Monday, 30 September 2013

Two weeks down at The Institute

Friday was a short one because I was able to pack up my kit and light out of The Institute at 10 minutes to 4.  I still had two batches of lab books to mark, but the deadline was "close of business" on the day after the lab practical and 70 minutes kicking my heels waiting for any stragglers who might turn stuff in was too much.  So I was outta there!

I've been able to hold on to my two lecture courses - Human Physiology and Environmental Chemistry - but the rest of my hours are in practical sections in courses which are totally different from what I taught last academic year.  So there is going to be more "well chaps let's learn how to do this together". That is probably a much better learning experience for the students than having the local expert in charge.  So I've been learning more stuff - or re-learning it after a 30 year gap which is effectively the same thing.  And it's a joy to be working with young people who are clearly much more competent than me in at least some aspects of science.  When I couldn't get the lid of the autoclave (fancy pressure-cooker for sterilising microbiological media) off after it cooled down to 95oC, one of my students helpfully pointed out that opening the pressure valve would relieve the airlock - and it was so. I've been terrified of pressure-cookers ever since my mother told us kids about the lid of one blowing off in a neighbour's kitchen and disappearing through the ceiling. So it was nice to know that someone in the room understood them. I'd taught half of this class last year and one of them remarked that story was like the one I'd told in March about the arm of an unbalanced ultra-centrifuge accelerating through the side of the machine at 10000 km/s² and going through a concrete-block wall, which happened in my old English workplace a year after I left. Those stories may quite possibly be the only information she can remember about the course in 20 years time.

Apart from boning up the science to be at least 12 hours ahead of the students, I've been hard at work learning the names of all the new faces.  Not all the faces are new: my Bio 2C group which I had for two different classes last year has emerged from their summer crysalis as half of Bio 3B (N=14) and half of Bio 3C (N=16); and half of my Quantitative Methods Mixed Group 3 have become my final year Environmental Chemistry class (N=10).  But I have six sections of first years, so I definitely haven't met any of them before: Biology 1A(N=13); Biology 1B (N=16), Quant Meth 1C (N=12); Quant Meth 1D (N=18); Cell Bio 1A (N=12), Cell Bio 1B (N=18).  That's close to 130 people to meet, suss out and  remember the names of.  I'm about 25% solid on the last task. I'm hoping that Institute Central will have the class photos up on-line early next week so I can nail the rest of the names. 

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Rehearsing for Chernobyl

Anyone in Western Europe who is over 40 will remember when Chernobyl blew up and melted down in 1986.  It could have put a damper on my consumption of Dandelion Wine but I renamed it Chateau Dandelion et Strontium and chugged down all 30 bottles anyway.  People of my mother's generation would have had similar memories of Kyshtym 29 years earlier, if they had known about it at the time. Russians would have called it Кыштымская авария (Kyshtym accident, crash, wreck, glitch) if they had known, but the vast majority of them were kept ignorant of the disaster until decades later. 

This was because it happened at a secret location in the Urals where the Russians were developing their nuclear energy/missile program. So secret that the actual location of the accident, the Mayak plant next to the New City of Ozyorsk, didn't appear on any maps, so it was named after the nearest named village.  It was years before people realised that the Earth was not an infinitely capacious toilet for our crap and the Russians had been carelessly running radio-active waste into local lakes and rivers.  Then in 1953 the plants operatives started to store liquid waste in large steel tanks stored underground on a concrete plinth and capped with a 160 ton concrete lid.  They knew that radioactive material gives off heat as it decays, so had installed a cooling system round each group of tanks. It must have been Boy-Chemist's Heaven in the Mayak plant because they were not only tricking about with a variety of fissile materials but also had access to such reg'lar explosives as Ammonium Nitrate which were all stored together.

On 29 September 1957, the cooling system failed and nobody noticed until there was a tremendous bang as some overheated Ammonium Nitrate exploded.  The double-decker-bus-sized lid blew into the air on a plume of hot gas loaded with radioactive caesium-137 and strontium-90. They estimated afterwards that the explosion was modest enough was (about 100 tons of TNT equivalent) but, unlike the 5x larger Sailor Hat, it was a dirty bomb and the wind carried its radioactive load at least 300km to the North-East.  The Russians were as casual about the welfare of their indigenous people as the Americans were about the Native North Americans and it took a while for them to get round to evacuating some 20 villages housing 10,000 people.  We can with 100% hindsight chid them for this cavalier attitude but my reading of the radioactive dose (40-500 mSv, depending on how close they were to ground zero), is that it was tolerable.  The notes for my Environmental Chemistry class (about a reliable as something you heard in the pub) suggest that 250 mSv in a single jolt will significantly reduce your white blood cell count, while 1000 mSv will up your chance of cancer by 5%.  I probably took on-board 40 mSv from the hot wine. Anyway, such a mishap was definitely an own-goal in the Cold War Cup and the whole thing was hushed up.  I daresay they would have wanted to do the same with Chernobyl a generation later, but the wind was in the opposite direction that weekend and the radio-active sophistication of everyone had increased considerably.  So the Swedes noticed that the air was hot and had figured out where it was coming from long before there was any official acknowledgment from the Ukraine.

Apparently the CIA knew all about Kyshtym within the year, but kept quiet about it so that the great American public wouldn't go all wobbly on their own nuclear program.  It required the ex-Soviet (they revoked his passport) dissident biologist Zoares Medvedev to lay out the nature and extent of the disaster in New Scientist in 1977. He was sufficiently near the inner circle, and a key player in samizdat circulation, to know the details and having left the country was free to spill the beans, albeit 20 years after the fact.

