Friday, 31 January 2014


In my earlier posts this week on sexual predation on boys (Tue) and bullying young women (Thu) at work, I feel I've been supported by Alan Moore's contention that writing about the darkness (Wed) in our souls is better than not writing about it. Exorcism is partly about exposing evil to light and scrutiny, so that we can walk away from it.  The title of yesterday's post "Nobody Died" tries to put the bullying and humiliation to which those young women were subjected into some perspective. Nobody condones what happened to them but frankly it could have been worse.  Two related horror stories are coincidentally in the headlines this week.

Louise O’Keeffe was finally vindicated in her claim at the European Court of Human Rights that the Irish state was culpably negligent in failing to protect her, as a 9-year-old scrap, from inhuman and degrading abuse from the Principal at her National School in Co Cork in 1973.  The State, terrified of the financial implications of setting such a precedent, had fought her every step of the way, hiring expensive lawyers to weasel their way out of their responsibility to cherish the vulnerable in our society.  Or, contrariwise, sensibly trying to set limits on the amount for which we the tax-payers should be liable for the sins of other citizens.  I think I lean towards the latter, not to save me money - I can spare some of that - but because making The State responsible for sorting out all our problems makes us less willing to take responsibility for them ourselves.  The State becomes The Somebody Else who will deal with the weeping child, or the drunk in the doorway, or Kitty Genovese being beaten to death in full hearing of 50 people in an apartment complex in New York.

Synchronously we have had a week of verbatim reports on what it was like growing up in a pair of orphanages in Derry.  The terms of engagement for the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry are to allow the victims of abuse in such institutions to be heard, in public.  The stories are grim.  The nuns, impervious to irony, used to scrub down the tiny sinners for whom they were responsible with Jaysus (Jeyes/Jesus geddit) Fluid, a concoction used by normal people to clean floors and toilets.  But a couple of nights ago, an old chap who long ago escaped from Termonbacca to England and got married, returned to be heard.  After detailling his sad and sordid tale, he reflected that some of the nuns must have been deranged and that, as such, deserved our compassion "Sure, we were only there for a few years, they were there for a life-time". 

It is not only the prisoners who grow coarse and hardened from corporal punishment, but those as well who perpetrate the act or are present to witness it. -Anton Chekhov.

Today, as I'm sure will manifest itself later in the wider Irish media, is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Ann Lovett and her stillborn child.  Ann was a child herself - not yet 16, but she was full-term pregnant. Unable or unwilling to seek appropriate help, she mitched off school and  went up the hill to the grotto with a pair of scissors and delivered her baby boy in the rain under the sightless eyes of a statue of the mother of Jesus.  She herself died of exposure and blood-loss a few hours later.  The questions of who knew the girl, and who knew she was pregnant have never been resolved. There are three 15 minute films on youtube which look at the story in more measured terms than the tabloid press at the time which facing a wall of silence from Ann's family and neighbours, Ten years later we were driving back from Leitrim one Sunday evening and passed through Granard.  It was hard to look at the plain people of the town going through the last of their weekend without asking those questions.  Which was absurd because it could have happened in any small town in Ireland at that time.  Indeed I know of one case almost exactly parallel except for the deaths that happened in another Wintery town in Ireland about ten years before.

In 2004 I went on a long walk through Spain to declutter and clear the ould head. On two consecutive days in La Rioja, after I had been walking for several weeks, I met three young men trudging separately through a slough of despond having lost the plot of their Camino.  They had travelled a long way to the start of their walking dream, had overcome the torment of blisters and aching joints but were now broken-hearted.  I did what I could to patch up these boys by talking about courage, about using mindfulness to sustain their trek and by giving each a big hug.  Maybe, just maybe, that might have urged them past the next train station and escape from their despair back home to a sense of failure that would dog their lives forever. I was only able to do this for them because having been close to the abyss myself, I could recognise it in someone else: but only in the hypersensitized atmosphere of the Camino de Santiago.  In ordinary life, like you, I choose to make invisible those things that are too distressing to deal with.

Enough compassion to see yourself in another might, just might, have opened the eyes of a teacher, an aunt, an adult friend to see young Ann in her fullness.  We may weep now.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Nobody died but . . .

I've made a point in The Blob to try to redress the gender imbalance by taking the time to salute Women in Science.  And why not? I like women, some of my best friends are women, and some of my best friends are scientists, so I like writing about the successes of women in science.  I don't like writing about the abuse of women.  It makes me feel slightly queasy while simultaneously getting me enraged.  But sometimes you have to seize the shitty end of the stick and brandish it about; even though it smells bad and soils your hand.  I was in the pub the other day and I started a dialogue with an old friend of mine who has many intellectual accomplishments, a passionate engagement with science, a pragmatic (not quite cynical, he's too nice) understanding of the process of science, and a superlative ability to craft his research into words that get published in the journals Nature and Science (than which there is no higher achievement for ordinary sub-Nobel scientists).  These positive attributes have given him the trappings of success - a Professorship, a Fellowship, interviews in the Irish and the New York Times.  He's a little too young for a deluge of honorary degrees and his Fellowship doesn't come with a Ring.

We were chatting about how his success had been propelled up the slope of Mount Bloodihard by the harnessed energy of graduate students and young post-doctoral researchers to whom he has given a project and a stipend.  I talked before about how this evidence of a generous hand comes with daunting responsibilities. When your young proteges are in the Slough of Despond, it's at least partly your fault and more than partly your job to fish them out, even if it means getting wet to the waist yourself.  My pal has depths of kindness, so he can find it in himself to do this, even if it means a weekend of sleepless nights before the necessary "come up to the headmaster's study" talk. I took, and take, my hat off to him because I am useless at that sort of thing. I've never had a graduate student to myself because I desperately fear taking responsibility for another person's life and happiness; when it's clear that I can barely manage to take charge of my own.

Then our talk took a turn from a benign slightly self-congratulatory chat into a wider consideration of how success is achieved on the back of graduate students.  Our phrasing grew a little more elliptical and allusive at this point and neither of us mentioned any names or departments or Institutions; almost in the superstitious sense of "don't mention the devil lest he appear".  We both know a chap who has been equally successful in the pursuit of science as my pal, and far more successful than me. But this man has not been kind: in particular he has not been kind to young women. Conscientious  Principal Investigators (PIs) will have regular meetings with their team - both en masse in weekly Lab Meetings and 1-to-1.  It seemed all too frequent that the young women who went in for a talk with that boss, came out in tears.  I've been bemused and distressed to have a young woman burst into tears while talking to me on more than one occasion: that's part of the reason why I've shirked the responsibility of mentoring younger people.  But the chap of whom we treat, seems to make a habit of it "To lose one parent, Mr Worthing  . . ," It's almost as if a meeting hasn't been a success until the woman has been reduced to tears.  Now that's not right.  That is an abuse of power and not something that a gentleman should do.

But what have this fellow's colleagues done about it?  To a close approximation the answer is . . . nothing. It's much easier to know what is the right thing to do when you're not in the firing line.  It's easy, for example, to condemn those who convicted and punished Alan Turing.  The relationship between graduate student and PI can be intense, it is complicated by financial dependency, by investment of time and energy to the project, by the entanglement of work and social life, by ambition on both sides, by needing a reference for future employment, by ignorance of what the norms are.  This last is particularly asymmetrical - you're only ever a graduate student once but your PI has probably supervised several of them.  Actually I know several cases where graduate students have changed supervisors in mid-stream - and not always achieved greater happiness thereby.  To act in defense of an adult, some sort of a complaint has to be made, otherwise you risk being, or perceived as being, an officious busy-body. Then there needs to be some assurance that if you act, the complainant will go the full, hard, emotionally draining and potentially damaging course with you.  This is not unique to this one man or this one department.  Other places have recognised the universality of this and similar problems by implementing a mentoring system.  There every student is assigned to another faculty member, who is nothing to do with the project, but who will act as the youngster's mentor.  That's far from a complete solution to all problems in graduate school but at least it separates the issue of dependency from regular symmetrical inter-personal difficulty.  Yesterday, I reflected that some of these same colleagues were in place in 1998 when Carleton Gajdusek was eased out of our lives with tongs.  It's much easier to condemn people who are strangers (xenophobia is part of the human condition) than those who aren't. Is it also perhaps easier, in Ireland, to condemn outlying acts of overt sexual behaviour than more straight-forward examples of bullying. Anyone with either humility or empathy must have a small sense of "There but for the grace of god . . ."

