Sunday, 18 March 2018

Living with a master criminal

I am not, in this case, talking about the Idiot Cat's ability to escape from wherever he's supposed to be, in an attempt to gain access to the bathroom and the sweet, sweet smell of bleach.

Nor am I suggesting that BigBear has developed kleptomaniac proclivities.

No, I am talking about the perils of living with the kind of child who would be drummed out of Vegas. Or, as my parents used to tell me, "people were shot in the Wild West for less..." Because, once again, I am reaping what I sowed, and discovering just how trying it is to live with a child with a prodigious memory. I only wish, in my own case, that I had not filled my adult brain with so much fluff that I am lucky if I can remember my own phone number, let alone recite the names, dimensions, ages and original locations, habitats and habits of dozens of species of dinosaur that most normal people haven't ever heard of.

It is not, on this occasion, LittleBear's ability to remember the personal history of all fossil finds of the last century, that makes me believe a holiday to Nevada is not in the offing. No, it's the combination of alarming memory coupled with playing card games that is causing me to despair at living with a future card-sharp. Fortunately we're still on Top Trumps, and have not introduced him to poker. Yet.

The current favourite, to my surprise, is Volcano Top Trump. It is proving considerably more popular than Dinosaurs, Sea Creatures or Predators.

For those who are blessed enough not to be achingly familiar with the game, it's fairly simple. So simple even a half-wit like me can play and lose with relative ease. There are thirty cards, each one representing a different volcano. On each card are six factors, each with a numerical value. Each player starts with half the cards in a stack, looking at only the top card. The first player picks what they believe to be the best factor of their current volcano and announces it. The second player must then declare the value of that factor on their current volcano. Whoever has the highest value wins both volcanoes, puts the cards to the back of their pack and picks a factor from the next volcano. The aim is to win all the cards.

A spectacularly bad photo of a Top Trumps card

Here, for instance, is Fuji. Some of the factors are a little, shall we say, arbitrary. For example "Wow! Factor" appears to be an assessment of how cool the writers felt the volcano in question to be, with Fuji topping the poll at 100 out of 100. And for reasons I haven't fathomed, "Wow! Factor" and "Unpredictability" have a maximum value of 100, whereas "Deadliness" and "Devastation Potential" both go up to 1000. For those who might feel that these last two factors are quite similar, in fact "Deadliness" is based on how many people have actually been killed in the past by said volcano, and "Devastation Potential" is based on explosivity, potential global damage, and number of people living nearby. Krakatau wins the former category, whereas Campi Flegrei wins the latter (a volcano that, as LittleBear is fond of informing anyone who'll listen, has a town of 30,000 inhabitants built within its caldera.)

LittleBear loves playing this game. LittleBear is particularly attached to the six volcanoes that top the rankings in each category. He is distraught if he loses any of them. Campi Flegrei, however, despite having terrifying potential to devastate the world, is pathetically small and can be defeated by most of the rest of the pack on height. And for those who really care, Cotopaxi is the best all-rounder, not only winning outright in the height category, but having good rankings in another four categories. LittleBear is almost inconsolable if he loses Cotopaxi.

We have now reached the point where when we get to the end of the pack, LittleBear gazes at me with a look of low cunning and muses, "Hmmm, you have a deadliness of 401, but your height is only 1500m, so I'm going to choose height." Because, not only has he kept track of all the cards that have passed, and therefore knows which one is left, but he also knows all its statistics off by heart. And thus I lose Unzen, which is indeed only 1500m high.