Kyshtym was a "level 6" incident.  The third most serious that the planet has experienced:
Level 7 Fukushima Daiichi March 2011
Level 7 Chernobyl April 1986
Level 6 Kyshyma September 1957
Level 5 Three Mile Island March 1979
Level 5 Chalk River December 1952
And in case my Irish readers start flapping about the Windscale fire across the water in Oct 1957, I can tell you that it is in the ha'penny place.  A trifling 20 kCi (Kilocuries) of radioactivity was released there, while the Kyshtym explosion popped off 100x more: 2MCi.  And that was in the ha'penny place compared to the amount (120MCi) that the Soviet Nuclear program dribbled into Lake Karachay from the Mayak plant over the years.  And if you use a microwave oven, a sandwich toaster, a hair-drier then it's all your fault.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Ulster fries the data

On dit que the last signature on the Ulster Covenant was obtained on 28 September 1912 and the project was declared closed .  .  . or open for business.  If you don't live in The North you may be forgiven for knowing nothing and caring less about a document that was signed just over a hundred years ago to protest the idea that Ireland-the-island would be accorded a measure of Home Rule.  Frederick Crawford, Firearms Liaison Officer of the UVF and successful gun-runner, claimed to have signed the Covenant in blood.  Forensic analysis 100 years later showed that, while his signature is definitely red it a) has not faded and b) has no trace of iron and so it is very unlikely that Crawford was telling the truth.  It's a bit like Oscar Wilde's Canterville Ghost borrowing Virginia E Otis's paint-set to keep the "terrible stain of blood" on the floor and using up all her crimson, magenta, scarlet and finally resorting to purple and blue.

The most recent General Election before the Covenant started circulating was held in 1910 and the Census of the Western European Archipelago says that there were 17,448,476 males on the islands (women hadn't been enfranchised yet, so we can ignore them in matter electoral), of which 38% were too young to vote.  So the eligible voters comes out at 10,818,000.  But in the December 1910 Election, only 4,875,000 votes were cast: a turn out of 45% which seems about the right amount of interest in the normal democratic process.

As well as the ink, I think that the accepted numbers could do with a skeptical forensic analysis as well.  It is claimed 471,414 adult men and women signed the Covenant (for those with a Y chromosome) or the Declaration (XX people only).  According to the 1911 census, there were 1,582,000 people in the province of Ulster (9 counties) at the time.  That breaks down as 674,000 Roman Catholics; 838,000 'Protestants' and 70,000 'other'.  The Census at the CSO also says that of those 38% were under the age of 18 and so technically ineligible. That means that of the 0.38 x 838,000 = 519,000 who were a) eligible and b) at all likely to sign (Protestants) such a document, 471,000 (91%) did so.

I suggest that is as credible as the claim that 93% of Albanians voted for Enver Hoxha in the elections of 1945 that gave him a mandate to set up his Maoist-Marxist Paradise on the Adriatic. The signatories have all be digistised and you can search for names or addresses, agents, electoral divisions.  So there are definitely nearly 500,000 signatures on nearly 50,000 pieces of paper:
Here is one of  210 Bobs, for example.  When you look at the database, it turns out that the constituency is much wider than Ulster, with batches of sign-ups from many counties in the rest of Ireland, many areas of The Mainland (including "Plymouth, Cornwall" N=9 which wrong wrong nearly right), Canada (N=56), Australia (N=39), At Sea (N=39), China (N=9).  So that puts a wee hole in my maths but only puts a wee dent my skepticism. 

Friday, 27 September 2013

Give me Liberty

. . . or give me death.  Because so few of my readers are US Citizens, I have to complete a phrase like that.  It was the last resounding sentence in a speech made in March 1775 by Patrick Henry: one of the key revolutionaries in the American War of Independence. He wasn't about to accord either option to the 5 dozen slaves that he owned, but the phrase has become part of the rhetoric of right-wing democracy ever since. It has been reduced to a Globish soundbyte on the New Hampshire licence-plate:
It also had the curious effect of naming the most numerous class of mass-produced uniform shipping ever produced.  In WWII as the the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine were sinking far more ships than the British could replace, the British government designed and put in orders for a new type of 10,000 ton general cargo ship that would be made of steel plates welded together rather than rivetted.  This reduced the construction time and required fewer skilled workers, so it was hoped that sufficient replacement ships would be produced before the beleaguered Brits were starved into submission.

The first ship of this new design was laid down in the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore and launched by President FD Roosevelt on Liberty Fleet Day, 27th September 1941. 14 ships were launched at yards all over the country on the same day but Baltimore is just down the road from Washington, so it was the obvious place for the President to make himself available to break a bottle of champagne against the bows of a ship.  In his speech at the slip, FDR alluded to the 1775 speech, named the vessel the SS Patrick Henry and said that the new ships would bring liberty to Europe.  So the whole class became known as Liberty Ships.  It seems an extraordinarily partisan statement to make given that neutral and isolationist USA was holding aloof from a war in Europe that was then more than 2 years old.  It was 75 days before Pearl Harbour.

The design proved to be extremely successful and eventually more than 2700 were built.  The time for construction was dramatically reduced from an average of 230 days to about six weeks as the ship-yards geared up, got more skilled and practiced economies of scale.  The economics inevitably meant the corners were cut in the quality of some of the materials and some of the sub-standard steel had a tendency to brittle fractures: small cracks tended to propagate from stress-points like the square corners of hatches. Cracks could propagate across welds where they would have been stopped by a rivetted joint.  So a number of Liberty Ships, which were 135m long, broke in half during or immediately after storms like a paperclip after repeated bending back and forth.  The key work of metallurgical forensics was carried out by a brilliant British crystallographer and engineer called Constance Tipper.  If there were real problems in the design of Liberty ships rather than the quality of the workmanship or materials, then a lot more than 12 of the 2700 would have worked themselves to oblivion.  With a design-life of only 5 years, several of them were still working at sea 30 years later. With so many Liberty Ships at sea they collectively experienced everything that could happen to ships in general.  At least 89% of them survived the war but others sank, ran aground, the struck mines (several going down years after the war was over), a couple blew up in spectacular fashion and two of them survived The Beloved's Dad:
Hull #1863 was launched in August 1943 as SS William I Kip, renamed SS Sampan and leased to the Union-Castle Mail Company
Hull# 2196 launched Nov 1943 as SS Barrett Wendell and leased to Royal Mail Lines as SS Samphill.  Because they were all essentailly the same, I need only show you one:
SS Samphill
It made Pat's job as a cook-steward a lot easier because the cocoa, tinned butter, powdered eggs and (most importantly) the tea were all stored in the same place on both ships.  Aristotle Onassis, who married President Kennedy's widow, made his fortune by buying surplus Liberty Ships after the War and parlaying them into a shipping empire.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Johnny Appleseed

