Saturday, 31 May 2014

A bad day in Ukraine 1223

Things are a bit dodgy in Ukraine at the moment with Russophone separatists holding key areas of the East and denying access to ballot boxes in the recent Presidential elections.  But Петро Олексійович Порошенко, who made his fortune cornering the market in chocolate, was decisively elected as the head of state of what's left of Ukraine. I've nothing to say about current Ukrainian politics, except to re-iterate that anyone from East of the Dnieper in the Oblast of Dnipropetrovsk is welcome to visit us in County Carlow. Those feckers from Western Dnipropetrovsk can shag off to Kilkenny and bad cess to them. Today is, however, the anniversary of the débâcle on the Kalka River in 1223.  At the time The Golden Horde of Temujin aka Genghis Khan was throwing shapes all over Asia and princes on the periphery of his zone of disturbance were doing their best to push back. It would be specious to call it an Empire at this stage because the Mongols never got off their horses long enough to set up any of the infra-structure of government.

ANNyway, in 1223 the princes of The Kievian Rus cobbled together a levy of soldiers to see off the invaders from the East.  The Rus are an interesting crew and their origins have exercised researchers from the Arts Block since ever there were European historians. Linguistic and archaeological evidence has to take the place of historical documents because the latter are very thin on the ground.  At issue is whether the Rus were roving vikings "Varangians" from Scandinavia or more truly native Slavs from the locality.  Their sense of cultural identity is so important to some people that they are prepared to fight other people about it. What can I say?  Nothing better than "Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."-John F. Kennedy and "il n'est rien cru si fermement que ce qu'on sait le moins: Nothing is so firmly believed as what is least known." - Michel de Montaigne.  It's clearly time to shed a little blood on the matter (10cc each from 500 willing Ukrainians, please) and do some genetics.  It may well turn out that the Y chromosome data is discordant from the autosomal or mitochondrial information.  Genetics suggests that Iceland was founded by a bunch of Norwegian chaps and some Irish colleens, for example.

Mais revenons nous a nos Ukrainiens!!  The battle of the Kalka River in Southern Ukraine resulted in the defeat of a handful of Rus magnates and their allies and (as ever!) the death of thousands of foot-soldiers. They seem to have been challenged by the limited availability of names back there, then. One could put a case that this was the War of the Three Mstislavs which highlights the limited availability of vowels as well back there, then.

  • Мстисла́в II Мстисла́вич, Mstislav the Bold escaped with his life across the Dnieper.  He was the son of Mstislav the Brave.
  • Мстислав III Романович Старий, Mstislav Romanovich the Old, Prince of Pskov, was captured in the battle and put under a large wooden plate upon which the Mongols danced until he expired.
  • Мстисла́в II Святославич, prince of Kozelsk, died on the field.
These war-lords are not to be confused with Мстислав Ростиславич Безокій, Mstislav the Eyeless, prince of Rostov, who was blinded after his defeat in another battle. or Мстислав Ростиславич Хоробрий another Mstislav the Brave, Prince of Smolensk and Novgorod; or Мстислав Ізяславич . . . enough already! It must be as relief for Ukrainian schoolchildren when, for example, Юрій Долгорукий, Yuri the Long-armed, appears in their history books to ring some changes in the relentless tide of Mstislavs.


I'm afraid my ingrained intuitions are with the Americans on temperature at least at the top end of the ambient scale.  I know that while 100o Fahrenheit is only a tad over normal human core temperature, when I was young it got classified in the British tabloid press as "Phew, wot a scorcher!"when it was recorded on a sunny day. Indeed the weather in the WEA is so 'ambient' and unexciting that a mere 80o was also a 'scorcher' and required men to apply a knotted handkerchief to the top of their bald heads. Fahrenheit was defined with 100o = normal average human temperature and 0o = the lowest point that could be reliably achieved with a mixture of salt and ice. The scale was by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686–1736) a Northern European instrument-maker and experimentalist who was born in Gdańsk and died in Den Haag but lived and worked in a veritable alphabet of other places including Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen and Dresden. Sometime when I was in school, the British government issued a diktat that we'd all use the Centigrade scale instead because that's what all them foreign johnnies were using. The decision was also driven by the rise in importance of technology and science in our daily lives: scientists had been using centigrade (and grams, metres, litres and hectares) for at least two generations.