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

humani nihil a me alienum puto

This has been a difficult week on The Blob.  It started brightly with a song but has since been on this downward spiral into murk and I'm not done yet - it's going to get worse.  So if you want light-and-fluffy, you may come back to the sunshine on Monday. Right now I have to drive out demons.

Although Alan Moore is older than me (just!), my children are much more into his works that I am.  If you've read more than three graphic novels, you've probably seen some of his work.  He is credited with bringing graphic novels ("comics" to him, although they are rarely obviously funny) into something like the mainstream.  His V for Vendetta, Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been stripped down and remodelled into successful Hollywood films.  There are those who claim he is not only crafting the best writing in the graphic novel medium, but is also a great writer, full stop.  His stuff, the little I've read, is quirky and disturbing and yet it gets under your skin and makes to read on.  When I see his name surface in the Blogosphere, I send off a link to my offspring.  I did that at the beginning of January, flagging something billed as The Last Alan Moore Interview.  It may not be The Last but it's definitely an Interview with Alan Moore and it's long and roiling and addresses some difficult issues.  In the process, it exposes the soundbyte twitter world many of us inhabit as shallow, monochrome and without nuance.

It started with a twitterer complaining last November that a public conversazione involving Alan Moore was offensive in its racist stereotypes, denigration of women and mockery of a previous Prime Minister for his supposed disabilities.  I mean previous Labour PM, because Conservative politicians have been fair game since Christine Keeler shagged the Minister of War and a Russian military attache on alternate nights through the Spring of 1963.  Indeed, The Blob had to come to the support of one a couple of weeks ago, because nobody else would, when he was being slagged left and right for supposed blasphemy against St Mandela.  Alan Moore's interview articulates and elaborates his position on his perceived sins and you might benefit from reading the whole thing or as much as you have stamina for.

What struck me quite forcibly was that, at one point, he is attacked for writing about sexual violence against women with the implication that by doing so, he is a purveyor of pornography and that he is not qualified to write about something that it is impossible he could experience himself.  In measured tones he debunks these arguments.  One point he makes is that he's written a helluva lot of words and only a tiny fraction of these have crossed into that taboo zone.  So if he's obsessed with that sort of thing he's keeping quite well reined in (oooo, he must be repressing it, so . . . I don't think so).  The next point he makes is a quantitative argument.  In the real world, sexual violence against women outnumbers the incidence of regular violence and murder by a long chalk, but in fiction (television, newspapers, books, graphic novels, everything) the ratio is reversed.  Why is that okay?  And if we pretend that sexual violence doesn't exist, is that going to make it really disappear?  I don't think so.  And on his qualifications to write about dreadful things happening to women, he points out that he's neither murdered anyone nor been murdered but nobody questions his licence (or Agatha Christie's, or Ngaio Marsh's or Karen Slaughter's or Ruth Rendell's) to write about that. You can read the interview itself for some thoughts on 'a fate worse than death'. 

The anger and judgment leveled at Moore for what he chooses to write about reminds me of the condemnation of Doris Lessing when her muse took her into the realm of science fiction and out of the comfort zone of a rather shouty section of her readers.  An argument could be made that unless you make your readers a little uncomfortable you aren't really doing your job as a serious author (as opposed to a churner of pot-boilers).  Let's try to row in behind Terence (Publius Terentius Afer) "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto" - Being a man, nothing which humans do should be considered foreign.  Censorship doesn't help, but censoriousness is worse.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014


I've bigged myself up by claiming to have been on intimate terms with (aka in the same room as) several Nobel Prize winners.  Until I wrote about my Dad's sad conundrum yesterday, I had completely forgotten another Nobellist with whom I exchanged two sentences at the end of the last century.  I was then working in (one of) the top-flight departments in Ireland. The Chief was a superlative networker and, no more than me, a serious Nobel groupie.  One day a strange bear of a man rocked up to morning coffee with El Jefe and it transpired that Ursus might be coming to spend some sort of sabbatical in the department. I met my good friend Pepe Malpica when he came on sabbatical, so I thought another such was a Good Thing . . . in principal. Turned out to be Carleton Gajdusek, an anthropologist who had made amazing discoveries in New Guinea in the 1950s.  The community Gadjusek was embedded in and studying suffered from a strange disease called Kuru that was symptomatically similar to a fatal degenerative neural ataxia disorder (meaning they walk wonky and then die) called scrapie in sheep.  Those unfortunates who inevitably succumbed to the disease also revealed the same sort of characteristic lesions in their brains. Gajdusek did the autopsies; he also worked out that the mechanism of transmission was through ritual funerary cannibalism.  That's pretty cool as a successful research project and Gajdusek was awarded a half share of the 1976 Nobel for Medicine.  I think most of us were a little in awe of  this distinguished visitor, so there wasn't much chit-chat.

This was years before Wikipedia became a twinkle in the eye of Jimmy Wales and Google was just a struggling hatchling (remember Atlavista anyone?), so instant information gratification was not freely available for all.  The following day, however, new information was seeping under the front door and spreading rapidly across our community.  Soon enough we all had our metaphorical feet wet with the news that, as well as being embedded in the culture he was studying, Gajdusek was bedding a lot of their young chaps in his hut.  He was furthermore sponsoring them to come back to the US with him to get a Western education.  More then 50 of these youngsters, a generation from sporting phallocrypts and eating their grandfather's brains went off to school in the US.  Years later, one of these fellows denounced Gajdusek, who was duly convicted of child molestation and did 12 months in chokey.  After serving his time he was allowed to go to Europe on unsupervised probation and it was towards the beginning of his itinerary round the Old Continent that he turned up in Dublin.

The newly informed atmosphere was decidedly chillier the following day as people passed their own judgment on the old (75 y.o.) man.  Whether for that collective shoulder or the promise of better croissants elsewhere, he drifted out of our lives about as quickly as he'd appeared, lived in Amsterdam and Paris and finally died ten years later in Tromsø. You can hear Gajdusek's side of the story as a 10 minute clip from a longer documentary: he's quite 'black'; you can also hear there a faceless 'white' voiceover tsk-tsking about the whole worrying story. Do you think that the truth of some of those 50 tales might be in the wide spectrum of grey? With my skittery moral compass, I try to reflect on how I would behave in particular and maybe peculiar circumstances that have been condemned-by-all afterwards.  I don't think I behaved terribly well in l'affaire Gajdusek, my position was flabby and sheepish (in both senses), poorly considered and rather shallow.   I doubt if, presented with a similar situation now, I would behave much better.  But then neither would you.

Monday, 27 January 2014

You raise me up

Yesterday I was on about the Blackstairs Film Society and reviewed the Main Feature.  The astute among you will have twigged that there must have been another film.  And there was, and it was brilliant also - in a no-car-chase paint-drying sort of way.  "You won't get that in a chemist" is a short film about the Southend Singers in Wexford Town.  This is a community choir whose average age must be about 65.  The film traces their lives through a year of Tuesday night meetings where they learn to sing by listen-and-repeat without sheet-music.  I've written about this sort of Singing Together thing before: if you ever get the chance to do this sort of thing seize the opportunity - you will be a better person during and ever-after the experience.  I've also written before about cracking open the door of opportunity so that ordinary people can sing their hearts out in public ad maiorem Dei gloriam but also to the greater glory of both singer and those to whom they sing. And speaking of ad maiorem Dei gloriam, I've also had words to say on the importance of song on pilgrimage.  The Chemist is a film about singing and learning to sing but it's also a hymn to community, to inclusion, and to empowerment.  It's not for nothing that the theme tune and the subject of their pinnacle performance is You Raise Me Up.

The film is shot in documentary style hearing these elderly people - the youngest is probably the daughter, who 'has The Downs', of one of the ladies - sing, but also reflecting on how much their involvement means to them.  Monday rolls by in double time in anticipation of Tuesday and Wednesday is taken up with thinking and cahtting about the fun they all had the night before.  That only leaves Thursday to Sunday for the quotidian world of Wexford. One suspects that, but for the existence of the Wexford rissole, life during those four days hangs heavy.