John Chapman was born in Leominster, Mass, on 26 Sept 1774.  He has come down to us as a semi-mythical Johnny Appleseed, spitting apple seeds into hedgerows all over the mid-west of the New Republic and thereby feeding starving settlers for generations to come.  It's a bit like that, but not really, he certainly planted orchards in Pennsylvania, the first in the evocatively named Brokenstraw Creek, and later in Ohio. Orchards from cuttings were/are far more likely to grow up to bear edible (or drinkable) fruit. Propagating from seed is much more of a lottery as the genes get all mixed up when a Daddy Apple loves a Mummy Apple very much.  On the Frontier, the apples were not used much for eating but rather for crushing and fermenting into cider which was an integral part of the diet as beer was for William Cobbett's yeomen at about the same time the other side of The Pond. Chapman died of testicular cancer in 1845 aged 70, probably near Fort Wayne Indiana, so he was still traveling West when he went west.

Ireland has a similar story but it's about saving from destruction rather than starting anew.  Dr Keith Lamb was born in 1919 and got his doctorate on the back of the dozens of indigenous varieties of apple Malus domestica that he collected in the 1940s.  He got on his bicycle and went all over the country from UCD, following leads and his nose and bringing back cuttings which he propagated in the grounds of Albert College in Glasnevin.  In those days, every county, indeed different sections of each county. had its own local apple varieties which the local people liked. One can exaggerate the micro-climatic and ecotypic advantages of a given variety being in the place where Dr Lamb found it.  Nevertheless the variety of varieties was evidence of considerable cultural differentiation within our New Republic.  The very names enrich our experience of the natural and culinary world: "Honey Ball, Greasy Pippin, Lady’s Finger, Maiden’s Blush, and Widow’s Friend".  Albert College, at that time the seat of UCD's Department of Agriculture, had a couple of hundred hectares available and accorded Dr Lamb a small corner for his heritage orchard.  In 1964, UCD acquired and started to develop their Belfield Campus in the South of the city, so they sold most of the Albert College estate to Dublin Corporation for housing - including the infamous Ballymun Flats that were knocked down a few years ago as unfit for human habitation.  This is all fine - people must be housed.  But nobody knew what to do with Dr Lamb's apple trees, so they were bull-dozed into a corner and burned.  Very slow hand-clap, lads!

A generation later, Annie Appleseed - Anita Hayes - woke up to that fact that the gene pool of Irish apples was being squeezed through a very strait gate.  The Hayes family used to live in the scut end of South Co Carlow a very few miles from Chateau Bob. Anita started her life's work of pulling irreplacable genetic combinations & generations of developed disease resistance out of the bonfires that were flaring up across the country as people started buying Golden Delicious from France because they were so Golden, so Delicious, so cheap, so uniform and so berluddy boring.  It beggars belief that people would drive into town and buy apples when they can nip over the wall and scrump them from their elderly farming neighbours.  Anita left Carlow in 1996 (at about the same time we blew in) and started Irish Seed Savers near Scarriff, Co Clare.  I doubt if Anita goes places by 1940s bicycle, but she has certainly done amazing work to preserve the genetic heritage, the gene-bank of Irish plants - and not just apples. A few years ago, we sent them cuttings from the five, all different, leggy and ancient, apple-trees that we have at the bottom of our haggard.

More recently Alan Ryan has driven forward a project Restoring an early 19th Century walled garden belonging to Tintern Abbey in South County Wexford.  Rather than trying to save what was still in existence 70 years ago as Keith Lamb did or saving a fraction of what was then left to us after two generations of neglect and incremental loss like Anita Hayes, Alan Ryan has tasked the Colclough Walled Garden team to pull apple varieties out of the very maw of history: he is not interested in Victorian breeds and varieties - they are a) too modern and b) anachronistic for the spirit of the place which he and his team a re-creating.  You have to admire that sort of obsessive attention to detail.  And it's not just apples for him either.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


I was going on about whether Lallans (lowlands) aka Scots was a language or a dialect in the context of the poetry of Rabbie Burns and Hugh MacDiarmaid and reflecting that while it was possible to read and understand text in Scots, it was not easy for the Saxons south of the borrrder.  You can see why they (we) might get a little tetchy at such places as the The Scots Language Society where they take no prisoners in how they write their manifestoes.  And be snitty about "televeision" being the same as standard English but phonetically (i.e. badly) spelled  and the way written Scots is very careless about losing its consonants (gie for give; an for and; awfu for awful).  But I applaud anything that maintains diversity of language and culture because we are losing languages - forever - worldwide at an alarming rate.

So if you find Scots difficult, but want to support the cause, find out more about it, and boost your vocabulary a bit, I give a puff for a new Tintin book called The Derk Isle which is written/translated into Scots by Susan Rennie. Apparently she went directly from French to Scots bypassing English, so that will emphasise the differences as well. You can buy it on-line for £8 at ScotlandMusic.  It's so much easier to make sense of the language if you have a few pictures to carry the story.  But I should warn you that they've changed the white dog's name to Tarrie as the Anglophones changed it to Snowy from the original Milou.  The same publishers have also made the same story available in Gaelic as An t-Eilean Dubh. That's also available for £8.  But the gaelgoirs have called the dog Dileas (Scotia) which is just wrong, because Milou/Snowy/Tarrie is clearly not a Scots terrier but more of a wire-haired fox terrier - ask Google.  Tsk! You can read a review of the (ad)venture(s) in The Scotsman.  If you scroll down the comments after that article you can read a curmudgeonly comment about more people speaking Polish and Urdu in Scotland than Gaelic (whatever about Scots) and so this is a waste of the tax-payers money that subsidised the Gaelic edition into print.

