Friday, 23 May 2014


Hmm, I may have just taken one pill too many of my thyroxine medication. One of those things you just do automatically. Silly me.

To deal with it right now, I’ve just drunk a lot of strong coffee (Taylor’s Allez! Allez!, cafetiere, and it’s good stuff!) because caffeine inhibits thyroxine absorption.

Ironically, the superficial hyperthyroid symptoms I’m trying to avoid are just the same as being excessively caffeinated. Hah hah! Or something.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Ye Olde Zeppo

The Zeppo is one of my favourite episodes of Buffy. (It doesn’t seem to feature in many top tens, but competition is stiff out of the 144 eps in all 7 seasons.)

The Zeppo pushes many underdog wish-fulfilment buttons. It’s a tightly written story that both pastiches the mainstream Buffy and remains true to its weekly saving-the-world format. The fact that it’s not the first choice amongst its stable mates–it is the Xander Harris of Buffy eps–makes it even more resonant.

My next one-off will be about a fantasy village of heroes called off to a war in a foreign land. Except, the players won’t be playing those heroes. They’ll be playing the people left behind. Children, the elderly or infirm, the village idiot, the coward who hid from the army recruiter… all of them strongly disadvantaged in some way that precludes a heroic role or any recognition for it.

Physical Infirmity

This is probably the easiest part to make happen. Children are short and weak, and the elderly are slow and often in pain. Simply shave off the hit points, strength and dexterity. More drastically shave off entire body parts from that farm machinery accident.

Mental Incapacity

I’m not sure I want to play this one. Mainly it’s because characters with severe mental impairments–to the point they can’t articulate ideas–will never be fun to play and worse, risk degenerating into caricature.

There are milder mental problems, of course. Making a character unable to communicate verbally is something I’ve done in the past, with success–all I needed was to give them an ally in the form of another PC.

Unisystem does have a whole list of “mental problems” which are designed to be playable and yet provide variety. Cowardice and Cruelty will probably work well, as will Paranoia.

Social Exclusion


p>This is probably the most important side. The characters have started up as socially excluded already, albeit mostly patronised rather than disadvantaged.

I’ve played games where children and adults mixed, and whilst the game was fantastic (based on Garth NixSabriel) the issues came when the plucky children, who should have been going off on adventures despite the long-suffering captain’s orders to stay together and wait for the army, were sidelined in their activities by that authority figure (who was much more interested in building camp defences than investigating the weird-fu nearby).

The experience here is that if I’m going to mix and match all ages then somehow I have to avoid division within the party on the basis of age. Some of the advice in Frax’s Group Generation article applies. However I expect to go through this exercise as GM rather than facilitating the player discussion (since this game is a one-off, there probably won’t be time).

The system I’m leaning to is Unisystem, mainly because it works in one-off games–but also because it clearly identifies strengths and weaknesses of this type while retaining a strongly gamist orientation. Furthermore it deliberately provides tiers of competence (Buffy’s White hats and Champions, AFMBE’s Norms and Survivors).

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Open Up

These days, I prefer a Mac to a PC, and I prefer to write in my office at home – with music if I’m inclined, with a cat if she’s inclined, and usually with a nice cup of tea.

I have fewer options at work unfortunately – there’s a kettle for tea and I have headphones. The key difference is at home, music is optional – at work, headphones are required.

For some time I’ve been struggling with the open plan office and its incumbent distractions. The number one problem is sound. No surprises there: we have a completely open layout with very low partions that provide almost zero sound barrier, and coupled with a low ambient noise this means voices carry loud and clear for long distances.

It’s very difficult to articulate why it’s a problem, when everyone around you seems to be coping. Except they’re not coping – I’ve had colleauges admit that they don’t do productive reading work in the office, and have to take reports home. That’s since been raised at my manager’s level – with the consensus that employees shouldn’t have to do that, and the company should provide an environment where quiet work is possible.

Aside from the fact that one of the worst culprits for loud conversations is one of those managers, I don’t expect anything useful to be done anyway. Asking people to shut up modifies behaviour for a few weeks – during which time the complainant is likely to be just as uncomfortable for creating a confrontational atmosphere. There is no money and no energy to redesign the office workspace.