We use Celsius as a synonym for centigrade as a tribute to Anders Celsius (1701–1744) a Swedish astronomer who defined 0 as the boiling point of water at sea level and 100 as the freezing point of water ditto.  Yes, you read that correctly, Celsius made his scale upside down.  His compatriot and contemporary Carl von Linné aka Linnaeus, turned it the way we use today the year after Celsius' death. But so did a lot of other people at more or less the same time. Including Jean-Pierre Christin (1683-1755), whose birthday it is today.  Celsius, like Linnaeus, is another Latinised name - derived from the family seat at a place called Högen (pile, mound, heap).  They seem to have come to surnames rather late in Sweden - and haven't got there yet in Iceland.  Because Christin was a founding member of the Académie des sciences, belles-lettres et arts de Lyon, his instrument was known as le thermomètre Lyonnaise in pre-revolutionary France. Much of the rest of Europe called such things Swedish thermometers.

Back then, obsessive precision was not called for because the uses for measurement (smelting, distilling, weather records) of temperature were comfortably fuzzy. Metallurgists, for example, would describe the colour of molten iron to define its temperature.  Possibly Fahrenheit was in a fever of excitement the day he measured his core temperature and called it 100. No chatter about temperature and its measurement would be complete without a hat-tip to  René Antoine de Réaumur of La Rochelle France.  In the 1730s he invented an instrument filled with dilute alcohol and marked it on a scale from 0 to 80 between the freezing and boiling points of water.  Alcohol was unwieldy in its handling (boiling point lower than water etc.) and almost everyone at the cutting edge of calibration switched to mercury filled thermometers.  But the 0-80 scale hung on for at least 100 years in niche areas like cheese making in Italy and Holland when boiling sugar for dropjes and pepernoten. Réaumur scaling was particularly popular in Russia and featured as one of the Y axes in "Probably the  best statistical graphic ever drawn, this map by Charles Joseph Minard portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon's army in the Russian campaign of 1812". As I noted in my analysis of the Battle of Borodino.

It's interesting that the world we inhabit is right down near the bottom of the scale which is defined as being - 273.15oC.  This is absolute zero when matter is so cold that it is incapable of movement. Temperature seems to be, according to physicists, a product of vibratory movements among atoms, the higher the temperature the more vigorously things vibrate or is it that the vibration causes the increase in temperature??  As my reg'lars know, I failed my physics "O" Level, so I'm stumped on this existential issue but perhaps we can find a physicist in Kiev who would be kind enough to explain in Ukrainian - we'll run it through google-translate afterwards. To complicate matters. modern science measures thermodynamic temperature in Kelvins rather than oCs, the units are the same size but start at different places: Ks at absolute zero.  So you can have negative values for Celsius and Fahrenheit but not for Kelvins; heck and by jimminy, it don't get no colder than that absolute zero  Somewhere in the definition of Kelvins is the "triple-point of water" the place where the three phases of that molecule (solid, liquid and vapour) are in dynamic equilibrium. This occurs for water at 0.01oC and a partial vapour pressure of 611.73 pascals or 6/1000ths of atmospheric pressure. Minute changes of temperature or pressure from this point will tip the water into one or other of its possible states.

At the other end of the temperature scale, the sky is the limit. At the earth's surface under natural weather conditions (i.e. not in the middle of a bush-fire) the hottest recorded temperature is a modest enough 57oC but in the centre of the earth they think it may be 6000oC which is pretty close to how hot the surface of the sun is.  In the sun's interior, though, it is 15.7 million K hot.  Astronomers now maintain that there are places which are 20x hotter but can't have much solid ground to stand on there.