I disagree.  I have a good pal and neighbour who, up until the Financial Collapse of 2007, was an Arts Officer in the next county over. She now makes films. She was, back than, on a short-term contract (like all the best people) and I predicted that she and people like her would (and by implication should) be the first to lose their comfy government billet.  Whereas I, and scientists like me, would (should) be given a longer tether because we were, or had the potential to be, delivering something of economic value.  She replied (I paraphrase) that there was more to life than money and that she, and people like her, were equipping people for the inevitable years of hard graft by helping to develop their aesthetic appreciation, their sense of wonder and delight and a belief that Quality (which may be all that matters) can be found if you go out and look for it.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The 1976 Bread Line

In 1976, we rented a cottage in Monkstown Farm, near Dun Laoghaire Co Dublin.  The price was right - £60 / month - and it was huge: four bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room and a large weedy old garden behind and sort of a lawn in front.  At the end of summer it was idyllic.  I dug up a couple of kilos of dandelion root, chopped and dried them to make "coffee". The Boy was crawling and it seemed a fitly romantic place for him to grow a bit more.  Through all the moves, we've kept a hard-covered note book which starts optimistically with financial accounts for the new venture.  About three weeks later, the disciplined itemisation of the nature and cost of all the food we bought, dribbled off.  A couple of blank pages later, the book finds another use "SEPTEMBER 1984 RECIPES USED".

So I thought it might be interesting and even instructive to record the data for Dau.II as she manages her own culinary affairs a generation later.  I think what strikes us now is how simple it all was.  We got two pints of milk delivered to the house in glass bottles every day, occasionally three (you left a note out for the milkman in the empty bottles put out for collection).  The other thing is that there seems to be a helluva a lot of sugar consumed.  A pound of dabs Limanda limanda was 30p - less than a pound of hamburger and much less than a pound of cheese.  We shan't see those prices again.

The prices are all in decimal pence.  It was two-and-a-half years since we had moved from a truly medieval currency: 12 pennies (d for denarius) to the shilling (s for solidus); 20 shillings to the pound (fancy-L for libra) so called £.s.d.  These pennies must be multiplied by 1.27 to convert to euro-cents.  But we have lived through several cycles of currency inflation, so you can't buy a pint of milk for 7p anymore.  Nevertheless, you get money values so stuck in your head and it's hard to shake them.  The weekly total in the second table suggests that the three of us lived a week on £5.20: call it €6.65 in today's money.  So you can see why I used to blench when I saw graduate students, in the Celtic Tiger boom times, spending more than half that on a soda and sandwich for a single lunch.

I've looked up the Consumer Price Index at and WolframAlpha.  This has fluctuated quite wildly (the cost of stuff was rising at 20% in 1975/1976 and was going down, briefly, in 2009; but has been creeping up at an average ~5% over the last 37 years.  1.052^37 says that things are 6.5x more expensive now than then because of inflation.  The final 2 does matter here because of the ^37 exponent: 1.05^37 is only 6x. And you have to multiply everything by 1.27 for conversion to the Euro.  So multiply everything in the table by 8 (and a quarter if you're pedantic).  Call a pint (570ml) = half a litre and a pound/lb (450g) = half a kilo?
Milk 7 x 8 x 2 = €1.12/lt; Bread = €1.80 loaf; Sugar = €1.80/kg; kg of mince €4.50.
 Q. What do you reckon the 'eggs' are: 6x or 12x ?

And I should add that the romantic glaze fell from our eyes when winter kicked in.  The huge kitchen was impossible to heat properly and ruinously expensive to heat inadequately and we left the cottage the following summer.
p Sat 18 Sept p Mon 20 Sept p Thu 23 Sept p Sat 25 Sept
28 mince 3.5 pepper 7 milk 15 oranges
22.5 sugar 2 lb 7 milk 1pt 9.5 margarine 10 1lb carrots
28 eggs 22.5 bread 13.5 beans 16 2lb onions
43 fish-fingers 23 onions 22.5 bread 15 1lb tomatoes
18 margarine x2 8 carrots 19 sausages 30 dabs
9.5 pasta 15.5 matches 20.5 sugar 15 1lb spinach
15 white pudding 60 cheese 27.5 eggs 18 1lb beans
12.5 beans 24 peas 12 biscuits 25 mince
17.5 onions 15 tomatoes 22.5 bread 19 margarine
7 milk  13.5 beans 19 sausages
And more
p Mon 27 Sept p Fri 01 Oct p Sat 02 Oct (cont) p Weekly Total
7 milk 22.5 sugar 14.5 oats 112 milk
60 cheese 15.5 white pudding 22 meat 70 bread
4.5 buttermilk 18 margarine 18 margarine 23.5 sugar
22.5 sugar 56 cheese 20.5 bread 48 margarine
Wed 29 Sept 9 carrots 13 tin tomatoes 36 flour
16 lemons 5 buttermilk 14 milk x 2 100 cereals
20.5 bread 119 milk bill 10.5 peas 72 cheese
7 milk Sat 02 Oct 5 pepper 60 eggs
14 onions 26 Toilet paper 7 lemon ?? beans
 7 milk 14.5 salt   £5.20 Total

Monday, 23 September 2013


Ten year ago today, the QI Talk Forum started with  a post about the Battle of Hastings.  QI is best known as the erudite TV quiz programme fronted by Stephen Fry, but they publish books as well and support this bulletin board. I didn't hear about the place where Quite Interesting people gathered-with-cockltails for another month, when I sounded off about DNA, and again a week later about Orange, you can search for all my contributions or indeed any contribution about aNNything under the sun.  It is always good to get into something when it is small and growing like The Beloved getting in on the Ground Floor of Sinclair's ZX80 and ZX81. Or Brian Naughton being the 4th Hire at 23andMe. I thought at the time that I was quite the Johnny-come-lately as there were 28 people already registered before I woke up to the resource:
RegNo Name
5 Flash
7 garrick92
8 Mennochio
12 Jenny
13 Frances
18 JumpingJack
23 Woodsman
25 Frederick The Monk
29 BobTheScientist
I compiled that table about six months ago and put it here as a good example of turn-over.  People get involved, they contribute, they drift off or lose interest or get a job abroad.  I wrote earlier about something completely different where 51/59 people had changed over a period of three years. That first poster idlerdan only made three contributions, the last in Nov 2003. And users 3 4 6 9 10 11 etc haven't said anything for the last couple of years and so are missing presumed dead-to-QI.  I can't remember exactly, but I think I obsessively checked on the first 50 or 100 QI RegNos and found that almost all of them had sprung up like desert blooms after rain and then dried up and blown away.  That's proper order.

