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Oxford revisited

Friday, June 16th, 2006

I went to Oxford last week for a memorial service (sorry, no pictures—I have still not got a camera or any news from the insurers for that matter. Anyway, the essence of the place is best captured on a misty autum morning or in winter with the streets nearly deserted and a dusting of frost on the roofs).

I’ve noticed three things:

  • The place turns more into a theme park with every passing year;
  • The students get younger with every passing year;
  • Lots of them were wearing subfusc, so it’s finals time. It’s also the last week of term. That means with the end of exams, the weather will turn lousy again; it always does.

So far, we had the most wonderful June. It’s still lush and green and I’ve got to drag John into the woods when he’s back at the end of the week.

Oh, damn…

Land of Excuses

Saturday, June 10th, 2006

I didn’t miss much when we went shopping during England’s opener against Paraguay.

Before that match even went into injury time—when I thought Paraguay might just equalise, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the commentators did too—the excuses were already forthcoming.

England is the land of excuses. This is the country where trains get delayed ‘because of the wrong kind of snow’. The rainiest country in Europe that has drought orders. The place where—when somebody’s staggering incompetence causes havoc or outright disaster—’more training’ is recommended. Soldiers in Iraq are now offered ‘ethical training’ so that in future they won’t shoot babies and grandpas in wheelchairs through the head. If the American marines get in on the act, it’s the influence of the English rubbing off (note, it’s an English thing, the Scots aren’t like that).

So what was the excuse on offer in the dying minutes of the game?

“Of course, the first match of the tournament is always the most difficult!”

Eh??

Certainly against opponents such as mighty Paraguay. If they hadn’t scored an own goal, who knows what might have happened?

BTW, I’m addicted to the Boots footie blog.

World Cup Food

Thursday, June 8th, 2006

One thing I miss from Germany are the ingredients. I’ve just cut up a stale, burnt loaf of bread for John’s sandwiches. The quality of food in the local Sainsbury’s is atrocious. Back in Germany, even the lowliest village supermarket will have a bakery attached (and back there, baker is a profession which requires a 3-year apprenticeship—not a minimum-wage job). The same supermarket will also have a butcher’s (ditto) which sells marrowbones and stewing cuts, not just steak and chops. And, in that village shop, you won’t find shrink-wrapped meats or poncy veg. All the veg are loose. A georgeous, fully grown head of salad (plain, endive, whatever)—the kind of which you see rarely here outside Harrod’s food hall, will set you back 30-50 pence. Food is generally a third to a half as expensive as here in the UK.

The Brits still don’t understand food. Yes, I know, this country has the world’s best/second best restaurant (it toggles), some of its greatest chefs and (actually) a proud tradition—sadly usurped by wars and puritanism. But the Brits still cook with their heads, not their hearts, and food crimes are many. The irritating Jamie Oliver and his condescending cooking tips for Sainsbury’s would’ve been laughed out of my village shop. Grotesque ‘celebrity’ chefs taunt the latest fads (avocado oil) to people who don’t even know how to make a basic chicken stock.

Rant over.

On the other hand, I won’t cook much German food during the World Cup. Why not? Football food tends to be a half-time affair, so elaborate stuff is out. Summer doesn’t really lend itself to heavy stews and roasts. Some tried-and-trusted recipes rule, and ‘ve already posted them, such as potato salad and Sülze (also known as head-cheese or brawn).

When it comes to potato salad, there are many incarnations. It’s often served with rollmops or Bismarck herring and frequently prepared with stock and a basic vinaigrette instead on mayonaise and sour cream (plain yoghurt). My version goes well with cold meats. Bratwurst or Frikadellen (pork-and-beef meat patties) can be bought in some local shops. ‘Currywurst’—national dish of West Berlin— is simply bratwurst with ketchup sprinkled with a bit of Madras curry powder. I’ll have that for lunch today.

Other than that, the hotdog with Sauerkraut rules. It isn’t as American as you may think (indeed, you’ll discover better versions of it in Germany), although—strangely—the use of Sauerkraut is typically New York. I think of it as a fusion dish. The Frankfurter will most definitely be German (watch out for the fat content—Herta’s best!), the kraut happens to be Polish and Frenchy’s mustard is decidedly American.

For daytime play, a rye bread sandwich comes highly recommended. I’m talking about an open sandwich. Rye bread (lightly toasted and buttered while still hot) goes well with English cheddar—another international marriage—as well as paté and I love it with apple slices and herring in sour cream.

For afters? Kentish strawberries dipped in whipped cream!

Online banking

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

The Bank of Scotland is driving me crazy.

When I registered for online banking (essential for overseas travel), they failed to provide me with a username—presumably because I’m not a BT Broadband/Internet Explorer clone.

Two months later, I went to a local branch to investigate from where I ended up having to phone a helpdesk. But I got my username. The password arrived by mail three days later.