Perhaps more alarmingly, he also recalls which cards have beaten which other cards during the course of a game, so if he wins Mayon from me, again a look of low cunning passes across his visage, as he recalls that Mayon last beat Mount St Helens and that all he needs is a respectable deadliness and Mount St Helens will be within his grasp once more. Rather endearingly, he assumes that I am also capable of these feats of recall. Sometimes he simply tells me "Wow! Factor - Merapi" as though this will magically translate to the number 85 in my head. It doesn't. He has been reduced almost to tears as I win a card off him and he announces, "And now you know what I have next and you'll win that too!" And I have to assure him that no, no I don't know what card comes next, because I have not memorised the sequence of every card that has passed, whilst also forgetting the order that they appeared in during the last seventeen games that we've just played back-to-back. And even if I could remember that it's Teide that comes next, the chances that I can remember much beyond the fact that it's a bit rubbish at several things are slim-to-vanishing.

And it is thus that I have ended up repeating my own parents, and telling my son that if he counts cards he won't be allowed in a casino. Because, obviously, being a six-year old boy isn't reason enough for him to be excluded from dens of iniquity.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Books, books and books

Books are a major feature of my life. I am currently contemplating ripping out the fitted wardrobes in the spare bedroom to make more space for books.* I've kept lists, or even written reviews, of every book I've read in some years. Except when I didn't.

I don't, this time, have any Major Thoughts, or even Great Revelations, about books today. Instead I have a series of minor moments in my book-life.

Some people, especially those with children, will have been aware that it has been World Book Day recently. As is always the case, this involved LittleBear dressing up as a character from his favourite book. So far, so good. It also, this year, involved making a potato into a character from a favourite book. Because nothing says "books" like a potato. And it was a competition. Competitive potato-ing. Nothing says "books" like competitive potato-ing. So LittleBear and I turned  a baking potato into Winnie the Pooh-tato and a new potato into Piglet. Obviously I helped. I wielded the pipe cleaners with which to form arms and legs (and Piglet's head) and I sewed sleeves on Pooh's little red coat. But I bit my tongue, and sat on my hands, and let LittleBear do all required drawing, colouring and afixing of limbs, coats etc. And I was very proud of out joint effort.

Winnie the Pooh-tato

Then there was a display of all the entries in the school hall. And it became clear that the parents at LittleBear's school span the full spectrum when it comes to "helping" with homework. There were potatoes that were clearly entirely the work of a five-year old child. Or an adult with a Picasso-esque approach to the human form. There were potatoes that were clearly joint efforts. And then there were potatoes that no child had been allowed in the room during the construction of, that made me feel rather sad. Yes, they were beautiful, and clever, and creative. But so what?

On the plus side, World Book Day also results in LittleBear receiving a book token. And since today was Mothering Sunday, I chose my treat for the day - to be allowed a trip to the bookshop, and to be allowed the opportunity to purchase books for me. LittleBear could be persuaded that this was an admirable idea by assuring him that we would also be buying him a book. So we had a lovely time in Waterstones, and BigBear and I came away with five new books, and LittleBear with two new books. I excused this profligacy because I have a little card that gets stamped every time I spend £10 in Waterstones, and once it's been stamped 10 times, I get a £10 discount. And today was "free" £10 day, as we toppled over the 10 stamps mark**. BigBear seemed excessively keen to point out that this was not in fact a "free" £10, as I had spent at least £100 in obtaining it, but I was not going to allow the tedious minutiae of facts to get in the way of my frisson of excitement at receiving it.

The most exciting bit (for me) was the fact that LittleBear was taken by the idea of a new work of fiction, that he had not read before. Admittedly it's a rather clichéd "boy wants to be a premiership footballer" story, but nonetheless, it's a story, and not an encyclopedia of dinosaurs, sea creatures or volcanoes. We did buy a book about volcanoes as well, obviously. To maintain the momentum of having bought a new work of fiction, we started reading said clichéd football book after dinner. And carried on, and on, and on until bathtime. The tension was unbearable as Small Boy in Book faced bullying, and upset, and risk, and LittleBear clung on, desperate for a happy ending. Which is how BigBear ended up undertaking 50 minutes of bedtime reading, instead of 15 minutes, as there was absolutely no way that our LittleBear was going to go to sleep without knowing what happened to Small Boy in Book. For anyone who was concerned, there was a happy ending. Phew.

