Sunday, 23 March 2008

Confused of Why?

It is Easter in the House of Why?. Bearing in mind we have no practicing Christians in the immediate family, The Why? Family Easter takes the form of a good excuse to get together, eat nice chocolate, and have another Christmas dinner.

(We have an excellent understanding of religious festivals here. It just about trumps that of my (Jewish) aunt who used to work in a (completely un-Kosher) bacon factory, and who sends me an annual (non-ironic) Easter card...)

There are just two Why?s at the family home this Easter, myself and my mother (Dr Why? the Elder). Mr Why? Senior is recuperating in hospital from his latest foray into extreme orthopedic remodelling, and Mr Why? Junior is heading back from Take Two of his belated honeymoon. This had led to some scurrilous talk that the traditional 16 pound turkey would be replaced by something more befitting the size of the dinner party. Thankfully, sanity broke out and the turkey my mother and I will later sit down to is a compromise, sized to satisfy 8-10 people, or alternatively, one rower and her turkey-loving mother.

With snow settled on the ground outside, the scent of cooking turkey and last night's log fire lingering festively in the air, and red wine and crisps/nuts/chocolates being the current consumables of choice, it feels remarkably like the Christmas and New Year break. Couple that with the fact I'm on holiday next week (I'd taken the week off to be around when Mr Why? Senior was recuperating), and all the circumstances are conspiring to make me expect a review of the year to crop up on a 24 hr news channel at any moment, and Santa to drop down the chimney to dispense a sackful of chocolate eggs. Unfortunately his reindeer can't make it as they've been pressed into service on Blackpool beach after the donkeys exercised their rights under the Blackpool donkey labour laws and refused to work in the snow.

It appears the festive confusion has spread further. In other news, shortly after he was spotted leading a sleigh loaded with chocolate eggs and an obese Coca-cola employee across the night skies of the world, the Easter Bunny has reputedly been seen checking the terms of his contract and buying a donkey costume from a Lancashire fancy dress shop.

Monday, 17 March 2008


Training camp runs from Wednesday to Saturday. I will be taking:

3 lycra unisuits;
2 pairs leggings;
1 pair shorts;
10 tech tops;
2 lightweight running tops;
1 running vest designed to accommodate heart rate monitor;
1 splashtop;
2 caps;
12 pairs sports socks;
1 pair wellies;
1 pair indoor trainers;
1 pair running trainers;
2 water bottles;
Contact lenses;
Heart rate monitor;
Surgical spirits (for palms);
Moisturiser (for backs of hands/face/other exposed flesh);
Wash kit;
Phone charger;
Camera (for pictures of crew, caravan and callouses/blisters);
Charging cradle;
Spare memory cards;
Some snacks for between sessions and between meals:

  • 6 maltloaves;
  • 6 apples;
  • 7 bananas;
  • 6 pears;
  • 3 boxes cereal bars;

2 bottles squash;
12 sachets potassium chloride (lo-)salt;
12 sachets sodium chloride (table) salt;
1 kg bag of sugar;
Clothes for lounging around and recovering in;
One set of 'real' clothes (on the off-chance we summon up the energy to go out);
A couple of books for the evenings.

Last minute additions 19/3/8 06:15:
One tube of Deep Heat;
An ice pack;
A hot water bottle.

It's not my usual holiday packing...

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Phone - a friend...

I was back in the Guildford office last week to do a few interviews and catch up with some administration, or more accurately, to do all of the things which my contract or professional etiquette prevent me from doing from my customers' offices.

I had a couple of phone interviews lined up. I don't particularly enjoy phone interviews, firstly because it's much more difficult to get a candidate to relax and open up than in a face-to-face situation, and secondly, when we come across good candidates, I'm into selling mode. For the record, if I had to make my living from telesales, I am convinced I would starve.

Last week, the phone became my friend. It saved my credibility.

Whenever I'm interviewing a candidate who has done some technical research, I ask them to explain to me what they've done, pitched at the level of an intelligent but non-technical lay-person. (Two reasons - firstly, we need people who can explain the complex and the technical to non-teccy customers, and secondly, pitched at that level, I can usually understand enough to be able to ask reasonable questions (or so I hope).) It's a particularly harsh exercise to do well over the phone, as it's usually the case that a quick sketch will aid the understanding no end. So when my name cropped up as the interviewer for a gentleman who is just finishing a mathematical PhD, my heart sank a bit. I have had bad experiences of listening to seemingly endless, non-contextualised formulae over the phone. Having looked over this chap's PhD, though, my mood lifted.

So, I'm on the phone to the candidate. At some point after I'd run through the admin and a bit of spiel on the company, I launched myself at the CV.

"I'd like to move onto discussing your experience - I see from your CV that you've spent the last four years of your life studying the way sperm swim. Perhaps you could explain to me why the prospect of spending four years studying semen appealed to you, what you've actually done during your research, what conclusions you've been able to reach, and what the motivation of the research was?"

