Wednesday, 30 April 2014

How to Write

The Blob: today - 500th post, 282,000th word.
Y'know those lists you catch in the Grauniad periodically "Ten Top Tips to Typers" where the first rule is avoid alliteration? That link has solicited Top Ten lists from a string of living authors.  One common theme in many of those lists is "write early and write often".  Here's a list culled from the works of Mark Twain, which ends with "Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for."  Which is a great winnow; if you write because, like Luther, "Ich kann nicht anders", then you may not be happy starving in your garret but it will be clear why you were put on the planet. A couple of weeks ago, my old boss asked for comments on the subject of science writing.  That was a little odd because, my primary fault as a scientist was/is a failure of finish: the ability to write it all down and submit it to peer-review. It's much easier to write the Blob - they accept anything. So I dashed off a few comments and suddenly it was TenTopTip list:
  1. Don't try to read hundreds of novels now, it's too late for that.  My reading daughter and I both did this and we both had about the same size of vocabulary but she is 40 years younger than me. Improving your wordpower in adulthood is going to be a struggle similar to that of learning a foreign language - easy when you're three, a slog when you're thirty.
  2. Read The Blob!  One of the long words that I knew for the vocab test was hypnopompic which I needed to write a post about narcolepsy.  This is my 500th post so there's plenty of other material to divert you from doing some work. 282,000 words is more than Moby Dick but less that Anna Karenina.
  3. My Gaffer in Grad School chid me thus "Don't write run-on sentences" because I often erred in being too clever rather than  being too simple. Go with Twain: "Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences." I only listened to that advice with half an ear and you'll find lots of examples on The Blob where I disappear up my own clever orifice.
  4. A later boss used to say that, after you've landed the last result, you should write the title first because that should articulate the take-home message.  Then write the Abstract which should make clear the structure for how you get from start to take-home. The paper should then write itself.  
  5. It also helps a lot to use a Table of Contents structure of headings, sub-heads and sub-sub-heads.  If the headings do not have equal 'value' then your structure needs adjustment,  For a paper, you can delete the 1.2.1; 1.2.2;; structure when the hierarchy is populated with words.  For a thesis it's usual to leave these structural signposts in.
  6. Don't sweat too much about apostrophes - it's just a convention and is not consistent: we use a possessive apostrophe in "John's hat" but not in "its hat" (because we've allocated it's to the contraction of "it is".  That's how is is but it didn't have to work out that way.  Tell annoying apostrophe-nazis to do something about deforestation in Borneo.  Try to use correct spelling and grammar (and apostrophes!) in letters of application or grant application: there's no advantage in distracting/annoying your readers with obvious errors - it will make them think you frankly don't give a damn.
  7. When we were young (before the First War) one of the standard exercises in English was to do a Précis which required you to read, say, 1500 words and summarise the piece in, say, 250 words.  We used to joke that the first step was (of course) to delete all the adjectives.  The Art of Summary is not formally taught any more and more's the pity because to do a Précis properly you have to read with care and attention and abstract the key points into your summary. Very useful skill that, and 'abstract' is one of the tasks you need for every paper and grant application you write.
  8. Read a (science) book and write a book review.  It's a good discipline, for the same reason writing a Précis is.  A Book Review should give the title, cost and page count, the author and publisher and ISBN.  Then it should summarise the book, and maybe recommend whether readers should read (all of) it (or not) and buy it (or not). THEN it should add something that the reviewer brings to the table laid out by the book. That makes the review valuable in and of itself. All in 500 words! You may be able to get the review published if you're quick off the mark with a new book and have something interesting to say about it.  In The Examiner, say, or The Scientist.
  9. Write early and write often: you get better at anything if you practice, for the last 11 months I've written something (usually about 500 words) on The Blob every day usually before breakfast.  That amounts now to much more than a quarter million words.
  10. Get someone to read a chunk of your stuff and identify your verbal tics, then work to eliminate them.  Far too many of my sentences begin with 'So'.  Consequently I must do better.
For more on the mechanics of writing using MS Word and other software read The Pilcrow Post

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Raising agents

I mentioned Somerset Maugham a few days ago as an author from whom I've had days of reading pleasure.  He was a reading addict himself and claimed that he would rather read a telephone book than stare out of the window reading nothing.  He's most accessible in his short stories of which he wrote scores.  One of those The Book Bag starts by claiming that in his extensive travels in the colonial tropics he toted round an outsized laundry bag full of reading material - presumably not telephone directories.  You should read it because it slips into a (com)passionate look at one of society's great taboos. After that you can try Three Fat Women of Antibes and after that you can make you own way.  It was entirely coincidental that I should have been tribbing Maugham for his literary skills in a post that was primarily about (de)criminalising homosexuality.

But Maugham also had his day(s and days) in court in consequence of his own homosexuality.  Not that he was prosecuted for having a long-term gay relationship with Gerald Haxton and after his death with Alan Searle although he could have been. His legal adventures started when he attempted to disavow and disinherit his biological daughter so that he could adopt Searle and make him his heir.  The daughter Liza Lady Glendevon took him to court in England and France and secured at least part of her patrimony.  Finding out a bit about Liza sent me down an interweb rabbit-hole to a compilation of brief biographies of people rather repellently called queerspawn. As they say there's nowt so queer as folk:  some of them collect matchboxes and some collect people with somewhat less ordinary parents.  I've actually heard of a few (Jodie Foster, OJ Simpson) of those listed but I wouldn't have mentioned the connexion just because it features some celebs. It led, however, to a powerful youtube polemic in front of the Iowa State Legislature in favour of gay marriage by a fine upstanding college boy who has two mothers for parents. It's a great complement to Panti's passionate polemic about the negative experience of being gay in Ireland.  Zach Wahls' position is interesting in the same way as Leo Abse's - it's not one-dimensional.  The fellow is clearly an all-American boy: patriot, model student, church-goer and quarter-back but he won't accept that his parents are unsuitable to bring him up. The unavoidable conclusion is that any gay couple is as competent to raise children as any heterosexual ditto. Given how many emotional cripples there are hirpling about our society, married couples haven't set the bar very high for parental competence. The Economist's OpEd on the story said "This is what it looks like to win an argument"  I've been smiling all day since I heard him!

Monday, 28 April 2014

One's Company

Looking for china in one of our sheds, I found a number of boxes full of books. My primary feeling was sinking heart - that I had buried these books for 16 years in conditions that were far from ideal and that I had survived for all that time without missing their physical presence. Books like that are just clutter. But I was delirah to discover in the same box three books of 1930s travel which are worth reading again because they did so delight me when I read them first.  The first two were a matching pair of Patrick Leigh Fermor's trilogy A Time of Gifts and Between Woods and Water, which I've recently tribbed.  With commendable synchronicity I was chatting just recently about the third of these re-found books with my US pal P.  It is One's Company by Peter Fleming.

All of these books have two things going for them: they give an idiosyncratic and evocative view of events distant in both time and place and they are really well written.  People who have been taught to write grammatically correct English tend to snicker at the Da Vinci Code and other books by Dan Brown: the illiteracy is sometimes enough to stop the flow of the racing narrative because you can't follow who is doing what to whom.  When Fermor left England with a copy of Horace as one of two books to carry him across the continent it was in Latin. Before dropping out of his fancy school he had been formally educated in the ancient tongue.  That meant that he could recognise a gerund, a subjunctive clause, a preposition or a phrasal verb in either Latin or English.  The Horace for a contemporary 18 year old to take Inter-railing round Europe would be more likely Rumpole of the Bailey.  I also went to a fancy school but was useless at Latin and I was unable to translate its formality into better writing in English. Having O'Manch staying with us for 4 months learning English as foreign language has been an education for us all. When I was at school I thought all that grammar was just an impediment to the communication; I now realise that grammar is essential for communicating your ideas unambiguously.

