When Food Poisoning Isn’t

Sometime commenter Bloke in Spain makes the following remark at Tim Worstall’s:

I suspect that “food poisoning” is a lot less common than reports of it would suggest. I’ve lost count of the visitors down here who reckons they’ve suffered “food poisoning” eating much stuff as the rest of us.

I concur.  When I was a kid we had things called “stomach upsets” that would make you vomit and give you diarrhea for a day or two and (in our household) would see you confined to bed on a diet of dry Ryvitas and lemon squash until you got better. We’d also be given kaolin and morphine, a brilliant medicine which is now hard to find and has been replaced with Imodium which just bungs you up like concrete and does nothing for the pain.

Anyway, everyone got these upset stomachs from time to time and in my adult life I get one about once every two years.  However, as part of a general trend towards irrationality, ignorance, and increased use of hyperbole among the general population I noticed some time ago that most people now think a regular stomach upset is food poisoning.  The first time I heard this was back in my catered halls of residence in Manchester University around 1997 or 1998 when a female student got sick after eating the grub that was served up in the canteen.  She claimed it was food poisoning, whereas the chef – who wasn’t student and hence had some sense – pointed out that several hundred other residents had eaten the same food and had not fallen sick.

I remembered this when I was in Sakhalin in 2008 and I ate a meal in the canteen at the LNG plant that had me throwing up in the snow on the drive back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  I felt ill the minute I’d finished eating and the pain only got worse, and I wondered if the baked beans with bacon strips that I’d covered my mashed potato with (hey, this was on site in Russia) had been bad.  The illness barely lasted 24 hours and when I inquired two days later I found there was no mass outbreak of food poisoning among the staff and contractors so I concluded it was just a stomach bug.

Food poisoning is fucking serious.  I’ve fortunately never had it, but I have spoken to people who have and aside from being easily capable of killing you it is something which lasts for several days and makes you wish it would get on with it and kill you.  Just like a migraine is not a headache (another false equivalence people draw), and a cold is not ‘flu, an upset stomach is not food poisoning.  So whenever I hear people say they were off work for a day with food poisoning, I mark them down as a hysterical idiot or an ignoramus.

A few years ago I was flying back to Lagos from Phuket and felt a surging pain in my stomach on the flight between Phuket and Bangkok.  I tried wishing the pain away and pretending it was indigestion but on the transfer bus from the plane and the terminal I felt so nauseous I almost passed out.  I found the nearest toilet and threw up mightily, making a right racket as I did so.  I then spun around 180 degrees and emptied myself from the other end.  You know how it is.  I had an hour or so to wait until my connecting flight to Dubai, and so took some Imodium and Alka-Seltzer hoping these would settle my stomach.  I kept these down for a few minutes and then threw the lot up again.  In such situations I simply stop eating believing, correctly or not, that if you don’t eat then the bug has nothing to feed on and will starve.  Even if this is bollocks I have found that eating nothing for a day will cure any stomach upsets I typically encounter.

By the time I came to board the flight I was feeling a bit better, and so took my seat.  Only when we started rumbling down the taxiway I began to feel queasy.  I was sat with the window beside me on my right side, an empty seat beside me (thank God) and a middle-aged man was in the third seat beside the aisle.  As the engines roared for takeoff I felt the pain in my stomach flare up and for the first time in my life I reached for the air sickness bag, into which I threw up just as the nose wheel parted company with the tarmac.  I mentioned before I made a racket being sick, and for some reason I do.  Something to do with the air being pushed past the vocal chords, but I sound like I’m roaring like wounded bull.  I made so much noise that I could be heard by everybody on the lower deck of an Airbus A380 over the noise of four General Electric jet engines on takeoff mode.

