Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Learn by doing

In my time at the digital coal-face, I've learned how to program computers in Basic, PL/1, Fortran, Cobol, Pascal, C and Perl. I've done this in all possible ways: by the book, in formal courses, on my own or embedded in a lab. The best way has always been to a) have a project that needed to be completed b) access to i) time ii) a computer iii) a colleague. The colleague didn't have to be better at the task or a mentor; better be the source of half an idea towards the solution to intermediate problems or a willing ear. Book learning is a useful asset, but lectures are more or less a waste of time. Just DO it!

When I started work at The Institute it was about 5 years since the bottom fell out of the construction industry in Ireland. The undergraduate years were leavened with a really interesting cohort of grown-ups who had missed out on college because they were technically competent and a good pair of hands and had been sucked into the celtic tiger tornado more or less straight form school. They were great to deal with because they brought something to the table at lectures and had a very direct idea of why they were embracing 4 years of poverty in college. I caught up with one of these blokes last week when I saw him having a late lunch in the coffee dock. Turns out that he was back in college for a few days to run some samples through the HPLC; because they needed to be processed but also because he needed to be able to add "can drive an HPLC" to his CV.  He could do this because he is currently between jobs, which a cause of some anxiety, but he wasn't going to fret at home if he could be twirling the dials in the lab.

I suggested that, while getting down and dirty with the instrument was sensible if it didn't cost too much, it would be silly to go an an HPLC Course; if such a thing was on offer. All technical instruments are different; heck, each brand of HPLC is different, but they are designed to be used, if not by idiots, at least by technophiles. I reckoned that a couple of days would be enough to be able to blag "HPLC Effective" onto his CV. What he couldn't work out when he was hired by Chemicals Inc., he could ask about, or read the S.O.P. . . . or even peruse the manual.

That all reminded me of a family legend about G [prev] when she was young before she became a wife-and-mother she took herself off to London to seek her fortune. This was in the 80s and there was bugger-all in he way of work in Ireland. She decided, after some earlier experience working in a factory in Germany, that office work was easier on the back and paid better too. So she presented herself for interview at some financial institution as a secretary, typist and all round effective.
"Are you familiar with the Wang?" asked the office manager
"Of course" replied G
"Can you start Monday?"
"Of course"
So she started the next Monday and her desk was a Wang 1200 console. She leaned across confidentially to her neighbour and asked "How does this yoke work?". By lunchtime she had made a friend and made enough inroads into 1980s word-processing so that she didn't let the side down. Technical things, if they are designed properly, are easy to use. If they are not so designed, they don't clutter up the market for very long. I'm sure that,, at the time, secretarial schools were willing to take folding money from you to teach you "How to WP with the Wang 1200". All the pupils would have found it excruciatingly patronising and slow. Those being funded by their employers would be happy enough to have a week off real work. Those paying their own nickel would less happy about the time-wasting but hoping that the course qual would get them work.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Ophelia incommming

The L picture is a still from https://earth.nullschool.net/ which tracks winds in real time all over the world; it shows the whole of the Atlantic. The site allows you to rotate the globe, so I can assure you that the zoom R of incommming Ophelia is the most exciting thing happening on the planet at this time. The arrow is to show the direction of travel. This Mother of Storms is about to travel through Ireland for shortcut.  Schools are all closed including (message at 2045 last night) The Institute, so I'm hunkered down at home. We spent yesterday afternoon battening down the hatches, reefing the tops'ls, and securing the raffle about the decks. We've made sure the life-boat has water [no electricity no pump] and ships biscuit and there is fuel for the wood-burning stove, so we can heat soup and make chapattis. I also took 20 minutes to fuel-up and sharpen the chainsaw and put that in the back of the car . . . before the news of school closure came through.  The blessing is that, in contrast to the Big Wind of January 1839, Ophelia is making her passage in daylight.