Fleming also went to a fancy school - his grandfather was a merchant banker so there was plenty of money sloshing about the family. They still give a Peter Fleming award at that school to recognise excellence in literary composition and he went on, effortlessly, to snag a first class honours degree in English from Oxford.  He could have stayed at home in the world of the London literati writing, say, for The Times and the Spectator and he did that, but he also left England and travelled into the interior of South America (Brazilian Adventure), China (One's Company) and Central Asia (Travels in Tartary). These, particularly the first, are the funniest, most laconic and least pretentious travel books you are ever likely to read. Unless you follow them up with A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush or pretty much anything else written by Eric Newby.  If you like your upper lip to be stiff while reading, these are the chaps to follow.

I've had occasion to remark about our unconsidered certainties - the background that cannot be seen and so is never questioned: that homosexuality is a kind of curable disease, that it's okay to hit children with sticks, that life is sacred, that boxing is a sport in which civilised people might engage. It would not be true to say that there is a vein of anti-semitism in One's Company - nothing compared to what central Europe was getting geared up to in the 1930s - but casual use of Jewish racial stereotypes (salesmen, clever) has modern readers brought up all standing. Nobody nowadays thinks that a pipe is an essential piece of kit to take to the Brazilian jungle. You will notice this of many books written before WWII. It would be about as true to say that Peter Fleming or Agatha Christie was anti-semitic as to say that the Iona Institute is homophobic or that the driver of the Clapham omnibus (and most of his passengers) is racist. After WWII, of course, in Europe there was rather less point in uttering casual racial stereotypes about Jews because there weren't any.

There's a nice critical tribute by Ben Downing to celebrate Peter Fleming's centenary. And here's an attempt by Robert Ryan to bring him out of eclipse by his younger and ultimately more famous brother Ian '007' Fleming.  But forget all that, go and get any of Fleming's books out of the library: real life on the edge trumps fantasy however fantastic.

Sunday, 27 April 2014


Over Easter, we had some bright sunny days, so I thought I'd go up into the attic of one of our sheds to look for some more china bowls.  It's a rather dark Aladdin's cave up there - stuffed with stuff in boxes.  I didn't find any bowls but I was shocked to find 8 xerox boxes full of books. I say shocked because I thought I'd made a concerted effort to bring the books out of a damp cold environment into the comparative warmth of our house.  Clearly not, and I spent a few hours going through the boxes looking for books to discard.  Somewhere along the way I'd picked up a copy of The Darkening Green by Compton "Whisky Galore" MacKenzie. Inside the cover somebody had written "First Edition Fine copy" and somebody else had written 75p.  Always fantasizing that I had astutely acquired a rare and valuable book on the proceeds of whose sale I could retire, I checked for similar tomes on AbeBooks.

I was disappointed: the most expensive price was only $40 and that for "Signed by the author to the title page. There is an ownership plate to the front paste down in the name of Rupert Croft-Cooke: Mackenzie was a character witness at his trial. Green cloth covers marked and worn, one corner chipped, age-mottling to prelims, clean, tight and sound, good, no DJ."  TMI?  No no there is never too much information for The Blob. But it required me to go down an interweb rabbit hole because I'd never heard of R.C-C.  Which is a little weird because one of the reasons why it's so hard for me to discard books is that much of my library consists of authors who are deeply unfashionable nowadays. I'm quite happy to move a book on to someone who will read if not cherish it.  But I have no intention of letting go of a book, which has given me some innocent pleasure, if it is likely that it will be used as a firelighter or go for pulping to make more Aldi or Argos catalogues. R.C-C comes from an era which launched a lot of writers whom I rate rather highly but are not widely read now: Somerset Maugham and George Orwell still have book in print but probably not Pierre van Paassen; W.W.Jacobs; Peter Fleming; Taffrail; Bartimaeus. And it seems he wrote biographies and travel books and biographical travel books which are genres that I've enjoyed.

And of course I had to follow up the enigmatic reference to his trial.  It transpires that he was banged up in chokey for 6 months in 1952 for picking up a couple of cruising sailors and taking them down to his country cottage for sex. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was going to write something to celebrate the birthday of ethnologist Augustus Pitt-Rivers but got diverted from that worthy aim to the trials and tribulations of A.P-R's great grandson Michael Pitt-Rivers who, in 1953, was given 18 months for partying with a couple of young airforcemen - as was Peter Wildeblood, while Lord Montague of Beaulieu got only 12 months. The young servicemen, like the sailors, having grassed up their well-heeled bonk-partners were let off. I've also written about Alan Turing who was convicted of "gross indecency", injected with synthetic estrogen treatment (rather than than jailed) and committed suicide a couple of years later. The Home Secretary at the time was a diligent and successful lawyer called David Maxwell Fyfe who, apart from allowing a witch-hunt against homosexuals, was also also a key player in the winner's witch-hunt which we call the Nuremberg Trials.  Which is a little ironic because the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei were rather better at persecuting homosexuals than the British establishment but they both considered persecution to be A Good Thing.  Fyfe was also adamant that a simpleton called David Bentley should be hanged for being present when a policeman was shot.  The shooter, being under age, did ten years in jail.

These well-known gay men were not alone.  At the end of 1954, there were more than 1000 men in British jails for being homosexual. Rupert Croft-Cooke wrote a scathing account of the British criminal justice system called The Verdict of You All. While Peter Wildeblood wrote his equally uncomplimentary analysis in Against The Law. I've got a copy of the latter (1959 Penguin 2/6) "The noblest and wittiest and most appalling prison book of them all". These books were very influential and their authors were extremely well connected, and the publicity resulting from these society trials was not good for the government.  The most significant consequence was the setting up, by Home Secretary Fyfe, of a committee to investigate matters concerning illegal sex in contemporary Britain.
The Chairman of the committee was a headmaster called John Wolfenden (pictured looking uncannily like Philip Larkin, but maybe it's just the NHS glasses) and the other members were a disparate group whom The Man considered to be stake-holders: clerics, educationalists, lawyers, psychiatrists, politicians, a leader of Girl Guides. Apparently, the three women on the committee were considered too delicate to hear the words 'homosexual' or 'prostitute', so Wolfenden primly got everyone to agree to use the terms 'Huntley' and 'Palmer' instead (only in middle class Britain!). They called police and probation officers, psychiatrists and clerics to give their opinions. Getting evidence from actual homosexuals was more difficult as their lifestyle was still criminalised, but Peter Wildeblood was happy to give them an earful as were a couple of other chaps presumably known to one or another member of the committee. "That theatre chappie I knew at prep-school, I reckon he's a bit that way inclined, let's see what he has to say".

The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution aka The Wolfenden Report was published in 1957 and was wholly in favour of decriminalising sexual behaviour between, or indeed among, consenting adults in private.  I suspect that the committee surprised themselves in being considerably ahead of contemporary views of what should be allowable. "It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour." In the parliamentary debate about the report, there was a lot of standard prejudice uttered but no government of those days was about to lose seats advocating a change in the law.

It took another 10 years, Carnaby Street and Swinging London for the law to catch up with the Wolfenden Committee and publish the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which was largely through the efforts of Leo Abse (beautifully captured here by Eamonn McCabe), one of the great old-fashioned radical lefties. He was an extremely valuable member of British society for at least the 25 years he was MP for Torfaen on the Afon Lwyd in Wales.  He took positions on divorce, homosexuality, nuclear power, the Falklands, abortion, and Welsh nationalism which were sufficiently inconsistent to indicate that he had actually thought through the issues rather than adopted a doctrinaire or party political stance.  That encouraged the rest of us to think a little more carefully as well.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Walking the long

I thought I was well 'ard to have walked up the coast of Portugal on my own in 1989.  It was not without its challenges - like overcoming my disappointment that the dolphins Tursiops truncatus were pacing northwards far quicker than me. The navigation was easy - if I veered too much left my feet got wet. The second leg of myTrans-iberian trek from the Portuguese to the French border was an extraordinary experience in the people I met for the first time, including myself, and a number of meals memorable for their sharing simplicity. But few people would claim that the Camino Frances was a challenge in a fell-running, ultra-marathon sort of way. The way-marks and directions, for example, are so frequent as to be intrusive as well as infantilising and even travelling against the flow away from Santiago it was almost impossible to lose the way - except in the all-important-to-pilgrims metaphorical sense.