It's not a question I've had the opportunity to ask before...

The candidate launched into a what seemed a well-practiced and humorous routine on the hows and whys of a PhD in modelling the swimming strokes of sperm. Evidently, this wasn't the first time he has been asked those questions, and at times, I felt like I was at a comedy gig - if only more phone interviews could be so funny...

Twenty minutes, much smirking, trying not to laugh, emergency covering of the mouthpiece, and the most engaging and enlightening conversation on the subject of semen I have ever been a party to later, my credibility as an interviewer remained more or less intact, and I was thoroughly impressed with the candidate. Anyone who can explain the effects of fluid viscosity on flagella beat patterns over the phone whilst making four years of life studying sperm seem like time well-spent is someone I want on my team. As an added bonus, he'd also remembered (or had noted down) what my original questions were and answered all of them. That's attention to detail and getting things right - all good signs. He's been invited back for a face-to-face grilling with a colleague.

I hope I'm in the office that day - I'm rather looking forward to watching one of my colleagues try to keep a straight face when they interview this chap in person.

Sunday, 2 March 2008


In yesterday's rowing time trial on the River Thames, 237 women's eights (rowing boats) competed in The Womens' Eights Head of the River Race (WEHoRR) from Mortlake to Putney Bridge, a distance of 4 1/4 miles. Our boat finished 102 places higher than it did last year. Winter training has evidently been paying off.

(pictures courtesy of RachelC)

Lining up for the start

Lining up isn't as easy as it sounds - the river is flowing quickly, with the current pushing the boat into the banks. All the while, coxes are trying to keep their boats away from the banks, and away from the boats ahead and behind them, whilst not being able to see straight ahead with their view blocked by their crew. This led to a number of coxes finding themselves with no alternative but to disembark (illegally) to prevent their expensive boats (~£15k when new) from running aground. Our cox tried this and misjudged the depth of the water. He spent the next half an hour with bits of river sloshing around in his wellies.

The first hundred boats line up before the start line, fifty on either side of the river, and spin into the stream when told to do so by a marshall. They set off in order, speeding up under Chiswick bridge such that when they reach the start, they are already at their race pace. Once one set of fifty eights has gone, the next fifty eights on that side paddle down to the start and so on. Once all the boats have got themselves into order, it's fairly straightforward. It's getting 237 boats into numerical order in a fast-flowing stream which is the hard and chaotic part.

Moving out to overtake a slower crew

In head races (time trials), there is always the prospect of overtaking. Whilst motivating for the faster crew, it can also be a detraction, having to move out of the fastest water to get past the crew ahead, who have no obligation to let you pass. It is fantastically motivating to move past other crews early on in the race, and I'd much rather pass crews than have no opposition to push off from during the course, but having to overtake many boats is not the most efficient method of getting from the start to the finish.

Nurture the pain...

My ability to sense of the passage of time disappears completely during races. Once in a race, it is as if there is only a single moment, the cycle of a stroke, which is endlessly repeated, the start being an incomprehensibly long time ago and the promise of the end being an agonisingly incomprehensible long time into the future.

We overtook five crews on the way down to Putney. Our first victims tried to steer into us at one point (this is not very sporting and nor is it very bright). Fortunately our cox had words with his counterpart, and they moved across with roasting ears. The second crew we overtook seemed to be having steering issues, too, but these seemed beyond their control. Judging by the way they were apparently moving at random around the river (including clashing blades with us a couple of times) they'd probably lost their rudder and weren't able to steer.

Our crew were collectively a little wound up by this point, having lost valuable seconds through being impeded. It was therefore a welcome sight to pass under Hammersmith Bridge, a noteworthy landmark in any case, and to read the banner that one spectator had unfurled which declared "Pain is weakness leaving the body". It re-focused my mind wonderfully on what I was supposed to be doing. Judging by the way the boatspeed had picked up, the rest of the crew had read it too.

The next two crews in our sights were better mannered, and moved out to let us through. One of them must be heartily sick of the sight of us by now, as we have roundly beaten them in every race we've rowed this season. They're getting better, though, sufficiently so that we might have our work cut out over summer to keep them in our wake.

Coming up to the finish, we had a sixth potential scalp, overlapping them coming down the finish. They evidently hadn't been working hard enough out on the rest of the course, as they had plenty left in the tank to hold us off until the finish. Drat...

It is a very peculiar pleasure to get to the end of a hard race, with nothing left to give from your pain-racked sleep-deprived body, certain that it has been worthwhile because you have beaten some other people who were similarly inclined to race. Agony and ecstasy reside together on the winner's side of the rower's coin, an exquisite confirmation of the dominance of the will over the body. The flip side of the coin is agony and disappointment, performing poorly and knowing more could have been given, a pain which doesn't dissipate after the finish line has been crossed.