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.

Cubans in Angola

A good piece on Fidel Castro from Bayou Renaissance Man, who is originally South African:

I was standing in the Angolan bush, along with a group of UNITA rebels.  They were cleaning up after a firefight – which meant leaving the enemy bodies where they had fallen, but stripping them of their weapons, uniforms and supplies.  Everything would be washed, cleaned, repaired if necessary, and reissued to new owners, who would use it to kill more of the enemy.

Among the dead were two very young Cuban conscripts, some of the tens of thousands of troops sent by Fidel Castro to prop up the brutal pro-Communist regime in Angola. They were probably well under 20 years old.  They hadn’t even finished growing;  they still had that gangling, slightly disjointed look of late adolescence.  Both looked as if they didn’t yet need to shave every day.  They never would, now.  Their AK-47’s were still half-slung.  They hadn’t even managed to raise them to a firing position before the RPD bullets found them.

A grizzled NCO looked down at them, and an odd look came over his face. He spat to one side, very expressively, and murmured, “Just one more. That’s all I ask.  Just one more.”

I looked at him, and my eyebrows rose.  He caught my expression, and nodded.  “I want the bastard who sends kids like this over here to die.”

It makes you wonder how many of those who complain about American forces deployed around the world had no problem with Fidel Casto sending his army to Angola.  The fact that Cubans had no choice in the matter makes it that much worse.

A Post About Boilers

Commenter Alex M. chimes in under this post on the subject of boilers, and I thank him for that:

My plumber has a handy sideline reselling perfectly good boilers than people replace because they fall for all the guff about modern energy-efficient equipment. New boilers may use slightly less oil but the savings will never cover the cost of replacing an old serviceable boiler, never mind the much higher maintenance costs and the fact that new condensing boilers are only designed to last around ten years. A bog-standard 20th century non-condensing boiler will last fifty years or longer with regular servicing.

It is probably not surprising that I never owned a property with a boiler until recently.  My employer has always been generous enough to supply me with accommodation wherever I’ve been posted, and the place I bought in Thailand back in 2009 has nothing more than a small water heater for showers and washing up, for obvious reasons.  That changed when I bought a property in Annecy a couple of years ago, a modern apartment which was fully electric (i.e. no gas) and independently heated (i.e. unlike the older apartment complexes, there was no centralised heating system for the whole development).  The boiler was new, so the previous owner told me, and he had receipts to prove it.

When II collected the keys I didn’t even have a place to sit down, and so after looking around I switched off the water and the power and went back to Paris.  That’s one of the advantages of an apartment over a house: you can drop the shutters, switch everything off, and just leave it unattended for months.  Do that with a house and you’ll find things have gotten inside and taken up residence.  Anyway, I made a habit of visiting the place every few months and then switching everything off when I wasn’t there.

I arrived at the property on 22nd December last year, intending to spend Christmas there, and found the boiler leaking.  It wasn’t a bad leak and fortunately there was no damage to my property or that of my neighbour, and I could even still take showers, but something had gone wrong with the boiler.  I found it odd that the leak wasn’t coming from the bottom, but about halfway up.  I couldn’t see any hole but I could feel that below the leak the casing was warm, but above it was cold.  The water was dripping down the inside of the casing.

My first reaction was to swear loudly.  This was 3 days before Christmas, remember.  And plumbers are known to be cheap and readily available, especially with foreigners close to a major holiday, oh yes.  My second reaction was to pull out the warranty.  I called the service number and as I was on hold a passage in the warranty terms caught my eye: the warranty is void if the power has been off for more than 24 hours.  Mine had been off for seven months.

I’m an engineer, mechanical according to the certificate.  Not a good one, but an engineer nonetheless. I know about corrosion and how it works.  I’d suspected the leak was caused by corrosion, but was struggling to figure out how the hull had been breached so fast.  Now I knew.  Modern boilers are made from paper-thin steel to save costs, make them lighter, and make them more energy efficient.  This is inherently sensible.  The problem is corrosion: even the slightest degradation of thin steel will cause a hole to appear.  All boilers deal with corrosion by using sacrificial anodes, but they need to be replaced every few years increasing servicing costs.  You can avoid this by using a powered anode, which does not deteriorate with time but – as the name suggests – needs to be powered.  When I pulled apart my boiler I found a small 9V battery underneath: that would be the emergency supply when the main power is switched off for whatever reason.  The anode wouldn’t need much power, but a 9V battery is not going to keep it working for seven months.  As such, the anode stopped working and the boiler itself corroded in short order.

This all came as a surprise to me.  The house in which I grew up in rural Wales had a boiler, which from memory was made of steel an inch thick and probably needed a crane to install.  If the anode lost power there would be enough allowance in the steel to withstand months or even years of corrosion before springing a leak.  But modern boilers have no such margin, they will be made using thin steel and will become useless at the slightest sign of physical degradation.  So you have to keep the damned things powered up.

I was fortunate enough to find a decent plumber in Annecy who replaced it on 23rd December with a better one for 1,200 Euros including installation, taxes, etc.  It was a bit of a dent in the wallet, but it didn’t mean Christmas was ruined.

This isn’t a rant about disposable boilers, though. Old-style boilers might last forever, but that comes at a cost too: you need a strong floor to put them on, and you certainly can’t hang them from a wall like you can the modern ones.  You also can’t install them with one person and another one helping, you’d need some serious kit to move them in and out.  And they’d also be more expensive to run.  There is a reason why modern French apartments are all electric: heating technology and insulation has gotten so good that you no longer need a heavy, industrial central heating system or a gas-fired boiler, and all the equipment you need can be bought from a DIY store and chucked in the back of your car (just about).  In the long run, I suspect the savings on heating costs would easily pay for replacing the boiler once every ten or fifteen years (though perhaps not every seven months).

But there’s another point, which as an employee of an oil company I understand well: CAPEX versus OPEX.  Most people would rather pay for a cheap boiler and replace it every ten years – $700 up front, then two $1,000 payments at year 10 and 20 respectively, totalling $2,700 – than pay $2,000 up front on Day 1 and not pay anything for the next 20 years.  What do economists call it?  The time value of money, or something.

And that’s the real benefit of modern boilers: they are cheap according to the price tag hanging off it in the shop.

System Files

James Higham has also written about Hillary’s email scandal:

In a nutshell, Huma Abedin [allegedly] hid thousands of emails in a folder called #LifeInsurance.

Which reminded me of something.

Back in early 2009 I went on a skiing trip with three friends to Japan in what turned out to be one of the best holidays I’ve had, and by far the best lads’ holiday I’ve ever been on.

This was in the days before iPads and hence only one of our number – which one I won’t say – had brought along a laptop, and all of us would use it once per day to check emails, etc.

Then on one occasion somebody was using the “communal” laptop and noticed something.

“Hey!” he said, addressing the laptop’s owner.  “What’s this folder called System Files”?”

“Oh, erm, um…well, yes,” came the mumbled reply.

“And why is it on the Desktop?” persisted the first chap.

I joined in the fun.  “System files on the Desktop?” I queried.  “What OS are you running there, then?  Let’s open it up!” I said.

We did.  It didn’t contain system files.