Friday, 30 May 2014


On 28th May, the Irish Carers Association presented its annual Carers and Young Carers Awards. They are soliciting nominations, if not now for 2014, then for the following year because they recognise that people who care are not ordinary, they are extraordinary.  On NewstalkFM on Thursday, they interviewed a young feller called Sam Norris, who, with his older sister looks after the other half of his siblings - one with Cohen's Syndrome and another Autistic.  He's 16 now and he has to get up earlier than his friends because they don't have to dress, and calm down and feed another person before going to school.  Young Sam is in a very obvious sense a better person for having to shoulder this burden.  If you reflect on it, he doesn't have to take on the responsibility - he could behave like a typical Western teenager by disappearing up to his own bedroom and, after slamming the door, put on his headphones zone out with music or a video-game. Sam chooses to help someone who needs help and doesn't realise how peculiar this makes him.

Ten or twelve years ago, we had The Beloved's blind, 90 year old grandmother to stay on the farrrm. It was a privilege to have this venerable old lady to stay with us. She wanted to be useful, so we put her on washing the dishes, which was almost more trouble than it was worth because everything had to be stacked up on the counter ready for her to wash. But it was definitely worth it when she volunteered to make the bread.  I can't be bothered to knead the dough for ten (eternal) minutes but she knew you got a better product if you put in the effort and it was true. There were a couple of times when the grandmother would leave the kitchen en route for the loo, once she was an inordinately long time over this and one of the girls went out to see what had happened to find their Gt.granny handing herself round and round the hallway unable to find the door leading to the toilet. The girls were small and had their own needs and requirements but knew in their instinctive kindness when someone else needed their help and that this trumped whatever they had on their own agenda.

We tend to treat our children too often as blackbird chicks with their mouths ever agape waiting to be fed in an entirely one way traffic.  This is never so clearly apparent as on the child's successive birthdays, when, for at least a dozen years, the infant's mother makes a cake, gives presents and generally makes a fuss over the birthday-child.  At no time during the proceedings does anyone acknowledge that, on this very day, a few years previously that mother laboured to deliver the child into this world.  Now that's not right.

Accordingly when children give back, it should be acknowledged because in our Western world it is rare.  You can nominate someone you know who cares. But that's not really the point, the point is that we, especially tax-payers, should thank people who care for others because they can usually do it more efficiently and with better outcome than the state. Last week I described the work of the Centre for Independent Living in liberating differently-abled people from institutions. It's still cheaper, as well as intrinsically better, to help families look after their own troubled, elderly, or disabled than to transfer the burden of care to an institutional setting. Hats off!

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Women and children first

. . . to die.  Today is the centenary of the sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland.  Rammed amidships by the Norwegian collier Storstad in a fogbank in the mouth of the Gulf of St Lawrence, the Empress sank in 40m of water within 15 minutes for being holed. The Storstad was considerably smaller than the Empress but drove her bows into the larger vessel below the waterline. Storstad (R) survived on the surface with damaged bows. Only 465 people were saved from a complement of 1477, making this the worst maritime disaster in Canadian waters. In those far-off Edwardian days, there was a code of chivalry which maintained that men would endeavour to save women and children in such emergencies.

This idea stems from another collision at 0200hrs in 1852, when paddle-wheel troopship HMS Birkenhead struck an uncharted rock, broke in two a sank two miles off the shore of South Africa. There were not enough servicable boats to save all aboard and the women and children were loaded into the boats that did get away.  As the ship finally slipped under the waves. the senior army officer present, Colonel Seton of the 74th Royal Highland Fusiliers, ordered the soldiers to remain on deck rather than head for the already over-loaded lifeboats.  Only 193 people were saved out of 640 on board, including 7 women and 13 children.  The ship's manifest went down with the hull, so it's not clear if four handfuls of The Weak was a good outcome proportionately. But the idea had been sown and propagated The Birkenhead Drill by Kipling in his tribute to The Royal Marines Soldier an' Sailor too.  I have a lot of time for Kipling, who had a poets ear for language and accent, but it is tedious to read his bloomin' 'orrible malapompoms in poems such as this - you can drown in apostrophes.