Meanwhile, I have been reading what is, I would say, the best popular science book I've ever read. It's interesting, well-written, stretches me to think without vanishing into overly technical jargon and without dumbing everything down. It's funny, it's entertaining and it's illuminating. So I shall issue forth a big thank you to my dear aunt, who recommended it to me over a year ago. I have rather parsimoniously waited until I could buy it in paperback instead of hardback. And besides which, my bookcases are all carefully crafted to house paperbacks as densely as possible, and hardbacks both don't fit and mess up my filing system. So I shall recommend to everyone else that they read "A brief history of everyone who ever lived" by Adam Rutherford. It's brilliant.

* This is not as absurd a bibliophilic step as it at first seems. The fitted wardrobes currently completely enclose a chimney. If they didn't, then the chimney could be face with books instead. I would have more bookcase space, and no longer have a pair of doors that open onto a blank, brick chimney breast. A win-win situation.

** I was delighted that the man at the till asked me if I had a new, plastic rewards card, or an old stamp card, and when I asked if I should move to the new system he said, "No, the old one's better, I'll give you another of those." Honesty from someone who is supposed to upsell you onto a scheme whereby they harvest your name, personal details, contact information and purchasing habits is a breath of refreshing air.

Sunday, 4 March 2018


Nearly two weeks have passed since I last wrote anything here.

What's been happening? Have I lost my internet connection, or merely my writing mojo?

Actually, I've been ill. I started sickening for a cold while staying with GrannyBear, en route for Lyme Regis. I almost perked up, but then didn't. Perhaps it was a 500 mile round trip in 5 days. Perhaps it was two days tramping around a cold, wet beach. Perhaps it was a serious sleep deficit caused by The Noisy Family. Whatever it was, I took the almost unprecedented step of taking a day off work. I spent 7 hours sat on the sofa, drinking lemsip and allowing the Winter Olympics to wash over me. I thought I felt better after that, and returned to work. That was thirteen days ago.

My nose streamed, and then streamed some more.

And then I developed a sinus infection, and it was excruciating. The right hand side of my face was an inferno of pain. Swallowing drove needles of agony through my right ear. But I had a party planned, so I dosed myself up on pain-killers, drank gin and had some friends round for a Saturday evening of merriment.

And when Monday rolled round, I just wanted to stay in bed. But since my boss had come to the party, it seemed a tad cheeky to be well enough to stay up late drinking, but not well enough to work, so I went to work clutching a hot water bottle to the side of my face. (Yes, I actually did.)

I slept with my face on a hot water bottle.

I took painkillers.

I took decongestants.

I steamed my head.

And then I started coughing. I coughed and coughed and coughed and coughed and coughed. I coughed so much I kept myself awake for hours at a time. And, much like my irritation when other members of my family cough, I became quite vexed. I tried to banish myself to the spare room so I wouldn't keep me awake. But that didn't work. Instead, BigBear retreated to the spare room so he could get some sleep. And I coughed and coughed and coughed and coughed and coughed. And still my face hurt.

Unlike me, with my severely limited stores of patience and sympathy, it turns out that LittleBear really is as lovely a little bear as I always say he is. One morning, at around twenty past six, when my coughing had kicked off again, a little voice called out from the neighbouring bedroom, "Are you alright Mummy?" I may be biased, but it's almost impossible not to love him.

Just to add insult to injury, on Thursday night, after I'd had a scant 3 hours of sleep, my LittleBear woke up and was sick. Since there was already spare space in my bed, he joined me there, along with the washing up bowl. And we proceeded to have half-hourly interludes of being sick or having emergency trips to the bathroom to evacuate other parts of his digestive system. And then it was morning. Three hours sleep. This part of my life was supposed to be over.