Aside from unwelcome conversations, we have sudden loud noises like a weekly fire alarm test, and dryers in the toilets that can generate a sound pressure of 100 dBA. As Julian Treasure points out, a sudden loud noise is disruptive not only because it disrupts thought and speech, but it actually triggers hormonal release and causes stress.

The video is useful for explaining exactly why unwanted sound is disruptive. I used to listen to music to block out background noise, but I found that counterproductive (when I really have to think, such as when blogging, I prefer silence). Birdsong does indeed work better.

But now I mainly use simplynoise.comBrownian Noise even at low volume can mask speech enough to make it unintelligible, and thus much easier to tune out. Laughter and other loud voices still get through, but the impact is greatly reduced because I stop trying to process recognisable speech.1

As the issue of open plan is gaining visibility there are some designs that seek to increase the level of ambient noise through pink noise generation at workstations.

After noise the next offender is lack of privacy, and particularly the habit of others coming up to your desk to have a quick chat. Open plan is often cited as enabling teamwork, communication and creativity. The problem is creativity as part of an interacting team is not the same as individual creativity which is the prevalent mode of solitary working at a computer.

Of course, complaining about being interrupted will brand you as a misanthrope and not a team player. If you encounter this, you could throw it back – if they claim to be a team player then why not recognise other team member’s needs for privacy?

Last on the list of distractions is the computer screen itself. Being overloaded with email alerts, popups stealing focus, and a desktop or toolbar cluttered with colourful icons is distracting. But that’s all fixable. If I can shut Outlook down I will do so (not easy since it’s got my meeting alerts on it). Lync – which is always on in our intranet – can be set to do not disturb. Hide the taskbar and the desktop icons, and set the wallpaper to something non-threatening. And for writing I prefer to use markdown via Writemonkey (which can run as portable, so I don’t need admin rights) rather than MSWord.

It’s not perfect, and I’d rather not have to have a headset glued to my ears all day (though it does cut down on interruptions if everyone think’s your in a call). The choice then comes down to dealing with crass behaviour. I have to say, my patience is wearing thin.

I guess if I communicate my displeasure with a cricket bat I’ll be accused of not being a team player again. Sigh. At least I can avoid the noisy hand dryers in the toilets – there’s a perfectly good pot plant next to my desk.

[1] A case in point – speech in a foreign language doesn’t disturb me nearly as much. 


Saturday, 12 May 2012

Geometry and Lies

Is women-specific geometry on bikes an exercise in patronising female customers? As Lovely Bicycle points out, the market for “ladies’ bikes” tends towards the step-through frame – because the crinoline is such a mainstay of modern womens’ fashion. On the other hand, the woman’s bike features a longer head tube and other tweaks for a more upright position that’s better suited to female anatomy.

Taking the Lane refutes this idea of different body shape, saying that men and women’s proportions are the same, and the women-specific bike is a marketing tool.

I take all of this with a pinch of salt. I think generally bike geometry is poorly understood by customers and bike shops alike. Bike buyers are at the mercy of fashion, such as drop-barred bikes with very low bars, steep seat tubes and tiny clearances between tyre and brakes.

Recently we went shopping for a new bike for T (somewhat wary after the last experience). We looked at a number of bikes and frames. Some bike shops knew what they were talking about, others were full of shit. When I asked one chap if he had experience of bike fitting, he replied “I do it by eye”.

Well OK, he knows his business. But I question any mechanic who claims to work by “feel” instead of measurement (especially when a torque wrench is needed). No doubt the fellow has an idea of what a person on a bike should look like, but what’s important is how the cyclist feels.

I used the bike fitting tool on Competitive Cyclist, and with the absence of a proper bike fitter (really good website – especially the section on saddle fore-aft) I got three options for fitting a bike to my body that improved my comfort immensely. The position of the saddle and the length of the stem made a massive difference – changing those effectively brought my centre of gravity back, taking stress off my hands and wrists and relaxing my back.