Mais revenons nous a nos estuaires Québécois; There are data from the Empress of Ireland disaster that we can consult to see if Women and Children First actually did better than Survival of the Fittest/Biggest/Richest as expected.  The null hypothesis here is that there was proportionately equal chance of death among the various classes into which those on board can be grouped. Here's some breakdowns:
% saved
You can do a ChiSq test on the data which shows that the crew survived significantly better than the passengers.  ChiSq = 206.7; 1df; p < 0.00001. Here's another way of looking at the passenger casualties:
% saved
1st Class
2nd/3rd class
ChiSq = 25.3; 1 df; p< 0.000001. So your chance of survival was much better if you could afford a first class ticket, possibly because the staterooms were higher up in the hull and those in steerage cabins nearer the waterline drowned as water flooded through the port-holes when the ship took a list to starboard.  The port-holes of course should not have been open but it was so bloomin' 'ot dahn there. And here's the verdict on the most vulnerable:
% saved
ChiSq = 30.0; 1 df; p< 0.000001. So the poor weans had virtually no chance, possibly because they were disproportionately down in the bowels of the ship with their working class parents.  And finally:
% saved
ChiSq = 26.0 1 df; p< 0.000001.When push comes to shove at sea, there isn't a lot of sweeping your cloak across a puddle so that a lady can cross without getting her feet wet.

On 2nd October 1942, RMS Queen Mary, an enormous ship carrying a division of US Infantry to the European theatre of WWII, was zig-zagging across the Atlantic trying to avoid U-boats.  She zigged when her escort HMS Curacoa zagged and the latter was run over and cut in two by the Queen Mary which was nearly 20x the tonnage.  Curacoa, a large vessel 140m long, 4000 tons, was nevertheless sliced through as if made of tin-foil.  The front of a ship looks like and can act remarkably like the business end of an axe.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

wrong wrong not even nearly right

I was caught on the hop a bit by Rachel Carson's birthday yesterday. Never shy of jumping on a women-in-science bandwagon, I had Carson as a shoo-in for my series of posts about Women in Science but there are lots of women waiting in the wings of my attention. When Google wrong-footed me by putting a tributary logo on the front-page I tried to put something together before I went off to work. But the basic data I was scraping off the interweb was just bonkers, so I realised I'd have to either a) cut and paste from Wikipedia or b) take some time (company time even) to find some authoritative sources that would out-shine the internally inconsistent tosh that people were posting.  The problem is that I'm not the only one who thinks Rachel Carson is a shoo-in for a science essay. President Jimmy Carter thought it would garner him some votes to confer her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 - he was on a wildlife roll that year with Ansel Adams and Roger Tory Peterson both on the list at least they were alive to appreciate it. There are lots of posts out there by earnest young women who are re-churning each other's Miss-information (cheap shot).  I was curious about her two older siblings particularly the brother who seems to have been conspicuously un-present when Father Carson got sick, died and left his widow and single parent daughter without a source of income.  Rachel elected to give up her PhD to earn a living writing to support her family.  That may well have been a good thing because she doesn't seem to have found her true feet in the world of research but was a superb interpreter and editor of other men's flowers. I think that's important: you can find a place in science that is valuable and fulfilling without being very good at the bench.

