Thursday, 22 March 2018

Where is Civilisation?

Q. Where is Civilisation?
A. Just outside Mountrath, Co Laois: more-or-less in the centre of Ireland.
There you can find one man's attempt to see off the barbarians at the gate and keep one room in a warm house as a sanctuary in which to reflect upon the achievements of which humanity can be most proud. That man is Frank Kennan. In the 1980s, after a successful career in MegaCorp, he and his wife Rosemary took a one year lease on Roundwood House [R with dog, the stables are round the back], a huge heap of a place then owned by the Irish Georgian Society. Frank and Rosemary had a romantic dream to run the place as a country guest house. After that year's trial run, the Kennan's took the house off the IGS's hands and have had a going concern for the last 30+ years.

They were early adopters of the concept of marketing idiosyncratic home-from-home hospitality to folk who didn't want to see the same-again inside of another Holiday Inn. There are now several clearing houses of such adventures - Hidden Ireland is one. We took my mother out to lunch in one Hidden Ireland place [not Roundwood House, I hasten to add] on her last visit to Ireland. Dau.II asked for a glass of elder-flower cordial and was served a beaker of fish-stock. You can see how The Help might confuse two jugs of off-white liquid in a slightly chaotic fridge. If a small hole in the floor-boards is covered with a square of sheet-metal and a shifted carpet, then that is part of the charm.

Four years ago, Frank looked at his library and felt unaccountably happy to have gathered a collection of books which he knew and loved and believed to be valuable in a cosmic rather than a monetary sense. In this he went one up on William Morris "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, OR believe to be beautiful" by changing the Boolean OR into an emphatic AND. He knows that almost every book published in English has been digitised by Google books but he believes that part of the pleasure, part of the didactic value, lies in the physical book. At the last count he has 870 books [searchable catalogue] in a comfortable room in Roundwood, which he calls The Library of Civilisation. He has set a limit of about 1,000 books, and is soliciting suggestions from you about how to fill the remaining spaces. The library was launched by an always civilised Senator David Norris and you can have 25 minutes of Frank's address if 2 mins isn't enough for you. Don't try to browse the library's website from anywhere so uncivilised as to lack true broadband because page turn-over takes a long time across our wireless 'broad'band. I downloaded the whole list into Excel which was quicker in the long run. The library samples widely across the Western canon on both sides of the Arts - Science divide. Frank and Rosemary's daughter Avril Kennan [now an advocate for research into rare genetic diseases] was educated, long after me, in the Genetics Department of Trinity College Dublin. Indeed that connexion is how I came to visit Roundwood and meet the Kennans at the turn of the century; but that's another story for another time.

I like the Library of Civilisation very much although I am a bit ambivalent about embracing the idea myself. I'm torn between the desire to de-clutter my life and a Canticle for Leibowitz concern that in the End Times Google's server farms will be among the first things to wink out. I think that's the reason I'm holding on to my 1953, almost complete [missing Volume I A-Anstey], revised 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica which I bought for £6 from a junk-shop in Newcastle in 1987. Someone who comes after me may want to know about Confederate Generals of the American Civil War, or to seek clues about how electric motors work. While I'm still havering between clear vs keep, I can look at my library . . . and so can you:
I think there about 1,000 books on the North wall of our living room [see above] where they form a handy barrier for thermal insulation. There are at least as many more books lurking about the property on shelves and in boxes. But this view has everything a chap could want for post-apocalyptic bliss. A lot of books [The Complete Blob in Ten x 200 post volumes is circled in lime green]; a chair with optional foot-pouffe; a stove with enough fuel and a kettle for tea; an inspirational calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh sharing a shelf with a bottle of brandy.  I haven't Frank's patience to catalogue my books but I have shared some part of my library in the past, and even offered a listicle of should-reads in 2013.