The Darwinday Storm of Feb 2014, when I had to cut my way back home through a fallen tree, is in the Ha'penny place compared to Ophelia which is said to be bigger than Charley 1986 and possibly bigger than Debbie in 1961.  Reading up about those big Irish storms of the last century shows that we have way more information now - see frighteningly beautiful maps above - than back then. The meteorologists 'lost' Debbie for a few days between the Cabo Verde, where it killed a planeload of people, and its arrival in Ireland.  No amount of information or preparation is going to keep trees upright if they are worked to their resonant frequency.  The other blessing is that Ophelia will pass quickly through on her flight to Russia and this time tomorrow we'll tidy up and move along too.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Away with the fairies 151017

Very miscellaneous.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Outdoor Man

Another of my friends has recently pegged out. We first met him when he and M'sis were living on Erraid in 1997. Or rather we met his legs, because that’s all we could see of him poking out from under the Erraid tractor trailer as he welded its broken axle.  Getting to Erraid, an island, off an island, off the West coast of Scotland, was the trekkiest one day journey (from O.Fr jornee a day's march) we made with two small children. Taxi to airport; plane to Prestwick; train to Glasgow Central, shuttle to Glasgow Queen Street, train to Oban, ferry to Mull, minibus to Fionnphort, row-boat to Erraid, wheelbarrow for luggage to house. You may be sure that the Erraid community of candle-dippers and wiccans really appreciated having one good pair of hands about the place.

For the next tuthree years, “McAndrew” (because we encountered him in Scotland) and McSis would come to visit us in Knockroe for about a week.  He was kindly and avuncular with the girls but had little patience for kitchen chit-chat and catch-up. Sometime early on day 2 of any visit, he’d ask if there was something useful he could do, preferably outside, preferably with his hands.  We’d set him some task which seemed incredibly daunting to me and he’d quietly set to: scoping out the problem, thinking about it briefly, then gathering tools and starting work. He’d come in when called for dinner or if his hat bowled away on a really wet gale but otherwise quietly plugged away at the job. Very occasionally he’d ask me to supply some brute force – heaving up a bigger-than-one-man rock or holding the other end of a long timber – but generally he preferred to be unencumbered with ‘help’. Unless it was Dau.II, he was always happy to have 5-6 year old Dau.II pass him nails.

I’ll give a couple of anecdotes because respect is in the details.  In scrabbling about the farm, we had unearthed a huge flat kidney-shaped stone and conceived the idea of raising it on 3 granite piers to make a garden table.  The stone was really flat on one side but undulating on the other. McAndrew coursed around the farm locating three sufficiently long piers [they had to be down in the ground at least 15 inches and we wanted to get knees under the table too]. He then carefully measured the underside of the table-top, dug three holes, dropped in the table legs and back filled them so they were immovable.  The tops of the three legs were at slightly different heights, so that, when the granite table top was flipped over, its undulations would complement the piers and the table-top would be perfectly horizontal. And it was so.

On the other side of the lane from the house we own another 3 acres of fields in the middle of which are The Ruins a.k.a. Hickey’s after the last family to dwell in them. When we took over, only one building had a (corrugated iron) roof and we used that as a reasonably convenient, reasonably dry, wood-store. As well as a roof it had an ivy-covered gable-end which loomed ominously over the lane because the ivy had penetrated the fabric of the wall and lifted the stones up and outwards. This was a source of 3AM-screaming anxiety for me because our lane is used by hundreds of hill-walkers a year getting access to Mount Leinster and the surrounding uplands. The nightmare was that our wall would crush a group of boy-scouts as they adventured up the lane.

McAndrew did things rather than worried about them and he hunted out a packing-box and a beer-crate that together would just give him access to the topmost stones of the disintegrating wall. Let’s start small, he thought, at the top he thought and carefully lifted out one stone . . . pause . . . there was no roaring avalanche, so he stepped up again and removed another stone. By lunchtime the wall was down to shoulder level and he could put the beer crate out of harm’s way. He then removed the last sagging 8 ft of the roof: carefully, to keep the corrugated sheets for recycling. Having dealt like a dentist with the cause of the decay and dug back to sound foundation, McA then rebuilt the gable-end wall 8 ft back from the lane (and the innocent walkers) – the neatest, solidest, and most functional dry-stone wall on the property. He finished off the apex of the shed-wall with a hit-and-miss wooden curtain (like we built our woodshed last year) made of creosoted match-board recycled from the house’s original kitchen. That solution kept the wall to head-height and allowed draft to circulate through the wood shed behind the wall. It was triumph of recycling, appropriate technology and getting on with things. He was really happy with the result; I was delighted.