On Thursday we had a busy afternoon neutralising the (small squidgy retreating) testicles of all our ram-lambs and ringing the tails of both sexes so that they would eventually fall off.  Then we ran most of the delivered ewes and their lambs up to a field full of fresh grass.  We have one ewe, our oldest, who is still not ready for the labour ward and we kept back our most fertile ewe and her three lambs to keep the old girl company.  Except that we didn't.  We picked out three lambs believed to be a sib-group and their mother who had a large blue 3 on her flank and let the others off.  Five minutes later one of the other lambs came back down the lane bleating for his mammy, so we had to bring everyone back to the yard and allow the lambs to choose their own mothers and vice-versa.

Sometime in the middle of these operations, a bloke and his rucksack appeared in our yard asking if there was someplace in the neighbourhood where he and his walking companion could camp for the night. All they required was a fill of their water bottles and somewhere flat and grassy. The bottom of Dau.I's field is ideal for camping: flat with the gravitational slump of top-soil and about 60m wide, sheltered by trees and only a step to the lane.  But we were just about to drive the sheep up there and, although I must have looked leery and suspicious, I was rather trying to think on my feet about how these travellers might be accommodated. There is one great camp-site on the side of our mountain, the only place flat enough for two or three tents and thistle-, gorse- and stone-free.  It's also right beside a ruined steading that will shelter a fire and cut the wind a little.  But they had already passed that and rejected it because there was no water.  I told them that water was abundant in the nascent Aughnabrisky River 250m due East of that site.  Which gave me enough time to twig that the furthest of our 3 acre fields is called The Field Over The River because it hangs 10m above a slightly more mature Aughnabrisky and is also flat along its lower edge.  I pointed them tentatively in that direction to see if it looked okay. It was and they filled their bottles and set off as happy as you can only be after a long walk when it's about to finish for the day.

I woke at 0600hrs the next morning, feeling ashamed that I'd sent them off to sit on the grass and eat beans out of a tin when they could have sat at a table and eaten stir-fry (yum) with us.  Accordingly, I made a batch of flap-jacks, and popped a few in a sugar bag to give them when they left us to continue their journey.  Only a few because they looked like the hard-chaw sort of back-packers who cut the little strings off teabags to save weight.  They were a small bit along a Trans-Ireland trek which mostly followed the Irish leg of the E8 - a European footpath that connects the Kerry coast with Byzantium. Actually they started in Greystones and were aiming for Dingle and they cleverly missed out the boring bit of the South Leinster Way where it requires walkers to share country roads with lead-foot farmers driving 4x4s.  And they missed the absurd dog-leg in Borris which avoids the desmesne of The Kavanaghs in Borris House.  The bold red wiggle gives the rough line of march:
It was a bit of a change for them, and I suspect a bit of light relief because they have walked coast to coast across Scotland numerous times.  Last year they did it as part of the TGO Challenge.  The centre of Scotland is the bleakest and least populated place on the Western European Archipelago, so you need to carry everything you need including food and shelter. Here's a list of one man's trekky essentials.  I've written my inventory for Spain in August (less brutal weather than Scotland in the Spring).  We both look wussy compared to Patrick Leigh Fermor who walked from Hook of Holland to Byzantium in the 1930s with the following inventory: over-coat, spare shirts, the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace, hob-nail boots and puttees.
Bon voyage!

Friday, 25 April 2014


O'Manch is leaving us tomorrow: tying up his few belongs in a handkerchief, cutting a stick out of a hedgerow and going on to seek his fortune in London Dublin.  He's got a few leads and contacts but he intends to hunt out a place to stay and a job to come back to after he returns from eSpain, whither he is Ryanair-booked for the first half of May.  For the short week that's in it, he's booked into a couple of different hostels. I have a wide experience of hostels in Dublin, I haven't heard of anyone who has spent more bed-nights in more different hostels in that city.  When I came back from a long walk in Spain ten years ago this summer, I had a part-time job in Dublin so it seemed foolishly extravagant to rent a room when I was only going to use it 2 nights a week.  On the Camino de Santiago, I'd slept in a wide variety of different places, some scabious, some humble but clean, some quite smart.  There was effectively no correlation between the amount of money you were expected to pay and any objective assessment of quality of accommodation.

It therefore seemed foolishly extravagant to spend €50+ on a hotel when an occasional Dublin bed could be had in a hostel for €12 including breakfast.  Very shortly after that I discovered which cut you a great discount with a credit card and a couple of days notice.  I consciously decided to try a number of different places as a scientific experiment. Data! Most people don't do this: they are so restless that having gone to one city and stayed somewhere good bad or indifferent, they never go back to that city again. They never find out if the accommodation was scuzzy that week because the regular cleaner was sick. You have to take with a pinch of salt the star ratings that appear on booking consolidators: each one is but a clatter of anecdotes.  So here's The Blob's data-driven list.

All of these places include breakfast (tea, toast, cereal, fruit, OJ) and clean sheets, bring your own towel and flip-flops for the showers.
  • Isaac's - original and best; a converted warehouse a minute's walk from the main bus station. It's noisy and friendly, has a functioning kitchen. The lobby is the dining room which is kind of welcoming. No en suite bathrooms. El Asturiano stayed here when he was fresh off the boat from Gijón: within a few days he'd networked a job and a place to stay.
  • Jacob's - owned by Isaac's but purpose built round the corner, the lobby looks like that of a 3 star hotel and is often milled with people as another tour-bus disgorges its load of American or German tourists but none of them are eating their dinner: the kitchen and dining room are in the back and have no windows.
  • Avalon - a bit out from the City Centre but still within walking distance. Spacious communal areas,  Busy and friendly. I was woken, the whole dorm was woken, at 0400rs one morning as three Aussie back-packers started a water fight.
  • Kinlay House - which sounds like a homeless shelter but isn't, is a converted Victorian office building with a magnificent staircase and consequent high ceilings at least on the ground floor. The street door is always locked so you have to get buzzed in, which strikes me as unwelcoming.  Nice breakfast.
  • Times, College Green - all the accommodation except reception and luggage is upstairs which is rather nice - you can look down on the busy street and the back of the police-station from the kitchen. The building is old and rickety and maze of stairs and corridors.  After all the experiments this is where I finished up as a regular sleeper.
  • Times, Camden Lane - should be quiet (it's certainly hard to find the first time) as it's down a little laneway between Camden and Harcourt Streets. But in fact the night-street is deafening as drunken revellers pour out of Copper Face Jack's looking for somewhere to urinate.  The partying was pretty wild inside the hostel as well and, as an early riser, I used to clear up the broken glass before I sat down for a morning cuppa.
  • Ashfield House - 100m from O'Connell's Bridge and round the corner from The Times College Green.  Tall & thin with steep stairs. Street outside is very busy and the place always seemed dark with little natural daylight.  But that's the case for a number of other places.
  • Abigail's - right on the river with views across to the North-side and all upstairs.  It is built like a continental boutique hotel but with 6 people in each room instead of a couple.  They don't start breakfast until 0900hrs, perhaps to discourage itinerant workers in favour of hangover nursing back-packers.
  • Litton Lane - pokey, perky hostel located on a narrow lane up from the river: more or less opposite Abigail's.  It is decorated with musical material because it used to be a recording studio where all the greats cut a disc.
Don't stay in about half these places if you think there is likely to be a fire. Actually the fire-regulations need some consideration because, although the Dept Environment has produced a 60+ page booklet for fire-safety in hostels "The recommendations in this Guide are advisory only and are not statutory requirements". So you don't see this on any of the websites:
O'Manch has partly taken my advice and partly gone off researching on his own - following the stars or a notional score out of 10 on, which he claims gets him a cheaper bed than  I've talked about the Illusion of Control before, but probably not enough. You can do all the research you want, pour the data into an ExCel spreadsheet and analyse it up the wazzoo. But your happiness, or at the least the quality of your night's sleep, will depend on the particular cohort of people with whom you are sharing your room on the night. There is no prior data available for:
4.5 for roncadors/snorers
who will be oblivious as they ruin of your equanimity.  But
3.5  for axe-murderers
will ruin much more.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Into the wild for lunch