Another wonderfully normative theme in the film is the fact that these elders are practicing to sing with the local primary school.  The idea that children should have a relationship with adults who are neither family nor teachers is somewhat weird in the wonky world we now inhabit.  One of the great sadnesses of my father's declining years was that he felt that he couldn't go and help a child who'd barked his knees falling over on rough ground. As his garden backed onto the part of the village green that housed the children's play-ground, that happened more often than for most of the rest of us.  Any fule kno that the perp in a paedophila case is much more likely to Uncle Jim with his naked woodwork lessons than an unknown old chap with cruddy overalls and a straw hat.

So hats off to the Singers, the Southend Family Resource Centre, Teresa O'Leary, who shot the film and Murt Flynn & Brian Hand who helped with the writing and editing.  Thanks  -You've Raised Me Up!

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Museum Hours

Last night we didn't get home till today - 0010hrs.  It was film night at the Blackstairs Film Society, a group which is hirpling along the edge of solvency but still going after seven years.  Each of those years we've stumped up €50 (each!) to see 8 films over the months of darkness Sep-Apr.  In the early years, we had to black out the windows with bin-bags when sundown was bleeding the colour off the screen at the end April.  They show films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi which I reviewed a year ago: films with sub-titles. Apart from the stalwart time-and-energy-donating committee I think we're probably the only people who are still there from the beginning.  Several years ago I asked a friend, a former member of the club, why we never saw him on film night.  His reply went "On a brutal winter's night I should dash through horizontal sleet to my car, drive through puddles of uncertain depth to sit in a barn with rattling windows, wrapped in a blanket, hat and gloves to watch a worthy film with sketchy sub-titles about infanticide in Mongolia?".  Love it, but then I'm an aficionado of ironia.

The main feature last night was Museum Hours by Jem Cohen.  It's brilliant!  It gives an updated view of 'real' Vienna to compare with The Third Man.  I say real because The Beloved came out saying she would not be in a hurry to go visit that city. In The Third Man the streetviews are relentlessly sepia, in Museum Hours they are relentlessly seepy, bleak and univiting - until the protagonists step off the street into a bar or a cafe or, indeed, the eponymous Museum to continue their rambling conversation.  He is a guard in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, She is a middle-aged Canadian come to visit her estranged and now comatose cousin in hospital. So yes there are sub-titles; and yes, there are no car-chases: it wouldn't classify as 'exciting'.  But it was deeply engaging, perhaps in part because the Canadian is played by Mary Margaret O'Hara.  We first encountered her in 1988 at a concert in a disused cinema in Newcastle Upon Tyne when she was promoting her one and only album Miss America, which you may hear on youtube to get a hint of her extraordinary vocal range and sensitivities.  I guess we only went because we were home-sick for Ireland and saw her name on a poster - but we definitely bought the album after hearing her belting out A New Day.

Another huge attraction for me is the intellectual meat in the film including an explicitly didactic explanation of the life and works of the first Bruegel. That aspect of the film is very like another favorite 'watching paint-dry' film of mine My Dinner with Andre, which I'll have to write about later.  As an aside, we are forced to appreciate that really famous paintings are not located in a book or on a postcard or in Google - they are in a particular museum.  The Kunsthistorisches has a shocking amount of these, so well-known artworks.  Bruegel is good for detail - his paintings serve as Finding Wally puzzles from 500 years ago.  You could spend a lifetime, as a museum guard say, looking at a handful of his paintings and discover a new quirk or joke every day.  I'm sure my film-buffy pals will have picked up more depths of resonance between the streets of Vienna in 2010 and the streets of Flanders in 1550.  I am now resolved to use them in my next treasure hunt.

So that was an evening well spent, even if we regretted forgetting the blanket.  Our Man From La Mancha wasn't going to get much out of a film where the only bits he was likely to understand were when the dialog was in German (it's the subtitles innit!).  But rather than abandon him to his English studies at the kitchen table we left him off in the village hall of the local hamlet.  There Seamus Begley, world famous trad singer, and friends were leading a céilí. How cultural is that?  The choices we have in the boondocks.  Begley clearly wouldn't be shut up because we sat in the car at 2oC for 45 minutes waiting for the music to finish and to pick up our Man.  And that's why we didn't get home till after midnight.

Incidentally, all you chaps in Ukraine have enough time to charter a plane to come over the next event in the Film Soc. - 22nd February we're showing Like Water for Chocolate, as the third in our annual Foodie night Specials. €12 for a film and all-you-can-eat buffet - sub-titles are thrown in for free.  побачити вас там !!

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Histology bores

In my 1st Year Cell Biology class, we have spent quite a lot of time looking down a microscope.  Part of the training they get during the year is in how to use this tool efficiently, reliably and safely.  In this case it's not really the safety of the students (Microscope Bites Man hasn't yet happened, even as a headline in National Enquirer) but to make sure that the expensive kit survives exposure to physical and chemical (and indeed biological crud) attack on the lenses.  We have an ancient box of prepared histological sections - slices through various tissues -  lung, liver, lights etc.  Someone drove a lens through the sample of striated muscle last year and The Institute was, quite rightly, too ashamed to treat that as two half slides that could be used simultaneously by two students.  Probably because the sharbroken edge offered a clear and present danger.  Another preparation has only had the cover-slip driven in, so the the specimen is visible but so is an interesting view of propagating cracks.

Looking at prepared slides can be dead boring - I remember being bemused and adrift when I had to do it several decades ago.  So I prefaced the day with quite a long harangue about what you might get out of an hour paying attention to detail at a microscopic level.  First point was to address the different levels in the biological hierarchy at which science can be carried out. I established that they, Sport Scientists all, had already done work in another class at the whole body level - measuring the oxygen consumption of some poor bugger on a treadmill.  In 'our' Cell Biology we've looked at individual (blood) cells and I'm sure that they've done some basic biochemistry.  Histology is the in-between study of the structure and function of tissues - the characteristic cell-types that make up organs. Standard practice is that the students look at perfect specimens which makes their own preparations seem hopelessly klutzy, draw what they see and scatter a suitable number of Latinate labels - gleaned from a textbook or Google - on their representations.  Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

The problem is that it is hard to comprehend any function from the static artificially stained material on the slide.  One of the most wonderful revelations in my lifetime of science was to see red blood cellred blood cell is 8 microns across and the capillary is 9 microns in diameter - so the RBCs jam up against the slightest obstruction until more and more cells pile into the log-jam.  You can see the pressure building up until the blockage gives way and courses off down the tube in a rush. 'Histology' doesn't address that at all at all.

I also gave everyone an extra supplementary page with pictures of some standard histological sections, mostly bright pink, all labelled up and said they could cut them out and stick them in their books.  Me, I don't see the difference between looking at someone else's slide or someone else's photograph of a slide.  We then had a class discussion (aka Bob The Socratic) and we wrote up on the board interesting questions you can address in a histology class.
  • What's the difference between pictures of active and inactive mammary gland?
    • Is the ancient prepared slide active or inactive? (A: dead)
  • Why are the stripes on skeletal muscle at right angles to the fibre?
  • Why/how does lung maximise the surface are at the interface between air and capillary?
  • What is the ratio in size between alveolus and capillary?
    • Look back in your book to find out the diameter of a red blood cell.
  • How does the structure (villus and crypt) of duodenal epithelium serve its function,
Wonderfully, the thousand-thousand finger-like projections of the villi of the duodenum are replicated on a sub-cellular scale in the microvilli (aka brush-border) of certain duodenal 'goblet' cells which secrete mucus.  With pictures on the handout of active and inactive mammary gland, the obvious question was to ask "is the prepared histological slide marked mammary tissue active or inactive?"  I was called to adjudicate on this because two lads were looking down the same microscope and coming to opposite conclusions.  What I saw was a grey vista of bubbly-stuff which (and this a key piece of data) didn't move when I shifted the slide from left to right.  The students had adopted a position of some certainty and taken opposite positions in their wrangle about whether some gunk on the objective lens was active or inactive.  So we cleaned off the gunk and then brought the mammary gland tissue into focus and then we could discuss the material.