The next year we decided to recycle one of the wrought iron gates that had been thrown into a ditch on the property. Painted up it would make a nice entrance from the lane into The Ruins. That meant straightening the existing pier so it would hinge the gate and sorting out some recycled ironmongery to hold gate to pier and allow it to open. That required a lot of patience, WD40, a lump-hammer and a vice-grips. But the icing on the cake was finding another pier for the new gate to close against. I was useful here because the only suitable granite pier was 150 m away, so I was allowed to help push/pull/drag the stone on a sack-trolley up the hill to its new site. As with the legs of the stone table, you may be sure that when the jamb-pier was dropped into its foundation hole, the top was precisely level with the top of the gate. It didn’t have to be like that for function, but, for McAndrew, it could be none other.
That’s the thing about McAndrew, he made a difference to the things around him and by doing made other people happier. I learned a little from his confidence that the sky wouldn’t fall if you stopped thinking and just made a start; I have fewer nightmares now and do more about the place. McAndrew’s changes to the landscape will be there, unsigned but appreciated by those who use them, long after we are all gone.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Top Billing

In science, as among movie stars, it is so often about Meeeee! Back in the early 90s, I was working in a minority-interest field of science.  I was plugging away at the human genome, the aspergillus genome, the yeast genome, the candida genome, the drosophila genome . . . all before any of those genomes were delivered complete into the public domain. That's where I had two of the three big ideas I've had in science. We had a corner on a particular, peculiar way of looking at genetic sequences and were applying our technology to the genetic inventory of one species after another. The inside joke was that we should write a mail-merge program to write the same paper again and again only changing the name of the species, the tables of data, and a single sentence of the conclusions. The convention in bioscience is that the last author is the PI, the principal investigator, the Gaffer, the one who wrote the grant to land the money for everyone else's paycheck. The first author is often the youngest person in the lab; they are The Effective, the one who has done all the grunt work. As a youngster starting out , the number of first-author papers is what gets you interviewed for a permanent position. Anyone else involved in the project is shovelled into the middle ground. For us there were rarely more than 3 or 4 authors to be listed.

In biomedical science, later on in my career, it was rather different. I remember having a one-side-heated conversation with a post-graduate in the ophthalmic genetics lab one floor down. He was raging because he had been placed 5th / 8 in the billing for the lab's latest paper. He was convinced he should be 4th! I was amazed that someone would a) care b) be so precise in the algebra.  The other thing that used to annoy me when I worked in a hospital setting was that the consultant surgeon and often his registrar would get their names on the scientific papers when all they had contributed was some very delicate butchery to provide the samples which the real scientists had analysed. I said at the time that you should only get your name on a paper if you could present it at a scientific conference if/when The Effective fell sick at the last moment. You can do this if you've written a chunk of the text, or you're the boss, of you've heard & seen the results thrashed out at numerous lab-meetings. The surgeons are far to busy to attend lab meetings in the research centre so they often haven't a clue how their abstracted tissue is analysed.

Sometimes, the paper results from the collision of two different trains of research. Then you have two young turks, of similar seniority, who have both put their all into the project for the last several months. The solution to that is "joint first author". I know at least one case where, the most ambitious and, let's face it, ruthless of the two has gotten his [almost always a he] name physically first among the joint-firsts. Papers are usually cited as Smith, J.  et al. (20xx) so it does make a difference in external perception. So it's very much a case of "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere". In my own case, we were on a collision path when my old boss, who had moved to Nottingham, and my current boss in Dublin found that they were both analysing the same pair of organisms in essentially the same way. My oppo in Nottingham was much younger than me, just starting out and a woman-in-science. Of course, I let her take first-first place in the list of authors.  This helps explain why I am a nobody at The Institute while the other actors here cited are Rulers of Empires at home or abroad.