Unsurprisingly, once we’d achieved the altitude at which the stewardesses can take off their seatbelts and stand up, they all came running through the cabin asking “Who the fuck was that?”, only using slightly more polite language.  I put my paw in the air and ‘fessed up (before handing them a lovely bag full of sick) and then somebody showed up with a clipboard and started bombarding me with questions.  They asked if I was airsick, and I said no, I have an upset stomach.  They asked if I was feeling ill before boarding, and I lied and said I merely felt queasy.  They asked me whether I’d eaten anything before, presumably thinking there was a possibility I’d gotten to my age on a diet of fresh air.  I told them I’d eaten part of a pizza back in Phuket, but those who’d eaten the rest of it were fine (I’d called them and asked).  The stewardess with the clipboard looked at me and said “Okay, we’ll put it down as food poisoning from eating a pizza, then.”  She then told me I ought to have seen a doctor rather than get on a plane sick, which was sound advice if I’d fancied spending 24 hours in the airport hotel at my own expense because any doctor would have yawned and said “nope, don’t fly” because it’s no skin off his nose.  I then got a bollocking for getting on the plane with “food poisoning” because we might have had to make an emergency landing, and there aren’t many places that an A380 can do that.  That was a good point in general, and an A380 being severely restricted in terms of where it can land in an emergency never occurred to me, but it annoyed me because I obviously didn’t have food poisoning.  Apparently there is no such condition as a stomach upset which can be put on the forms the cabin crew have to fill in every time a passenger gets sick.

As it happened, I ate nothing and drank only water for the rest of the flight and by the time I was in Dubai I felt well enough to eat a little soup.  By the time I caught the next flight and arrived in Lagos, I was feeling fine.  That would not have been the case if I’d had food poisoning.

Aix-les-Bains and Lac du Bourget

I’m back from Annecy, where I had a splendid few days cooking a Christmas dinner of roast chicken and Yorkshire pudding and taking in some local sights.

One such place was Aix-les-Bains, which I’d never visited before.  Like Annecy it sits beside a lake – Lac du Bourget – which is the largest in France, and I have heard there is some sort of local rivalry between the two towns.  Having now visited both it is clear that Annecy is the more picturesque and attracts more tourists, but the lake at Aix is nonetheless beautiful and it seems more suitable for sailing than Lake Annecy judging by the number of sailboats and small harbours dotted about.  I also found that there are several viewpoints offering spectacular views of Lac du Bourget which can be accessed by road, whereas the best views of Lake Annecy are mostly obtained by hiking on foot to the top of a mountain.  Unfortunately I didn’t have my SLR with me and so was only able to take photos with my iPhone, but I’m sure I’ll go back there before too long with a proper camera.

A Weekend in Kiev

My trip to Kiev was nice, but very short.  Snow had fallen in Kiev the morning of my departure, leading to flights out of Boryspil airport being delayed.  Perhaps the Ukrainians were taken by surprise by this sudden onset of wintry conditions having expected balmy summer days until next May, but it reminded me of the time when I was delayed 5 hours in Sheremetovo airport on my way back to Sakhalin from Istanbul because snow had arrived in Moscow.

Anyhow, I lost two hours of my Friday evening and it was dark when I arrived.  I had a choice of taking a bus from the airport to my hotel in the city centre for about 2 Euros which would take about an hour, or a taxi for 20 Euros which would take half that.  This was the first inkling I got that Ukraine was on that rapidly-shrinking list of countries that are still very inexpensive.  I plumbed for the taxi.

As is now the case in Moscow, almost all the cars I saw on the road were foreign-brands, and only a handful Russian.  The roads and signage and other paraphernalia were well maintained, telling me Kiev has emerged from the decrepit post-Soviet era along with the Baltic capitals I visited 4 years ago.  I have no idea if this is the case in Belorussia, but it would be interesting to find out.  I saw plenty of signs of foreign investment, the French ones catching my eye: Credit Agricole, BNP Paribas, Auchun.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and I spent the day walking around the main sights of the city centre, which consisted mostly of nice looking Orthodox churches.

