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The magic bullet of health is exercise

August 27th, 2013

Featured in BBC2’s Dara O Briain’s Science Club on 22 August 2013. Dara was interviewing Professor Dame Sally Davies the UK Chief Medical Officer.

Dara: What are the major health challenges that we face?
Sally: Well, clearly there’s always what we call health protection. Infections, and we’ve talked already about antimicrobial resistance and that going to become worse. We’ve had a pandemic in 2009, we know there’s flu in China at the moment, we know there’s a novel coronavirus coming out of the Middle East. But as well as that, we have new epidemics and people talk about the non-communicable diseases but there are lifestyle ones. There are size, because we like food. It’s an abuse of alcohol particularly in our young and our young women and it’s a lack of exercise.
If there’s a magic bullet, it’s exercise.

Nepal Day 7 - Chitwan, Elephants

August 19th, 2013

Up at 6am for breakfast at 7. We were in Southern Nepal now so the temperature was a few degrees more, we were in the malarial zone and the humidity had increased. The hotel ran on its own generator for about 6 hours each day, usually during the evening. There had been no air-conditioning in our bedrooms so the night had been a little bit hot and sticky.

Buffalo sausages and toast for breakfast. We also listened to some of the other guests showing off the mosquito bites they got during the night. Jonathan and I had yet again escaped unharmed.

The first activity of the day was crocodile and bird spotting on the river. There was a mist on the early morning river which gave quite a calming feeling. The only noises were the natural sound of the river and odd splashes from boats and birds taking off. It was quite eerie. The river was very clear and reeds flowed by. You kind of wanted to put your hands in the water and feel its cold loveliness but I had to keep reminding myself that it was full of crocodiles and bugs designed to give me the trots!

The boats were made out of hollowed out trees and felt distinctly unstable. It didn’t help that there was a man standing on a little ledge at the back steering with a gondola style stick and a man standing on another edge in front of us describing what we were seeing. It took quite a while for us passengers to get used to riding in the boat. It was a little bit like riding pillion on a motorbike. You had to let the boat rock naturally which was very unnerving. There were quite a few fast deep intakes of breath as people thought the boat was going to tip over, but after about half an hour I think we’d all got the hang of it. This was lucky because that’s when we hit the rapids! I’m not talking New Zealand white water rapids but when you have 12 people sitting on a stick moving through crocodile infested waters then it was just as scary.

I caught a glimpse of a baby crocodile poking its head out of the water so the trip was a success. It was a lucky sighting as we had arrived at our stopping point at the edge of the jungle. We de-camped, added more sun-cream and deet and headed into the jungle in search of rhinos, tigers and other jungle beasties.

It was really hot, walking around the jungle for 2 hours especially as the only thing we saw were a few tiger tracks and a few bugs. At one point everyone had to go quiet as the ranger moved stealthily in for a closer look but it turned out to be another party who thought we were a tiger too! We walked all the way back to the place we had climbed into the boats.

The next activity was elephant bathing. We had to sign a disclaimer for this activity but Steve said it was fun. He’d done it and said it was great fun but couldn’t do it with us because it’s too dangerous. It took a while to work out what he meant: it’s ok to do it as a one-off but doing it each time would increase the risk. Everyone was a little bit apprehensive but Rob and I had seem some people doing it as we walked back through the jungle and thought it looked all right. We bravely stepped forwards as first to have a go. Or more, they asked who wanted a go and I foolishly jumped in and made Rob follow me!

I climbed on to the bare back of the elephant. It was a lot warmer and hairier than I had imagined. The elephant man stood on its back behind Rob and me and walked us all out into the river where it was a bit deeper. The elephant slowly bent its head down slurped a considerable volume of river water up its trunk, then raised its trunk up over its head and expelled all of it at a considerable force straight into my face. From that point I could not stop laughing. It was pure fun. After a couple of blasts I predicted when the next one was coming and at the last moment I bent forward over the elephant’s head, the jet of water completely missed me and hit Rob in the face. After the usual complaints about not being ready he was laughing uncontrollably too.

Babs popped her knee when she came down from the elephant and there were a couple of other minor injuries as people fell off the elephants but all-in-all it was well worth it. Left the elephant men with a little tip and went back to the hotel for a shower and lunch. Lunch was pretty nice, some kind of clear vegetable soup and a mixture of eastern and western food. Pabi was sitting on her own so I sat with her. I explained to her that leaving someone to eat on their own was considered rude, so we had a little food related-cultural exchange over lunch which was interesting.