The numbers of contributors-ever on QI is now nearly 40,000.  That's a small town of people all chatting away.  And there have been a good many more than 1 million posts, not all particularly exciting.  The most recent being "Glad to hear all went well!".  But that sums up the Community nature of this virtual place.  It's like a family and I think it gives a lot of smart, often young, people support and access to like-minded, curious (indeed some decidedly odd) people, which they may not find in the real terrestrial small town where they buy their newspaper.

I'll take this ten-years-on chance to say thanks.  I've learned a lot from all of you.  I've been too busy working in The Institute (and bloggin' of course) recently to tune in to QI/talk much nowadays.  But I do still occasionally look for jokes.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Bob the Island

I was reading the other day about Harry 'Chips' McNish, who was part of the crew on the epic 1500km voyage which Shackleton made from Elephant Island to South Georgia in an open boat after his ship Endurance was crushed in the pack-ice in 1916. McNish died destitute in New Zealand in 1930 aged 56.  A good many years later the United Kingdom Antarctic Place-Names Committee named a small island near South Georgia after him on the recommendation of the British Antarctic Survey.

It made me wonder about who gets appointed to such a committee, what the qualifications are and how much you get paid.  Because I'm ready and willing to do my bit for such a venture . . . if the pay and conditions are satisfactory.  I'd name a couple of Capes and Mountains after myself:  Bob Glacier, Scientist Peak; and then start in on my friends and relations: Rissoles Bay, Cape Beloved, Daughters' Creek, that sort of thing.

pfffffft - my delusions of nomenclature collapsed in a heap when I discovered that another quango called SCAR the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research maintains a searchable Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica with notes and locations of all the named places down in The Great White and there is already a Bob Island: "Rocky island 1 mi long and 145 m high, lying 4 mi SE of Cape Errera, Wiencke Island, in the Palmer Archipelago." But they aren't 100% sure where it is.  The Yanks think it's at 64° 56' 00.0" S 63° 26' 00.0" , the Brits reckon it's 64° 57' 00.0" S 63° 27' 00.0" W. At that latitude a minute (1/60th of a degree) is about 1km in the difference.  So I hunted it down on Google Maps, where it looks a bit like a cloud - maybe it floats around?
It was named for  Robert "Bob" Frederic, nephew of Adrien de Gerlache, leader of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1898 who surveyed and photographed a number of islands in the Palmer Archipelago to the West of the peninsula.  By the rules of priority it should be named Îlot Famine.  But there was a nephew to be honoured and nobody died in the famine. It has, for a small, frozen, uninhabited island acquired a number of other cognomens.  It is claimed, along with the whole Palmer Peninsula by Chile (Isla Poisson and/or Isla Poison), Argentina ( Isla Bob, Isla Bailey and/or Isla Bayley) and the UK (Bob Island).  If anyone goes visiting, bring me back a pebble from the beach, please.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Growing out in Ireland

Growing Up in Ireland was headed up by Sheila Greene of TCD and James Williams of the ESRI in 2006, and funded by the Irish government. Professor Greene retired in 2011, but many of the project workers are still associated with TCD.  It is a longitudinal study, set up to record the social, medical and psychological progress of two cohorts of Irish children one starting in 2008 aged 9 months and the other at 9 years.  The initial plan was to track the same children over a period of 7 years finishing in 2015.  The current Minister of Children Frances Fitzgerald this Summer gave appro for an extension of the study from 2015 to 2019.  That way there will be age overlap between the two cohorts and we can see whether the recession has impacted on our children.

Aisling Murray, one of the effectives, was deftly fielding questions on Newstalk Radio yesterday morning as I drove to work.  There are shedloads of data in the study because the cohorts are large: N=11,000 for the 'infants' and N=8500 for the were-9-year-olds.  There are scads and scads of pages to read too, so I won't be able to give anything like an executive summary of the 31 page (!) executive summary of the report at the 3rd Birthday milestone which was launched yesterday.  The whole project is laid out at  But I will abstract one observation from the parallel nine-year-olds study.  First the good news: 75% of 9 year olds are not fat.  The bad news is that 25% are either overweight (19%) or obese (6%). 

Is that bad? Is that anomalous? Not in contemporary terms. If we compare those bald figures to some data from NCSL in the USA it is clear that Ireland barely scrapes into the large league:
The green arrow indicates the position of Ireland.  ExCel has printed every other state.  You might try to guess which are the intervening (even-numbered) states. Guess where Arkansas is, for example.  The GUI study has some, to me, pretty shocking statements about the incidence of asthma as well but I won't report them here and now in case we get too depressed altogether.

Friday, 20 September 2013

We got the T-shirt and he's got us

Inné an institiúid fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. I write like that because everyone yesterday afternoon was stumbling out their cúpla focal to prove that they suffered through 12 years of Irish in school.  Our Leader Enda Kenny was on campus, not to open (it's a bit behind schedule), but to name the new Research and Innovation Centre.  Luckily he was late (I guess he's got a country to run) because I was teaching my Human Physiology class at 1300hrs when he was due to arrive.  I was able to get a quick bite of lunch after class, then see him getting out of his modest-enough car and start pressing the flesh as he worked the crowd to the big room where the ceremony was to take place.  I'm not a politician-groupie so I wasn't interested in shaking his hand although several of my colleagues got to make contact. It is a little ironic as our Union is likely to bring us out of strike in the next weeks and lose us all a few days pay.  You'd think that a quiet word in Hissonour's ear: "what d'ye reckon the chances for Mayo in the GAA final this weekend, Enda, and what about rowing back on the ould austerity for our members?" just might get a useful response; whereas no word, no placard, no protest and let's all eat canapés will convince him that we're all a bunch of spineless lick-spittles who can be safely pushed into the corner and ignored.  The canapés were lovely.

