A Ball Of String

“Knowledge equals power, power equals energy, energy equals matter, and matter equals mass. And mass distorts space. It distorts a library into polyfractal L-space. So, while the Dewey system has its fine points, when you’re setting out to look something up in the multidimensional folds of L-space what you really need is a ball of string.”

Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

I have a ball of string. I have several of them. They’re not actually mine, in as much as I went to a shop, asked the nice assistant for a ball of string, took the ball of string from the nice assistant and handed over money in exchange for it. No, my dearly beloved wife did that at least twice to my certain knowledge because there is a ball of string on the bookcase in the hall and another in the conservatory and that dearly beloved wife of mine is no string thief. No, she would have paid for any string in the house.

It’s just about possible that Kick the Cat would have stolen the string and brought it back like she once did with a chicken carcass and a sausage still warm from someone else’s barbeque but she showed no real interest in balls of string when they weren’t being dangled in front of her. Then, she would playfully eviscerate anyone foolish enough to toy with her in such an obvious way and leave the string unravelled over their twitching corpse.

So this ball of string, what is it for and why am I writing about it when I really should be describing great deeds of heroic heroism at the county champs this afternoon? Really, it’s displacement activity. I had yet another DNF today. The calf injury which I picked up over Christmas and which has stopped me running since the Ely New Year’s Eve 10k last week had subsided to the point I could contemplate racing today. I thought that I would start gently, see how I felt at the end of the first lap and push on if I could. It turned out that I couldn’t even get to the end of the second lap and pulled out.

I shouldn’t have started, really. I was certain that I had entered via our C&C website but I didn’t feature on the list of runners which Ric circulated. He got me in when it really shouldn’t have been possible (for which many, many thanks) so I felt obliged to turn up and give it a go. I was right at the back of the field when I dropped out. There were maybe half a dozen runners behind me. That didn’t bother me in the slightest. Today was about getting round and having a play on the course while the the young, the beautiful and the speedy mixed it up at the front.

C&C runners took all three places in the Senior Men’s race. Well done to Jeppers, Sullivan and Chris for that. I was the last of the C&C team on the course at the point I stopped. The pain was too great and I didn’t think it was worth hobbling round for another half hour just to give Richard or Megan more work to do. My stupidity and ambition has already given them quite enough to do.

The ball of string also gives me licence to talk about the quotation from Guards! Guards! above. There is another one along the lines of a bookshop being a cultured black hole which has learned to read. Something like that, anyway.

Words are important. Pratchett knew that. We all know that. You don’t need to be one of the modern world’s wittier writers to know that words have power. What you say, when you say it, to whom you say it and how you say it are all really important. It’s probably the subject for another blog post because I’m thinking now about John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word… and no good will come of that in the context of a race report on a DNF and a really sore Achilles.

I want to talk about the power of words to help and heal and to pull down and destroy but that’s definitely a different post for another day. I’ve already touched on it several times in other posts here and on Farcebollocks. I think I’ll close for now because I’m eagerly anticipating whatever Anne is conjuring in the kitchen from the mince she’s defrosted. Mince is Scottish soul food. It has healing properties greater even than porridge. Neil and Katie will be pleased to hear that the #porridgereport is back on Twitter and who knows, there may even be a #mincereport on occasion too.

(For those unfamiliar with the #porridgereport, today it was blueberries, flaked almonds and maple syrup. Good creamy consistency. Satisfying quantity.)

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More Than One Way To…

I was going to say skin a cat but that’s a very unpleasant image. English idioms can be horrid at times.

For an avowed technophobe, I’m fond of the few toys I have and understand. I use my Garmin watch to record all my training and even my yoga practice, such as it is. I enjoy following science and engineering and probably know a surprising amount about current genetics, particle physics, medical science and chemistry for a retired art historian. I’m still quite shite at maths, though. Of course, I’m particularly interested in how research in physiology might be applied to sport. I really should do that sports science degree.

