 minutes, and was captured in a lurid close-up. My memory may have faded a bit, but I honestly think that parts of Pan’s Labyrinth surpassed the notoriously brutal ‘Passion of the Christ’ in violence.

Not that I would want to discourage anyone from seeing this film. On the contrary, I think that Pan’s Labyrinth is an excellent movie that deserves to be seen and would recommend it to anyone – just so long as they don’t plan on eating or sleeping peacefully for the following 3 days. The plot is engaging, the monstrous Captain Vidal deliciously evil and the torture scenes painfully convincing, if you like that sort of thing. The fantasy scenes are also highly imaginative. There is a satyr (the faun) who guides the heroine Ofelia into the labyrinth and a weird pale creature that stalks about with eyes in its hands and eats small children. I was also particularly taken with a giant toad that squelched about inside a tree, though that might just be a personal thing (it bore, I thought, a passing resemblance to my cat).

Above all, Pan’s Labyrinth illustrates the cruelty of war and the brutality of dictatorship. Set in 1944, 5 years after the Spanish Civil War, the film follows the Francoist regime’s efforts to exterminate the remaining pockets of guerrilla resistance and exposes the sadistic, unquestioning zeal with which it persecuted its opponents. Personally, I did not need to see this brutality in quite such graphic detail. Nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that Pan’s Labyrinth hammers home (at some points literally) some important messages, namely 1) Franco – not so nice; 2) many people object to being battered with hammers; and 3) if you do have the misfortune to have your mouth slit open with a knife then seek professional medical attention (admittedly difficult when you have just shot the doctor), and do not, under any circumstances, consider stitching it up yourself, especially if other people have to watch.

Pan

September 24, 2006

Pontificating

It has been a productive week. On Monday, I managed to overcome the deep loathing I was feeling for the most recent chapter of my PhD and actually submitted it. On Tuesday I paid for the washing machine (only 3 months overdue). On Wednesday I bought a new shower curtain (which I’ve discovered, does not fit, but the intention was still good), and on Thursday I opened a book and seriously considered reading it (I was armed with luminous yellow notelets and everything!). After all that excitement, the weekend was bound to seem a little quiet, though I have managed to summon just about enough energy to write this entry, which represents some kind of achievement.

All this excess activity has been triggered by the sight of the new term on the horizon. I am actually going to be let loose teaching history students next term, so I thought it might be helpful if I knew something about my subject…Whether I actually do remains to be seen. Luckily the first topic will be the Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, so there should be plenty of opportunity to discuss important issues like human sacrifice and the origin of chocolate. I can hardly wait…

Whilst I was busy trying to compose a PhD thesis, I notice that the Pope has tactfully managed to offend the entire Muslim world by insinuating that Islam was a violent religion. I was pleased to see that various Muslim groups quickly disproved this allegation by pouring into the street and burning effigies of the Benedict XVI, thus demonstrating, beyond all doubt, their love of peace and religious tolerance. It was all rather reminiscent of the furore earlier this year over the incendiary (actually literally) cartoon of Mohammed published in a Danish newpaper, and seems to be becoming something of a regular occurrence.

Actually, I have to confess I feel rather sorry for the Pope. Ok, so perhaps he could have selected his quotations a little more carefully, but surely Islam is not such a fragile religion that it cannot simply brush off this kind of statement (which seems, moreover, to have been taken entirely out of context)? The most appropriate reaction to the Pope would have been to ignore him (as I routinely do), or to have issued a dignified denial, refuting his claim point by point. Running about setting fire to things does not really help to convince me that Muslims abhor violence (though I’m sure the vast majority do), and there does sometimes seem to be a kind of double standard in operation, whereby some faintly insulting and misquoted comment from the Pope generates more anger than an act of actual violence committed by Islamic terrorists in Iraq.