It was cold.  The actual temperature was only -5C or so, but that’s as cold as I’ve experienced outside a ski resort in a long time, and any residual toughness from my time in Russia disappeared years ago in the heat of Thailand and Nigeria.  I had the right clothes on, but I was not tempted to stay outside too long hence I didn’t see all that much of the city.

I was surprised by how small Kiev was.  I didn’t see the suburbs, but the city centre didn’t seem that big and I was amazed – on a late Saturday morning – by how few people or cars were about.  There didn’t seem to be any traffic even on the city’s main boulevards, which isn’t the case in most capital cities.  For some reason I’d gotten the idea it was a giant megalopolis approaching the size of Moscow, but it was actually far smaller.

Below is a picture of Maidan Square, the location for both the Orange Revolution in 2004/5 and the Euromaidan protests in 2013.

The place was deserted.  One thing that struck me when standing in that spot was that Ukrainians ought to schedule their protests a little better: both took place at roughly the same time of year I was, and I didn’t envy them camped out in the snow.

I was speaking Russian, not knowing a word of Ukrainian, and I from what I could tell there was a lot of Russian spoken.  I’m not sure if I could have told the difference, but on the few occasions I asked I was told it was Russian.  Which is to be expected, of course.  There were signs of the tensions between Ukraine and Russia though, some more subtle than others.  I noticed among a hundred brands of vodka on sale in a supermarket there was no Russki Standardt, nor was there Baltika in the beer section.  And the kiosks in the subways were selling rolls of toilet paper with Putin’s portrait on each sheet.

The food was good: I had two bowls of borsch, which is pretty much compulsory when visiting Ukraine, but couldn’t detect any difference from those I ate in Russia.  Although bowls of borsch are like snowflakes, no two are alike.  If you ever want to start an argument among Russians (and presumably Ukrainians) just for fun, ask two of them to tell you how borsch should be made properly (this also works with salad Olivier).  And the food was cheap: after years of Paris prices, it seemed it was almost free in Kiev.

I took a few photos, some of which are not bad, but they’re nothing special.  It was too cold to walk slowly, hunting around for unusual things in the back streets, and operating an SLR camera with gloves on isn’t easy.  I snapped the main sights I came across, and that was about it.

For those that are interested, the full collection of my photos of Kiev are here.

All in all it was a nice trip, and Kiev is worth a visit.  Only it would be a lot more sensible to visit in summer rather than winter, which is what I said when I came back from the Baltic States in late December.  Although there was something nice about the snow coming down and stirring memories of Russia, a place I’ve not been to in 4 years now.  My only regret is I didn’t go to see the Mother Motherland statue, which I completely forgot was there, but I’d probably have frozen to death if I’d tried.  Next time, perhaps.

Off to Kiev

I’m off to Kiev for the weekend: I miss the cold, snowy environments where people speak Russian.

Many thanks to those who left comments under my post on editors, I’ll reply when I’m back.

Photos from Alsace

I’ve not gone anywhere new for a while and I’ve done enough photography around Paris for the time being, so my camera has been quiet of late.  So instead I’ll post some photos I took when I went to Alsace last May, taking in the towns of Colmar, Eguisheim, and Kaysersberg.

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The full collection can be seen here.

Ten Days in New York

I’m back from New York, having had a fantastic time wandering around, drinking, and hanging out with friends.  What follows are my general observations and thoughts, in no particular order of importance.

New York is massive, I mean seriously big.  I first got an inkling of this when I found the time it took to get from Harlem to 42nd Street on the subway was longer than I thought, and I’d only covered about half of Manhattan.  Later in the week I tried to walk from lower Manhattan to midtown, but gave up as I realised no matter how many blocks I covered I still wasn’t getting much closer.  Later still I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and looked towards midtown, and realised it was an awfully long way off.  And when I crossed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge into Astoria and looked westwards at Manhattan, it seemed to stretch southwards forever.  Even disregarding Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, Manhattan itself is enormous, on a different scale to anywhere else I’ve lived (Lagos, despite having a population of about 18 million people, isn’t that big geographically).  I quickly realised that simply walking everywhere isn’t really an option in New York.