Anyway, I spotted a link on Twitter (thanks Kate Bevan) to an article on WIRED about something called a DNA boot camp. Spit in a cup, send off your gob to a testing service, wait for a bit then take the results with you to sunny Ibiza where kindly instructors and coaches will tailor a week of workouts and dietary advice to your genotype.

It might be that there is sound, peer-reviewed science underpinning this operation. I haven’t done enough reading of my own to be able to tell whether it’s bollocks. There is quite a lot of dietary advice in particular which is distinctly testicular. I never want to hear another mention of superfoods or the prophylactic effect of consuming chocolate, red wine, sprouts or anything else.

Everything We Eat Both Causes and Prevents Cancer

This article on vox.com is an interesting exploration of why medical studies in particular are problematic for the layperson to understand. We rely on our experts to sift and assess the morass of often conflicting results from single studies. Doctors and other scientists get training in epidemiology and  statistics to help them understand what makes a good study and a significant result and this is what the rational person relies on for advice.

A less rational person might follow what passes for health advice in newspaper or magazine where the time-pressed journalist has to go with information in press releases from university public relations departments and follow ups with whichever expert will return a phone call or email.

Some might even look at the table above and conclude that they should just give up eating altogether if they want to avoid cancer, or eat everything on the list three times a day to prevent it.

It’s worse again when someone is trying to sell something on the back of “science.” For obvious, male-gaze reasons, I tend to think of Jennifer Aniston and “Here comes the science” when someone tries to use flannel and hand-waving to flog a new thing.

Sorry about that. Dated, isn’t it?

Anyway, the science bit in this thing about DNA bootcamps is beyond my ability to assess, as I said. It might be that the dietary and exercise advice is sound but I would have to rely on Christof Schwiening or Andy Matson for advice on that. I will note however that the cost of a week at this DNA bootcamp is from a fulsome and effusive £2,295. That’s whole-hearted pricing in a time of austerity. It’s one more reason to be sceptical about the whole thing. Someone wants to make money from all this sciencing.

I have no problem with paying for expert advice and coaching. I do just that for my yoga classes and kettlebells when I have the time to go. I get a lot from both of them. I would love to go and do some warm weather triathlon training too and that isn’t exactly cheap but the coaching at the ones I’ve seen is excellent.

What worries me most about the DNA boot camp is that it doesn’t seem much fun. As we discussed earlier this week, in order for an exercise regime to stick it has to be fun and as it happens I have something to share which is just that.


Carrie Bedingfield set up Run For Your Life as a means to get people out running and having fun in a supportive, low-stress, joyful way. The group she established has been meeting on Monday evenings on Coleridge Road for some time now and is thriving. She wants to expand the programme to make it more widely available across the city and its environs. The idea is to make running less of a chore. It shouldn’t have to be hard work, pounding pavements on your own. So, Run For Your Life will have small groups of up to eight runners with an experienced run leader or coach along for advice and encouragement. You will have support whether you’re starting an exercise programme from scratch or returning to running after a break.

I think it’s a brilliant idea so I will be hosting one of the groups in Cherry Hinton on Thursday evenings. I have committed to four sessions to see what the response is like and if there is a demand then I’ll continue. It won’t cost anything. You won’t need to spit into a cup, change your diet, run all the time, or do anything other than turn up in high-viz and ideally say “Thank you” at the end of the session. Please tell your friends. Carrie would like to expand beyond Cambridge so contact her via the Run For Your Life website if you’d like to know more. She’s lovely.

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Access and Accessibility

The BBC published an article on its website this morning about class and access to funding for elite performance programmes in Scottish sport. It’s raised a number of issues for me about access to sport and sporting opportunities, what elite sport is for and why it’s important for the rest of us.

Scotland is facing huge public health issues. There are ongoing problems with alcohol and drugs, diet, and smoking. In some ways, participation in sport can be seen in a positive sense as a shortcut to improving public health outcomes for a wide range of the population. Less charitably, public support of elite sport is a sticking plaster over a gaping wound or a distraction from the real issues, the bread and circuses approach. That has been the criticism some people have expressed over hosting the Olympics or Commonwealth Games and it’s one I can just about understand but not one I agree with.

