Sunday, 19 November 2017

Sunday Misc 181117

  • A solution to gerrymandering [prev]: Treat each area as a cake then I cut, you choose "It calls for one political party to divide a map of a state into the allotted number of districts, each with equal numbers of voters. Then the second party would choose one district to "freeze," so no further changes could be made to it, and re-map the remaining districts as it likes. The first party then would choose a second district to freeze from this map and proceed to redraw the remaining districts as it sees fit. This back-and-forth process would continue until all of the districts are frozen.via MeFi where there is lots of cogent and critical comment.
  • On Quora they have a thread about overhearing conversations where the participants assume you don't understand. Occasionally funnyMan entered shop with a few mates, saw the tasting table with samples and asked his mates if they thought he could just take some and what the F was that green shit? I smiled, said bonjour, and told him he was welcome to taste any of our cheeses and that the green shit was in fact green pesto cheese. His reaction was to stop dead, stare at me as if I had three heads and go: mais.. mais.. Tu parles Français ??’ (But.. But.. You're speaking French??) To which I responded: ‘non, non, je fais semblant.’ (oh no, I'm just pretending.) This confused him further until I told him I was joking and my mother is French.
  • I wrote about the amazing ingenuity of physicians in 2014: using a coat hanger and some cutlery to carry out a pneumothorax at 28,000 ft. That's one sick woman saved. Imagine being the ER resident in Las Vegas after the recent mass murder. He and his team processed 250 gun-shot wounds overnight. He only stopped work when he realised he could not see straight any more.
  • Why Saints Alive! of Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim
  • Universally challenged. My sort of people: Expensively educated and chock-full-o-facts.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Science Week Table Quiz

Well Science Week is wrapping up now. At The Institute I've been at a parcel of events and not one was a sleeper. Thursday night, they scheduled a Pub Quiz in one of the local hotels. A round dozen of our science post-graduates stepped up to the plate and found €20 a table for a night out with the grown ups. Otherwise the demographic was really top heavy with crumblies. It is ever thus: our younger colleagues have family commitments with small and medium sized children. Me I do love a Pub Quiz - it is one of the few situations where my very expensive education can be run through its paces. The quiz was sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland SFI (finger food bring on the orange goujons and, weirdly, fireworks) but raising money for Camara a charity that takes old computers, reconditions them and recycles them out to the third world. Back in the day, when I worked in St Vincent's Hospital Dublin, the IT guy was from Uganda via Botswana. He was entirely and comprehensively dismissive of Camara at the time: "we may be black but we don't want or need your elderly tech kit; just like you we want the latest thing: antiques are clutter". My Pal Terry thinks otherwise and has done at least one stint out in the Horn of Africa training up the local kids on Camara computers.

Mais revenons a nos pub quizzes this one was 10 rounds of 10 questions to make the scoring easy.  As happens when you have such a Works do, you tend to lose autonomy about who you share the night with. Ideally, a team wants
  • one Me: good for what we facetiously called in skool JN - Jeneral Nollidge: South American capital cities; British generals and prime ministers of the 19thC; obscure weights and measures
  • one Hello Magazine subscriber for the celebrity photo round
  • one Sporty person who knows who won the Ryder Cup (nothing to do with horses, I gather); who is top of the Premier League in the soccer; how to spell sliotár or at least know that it doesn't take a fádá,
  • one youth who has head-phones tuned all day to pop and rock 
if you can't draft a dream team you have to pretend that you're only doing it for a bit of craic and don't care if you win. I spit on that sort of nonsense. I don't have very high standards but I try to do my best: lash out my pub-quiz knee-jerk answer but then have a bit of a think and a bit of discussion about it - keeping the grey cells warm y'know. And it is considered extremely bad form to dispute any answer with the Quiz Master even when it is a) wrong or b) ambiguous because of a sloppily worded question. I cannot remember more than a small fraction of the questions, which were the usual sort of forgettable thing. But one of them was "Which member of The Police has a degree in astrophysics" My knee-jerk was Brian May, but my team said that he was in Queen not Police and opted for Sting. That question was rather quickly withdrawn because the QM didn't know one authority-named 1980s band from another : silverbacks have their day . . . in the 1880s. But I kept the Dingbats sheet, filleted it and share them with you now:
They are a fair mix of the usual cannon-fodder and some which took a bit of time and a flash of insight. We collectively got the 011011010 and the circle below it wrong, wrong, almost right. Give it a go: answers below the fold

