Thursday, 30 September 2010

My First Eulogy

Remember me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land;

When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day

You tell me of our future that you plann'd:

Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while

And afterwards remember, do not grieve:

For if the darkness and corruption leave

A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile

Than that you should remember and be sad.

“Remember” by Christina Rossetti

Possibly coming from the legend that Baldwin III, Count of Ypres, threw some cats from a tower in AD962, their ability to fall from heights uninjured or associations with the cat-headed goddess of Egypt (Pasht or Bastet), the saying cats have nine lives is well known but sadly throughout my life has repeatedly been proven to be incorrect. Sure I have had several suicidal cats who seemed to like trying to dodge traffic or kept well away from the road until one sad day “curiosity [quite literally] killed the cat” but this week we lost another faithful friend who lived a very careful life.

Jenny had several homes. My mum first met her in an old people's home she used to work at. Jenny was then taken on by one of the ladies who worked there until her unfortunate death. A cat lover through and through, my mother took pity on Jenny and brought her home. For years I never thought much of her but as she grew in confidence she became quite the character – an unrelenting yowler, fine “lap cat” and strong lady who could hold her own. Constantly bullied by our two arrogant rather attractive male cats, she learnt to bat as well as she got and even managed to steal food from the boys. Suffering from thyroid problems, Jenny grew terribly thin and bony but always purred and had something to say. She spent most of her time sitting in the AGA cooker, on the DVD player or trying to steal the warmth from laptops and barely left the house, very occasionally stretching her legs outside the door for five minutes. Although recently, she'd become an extremely sociable “lap cat”, spending much of her time wherever anyone else sat.

About a month ago, we noticed a lump on Jenny's throat and after a visit to the vets our fears were confirmed. Jenny had cancer. It seems we have recently been rather unlucky with cats – we had one who contracted tuberculosis and currently have two with their own ailments – one suffered from some kind of appalling dermatitis causing him to rip away his fur and the other has finally recently been diagnosed with asthma having spent at least a year making strange noises you'd expect to hear from a guinea pig, duck or snake.

Jenny rapidly deteriorated in just under two weeks. The last time I saw her she was still animated - yowling and purring and I heard her more recently chatting away over the phone. Gravitating towards Dad, perhaps understanding the similar pain of his ailment, Jenny happily spent her last weeks. Sadly on Monday after obvious pain and apparently embarrassed by her ailment, Jenny departed. The world ration of births to deaths is stated on one website as five births to two deaths and elsewhere as 2.452:1 (worked out by using the global death rate: 8.23 deaths per 1000 population) and events this week are suggesting these dubious stats could actually be a true reflection of the world's life cycle: as one well-missed cat departs this earth, two friends have announced the end of life as they know it through the imminent births of “mini-thems”.

Farewell Jenny. It's quiet without you.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Old Age: A Hairy Experience

When I'm in London, I have often walked past an elderly gentleman who must live nearby. Every time I pass him, I have been drawn to his eyes, fascinated by the sheer size of his eyebrows, unable to comprehend how someone can live with such irritatingly obscured vision. I mean these things are huge!

I know as a lady eyebrow plucking is socially acceptable and virtually expected and guys generally don't get the tweezers out but surely when seeing becomes a challenge, it's OK to bend the rules a little? I can only try to imagine how annoying having long curly wispy hairs permanently in sight must be – I sure as hell get annoyed when my rogue side fringe starts growing out. With the birth of the "metrosexual" male, it must be more common for younger guys to sneakily remove the odd hair, right?

Going bald and/or receding seems to be the universal male fear but unruly eyebrows never get a mention. Last weekend, celebrating an old codger's Birthday in a Leeds restaurant the topic of hair came up and I couldn't help but smirk, remembering an earlier hair removal session. Standing in the lift to the flat, I caught sight of two "mutant" insanely long eyebrows curling up and out of The Boy's beanie neatly distributed one per eyebrow. Sitting around the restaurant table chomping on Indian, similar confessions of recent disturbing discoveries started to come out.

I began to wonder whether there was any truth in the whole common belief that hair grows after a person dies and if so, whether greater nose hair, eyebrow and ear hair growth with age is somehow gently preparing us for death. A whole array of sites tell me the whole hair growth after death phenomenon is a myth and the more credible New Scientist confirm this – the hair and nails merely appear to grow as a result of the surrounding tissue drying out and shrinking away from the nail folds and hair shafts. So as the body gradually caves in the hair and nails appear more prominent.

Unfortunately the growth with age of eyebrows, nose hair and ear hair is no natural illusion. Unlike men, ladies are less likely to suddenly develop wild bushy eyebrows and are actually more likely to experience thinning or bald patches due to many years of extensive plucking. Those who notice eyebrows disappearing, may also suffer from general hair loss due to hormonal or thyroid activity changes or vitamin/mineral deficiencies. The so-called “sex steroid hormones”, principally oestrogen and androgen, are supposedly responsible for the thinning of hair and appearance of unwanted excess hair. The old skool method of re-drawing in arches with an eyebrow pencil, is now often overlooked for more realistic and expensive remedies like the recently popular eyebrow transplant procedures.