There is a little enough overlap between my books and Frank's and that's rather nice too. If we all agreed on The Canon, then nobody would be marching to a different drummer and we will need all the diversity we can muster when our World goes all brittle and crumbly. And another thing, Sciency books don't really give us much clue to Montaigne's question How to Live? You'll get a lot more of that sort of thing from the remaining fragments of Sophocles, even though he knew nothing about 3-D printers, nanotechnology or stem-cells.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Sea-level sorted at source

I was on about the effect of climate change induced sea-level rise. Since the 1950s there has been a huge demand for beach-front property. If you read Laurie Lee on his travels through Spain in 1936, you'll find that the sandy beaches and hidden coves of the Costa del Sol were seen as deserts only fit for habitation by dirt-poor fisher-folk and their families. My own experience of the Waterford coast is that the half-life of a steel wheel-barrow is about 18 months if left 2km from the sea and its incoming salty wind. The lack of shelter from The Sea View, which is now so desirable, means that storms are fiercer on the coast and damage (trees down, tiles off, electric fails) much more likely than inland. Almost the whole Mediterranean coast of Spain has, since I was born, been covered with a narrow strip of bars, cafés, apart-hotels, time-shares, discos, banks, casinos, and shops anxious to part tourists from their money. This development is mirrored over many other coasts where a huge amount of investment has been made on the assumption that the sea will be in view but out there and not washing through the foyer of my time-share apartment block. In my piece, cited above, I was reflecting on the astronomical cost of protecting all that property if sea-levels rise by a few meters. We could imagine housing refugees from Seychelles, Tuvalu, Maldives, Kiribati, because these low-lying tropical paradises have relatively small populations. And the people of Hemsby on the East coast of England whose houses will be over the cliff in the next few weeks followed shortly after by a pub on the West coast. Holbeck Hall Hotel in Scarborough [live!] went in 1993. Bangladesh is a different matter entirely in housing a lot of people a few metres above current sea-level and not enough space in the rest of the country to take in the dispossessed.

But it is unfair and short-sighted to have each stakeholder operating in their own best interests. The River Suir which flows through Waterford City is flanked for much its upstream length by callows = meadows which flood whenever there is too much rain for the river bed&banks to take away. Having 1m of water sitting on your meadow is bad for the farmer because that's a tonne weight per sq.m. which compacts the soil, suffocates the earthworms and changes the microbial flora of the soil to anaerobic. It takes years to recover. Accordingly farmers have pushed up berms along the river bank which protects their grassland from these adverse effects. 
Q. Where does the water go?
A. It backs up and floods the streets, home and businesses of Clonmel.
If we lived in Padraig Pearse's socialist paradise, the property rights of farmers would not trump those of town-dwellers who buy their beef and potatoes from said farmers. Clonmel floods pretty much every winter.

In this week's Nature, John Moore and three other glaciologists describe a few cunning plans to solve all the problems of future sea-level rise by stopping sea-level rise. To a hammer everything looks like a nail, and glaciologists know how glaciers move. If you really understand a system, then you can start to imagine interventions. The knowledge which two generations of government-funded academic scientists have discovered about the pattern and process of inflammation have allowed MegaPharm Inc. to develop profitable anti-inflammatories. Moore&3more propose to Geoengineer polar glaciers to slow sea-level rise: stalling the fastest flows of ice into the oceans would buy us a few centuries to deal with climate change and protect coasts.  Here is the executive summary:
  1. Protect the leading edge of the biggest glaciers from contact with warmer ocean water by dumping millions of tonnes of rock on top of existing sea-bed undulations to prevent or minimise melt and keep the ice-bergs uncalved. The Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland accounts for 4% of 20thC sea-level rise. It could be insulated by shifting 0.1 of to create a berm across the 'estuary'. That's 10% of the volume shifted to dig the Suez Canal and that was done by fellaheen with baskets and shovels . . . with a bit of help from steam-power.
  2. Pin the leading edge of glaciers with immovable [ya hope] concrete pillars built up from suitable rises in the bed rock and/or creating new or extending existing islands. Some of these sub-projects will require a LOT more material to be moved, and stabilised. Not forgetting, as I say above, that the weather is rougher out at sea and moving water has tremendous destructive power.
  3. Dry up the lubricating sub-glacial streams. Glaciers slip along nicely when they experience summer surface melting which cascades liquid water down the cracks and crevasses. Even without that, the action of grinding thousands of tonnes of ice against an immovable rocky base generates enough frictional heat to lube up the under-surface. Moore&3more concentrate on the feasibility to getting access to the flowing water through 1km of frozen over-burden but seem short on ideas of what to do once they get there. Me, I'd pump down wood-chips to increase the viscosity. Twigs and brambles have been very effective at preventing water-flow in the drains at home so that water blurfs out into the road-bed to sweep the whole thing downhill in a heap.
You want to be super-skeptical about geo-engineers as hammers seeing nails everywhere. Seeding the oceans with iron and manganese to encourage bacterial growth and CO2 sequestration is right dodgy if you look beyond the immediate. And Transaqua's cunning plan for transporting millions of tonnes of water across Africa to re-fill Lake Chad, like a reverse Aral Sea, sounds like hubris to me [Last week]. Hubris = ὕβρις - over-weening arrogance inviting retribution. There will for sure be unintended consequences but if the alternative is to sit on our thumbs waiting for the End Times, maybe we should let the glaciologists have a crack at it?