It took me a while to get used to the subway.  About two days in I figured out that different trains run on the same lines but stop at different stations, and that some trains were “local” – stopping at every station – and some “express” and only stopping at major stations.  And whether a train was local or an express changed with the time of day and the day of the week.  This was all a bit complicated for a farm boy from Wales, but at least it explained why New York subway stations are designed with a third track in the middle: it allows trains to pass through without stopping.

The metro itself worked well enough, and was mercifully air conditioned.  But the stations themselves weren’t, and it was stiflingly hot down there.  The locals seemed to cope with this a lot better than I did, as I was sweating buckets.  I can’t say I liked the subway carriages themselves, the stainless steel design making them look more industrial than perhaps they need to, but they were clean enough.  The same can’t be said for the stations, which were in desperate need of a pressure wash, and the whole system kept reminding me of violent scenes in films from the 1980s.  At least they don’t have Guardian Angels patrolling it any more.  I will say this, though: the people seem a lot friendlier on the New York subway than they are on the London underground or Paris metro.  One chap offered to help me figure out the myriad combinations of stops and express trains – something you’d never see a Parisian doing – and I noticed people spoke and interacted with each other more than anywhere else I’ve seen.  Aside from one bellend who came in dressed like a gangster, shirtless with his pants hanging down his arse and tattoos all over him carrying a ghetto blaster playing music that only reinforced my theory that the louder music is played the worse it is, everyone was awfully polite.

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New York

I’m currently in New York where I’ve come on holiday for 10 days or so, staying in a rather nice apartment in Harlem.  That’s a description you’d not have seen written anywhere 20 or 30 years ago, but this part of New York has gentrified considerably since New Jack City was made.  It’s no Kensington, and you still see a lot of people who look like extras from The Wire hanging about outside laundromats and dodgy-looking discount stores, but there’s not much evidence of serious crime.

I haven’t been to New York since summer 2000, when I came here at the start of my 5-week road trip around the USA.  A few things have changed since then, and not just the lower Manhattan skyline.  For a start, people using the visa waiver scheme now need to pay $14 online for an ESTA – Electronic System for Travel Authorization – which is something the department of Homeland Security uses to see if you’re a terrorist or not.  I knew nothing about this until the airline (fortunately) informed me a few days before I flew.  JFK airport doesn’t look quite so impressive now I’ve travelled around a bit, but despite a long line at immigration I cleared through it quickly enough and was pleased to find Uber works for airport collections too.

One of the first things I noticed, sitting in the traffic on what I think was the Long Island Expressway, was how much the cars had changed since I was here 16 years ago.  Back then they were mostly American – either Ford or GM marques- and much bigger than those you see in Europe, totally different models.  Now you see Toyotas and Nissans everywhere of the same or similar models to those on sale in Europe.

The other thing is that the place doesn’t feel as exotic as it did when I first came here.  Last time I had barely travelled anywhere before coming to the USA, but now I’ve clocked up around 40 countries since it’s just like visiting yet another foreign place.  Only as I found with Australia, it seems a bit weird to be in a place which is obviously foreign and everyone speaks English (of a sort, anyway).

I also used the New York metro yesterday, and made a bit of a hash of it.  I got one one train, thought it was going in the wrong direction, got off it, realized I should have stayed on it, then got back on the next one.  And bloody hell, New York is big.  I only went from 135th to 42nd street, and it felt like we’d covered miles, and I was only halfway down Manhattan island.  And despite my being thoroughly familiar with London, New York is another step up in terms of people running around in a mad rush.