With age, men are often left with the opposite problem – their hormone levels also change and consistent or increasing levels of testosterone (up to the age of 70), can result in vigorous hair growth, especially in areas that flourished less in youth. Yep those pesky ear hairs, nasal whiskers and eyebrows! Trips to a a clinic for professional trimming and shaping, purchasing electrical hair trimmers, or perhaps the privacy of tweezers behind closed doors all suddenly sound more appealing.

The nose and ears have actually got thousands of hairs already on and inside them too small for the eye to see. After all, apparently the hairiest part of the body in terms of density of hairs per unit area is the tip of the nose and how many people complain of wolf nose? Although, I did use to work with a man many years ago who suffered from exactly that ailment. Some nasal hair is preferable to none to protect against allergies and particles in the air being inhaled, just like some eyebrow hair is useful to soak up sweat and protect the eyes. But when you have a brow streaked vision of the world things have surely gone too far?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

My Future In 3D

Back in April, I made a discovery that was both relieving and slightly devastating (especially as a huge film fan). After seeing Clash of The Titans and carrying out a bit of research I confirmed a suspicion – I can't see 3D. I have had a “lazy eye” or amblyopia for as long as I can remember, being told to wear a patch as an exceedingly reluctant child. I've never been able to see Magic Eye images and wondered whether there was a link between this and my inability to understand the 3D hype.

A spot of googling and my hypothesis proves to be correct. To be able to see 3D, you need to have normal depth perception, “stereo-vision”. Stereo-vision is the ability for both eyes to work together simultaneously as a team. Twelve percent of the population have some kind of problem with binocular vision and less than five percent have severe visual disabilities. With my bone-idle eye, I fall into the five percent stat.

Making this discovery meant I could at least stop concentrating extremely hard to spot the difference in picture quality and just enjoy the film but brought up another fear. As old films are being hashed up and resold in 3D, sky launches a 3D channel and early 3D televisions are on sale, the craze is spreading and I'm fearful for my future. I envisage a world in which I'm surrounded by gasping folk making firework appreciation noises in front of a TV that holds hidden mysteries. A world in which to watch anything I have to re-embrace that unfortunate 80s' flip sunglasses trend and still don't get the benefit - when I put 3D glasses on what was once a blurred image, merely becomes as clear as a regular 2D picture. And my greatest fear of all? A world where 3D glasses become obsolete and us five-percenters are overlooked, left to watch head-ache inducing mish-mashed images.

A recent TV shopping outing to DirectTVs' showroom near Huddersfield finally allayed all these long-held and ever-growing fears. When finally picking up our first flat-screen dwarfed by a giant 3D Samsung TV, I was unable to hold back my bitter 3D rant. Specked up like me, the staff behind the counter quickly asked me why I was unable to see 3D. After listening to my explanation, they took much delight in explaining that 3D TVs use a different more advanced kind of technology to that used in cinemas.

3D programmes are filmed using two separate cameras which are next to each other, producing images from two slightly different angles. These images are then broadcast simultaneously and given depth using 3D glasses. 3D TVs differ to 3D cinema technology in that the glasses that accompany them do the work for your eyes. When viewers put glasses on and look at the TV, the technology in the glasses blocks the left lens and then the right - this happens faster than the blink of an eye. The images are then shown to each eye separately, creating a "staggered" effect that achieves far more lifelike 3D images. So for people whose eyes don't naturally work together, with these special control-taking glasses, 3D is finally a possibility.

Wearing Samsung's new battery powered “3D Active Glasses”, I was at first sceptical, unsure of what to look out for but when the champions of 3D behind the counter flicked to a particular scene, there was no doubting that I could finally see 3D. Watching one of Pixar's many animated movies, a red ball suddenly flew out of the TV. 3D Television is supposedly best utilised with camera shots that are lingering rather than frantic but for the sceptical and those experiencing 3D viewing for the first time, it's the sudden movements and action sequences that are most impressive and memorable.

Finally some insight into how 3D actually looks and I am no longer so fearful for my future. As I have only just become a flat-screener, a 3D TV is not on the cards any time soon but at least I know I can be part of an ever-growing gang should I want to be. 3D televisions are so expensive right now (a thousand plus) that I think I'll wait until prices drop, they become more commonplace in the average family home and the technology improves.