My personal view is that a distinction should be made between words – which can be retracted – and actions, which cannot. Ultimately, the Pope was only expressing an opinion – or, to be more precise, he was expressing the opinion of a thirteenth-century Christian – which, in a democratic state, he is entitled to do. However offensive this opinion may be to some people, I fail to see how it can be as offensive as when an terrorist beheads a captive in Iraq, blows up a train in Madrid or attacks a school in Beslan, or when President Ahmadinejad of Iran threatens to wipe the state of Israel off the map – and sounds as though he means it. And in any case, why were any Muslims even listening when Pope Benedict was addressing a gathering of Catholic leaders in Germany? I certainly wasn’t, and I’m nominally a Christian…

To be honest, all this fuss only convinces me that religion in general is more trouble than it’s worth. As far as I can understand, the essential point of all religious teachings – be they in the Bible or the Koran – is that people should be nice to one another. Beyond that, does it really matter how people worship, what God they believe in or what clothes they wear? Obviously it does, hence all the, crusades, jihads and inquisitions, but quite why mystifies me. As long as religion gives people a set of sensible rules by which to live their lives, and a useful comfort blanket when things go wrong, then I have no problem with it, but as soon as people start trying to impose their beliefs upon others, using religion as a reason to exclude and condemn rather than accept and tolerate, and concocting silly rules just for the hell of it, then it deviates from its primary function as a force for good. When God gives Moses a commandment saying ‘thou shalt not kill’, then that’s all well and good. But when Brigham Young tells the Mormons that polygamy is ok because the idea of having 50 wives quite appeals to him and when the Jehovah’s witnesses say that blood transfusions are forbidden for some arbitrary reason, then things begin to get a little ridiculous. Surely religion is supposed to make people happier? And if it doesn’t then surely it’s missed the point, and just become counterproductive and controlling? Moreover, while I’m at it (there may be individuals out there I’ve not yet offended, and I would hate anyone to feel left out), why must people insist upon taking ancient religious texts literally, rather than as a general guide to appropriate behaviour? It seems to me really pedantic to spend hours agonising over the precise meaning of a particular passage of the Bible, or to persist in arguing (as some people still do) that Darwin’s theory of evolution is wrong because it contradicts the official creation story. Wouldn’t all this time arguing be better spent actually doing some good in the world? And isn’t the essence much more important than the specific wording? One would have thought so.

(Please note, my deep philosophical thoughts are now over for the week – more updates on really important issues like hamsters and shower curtains to follow shortly…)


September 08, 2006

Exotic Holidays, Technological Breakthroughs and a Vicious Predator

As usual, I seem to have neglected this blog for long space of time. I suspect that in the meantime not much has actually happened, but here are some of the highlights of the last few weeks:

Of most excitment recently, I spent a week in Scotland with my family. The purpose of this trip was to see if some elderly relatives were still alive (which, luckily, they were), but we fleshed it out by combining this with a kind of circular tour of the country. This involved an atmospheric scattering of rain, hills, sheep and Scottish pancakes, though I was not tempted at any point to sample a haggis (I strongly believe that no good can ever come of eating something made of a sheep’s stomach). There was also the disappointment at discovering that there was NO COWIE TARTAN in the ‘Trace your Scottish Ancestry’ books in the giftshop at Dunvegan Castle on Skye (I am very disappointed in my ancestors for not having devised one), softened only by an excellent jacket potato in a nearby restaurant.

On the way north, we visited Edinburgh, where lots of festival-related stuff was going on. There was a large preponderance of bagpipes, a Korean man blowing an annoying trumpet, some Peruvain people with panpipes, a really good Russian brass band from St Petersburg, and lots of scary people floating about the streets distributing leaflets and picking on unsuspecting members of the public, which reminded me a lot of Birmingham. Coming back, we stopped briefly in Dundee, where we inspected Captain Scott’s ship the Discovery and saw footage his first Antarctic expedition, including the ship’s cat! All in all, it was a good trip, and I like to think that the general wetness of much of the holiday made the experience more authentically Scottish. (Note authentic Scottish scene, below, pictured in a rare moment of sunshine.)

Loch Carron

Moving on to more recent momentous events, last Thursday’s excitement consisted mainly of re-signing the contract for my house. The man from the agency came over in the afternoon to conduct what had been described as an ‘inspection’, though most time was spent filling in documents and dropping meaningful hints about installing double-glazing so that the gas bill is less extortionate. The agency were alerted for about the 4th time to a broken drawer in the kitchen, and my housemate, who has higher standards than me, requested a new shower curtain, which the agency agreed to pay for. We were also handed a ‘welcome’ pack, which I think is an innovation for this year. This turned out to be a list of things we should not do (phrased, of course, in the nicest possible terms), including allowing stray cats into the property in case they urinate on the furniture (it is nice to know that at least somebody at the agency has imagination). I conveniently overlooked the ‘no pets’ rule, which apparently extends to insects.