Friday, 17 November 2017

All Washed Up

Years ago we bought a Ford Focus that turned out to be a bit of a pup. With 20/20 hindsight, it had plainly been clocked - the floor under the pedals was worn to metal but the milometer only registered 100,000km. ANNyway, a few months later, the car blew up between Rosslare and home. I'd taken all three of my offspring to England to visit the rellies, so we called The Beloved to airlift the kids and the recovery service to take me and the dead car back to the dealership . . . in Duncormick., Co Wexford [sample property shown R]. As we puttered along through the countryside, one of the recovery lads turned to me and said "Duncormick, Co. Bosnia". To him, the village was a beat-up backwater like something he could barely remember from Ireland in the 1960s. The only contemporary reference point he had was Bosnia which had just emerged from a devastating civil war. And it was so, the car dealership had filled the original cobbled village street with wrecks and there was a ruined bicycle shop, with the door off its hinges, filled with a heap of fire-damaged bicycle parts. It was an unpretty grim metaphor for the parts of Ireland that had been left high and dry by the Celtic Tiger.

I hope he'll forgive me, but this is what surfaced in my mind when I finished Andrew Doherty's book Before the Tide Went Out [prev]. That and a dull throbbing anger at how the rapacious pursuit of profit can just casually brush to oblivion a whole section of the population, not to mention billions of by-catch discarded fish. As SS Ireland whored herself out to Multinationals, rhe fisher-folk (and agricultural laborers, Castlecomer coal-miners, Carrickmacross lace-makers and Donegal tweed-weavers) were packed away in the hold because they were not wanted on voyage : first clothing, then pharmaceuticals, then computer hardware, then call-centres and now every major software company that you've heard of: Google, LinkedIn, Amazon, Facebook, Etsy, Twitter, Stripe, Eventbrite. Ordinary people making a living in ordinary ways had no place to work, and increasingly no place to live as starter house-prices in Dublin rose to 10x the average industrial wage.

Before the Tide Went Out is a memoir: of a boy growing up in a fishing village in the second half of the last century. From a Now perspective, life then was somewhere between simple and brutal: three rooms, parents and five childer, an outside tap and a bucket in the shed for the toilet. The windows leaked, the roof leaked, the very walls leaked. You get the sense that people would go out on the river to fish because it was more comfortable in an open boat or at least crowded. In 1972, the family got a council house because in those days, poor as the country was, there was a sense that nobody, certainly no family with small children, should be left to exist in such a cabin.  In a sense that was the high tide of prosperity for the fishing communities round Ireland. Nobody claimed it was an easy life, but it was a living.
But the stocks of salmon, which had been sufficient and sustainable since forever rather abruptly started to dwindle. It was easy to blame the local river drift-netters, whose practice really hadn't changed for hundreds of years, rather than German fly-fishers, agricultural run-off, raw sewage discharge, or the fact that farmed salmon in every bay and estuary were a hot bed of sea-lice Lepeophtheirus salmonis which hitched rides on passing wild salmon. But whomever you blamed for the fall-off in salmon stocks, the bottom fell out of the market because consumers didn't know or care about the difference between wild salmon and farmed salmon. It was the difference between venison and chicken but "chicken" was waaaay cheaper and didn't taste so eeeew fishy. A friend of mine, PhD in Genetics, secured a job in the salmon trade as wild salmon started to be displaced by farmed. A large part of her work was measuring how red farmed salmon was [R] and devising genetic schemes to make it redder. That sole Solea solea attribute was used as a tawdry surrogate for Quality: omega three fats, taste, firmness, mineral richness were irrelevant because not easily measurable.