It is possible to convert normal televisions to 3D but as they don't possess the same technology as specialist 3D TVs the quality is no-where near as good. At the moment 3D TVs don't come with 3D glasses and are often merely described as “3D ready”, allowing viewers the choice of watching in 2D or 3D. At the moment each set of 3D glasses can cost you anywhere between £69.97-£99.97 so imagine what it would cost for the whole family to enjoy the same film or programme! The next issue is the fact that each manufacturer has their own 3D glasses that only work in conjunction with their TV sets so should you want to go round to a friend's house with a different TV brand, you'd have to have a different set of glasses or hope they have a spare. There's talk of TVs that don't require glasses but to enjoy quality 3D you currently have to watch square on - no group viewing without a pile-up and probably pretty depressing for five percenters like me!

I'm not going to install a glasses rack in my living room quite yet but at least I know that when Ikea's ornate holders are the new house-warming gift or Christmas stocking filler, I may not feel too resentful or frustrated receiving one.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Paranoid Future Pet Owner Syndrome

Recently I seem to have spent a lot of time scrolling through the RSPCA Leeds web page looking for cats with broken, injured or missing legs. It's not a sadistic pastime, a strange injury fetish or even because I have a desire to take in the less desirable. Living on the Twelfth floor, I am sceptical as to whether it is safe to keep a cat. I have seen cats falling off the roof of my parents' house and casually walking away, dignity still intact plenty of times but that is only a two-storey house.

Little ginga cat, Simba, is crying out for a home and looks like a complete dude but I worry with an adventurous kitten's spirit, he'll decide to take a peek over our terrace, go for a stroll, get distracted by something airborne and that'll be the end of his short life. Injured/legless cats seem like the less worrying alternative and we've also contemplated fat aged cats who can't be bothered climbing but unfortunately none have captured our hearts as completely as Simba.

I was surprised today to discover that there seems to be no clear answer from the magnificent google as to whether it's safe to keep a cat on the highest floors of a block of flats. Any answers I found were anecdotal from cat owners and many seemed to focus more on whether it's humane to keep cats indoors. The only vaguely useful information I was able to ascertain came from a series of articles all homing in on one scientific study carried out in New York.

In 1987 two vets examined 132 incidences of cats falling from high-rise flat windows and published the results in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The cats were taken to a New York veterinary hospital called the Animal Medical Centre for treatment. On average the cats fell 5.5 stories and amazingly 90% survived, although many did suffer serious injuries (Two-thirds apparently required treatment, and half of that number needed lifesaving treatment). One cat allegedly survived falling from the 46th floor, bouncing off a canopy and into a flower bed, although the optimum fall height seems to be six floors.

You might think, the greater the fall the bigger the injury as I fear but according to this study, this is not the case. After analysing their findings the two vets realised that the cats' injuries worsened as the height of their drop increased BUT after seven floors this was no longer the case. Cats that had fallen from higher than seven floors, suffered less extreme injuries - the farther the cat fell, the better its chances. The vets called this phenomenon The High-Rise Syndrome.

The vets rationalised their surprising discovery by suggesting that after falling five floors or more the cats had reached a terminal velocity – a maximum downward speed of 60 miles per hour (significantly lower than a person’s 130 mph). Once reaching this max, cats relax and spread themselves out like flying squirrels, minimizing injuries.

There are a few potential flaws in this study in that it was was based solely on the cats that were brought into the hospital, not those who didn't make it so who knows what the actual death/survival ratio is. Then of course how lucky the cat is also partly influences the stats – I'm guessing those that were unfortunate enough to fall on something pointy or didn't land on four legs aren't included in the study.

According to another source, it apparently takes a normal cat about two and a half feet of free-fall to orient itself to feet-down. Cats having very flexible spines and ribcages help them to manipulate their fall using the strong muscles behind it. They are able to "swish" their spines with the help of their tails to make all four feet land on the ground, thus distributing their weight over a larger surface area than us two feeters.

The invention of high-speed cameras has given some insight into how these acrobatics actually work - the cat first tucks its front legs in and splays out its rear legs, allowing it to quickly situate its forequarters with the feet down. The procedure is then reversed so that the cat's front legs are extended and its back legs tucked in, allowing the hindquarters to quickly twist into position while the forequarters turn only slightly. The back legs then re-extend when the cat's in place and fully deployed. This is the cat's landing position and allows for limited aerodynamics, rather like a squirrel. Impact on landing is reduced by the fact cats have three joints in each leg.

In order for a cat to twist so quickly many muscles have to rapidly operate in sequence, in doing so creating tension. The tension is why six to seven stories seems to be the optimum height for a cat to fall from as it allows time to unwind and momentarily relax into free-fall before landing.

Fascinating but even after reading all this information, I'm still none the wiser as to whether it's actually safe to take in a mobile active cat. Google has let me down - without pushing a cat from the twelfth floor, I'll never be confident I'll avoid kitty tragedy. After all, pets are supposed to be like their owners and I'm painfully accident prone so what chances would any furry ward of mine have? Unless anyone can tell me otherwise...