No time to rest and we were back in the Jeep travelling to the Elephant Reserve. We spend the afternoon riding elephants through the jungle looking for tigers, rhino and deer. 4 people per elephant sitting in a metal poled box with our legs dangling over the edge. Once you got used to the walking motion of the elephant it was okay. Still didn’t see any tigers but we did get quite close to a rhino. The park ranger told us that rhinos were more dangerous than tigers so that made us feel better!

One thing that we all commented on was how rude we thought the Indian people were. They turned up tried to jump the queue and left a trail of litter behind them. It was clear that the park rangers had a lot of work to do and we could tell that they were very disappointed with the Indians casually discarding their litter into the river or where ever they were standing. There were litter bins all over the reserve but they just couldn’t be bothered to use them.

We had a free night and we had all thought that it was so nice sitting next to the river that we went back after dinner. I spend a bit more time chatting to Julian and played with the sunset settings on my camera.

Photos on my Facebook page.

Setting up a Raspberry Pi to run a Finch Robot

August 14th, 2013

Half the battle is getting the Raspberry Pi up and running with Java installed. Once you’ve done that, the rest is pretty simple.

  1. Firstly Install Rasbian wheezy on your Raspberry Pi.
  2. Then install Java 8.
  3. Create somewhere nice for us to work.

    mkdir /home/mrn/dev/finch
    cd /home/mrn/dev/finch

  4. For the latest version of the Finch development kit go to Search for BBTechSoftwareForPi and download it.


  5. They’ve done that thing where you don’t get a containing folder inside the zip, so we’ll have to make it.

    mkdir BBTechSoftwareForPi-9303915
    cd BBTechSoftwareForPi-9303915
    unzip ../

  6. Zips don’t hold unix permissions so we’ll have to add execute permissions to anything we want to run.

    chmod +x Configure

  7. We need to run this as root because it copies libraries into protected places.

    sudo ./Configure

  8. That’s kind of it. Make sure the Finch robot is connected.
  9. Enter the Java folder

    cd FinchJava

  10. Compile the sample program

    javac -classpath :finch.jar Code/simpleInput/

  11. And run it

    java -classpath :finch.jar Code/simpleInput/LEDSetter

Nepal Day 6 - Drive to Chitwan

August 12th, 2013

Up at 6.20am for breakfast and we were all packed and on the coach bound for Chitwan by 8am. As the crow flys Chitwan is about 100km from Kathmandu but the road is very narrow and cuts through the treacherous mountains. The drive was amazing. I passed more burnt-out wrecked cars that had fallen over the edge that I’d care to mention. The majority of the road was B-road standard (one carriage way in each direction, narrow in places).

At 11.30am we stop for lunch. This was our first meal outside the tourist-safe areas of Kathmandu. We were in the frontier now so Steve gave us a list of foods to avoid which turned into a short list of things we could eat. Basically anything pre-bottled like Coke and anything deep fried like chips, so chips and Coke it was!

After lunch we drove for about 10 minutes and stopped at a rope bridge style crossing. It was made of metal and was about 2 people wide spanning the 150 meter turquoise river. Took a few photos and got back on the bus for the quiz.

Steve is a legendary quiz master. Questions were clearly taken from a crumby “make your own quiz” book with the questions he thought were too hard replaced by James Bond questions. Quite a few of the questions were ambiguous like “Which is the biggest tea producing country? A) Sir Lanka B) India C) China". Well they are all tea producing countries so the question became which is the biggest country to which the answer is obviously China. Nik pointed this out and argued the toss, but Steve knocked a few points off him for cheekiness and said “Do you think you can do better?". Nik said “Yes” without even hesitating (see later).

I was writing this journal on my phone but due to an unfortunate USB disaster I had to switch to a pen and paper. The USB charger plug socket on the phone broke. So when the battery ran out of juice I couldn’t charge it up. Looking back, while this was a bit of a pain, being phoneless in another country, it did force me to not do any work. I had to enjoy my holiday instead of picking up emails and checking things, not easy when you run your own company. Pens and paper didn’t go very well with the extremely bumpy road but after a while I kind of got used to it.

We had left the Professor behind and along the way we picked up Losan who was to be our guide for the rest of the trip. He was a bonafide Buddhist monk with the maroon outfit and everything. Although he did wear Nike trainers and shorts underneath!

We arrived in Chitwan and checked in. The accommodation was a bit like a colonial hunting lodge. We had a quick de-camp then it was a jeep ride to the Chitwan National Park and the Elephant Breeding Centre. This is the only reserve that boasts twin junior elephants and a calve less than a few months old; he was still having trouble balancing.