In Ireland, we are talking large but doing little about the plight of refugees from Syria. These are people who, through no fault of their own and minding their own small businesses, have found themselves underfoot as competing geopolitical ideologies have fought to control their country. When elephants fight, it is the grass which suffers. It is essentially the same for the fishing families of Waterford Harbour who have become economic refugees in their own land since salmon fishing was switched off with a stroke of the legislative pen in November 2006.  With the Syrians it is recognised that we have no need of muezzins, carpet-weavers, or artisan coffee-pot makers in Ireland. And actually we have enough gynaecologists and engineers as well. Therefore, in addition to English (and Irish for the kids!) lessons, some effort is made to retrain the adults as call-centre techs, shelf-stackers and milk-parlour operatives. I'm not kidding about the last: I heard about 2 local Romanians who spent several months driving to the next county for work-experience [unpaid, of course] as milkers: there are no paying openings in the field anywhere in the country. I wouldn't be surprised if a similar scheme of desultory, half-arsed 'training' was offered to redundant fishermen ten years ago on a take it or leave it basis.

The author of Before the Tide Went Out wasn't prepared to sit on his thumbs waiting for the next compo/dole cheque, he sold his boat, got on his bike, and found a landsman's job. It takes a special sort of courage to re-invent yourself as an adult when all your accumulated knowledge, your tricks-of-trade, your comradeship and rivalries have been swept into the dustbin of history. Hats off !

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Finding it positive

Science Week trundles along with more happenings and events at The Institute. I almost missed an amazing talk on Tuesday because I didn't recognise either the Name or his company: Eddie O'Connor [who he?] founder of Mainstream Renewable Power [never heard of it]. O'Connor started out as a bureaucratic Mandarin successively working his way up two semi-state bodies: the ESB - Electricity Supply Board and then CEO of Bord na Mona - the company charged with destroying the bogs of Ireland to supply garden mulch as Irish Peat Moss, domestic heating as peat briquettes and power for the electricity grid. It's a bit like looting the fish-stocks of the oceans for cat-food and fertiliser. In 1997, he had a rush of blood to the head and became the founder and CEO of Airtricity.
The company was an early adopter of wind-farm technology long-and-long before it became economically sensible and was dependent on playing-field bending subsidies and grants. Over the last 20 years, the cost of wind-power has tumbled so that it is now absolutely cheaper than fossil fuel. Whoever owns the windy sites is sitting on a gold-mine because a modest on-site turbine can be replaced with a mammoth 10+MW turbine . . . or two [R from 2010]. No matter how well paid you are as a public servant (semi-state CEOs were capped at €250,000 pa in 2011) the prospects in the entrepreneurial world are fabulous. O'Connor's exit strategy was to sell Airtricity in 2008 for €1,800,000,000. That was 7000x his final year's salary in BnaM ! And more power to him. So getting him down to talk to our engineering students (and me) was a coup.

But I'm not here to talk about energy futures or the fact that 10% of the World's electricity is consumed by server-farms storing cat food: Snapchats, crap snaps, Friendface trivia, and millions of duplicate copies of Michael Bublé hits. I have one point to abstract from Eddie O'Connor's talk. Many small compnaies regard maternity leave as a burden which has to be, willingly or otherwise, sucked up against the bottom line. O'Connor sees it as an Opportunity rather a Threat. It gives his company a chance to stir up the personnel: if Mairead is out for six months, we can have Kevin and Sinead split her work load and hire a new graduate with a quirk skill-set to try out something new. It's a bit like a soccer team playing a few practice games with the centre-forward in goal etc.: everyone sees their tasks from a different point of view and esprit de corps gets a boost all round.

The evening before O'Connors talk, I had a meeting with one of our suits. It was on foot of someone finally picking up on my annual analysis of the domicile of our graduates, which I do for my own interest and because, as a data-wonk, Ich kann nicht anders. It was just after Niall Moyna's talk about the holistic virtues of having fit people about the place. One of Moyna's points had been to ask ironically if the students and staff parked their car as far from the campus as feasible in order to get a 5 or 10 minute walk in at the start and end of the day. I can't walk, or even cycle [done it once, nearly died], from home because it is 40km away but I could park off-campus and walk the last km in. That would mean paradoxically that I could leave home later because to be sure of securing a parkplatz I arrive at 0830hrs.  But my pal The Suit suggested that having tight parking issues was Good because it kept everyone on campus for serendipitous collegiate happenings. If you don't drive home for lunch because you'll lose your treasured spot, then you might stay and have lunch with the some engineers and thereby ferment a cross-disciplinary research project or think about a new course for the students. Or, being on campus, you might notice that one of your students is looking all woebegone . . . and do something about it. I pointed at the tyranny and privilege [and huge cost] of parking in August.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