BQGeometryTerms800 1

(rather lovely picture nicked from Bicycle Quarterly Press)

I’m not qualified to tell someone else what bike is right for them, but I can talk about what I have learned and what works for me. I currently have two more or less functional bikes (and a load of bits in the shed).  One is a Ridley Triton:


(Not my photo – nicked from the CycleChat site. Mine doesn’t have a rack and uses Campag gear)

The other is a Surly Cross Check:


The shop was fresh out of Beef Gravy Brown, so I got the Robin’s Egg Blue you can see on Lovely Bicycle (I fancy some of those Fat Franks too). Sometimes I look at that brown, though, and wonder what might have been. Sigh.

If I were to pick one it would be the Surly because that’s a more versatile bike, but I like them both a lot. But I bought both for specific uses. The Ridley is (more or less) an Audax bike, so it’s lovely and sporty but still not uncomfortable like a proper race bike, and it can do all-year duty thanks to mudguard clearance. The Surly is technically a Cyclocross bike, but actually it does a bit of everything – fast riding, touring, even off-road. These are my fifth and sixth frames I’ve owned since getting an interest in cycling as an adult.

So here’s what I considered when buying a new frame to fit me.

1. Effective Top Tube

Most bikes are sold on seat tube length, but it’s the effective top tube I go by (and it’s ETT because if the actual TT slopes, it will be longer than the ETT). ST length is measured differently by different manufacturers so it’s not reliable, and some manufacturers just use small/med/large. Get the ETT right for your body and the bike will generally fit, unless it or you are very weird. Mine is about 58 cm, which is the figure I took out of my bike fitting calculations.

2. Seat Tube Angle 

For my size the seat tube angle is 73 deg for something sporty. I bought the Surly because the ST angle is 72.5 deg – trust me, it makes a difference. The bike is a bit more relaxed as a result. You can compensate up to a point for a steep angle with a layback seat post, but generally seat posts with a lot of layback are hard to find (and can put stress on the frame, causing it to crack – especially if you’re heavy like me).

3. Head Tube Length

This will determine how high or low your bars go. With the Surly the fork is steel, so it’s not a problem having a lot of steerer tube sticking out of the top, but it’s a different story with alloy or (shudder) a carbon steerer. You do not want to sheer off your steerer tube while riding.


(Image from Bikeradar)

The fashion for road bikes is for short head tubes with very few spacers. This puts the bars stupidly low. I chose the Ridley partly because it’s got a long head tube that raises the bars. The majority of consumers will want a long head tube. Of course if you’re getting a custom frame then you can go with a threaded headset and quill stem that lets you raise and lower bar height as you wish – and looks prettier.

4. Clearance for mudguards, rack, fat tyres

Mudguards will affect your comfort on the bike, because they’ll stop you getting a wet bottom/feet from standing water.

Mudguard fitting will depend on whether the guards interfere with brakes. I have dual pivot caliper brakes on the Ridley which can take mudguards, but they’re a pain. If you really need mudguards, cantilever brakes may be a better choice because no part of the brake comes into contact with the guard – whereas dual pivots will end up touching and moving the guard every time you brake.


Cantilever – loads of clearance

Dual pivot

 Dual Pivot – will hit the mudguard as the brakes are applied

(Pics from Sheldon Brown and Ecovelo)

My first experience with cantilever brakes (Empella Frogglegs) was really bad and nearly put me off them for life – but with the Cross Check I’m running Shimano BR-550 cantis and they’re just as good as any other brakes. However I wouldn’t recommend cantis unless you are prepared to maintain them, because they’re harder to set up and sensitive to pad wear and cable stretch in ways that other brakes are more forgiving. Modern cantis are a lot easier though, and Sheldon Brown’s site is the place to go for learning about anything bike related.

Choosing cantilever brakes will give you clearance for fatter tyres which will improve comfort – although be wary here too, because some makes still make their clearances fairly tight even though they fit cantilever bosses (the Planet X Kaffenback and On-One Pompino, for example). Stay away from actual cyclocross sport frames.

If you don’t want the hassle of cantis you can use v-brakes, but these need special levers.

5. Headtube Angle, Wheel Size and Chainstay Length

These are less of a concern for me, but they could be very important for a smaller rider or a tall rider carrying luggage.