It turns out (wikipedia is a wonderful resource) that a microvilli/brush-border is not only found in goblet cells but also on the outside of a mammalian egg.  I asked the class why they thought an egg should have a brush-border and one of them piped up with increase the surface area.  I remain to be convinced of that being relevant in that cell type.  But I suggested that, if we have the genetic capability to make some cells develop a fuzzy edge to maximise secretion, maybe that can be re-purposed as a sperm-catching device.  Clearly someone is going to have to do more reading.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Jesty scoops Jenner

Arrrh, things allus come in threes. In April last year, to celebrate his birthday, I noted that Jan Jansky did a better job, earlier, of sorting out the nature of ABO blood groups than Karl Landsteiner, who gets all the credit. Last Wednesday I wrote about how botanist Donald Schnell was scooped in one of his discoveries by a humble glass-blower a hundred years previously.  The following day, I was meandering through the lanes of South Dorset near where my aged and honoured mother lives.  I wound up with a slightly tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that The Yetties hail from the village where my Mum does the shopping.  I was pecking about at this rabbit hole when I discovered that Benjamin Jesty had been born in the same village of Yetminster nearly 300 years ago.  I'm amazed that I didn't already have this information in my noddle because Jesty is a third example of unacknowledged/unknown investigators.  I mention him at the start of every lecture-course in physiology or environmental chemistry.

Like Landsteiner and ABO blood-groups, any fule kno that vaccination was invented by Edward Jenner.  In May 1796 Jenner inoculated 8 y.o. James Phipps (without informed consent) with cowpox ‘matter’ from the hands of Sarah Nelmes, who had caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom (you couldn't make this up!).  In July 1797 inoculated the boy with smallpox and noted that he developed no disease.  At that time and long after, smallpox was a scourge in Europe, in the times Jesty and Jenner, the virus was carrying off 400,000 people in Europe every year.  As the mortality rate in children was as high as 80% and the survivors were likely struck blind from corneal scarring or disfigured by the facial pocks, Jenner was taking a bit of a risk with young Master Phipps.

But 20 years earlier in 1774, as an epidemic of smallpox was coursing through Yetminster, Jesty took his wife and two sons to Chetnole, a hamlet just down the way, where there was a cow with cowpox.  Using a needle he removed some 'matter' from the cow's udder and scratched it into the arms of his family.  As a farrrrmer, he'd already had the cowpox. The inoculees survived the vaccination, although it as touch-and-go with his wife for a while, and came through the smallpox epidemic as well.  The local yokels greeted this successful application of science to saving life with pitchforks and torches and Jesty was "hooted at, reviled and pelted whenever he attended markets in the neighbourhood".  Around the time Jenner was doing his work, Jesty and his family pulled up stakes to farm in a different part of the county, where you can see his grave.

What matter?  It matters thus: Jenner was given a total of £30,000 as a reward for his services to the eradication and control of smallpox.  In today's money that is close to £7 million at an average inflation rate of 2.731% (rate from WolframAlpha).   There are at least six other claimants to having been the first to discover the efficacy of vaccination - apart from Jesty, John Fewster from Gloucestershire and Jobst Bose from Gottingen seem to have pretty good claims for priority.  But just like Harry Potter, Jenner swept all.  No fair!  No Fair!

And having started this post with ABO blood-groups we should bring it full circle by noting that my pal Stefan Adalsteinsson has hypothesised that smallpox, being particularly virulent against people with A and AB blood, has served to elevate the frequency of "O" in Iceland.  But there is no such effect in Madras, India, so you may take Stefan's result with a pinch of salt.  ABO blood-groups have been associated with numerous pathologies apart from smallpox: cholera, TB, syphilis, yaws, gonorrhoea, mumps, candida and malaria and many others too difficult to spell.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Three Valleys Cluster

Across the Water (as in Irish Sea, if I going to talk about America it would be across The Pond) they are in a peculiar situation where they have an Established Church with a rather famous person called Mrs Elizabeth Windsor as the Chairman of the Board with the Archbishop of Canterbury as CEO.  This religious affiliation is still privileged although members of other religions are no longer handicapped in any direct way.  I think there is still a formal prohibition on the monarch or the heir to the throne marrying a catholic but that provision only affects a small minority of the population.  The oddity of the situation is that there are more practicing Muslims in the UK (2.7 million claim that as a religion) than practicing members of the Church of England.  This body somehow claims that it still has 22 million members but sheepishly admits that only 1.1 million are regular church goers.  In 2013, they claimed that the decline (about 1% fewer attendees each year this century) was bottoming out having further declined in the previous year, but only by 0.3%.  These active believers are spread across some 16,250 parishes, which sounds okay: about 70 head for each church.  But this is the average and there is a wide enough distribution around this ball-park figure.

I spoke to my mother the other day and she was chatting on about the fact that when she goes to church in the village early on those few Sundays that the option is available in her village, she knows she is likely to be one of a short handful of parishioners getting together nearer my God to thee under the same roof at the same time.  The parish church which has been serving the local community since the C12th, is now barely used.  Until recently the local rector was responsible for several parishes and he went round to them in a complex rota so that, at least once a month, you could see him in a church within walking distance of your home.

But with the falling numbers of believers and the falling number of people with vocations for the priesthood, there aren't enough people available to maintain even this diminished level of support/access.  The CoE is organised in a hierarchical way familiar to biological taxonomists and classifiers.  Instead of Class Mammalia; Order Tubulidentata; Genus Orycteropus; Species O. afer - the aardvark -- you have the Diocese of Salibury; Deanery of Sherborne; Parish of Yetminster; Chapelry of Chetnole.  Now the Deanery, in a bid for greater efficiencies or just plain survival has merged three parish-clusters into an uber-cluster served by two chaps (average 0.67). This is an increasing trend in many areas where face-to-face interaction with Joe Public is required.  GPs are no longer available for call-out any time of the day or night.  In Ireland over the last 15ish years, groups of GPs agree to share the off-duty hours and service the need in a rotation called Care-Doc. I believe (alleluia!) that The Vicars of Dorset get a company car because they're going to be doing a lot of miles to get among Bishop's Caundle, Caundle Marsh, Folke, Glanvilles Wootton, Holnest, Holwell, Pulham, Bradford Abbas with Clifton Maybank, Yetminster with Hilfield, Ryme Intrinsica, Batcombe, Chetnole, Hermitage, Leigh. Thornford, and Beer Hackett.  This congeries is called the Three Valleys Cluster because it serves the Vale of the White Hart, the Gifle Valley and the Wriggle Valley.  And there you have it, I only mentioned this wholly parochial issue so that I'd have an excuse to put down a list of placenames that have been around since the Domesday Book of 1086: Etiminstre: 31 villagers. 35 smallholders. 10 slaves.:
Bradford Abbas; I bet they wear smocks and have their own tankard behind the bar in their Local - The Rose & Crown.  The Yetties, a key group in the English folk-revival. of the 1970s hailed from Yetminster and brought light song and a laugh to many a cider-quaffing crustie for 40 years until they hung up the accordion in 2011.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Art meets science

First kid: "My uncle's got a wooden leg"
Second kid: "So what, my aunt's got a cedar chest"
And my response is (it's all about me) - my grandfather had a glass eye.  He didn't lose it in the First War, although he served traumatically in that conflict, but rather in WWII when his home in Dover suffered bomb damage and a splinter of glass did for the original eyeball.  I've no idea where he bought his glass eye, as children we were too busy engaged in try to guess which eye it was rather than just asking him for the relevant information.

Leopold Blaschka was born (1822) into a business that made glass eyes for a living.  "The only way to become a glass modeler of skill, I have often said to people, is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia.".  But Leopold was also passionately interested in the natural world and made some glass models of marine invertebrates as a change from eyeballs and costume jewellery.  These came to the notice of George Goodale, the newly appointed director of the Harvard Botanical Museum.  He commissioned Blaschka to make some botanical models of plants that could be used as demonstration and teaching aids.  This blossomed into a 50 year relationship with Blaschka Vater und Sohn, shipping some thousands of models from more than 800 different species.  It is rather wonderful that the most delicate and beautiful things that most of us handle - angiosperm reproductive parts - are in their very nature ephemeral.  Yet they have been preserved in a guise with a different sort of brittle fragility for more than 100 years.  Curiously, the records of the Blaschka company and Harvard being so complete, we can date each of the surviving specimens.  It seems that some years were much more fragile than others but nobody knows why.  There is a project there to see if something (volcanism, local pollution, drink taken by old Leopold, the supply and suppliers of soda ash) correlates with the hyper-delicate cohorts.  Here's more on their products.
And to prove that the collection is not just a lot of pretty ornaments, Harvard commissioned the Blaschka's to make models of common plant pathologies, so that their trainee agronomists would know apple scab (here shown on Malus pumila) if it jumped up and bit them.  To make the models to a level of accuracy well above the brief they were given, the Blaschkas spent hours and hours carefully researching in the library and observing, often microscopically, the specimens they were commissioned to make. It's the kind of attention to detail that is absolutely familiar to certain types of scientist as they try to wrestle the truth from the the living world with their two eyes and perhaps a pair of tweezers.