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Where am I ?

Drunk: Hi Honey I'm a bit fluthered, can you come pick me up?
Patient Husband: Sure, where are you?
Drunk: I'm at the corner of Walk and Don't Walk
Did you see what I did there? I reversed the stereotype of the drunken husband and long-suffering wife. Patriarchy 1 - Civilisation 0.

I wrote earlier about my mother having to find her husband 'somewhere in South London' in around 1958. Until The Man implants GPS transponders in all newborns (at the same time as they have their PKU pin-prick test?), knowing where you are is an on-going problem. Getting your pizza or another internet-impulse buy is potentially a problem, to which different countries have come up with different solutions.

I've had a few swipes at Eircode, Ireland's €25 million solution to getting a unique address for every home and business in the country:
Whatever about the codes, the quality of the underlying mapping data has been increasing exponentially. In December last year, I pointed at a fascinating comparison of the quality /richness of Google and Apple Maps by Justin O'Beirne. He pointed out that Google Streetview is IDing all the doorways so that a driverless taxi can purrrrr up to the entry of an apartment complex even when it round the corner from the official street address.
STOP PRESS: First person killed by a driverless Uber car (with safety-driver on board). One of the 184 comments says that the 'pedestrian' in the headline was a cyclist . . . in the cycle-lane. That unfortunate will be remembered in 200 years like William Huskisson the first man killed by a railway engine.

In about 2012, concert promoter Chris Sheldrick was getting pissed off at inadequate addressing as he tried to get kit to concerts in advance of the band. He moaned about it to Mohan Ganesalingam, a genius geek who stood astride the Two Cultures with Cambridge degrees in both mathematics and languages. Between the two of them, and some other early adopters and a few $million of VC, they came up with What 3 Words a global addressing system that assigns a unique identifier to every 3m x 3m square on the planet . . . so 70% of them are all wet. How many such 'squares' are there? about 57,000,000,000,000.  That's a lot of digits to remember! That's why phone numbers are often 7 digits because that's the limit of items that can be retained in short-term memory until we find a pencil to write it down. We're much better at recalling words because we 'chunk' into meaningful images and store that instead of the individual letters. If you want help memorising stuff, then you can embrace the Memory Palace techniques espoused by Mr Memory contestants or my Human Physiology students.

It didn't take [Chris and] Mohan long to twig that the cube root of 57 trillion is about 40,000 which is the number of normal words in the English language which are familiar to well-read people. A normal child will have acquired about 10,000 words by their 8th birthday: an astonishing 5 new words every day since they turned 2 and started speaking. So they took 40,000 English words and grouped them in ordered triplets to generate 64 trillion unique addresses in their GPS look-up table. mineral.customer.ridiculed is different from, not even close to, mineral.ridiculed customer. Like Eircode there is no hierarchy or order in the assignments and that can be a problem. What 3 Words and Eircode will tell you that this a virtue and mumble about error checking. But Alistair Cohen indicates that one letter different in the W3W could send you to New Zealand rather than Olde Zeeland with a huge bill for diesel.