I went to work for a rest (and a meeting with an important customer) in the morning, leaving BigBear holding the fort (and the bucket). Fortunately the bucket was not necessary, and in fact LittleBear showed every sign of having nothing whatsoever wrong with him. I managed to survive the afternoon with him without swearing, which felt like a major achievement.

This morning I, finally, woke up feeling somewhat improved. The cough was abating, my sinuses were no longer discharging all manner of yellow, orange, red and brown unpleasantness, I didn't even have a headache. So LittleBear and I went into town to cheer BigBear on as he ran a Half Marathon. By the time I got home, after an hour outside in the cold, I was trembling, my face was throbbing and I wanted to cry. So, despite BigBear being the one who'd just run a Half Marathon, I went to bed in the afternoon and slept. And took painkillers.

I'm almost human again now. Almost.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Chalk and Cheese

Having arrived and installed ourselves in our hotel in Lyme Regis, all seemed to be going well.

But then... not everything went quite perfectly... except when it did. Our days were a peculiar mixture of ups and downs, highs and lows, chalk and cheese.


Initially, we were more than happy with our hotel room, with its proximity to the "games room" that allowed us to sit in peace while LittleBear fell asleep, its distance from the bar and restaurant meaning we were spared the comings and goings of late night revellers, its view of the sea via a quiet courtyard. And then The Other Family arrived. They occupied the two rooms beside ours. They had large dogs who appeared to need to go outside every hour or so. They had a deaf grandfather with whom they attempted to play Who Wants to be a Millionaire? late into the night. They had children who were prone to slamming doors and running up and down corridors. They had a mother who stumbled down the corridor, glass of wine in hand, telling her 7 year-old child that he couldn't go to bed yet, despite it being 10pm. By Saturday morning, BigBear was muttering that he wanted to drive home that day. We spent a particularly grim breakfast, staring at the tablecloth and not speaking.


I gently approached the nice people at reception and explained that we were not having the most restful time, what with the noise from The Other Family, and the dogs, and so on. This is not my usual style, since it involved both speaking to another human being and complaining out loud*, but the Bad-tempered Breakfast required desperate measures. And thus we ended up being moved to a different room. A room beside the King Edward Lounge, a residents' lounge that nobody else appeared to want to use. So essentially a private sitting room. We were, alarmingly, above the bar. And yet, after about 9:30 there was merely a murmur from below. More enjoyably, the bar was within baby-monitor range of our new room, and we were able to sit and have a pint of beer together while LittleBear went to sleep. If we hadn't been so utterly shattered after being kept awake by The Other Family, we might have (a) managed to find something to talk to each other about and (b) not given up and gone to bed ourselves at about 9 o'clock.

Our own private sitting room


The hotel's "games room", as well as being equipped with full-sized snooker table, table-tennis table, and bar billiards table had an ottoman full of board games. LittleBear was wildly excited to find that there was a Scrabble set, and spent a large portion of time when we were trying to get him to do something else, agitating to know when we could play. And when we came to play... there was no board in the box. And his world began to crumble. Feeling that I needed to spare others from such levels of distress, I took the box to reception to hand it in and let them know it was perhaps less playable than imagined.


When confronted with the Disappointing Scrabble Set, the young man at reception said, "Oh, I didn't know the board was missing, but I've got a new one here we hadn't got round to putting in the games room yet. You could take this one." So we christened the new board, and I was trounced at Scrabble by a six-year old again**. 


Our first fossil-hunting day dawned bright, clear and sunny, which was a lovely day to be out in. Unfortunately, it was also a continuation in the delightfully mild winter that has resulted in very little in the way of fresh erosion and fossil exposure.

We re-introduced ourselves to the Lovely Fossil Men, C and P, who are friends of a friend, and joined the fossil hunt again. And LittleBear bounced up and down on his toes, arm stretched high, desperate to answer every question. The poor gents had to resort to saying, "Yes, we know you know, but how about some of the other boys and girls? Or grown-ups? Or anyone?" And when it came time to hand out some pre-found ammonites, LittleBear found himself at the back of the queue, as C pointed out, "you have been before, and you do have lots of fossils, so we'd better let the others have some first." My little moppet's bewildered face clearly didn't understand what was going on.