There is an extraordinary story about Donald Schnell, a botanist who spent 10,000 hours (I exaggerate a tad for effect) trying to work out how the carnivorous butterwort Pinguicula gets pollinated.  Anatomical dissection of dozen of specimens of the flower and some serious thinking and comparing his species to what was known about related organisms convinced him that he had cracked the problem.  Years later, when visiting the Glass Flowers at Harvard, Schnell saw that he'd been scooped 100 years earlier by Blaschka the Elder who laid out the whole story, including the insect which did the biz, as a moment frozen in time.  Clearly attention to detail staddles the two cultures of CP Snow.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Remembering Soloheadbeg

Continuing an occasional series in sites of brutal murder and reciprocal atrocity today we're visiting Soloheadbeg about 3 km outside Tipperary Town.  Last August we were back in 1922 to imagine what it might have been like to see Michael Collins, might-have-been Taoiseach and Uachtaráin, shot down and killed.  That was at the beginning of an eleven month civil war that set the parameters for Irish politics up to the present day.  Today we're going back to the very beginning of the armed conflict in Ireland that characterised the five years immediately after WWI.

It is hard to credit at this distance of time that, just ten or eleven weeks after the armistice that finally put an end to the bloody futility of The First War, there was stomach for further conflict. On 21st Jan 1919 the First Dáil Éireann was meeting in the Mansion House in Dublin - those present had been successful in regular  UK elections the previous month but refused to recognise the legitimacy of the parliament to which they had been elected.  They were republicans, yes, but most of them wanted to retain the rule of law, the old hierarchies, the existing social arrangements but with themselves calling the shots rather than the government of the larger island next door.  

On the same day that the suits in Dublin were setting things up to call the shots, a more radical element was starting the actual shooting.  Soloheadbeg, a small road in the middle of nowhere in County Tipp was about as far as you could get from the Mansion House. A bit like the location of Azimov's Second Foundation at the opposite end of the Galaxy from the First Foundation at Terminus with turns out to be at the centre. There two RIC policemen were shot to death as they escorted a load of gelignite for use in a local quarry.  As far as I can read it at a distance of 95 years, the perps who carried out the attack were not primarily interested in the explosives but in precipitating a war rather than piffling about in Dublin expecting a bloodless transfer of power.  They are considered the first shots of the Irish War of Independence and the event is commemorated with a big roadside monument not dissimilar to that at Béal na Bláth. The unfortunate constables who died are not memorialised there but rather the act of violence against them.  This despite the fact that, as Irish born Catholics, they were not the stereotype of an invading Saxon horde. I thought I'd call their very Irish names to mind today - James McDonnell and Patrick O'Connell.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Cigars are trains, so

The blogosphere delivered a nice illustrated article about streamlined trains the other day and without even reading it properly, I sent the link off to The Boy who is, after all, a railway engineer.  But I had to make a facetious remark hinting that the reason boys were interested in trains was because of their obvious phallic symbolism - especially when they are roaring into tunnels, wha'?  He came back with "I really like the style from this era but then I guess everyone thinks there's something endearing about penises. Just as well really."
Indeed there is nothing objectively attractive about penises, so unless some people found them endearing there wouldn't be 7 billion people of the planet, half of which possess the strange appendage.    So I conceded (and I thought concluded) with 'But as Freud said "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"'.
The Boy has a much better crap detector than me and wasn't going to allow that Freud had ever expressed such a sentiment.  Turns out that he is correct.  It takes 3 seconds to fire off a glib remark recycled from what we all have heard before, it takes hours or days to track down who really said what. The brave and stalwart researchers at Quoteinvestigator can't find the Cigar quote any earlier than 1950 a decade after Freud pegged out.  You've got to take your hat off to people from the Arts Block, they may be working in the finite universe of previous human endeavour, but they can track down the pig and bring home the bacon.  My favorite example of worrying a phrase to death is Robert Merton's book On the Shoulders of Giants: a Shandean postscript.  Which looks sideways at the phrase "If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have been standing on the shoulders of giants".  This is usually attributed to Isaac Newton, but Merton's wonderful investigation tracks it back at least as far as Bernard of Chartres who lived 500 years earlier.  "Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique proprii visus acumine, aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subvenimur et extollimur magnitudine gigante".  Esse quasi nanos = are like dwarfs, gives us nanometer (10^-9m) and the currently trendy nanotechnology.

The blogosphere is strong on churning the obvious and recycling the trivial, but in the long tail there is a rich fund of the quirky, the counter-intuitive and the iconoclastic.  We'd all be better off if we read some of this rather than yet more Harry Potter. It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”  Mark Twain.  Which I never tire of citing.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Lithium One

Chromium Six, Lithium One?  What is yer man about now? Are we to have an occasional series on all the elements?  Aren't there more than 100 of them?  Are we nearly there yet?

Relax folks, it's both better (I have nothing to say about Germanium or Astatine) and worse (I have have quite a lot to say about Lithium) than that. In some ways the future of the Western world depends on the availability of Lithium because it's an essential component of Lithium-ion batteries which have great advantages in whoomp-per-weight ratio, rechargability, and life-expentancy over other portable power sources.  So we need Lithium if we are to have new cell-phones, tablets and kindles.  More importantly for Lithium economics, we need Lithium - and lots of it - if we're going to have electric cars. Lots of it because the task for a Li-ion battery in an MP3-player is to shiver a tiny membrane back and forth to make a tinny sound, whereas in a golf-cart it must shove 100kg of adipose tissue, a supersize cup of Starbucks, a set of golf-clubs and a silly hat along the fairway.

I wasn't aware of this at all at all until I read Lawrence Wright's great article Lithium Dreams in the New Yorker 4 years ago.  In a way that essay started me off on a long-form journalism jag that hasn't really stopped.  As I'm teaching EnvChem at the Institute, I thought it would make a good story to lecture about, so I clagged together a bunch of powerpoints to deliver an executive summary on the matter.  Imagine my surprise when my researches turned up the fact that our own looming Blackstairs Mountains (as we call hills in Ireland) were about to be mined for Lithium because the landscape here is as dense with the stuff as any brine lake in Bolivia.  Then driving to work last Spring, I had a brilliant idea: I'd run a final year project analysing Lithium in the groundwater and seeing if this might be an indicator of where other seams of Lithium rich rock might be located.

How do you access the groundwater?  You tap into bore-holes which make a dense tattoo of holes across the surface of rural Ireland. How do you tap into bore-holes? You rock up to a farm-yard with a pee-pee sample bottle and ask for 50mls from out of the kitchen tap.  It's a teeny bit more complex that that . . . but not by much.  All you then need is a competent student to run the samples through some grey boxes in the Analytical Chemistry Lab.  Well I've secured the best chemistry student in the current crop of  final year students and this weekend, to service his voracious appetite for samples to analyse, I've been delivering pairs of sample bottles to friends-and-neighbours and asking them to fill them at the end of the the bore-flushing day.  I insist that the water is taken then so I'm sampling the groundwater rather than the chemistry of their internal pipework, and from the kitchen tap because I don't want to know what's in their header tank.