My plan here is to take lots of photos, do some shopping, go on the piss, and take a half-day trip out to an area of Brooklyn for some research for a story I’m working on.  And I’m supposed to be going to the US Open tennis on Monday with the chap I’m staying with, who is taking a client there and for some unfathomable reason has decided to being me along.  Incidentally, my host is an American who I met in South Carolina during my 2000 road trip, in a Wal-Mart car park of all places.  Funny how things can turn out.

Visiting Russia just got Harder

I missed this, but late last year Russia introduced compulsory fingerprinting for all foreign visitors:

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered fingerprinting of foreigners as part of the processing of visas to enter the country.

The decree, signed by Putin, explained that the move hopes to help the application of law enforcement, tackle illegal immigration and prevent terror attacks.

Decree…hopes…terror attacks.  Hmmm.  How many terror attacks within Russia have been carried out by foreigners?  And when I hear the word “decree”, why is it that I immediately think of this store?

“It is expected that biometric data will be collected mainly at the visa centers, which would make it possible to avoid long queues at the Russian diplomatic missions where, as you know, people come not only to get a visa but to resolve many other issues as well,” Yevgeny Ivanov, head of the consular department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said.

Introducing new bureaucratic hoops will make it possible to avoid long queues?   More on that later.

The move comes after the Foreign Ministry proposed to introduce biometric data for foreigners entering Russia, in response to the EU’s proposed plan to take fingerprints of all Russians wishing to enter the Schengen area in Europe from 2015.

This is half the problem with Russian immigration laws: most of them are retaliatory.  Now I’m the last person to defend western immigration requirements, and the UK’s are as dumbassed as anywhere’s, but deciding to introduce additional hurdles for visitors to Russia in response to EU proposals is simply stupid.  Putin may not have noticed but his currency collapsed recently and the Russian economy – so dependent on imports – is in the shit.  One of the best ways to bring in hard currency is to get tourists to come and swap their Euros, Dollars, and Pounds for Rubles, and this will be much easier to do with a weak domestic currency.  Erecting barriers to make the entry of those tourists harder makes no sense whatsoever, but then Russians appear content with being poorer and less well-fed in return for being able to engage in ineffectual political posturing.

I heard about this new requirement because a British friend of mine is currently going through the visa application process, and had to go to the Russian embassy in person to get fingerprinted.  The agent advised that delays of up to an hour could be expected (so much for avoiding long queues), only when he got near the front of the queue the whole system packed up and he was told “to come back tomorrow”.  So far, so Russian.  Fortunately he lives in London and so this was easy enough, but anyone coming from say Manchester and visiting one of the two centres – located in Edinburgh and London – would have had to buy another train ticket or book a hotel, and take another day off work.

And this is where Russia is going badly wrong.  There are a handful of people who want to visit Russia, and they will go through this pantomime one way or the other.  But Russia loses out on the speculative tourists who plan to go “somewhere” and then look at their options.  A few years back another friend thought about going to St. Petersburg for a weekend and asked me what was involved.  By the time I had gotten halfway through the letter of invitation, the agent, the $100-$200 fee, the form-filling, the requirement to have a hotel booking, the registration on arrival, and the rest of it, he’d already said “Nah, forget it, I’ll go somewhere else” (and the fee has gone up since the fingerprint requirement came in).  So much of European travel is people looking for quick, easy breaks.  When people have a choice of Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Krakow and a dozens of smaller cities in Eastern Europe that they can visit without a visa, why would anyone who wasn’t specifically interested in Russia go there?  The Ukrainians figured this out back in 2005, and allowed EU citizens to enter the country visa free, thus adding Kiev to the list of cities above.  Perhaps more importantly, it meant Europeans could visit Ukraine’s prime holiday area in Crimea much more easily, and that played a large part in my decision to go there in the summer of that year.  Only now Europeans wishing to visit Crimea need a Russian visa, which can’t have done much for the visitor numbers.

So of all those people considering a trip to Russia, how many will decide it’s simply not worth the bother, especially if the price ends up including a return train fare, a hotel in London, and two days off work?  My guess is a lot.  Putin’s decree has made it as costly and as much effort just to obtain a Russian visa as it is to take an actual holiday to a neighbouring country which offers better service at cheaper rates to begin with.