Much of yesterday was spent attempting to install broadband internet in our house. Things all went quite smoothly initially, luring us into a false sense of security, but it then transpired that the internet would not work on the socket upstairs. Various experiments were then tried to resolve this problem, which included plugging and unplugging wires in a series of different sequences and combinations, obviously with great scientific rigour. Ultimately we succeeded – with the whole thing arranged exactly as it had been to start with! This made no sense to me at all and gobbled up several hours of my time. Still, it is always character building to spend a few hours wrestling with IT, and maybe I learned something from the experience, although I seriously doubt it.

Meanwhile, Jackie the hamster continues to flourish, though of late she seems to have developed a carnivorous streak. This first manifested itself last Sunday evening, whilst I was running her in the hall (I use the term loosely – not much actual running usually goes on in these sessions, most of which are spent inside a bag chewing cardboard*). I had been carefully shifting my position on the floor in order to distance myself from a fairly substantial spider, which looked as though it might decide to run up my leg, when the hamster scuttled over, grabbed it and ate it! It obviously whetted its appetite for meat, since it attacked a woodlouse yesterday and turned the poor thing on its back before I intervened. I’m not really sure whether this kind of thing constitutes normal behaviour in the hamster world, or whether Jackie’s insides are equipped to deal with a meat-based diet, but so far no ill effects seem to have been felt.** Hopefully Jackie will not graduate onto larger prey, or my toes may be at risk.

  • By the hamster, I should emphasise – not by me.
    • Other than possibly by the spider, which might disagree with me on this point.

July 31, 2006

A fine specimen

A Fine Specimen

Months seem to have passed, and I have not added anything to this blog…I am therefore posting this charming image of my cat to prove that I still exist and (just occasionally) find the energy to write something. As you can see, it is a high pedigree animal and adheres to a strict diet and exercise regime. Contrary to how it may appear from its glazed eye and sprawled body, it is, in fact, alive.


May 31, 2006

This, that and the other…

I think my blog titles are getting progressively more feeble. Anyway, here is the weekly (or monthly, if I’m feeling slovenly) recap of all the not especially interesting things that I have been up to recently, beginning with Saturday, which qualified as an exciting day because I LEFT THE HOUSE

Actually, I even left the delights of Coventry, though not without some difficulty. My thrilling destination on this occasion was Oxford, where I was supposed to be watching some rowing and meeting some friends. (I should probably confess at this point that the precise rules of the rowing might have eluded me, but this need not interfere with the story). Usually it takes just under an hour to travel to Oxford from Coventry station, but this particular journey proved more eventful. Arriving at the station, I noticed that there was a man in a luminous orange jacket standing on the tracks, which I suppose, on reflection, was not a good sign. I remember hoping at the time, for his own good, that this individual would consider getting off the line before the arrival of my train, which was due in about 5 minutes. Upon entering the station, however, I saw a sign saying that all trains were cancelled over the weekend due to engineering works, and discovered that I would have to get a coach to Leamington in order to get to Oxford, all of which extended my journey by about 45 minutes. On the plus side, I did get to view some previously unexplored outskirts of Coventry along the way, which is always an uplifiting experience.

By the time I had actually staggered into Oxford, it had started to rain. It may have been around this point that I realised that my summer shoes were entirely inappropriate, and that the sun cream that I had thoughtfully brought with me might prove surplus to requirements. On the other hand, I can sometimes be quite slow on the uptake, so maybe the inappropriateness of my shoes did not become apparent to me until I was walking along the puddle-covered banks of the river with my feet caked in mud. Either way, it was not exactly the sunny day sat watching the rowing that I had envisaged, though, as you can see from the picture below, we did all seem to remain remarkably cheerful about the whole thing, which I think was highly commendable.

More Oxford sun!