High production value Ad / propaganda by the company. You may argue that such a cunning plan is all very well for Anglophones, but what about deliveries to Петропа́вловск-Камча́тский ? The company has parallel databases in Arabic, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Mongolian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish,Turkish and Kiswahili. At the moment only in English for the oceanic locations, though.  This is the future: for driverless taxis, drone-deliveries, meet-ups in pop concerts and a cascade of, as yet unknown, problems for which W3W will be the solution.

As near as matters to the postman, I am now in / at provide.deluxe.interlude because that's what I do with The Blob every day between 7am and 8am every morning. Be sure you get that right: provide.wonderful.experience is almost exactly halfway between Cuba and Grand Canaria; and I defo won't be there to provide tea and flapjacks for visitors. If I walk out the front door I may drift into metabolism.collider.unedited, still within range of a tossed flapjack!

Monday, 19 March 2018

Waves incoming

We live 230m above sea-level, the last 30m of which requires a 300m journey up a 1:10 dirt track. I think, even given the worst-case prediction of sea-level rise driven by global warming, we'll be safe. The doomsday outcome if all the ice in Antarctica and Greenland melts is 70m increase of sea-level. Now that would be awkward, because we'd have nowhere to shop. Elevations: Bunclody 15m; Borris 44m; Enniscorthy 25m; New Ross 7m; Kilkenny 45m - they're all ploosh; on the other hand, I guess our management would expect me into work because The Institute 70m.

I was reflecting our Elevation because of an article in a recent Nature The Cruellest Seas: extreme floods will become more common as sea levels rise. It is ironic because the author Alexandra Witze is based in Denver Colorado 1600m about as far as you can get from the impact of sea level rise. The article is interesting as an example of why climate change is a more appropriate term than global warming. The 2018 Patrick's day weekend was the coldest mid-March we've had since 2007. That year I was part of the Dublin St Patrick's Day Parade in samba school and a handful of allllmost naked Brasileira dancers. At least we sambistas had white short sleeved shirts against a whipping East wind; but the girls had gone from a pleasing coffee-au-lait to a worrying shade of blue/grey by the time we'd swung along the route. Not every country is going to get warmer and not every coast is going to be increasingly at risk of flooding; as shown in two clips from the graphics:
Bring on the global warming whenever you're ready! The effect of sea-level rise on the fate of cities depends, sure, on the rate of melting at the ice-caps; and also on the fortunes of timing of tides and weather. But it also depends on whether the coast itself is rising or falling. For the last 10,000 years the bulk of Scandinavia has been rising elastically as it recovers from the weight of ice accumulated during the last ice age. All the ports and cities round the Gulf of Bothnia from Turku/Åbo to Stockholm are marked blue in the map above because, by 2050 (!) their likelihood of a 100 year flood is receding to once every 1000+ years. Dieppe otoh or Brest is going to be getting "100 year floods" every 5 years.

It's not just Bangladesh that is going to be awash. A disconcerting number of the world's greatest cities started their growth as ports [London, Marseille, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, Kolkata] ; many of the rest [Paris, Budapest, Memphis, Minneapolis, Hyderabad] were established at significant river crossings. Cities don't get big by acting as a local market for surplus grain, they grow because they corner the trade in non-essentials like silk, cloves, cuff-links, pork belly futures, Guinness.  In any case you should have a gander at Alexandra Witze's article because the prognosis of these great coastal cities [New York City futures anyone?] hinges critically on the past data you put in to the equations to predict the future and how you set the gears grinding on the algorithmic mill. Whatever the data, whatever the model, whatever the result; you can bet your sweet bippy that few governments are going to undertake the cost of future-proofing their real estate beyond the next election. That's because the actual cost of berms, dykes, surge-barriers, evacuation routes, building redesign (in absolute $£€ or as % of GDP) is frightening - there are a lot of people and a lot of real estate that will need remediation . . . or abandonment.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Clippedy doo dah 18 Mar 18