<Harrrrumph> With the lambing, I needed to fence off a corner of Crowe's to make a temporary pen for some of the ewes as we shifted them about to keep the recent deliveries closer to the feed and safety of our haggard and let the stronger lambs and their mothers out into the grass.  A couple of 50mm fence posts and 12m of sheep-wire was fit for purpose.  The wire did mean an additional hurdle for people who might choose to visit the Ringstone. On Easter Sunday The Beloved organised a mini Easter Egg Hunt which got us all out of the house for a walk down through the fields to the river.  On the way back, I noticed that one of the sheep-pen fence posts had been broken off: causing the fence to sag in a decidedly un-sheep-proof manner. There were no sheep in the field and rabbits and foxes are just not strong enough to snap an oak post.  We own the fields but we don't own the Ringstone and I wouldn't dream of preventing anyone going to view a part of our common culture and heritage.  Occasionally someone from one of the local walking groups will knock on the door saying that there are 40 people about to come up the lane who would like to see the rock-art but the general practice is that people go down the field without troubling to ask.  A fence-post costs €1.20, so it's not about the money, but if I put something up to manage my affairs, I rely on on still being there a few days later.  If I leave a gate open, or closed, I don't want someone else closing, or opening, it because they think it looks better that way.  I've put up a stronger post; do I need to install a stile?  </Harrrrumph>

Today marks the anniversary of the famous mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the English Peak District in 1932.  Kinder Scout is the highest point (636m) in Derbyshire and more or less plunk in the middle of the country, conveniently close to Manchester and other major population centres.  It was, and probably is, private property: used as a grouse moor and maintained by game-keepers so that the Duke of Devonshire could go shootin' with his pals.  Down in the stews of Manchester, children had rickets because their diet was insufficient and they didn't get enough access to sunlight.  Furthermore the workers in the factories and offices were beginning to realise that some honest fun and healthy exercise at the weekends could make their lives more tolerable.  It must also be said there was a certain amount of inspiration from the youth movements that were gaining momentum in Germany in the 1930s.  The Ramblers' Association helped organise the mass trespass and there was a bit of a barney between the walkers and some gamekeepers before about 500 people tramped to the peak and looked down on the enormous conurbation that they called home.  There were a handful of arrests and five men were sentenced to some months in jail for affray and assault rather than trespass which was not a criminal offense.  We've come a long way since then, Kinder Scout is now incorporated into the 420km of the Pennine Way - one of the earliest Long Distance Footpaths in England. On fine weekends hundreds of people assert their right to walk in the unspoiled countryside.  In June 1984, we walked 40 km with an American friend along the Pennine Way further North up to the top of Cross Fell and down the other side over two and a half days.  The clouds lifted just as we reached the summit and we could see for miles and miles - it was pretty spectacular.  But a good part of the journey was carried out along a slatted wooden walkways raised up on stakes over the wet moor-land - the pressure of footfall was just too much for the delicate ecosystem below to support.  It wasn't until 2000 that legislation was enacted that gave the public limited rambling rights - until then the Ramblers' Association spent a lot of time poring over old ordnance survey maps looking for marked footpaths to walk along.

In Scandinavia the the default position is that everyone has the right to walk or cycle or canoe or camp on unenclosed land that isn't someone's garden.  You can also pick wild berries and mushrooms and use a fishing rod. In Finland, for example, this is called jokamiehenoikeus or allemansrätten - everyman's right - but similar conventions and legal framework are good in Norway and Sweden.  The implication is that if you go out into the wild you know what you're doing and won't destroy the environment.  The whole arrangement also hinges on there being not too many people.

A few years ago I went mushroom picking in NE Poland.  It can get pretty busy in the woods especially near to access roads during fine weekends in the picking season. I was getting pretty smug about being able to pick the right sort until I brought one to the communal basket and was told to a) throw it far away and b) go down to the lake niezwłocznie to wash my hands.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

O Dia de São Jorge

It's been a while since I wrote about saints, but I did Shagsper, England's poet, on this day last year, so it seems appropriate to reflect a little on St George patron saint of Olde England and also of Portugal, Україна, Россия and 18 (!) other countries. Many people in Ireland have a problem with the Union Flag and its associations with imperialist oppression. Many people in the UK also have problems with it and its associations with the National Front.  But to me there is something quaintly cosy about the flag of St George which flutters at the top of medieval church towers on 23rd April and other holidays designated by the Church of England. Fits well with bangers'n'mash, Miss Marple, warm beer, cricket and rose-gardens. Apart from the countries and 30 very miscellaneous cities and towns, St George is the patron saint of soldiers, archers, boy scouts, farmers, saddlers, lepers and syphilitics.

About thirty years ago, I'd completed three years of field-work and data analysis and almost finished writing the PhD thesis which sprang from all that work.  My boss and I agreed that the next project was to carry out a parallel study on the Portuguese Atlantic Islands.  The first step was to investigate the Açores a group of nine islands and some rocks in the very middle of the Atlantic. Accordingly, having arrived at the international airport in Terceira, we spent three weeks tooling about between the islands. We flew from São Miguel at one end of the archipelago to Faial at the other, both of which were civilised in a provincial town sort of way - small hotels, restaurants and bars, grocers and ironmongers. In the Turismo in Horta, I discovered that we could catch the rather wonderful old British-built inter-island steamer back to Terceira from a port called São Roque de Pico.  That would mean ticking off (been there, done that) another island.  Pico is very quiet, distinguished mainly for having at 2350m the highest point in Portugal, that's far higher than anything in the Western European Archipelago where I currently live. The helpful lady in the Turismo booked a room in São Roque by telephone, we crossed the strait to Madelena de Pico and commandeered the only taxi on the island to take us the 15km to our hotel.  The hotel was rather hard to find because it wasn't one, it was a spare room in one of about 20 houses spread out along the road; the port wasn't one either - just a quayside and a short pier. The next morning we walked down to the pier to catch the ferry. It was 3 hours late, the weather was sunny, there was a sea-breeze, the water was turquoise and crystal clear, I could see big fish cruising about all the way to the bottom.  I, perforce, got an early lesson in mindfulness - we had all day and looking at my watch wasn't going to help.  When the ferry eventually chugged round the headland, I was in something approaching a state of grace and equanimity. Ommmmmmm.

An hour later we were docking at the harbor of Velas on the South coast of the island of São Jorge.  I was entranced, the ship tied up to the dock on one side of a narrow gut of water.  There was a romanesque archway leading into the town and on the other side of the water a steep scrub-covered cliff along which kestrels were hunting.  It was almost impossibly romantic. The ferry was scheduled to stay there for 20 minutes, and was already 3 hours late, so I barely had time to step onto dry land before a klaxon sounded the "Sr. passageiros todos a bordo" and we were backing out to sea again for the altogether too busy town of Angra do Heroismo on Terceira.  I'd go back to São Jorge in a trice, preferably in about 1931.

Saints on The Blob: Barbara, BlaiseBrigidJames, KildaMartinNicholas, Patrick,

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Looks like an egg

On Easter Sunday, I took everyone under the age of 30 down to Waterford to have lunch with the Outlaws and hang out with the extended family. We left The Beloved, reluctantly, behind to act as midwife in case the last ewe decided to bring forth her singleton. Some of the family read The Blob, so I'll discretely say that everyone behaved to type.  The food was delicious and we all ate far too much - it's very hard to say no to another roast potato.  When we were ready to leave, Pat was handing out 7.5kg bags of potatoes in lieu of the more traditional chocolate egg.  Earlier in the day, as things started to get frantic in the kitchen, he had been given €20 and sent up the hill to the supermarket to buy Easter eggs for the expected children.  He may be 88 but he's not vague in that sort of way, but he walked past the heap pf Easter eggs lured a display of spuds going for €4 the bag.  He arrived home 15 minutes later listing to port under the burden and immensely pleased with himself.  It transpired that the bag he carried was the instant gratification precursor to 4 more bags which he had arranged to have delivered later.  He'd blown all the egg money on potatoes - much healthier, much better value, much better for your teeth. Some of his adult children maintain that he's quietly losing his marbles, but this strikes me as a rational, thrifty and considerate way to spend money on other people.