Anyway, amidst the mud, puddles and torrential rain, some actual rowing took place. As I said, I’m not sure I completely understood what was going on, but the basic format seemed to be that each of the Oxford colleges entered a team into one of several races (based on a kind of division system), and that that team’s starting position was determined by its previous form. In order to improve its ranking, a team had to catch up and overtake the one immediately above it in the division, at which point both teams stopped racing. Or something along those lines. Whatever precisely was happening, it was all rather entertaining, though I have to report, somewhat disappointingly, that there were no sinkings or even major collisions. We did, however, spot a man in a pink suit on the bank, which, in spite of its obvious vulnerability, was not remotely stained with mud. This was naturally rather galling for me, since by this point I had a good portion of river bank splattered over my trousers. I might also add that I began to develop a phobia of small children wearing wellies, most of whom felt the need to jump into puddles near where I was standing…

Still, muddiness apart, it was a good day, and my train back home was a mere 30 minutes late. So, all in all, a success…

In other news:
- The hamster continues to be in good form. My sister, who studies biology, recently suggested that I should keep Jackie in the dark for more than 12 hours per day, which will apparently deceive its body into thinking it is winter and make its fur turn white. This experiment has thus far not been attempted. I did, however, make my way over to Homebase on Sunday to purchase a replacement ‘chube’, the other one having developed an unpleasant odour. I was rewarded for my efforts by the sighting of 3 chinchillas, a chipmunk and some Mongolian Roborovski’s hamsters.
- The other major excitement last weekend was watching next door’s dog cavort around the garden in pursuit of a rubber lamb chop. This is incredibly amusing, although less so at 7am on a Saturday morning.
- I somehow (and to my everlasting shame) found myself with nothing better to do the other Saturday night than to watch the Eurovision song contest. Spain entered a group of 4 singers in which only 1 actually sung (and that was 1 too many); Germany’s entry was a country and western number including some luminous flashing catci; Latvia’s (or it may have been Lithuania’s) modestly titled song, ‘we are the winners of Eurovision’ (or something along those lines) featured what looked like a man having an epileptic fit; and Finland…well…Needless to say there was not the slightest hint of tactical voting, and the fact that virtually all the Balkan and Baltic countries voted for their neighbours was purely a reflection of the excellence of their artistic work. (N.B. I do realise I need to get out more…)


May 05, 2006

Another Update

I realised yesterday that I had not made an entry on my blog for a worryingly long time. This can be attributed to a combination of having had a lot to do, and not having done anything very interesting. I still have a lot to do, and I still haven't done anything very interesting since I made this observation. To prevent my blog from being discontinued, however, I will report some of the not–very–thrilling things that have been taking up my time since I last blogged:

Home: I allegedly have a new housemate. I say allegedly, since she is hardly ever there, but I have been made aware of her existence by the diminished fridge–space and the arrival of a rice–cooker in the kitchen. So far so good, though I may introduce her to the hoover the next time she passes by…

Watery worries: Following the departure of my housemates (see earlier entry), I thought – naively – that it would be a good idea to phone up the utiliies companies and convert all of the bills into my name. This resulted in a series of long and painful conversations with Severn Trent Water, who, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to add an additional 6 months to the bill they had originally sent me, covering a period for which we had already paid. On calling them to query this I was naturally met by the usual set of options – 'press 1 if you have a question about your bill', 'press 2 if you don't like the look of your bill', 'press 3 if you want to speak to someone incompetent who won't listen to you', 'press 4 if you want to leave a personalised hate–message for one of our employees'. I was then subjected for a good half hour to the watery piece of piano music they inflict upon you whilst you are waiting to speak to somebody, which, though clearly designed to be atmospheric, does lose some of its charm after the third or fourth hearing (to put it generously). All of this would have been marginally less annoying if it had been a freephone number – which it wasn't – and if Severn Trent Water kept records of earlier payments – which they seemingly don't. Luckily I still had the receipt to show we had paid, so it alll turned out okay in the end. This, however, will be the last time I try to be helpful where ultility companies are concerned.

Work: Well, I've done some, which is probably the main thing. Quantity, good. Quality, debatable.

Culture: The other pinnacle of excitement in (relatively) recent weeks was going to the cinema to see 'Walk the Line'. This film dramatises the life of the country music singer, Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and his romance with fellow country singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Although I was hardly a Johnny Cash expert prior to seeing 'Walk the Line', I now know that he was a very prolific songwriter, and that most of his songs, involved some variation on the format – man shoots wife/unfortunate stranger for no apparent reason; man is incarcerated for his crime; man languishes in prison and repents. To give an example, the song 'Folsom Prison Blues' includes in its lyrics the charming line 'But I shot a man in Rino, just to watch him die' – a sentiment with which I'm sure we can all empathise… During the course of 'Walk the Line', I also discovered that Jonny Cash spent the majority of the 1960s in a drugged stupor, and that his brother expired after an unfortunate incident involving a sharp piece of machinery – which I could see coming from a long way back, but which, thankfully, was not displayed too graphically. With all of these ingredients, 'Walk the Line' could obviously not fail to be an excellent film, and duly lived up to expectations. The performance sequences were especially impressive, with both actors doing their own vocals.