As I said in the hook at the top of this piece, the ambition, the chutzpah, the meanness are all present in Hollywood. The megastars in any film get top billing on the promotional material. Even if it means the order of names bears zero relationship to the mugshots in the back-ground photo. Actors have agents to fight their corner on this, because the order means money. If two monster stars are neither of them backing down, you can stagger the names so that one is leftest and the other is toppest [R] and let their agents fight over how many pixels higher or lefter their client finishes up.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Homeless is Hopeless

"Homelessness is too often accompanied by hopelessness", that was one of the ideas floated across a packed theatre in The Institute yesterday morning, by Fr Peter McVerry the Voice of the Homeless in Ireland. He is a Jesuit priest who, many years ago was working with school drop-outs in Dublin. One day he found one of his charges, a 9 year old boy, sleeping rough. It was huge eye-opener for the good father as he realised that you'd be at nothing trying to keep kids in school if they don't have a home to go to after school's out. The event shook his certainties and he shifted his focus to set up what eventually became the Peter McVerry Trust. I mentioned him a couple of times last year [bloboprev] getting angry but not truculent about the unwillingness of the Irish government to build homes. For him anger is a driver for change.

McVerry was down with us to launch Volunteer Day at the Institute where students, and others, are encouraged to give a bit of time to Fairtrade; or horse-riding with the disabled; or meals on wheels; or the local hospice; or sorting books for Oxfam. He started off by explaining why he had given a life-time to others
  • it was the christian, or at least the humanitarian, thing to do
  • to express gratitude for the fortunate circumstances of his birth which gave him huge potential . . . if I hadn't joined the Jesuits as a young man. The obvious way to express his thanks was to give back.
    • He noted that these push-pulls had been widespread among the religious in his time. Sadly the implementation of humanitarian protocols had been completely un-audited and so had too often degenerated into abusive relationships.
  • every day he gets some rewarding feedback. Those endorphins are their own reward. Heck, they'd have to; because these guys aren't driving BMWs between their homeless-hostels.
To a hammer everything looks like a nail, you may say, but McVerry makes a good case that having a home is the prerequisite for a) health [TB is on the rise in Dublin rough-sleepers] b) happiness - rates of depression are higher in hostels than in age matched 'homed' people c) productivity - it's hard to apply for a job if you don't have a return-address and it's much harder to hold one down if you can't get a clean shirt together.  Yes, yes, not all homeless people are deranged drug-abusers: the PMcVT has on its books homeless students and homeless professionals. and only a minority of their client base has addiction issues. But these things are globally relative. In Ireland, contra Bangladesh, everyone has access to clean potable water; although we're unwilling to pay for it. Without clean water you don't reach adulthood in many cases; you're dead of the flux before housing becomes an issue.

Later with a rhetorical flourish the old chap (he's 74 but definitely not retired) asked us what was, for those directly affected, the hardest part of homelessness:
  • not the absence of a regular bed; 
  • not the boredom of endless days sitting around without purpose; 
  • not the hunger or junk food. 
What matters most to the homeless is the feeling that nobody cares whether they live or die. It is a strong policy in the PMcVT that
  • phone calls are always returned;
  • stories are always listened to;
  • respect is always shown. 
Even if there is no bed, no sleeping bag, no food parcel, you don't get the door shut in your face.

Challenged by change
And here's the thing, volunteers are generous with their time, yes, but they also benefit from the relationship. They are changed by the encounters with the dispossessed and if they can take the stress of dealing with such troubles, they are changed for the better; on the basis of what kills not, fattens, if no other. If you are the least bit open to The Other, then your certainties, your values, your prejudice will be challenged. Like US Army grunts who fought next to compatriots of a different colour, and came out realising that white people could be kind and some black people were real crap at the blues. For McVerry himself a key moment was when a young chap told him "The fact that god might exist depresses me" which McV took to mean that the boy felt he was always being judged and found wanting / sinful / bad: that his condition was his fault. The priest absorbed this and turned his face from the god of judgement [R] with whom he'd grown up towards a god of compassion.