Back in the distant past I had my first job riddling, sorting and bagging potatoes on a local farm.  At the end of the first week, I was handed £6.50 and an enormous misshapen mutant potato about half the size of my head that didn't fit in the bags.  That was dinner for me and my mother after I'd filleted out the truly weird material.  After a second week I must have been beginning to earn my salt because that Friday I was given £6.50 and a 1/2 hundredweight (about 25kg) bag of (normal) spuds.  Clearly that barter-like way to get paid struck a chord because I'm still talking about it almost half a century on.  But it also set my financial clock, so that £5 (say €6ish) is a lot of money: back then I worked at the edge of what I was sustainably capable for >30 hours to earn it.

So I, for one, really appreciated Pat's gift of "they look a little like eggs".

Monday, 21 April 2014

M.Biot météoritricien extraordinaire

It's 14 months since the most spectacular extra-terrestrial event of this present century appeared in the sky over Челябинск in Central Russia.  It was a 10,000 ton meteorite that entered the atmosphere at 60,000 km/h getting hotter as it shoved the increasingly dense air out of its way.  Shortly after 0900hrs local time it exploded with a force estimated at 500 kilotons of TNT, blowing out windows, damaging roofs and injuring more than 1000 people, some seriously.  The flash was brighter than the sun and visible from more than 100 km away.  Thanks to the Russian love-affair with dash-cams on their cars, the event was captured on film from several angles. There has been a brisk trade in fragments of The True Rock which were relatively easily located because their final trajectory was visible as holes in a landscape covered in snow. The going rate for teeny bits seems to be about $30/g.  Several large chunks whanged through the ice on Lake Chebarkul 70km West of Chelyabinsk and somebody must have triangulated the holes from the shore because last summer there was an ongoing raree show as divers went under to retrieve the pieces.  The largest was fished out in October and promptly broke into three pieces when it crushed the wholly inadequate scale - the bits totalled 570kg.  I doubt if the finders will get a  pro rata $17million for it but it must be worth more than our humble farm.

The audit trail is so clear that nobody doubts that Chelyabinsk LL5 came from out there.  It was different 200 years ago when science was still laboring under the the intellectual burden that the celestial spheres were making music for the gods and had no physical connexion with earthbound material.  In 1794, Ernst Chladni, one of the great scientific polymaths of that revolutionary era published a weighty book called "Über den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ähnlicher Eisenmassen und über einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturerscheinungen".  Which Blobotrans renders: On the origin of the Pallas object and similar Iron-rich masses and some related phenomena.  Chladni's conclusion was that the Pallas rock must be from outer space.  The following year Howard and de Bournon analysed another meteorite and concluded, from a careful chemical  analysis, that it was most likely not from this earth.  But these men were merely crying in the wind because everybody knew that meteorites were ejected from volcanoes. In the same way that everybody knew that the hen cuckoo disposed of the eggs before laying her own in another bird's nest.

In April 1803 another meteorite shattered over the town of L'Aigle in Normandy.  Another scientific polymath Jean-Baptiste Biot was dispatched by the French Academy of Science to investigate.  He was just 29 having been born on 21st April 1774 and had another 50 years of diverse scientific research ahead of him.  His appearance very shortly after the event, his analysis of the stones, his interviews of the eye-witnesses, his comparison of the data with the literature on other meteoric fragments and a clearly written report all conspired to vindicate Chladni's radical idea.  If you're French you're likely to know Biot as the Father of Meteorology.  If you're Polish, German, Slovak or Magyar you're more likely to give that title to Chladni - all of those nations lay some claim to him as one of their sons. It's similar to the tug-of-fame that Gregor Mendel has experienced since he lived and died in roughly the same area of central Europe.  Let's stuff all that nationalism and call Chladni a Citizen of Science.

But as it's Biot's bday, let's agree to cheer him to the heavens.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Sumer is icumen in

. . .lhude sing cuccu. Forgotten the words? Here they are in the sumptuous and now fully digitised Harley MS 978 a hand-lettered manuscript dating from about 1260 and now in the British Museum (this is nearly 200 years before the first book was printed in Europe):
all the words and a translation here.  Go on - sing it! Í heard our first 2014 cuckoo on the air at 0545hrs yesterday morning.  The unexpected benefits of having to wake through the night and run up to see if either of the last two ewes are ringing delivery bells is that I was first in family to catch the harbinger of Summer . . . and to see the gibbous waning moon suspended over an eerily yellow Cullentra ridge on the other side of the valley. Our cuckoo arrival records are even more desultory than those for the swallows:
2007 19 Apr 2010 20 Apr
2009 02 May 2011 18 Apr
Cuckoos Cuculus canorus are infinitely interesting to an evolutionary biologist (meeeeee!).  Apart from the distinctive cuck-koo call (that's the males advertising their wonderfulness), the only thing most people know about cuckoos is that they are brood parasites.  Not that Joe Public or Sean Gnáth would use that term for laying your eggs in someone else's nest and expecting your offspring to be raised by a deluded bird-brain like the meadow pipit Anthus pratensis.  It's not only meadow pipits that are so deluded, lots of other small birds serve as unwitting hosts; Cuckoos, although they are all the same species (fully inter-fertile) have formed themselves into behavioural sub-species, called gentes by Latinate ornithologists. Each gens preferentially lays eggs in the nest of a particular species and hen-cuckoos of each gens lay eggs with a pattern that more or less closely resembles that of the host species while looking nothing like the eggs of cuckoos who belong to a different gens.  It's one of the best examples of adaptive mimicry that you're like to see in Europe unless you're mad about orchids.  The hen-cuckoo seizes an opportunity (mother pipit off down the boozer getting a small port and lemon) to lay a single egg in a nest and tumble one of the existing eggs out onto the ground below - it all takes about 10 seconds.  Lots of person-years research has gone into working out how much the male and female parent contribute to the genetic determination of mimicry.  Some of the gentes have evolved a far better match to the eggs of the host species, possibly because those species have been parasitised longer and have evolved discriminatory counter-measures.

When the chick hatches it uses a special hollow in its back to finish the job that its mother began and heave-ho: the other eggs and/or hatchlings go over the edge.  That gets it the exclusive attention of one or both foster-parents.  The behaviour of birds is generally much more genetically hard-wired than those of mammals.  Parent birds are programmed to sick up a crop full of food into any gaping red maw.  There is some evidence that they respond more strongly if the mouth is redder, bigger or gapinger; all of which dances to the cuckoo's tune. But other evidence ties the rate of feeding by the parents to the number of open mouths, in which case the solitary cuckoo-chick is at a disadvantage. The observation that the chicks contribute more to the murder than the hen-cuckoo was first made by Edward Jenner, whom we've met before inoculating people against smallpox.

The small fostering birds - more than 100 species have been documented as hosts - have not taken this all lying down.  Some of them are clearly better at discriminating the unwelcome visitor.  They have also generalised a behaviour called 'mobbing' which is used against avian predators like hawks and owls, but is also applied to cuckoos. When these hoodlums appear in the neighbourhood, lots of small potential prey consort to dive-bomb and harass it until it goes elsewhere.  Cuckoos with barred breast-feathers which more closely resemble sparrowhawks Accipiter nisus are less likely to be mobbed - so here is another possible adaptation in cuckoos to secure more time to lay-and-go.  It's also a good idea to nest far from the places that cuckoos habitually perch although that might be difficult if you have make your nest before t'buggers come back from over-wintering in Africa.

Those who are interested in the socio-geological landscape will know all about the Gowk Stanes which litter the Scots countryside.  These are standing stones or glacial erratics which may serve as cuckoo-perches: gowk is Scots for Cuculus like gøg (.dk); gjøk (.no).  These stones also serve a variety of other purposes - directional, boundary, social and religious.

Finally, if you want proof that the Germans didn't learn anything between 1936 and 1972 about the desirability of putting young people into uniforms and making them march about singing, checkout the Den Olympischenjugend singing the cuckoo song.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

First swallows

It was another gorgeous day yesterday: not too hot, mostly sunny. We were able to get some grass mowed and made some progress on getting a clear space to plant potatoes.  It's a bit of a jungle outside the polytunnel but O'Manch worked manfully to clear two raised beds that I constructed several years ago from concrete blocks. They are an orderly complement to the long bed in which he planted out the strawberry runners the day before. It's looking quite protestant. Last night as the evening fell I was sitting on the bench outside the living-room window talking to my mother on the telephone when I noticed the first couple of swallows Hirundo rustica of 2014 weaving and jinking about the yard.