If you want to attract people into sport because it might improve their health, their relationships, their involvement in the community or even because they might have a good time running around the place and having some fun then you need ambassadors and advocates for it. That is why we need to spend public money on elite sport. Those athletes need to perform at the highest level to get the public exposure which in turn will feed into the public consciousness that maybe, just maybe it might be a good idea to be a bit more active.
It’s probably true that many athletes who receive public funding come from households where they have already had support from their families. Those families have spent money getting to clubs and coaches and training sessions and it’s not easy, even when clubs like the ones I belong to offer reduced fees and make as much of our programmes as possible free to enter. Even so, most sport other than football is seen as what rich people with time on their hands do. Until that changes, then so-called “middle-class” athletes will continue to benefit from whatever funding is available because they already have had support from their family network. It may be stereotyping but I don’t think that every family has the resources to give the financial support to young athletes before they enter performance programmes even if they had the inclination to do so.
Athletics is relatively accessible. All you need is a pair of shoes, some free time and a bit of guidance to get you going. Other sports are much worse off. Swimmers need to get to the pool, usually at hideous, hideous times in the morning when buses are few and far between if they run at all in rural areas. Cyclists need a bike, helmet, warm clothing for winter training, cool clothing for summer training, maybe a turbo or a set of rollers and somewhere to stash all that stuff when it’s not being used. Then there are the facilities like gyms for indoor training, pools, velodromes, ice rinks, tracks, playing fields and pitches all of which need to be built, maintained and paid for from a limited public purse or bought from private suppliers. Middle class families find the means to support their young athletes. Poorer families often just can’t.

We have a problem in widening participation and removing barriers from all sorts of areas in public life.

It’s not unique to sport. I have doubts about making universities more accessible but I accept that it’s generally a good thing that more people can now have the same opportunity I had to take some time to sit and think about the world and my place in it. I benefited from that so why deny the same opportunity to someone else?

What is unique to sport is the role that our elite athletes play in inspiring and motivating others to change or maybe even to excel themselves. There’s a telly programme exploring some of the issues tonight. It might be worth a watch. Links are available through the article I mentioned above.

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An Arbitrary Moment In Time

There is no real reason why we call the first day of January the first day of the New Year other than it has to be some day so it might as well be that one. January has been the first month of the year since Roman times and the first day of January has almost certainly been a source of angst and tension ever since then.

The first day of January follows fairly closely after the winter solstice which in turn is an obvious moment of renewal. Okay, it’s obvious if you happen to have a sodding great stone circle aligned just the right way. By the turn of the year, the increase in daylight hours should just about be becoming obvious.

For a time, 25th of March, Lady Day was the first day of the year. Lady Day is also known as the Feast of the Annunciation in more Catholic countries. Theologically, it makes sense to mark time from the moment of the Incarnation of Christ. It was the first day of the legal year in England for centuries, the day on which tenancies started. It’s still the start of the tax year if you take the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar into account which means that the 25th March is now 6th April.

I seem to have wandered off point again. I do have one and it’s this: the first day of the year is an arbitrary moment in time. It holds no special or magical significance. It’s no more meaningful than any other day of the year but it’s still the one that many people choose to Change Their Lives. There are countless articles in all the media about making changes to your lifestyle, your diet, your love life and many of them focus on this one day of the year.

The thing is, permanent change is hard. Stopping smoking is quite easy. The physical nicotine cravings only last two or three days and the rest is down to changing habits. That’s two or three months. Other lifestyle changes are similar. For people who are not lifetime athletes, think back to when you started running. You might have gone around the block twice a week with a longer jog at the weekend and it took some time for that to feel like a normal part of your life. Two or three months.

I suppose like everything, there has be a moment when you start and it might as well be this one as any other. As long as you know that the change isn’t instantaneous, that it’s a process and that it’s going to be a while before any change becomes the new normal then you’re going to be okay.

Oh, and Happy New Arbitrary Moment In Time.

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