Somebody, somewhere, obviously thinks this is smart.

Ah, so it was all bullshit?

This is long overdue:

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says electronic devices such as mobile phones can be left switched on during flights.

EASA says that electronic devices do not pose a safety risk.

The restriction on using mobile phones was almost as stupid as the requirement to turn off “electronic devices” during taxi, take-off, and landing.  If any aircraft, ever, had displayed the slightest sign of inteference from a mobile phone or other device, the whole fleet would have been grounded immediately.  The “because it may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system” was a lie, pure and simple.

It came about, in my opinion, due to a confluence of several things which can be observed separately elsewhere.  The first is the phenomenon whereby people feel empowered by a uniform and delight in telling other people what to do, even if this means causing them unnecessary inconvenience.  Pilots have always overestimated their own speciality: modern aircraft are not like those of two or three generations ago, and pilots are simply too numerous for the job to be that difficult.  They do an important job, and you’d want a good one to be at the yoke if something went wrong, but the manner in which they like to portray themselves belongs to an era which has long since passed.  And nothing reinforces their sense of authority more than ordering passengers around in the name of “safety”, not even the tedious reminders that “this is a non-smoking flight” (the last of which took place around 16 years ago, at least in the US) and pointless information regarding the aircraft’s speed and altitude.

Then you have the trolley-dollies who, having to put up with shit from passengers for most of the flight, enjoy nothing more than to harangue them during the fleeting moments they have some authority.  I’ve noticed they’ve even taken to ordering passengers to remove headphones during take-off and landing, no doubt citing the importance of passengers being able to hear announcements in the event of an incident.  Although any passenger who is unaware of an announced incident during take-off or landing is almost certainly unconcious or dead, and not merely listening to music.

Coupled with this is the dumbfuck, luddite mentality amongst most people who lack the basic scientific knowledge to laugh in the face of anyone who says an iPod will interfere with the correct functioning of an aircraft.  Aircraft are constantly bombarded by all sorts of electromagnetic waves, particularly during taxi, take-off, and landing when they are near the airport and other aircraft, who are all communicating with one another.  To the degree that any component of the aircraft could be unduly influenced by electromagnetic radiation – and this is doubtful – the device and its cables would be shielded.  An iPod would produce some electromagnetic radiation, but this would be almost undetectable without specialist equipment set up right next to it.  It is simply impossible for an iPod to interfere with a plane’s equipment.  But most people lack any kind of technical knowledge and, in the fashion of Pavlov’s dogs, simply nod dumbly when somebody in a uniform tells them to do something vaguely to do with technology – even if the person in the uniform is employed primarily on looks.  I particularly hate the request to switch off “all electronic devices” because its ludicrously broad criteria makes it impossible to comply with.  My watch is electronic.  How do I turn it off?

It’s bullshit masquerading as safety compliance, and I hear enough of this in my own industry.  Mobile phones are banned on all operational sites where hydrocarbons may be present, yet there is not a single example, anywhere, of a mobile phone causing a spark.  Mythbusters tested this to death and couldn’t get a solitary spark out of a mobile phone; they also couldn’t get aircraft instruments to react to a mobile phone, either.  Of course, most people will say “well, if it makes us safer, even by a little bit, then it is not too much to ask”, and indeed they do say this.  And they know nothing about risk, and even less about people’s actual preferences: if it wasn’t too much to ask, the stewardesses wouldn’t need to check, would they?

I can see why they banned mobile phones: airlines simply didn’t want the hassle and complaints associated with people taking on phones on an aircraft, so they came up with some safety bullshit as a way to enforce compliance.  But now technology has advanced to the point that money can be made from people making calls on flights, the regulations prohibiting phone use have magically disappeared.

This is welcome, but it’s a shame they had to bullshit us for two decades in the first place.