A little goes a long way

Did I mention that it is science week? I did.  On Monday we had three visiting speakers at The Institute:
- Dr Michael Curtis, the Deputy State Pathologist;
- Dr Niall Moyna, an exercise physiologist from DCU and
- Prof Martin Downes from Maynooth.
I went to the first two of those talks but really shouldn't have gone to the first except to show willing. As a fainter, I cannot always reliably stay upright when presented with images of gun-shots, tram-line bruising and decapitation. Curtis presented loadsa these, each more disturbing than the next. As with the Gardai Forensics team a few years ago, I looked intently at my hands and recited Shelley's Ozymandias while waiting for him to finish. A very little of that is way too much. What I did learn from that talk, which was shocking in a different way, is that nobody in the scene of crime field, certainly not the forensic pathologists gets any counselling or psychological support.

We've had Moyna at The Institute before, and looking back at my notes, [how handy is keeping a blogodiary?] he seems to have given the same Exercise is Medicine talk again.  Same take-home aNNyway. It was interesting because he assumed correctly that the vast majority of the audience - fit people under 30 studying sports rehab, strength & conditioning, sports physiology - would have found his message largely irrelevant. Moyna's case is that a little serious heart-rate raising exercise a few times a week will extend your functional independent living by years at the end of life. That is pretty much beyond imagining to a fit 22 year old who is going to live for ever. Moyna suggested that they could take his message to their parents and to their fat Cousin Bob who appears to be welded to the sofa . . . it's even not too late for Pat the Salt at 92! Indeed, an experiment Moyna set up in a nursing home was able to get 26/28 elderly women out of diapers simply by giving them enough quad strength to get up out of the chair and potter off to the potty. How QALY is that!?

We've know that exercise and coronary disease are inversely proportional since a couple of epidemiological studies in London in the early 1950s. Prof Jeremy Morris [obit - he lived to 99] noted that bus drivers who sit for the whole working day were far more likely to die of heart attack than their conductors who were running about the double-deckers collecting fares. Sedentary didn't help but bus driving is among the most stressed jobs available: all that responsibility, all those mad drivers cutting you off and cursing you out, the kids who run into your path, A parallel experiment found that 'beat' postmen were much fitter and healthier than their colleagues who sold stamps.

You can measure your metabolic activity by tracking you oxygen intake. If you establish a baseline by measuring this while sitting on the sofa, you can then get a handle on your METs = Metabolic Equivalent Tasks for doing anything more intensive.
A walk round the sofa is more intensive, throwing the duvet about, hoovering the carpet, washing the car, walking to the corner shop will all have higher METs. Super-fit athletes are able to exert themselves to 20 MET - 20x the oxygen intake as required for sitting. If I took in that much oxygen, I'd probably self-combust. Super frail osteoporotic people can't manage 10 METs or even 5.
But if they make some effort, the benefits will be mighty.The graph [L] suggests that as small effort by "novices" = deeply unfit will yield disproportionate benefits in the future. The super-fit at the other end of the distribution are caught by the law of diminishing returns: the extra ooomph to secure Gold takes huge commitment to training and exercise. Indeed, youngsters who are scheduled to becoming frail as elders because they now have no muscle tone also should be encouraged to do a little  . . . and a little bit more.

And don't make it a penance! I see now that, in managing my duffers team at school to play it for larfs, I was getting them to commit to a minimal level of exercise for the good of their future health. Putting them in a real team filled with jocks would have made them into refusniks who are now dead of atherosclerosis, diabetes and stroke. Let's get the Health Service Executive stop being the Sickness Drug Doling Executive and put 1% of the annual budget to making folk fitter in funner ways. Whatever it takes to make exercise into less of a chore. I can't find a link but I heard a story about a fat boy whose TV was linked up to a transponder in his shoes. The more he moved the longer the TV stayed on; linking the power to a stationary bicycle might work too.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Emma Darwin

. . . The Inspirational Wife of a Genius".
I've just finished Edna Healey's 2001 biography of Emma Darwin née Wedgwood [R while young] which fills in a lot of the details of Charles Darwin's domestic life. Emma was remarkably well educated for her time and even for her class: she was fluent in French and Italian, better than competent on the piano. The book is an easy read because it's well-written - Edna read English at Oxford - but confusing because all the relevant families had enormous numbers of children including at least one girl called Fanny. Charles and Emma were first cousins, his sister married her brother; another of his sisters married the man who had married another sister of Emma, Not quite like Tom Lehrer's [sing it!] Oedipus Rex:
Yes, he loved his mother like no other
His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother
but close.