Walk the Line

Important IT–related discovery: I discovered yesterday that pressing Ctrl, Alt and the number code 129 you do not get a 'u' with an umlaut, as anticipated. You do, however, turn the screen upside–down and make the mouse work back to front, which is far more interesting. On the downside, working upside down for prolonged periods of time can lose some of its novelty after a while (say, the first five seconds), and unfortunately my genius did not extend to rotating the screen back to its normal position. Still, I suppose all great discoveries have their shortcomings…

Hamster update: The hamster, I am pleased to report, is still alive and dwelling in its 'chube', part of which it has now consumed. In fact, I have just completed some important research into its origins. Apparently there are 4 breeds of dwarf hamster; Campell's Russian dwarf, the White Winter Russian dwarf, Roborovski's hamster, which lives in Mongolia, and the Chinese dwarf. After extensive study, I can confirm the Jackie is definitely a Chinese hamster, which is seemingly quite rare. I know this because it has a longer tail than the Russian varieties, and a single dorsal stripe (for evidence of tail, dorsal stripe and gluttony, see below).

A wondrous discovery

In the course of my hamster–studies, I also read, with some alarm, about common hamster injuries and diseases. I discovered that it is quite common for hamsters to lose an eye or a limb, and that they can suffer from brain tumours, diarrhoea and something ominous known as wet tail. As if that wasn't bad enough, it seems that they sometimes they stuff things in their cheek pouches which then get stuck there. Moreover, it transpires that I should not have been feeding Jackie lettuce, as this may damage its liver, nor oranges, quite why I don't remember. On the plus side, I did learn that hamsters can be toilet trained and taught to respond to their names, though no major progress has been made in either of these directions. Clearly I am a neglectful hamster owner…


March 12, 2006

Unexpected Events

Well, I don’t really know how to start this entry. Basically, my housemates have just moved out! This is a rather unexpected development, to say the least…I knew one of them would probably go soon, as he recently found a job in London, but I did not foresee that my other housemate would join him, as allegedly she has a PhD to complete. It also didn’t help that I was given about a week and a half’s notice that they were leaving, making things all rather sudden. Supposedly someone else will be moving in soon to replace them, but I don’t actually know who. Possibly someone Chinese, or possibly someone Greek. But there seems to be some doubt about this.

Perhaps related to the moving out (or perhaps not, as my housemates cannot always be relied upon to act in a rational manner), my housemate bought a car last weekend. A man brought it over on Sunday morning for them to check it over, and my opinion was sought on the matter, since I obviously have an immense and detailed knowledge of all motor vehicles. I helpfully confirmed that the car in question had 4 wheels, and the sale went ahead. It’s a ford fiesta and it’s green – beyond that I cannot really add much. Whether my housemate can actually legally drive it is open to debate. My other housemate seemed quite traumatised after an maiden voyage to TESCO on Saturday – which, considering that TESCO is under 5 minutes walk from the house, is saying something – and upon searching interrogation from me, it transpired that he has only ever driven a car with manual gears a couple of times before, and is used to driving an automatic. Anyway, in spite of these minor concerns, car plus housemates reversed out of the drive yesterday, an operation skilfully completed in less than 10 minutes. They were last spotted weaving uncertainly between two lanes of the dual carriageway outside the house, and are hopefully now safely in London (although, considering that my other housemate was navigating, they could conceivably be anywhere).

Following the departure of my housemates, I have been granted formal custody of the hamster. This was a slightly delicate issue, for although I have assumed de facto responsibility for the hamster’s nutritional requirements, personal hygiene and psychological welfare over the past 6 months it does technically belong to my housemates. Luckily, a carefully thought-out diplomatic strategy based on meaningful hints, calculated silence and emotional blackmail, coupled with the general disinterest of my housemates, secured me ownership of little Jacqueline, who I can currently see squirming about in her nest. In order to celebrate this important acquisition, I went on an excursion to the pet shop yesterday in search of hamster treats. I came away with some chocolate drops, some strawberry blobs and a contraption that calls itself a ‘chube’, a cunning combination of the words ‘chew’ and ‘tube’ which it must have taken the people in the hamster accessory business days to devise. The ‘chube’, as its name suggests, is basically a tube made of cardboard and filled with cotton wool. The hamster can sleep in it and, should it wake up and feel peckish, it can nibble one of the ends – a truly ingenious design of which the hamster seems to approve.