However, I can’t sign in. I reckon they haven’t given me the right details, so I tried to get them restored by following the ‘forgotten your password/username’ link, but was informed that my access was suspended and given another help desk number.

The phone advise was to go online and follow the ‘forgotten your password/username’ link.

Until I get through to a flesh-and-blood human, I will not be able join the enlightened world of internet banking. It leaves me feeling emasculated.

Flash-back to the year 1995. I have just set up my first website. I’ve been a member of the BioNet newsgroups for some time (they looked nothing like that back then) and one of the moderators asked around for ideas of how to raise money via their newly minted internet website.

I told him to display advertisements. He thanked me.

The internet, I realise, could make the world our oyster. It would make my wildest dreams possible. It would bring the world’s biggest library to our homes. It meant that, one day, we’d be banking in our payamas.

Someone would make a lot of money from this.

I walked into my bank. There on the desk were a few new terminals.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Oh,” the teller smiled: “It means you can carry out some of your transactions at a terminal without having to talk to someone. It’ll make our work more straightforward and will reduce queing times.”

“How silly,” I smiled condescendingly. “Don’t you realise that we will soon be able to do all this from our homes?”

If only.

Water Woes

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

Now that the country has been ‘sveltering’ four days in a row (well, the temperature is in the double figures), after suffering the wettest May in 27 years, the media are resuming their publicity drive to draw attention to the ‘worst water shortage since 1976’.

But disquiet is already mounting after figures reveal that Thames water still loses 1/3 of its supply through leakage—despite reporting a profit of 256.5 million pounds every year. That’s almost a pound for every gallon it leaks out of its ageing pipes every day.

The regulator Offwat is considering imposing the ‘nuclear option’. A 100 million fine may help the companies to finally address the problem—for which they are allowed to issue consumers with higher bills, naturally.

Non-payment of bills is one of the evils cited by the providers struggling to meet demands. Meanwhile, last week, we experienced yet another red letter day as the water company threatened to take action for non payment unless we comply within seven days. We have yet to receive the original bill.

Citizenship Pipedreams 3

Monday, June 5th, 2006

(Yeah, I know. This kinda deserves its own category by now.)

So, I talked it over with John.

“Go for it,” he said.

“I foresee a few problems—”

“Such as?”

“Swearing allegiance to the Queen. There were those Irish republicans who couldn’t take up their seats in parliament because they wouldn’t swear allegiance.”

“So?”

“I’m a republican, too.”

“Trust me, Irish republicans are different.”

“Then there’s swearing on the bible—”

“So, you’re an atheist anarchist. That’s OK—you’re entitled to your views.”

John is right, I guess I’ll cross these bridges when I come to them. It shouldn’t prevent me from applying at least. But it’s a step that has to be considered carefully. I have done so many times in the past, and I have not been ready to make this committment. Why do I want British citizenship now?

This is why (some examples, in no particular order):
[read on]

Citizenship Pipedreams cont.

Sunday, June 4th, 2006

I mulled it over and thought that, yes, perhaps I should obtain British citizenship before our 20th wedding anniversary.

BUT…

…not only would I still have to swear allegience to the Queen (what is the point of a monarchy in the modern age??), I would also have to pass an English test and—get this—a test of ‘Life in the UK’!

You should think that they make things a bit easier after twenty years of residence, nearly fifteen of which have been spent as a student and academic.

Hen’s Teeth

Friday, June 2nd, 2006

I must confess I still haven’t booked my flights to Prague, but this is because I’d rather book our flights to Morocco first, as soon as possible, in fact.

This year, Eid falls on New Years Eve—and we are invited to the party!

However, I’ve got to get Dave to email me the dates! We need to travel between Christmas and New Year and there won’t be many cheap flights available. Even going via Gibraltar may be expensive, although it will offer dolphin-watching opportunities.


In other news, I’m currently working on a story concerning the fate of a mouse with a ‘humanised’ brain. A pioneer in the field has recently approached his ethics committee with the proposal to replace neurons in a strain of mice where they degenerate with human-derived neuronal stem cells. These mice would be ideal models for the study of neuronic diseases, including brain cancers which this guy is especially interested in, and also for learning and cognition.

The problem is, of course, that these mice may grow brains which are ‘too human’. The researchers will keep a close eye on their brain architecture and terminate the experiments if that should happen.

We might not get a mouse with a human brain, but we might still get a ‘clever’ mouse. I don’t know, I’m still reading up on this, but it’s possible. Enter ‘Pips’.

The recent developments in the field are fascinating. I was reminded of my travels in Portugal two years ago:

‘But while there are no cookers on the campsite, there are BBQs. For a long moment I seriously considered hauling back a sack of charcoal but at the last moment I desisted, realising what a mess that would make in my tent. I played it safe by picking up some pre-cooked meat from the chiller. But even though my receipt says ‘Frango’ it isn’t, because chickens have no teeth. It turns out to be suckling pig.’

…When I saw this little gem (‘Development of teeth in chick embryos after mouse neural crest transplantations’)