In those pre-TV days, much of the family entertainment centred reading aloud, music or playing cards. Most nights Emma and Charles played backgammon and if she won he would declaim "bang your bones" in a good-natured way. Although the modern ahem meaning was opaque to Edna Healey let alone Charles and Emma, it does suggest that the couple repaired to bed immediately after the game. Poor Emma's victory at dice meant another tedious pukey pregnancy and a painful and difficult delivery. In invention of obstetric chloroform by James Young Simpson on 1847 was eagerly embraced by the family. Darwin was sick for much of his adult life and worried that some of his health issues popped up in his children . . . because of the inbreeding. For a smart chap he doesn't seem to have made the connexion between banging her bones and another child 40 weeks later. Their last child Charles Waring Darwin was born 1856 with Down's syndrome when Emma was 48. Poor scrap only lasted a couple of years before dying of Scarlet Fever. Between CWD and the next oldest child, Horace b. 1851, Emma suffered two miscarriages.  In all she bore ten full term children.  The death of Annie, who died tragically at the age of 10, knocked the stuffing out of her parents, especially Charles who couldn't accept that there was any hereafter. Her story and her influence on Darwin's thinking were neatly captured by Randall Keynes (a descenant of Emma and Chas, in Annie's Box - reviewed - available £1.20 +p&p.  Edna Healey's book is £0.01+p&p even cheaper.

The Emma Darwin biography is quite heavy on the perpetual feeling-crap that everyone in the household experienced. Emma had her migraine and miz pregnancies; Charles his flatulence and gut-pains and vomitting; but most of the children also seem to have been off their food and generally unhealthy a lot of the time. Quite apart from the crises of scarlet fever, diphtheria, consumption and measles. Vaccination and peak antibiotics have spared us endless anxiety as parents - even the anti-vaxxers who are coat-tailing on herd immunity. But the enumeration of symptoms doesn't get definitively to the heart of Darwin's Illness. Was it Chagas Disease from his encounter with a Brucid beetle in South America? Or was is mere hypochondria?  After reading this biography, I tend to think that if was all of the above. It reads like many people, not just the Darwins, felt rotten much of the time. What is striking is the devotion that the less ill showed to their sicker relatives: all those bodily fluids to be disposed of. Not all of that could be off-laid on devoted servants.

Monday, 13 November 2017

9 43 25 36

I'm just a little bit addicted to Quora. A while back I signed up for a Quora "feed" which delivers a pot pourri of Q&A a couple of times a day. Like much of social media, the material is crowd-sourced: the more 'like'able posts are pushed to the top so are more likely to be read and so they are further buoyed up. Harry Potterism at work. It is a global community but some people seem to spend their entire lives there; endlessly answering similar questions that fall in their area of expertise.

Many youngsters seem to use the resource to get someone else to do their homework. A recent example being "which of these numbers 9 43 25 36 is the odd one out". It's essentially the IQ-test standard Q of "What is the next number in this series?" which separates the innumerate from those who can recognise patterns.  Those who know numbers, and have done a few IQ tests will instantly see that three of the numbers are perfect squares and so 43 is the rogue. But people who are open to other possibilities note other dimensions of difference.  Prof Douglas Eckberg noted that 9 is the only single digit number, 36 the only even number and 43 the only prime . . . "Therefore, 25 is the only number without a unique characteristic." and then thought about it to add that 25 is also unique if you can think of an obscure enough way of looking at it. This puts "we hold these truths to be self-evident" under the skeptical spotlight: everyone will have a different answer depending on their age and cultural background. This was exposed ironically by another academic Robert-Jan Kooman "25 does not belong. I am 43 years old, my wife is 36 and our daughter is 9. There is no one in our family that is 25 years old, so that number certainly is the odd one out."  HoHo. Giorgios Skoufos steps further outside the box: "nine, forty-three, twenty-five whereas thirty-six. But there is a more general message here about parking your own certainties - especially when in dialog with others; especially if they are different. Different isn't wrong, it is interesting!