Although Aristotle recognised that some birds migrate annually, he believed that swallows were rather inclined to hibernate through the Winter.  Any half astute natural historian will know that in Europe swallows subsist entirely on insects on the wing - you just have to swat one down and analyse its stomach contents.  The same h.a.n.h will know that there are very few insects on the wing in Winter, so it would be hard for swallows to make a living at that time of year and  . . .  swallows are conspicuous in their absence.  It wasn't until Thomas Bewick's beautiful and authoritative A History of British Birds (1797) that it was generally accepted that Aristotle's hypothesis could be rejected: swallows go South rather than go into hiding.

It always gives me a lift when the swallows arrive - if our farmlet is deemed habitable by these long-distance travelers, it must be a fit place for us to live.  We have kept desultory records of these events over the 17 years we've lived on the side of the mountain:
01 May
21 Apr
28 Apr
24 Apr
02 May
27 Apr
13 May
18 Apr
2014 is thus the earliest we've seen these harbingers of Summer, but I'm not going to predict how much hay we'll win from this information.  One day at a time: it was another gorgeous day yesterday.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Roaring Meg - Midwife of the Republic

I don't know about you, but I think that a monarchy is a Bad Thing.  You can have a Good King but the principle is the same - I don't want to have a Head of State whose only qualification is having half his/her genes in common with the previous incumbent.  But when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed by Michael Collins and his team in Dec 1921 to end the War of Independence, they found that they had created a ni l'un ni l'autre kind of a nation called Saorstát Éireann, the Irish Free State. This entity was still a member of the Commonwealth and still acknowledged the British monarch as Head of State.  In 1937 Éamon de Valera and his wife Sinéad sat down at the kitchen table and drafted a new constitution which embodied their fantasy of what an ideal state should be but was sufficiently in touch with reality that it dealt quite effectively with the problems and solutions that arise when several million people from different political parties and religious beliefs come together to forge a nation. One of the de Valera fantasies was that there would be a new Head of State called Uachtarán na hÉireann or the President. This chap was to replace the Governor-General who, up till then, represented the United King in Ireland. In due course the following year Douglas Hyde was elected unopposed to be the first President.  It was a neat choice - Hyde was a well respected academic, a Protestant and noted scholar and booster of the Irish language - why you could even mangle his name into that tongue - Dubhghlas de hÍde.

But they forgot to tell the Brits. While the President was to "take precedence over all other persons in the State", he was not authorised to deal with external affairs: accreditation of diplomats and the signing of treaties with other countries was still formally vested in King George VI!  de Valera continued on and on in power not dealing with the issue until in 1948, when, although his party secured by far the greatest share of the vote in a general election, he was replaced as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) by John Costello. There was a strong sense of Anyone But Dev about the country or at least among the chattering classes. Therefore Fine Gael and a clatter of smaller parties agreed to bury their differences and cobble together a coalition government.  Normally the leader of the largest party in the coalition would become Taoiseach but Richard Mulcahy has 'done things' in the Civil War that Seán MacBride the leader of Clann na Poblachta wasn't about to forgive in this lifetime.  Poor Costello, a full time barrister and part-time politician, was appalled that the other penguins had pushed him over the edge of the ice-flow into cold and unknown water - probably thick with leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx Carnivora metaphorica) ready to chew his head off.  But he rose to the occasion and was twice the leader of his country before he retired.

Later that year, Costello went on an official visit to Canada.  The Governor-General there, was an Ulsterman and soldier called Harold Alexander. Costello was offended by the fact that, at an official dinner in Ottawa, a model of an old-fashioned cannon called Roaring Meg was placed on the table in front of him.  Roaring Meg was a potent symbol in Ulster Protestant history having been part of the battery that had defended the City of (London)Derry when it was besieged (starting on the 18th April 1689, 325 years ago today!) by the forces of  Catholic King James.  At the end of the dinner, despite a prior parity-of-esteem agreement, there was a toast to The King but not to the Head of State of the visiting dignitary.  Diplomatic faux pas!  Costello was still seething the following day when, in response to a question from a journalist, he asserted that his government was committed to declaring a Republic.  Diplomatic faux pas!  When he returned home, his cabinet of curiosities rowed in behind him despite the whole machinery of government and diplomacy having been wrong footed by Costello's unscripted proclamation.  The Republic of Ireland Act went through the Irish parliament and came into force on 18th April 1949; 65 years ago today.  Of all the anniversaries (1798, 1848, 1916, 1921, 1922, 1937) of the the transition to nationhood, this is the least noticed.

Things always come in threes, as my witchie-poo friends assert.  It turns out that today is also the 73rd birthday of the present, ninth, incumbent of the post of Uachtarán na hÉireann.  Michael D Higgins is a poet, peacenik, author and broadcaster and I think he is an asset to the country at home and abroad.  But then, I'm an intellectual so I would say that. At least nobody will say of him as they did of an American President "He can't walk and chew gum at the same time".  Dau.II works in a cafe in England and is often detected in her Irish accent.  She was lashing out the lunch last week when one of the customers, perhaps a wannabe Irishman said "Isn't Yer Man having a grand time visiting the Queen?" which caught D.II a bit on the back foot because she knew that lots of people visit with QEII, it being her job.  But the light came on when he continued ". . . he's well small, in't he?".  Oh ho, of course, she thought - he's talking about Michael D.'s state visit to London.  That was the first such official visit by the Irish Head of State to the Neighbours'.  He may be small because he grew up in desperately straitened circumstances in the 1940s and 50s.  When his father fell sick, Michael D and his younger brother were shipped out of Limerick to live with an aunt and uncle on the family farm in Co Clare, his older sisters being kept in the parental home.  Michael D. is a credit to the old-style Irish educational system: he got himself educated, went to University, went to America and eventually landed a Faculty position in Politics and Sociology back home at UCG.

Though he be but little, he is fierce 
in his defense of peace with justice.

Filthy lucre

It would be invidious to entitle this brudne złoty as if the Poles were the only nation that didn't wash hands between toilet and shop.  Nevertheless a group of microbiologists from Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin have found significant levels of fecal coliform contamination on coins and bank-notes.  Strangely enough, rather fewer are found on high denomination notes which suggests that if you have two beans to rub together you wash your hands more often - or have a servant to wipe your bottom.  These results are similar to those found in other countries like Saudi and India.  And don't imagine that money is cleaner in Ireland, Ukraine or Russia or wherever you're reading this.

But what to do with this information?  Wear gloves? That's probably not a good idea for the restaurant trade.  We are awash with microbes, 200 trillion of them being toted around about our person - mainly in our large intestine but also up our other orifices and in folds of skin.  Several weeks ago in my Yr1 cell biology class we were doing microbial counts before and after hand-washing.  At least half of the plates indicated more bacteria after washing hands than before; presumably because the soap had mobilised some Staphylococcus minding its own business in a crevice of the cuticle and smeared it over the finger-print.  I regaled the chaps with the fact that 30% of us have MRSA up our noses without ill-effect.

But the Polish study has given me an idea for a final year research project next year, although I can't see myself having €20 and €5 notes "aseptically placed into sterile tubes containing 10 ml of trypticase soy broth", although "The samples were collected at random in different cities from all over Poland from various locations including grocery store, markets, flower shops, bus stations, restaurants, and banks." sounds like a lot of fun.  The folding money is, unsurprisingly, more heavily contaminated not least because the copper which is found in almost all coins is toxic to microbes.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Invisible Waitron

It's Passover! De Gurls Dau.I and Dau.II came home for Seder on Tuesday.  D.II incommmming from Cork arrived in time for dinner for which I created a distinctly unJewish lentil stew in which a large lump of ham had been seethed - the salt: mmmm so good.  But we probably couldn't have had Seder-traditional gefilte-fish croquetas because there is a shortage of that commodity this year due to the brutal winter that the fresh-water of lakes of North America have experienced.  D.I had to put in a full shift cooking, barista-ing, serving and cashing at her cafe In England, so was only able to catch the last plane out of Brum BHX, arriving at 2200hrs.  It turns out that crisply efficient Wexfordbus has three DUB-WX departures in the late evening, so if you're on time or a little early you can get home really quickly but there is a back-up at 2330 if Ryanair is delayed. The great thing about being delayed on Ryanair is that you are spared the self-congratulatory fanfare over the intercom which Ryanair blares out for achieving what it contracted to do. Me, I don't run up a flag and play the Marseillaise at the end of a practical in which no students set fire to themselves. But we the parents thought one of us should do the 290km of decency and go pick her up - and it was me.