However, LittleBear had obviously touched a soft spot in P's heart, because he lurked behind C, tapped him on the shoulder and muttered to him that he had a special fossil for LittleBear. Which is how my spoilt small boy received a beautiful little pyritized ammonite with a fossilized parasitic worm on its back, and not just a boring old ammonite on its own.

And down the beach we stomped, hunting for fossils, and finding a quite considerable quantity of ammonites, belemnites and crinoid stems. But then... woe and calamity... I found an ichthyosaur vertebra. Surely this is a good thing? You'd think so. But no. The problem was that I found it, thus shattering the internal narrative LittleBear had constructed of his triumphant discovery of a vertebra. And thus we found ourselves, miles along a cold and windswept beach, with a rather poorly, over-tired, small boy, sobbing his heart out at how wrong everything was. P and C were rather concerned, and I had to do my best to assure them that it was nothing to do with their fossil trip. We managed to insert some chocolate-chip cookies into LittleBear, and drag him back to the town to find some lunch before hypothermia and starvation caused any further damage.


Our second day of fossil hunting followed hot on the heels of the Bad-tempered Breakfast, and was an expedition undertaken only by LittleBear and me, while BigBear went to explore the cliff path. And LittleBear, his expectations suitably adjusted downwards, had a lovely non-tearful time, finding all the normal fossils. He bounced up to both P and C when we encountered them on the beach to tell them what he'd found. He was utterly untroubled by the absence of complete plesiosaurs, and quite delighted with everything he found. He did demand that I stop looking for belemnites as it was "not fair" that I'd found more than him. In fact, at one point he removed one from my hand and threw it back into the shingle, to even things up, but I allowed that to glide past, for the sake of an enjoyable few hours with my moppet.

We raced back along the damp sand, leaping over little streams and giggling together, to reconvene with BigBear at the sea wall. And then we all had a little pause while LittleBear "dammed" a rock pool and declared proudly that he'd completely stopped the flow of water from one side to the other.

Our collection of easily-portable fossils


LittleBear, being (I hope) a rather typical small boy, has a distinct reluctance to do what we want to do on rather too many occasions. Often, to my frustration, the thing that we're suggesting is something I know he'll enjoy. Which is how I ended up having to cajole and drag my small boy a matter of a few hundred metres ("but it's miles Mummy") to a museum full of awesome fossils. Because what LittleBear really wanted to do was play Top Trumps in our hotel room, and not have to any of those terrible holiday activities his parents were suggesting.


As well as finding, as predicted, all the awesome fossils, we also discovered that there was a cool craft activity going on in the museum. Because Dippy is on tour from the Natural History Museum, they had a 3D-printed copy of his skull, and a artist/educator who was getting children to join in making a model of Dippy's skeleton with glue, and black tissue paper, and toilet rolls and straws, and all the other good Blue Peter-style stuff. And the three of us settled in with the friendly artist man and had a lovely half hour of gluing and sticking and generally having a nice time.

Making a miniature Dippy

Extra Cheese 

As I believe I alluded to when describing the songs LittleBear was making up, Squidy came on holiday with us. Some of you may not remember quite how big Squidy is. He needed to wear a seatbelt to be safe while travelling...

Squidy's coming on holiday.

 But he did like being tucked up in bed

And yes, LittleBear did manage to fit into that bed with his squid. And a penguin. And a stingray. And a hammerhead shark.

But most of all, Squidy enjoyed pretending to be Meryl Streep, sitting at a table used in the filming of The French Lieutenant's Woman, where Meryl sat.

The French Lieutenant's Squid

* As some of you may have noticed, I am awesome at complaining in private, or in writing, but doing so in person is not my thing at all.