It had been a really long day so after the reserve we went and sat by the river with a Gin & Tonic,.. and then a couple of beers. There was traditional dancing back at the hotel but I ended up talking quite late with Julian who had done a computer science and image processing degree. So we indulged our techie’ness and chatted away most of the evening. Got back for the final dance which was one of those “get the tourists involve” type-things. Lot’s of fun especially as my balance was a bit off!

Jonathan (my room mate for the trip) and I were paranoid about mosquitoes. Luckily we were both practical people and so instigated measures to protect ourselves. Before going to bed we’d make sure all the windows had mosquito nets that weren’t damaged. If they were we closed the window. We then did a thorough search of the bedroom and bathrooms and executed anything that had more legs than us. No one was going to sleep until we were happy we weren’t going to get eaten during the night. We had done this each night but I’m mentioning it here because we were now in the malarial zone and it some how seemed like we were doing it “for real".

Photos on my Facebook page.

Nepal Day 5 - Bhaktapur, House viewing, Brick making

July 26th, 2013

We were a bit late getting up and breakfast took an age to arrive but we eventually got out and met the rest of the group. Steve had a special day planned today.

We met with 4 local young adults. 1 boy aged 16 and 3 girls aged 20. Our whole group was split into 2 and we had Koral (the boy) and one of the young women to show us around. We walked through a maze of leaning back streets and tunnels for about 20 minutes until we arrived at Koral’s house. He showed us the well in his courtyard and then took us into his house. It was very humbling. His bedroom was not dissimilar to what you would expect for a 16 year old but more rustic. There was a bed with a TV opposite and 2 windows without glass. Although he lived with his aunt, parents and grandparents, he had his own cooking facilities which amounted to a gas canister and a 2 ringed stove.

His grandfather lived above him and cooked on a traditional fire because he couldn’t work the cooker. We shared a little joke about old people not being able to get in with the new technology!

Stopped for a drink to wait for the other group. I bought Koral and I a Lassi and he explained what the symbols on his currency were. When we’d regrouped and had a rest we all walked out of the city through the farmlands to the place where they make bricks.

The 2 brick makers were actually the parents of one of the young girls who was showing us around. They make 250rs/day and are expected to make 1000 bricks. During my up bringing I was taught how to make things from clay (and throw pots etc) so I had been watching them with interest while Steve was giving us the low down.

Steve asked for 5 volunteers so I and 4 others stepped forward. We were shown how to make a brick by the mother. During the day I had built up a rapport with the young lad, he was very interested in computers, so in order for there not to be any favouritism all 4 of the young adults were asked not to watch us make the bricks so that their judging would be fair. I went first and I effectively made my brick in about 30 seconds. It popped out and I was extremely pleased with it. The 4 bricks that followed were terrible and ranged from a slightly collapsed brick to what could only be described as a splat of clay. The kids were called in to judge, their deliberations took less than a second as they all pointed to my brick. Steve announced that I was brick champ and all the kids cheered and whooped. The person they had wanted to win, had won! My prize was a Nepal tourists t-shirt with Brick Champ 2070 embroidered on the front.

Nepal works on the lunisolar Hindu calendar so the current year in 2070 (at least it was on April 16th 2013).

After being named Brick Champion the mother brick maker told Steve that my brick was good enough to join her bricks and would be sent out with the rest to form a new building. I am the first Angel Holidays person to have a brick accepted. Props to me!

We header back through the farmlands towards the town. The kids showed us that we could eat some of the wild peas so we munched as we walked.

When we got back to the town we had a whip-round for the kids. The girls were at college and could use the extra money. We had a chat with Koral earlier in the day where we asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A Dealer", he replied which made us all laugh. We explained that if someone said they were a dealer in the UK it meant they were a drug dealer. The translation for what he actually wanted to say was “Salesman"!

Got back to town and Pabi showed us a good place to buy silver jewellery. I bought 3 sets of locally crafted silver ear rings at a very reasonable price; about a third of the price of what it would have been in England. Strangely the item’s price seemed totally dependant on the weight of the item and not how much time the craftsman had spent making it! The opposite of what it would have been in the UK!

The final souvenir was a Thanka from a traditional shop filled with master craft’s men who painted them on site. Steve knew a good one which he took me too called Master Pieces Thanks Treasure. After looking around I settled on a Kalachakra Mandala because I liked the concentric squares and circles and I thought the orange colour would look good in my new terracotta bedroom.

Did a bit of shopping for my trip to Chitwan showered and met 2 others for dinner. We ate in the same place as last night but this time I had Neapli Bati (non-vegetarian) which was lovely! Got back to the hotel for 9.30pm and had a night cap before hitting the sack.

Photos on my FaceBook page.