After packing in a lot of pig'n'lentil (jumping up and down a bit to settle it and then sitting down for more) I heaved myself into the car.  Having got up to view the last three undelivered ewes at 0000, 0130 & 0300 the night before, and with most of my circulatory system trying to deal with a hyaena's dinner, I was tending to doze on the motorway to Dublin.  But Dau.I kindly undertook to keep me awake talking rather than taking the available blanket and pillow and sacking out in the back of the car.  So I heard quite a bit about the reality of working in the service industry.

It started with an anecdote about a young pal of ours who, as a teenager at one of the Home Ed Conferences had volunteered to dole out the chow at mealtimes.  Feeding more than 200 people, half of them minors, many of them vegans or lactose/gluten/pulse-intolerant, all of them hungry can require reserves of mindfulness.  But our young servitor discovered that many of the adults, whom she had known all her life, were incapable of a) making eye-contact or b) being common-or-garden polite, let alone saying please or thank-you.  What's that about?  Anyone who has watched Downton Abbey or the less melodramatic Upstairs-Downstairs will know that them-downstairs know a helluva a lot about The Gentry because the Toffs cannot see the servants when they have their (in)discrete chats on the chaise-longue in the withdrawing room at the end of the East Wing.

Dau.I works in a Cafe with a large proportion of reg'lars among the customers.  She knows who will address their order to the menu-board rather than the woman writing it all down; who will complain to the manager and then over-state how long their dinner was delayed; who will bark at the waitron and simper to the boss.  I've written before about casual, possibly quite unconscious, racism on buses. I have a wide experience of bus-travel in Ireland and I try to sit up near the front to see where we're going.  I've had many occasions to note a difference in the treatment received by a fit symmetrical young-wan and an middle-aged black mother-of-two-and-a-buggy. One peculiarity about Irish culture that is only noticed by visitors is that the bus-driver is very often thanked for opening the doors to let the passengers out. You can see why that mother may not feel too inclined to follow that cultural norm.  We treat our homosexuals in very much the same way as we treat our blacks.  Some of my best friends are black, or I shook hands with a homosexual once means you note the difference in skin colour and that you have a gaydar that works.  I have a gaydar that works . . . remarkably badly, but I defo notice if a chap is black. And if we treated women as people, I wouldn't feel obliged to write a whole series of Blobs celebrating women in science.  To Paraphrase Dr Johnson: "Sir, a woman's doing science is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."  Boswell: "WTF? you old curmudgeon!".

It costs so little to be kind!  Colin Randall who gave us the dope on Doisneau's Le Baiser, has a fine story about when he was (The Mighty) Executive News Editor of The Daily Telegraph. When his paper was picked up in a sexist solecism (a word you can use if you read the Telegraph) he took the time to write a letter expressing thanks and contrition to the lady-corrector when it would have been easier just to resolve to do better next time  . . . or, less honorably, dismiss the whole thing as the ravings of another grammar nazi. There is a happy, even cost-positive, come-uppence to the story.

Mais revenons-nous a nos waitrons. Do you think that you might do better here?  Having sorted out your issues with blacks, women, gays might you not, with advantage, reflect on how you spoke (or conspicuously failed to speak) to the person who served you a cappuccino, or lunch, or banked your cheque, or sold you the groceries? You don't have to give them flowers, you (by which I mean I) just have to acknowledge that they're human and maybe that it's been a long hard day. It worked wonders in Belsen.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Waging war on ignorance

Here on The Blob I take a little time contemplating the PageView statistics with a certain amount of bemusement.  I can understand why most of my readers come from Ireland and why those are followed closely by the USA and then by Britain, I have friends&relations in all those countries and the dominant language in each is English.  When you equilibrate the PVs according to the population in each of those countries, Ireland is punching way above its weight with nearly 100x more interest in The Blob than any other country.  But why should there be so much interest from Russia and Ukraine?  I know I have made a bit of a running joke about both my loyal readers (поздоровлення читач один, поздравления читатель два) in those countries.  And I've made an attempt, only a bit facetiously nerdish, to promote links between Ukraine and Ireland. It should be clear from that analysis that I know, not only where Ukraine is, but the names of several of the country's constituent oblasts. According to a recent report from the Washington Post that level of knowledge and interest would put me in the 99th percentile if I was living in the USA.

We've long known that young Americans can be plug-ignorant about where things are located - many unsure if France is a country or a city and fully half unable reliably to point to New York or Mississippi on an outline map of the 48 contiguous states. But with Ukraine so much in the news you'd think more of them would have absorbed some infographics from Fox or CNN so they have a sound idea of where that troubled country is.  Less that 1 in 6 can click within the national border of Ukraine on an electronic map of the world.  Many punters in the WP quiz are so wildly off target (map/picture) that they might have throwing darts blindfold at the map. The metaphor is particularly apposite because on the standard Mercator projection of the World, Ukraine is the bulls-eye. One attempt appears to be confusing Ukraine with Utah.

It's okay, in the immortal phrase of Bill Bryson, to be thick as pig dribble so long as you stay at home in Middletown, USA.  It gets more worrying when the WP cross-referenced their respondents' knowledge of where Ukraine is located with their attitudes about the correct response of the US government to the recent troubles. Those who knew least about the Ukraine were keenest for their own government to invade the place!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Kiss Kiss

If you googled yourself here trying to graduate from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by finding a review of Roald Dahl's dark-humored, not to say sick, book of short stories for adults, then I refer you onwards. If you are curious as to why Dahl had such a dark view of the world, it was partly because life dealt him some pretty shitty cards.

Today I am in a much more romantic place: because it is Spring, because I have just eaten a croissant, because Piaf is singing on youtube, I am transported to Paris.  And what is more erotomantic than the iconic photo by Robert Doisneau Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville? Which he created in 1950 and had published in LIFE magazine.  If you have a spare €40 you can have yourself a glossy copy.

Seems like Doisneau was a nice guy, quite modest, especially about money, and worked for the French Resistance during WWII but refused to photograph the humiliation of the French girls who had slept with Germans.  He was known for working/walking the streets looking for a slightly romanticised version of grim post-war French reality.  He turned down at least one contract working in the brittle glamour of the fashion industry.  A generation after it was taken, his image for Le Baiser became iconic for everyone who holds Paris close to their romantic heart - which is everyone who has a soul - and was reproduced hundreds of thousands of times.  In 1992 there was a flurry of publicity about the posters and a French couple, Jean and Denise Lavergne, thought they recognised themselves in the picture, so they sued Doisneau for invasion of their privacy.

Legal discovery revealed that there was rather less spontaneity about the picture: Doisneau had seen the embrace of the young lovers, Françoise Delbart and Jacques Carteaud, and asked them to re-snog in a few locations in central Paris until he reckoned his Leica had captured the essence: this is how true artists hone their craft.  According to Colin Randall and supported by every green-shirted Irishman the intent chap in the beret with the walk-on part behind the couple is Irish auctioneer Jack Costello on pilgrimage to Rome but there is some doubt even about that.  Doisneau's daughter is firm in her belief that M. Béret is Gérard Petit un avocat Québecois. At some stage Françoise Bornet née Delbart also sued for a chunk of money and a share in the royalties. In due course, both cases were dismissed but the process shocked Doisneau whose own moral compass was so quietly well-tuned: “I would have never dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.”  I don't think today's paparazzi would even consider the issues let alone come down on the side of discretion.  Neither Jack Costello, nor his family, nor indeed Jacques Carteaud, who long ago left acting to become a successful vigneron, considered instructing their lawyers.  Romance? It's not about the money it's about Paris in the Spring.