** The six-year old in question does receive a certain amount of help from his doting mother, but is developing into a keen Scrabble-player.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Road Trip to Lyme Regis (redux)

Last summer, LittleBear and I set out on a road trip to the Jurassic Coast. We went without BigBear, and (mostly) had a marvelous time. There were less than marvelous points, such as car-sickness, and attempting to share a bed with my son, but it was largely splendid. And while staying in Lyme Regis, we went on a guided fossil-hunting walk, which was an excellent way of taking the pressure off me to be good at finding fossils. However... the two delightful men running the fossil-hunt cheerfully told my son that the best time to find fossils is actually in winter, when the rougher seas, and worse weather, cause more erosion and more mudslides, revealing more fossils. Not to mention that there are fewer people visiting, so fewer people finding all the lovely fossils.

Which is why we're now in Lyme Regis in February.

I had intended to repeat last year's efforts and write a daily blog of the trip, but we're already on day three of the road trip, and I've only just found the energy to do so. The last two days we were staying with GrannyBear, which was a great relief. As I have recently mentioned, I've been a bit under the weather, and LittleBear has had The Eternal Cough. My patience has been wearing more than a trifle thin, such that I reached a new nadir of parenting shortly after midnight on Tuesday....

BigBear was still at home, and not due to join us for another day. LittleBear had gone to bed coughing. I had gone to bed at 10:15 and fallen asleep in around 17 seconds. An hour later, LittleBear's coughing started. So I trotted over to his room and rubbed his back and soothed him. Then at midnight a small figure appeared beside my bed to inform me that it was midnight and that he couldn't sleep because of his cough. So I invited him to join me, as it seemed the simplest solution. Then I remembered how much I hate sharing a bed with LittleBear. And then he needed his bedside light. Then his GroClock. Then his cuddlies. After I'd been back and forth several times, and found the cough medicine, I was even shorter on patience than I usually am in the wee small hours. Which is how I came to say, "If I'm horrible to you all day tomorrow, it will be your own fault for keeping me awake!"

Like I said - a parenting nadir.

I more or less redeemed myself by cuddling my moppet, and stroking his hair and soothing his worries about not sleeping, and about coughing, and soon we both drifted off to sleep. To my surprise, neither of us woke up again until shortly after 7 o'clock. Then my LittleBear read his book beside me in bed before trotting round to GrannyBear's room to check if she was awake and climbing into bed with her for a cuddle and a chat. The next thing I knew it was 9:30 and I stumbled, bleary-eyed, downstairs to find LittleBear and GrannyBear playing Scrabble together. I cannot begin to put into words how grateful, relieved and lucky I felt in having such an understanding mother, and such a biddable small boy, that they allowed me the extra sleep that I needed and happily got on with their day together.

Valentine's Day thus passed in a medley of games and food, with me in a considerably better mood than I'd managed for some time (and I apologised to my LittleBear for my poor behaviour in the night...) And finally, after many train-based-delays, BigBear arrived and we were ready to start the major part of our road trip the next morning.

This time, we were not travelling on a Bank Holiday, and I had not allowed LittleBear to over-fill himself with soft fruit, so we managed to arrive without a hint of vomit. LittleBear was (again) underwhelmed by Stonehenge, and (again) delighted with the place names. We were thrilled to rediscover West Camel, and to find its compatriot Queen Camel. In fact, we then spent several miles being regaled with a long list of potential camel-based place names. And then an even longer list of random-words-with-camel-appended, before parental patience wore thin and we called a halt to the recitation. LittleBear then returned to another current favourite - making up his own songs. Songs with catchy lyrics such as:

There's a mince pie in the sky


Blu-tack is small and round and furry like bolognese


Squidy's going on holiday
Squidy's going on holiday
Squidy's going on holiday
Oo! Sign to Lyme Regis!

Because, yes, we have brought a cuddly giant squid on holiday with us. I am more than a little bit relieved that our room is near the back of the hotel, and accessible via a door from the carpark and I was not forced to march down Broad Street and through the hotel carrying a giant, scarlet, cuddly squid.