This has been widely propagated:
Father: Robert Carson (1864-1935)
Mother: Maria McLean Carson (1869-1958)
Sister: Marian ( d. Jan 1937)
Brother: Robert McLean Carson (b. circa 1939)
So the brother was born 4 years after his father died when his mother was 70 years old. hmmm, I don't think so!  And her sister was NOT called Tristan, which is a funny name for a girl if you think about it for 30 seconds.  Prezi encourages the creation of material where glitzy appearance beats content into a corner.  Is it my imagination that Prezi (TM)  presentations take such a heckuva long time to load that the site requires the services of an entire hydro-electric power-plant in Northern Finland?

So, as with a lot of things, getting the correct information and avoiding error requires a certain amount of work and critical thinking.  And you want to go easy if you think about parroting Wikipedia which leaves a nice quote about Rachel Carson when she has barracked and besieged by Big Chem and The Man:
former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson - in a letter to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower - reportedly concluded that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was "probably a Communist"
but the citing footnote says
Lear 1997, pp. 429–430. Benson's supposed comments were widely repeated at the time, but have not been directly confirmed.
Back in the 1960s "Communist" was the USAniversal pejorative for people of whose life-style or politics you disapproved: much like many young people today use "Gay".  But the latter label is possibly more appropriate for Rachel Carson.  Here is an essay suggesting that Silent Spring was born out of the gender politics frustration Carson developed at feeling obliged to look after her orphaned infant nephew in Maryland when she would much rather be either writing or hanging out with her friend Dorothy Freeman in Maine. "If our planet is to be saved from the arrogance of men, it is refreshing to realize that we just may owe that salvation to the passionate love of post-menopausal women for each other, and for their children and their birds".
Now here's the funny thing - Google doesn't want their clients to be shocked into finding a suggestion that Rachel Carson was of a lxsbxxn persuasion.  L*****n is one of those forbidden words, like amateur, that Google protects us from like a Victorian father. Try a bit of word completion:
Rachel Carson life
Rachel Carson legacy
Rachel Carson lesson
Rachel Carson lesbnodontgothereyoullbeutterlycorrupted

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Silent Spring

The Boy and his family are over in Ireland and spent the first weekend hanging out with their young-parent pals on the Waterford coast.  I used that as an excuse to go down for a bit of beachcombing, catching the 10am low-tide at Annestown, Boat Strand and Knockmahon.  Depending on what's cooking in my head, and what I believe we "need" on the farm, I go for rope, drift-wood, buoys or fish-boxes. Seen: hundreds of plastic bottles, a single chainsaw boot (without a foot inside it), deflated footballs, miscellaneous clogs and sneakers, shards of children's toys, tangles of fish-net but only 3 small buoys and a cracked Foyle Fisheries fish-box (Unauthorised Use Prohibited: you can come and collect it anytime, lads). The signal-to-noise ratio was shockin' poor.  But I did encounter the next two generations on the strand at Bunmahon: a handful of small girls in wellington boots building a sandcastle with an outsized spade while their parents stood around wishing and hoping for a few minutes of warming sunshine. I told the dads about my poor haul and reflected that, in the 1960s, when we regularly used to spend a chilly and sandy week at The Hotel, Duncannon, there were no plastic bottles and generally much less egregious crap at the tide line.  In just fifty years we have littered, despoiled and befouled the places where children used to play.
As it happens, it is just 50 years (14 April 1964) since Rachel Carson died of metastasizing breast cancer at the age of 56.  That's a pretty rough hand to have been dealt, but she was no stranger to badly timed death.  She never finished her doctorate at Johns Hopkins because she couldn't afford to continue her studies. She was born on 27 May 1907 (tday=bday!) and grew up on a 64 acre farm which never quite paid its way. When her father died in 1935, that was the end of her education.  Her older brother and sister never finished high school let alone had the luxury of college and now Rachel felt obliged to take a paying job to help support her mother and lone-parent sister. Two years later, her sister died, leaving two nieces to be cared for by Rachel and her mother. A generation later, when one of these girls also died early, Rachel adopted her son Roger and moved to his home in Silver Springs, MD.