It was Doisneau's birthday (14/04/12) yesterday.   Levez vos chapeaux et un p'tit verre de vin rouge.

Disclaimer added from comments (q.v.): I lifted the Irish Connection from the cited piece by Colin Randall - quite uncritically like any parochial blog (Devastating Earthquake in China, Irish Missionary's tea-pot rattles).  More on the Québecois Connection.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Attention to detail

I suspect that there is a perception by outsiders that Science is Hard (see last para) - all that kit to master, the sums to crank through, the experiments that explode in your face and require starting again. You'd be right to assess science thus but it's not about the technological or numerical face of science - the difficulty lies in assessing the value of contradictory evidence: and if the data isn't contradictory, you're not really doing science.  We need critical thinkers in the years ahead but I acknowledge that other magisteria produce critical thinkers too.  Ethics and philosophy have dealt with the hard issues that face the human condition and have cranked through the issues and offered solutions to the problem of How To Live without ever spilling stuff into a test-tube or firing up a computer.  They have also helped tease out How To Die which, surprisingly to me, turned out to be more complex than asking a willing Dau.II to finish me off when the time came.  I've just said goodbye to a good friend who is returning to the Netherlands this week to help his aged and now stroke-crippled father over the threshold - you can do that there.

Today is תענית בכורות‎, Ta'anit B'khorot the Fast of the Firstborn.  It marks the threshold of Passover and celebrates the existence of the few who survived the last (Death of the Firstborn) of the ten plagues that Jahweh laid on the Israelites in Egypt.  It seems right and proper that such a miraculous survival should be celebrated and who better to do so than the present day Firstborn.  Lots of Christians, after all, are gearing up this week to celebrate the death and resurrection of their chap.  So you might think it was easy: decide on how to celebrate the occasion, wheel out the firstborn and let them go to.

Fasting is the celebratory act of choice in many of the monotheistic religions (think Lent, Ramadan, meatless Fridays).  It serves both for a) atonement in case witting or unwitting you have precipitated the bad event by your actions and b) commemorative gratitude: by leaving aside the ould food for a day you might better focus on the spiritual side of your nature.  So that's simple enough.

But who are the Firstborn?  Jewish scholars have snarled and worried at this problem for the last 3000 years and it's still not resolved. Some think it should be the firstborn child, but most just count the son-and heir.  Everyone is agreed that children should be exempt (they only little) but someone has to fast on this special day, so the father fasts on behalf of his minor children unless he is already going to fast because he is himself firstborn then the mother steps up to the plate (and ignores what's on it!). Achieving 'halakhic' adulthood is easy: 12 for girls and 13 for boys.  In the compassionate way of many religions, mothers (firstborn or proxy) are exempt from fasting if they are pregnant or lactating. Others, including the insane (informed consent?) and deaf-mutes (!?) are also exempt from fasting. Judaism recognises the reality that many children aren't the offspring of their declared father (think cuckold) so the Firstborn of a couple is defo a firstborn as is the firstborn of a woman, but it's not clear if the firstborn of a man (second husband for example) needs to fast.  If the firstborn dies, it is tragic, but the second son is not obligated to take on his fasting mantle unless Primo dies within 30 days of being born.

This fast, like all such, begins at dawn and ends at nightfall, which is usually taken as 40 minutes after sunset (which can be looked up in the newspaper if it's overcast).  Muslims recognise that we don't all have clocks and offer the pragmatic solution of darkness being defined as when a white and a black thread can no longer be distinguished.  But Ta'anit B'khorot is a bit of a poser because it is the day before the Passover starts and another rule states that you must not enter the Sabbath or any Festival in a state of fasting, so many break the fast a little early.

The world has it's rhythms but sometimes they are incommensurate - the months don't really fit the year; nightfall differs depending on the season; there are competing calls on our compassion and our belief in what is right. Having been brought up in extended families all arguing about niceties and fine distinctions and conundrums posed by attempting to live life as their religion prescribes, is it any wonder that Jews finish up doing law or philosophy or science in college?


All this year in Ireland , we have been having the vapours about police corruption and Garda whistle-blowers.  In January, the head of the Gardai Martin Callinan (taking the salute on the left) called the actions of Sgt Maurice McCabe "disgusting".  What McCabe (looking tired out on the right) had done was suggest that some well connected people - judges, Gardai, chap whose cousin is a Garda, husband of lady who cleans out the bins in Ballybogge Garda Barracks - had their penalty points for speeding quashed.  And not because they were trying to get someone to hospital and so had a reasonable excuse for driving a half-ton assault weapon too fast too close to pedestrians.  A transparent and rigidly honest organisation might have thanked him for exposing such dodgy practice.  We have penalty points because there is evidence that excessive speed on the roads kills people and we wish to discourage the practice without banging the perps (including Bob "Two-points" Scientist) up in chokey. We have a flexible and slightly grey official state in Ireland because that's what we want - you never know when you might need planning permission on a new shed or someone to bump your mother up the list for hip-replacement. In all organisations, however, grassing up your mates is deeply and systemically discouraged.  You have to trust each other because, in the army, in the police, in the fire-service your life may depend on your mates.  So it's an ethical and practical dilemma in which most of us don't behave very well. McCabe claims, again with the ring of truth, that his professional life is in rags since he decided to call it like he saw it. Commissioner Callinan's professional life is over: he was forced to fall on his sword by his boss at the Ministry of Justice.  Anyone who is not directly inculpated has been making political capital out of the situation - grandstanding, calling press-conferences and trying to get themselves into the photo, any photo - preferably in the local paper which all the voters read.

Notablespot-hogs are the members of the Dáil Éireann Public Accounts Committee, including the articulate and sassy Mary-Lou McDonald (Sinn Féin) and self-appointed scourge of corruption Shane Ross (Indep.) and the Chair John McGuinness (FF, Carlow-Kilkenny).  It's a tough job for a public representative but somebody has to do it. They are also laying into Rehab, a traditionally Fine Gael good works organisation which diverts a substantive chunk of their government funding to salary and pension of the senior executives. Rehab are currently taking the heat off the CRC, a traditionally Fianna Fáil good works organisation which diverts a substantive chunk of their government funding to salary and pension of the senior executives.  Am I the only one of the country who is reminded of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the parallel but unconnected House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) ?  Those worthies on the 1950s made hay (using a powerful metaphor chipper&shredder) out of root and branch extirpation of things of which they disapproved.

On the subject of not behaving very well, I've written about men bullying women with impunity in my own cosy academic organisation and also about tolerating innocent children duffing smaller children up, so that shopping your peers becomes established early as something that is streng verboten.  The title to the first of these links is "Nobody Died But . . ." and the same could be said about Frank "Paco" Serpico.  Like Maurice McCabe, Serpico was a police whistleblower: in the NYPD in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Corruption was rather more than doing a nixer for your neighbour about an inconvenient speeding rap.  Serpico used to see his colleagues pocketing half the evidence when they made plain-clothes drug-busts.  But then again, as my pal Pepe Malpica pointed out 20 years ago, Ireland will ever be in the ha'penny place when it comes to corruption.  Serpico complained about the behaviour of his colleagues to those higher up the NYPD food-chain and was either ignored or told to shut-up.  On 3rd Feb 1971, Serpico was shot in the face during a drug-raid and there is a strong suspicion that he was set up to take the hit by his team.  Certainly they let him bleed on the floor rather than making a "Man Down" call to get medical help instanter. I don't think that the quashers of penalty points would do that to McCabe.  Although no Garda would get one of their own murdered, it is clear from the Smithwick Tribunal that some of them were happy to call the shots (literally) on their oppos from the RUC. Or if not exactly happy, not unhappy enough through “some misguided sense of loyalty” to identify their colleague(s) who was more inclined towards IRA than RUC. Serpico is retired now and celebrating his 78th birthday today.  The world, not just NYC because the they made a compelling film of his story, is a better place for his actions.