Thirty years ago, I got my first job teaching population genetics in a British university.  They gave me an odd room as an office that had previously been a tiny laboratory. If I got thirsty as I worked away in there prepping my first classes, I'd half-fill a mug from the lab tap and chug that down.  It was pretty good that water, and certainly did its job on the re-hydration front.  A few weeks later, when I'd settled down a bit, I noticed a separate tap in the gents' jacks marked "Drinking Water".  Ever the institutionalised, I brought my mug along and sampled that source. Pttuuuueeee! It was awful: weeping with chlorine with curious and disconcerting metallic notes and a hint of new mown hay.  So I asked the chief technician where the water in my lab/office came from and he said the header tank on the roof.  Which was apparently open to the sky and full of algae, dead pigeons and the crusts of plumbers' sandwiches.  What kills not fattens, so I went on drinking out of the lab tap - it was nearer than the t'ilets.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Chromium Six

Dang but teaching can be fun!  My first class back after the holiday last Monday, I gave my (N=9) environmental chemists a task to investigate the 10 chemical elements that qualify as trace-elements in human nutrition.  10 - 9 = 1, so I bellied up to the bar and said I'd do the report on whatever element nobody wanted to touch.  That short straw was going to be Selenium but at the last minute one of the students took that and left me Chromium instead.  Well Cr turned out to be rather interesting because it has been central to two unrelated controversies, one medical and the other environmental.  Unrelated everywhere except in The Blob - because my task to the EnvCh class was to ask (form a hypothesis we say) if there was a correlation between the abundance of elements in the Earth's crust  and in the human body..

Chromium is the fourth of the transition elements, atomic number 24, between Vanadium (23) and Manganese (25).  Chromium exists in a wide range of oxidation states but predominantly as Chr(III) and Cr(VI).  Cr(VI) salts are highly reactive and powerful oxidants,and so toxic that they are used as wood preservatives.  Since 1890, Cr(VI) salts have been known to be toxic and carcinogenic if inhaled and may induce a contact dermatitis as well when wet.  These 'hexavalent' chromium compounds were the star players in the film Erin Brockovich in which Brockovich sued the local power company  in Hinkley, CA for allowing Cr(VI) compounds to leach into and contaminate the groundwater.  The citizens of Hinkley finally settled for $333million, about $200,000 each, of which the lawyers got 40%.  If you read the Daily Mail or listen to Loma Linda University's Professor John Morgan, epidemiological studies indicate that consequent cancer rates in Hinkley were not significantly elevated.  If you believe The Centre for Public Integrity, you'll reckon that Morgan massaged his data to show that there was nothing shocking under the sand.  Now I'm sorry for you if you want The Blob to give you the skinny on what the truth is out there under the beautiful Mojave Desert.  Science is hard and you're going to have to reconcile a lot of different assertions and data to decide for yourself. You might think for example the The California Cancer Registry and their report on Hinkley (by Morgan!) is an authoritative source.  But I used to live in the "Carnivore Genetics Research Centre", which was the desk and file-cabinets in the otherwise uninhabited cellar of my gaffer's home in the Boston surburbs.

With all this chromate toxicity,  it’s a little curious that Cr(III) is considered by some to be an essential dietary supplement, although only in minute quantities.  These findings are controversial, 3 cases have been identified where patients fed through an intravenous drip on an artificially reduced diet for a long time got sick but recovered when chromium was supplemented.  This suggests that a) vanishing small quantities are sufficient for whatever its purpose (possibly glucose metabolism or as a cofactor for insulin) is and b) it is easy to obtain enough in any normal diet.  Because Cr is sequestered in different parts of the body in different chemical states it is quite difficult to measure its concentration overall as a baseline to establish if someone is deficient. The US Academy of Science has a tentative RDA of 50 μg/day but also finds that most Americans intake much less that this (and live happy and productive lives).  The American Diabetes Association conclude thatat the present, benefit from chromium supplementation in persons with diabetes has not been conclusively demonstrated”. This tentative benefit and the known toxicity of excess Cr has not stopped a market developing in chromium dietary supplements.  The Blob's advice: save your money for Molybdenum supps we definitely need a little of that.

Sorry if you thought this was going to be a review of the prequel to The Secaucus Seven. You're just showing your age Eightiesperson.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Nelson's Pillar

I've ranted on before at how easy it is to pile honorary degrees and other cost-free titles on people who already have them.  There are so many people who are, within statistical error, just as good/successful/interesting but who would take a little more effort to seek out for getting a scroll and a free dinner. That's one issue.

Another is that certain people are so far beyond reproach that any negative associations are greeted with anger and incredulity.  In the 1960s John F Kennedy was one such person in this SE corner of Ireland. We didn't find out about his opportunism and serial shagging until later.  Another is Nelson Mandela who, like Charles II before him, last year spent an unconscionable time a-dying, and a quite disturbing amount of time unburied while family, natal village, political associates, the ZA Government, Bono and others jockeyed for their peripheral position in the media frenzy.  Thus when the Heads of State of US, UK & DK made themselves a selfie at Mandela's funeral, it was greeted with 'shock' and 'horror', as if nobody had ever cracked a joke at a wake.  Or more relevant to my argument, the sense was that, at Mandela's funeral, everyone had to be seen as serious if not actually weeping.

In Britain they get exercised about different parochial matters that we do here in Ireland - it is a different parish after all. So it was a couple weeks later that I heard about a Conservative MP who seemed to some to have behaved badly.  Always game for some blimp-bating, I followed the story up in the local rag and found that, just after Mandela died a month ago, the said MP Bob Blackman tweeted “Proud to have supported preventing Brent Labour Party’s illegal attempt to use Mandela for party political stunt in 1990 Brent elections.” Back in 1990, many left-of-centre people were outraged (yes yes 'shock' and even 'horror') that then Councillor Bob "Blackguard" Blackman had checked them from offering Nelson Mandela the "freedom of the borough" of Brent. As if that was something that Mandela would value: "First Prize a weekend in Brent, Second Prize two weekends in Brent, anyone?".  What Blackman had actually been saying was that, while he had the highest regard for Mr Mandela, whom he considered a statesman, he thought it was a cheap-and-easy stunt to offer him the keys to a fairly shabby suburb of London. But they would not be denied, and in June last year, as The Great Man continued his long slide into oblivion, the Brent Councillors unanimously agreed to give Mandela his scroll.  He was too busy dying to come and accept it in person.  He has accumulated so many awards and honours that they don't fit on his primary Wikipedia entry.

A couple of days ago, the Committee for The Naming of Park Benches in Dublin saw sense and decided not to name the Dublin Spire after Nelson Mandela.  This, despite the fact that it was really close to the Dunne's stores branch where a dispute about selling South African oranges in the 1980s had been a major boost to the public's appreciation of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.  The Spire, for those who don't live in Ireland is a brushed stainless steel needle 120m tall in the very centre of town. It was erected about ten years ago to general acclaim.  The airspace had been empty since 1966 when the IRA blew up a previous monument called Nelson's Pillar because it had a statue of the admiral on top.  I feel that one reason for not calling the Spire after 'our' Nelson is that it would look like a tawdry bit of a pun without any real thought about the historical associations, which are both murky and tenuous.  A bit like the uber-cool kids in Diva cynically calling their cat Ayatollah.

Which gives me the excuse to creak out an ancient joke (I have three):
Q: What's black and sits on Nelson's Column?
A. Winnie
That'll get me a Fatwa from the ANC.  I hope their hitman will pause long enough so we can get in a selfie together.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

TWA 3: hypothesis and test

In the dark of the night on 16th January 1942, TWA flight 3 ploughed into a vertical mountain cliff 50 km out from Las Vegas.  Everyone on board including celeb film-actor Carole Lombard died immediately.  This was long before black-box flight recorders and it was in the middle of WWII but the US Civil Aeronautics Board CAB met to determine how the accident had happened - nobody wanted such a thing to happen again.

It's interesting to reflect on how things were back then by noting that the flight from New York to Los Angeles had necessary intermediate stops in Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Albuquerque and Las Vegas.  Carole Lombard's party boarded at Indianapolis and were about to be bumped in Albuquerque so that 15 Army Air Corps effectives could make it to California.  But Lombard pulled celeb-rank - she had been raising money selling War Bonds for the gumment - and insisted on travelling onwards in that plane . . . now.  I bet she wished she hadn't when she heard the pilot cry "Oh !@%$!&" seconds before he drove the bus into the moonlit cliff.