What we got today? We got a Gallimaufry today:

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Skull Valley Sheep vale

Ancient Roman citizens used to leave the party with an ave atque vale = hail and farewell. By contrast, Roman gladiators used to begin there party with Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant = hail emperor, those about to die salute you. 6,000 sheep from Utah started off St Patrick's Day 1968 with little thought that without vale farewell they were morituri about to die . . . but they were. About 2/3 of them dying [R for sample] from inanition and internal haemorrhage, the rest shot in the head by their human minders when it was clear they weren't going to get up.  It is exactly 50 years ago, that a phone call was made to the US Army Dugway Proving Ground, alerting them to the fact of wide-spread sheep death in Skull Valley about 30 miles NE of their Top Secret chemical and biological warfare CBW playground [warning sign below L] on the edge of the desert a couple of hours outside Salt Lake City.

hmmmm? well it turned out that, on the 13th of March that year, there had been 3 separate experiments at Dugway on the distribution of what we now call weapons of mass destruction WMD, in particular a nerve agent called VX. VX is a denser, more viscous, relative of Sarin which has been used with such abandon in Syria.  Both VX and Sarin (and the Новичо́к Novichok stuff which took out Серге́й Ви́кторович Скрипаль and Юлия Сергеевич Скрипал in Salisbury a couple of weeks ago) are anti-cholinesterases. Cholinesterase is an enzyme [most biologics ending -ase are enzymes] is which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine ACh after it has been used by motor neurons to stimulate the muscles. Anti-cholinesterases stop the enzyme working, so the ACh continues to call for muscle contraction and you die all locked up in the agonising spasms of tetanic paralysis. Botox kills you with flabby paralysis because it prevents the release of ACh from the motor neuron.

Team Dugway seem to have done a controlled experiment by trying out three different methods of dispersal: they fired an artillery shell; they burned 600 lt in an open-air pit; they loaded a fighter-plane with two tanksful and sprayed it out over the countryside.  In all cases, they cut the lethal load with a red dye of similar density to make easier the post hoc detection. I wrote about using Serratia marcescens as a marker in another friendly-fire incident for CBW dispersal over San Francisco in 1950.  A low-ranking officer on the Army's PR team mistakenly released a confidential report to the press and public opinion quickly gelled into the certainty that the [poor] sheep had been killed in a carelessly conducted experiment by the US military. It became A Mighty Wind that blew fresh air through the establishment and changed government policy on CBW and probably directly saved thousands of Vietnamese people and their livestock from a fate worse than probably involving death. That loonngg essay A Mighty Wind is by Dr Steve J Allen of the right-wing independent investigative think-tank Capital Research Center. In a previous life Allen was a researcher for 1990s Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich [R, Georgia], but we won't hold that against his views on the Skull Valley Incident; which I find to be informed and informative about the history, chemistry, biology, ecology, epidemiology, politics, and press coverage of those times.

The 3 internally inconsistent issues that interest me are:
  • that the physics of dispersal and dilution of VX - which is lethal at small-small concentrations [LD50 about 10mg / person or about 10x more toxic than Sarin] but not so small that a single molecule homeopathically diluted by the wind can kill several thousand sheep - don't seem to be consonant with the supposed action-at-a-distance. 
  • the symptoms in the dying sheep - no difficulty breathing but internal haemorrhage - are definitely not consonant with VX poisoning: anti-cholinesterases exhaust the muscles which power the lungs because the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is left permanently ON stimulating them.
  • only sheep Ovis aries seem to have been affected by the VX; not the jack-rabbits Lepus californicus; marmots, Marmota flaviventris; beavers, Castor canadensis; ground squirrels, Urocitellus mollis; Coyote, Canis latrans; Raccoon, Procyon lotor; nor Mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus
Here's what I think from my sofa, 50 years after the event. The US military had been lobbing toxins about the range in Utah for the best part of 20 years and 17 March 1968 was the first time that a lot of farm-stock had beencome ill in the vicinity. That's in the vicinity in the uniquely American way of people who will think nothing of driving 80km to have dinner or take in a movie. The 6,000 sheep died in two tranches 50km and 110km distant from the flight-path of the spraying jet-fighter, and 4 days after the last run of tests at Dugway. I suggest that flight and fatality were coincidental and that the sheep succumbed to a sheep-specific enterohaemorrhagic bacterial infection. That pathogen having been spread through both flocks of sheep, by exchange of stock in the days before in the attack became obvious. The farming corporations who owned the sheep got compensation from the Feds at about twice the market value of the stock. So they had a vested interest in allowing the press to put the blame on the military. The military, maybe paradoxically, in the realpolitik of the cold war liked the idea that their potency was in the public domain and hopefully putting the frighteners on the Soviets. As evidence of the credibility of my pathogenic insult explanation, remember that half the saiga antelopes Saiga tatarica of Central Asia died of Pasteurellosis in May 2015.
lá fhéile pádraig