So far, LittleBear has declared this to be the best hotel he's ever stayed in. Which he says about every hotel we ever stay in, but let's not quibble. It has a swimming pool and jacuzzi that LittleBear and I have made use of already, despite my having left my swimming costume at home. Because it's the kind of hotel where they expect you to be gormless and therefore have a stash of swimming costumes of various sizes to buy at reception.

So far, it's shaping up to be the best place I've stayed with LittleBear, if for no other reason than I am currently writing this while sat on a sofa, with a large glass of wine in front of me, in a properly lit room, safe in the knowledge that LittleBear is tucked up in bed about 6 metres away from me, and I have a baby monitor by my side so I know he's OK. This is a significant improvement on sitting hunched in a corner of a pitch black room, trying to type quietly.

And tomorrow we start hunting for fossils again.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Under the weather and over-reacting

Over the past couple of weeks, I've looked at my computer, or even got as far as looking at this blog, and then a wave of weariness and ennui has swept across me and I haven't written anything. I keep having "things" I want to write about, I keep writing "things" in my head. In fact, I keep ranting in my head about lots of different "things". But then, I just don't quite have the energy. And I go over what I've been thinking about and realise that it's all a bit of a storm in a teacup.

And now, the lack of sleep caused by LittleBear's night-time coughing, and nightmares, has caught up with me. And the vague feeling of being a bit under the weather has evolved into a full-blown cold. I now have a fever, and a headache, and my neck hurts, and I'm very bad-tempered. And I realise that perhaps some of the "things" that I've been ranting about in my head are not really worth ranting about. So it's probably a good thing that I didn't.

So instead of writing about all the things that have been getting me worked up, I'm going to try and take a step back. I'm not going to write to the school about The Thing that's really bugging me - I'm going to sit back and wait till I'm calm and see if I still think it's a problem; I won't be trying to "fix" things for my LittleBear that probably aren't really bothering him, but that I'm fretting about; I am going to stop pushing back against the colleague who is determined to undermine me and do the opposite of what I've planned - I've put everything in writing and passed it on to the MD; I'm going to stop contorting myself in the hope that people will like me and just be; I'm going to stop focussing on the hows and whys and whats of other people's behaviour - I cannot control what other people do, but I can try to always speak and act with integrity and honesty. If I don't receive the same in return, that is not a judgement on me.

Meanwhile the positives, rather than just the ambitions:

It's half-term, and I'm going fossil-hunting in Lyme Regis with both my bears in a few days time. (I'm not completely convinced how much fun BigBear and I are going to have in the cold and the wet, staring at rocks, but I think we'll enjoy LittleBear having fun.)

Yesterday I finally went to see my osteopath, after giving up on my GP, and he diagnosed a problem with my L3-L4 facet joint, and now for the first time in a year I don't have a line of pain and numbness running down my right leg. An absence of pain and discomfort is a wonderful way to improve my temper.

LittleBear has a party this afternoon, and it's a drop-off! In truth I may stay with him, and help my friend out with a village hall full of small monsters, but the idea that LittleBear is now a Big Enough Bear to go to parties and be left there is pretty damn exciting. Or it might reduce me to tears that my baby is growing up and doesn't need me. One or the other.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Welcome to your new Mass Spectrometer

I have been writing some new documentation recently at work, in an attempt to render the new instrument I've been working on usable by someone other than me. When I say "new" documentation, obviously what I mean is "cobbled together from things I've written before", because only an idiot would start from scratch if they didn't have to. Or so I thought. It's always worked before. But I was always in control of the documentation before. And last year, because I was over-worked, I lost control. I am no longer the sole author.