The building will be named for William Dargan the engineer and technologist from just outside Carlow Town (and quite possibly from outside the county), rather than John Tyndall the pure scientist from Leighlinbridge.  That's proper order for a Technical Institute. And get this: "darganfod" is Welsh for discovery!  I know this because 12 hours after the event the only mention of Dargan on The Institute's website is ". . .ydd eu hangen er mwyn chwilio, darganfod, sgrinio syniad busnes . . .".  The Publicity Liaison Officer will update www in due course.  The best part of the day was a speech by a James Dargan-Ward the closest living relative to William "dsp" Dargan.  This was short, straight-forward, witty and chock-full of information about the man we were honouring.  If that Dargan-Ward is this Dargan-Ward, "English and Italian teacher & sometime gimmicky Shakespeare blogger" then you can see one reason why the Arts Block has its uses.  I'll be reading his blog in future - sure to be good copy.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Big Cat, deadly viruses

I'm a bit of a celeb-groupie and have thrown my underwear on the stage at a good few scientific meetings.  Although I'm not sure what the famous scientists make of, or do with, my capacious boxers. Readers aside "What is it with yer man Bob's obsession with underwear, could he not keep it in his trousers?".  I wrote about how James Lovelock may have remembered me at a book signing in Dublin a few years back.  I left Boston 30 years ago this month to take up my first teaching position in a British University.  Six weeks later Stephen J. O'Brien came to visit my Gaffer because they (and indeed we) had a very strong interest in the genetics of cats big and small.  So I missed that meeting.

Last night I was able to catch up because O'Brien was in the Royal Irish Academy talking about his life's work.  Strictly, he was talking about some fragments of his life's work because we didn't have a two day symposium to hear about the whole 750 paper (so far) opus.  But those fragments were woven into a compelling story that started with inbreeding in Cheetahs Acinonyx jubatus and reflecting on how this reduction in genetic diversity laid them open to attack by pathogens.  The case study was a devastating epidemic of Feline Immune-deficiency Virus (FIV) at a wild-life park in Oregon. From there we went on a romp solemn funeral procession through the Black Death, Plague, Smallpox, SARS and HIV, tallying up the thousands and millions of people who have succumbed to infection down the years. O'Brien's group made a crucial contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS in identifying a mutation in the CCR5 receptor (CD195) which blocks the invasion of T-cells by the virus HIV.  If you have two copies of this gene variant, you will have considerable resistance to attack by this virus.  

You can find out whether you have that resistant status by sending $100 to 23andme in California.  Their genetic analysis will not only tell you whether you have a touch of the tar brush in your ancestry but will lay out your details for numerous medically relevant gene variants including CCR5-delta32.  But before you go off to celebrate your delta32-homozygosity with a spree of unprotected sex in sub-Saharan Africa, you should reflect on what reg'lar CCR5 is doing on the surface of T-cells.  It turns out that, among other things, two copies of the delta32 mutation lays you wide open to infection by West Nile Virus.  Indeed, as WNV has spread globally (thanks to those Bs Boeing, British Airways and Budget Travel), you can't safely go on your sex-spree aNNywhere. Dang!

That was an evening well spent and tribs to my pal Emma Teeling from UCD's Earth Institute for making it happen.  She worked with O'Brien, on SARS and other things, for three years when he has a Big Cat in NIH.  It's just wonderful that international networking can pay such dividends for the education of the Plain People of Ireland.  And this was the first in a series of talks to launch the new meta-Department, mega-School, so that's a lot to look forward to

But enough already about saving millions of lives in sub-Saharan Africa, what about ME?  After the talk I sidled over to the Honored Guest and introduced myself.  I could see that he was, with punctilious politeness, only half-listening to my story of having missed meeting him a generation earlier when suddenly he twigged the connexion between me and my Gaffer in Boston and lit up.  He said some blushingly complementary things about the tuthree papers we'd written on the population genetics of domestic cats back in another place and another time. So that was an evening really well spent.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


"A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."  That was how Dr Samuel Johnson described himself after spending nearly a decade assembling one of the great dictionaries of the world.  He was/is known widely as Dr Johnson but he never earned it in the normal way, although he was eventually given an honorary doctorate by Trinity College Dublin when he was in his mid 50s.  Like everyone of his generation he had two birthdays OS and NS to take account of the change (in the United Kingdom) from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar on 14 September 1752.  So Johnson was born on 7th Sept 1709 (OS) but the day was/is generally celebrated after 1752 on 18th September.  For example, his birthplace Lichfield is having a knees-up this weekend.

And to show that  Lexicography is alive and well and living in Chicago, check out Erin McKean and her on-line meta-dictionary wordnik, which offers a word-a-day.  But then so does Anu Garg at AWAD.  McKean's Law aka Muphry's Law: "Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error." been there, done that.

No scientist today working on whatever sort of contract, would tolerate the privations that Johnson endured at the centre of a life in letters.  His great indignant rolling polemic against his 'patron' the Earl of Chesterfield "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it." calls forth a Wildean "I wish I'd said that", and serves to illustrate how his rich pals imagined that he could live on air and invective.

Johnson was famous for other things, like his opinion of The Giant's Causeway "Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see; or his eulogy to our own Oliver Goldsmith "No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had" a sentiment echoed in verse by David Garrick 
"Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,
Who wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll
and his bewildered contempt for Scotland through which he was dragged by his friend and biographer James Boswell: ". . .the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England. But it is dictionary that we credit and excerpt today.

COUGH A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity.
DEPUCELATE: To bereave of virginity. 
NETWORK Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.
OATS A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
PATRON One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is repaid in flattery.
PENSION An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.

And for dessert, less you think that Johnson's is the only dictionary with a sense of humour:
ECLAIR A cake, long in shape but short in duration (Chambers 20th Century).

Viva la Arts Block!