Before leaving Las Vegas, the flight crew had to fill in a flight plan which was left there when they took off (normal practice).  The CAB noted that the intended course was 218o, which was indeed pointing directly at the fatal cliff but not really at their destination in Burbank CA.  They formed a hypothesis that the pilots had, after a long day in the air, put in the coordinates for a flight from Boulder CO - Burbank by mistake.  Both pilots had done that trip several times.  Good idea, likely explanation.  Amazingly, however, the CAB trawled through their bin of flight plans (data! - love it) and found another sheet with exactly the same mistake.  the favored hypothesis became therefore much more likely.

The Man from La Mancha

Today is the anniversary of the publication of the 1st edition of the 1st volume of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel Cervantes. Commonly called Don Quixote in English about equally pronounced as Donkey Hoti and Don Quicks-OatThis book is held in the same sort of esteem as the complete works of Shakespeare has in the English speaking world.  It is not everybody's cup of tea: it is long, the language is said to be archaic, the story line is not particularly subtle, and one of the stars is a bedraggled old nag called Rocinante. Many of my readers will be able to recall the name of Don Quixote's side-kick - and no I don't mean the horse! You can see on the left the Principals as famously rendered by Pablo Picasso. It was made into a rollicking musical called The Man From La Mancha starring Peter O'Toole as the dithery old fantasist and Sophia Loren who throughout the film seems as if she is just about to burst out of her bodice.  Needless to say, the film being made in 1972 for general release, she doesn't.  I've never read it, even in translation, so I can't give you any kind of synopsis let alone a value judgement - except to say that we derive our phrase tilting at windmills from one adventure in the story and that in the end [whoop whoop spoiler alert] he dies.

Hidalgo is an interesting word being a contraction of hijo de algo or son-of-somthing.  The use of the term was strictly regulated in and down from the Spanish Court in the Golden Age of that country.  You were still hidalgo even if your estate was mortgaged and your father had drunk, wenched and gambled himself into an early grave.  If you were hidalgo you could heave yourself up to your full height and insist on 'your rights': you were still better than your rich, diligent and and successful neighbours.  Don Quixote is at least partly an exposure of this delusion and its consequences.  Controlling and enshrining class divisions has been considered important by those at the top since ever there was civilised society.  One way in which this was enforced was in sumptuary laws which regulated who could wear what.  Only certain people could trim their sleeves with fur, or use the expensive Tyrian purple dye, or wear silk clothes.  There's a nice example where the law attempts to save the foolish from themselves in a diktat issued by England's Queen Elizabeth I.

If I have nothing useful to say on Don Quixote the book, why bring it up?  Well I was tickled by the coincidence that 6 days ago we acquired our very own Man from La Mancha who will be living with us up the mountain.  He's here to perfect his English, while learning how to make bread and how to plash a hedge.  As he's been picking grapes and olives and pruning vines and olive-trees on his home-place in the middle of Spain since he was 14, the latter task shouldn't be too difficult/different?  And he's already made a passable white yeast loaf for our multinational menage.

I think I might give Don Quixote a go, it can't be less tedious than Lord of the Rings.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

How sweet the sound

. . .  of rivets popping off the tank like machine gunfire as the Boston Molasses Disaster pursued its tragic course.  It happened just after Noon on 15th January 1919, so lots of the witnesses were well familiar with the sound of machine gun fire from their experiences with the US American Expeditionary Force AEF in France.

What seems to have happened was that a massive (15m tall x 27m diameter) tank full of molasses ruptured and/or exploded.  The latter is a likely probability because molasses inevitably fermented while in storage to produce carbon dioxide which may not have been properly vented.  The gas pressure may have been exacerbated by the fact that the temperature had risen rapidly from -17oC to +5oC. But shoddy engineering (the tank was known to weep brown gook), insufficient testing, and absence of qualified inspection may have led to a catastrophic metal fatigue fracture than propagated until the rivets unzipped.  The tank was almost full with an estimated 8700 cu.m of molasses which debouched in a 8m high wave travelling through the North End of Boston at nearly 60km/h.  Several buildings were swept off their foundations and the elevated railway's supports were bent out of shape.  In the dark tide 21 people and a lot of horses perished making it a little less lethal that the Great London Beer Flood which killed 1/3 as many people with about 1/6th the volume. The surviving residents took one of the earliest class-action suit against the company and eventually secured $600,000 compo.  My sources don't say how much the lawyers took.

This continues the occasional series estimating the killing power in bangs/weight of various chemicals.  From Botox to Sarin to propylene to molasses to carbon dioxide to dilute ethanol.  These lethal doses range over 15 orders of magnitude from 150 ng to 150 tons.  Choose your poison!

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Kurt Godel

Back in the late 70s Douglas Hofstadter published a weighty tome called Gödel Escher Bach An Eternal Golden Braid.  I ate it all up at the time as it was long, discursive and full of nifty connexions. About ten years ago when I had convenient access to the enormous TCD library, I took the book down from its shelf and tried to read it again.  Clearly my attention span had slumped several points in the intervening decades because I found it dense, opaque and obscure.  A similar revelation happened when I tried Lord of the Rings at the age of 50 - who really gives a toss about Tom Bombadill and aren't we glad he never made it into the films of the book?

I think I'll rant on about Hofstadter later in the year, but today let's talk briefly about Kurt Gödel, who gets tiptop billing in GEB-EGB.  The fact that the acronym of the subtitle is an anagram of the acronym of the title sums up the "disappeared up his own bottom" aspects of Gödel Escher Bach. Kurt Gödel was born into the same culture and same town as Gregor Mendel lived the largest part of his adult life.  The region is so multicultural and multilingual that Brno/Brünn/ברין is not sure what to call itself. But at least they seem to have more obviously the same root than say Breslau/Wroclaw. Talking about Mendel last July, I reflected on the disturbingly sliding international borders in Central Europe, which must have confused the hell out of the plain people who lived there.  Every few years the tax-forms changed colour.

Gödel experienced this rather directly.  He was born a German-speaking citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  At the age of 12 in 1918 he and his family became <shazzam!> Czech. He went to college in Wien/Vienna and at the age of 23 adopted Austrian citizenship.  At 32 on the wake of the 1938 Anschluß he became a German.   Ten years later (42!!) after the world had settled down and Gödel was happily professoring in Princeton he became an American citizen.

His contributions to mathematics and logic are enormous.  He is shown here comparing hats with Einstein and it's pretty clear that contents of their heads were pretty good equals.  His fame rests primarily on his early Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der "Principia Mathematica" und verwandter Systeme. This is usually called his Incompleteness Theorem, which said that it was impossible to construct an internally consistent universe of mathematics.  Gödel demonstrated that he/one/you (not me, I'm not clever enough) could write a statement that was true but formally unprovable as true . . . I think.

Poor chap went entire off the rails in his later years.  Convinced that somebody was trying to poison him, he refused to eat any food unless it had been cooked by his wife Adele.  When she was ill and had to be hospitalised for six months, Gödel therefore refused to eat and died of "malnutrition and inanition": he starved himself to death, finally pegging out on 14th Jan 1978, the year GEBEGB was published. The  many people from his home town who called it ברין died of similar symptoms but under circumstances rather beyond their control (Anschluß and subsequent events y'know).

Monday, 13 January 2014

2014 Marmalade is IN

Yesterday we put in the full of a Winter's day in the kitchen converting Seville oranges into marmalade.  The recipe, adapted from Deli O'Smith, is idiot-proof because you boil up the fruit separately to mobilise the pectin in the pips and membranes and then add the sugar and boil it until a drop or two of the glop sets on a cold plate. Other recipes run these two separate processes together into the same time frame and so it's a little quicker in elapsed time but also more prone to failure. I try to minimise the amount of sugar in any jam that I make so that it's fruity but that means that the second sugar-meets-pectin reaction is likely to result in jam that's a little runny.  That's what happened with the first of two batches yesterday, so I last night I thought I might have to re-boil that batch with another half-kilo of sugar and maybe some lemon juice.  Or bottle out and throw in a lump of frozen crab-apple pulp. Apples are so rich in pectin that they should have sure-set tattooed on their skins.  On the second batch, we learned from experience and lashed in an extra half kilo of sugar which did the trick nicely.  So Aoife has returned to Dublin with 16 pots of 2014 vintage marmalade; and we have half a crate of bright orange oranges yet to convert/preserve.