Since my housemates left I have been engaged in some deeply intellectual tasks, which this morning included reprogramming in my video with my own TV (my housemates having taken the old one with them) considering changing the hoover bag before thinking better of it, and watching the Bahrain grand prix. This afternoon I decided, it turned out unwisely, to clean the freezer. This revealed some putrefying lumps of fish (well, I thought they were putrefying, but they may possibly have been a delicacy), some non-descript chunks of meat and, most alarmingly of all, what appeared to be an entire squid, with tentacles dangling out of one end. Needless to say I shall not be brewing it up for my dinner, although if anyone would like some decaying pieces of seafood then they would be more than welcome to have them – please note, however, that you do so at your own risk, and that I accept no responsibility to any diseases that may thereby be contracted.


March 06, 2006

The Joys of Spring

Snow

…Although the garden does look better under snow.


February 20, 2006

Luges, strange ducks and so much more…

Well, my housemates eventually arrived back from China. Housemate 1 arrived on Tuesday, armed with 3 packets of sausages (allegedly a speciality from Harbin), some blue eggs (ah, so that's how bird flu is transported) various wok-like equipment, a toilet seat cover, an umbrella to cover rice with (I don't really see the point of this, but it's obviously fundamental to the rice-cooking process) and a Chinese computer game with an extremely annoying soundtrack. Oh, and I forgot to mention the new hotplate. This will definitely come in handy next time I feel the urge to boil up some bones…

Housemate 2 should have arrived on Tuesday as well, but he contrived to miss his flight and did not materialise until yesterday. He was momentarily spotted in the lounge wearing a dressing gown, but this has been the only sighting to date, as he then slept for the rest of the evening. I'm not yet sure what goodies he brought with him, but there is an ominously large suitcase in the lounge waiting to be unpacked. I will shortly be welcoming both of my housemates back by getting them to reimburse me for the substantial amounts of money spent on gas bills, electricity bills and a new TV license whilst they were away.

Whilst my housemates have been away, I have been watching the Winter Olympics. I have to say that the Winter Olympics don't really compare with the summer version for excitement. There's little direct racing and its mainly about beating the times of other competitors. Also, most sports seem to consist to slithering across slippery surfaces attached to various contraptions, which can get a bit repetitive.

However, in spite of these reservations, the fact remains that it's not every day you get to watch the pairs luge or the skeleton bobsleigh, and I admit I've got slightly addicted. I'm afraid I still don't see the attraction of curling, even though Britain are mildly good at it – whatever anyone says, it does seem to involve throwing stones and brushing ice, along with some devious tactical manoevres that I cannot quite understand. I do like the figure skating, though, although the judging criteria is beyond me. I was under the impression that if you managed to skate for 5 minutes without your bottom coming into contact with the ice then you had done a pretty good job, but apparently more is required. Certainly some of the men on Thursday let themselves down by performing only double axels rather than triples, which was obviously disgraceful. I am hoping that by the time the Olympics are over I will be able to distinguish a triple axel from a double toe-loop (though probably not perform one), but perhaps this is asking too much.

Even more exciting than the Winter Olympics (yes, really), I spotted a strange duck in the lake on campus. It has a red bit at the base of its beak, a white neck, and some grey and brown splodges, I forget how arranged. I'm not sure why I am imparting this fascinating information, but maybe there are people who know more about birds than I do who would like to have a look. Or maybe other people have more important things to do with their time…

Just to ensure that this entry is in keeping with the general dissatisfied tone of the rest of this blog, I also wish to add another email related grumble. I have been trying to access my email without notable success over the past 3 days, but have been unable to do so – firstly because 'my mailbox was unavailable', secondly because 'my login was not current' and thirdly because the system was 'unable to communicate with the groupwise agent. I am still debating whether my login not being current is better or worse than my mailbox being unavailable, and therefore represents progress. I suspect, however, that IT services just alternate their little red messages in order to give the illusion that they are doing something. Oh well.


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