Rough and reddy

Scarlatina: a pretty name for a girl?  Nope, it's the medico name for scarlet fever. Scarlet fever is when a strep-throat, the transitory infection by Streptococcus pyogenes aka GAS Groups A Streptococcus, blows up into a more potent attack. As I explained last June, this change to virulence seems to be triggered by the Streptococcus getting itself infected by T12 virus. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there: so many cr'atures fighting for a living. As Jonathan 'Gulliver' Swift had it
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Scarlet fever has cropped up on The Blob, rendering Annie Jump Cannon deaf, killing Charles and Emma Darwin's youngest boy, and also, fully adult, George du Noyer the geologist and cartographer. Annie Darwin (and two sisters) survived scarlet fever in 1849 but succumbed to TB in 1851. In that last piece about du Noyer, I suggested that scarlet fever was so yesterday that medical staff might have difficulty recognising it. When The Boy, aged 12, came down with whooping cough (another bacterial infection, this by Bordatella pertussis), it took three visits to our health practice (2 nurses, 1 young doctor) to have his peculiar cough not diagnosed. A friend of ours who had been a nurse along the Swiss-German border in the chaotic aftermath of WWII, knew it instantly because she'd seen many cases in  late 1940s Bavaria.

Scarlatina has quite distinctive symptoms, mostly due to the T12-infected bacteria producing a tissue-damaging toxin AND the immune system's response to the invasion. Headache, swollen lymph-nodes in neck, fever, can suggest to anxious parents that they have meningitis in the house but a visit to A&E or the community health practice should draw attention to the sand-paper rough, red, rash starting on the chest and spreading to armpit and elbow, the bright pink tongue with characteristic white fur. The rash turns white if you press a glass against it, which shows that it is caused by the flood of blood to the site of infection: one of the classic symptoms of the inflammatory response. Inflammatory is good, although it makes us feel miserable as our immune system ramps up to see off another invader.

And I was quite wrong to suggest that it is rare nowadays because there has been a huge upsurge in the number of cases notified in England: 19,000 in 2016 and 17,000 in 2017. This spike in cases is up about 3x from the 2014 base-line. Nobody has a good explanation for why scarlatina should be on the rampage now because there has been no detectable change in the genetics of the bacteria or its hitch-hiking T12 virus.  And only a tiny fraction of these cases will need to be admitted to hospital. Most of the kids are sent home with a course of antibiotics and told to keep away from school. And don't go knocking the parents as anti-vaxxers - there is no prophylactic jab for scarlet fever.
Very very different 150 years ago, the picture from Duncan, Duncan and Scott (1996), shows the cyclical nature of the epidemics through the 19thC. But check out the scale: there were as many deaths in 1866 as there were cases in 2016. Being warm, dry, well-fed and hydrated will do a lot to keep a tot alive until its immune system gets on top of an infection. Antibiotics help of course, but the fall in childhood mortality is as much due to clean water, adequate food (chicken nuggets will do) properly heated and ventilated homes and effective nursing care as it is to the high tech end of medicine.