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Another Herzog heard from

Apart from coming between Hungary and Jamaica  in an alphabetic list of countries, Ireland and Israel have certain historical parallels.  Both are recent additions to the list; both were/are partitioned; both were mid-wifed into existence by bombs and kidnappings and neither left that sort of thing behind after they got their seat at the UN.  Ireland, a generation older, seems to be emerging from that cycle of reciprocal atrocity.

As you know, I'm rather a fan of Werner Herzog the film director.  I'm also rather a fan of another Herzog, no relation, one-time President of Israel, who makes a nice connexion between the two countries. Chaim Herzog was born in Belfast and grew up in Dublin, going to Wesley College, despite the fact that he was Jewish rather than Methodist.  It would have been hard to conceal this fact as his Da was the Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State, as well as being a fully engaged Gaelgoir republican.

Young Chaim left home at 17 and emigrated to Palestine where he joined Haganah one of the militant organisations that was campaigning for a Jewish homeland. They'd be called terrorists now, and possibly were back then. I had a good friend when I was a teenager whose father had been kidnapped in 1947 by the Irgun, another paramilitary organisation like Herzog's group Haganah.  He was released within a short while, having spent his time in captivity discussing the merits of Bach and Mozart with his captors.  But don't imagine that the transition from Palestine to Israel was a gentlemanly affair.  Just read the Bunche Report or Google up Folke Bernadotte.

But this is getting ahead of myself.  Herzog joined the British army at the beginning of  WWII and served in Tanks all over Europe, helping to liberate some concentration camps as that conflict came to an end.  With that experience and training, he was an Effective in the war that broke out in 1948 immediately after the foundation of Israel, and eventually became a general in the IDF.  But after a decade of fighting he trained as a lawyer in Britain and qualified as a barrister, and then practiced the law for several years.  After that he went into politics and was the Israeli ambassador to the UN where his anti-anti-zionism speech is accounted by some as one of ten speeches that have changed the world.  In due course he was elected to the Presidency by a narrow margin in 1983, but returned for second term 5 years later.  It's what you might call an adventurous life for a young chap who played rugger in Dublin as a teenager to finish up, not Captain of School but President of a country.

Chaim Herzog was born on 17th September 1918.

Monday, 16 September 2013


We had a lovely day yesterday.  We drove 180km West to Cork to celebrate the 18th birthday of Dau.II who left home at the beginning of the summer to seek her fortune in the wide world.  She is mad about the cooking right now and has a flair for it particularly the cake department.  A few years ago we cut down a small ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) and took the trunk off to one of the last working water-driven saw mills to be planked.  I intended to make a kitchen table from the 30mm thick planks but shortly after that we bought the last (slightly shop-soiled) table from the Shaker Store in the Quaker village of Ballitore Co Kildare as they went out of business.  So the planks languished for several years without an obvious purpose.  Then sometime last year Dau.II said she would cut them up and make them into chopping boards as gifts for her friends-and-relations. That didn't happen but today, after a couple of hours work planing and sanding, I presented her with a chopping board cut from a tree whose roots are still locked in the soil of the place where she grew up (she couldn't walk when we bought the farrrrm).  I think that's rather mystical: like Odysseus carrying a oar ἀθηρηλοιγός into the far north in his old age.  Whenever and wherever she cuts an onion and dices some carrots she'll be home.

After lunch at The Strasbourg Goose - slap-up feed; too much meat; can't eat cake - rather than Micheal Pollan's more civilised "'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" we went North to St Anne's, Shandon to ring out Happy Birthday on their octave of bells.  These are the Shandon Bells famous in song and story and the church is rather fine.  This summer they have hosted a Community Arts project involving as many as 1500 people from the locality.  They made some hundreds of flags all shapes and colours and strung them from the bell-tower of St Anne's in a dozen of the most beautiful catenaries (which as any fule kno is a hyperbolic cosine function).  Catenary comes from the Latin word for chain catena, same root as the cadena humana that stretched across Catalonia last week.  As it was blowing a gale yesterday these colorful catenaries were often curving horizontally rather than than sagging heavily like chains tend to do and they were making that wholly evocative whukkering sound that flags make in Kurosawa films.  But like a kitchen board carved out of a tree from home, these strings of flags seemed richly symbolic: created by the community, anchoring the celestial to earth, circling time itself, tying mother church in knots . . .

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Birth and death

Today is celebrated as the birth of passenger railways with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on 15th September 1830.  Except that it's not: The Stockton & Darlington Railway had been running for the previous 5 years.  But it is true that the opening of the L&M in the presence of the Prime Minister (the Duke of Wellington) and the Home Secretary (Sir Robert Peel) and many more of the Great and the Good, did make it an event worth reporting.  That publicity certainly helped the flotation and the L&M was financially successful from the get-go.  The publicity also went ballistic because of a concurrent tragedy.

George Stephenson had designed the railway with 4 parallel rails equidistant from each other and 4 ft 8.5in (1,435 mm) apart.  I'll have to dig down another level to work out why that distance was chosen and not, say, 5ft even or 1.5m.  But the 4 track design was chosen partly for redundancy: trains could run on the middle pair if the outer rails were broken or being repaired.  But with the lateral overhang of each carriage above the wheels, there was only 20cm spare between trains. William Huskisson, the local MP and a rising star in Tory politics got caught between two trains while talking to the Duke and died after he was run over.  He thus became the first casualty of the Railway Age, except that he wasn't: that honour goes to a blind American beggar-woman knocked down by a locomotive on the S&DR in 1827.  But as Wikipedia has it, Huskisson was "the first railway fatality to be widely reported".