Making jam is rich in kitchen science.  You can, for example, persuade jam to 'set' in different ways:
  • if you add a tea-spoon of orange juice to a kilo of sugar et voila! it's set; 
  • you can buy pectin as a powder or, as I say, as apple-cores; 
  • pectin sets better at low (acidic) pH, which shouldn't be an issue with oranges but lemon juice is more tart and so has more bang per pip.  
This morning however,  our first run marmalade is looking solid enough.  Not solid so you can turn the pot upside down, but it won't run off the toast and down your shirt-front either. All it needs now is the label. But now I must off to work and try to work out when I'll next have 5 hours elapsed time to make more marmalade.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Full of the warm South

I first started making marmalade seriously in January 2003.  Almost every year since then I've turned up at the doors or Sam Dennigan near the Dublin Fruit Market and exchanged €20ish for 20ish kg of Seville oranges.  20kg is a crate of oranges and it's an awkward load to lug.  I've tried a few methods: balancing in the back of a bicycle, decanting half into a 35lt rucksack, schlepping it on the LUAS to Bus Aras, occasionally even picking it up in a car. Whatever the inconvenience, I wasn't about to piffle about buying a reasonable quantity in a grocer and make a dilettante's few pots. There are certain economies of scale here. Most years, I've laid off some of the fruit on friends & neighbours, so that they can make some to their own recipe. Now that I don't work in Dublin at all at all, and as we have a small surplus from last year I was going to write off the tradition this year.  But my pal Aoife is coming down from Dublin later today with the oranges and we're going to slave over a hot stove until we have some jam-jars full of the warm South.  Looking forward!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Would you live forever?

Kerls, wollt ihr ewig leben? or Ihr Racke, wollen sie ewig leben?  Hunde and Scheisskerls have also been suggested as how Frederick the Great addressed his retreating soldiers as they ran away at the Battle of Kolin in 1757.  Translation {rogues | rascals | dogs | buggers} would you live forever?  Well would you?  Under any circumstances?

A few days ago, I left a post hanging with a challenge to look well-hard at some of the unconsidered/invisible certainties that we all take for granted now which will look silly and cruel to our grown up grandchildren.  Eeee when I were a lad it was taken as perfectly natural and indeed A Good Thing to hit children with a stick when they had contravened some rule or merely annoyed an adult in the same room. Not many people hold that view now. I couldn't articulate the certainty that was lurking at the back of my mind when I issued the challenge but it was something about chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes or Pan paniscus) and their rights.  We share about 98.5% of our DNA with a random fellow human and 97% with a random chimpanzee.  We are only now in this century beginning to accord our nearest rellies some rights. About 12 years ago, when we were busy discovering genes in the newly released human genome, it seemed obvious that we should enquire about whether those genes were present in Pan.  We were told by Dublin Zoo that a blood-sample was out of the question even after the vet had drawn some for the health and happiness of those in her care; that a hair-follicle would be too much of an invasion.  But if we filled in an appropriate battery of forms we could ask for some chimpanzee shit from which we might hope to extract enough DNA from shed colonic epithelial cells to analyse.  As chimpanzees couldn't sign an informed consent form, it was actually easier to get human samples.

But a much more relevant question has surfaced on TYWKIWDBI channelling some serious fury by Scott 'Dilbert' Adams.  This is summed up by the first anguished sentence "I hope my father dies soon.".   Adams' articulation of the dilemma as "If my dad were a cat, we would have put him to sleep long ago. And not once would we have looked back and thought too soon." tolled a bell for me because we terminated our dog Rashers  a year ago yesterday. We didn't do that casually; Dau.II was still living with us and Rashers was Her Dog.  I'll also point out that "intra-muscular ketamine/lidocaine followed by intracardiac phenobarb" is not a quick death and it didn't look easy either but it's a lot better than using carbon dioxide.  Nevertheless, I'm sure we made the right decision, and the law of the land i which we currently live agrees.

People who care about their pets and livestock have been culling them for as long as they've had them.  Putting an animal "out of its misery" is standard practice.  We terminated one of our sheep in the summer when she developed a tumour on the spine that knocked her hind legs out of use and didn't respond to medication.  The fallen-animal removal man came before the vet, as it happens, and he is licenced to shoot animals to hurry them over the line.  He did this with discretion and dispatch and it was all over a lot quicker than the drug cocktail method.

If we do this because we care and because we deplore the idea of suffering in animals with which share our space, why do we take a precisely opposite stance when we start talking about our own kith and kin?  In Ireland we haven't even established the right to dispose of our own lives as the sorry case of Marie Fleming established before the Supreme Court last April.  Fleming is in the last stages of multiple sclerosis (MS) and wants to establish the right to call it a day when she feels the time is right.  The Irish Judiciary wants to protect the most vulnerable in society from being offed by their guardians.  Justice Susan Denham invited the government to legislate for an extremely circumscribed set of circumstances in which  a right to die can be established. 

I may come back to this in 2014, because I'm interested in End of Life Issues, but for now I'll just draw attention to the disconnect, the internal inconsistency, which allows us to kill animals in circumstances where we are forbidden to kill people.  There are definitely worse things than dying.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Hypnopompic is a very long word

Hypnowha'?  is the most likely response to the title of this post.  Peculiarly attentive readers of The Blob may just ask "where have I seen that word before?".  Me, I was delirah because in December I wrote the word for the first time in my life on The Blob and then came across it as part of a Test Your English Vocabulary quiz.  Accordingly I have an estimated vocabulary of more than 40,000 words.  This puts me in the 90th percentile of the people who take the test.  Of course this isn't a random selection of people but rather a selection from the intersect between a) people who do quizzes on the internet and b) people who are interested in (their) language skills.  Draw a Venn Diagram! I found myself doing the quiz because Dau.II, who went back to Cork last week (sniff, gulp) was asking me about how big a person's vocabulary was.  I claimed that the average vocabulary of a native speaking adult is about 10,000 words and that a medical students double that in the course of their training (digitalis, oxalic, catheter, trochanter, oculomotor, radius etc).  I've been misinformed, your average 8 year old has a vocabulary of 10,000 words.  With Dau.II the thought is the deed and she located and took the quiz even as I was holding forth a few days ago.  Not being an avid reader like his sister Dau.I, or old like me, she didn't make it to 40,000 words but was still above the median.

The words that I booted include adumbrate, opsimath, clerisy, deracinate, epigone, cenacle and cantle.  Some of which I must have known at some time in my life but have now decluttered from my head and all of which we can all manage quite well without. Indeed I guess I am an opsimath, without knowing it, so today I feel a bit like the chap in Moliere who is surprised and delighted to find that he's been speaking 'prose' all his life.  The difficult words, including those in the list above, are estimated to occur less than 3 times in 1 million words.

My pal and contributor-of-comments Russianside mentioned a few days ago that it was the first time he'd written the word ooze.  With The Wean having just turned 2, her parents were asking how on earth their nipper had learnt <such a word> (I forget the word that made them comment).  They'd never used it in her presence, the child can't read yet and they couldn't imagine anyone in the creche using such a term.  I remember a similar event when Dau.I was just able to walk: she pointed to the roof and said "chimney". Of all the words in the world to start cluttering her head with, that wouldn't have occurred to me and we adults were all certain that it hadn't come up in conversation. A key predictor of a large vocabulary is, predictably, that a child reads "a lot".  The American/Brazilian team is looking for more test-takers, especially from teenagers and others whose vocabular is like to be increasingly rapidly, so ask your teen to give it a go. More data are good data.

I can't finish this discussion without mentioning Zipf's law which says that "the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table".  Thus, the most common word in any language occurs twice as often as the second most common, 3x more than the third, 4x than the fourth. Bizarre but empirically true. Zipf's Law applies in a wide range of other circumstances: the ranking sof urban populations, income distribution, product sales in shops, youtube or blog pageviews. Here's some data, showing that English text consists of a small number of very common words and a large number of  uncommon ones - the latter is the Long Tail which is opening up the economics of publishing (Danny Battle can make some sales as well as Harry Potter, if enough readers [Amazon, we thank you] are given the choice).  If you actually look at the words which make up the dataset below, you can have a punt about which long 19th century novel supplied the 200+,000 words.
The Blob has accumulated about the same number but on a wider diversity of topics, so it's not so surprising that adumbrate deracinates cantle.