Monday 27 February 2017

mixed messages

We finally moved into our old granite farm-house 20 years ago this Patrick's Day. It was modest in size, at 95 sq.m split onto two floors. The walls were 500mm thick which meant a lot of thermal inertia and we had two small children at foot. Accordingly we became the first people in Co Carlow to install under-floor heating. That way, the kids could lie about on the floor without getting arthritis and the walls would heat up to a bit above ambient Winter temperatures. Oil was cheap and global warming not yet a source of guilt and worry. The system installed was a landscape of rubberised water pipes snaking all over the ground-floor over a polystyrene subfloor and under a concrete slab with earthenware tile for a finish. These pipes met under the stairs at a distribution manifold that was connected by a large pipe to the oil burner in one of the sheds. We were the last people in Ireland to use that system of rubberised pipes and that diameter manifold because engineers were realising that the life-time of the material was too short. Indeed, our manifold failed after about 12 years but was held together with cable ties and duct-tape to give another 5 years of slightly drippy service.

Two Winter's ago, I came home to a big puddle spreading out from under the manifold and that was the end of our underfloor heating. Luckily, by that time we'd raised the girls and they no longer needed to lie on the kitchen floor reading books and eating cup-cakes [which pretty much sums up their home-education curriculum]. The original parts were unobtainable and we baulked at ripping up the floor and starting again and we had a great wood-burning stove in the living room, so nobody stalks around in their undies during the Winter months. Without wishing to make too much of a virtue out of the merely familiar, I don't miss the under-floor and we're saving a mort of money on oil which is no longer cheap like it was in 1996. Nevertheless I need my hands to be warm enough to type or No Blob. Cooking is fine and there are radiators in the bedrooms upstairs as well as hot running water for a Saturday bath. A small electric fan heater works well in the kitchen so we can eat food without the fork slipping from our frozen claws.

I've taken to making a hot-water bottle and stuffing it up my jumper if I'm sitting downstairs before the fire gets up to temperature. That will last 3-4 hours in the evening and still take the icy chill off the bed come lights-out. The other day, however, I was doing some research on dams and floods [currently] and found myself watching with a sort of horrified compulsion a flash flood coursing across a US interstate highway in some South-Western desert. A couple of huge 18-wheelers, operating on a time-is-money protocol, nudged their way through the stopped cars, revved up, then drove through the flood and away. Another chap impatient waited a minute and then started off in the same direction. As his front wheels got to deeper water they lifted off and the car started slewing towards the road margin which fell away in a boiling torrent across the desert. He stopped, the car paused and the camera operator urged him to "back up dude, that's not sensible" . . . the hazard lights came on but there was no more movement and eventually the tide seemed to ebb a bit. Suddenly I felt sick. I got up, threw away the hot-water bottle had a small drink of cold water and went and stood outside in the cold darkness for a few minutes.  That put a stop to the barf's gallop but I wasn't sure if it might be driven by some dodgy pork mince (Aldi special at €2/500g) and would return with a vengeance later that night. A while later I took myself off to bed - gratifyingly 'fresh' - and woke the next morning right-as-rain.

Here's what I think happened: luckily I have taken my own course in Human Physiology so I know a thing or two about how the body maintains its equilibria. In my lectures on the nervous system, I spend a lot of time on the two divisions of the autonomic nervous system ANS . . . because every year I set an exam question similar to "Compare and contrast the sympathetic and para-sympathetic divisions of the ANS with respect to their neurotransmitters; sites of ganglia; length and branch pattern of the post ganglionic neurons and connexions with the central nervous system". That is fishing for a response about how the sympathetic division is for fright, flight and fight responses mediated by adrenalin and the para-sympathetic uses acetyl-choline for rest & digest to recuperate and replenish after the drain on resources induced by a flood of adrenalin. Adrenalin primes all sorts of systems to get ready for some running, jumping or punching:
  • glucose is mobilised into the circulation
  • your bronchi expand to max up the oxygen intake
  • heart rate goes up to shunt these energy sources to their destination
  • muscles tense or flex
  • pupils dilate to get maximal information
  • you stop peeing to conserve water for sweating
    • you start sweating
  • blood is diverted from the guts
    • there's time to finish the meal if you survive
Parasypathetic reverses pretty much all of these, especially the last, so that you can win some calories back for the next crisis. My bout of nausea came about because the hot-water bottle was causing a lot of intestinal warming and circulation [parasympathetic] but the youtube video was cranking me into a state of anxiety [sympathetic] and the conflict in my ANS was saying "something is not right, I think I'll jettison the last thing I ate just in case".

Now here's another conflict of interest scenario. One of the things you do on a date is take your potential squeeze out for a meal. A large part of that should be rest and digest which kicks in the parasympathetic system and that contracts the pupils in the eyes . . . but you both need your pupils open because that indicates 'interest'.  It's one of the subliminal checks you do as your eyes flick over your partner's face. One cheap and cheerful way to resolve this is to eat in such poor light that your pupils are wide open trying to locate your wine-glass - hence the popularity of candle-lit dinners. If you were a young wan in the court of Louis XIII you might have achieved a similar advantageous effect with Prince Charmant by consuming a smidgeon of deadly-nightshade before the ball. Indeed the Latin name for this member of the tomato/potato/aubergine family Atropa belladonna [ie beautiful lady] makes this use clear. The active chemical atropine is an antagonist of the action acetyl-choline the parasympathetic neurotransmitter and so prevents the muscles of the pupils from contracting. But, it's the parasympathetic system and the effects of oral atropine are systemic and two smidgeons of the stuff can be fatal, whence the common names deadly nightshade or in French cerise de diable.

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