While we are on transport firsts everbode kno that Rosa Parks was the first black woman arrested for refusing to give up her bus-seat for a white man. Except that she wasn't: that honour goes to Claudette Colvin a 15 year old young-wan who had been arrested for the same 'crime' earlier in 1955.  But between arrest and trial, she fell (ooops pregnant-while-unmarried) and was dropped like a red-hot brick as a fulcrum for leveraging civil rights by the respectable NAACP black community.  It was much better politics to mobilise support for a poor middle aged seamstress. Colvin's boy was born in 1956 sufficiently light-skinned that, without anyone looking at the facts of the matter, she had the sin of miscegenation added to unmarried sex and sitting down in the wrong part of a bus. At the time it was hard to decide which of these offenses was most serious.  Read all about it in the Grauniad. And thanks to QI talk for the pointer.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Blue colourblind

Because these images are clipped from their originals all have exactly the same amount of information in the Claude Shannon information theory sense.  The conceit at allRGB being that you are tasked to create a 4096x4096 pixel image that includes all 256x256x256 = 16777216 possible RGB colours from #000000 to #FFFFFF.  The fact that you can describe the effective information in the left hand picture with far fewer words than the fractal tree in the middle or the Mandelbrot detail on the right gives a clue about how we keep pictures small on The Blob. I care about these things after the years when every byte that came onto my computer at home had to squeeze up a thin 15km-long copper wire.  I use the wonderful IrfanView to reduce the size of pictures by half or to 10% and the byte-count collapses to the benefit of my copper-wireaders in Bangalore, Ballygobackwards and Bohemia.  Somewhere on the checker-board is cerise, magenta, sky-blue and kelly-green and every colour you've ever seen on a screen, but effectively it's "8x8 512pixel squares alternating light and dark grey" which  description is 52 x 128 bits or about 0.2kb.

The Mandelbrot link above points to his 24/7 talk at the 2006 Ignoble Awards.  That's 24 seconds to talk comprehensively about something than matters, followed by a 7 second executive summary.  Poor old Benoit blew it on the talk (any rambling or parenthesis and the time-up whistle comes before you've finished the first sentence) but summarised his huge contribution to the understanding of our world as "Beautiful, damned hard, increasingly useful, that's fractals".  Like with Globish, such constraints force us to think about what we really mean to say.  Eric Lander, a good showman, has clearly thought about and practiced his nanolecture on the Genome and thought about his summary "Genome, bought the book, hard to read".  And although her talk on Biology is too wordy and technical I like Dany Adams' summary "If it can get infected, it's biology".

And while we are on colour, what are we to make of the La Bandera Astoriana which Wikipedia says is an alpha and omega suspended from a golden (Pantone PMS 109 yellow) Cruz de la Victoria on a blue (Pantone PMS 829) ground?  Because . . . there is no such colour as PMS 829!  I've asked El Asturiano about this anomaly but he took a lurch sideways to tell me about The sacred cave of Covadonga and King Favila who was killed by a bear. The Bear is celebrated by Asturian Republicans, which is rather like the Catalans celebrating the Fall of Barcelona in 1714.   More discussion on the Asturian flag's blue tone.

And thanks to The Blue (Metafilter) for starting me down that rabbit hole.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Ring of Nonsense

The Blob has been trying (very trying indeed) to promote some critical awareness of numbers: that a billion is a thousand millions not two of them, that sort of thing.  If you can train yourself up for this, then you can reliably guesstimate even quite large, or indeed small, numbers.  A tuthree weeks ago I had occasion to look askance at the statement that 2 million people from the Baltic SSRs held hands to help achieve their own freedom.  Even though great change requires great effort, that number seemed a little too big but not insulting-the-intelligence too big.

The Catalans are on the streets. I've pointed the finger of scorn at a group of Irish pundits for aping the antics of their cross-channel puppet-masters.  What is a clever idea the first time it's dreamed up, can seem tired and derivative when somebody else does more or less the same thing elsewhere.  I was giving tribs to the Balts last month for mobilising a million peoplein 1989 to hold hands for freedom by forming The Baltic Way.  So my admiration is but muted when I report that 1 or 2 million Catalans were out two days ago to form a human chain across the region in SW Europe where that language is spoken.  Via Catalana followed the route of the old Roman road Via Augusta and everyone seems to have had a lot of fun.  I do like the fact that Diada on 11th September commemorates a 1714 defeat for the Catalans in the War of Spanish Succession, it shows a sense of irony and humility.  And I like the geekiness of having official hand-link time set for 17:14hrs.  I wasn't aware that ICANN had approved a top level internet domain .cat in 2005 so that Catalans don't have to acknowledge their de facto existence in .es or .fr - the language is spoken N of the Pyrenees. 

In 2004 and 2006 I was a teeny cog in the St Patrick's Day parade in Dublin.  In 2004 before our little internecine meltdown, our Samba school was really together.  So much so that we won a nice piece of Waterford glass for being best in show (or best band in Cork/Derry/Louth/Tyrone colours, or band with the nakedest Brazilian dancers, I forget).  Here's a picture (you can see my face lower-centre in the sea of red - the trousers and shoes were white) of me being real serious playing the chocahlo.  I had to be real serious otherwise I'd fluff the beat and never get back in time with everyone else - it was hard work for me but I persevered in a way I never did with swimming.  So I know exactly how long the Dublin StPs parade route is - 2.5km.

At about the same time, an innumerate spokesperson from Bord Failte or Dublin Corporation claimed (big us up why don't you?) that half a million people had watched the Dublin parade. And not on the telly - on the street in the Irish weather. Could that be true?  We know that there were 4.5 million people in the country, 6 million on the island, and more than 1 million of them lived within an asses roar (or a DART journey) of O'Connell Street.  Furthermore, the hotels were heaving with tourists. If the Balts could muster 2 million for freedom, is half-a-mill not possible for a party?

Some bright spark at the time (I've tried to track-back to name this canny chiel, but can't turn him/her up) looked at the statement critically.  Not as what might be possible from the population available, but rather what was physically possible on the street.  Those million Balts in 1989 were stretched over 600km and three countries, whereas Bord Failte's putative gawkers were spread over just 2.5km and three Dublin postal districts.  The parade route has two (E-W or L-R) sides to give a viewing front of 5000m, the bright-spark reasoned, so every meter would have 100 people craning past each other's umbrellas to catch a glimpse of me shaking my elbows loose.  I was on the inside looking out and it just wasn't like that - it wasn't a fifth of that.  10 seconds thought and the back of an envelope exposes the claim as nonsense.