The headtube angle will be appropriate to the frame geometry – trust the manufacturer to get this right, because it affects bike handling. If you pick a bike with a reasonable seat tube angle the head tube should be OK. However if the HT angle is steep, your wheels are big and you are small, you could end up with toe overlap – the front wheel hits your toe when you turn sharply. This is a pain. The answer is going to smaller wheels and avoiding sport-geometry bikes.

Chainstay length is a problem at the back of the bike – if you want to carry luggage and have big feet, if the chainstays are too short you may hit the panniers with your heels every time your foot comes round. This is also a pain. Generally not a problem for shorter riders since while the other dimensions of the bike change with size, the chainstays tend to stay the same length (since the rear wheel stays the same length!).

6. Bottom Bracket Height

This basically determines how far you can lean your bike without hitting a pedal on the ground. I’ve never had this problem yet. The cross-check has a high BBH for off-roading and because it can be ridden as a fixed gear (you really don’t want to hit a pedal on the road on a fixie). For most people this is a non-issue, although lower BBH may help stability.

7. Material

Steel is springy. Carbon Fibre is laterally stiff and vertically compliant. Titanium deadens road buzz. Aluminium is harsh. There’s a tremendous amount of bollocks talked about frame materials.

All I can say is I chose a steel frame because it can take abuse and isn’t too expensive. The Ridley is (I think) 7075 aluminium and it’s stiff, but it’s not uncomfortable. Both are fine. The comfort on the bike has a lot more to do with saddle choice and geometry than what it’s made of. But I am a convert to steel from now on.

Other Things

Those are all things you cannot change about your bike frame – they need to be right first time. But there are a few other things that you can change after you buy your frame or bike that can improve your comfort.

  • Change the stem for a different reach
  • Adjust the setback of your saddle
  • Find a nice comfy saddle – the hipsters go mad for leather Brooks saddles, although allegedly the quality has gone down as the price has gone up. Brooks have short saddle rails that makes them hard to move forward and back, so I don’t recommend them (I needed a special seatpost to fit a Brooks to the cross check). There are alternatives.
  • Fit fat tyres
  • Try different handlebars. Not all drop bars are the same! My favourite are Nitto Noodle bars and Velo Orange Randonneur bars, because they give a very comfy area for the hand when riding on the tops. Also consider butterfly bars, porteur style bars and others as an alternative to the usual (and uncomfortable) flat bars.

Final Words


p>Trying to find T a bike that’s functional and pretty has been an exercise in frustration. Really she’d like a thin-tubed, lugged mixte (blame me for introducing her to Lovely Bicycle) but since Reynolds no longer make suitable tubing even for custom frames I don’t hold out much hope. Mixte frames are coming back into fashion, although the mass-market manufacturers have made theirs with ugly, thick tubing. And it’s not the salesperson’s fault that none of their stock is to her taste, although assuming that female cyclist = basket is obnoxious.

But back to the first paragraph – if “women-specific” geometry simply means longer head tubes and slacker seat tubes, that says more about how women value comfort than anything else. Then you’ve got to ask, why don’t men value comfort? Why do we persist with impractical, uncomfortable bikes with garish colour schemes? Why is the mass market convinced we all want to be Lance Armstrong?

Monday, 19 March 2012

Wheat from Chaff

This year is the tenth anniversary of me losing my hair.

It went like this: a coin-sized bald patch appeared on my scalp. I went to the doctor and he took some blood, and gave me steroid ointment which did nothing. More of my hair fell out and I started to feel pretty awful all the time with fatigue and ‘flu symptoms. Eventually when all of my hair had dropped out I went back to the doctor who said “we wrote to you, didn’t you get the letter?”

The tests had shown extremely high TSH levels in my blood – indicating an underactive thyroid. A massive dose of thyroxine and TSH levels went back to normal.

For a while I thought that was the end of it – it should have been the end of it.

A link between Alopecia and Thyroid disease is suspected, but isn’t fully understood.

Most doctors shrug their shoulders and mutter something about the relationship between different autoimmune diseases.

My hair hasn’t come back – it still grows, but it’s usually so brittle that the follicles snap off as soon as they get outside the skin, so I’m completely bald. (On the upside I shave about twice a year).

About a year ago my nails also began dropping out. That prompted more trips to specialists.