Imagine for a moment that you have bought yourself a lovely, new mass spectrometer. You are a young, keen, environmental scientist, looking forward to collecting data and identifying patterns in atmospheric pollution. English is probably not your first language. In fact, the roman alphabet may not even be the writing system of your native language. You're really hoping that the documentation that comes with your £150,000 instrument is going to be clear enough that you'll be able to start using your new toy almost straight away. You aren't an engineer or physicist. In fact, you don't really know how this particular technique works, but you do understand the data that comes out of it, and it's the data that you're interested in.

You've fully immersed yourself in this imaginary scenario haven't you? Good. Now you can open the user manual. What's this? There are four manuals? Why are there four manuals? What are they for? This one says it's a "Hardware Reference", and seems to be full of impenetrable jargon, so you put it to one side, as it clearly has nothing in it that will tell you how to use your new machine. "User Guide", that looks more promising. Except its introductory statement tells you that you need to read and understand the "Hardware Reference" first, and that you have to read the other two manuals. What are they? They both seem to be software manuals, how odd. One of them is the software for controlling the machine, and the other for collecting the data. Surely that's the same thing?

It's at this point that I'll let you in on a secret. For historical reasons, we have two utterly separate software suites, one that controls the machine's voltages, temperatures, pressures and flows; the other suite is all about data collection, processing and analysis. They're written in different programming languages.

But you, the naive, young, non-English environmental chemist, really don't care what language any of it was originally written in, and nor do you want to have to jump back and forth between different manuals as you try and work out how to get some data. Shaking your head at the crazy people who have written this documentation, you resign yourself to reading one of the software manuals, and since you need to try and turn the machine on, you start with the software guide for operating the machine. And you are confronted with this as the very first line in the user guide:
Now that the source and optics are almost completely computer controlled, many front panel controls have disappeared, to be replaced by controls in screen dialogs. These have been added to the existing monitoring program, which now takes on both tasks.  
I think you would be justified in being, as a bare minimum, bemused by this, and at worst perhaps panic-struck to hear that controls have been disappearing. I genuinely cannot imagine what was passing through my colleague's mind when he decided that this was a suitable introductory sentence for a user guide. It makes perfect sense to me, to remind me what's changed since the version of this machine we built a couple of years ago, but not to someone who neither knows, nor cares, about the design of an instrument they don't own and will never use.

Overcoming your concerns about the sanity of the author, and the wisdom of having bought some very expensive equipment from a company in the grip of utter lunacy, you plough on, hoping to understand what's going on. You soon find yourself reading how to use the control system...
Many of the adjustable parameters require a high dynamic range in adjustment, meaning that the range of adjustment is very large compared with the smallest adjustable increment. In systems with manual controls, these adjustments would often have been made with a 10 turn dial potentiometer. Unfortunately, there are no standard Windows controls that are suitable and convenient for the task, so it has been necessary to invent a new control.  
Because a user guide is always the place to justify the author's hatred of Microsoft. You, my poor, naive, enthusiastic chemist, don't care why the control system has been designed the way it has. You don't need to know the pain we suffered when using another manufacturer's appalling control system, designed to overcome this same problem. You only need to know that what you have is simple, robust, intuitive and clear. You only need to know that you can easily and comfortably adjust 3,500V by one volt at a time with mouse or keyboard without specialist knowledge or training, and without needing the eyes of a hawk and the dexterity of a concert pianist.

So, back to the "new" documentation I'm writing. Which is now destined to actually be new, because I cannot, in good conscience, and with any sense of professional pride, have those sentences, or many of their friends and relations, in my documentation. And I'm going to take the radical step of putting all the information about how to use the instrument into a User Guide, and all the other, detailed, technical stuff into a Service Manual. Which has taken what was a fairly sizeable job and turned it into a behemoth. And I have to try and get it done quickly enough that nobody will notice the complete restructuring that I am undertaking and tell me not to "waste" time on it. And I have to get it done well enough that everyone will agree that my way is the best way, and not defend the Four Manuals of Bewilderment. Sometimes I think taking a pride in my job will be the death of me.