Now let's be a bit critical of the PMcVT and its work: they're big enough. In 1980s Britain, the weekly satirical cartoon programme Spitting Image mercilessly guyed the royal family, celebrities and, in particular Margaret Thatcher's conservative government. A case has been made that Spitting Image, which had HUGE viewership each week, acted as a safety valve that prevented a revolution against the divisive changes that were being imposed on the British people.  If Peter McVerry and his Trust did not exist, maybe the government would be compelled to vindicate the constitutional rights of all its citizens. That would require a revolution, of course, we'd have to pay more tax, and the useless mouths of the quangocracy would have to find useful work outside the public service. I've been agonising about the ethics of the voluntariat since at least May 2014. But then you may not believe that the government is capable of organising anything more challenging than ordering posters for the next election. If homelessness hurts then you just have to roll up your sleeves and do what you can. For Peter McVerry, like fellow christian Martin Luther [prev], he can do no other.

Fr McVerry talked about how the people in his Trust, by giving time, respect, homes, support, food and hope to the dispossessed, receive as much back in self-esteem and a sense of worth. Thus give and take become an exchange. That resonated with me strongly because last week I'd seen a fascinating video about Proto-Indo European and what we can deduce about the culture of these our ancestors from linguistic analysis. It turns out the PIE word for give is the same as the word for receive/take! Exchange to mutual benefit is in our DNA. I barrelled up to him  after his talk and shared this insight to him, which meant I got to shake his hand - an honour.
The Peter McVerry Trust is in the middle of a fund-raiser:

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

International Day of the Girl Child

IDG? That would be today, 11th October as it has been for each of the last 5 or 6 years. I like girls, I shared a house with a couple of them for about 20 years and I was delighted to see them grow up straight and tall; becoming canny and independent young women. But, notwithstanding my Victorian father demeanour and insistence that they wear sailor-suits and sing a lot, Dau.I and Dau.II had a relatively easy time of it. With no brothers of similar age, they weren't made to do more than their share of the chores; I didn't insist that they marry a crusty farmer from up the valley; they got access to education even if it was not in school [how - result (whc applies also to Dau.I)]. It's rougher for girls in, say, Africa just because they are girls and the local culture doesn't seem to value or appreciate them. Which is damned . . . stupid, according to Caitlin Moran. Although our girls didn't go to school, I can see that for poor, disenfranchised, girls formal school is a way out of the poverty trap. Reading empowers especially if you don't have an iPad. Chess is good too.

Worldwide here are 1.1 billion girls - females under the age of 13 - and collectively they do 550 hours of housework every day: which is about 40% more than their brothers contribute. But wait, that's only 30 minutes each a day; doesn't sound oppressive to anyone who grew up on am Irish farm like our girls. But there are girls out there, from the First World, who can't boil an egg or sew on a button, let alone make a dress or make a soufflé; let alone let alone fetch 25lt water from a distant well before school and gather firewood on the way home, so I guess the average isn't really the useful statistic.

Much earlier in the year, girls around the world were asked to send in stories about how they triumphed in an adversity which was brought upon them because they had two X chromosomes. Today, at UN HQ in NY NY, they are having a symposium to hear these voices. Can't be there but can bring you some vids on the general subject
Well there wasn't much joy in any of that, eh. Clearly something is wrong with the world. But here's something you can do today. Find a girl, any example will do, give her a big hug and tell her that she is stonkin' wonderful. You'll promptly get arrested by the pedophile thought-police which will help the child remember the event for longer. Recognising your sacrifice on her behalf will ensure that she walks taller, and takes additional classes in assertiveness, which will be good for everyone she encounters. It's a plan.