They spotted the horribly itchy rash I had. Since the hair, nail and skin clinic only opened once a month the repeat visits went over the course of 4 months, and on each visit I had to describe my symptoms again, strip and be prodded by a different doctor.

Unsurprisingly, that consultation ended shrug of the shoulders and muttering about it being all part of the same, nondescript autoimmune condition affecting my hair and nails.

The rash became unbearable, responding to changes in temperature, and could not be managed by emollient cream. So I started researching links between dermatitis and thyroid condition.

I found a couple of interesting things. Firstly, dermatitis herpeteformis can be linked to thyroid disease.

Secondly, DH is treated by a lifelong gluten-free diet.

Finally, there may be a gluten-thyroid link.

The dermatology clinic had tested for celiac disease – something that both worried and angered me. Was I going to need a gut biopsy? And if thyroid patients could be at risk from developing other autoimmune diseases, why hadn’t I been screened years ago?

The tests came back negative. But as Kresser mentions the celiac tests aren’t reliable. Furthermore, DH sufferers may present with less intestinal damage than celiacs, though I appear to have no real symptoms there anyway.

But a gluten free diet wasn’t going to kill me, and if it made a difference to my skin it would be worth it.

Gluten free – 1 week in

I’ve been off gluten for a week, and all I can say is I feel different. Most certainly better than I have been, though breaking it down isn’t easy.

I have to be careful that I’m not mistaking the sensation for something else. Last weekend I came back from a 2 week business trip in the US where I travelled through 11 states, so I have been under a fair amount of stress. There is a link between thyroid function and cortisol (and also insulin, which may explain my difficulty to lose weight despite an active lifestyle and calorie control).

But there are specific symptoms that have improved. My skin has cleared up a lot. My digestion has changed, mostly improved. But the two I notice the most are that the insomnia has suddenly gone, and that I am pain free.

Being pain free is a weird sensation, but I know what it feels like because I felt it the first day I took thyroxine. The pain was such a low level I could never describe it as a symptom to the doctor. It’s sort of like recognising an absence of car noise in the country.

The insomnia was something I thought unrelated – just due to over-indulging in booze. But there are other factors that present, like not regularly getting up for a pee, and losing the acid reflux. But insomnia is supposedly a symptom of over-active thyroid.

And according to science I shouldn’t be feeling these changes in one week. Antibodies can persist in the body for up to six months, giving rise to the processes that lead to symptoms. But ten years ago my doctor told me that it might take a few weeks for me to feel different on thyroxine – and that was instantaneous.

When I was in the states I dropped in on friends in Baltimore. I slept on their sofa bed which was a good deal less comfy than the hotels I’d stayed in previously, but I slept the best I had all week. They eat gluten free, so I ate gluten free. Was my better quality sleep influenced by that, or was it just because I’d managed to unwind after a week of travel?

I want to be charitable to my doctors. The GPs I can sort of forgive – their job is to spot something they can’t explain immediately and send the patient off to a specialist. But I know enough of experimental method that most of the doctors I have seen lack rigour. The stock response is to wait and see, and come back if it gets worse. Which is fine if the patient is self-aware to realise that their symptoms aren’t getting better, or if they have clear indicators (such as the level 2 rupture in my calf muscle that the doctor said was probably just a strain, and would get better in a week – that took 4 months to heal). You feel a fool going back to the doctor repeatedly for nondescript symptoms.

I’ve also been arrogantly told that my metabolism has no part to play in my being overweight, since my TSH levels are normal. I should be able to shift my fat, and therefore I’m probably lying about my calorie intake or the amount of exercise I do. Never mind the food diary, the 100 miles of riding per week and the failure to shift more than a kilo over two months.

If celiac disease is a potential feature in thyroid patients, why was I not screened in 2002? And if Dermatitis Herpeteformis is symptom of gluten intolerance, why wasn’t I biopsied?

So much of my treatment has been focused on managing the condition rather than treating the root cause, like anti-fungal shampoo where no evidence of fungal infection presented.

I don’t think I will ever get a definitive root cause to my condition, and if gluten is the cause then I’d have to start eating it again to provoke the symptoms so they can be observed. I’ll settle for feeling better than I have in years.