Rachel was a bookish child, who wandered and wondered about the natural world but also learned (practice, practice, practice) to write beautiful prose.  One of her earliest paying jobs with the US Department of Fisheries was writing a year's worth of weekly radio scripts about things wet: she got $6.50 a day, two days a week for 8 months. Heeding the relentless call for copy takes a certain stamina and steel which isn't in all of us; indeed several previous USDF employees had failed to deliver. Stephen J Gould (This View of Life, in Natural History) and Martin Gardner (Mathematical Games, in Scientific American) turned in 3000 words every month for 25 years. Carson did the the same with a different medium, a different era, different chromosomes and a different life-span.  Her radio column was successful so she was taken onto the payroll as a 'junior aquatic biologist'.  She became an ace science editor, taking the geekisms and poor syntax of the government scientists and turning it into readable, informative and engaging scientific papers, pamphlets, brochures and press-releases. We would never have heard of her, as we never hear about most women working in and on the fringes of science, but for her line-manager Elmer Higgins who suggested she rework one of her articles and send it in to The Atlantic Monthly.  That led to a contract to write a book, which became a trilogy about the blue part of our blue planet: Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955).  Those were the days when a sense of amazement and wonder about the sea in all its power and diversity could be put out unapologetically because we-of-the-west had not yet sullied it too badly.  The Sea Around Us won a National book award and was in the NYT best-seller list for a year and a half, shifting 250,000 copies for OUP in the year of publication, and for good reason.

Even her day job was illuminated by clear writing, attention to detail, and an insistence that there was no point in putting out cheap and shoddy public service information booklets - nobody would want to read them. She wrote four of the series of 12 bookletsvon the National Wildlife Refuges and edited the rest.  They are still valuable and good to look at now; some say they are among the best US Government publications ever produced.  Better, probably, than what we'd put out today where glossy paper and 'design' would elbow aside the scientific information. Again, public service brochures are not at the sexy end of writing, whatever their infrastructural value to society, and we have forgotten about these her contributions almost entirely.

Her enduring legacy lies in the book Silent Spring which looks critically at the hubris of Western technologists after the Second World War.  For them, every problem had a solution. There was nothing we in The West should have to endure - pestilence, famine, war and death - could all be kept at arms length by technological advance. She came across DDT first in a series of memos coming across her desk in the US Fish and Wildlife Service which noted its detrimental effect on vertebrate life, especially at the top of the food chain. She had, therefore, to explain the concept of bio-accumulation to the readers of her last general science book.  One of the pervasive metaphors of the time, stemming partly from the 1940 film Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, was that science could precisely/surgically take out the Bad-Hats (in the film's case Treponema pallidum the cause of syphilis) and leave the Goodies unscathed. It's only with 20/20 hindsight that we can embrace the concept of 'good bacteria'. Nevertheless, Carson was pedantic that the 'pesticides' of DuPont and the USDA should be better termed 'biocides' because of their gross lack of precision. "Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius"  The catalysing cock-up which started her researching and writing Silent Spring was the response to Solenopsis invicta, RIFA, the red imported fire-ant. RIFA is an annoying pest, with painful and persisting bite, it causes $billions of economic loss in the Southern US by interdicting livestock from the area round their nests and sending people and livestock off for medical treatment. But the FDA approved countermeasure - a chlorinated hydrocarbon called Mirex, was especially effective in killing the native ant-species that were limiting RIFA through ecological competition.  So the big-gun technological solution turned out, after years of unquestioning application, to be worse than doing nothing at all.  Quite apart from the possible carcinogenic activity and definite as a disruptor hormone analogue like BPA.

Carson didn't last long after Silent Spring was published. She was subjected to outrageous ad hominem attacks by the vested interests that were making (DuPont, American Cyanamid) and broadcasting (USDA, farmers) a cocktail of chemical toxins to deal with agricultural and medical insect pests. It took decades of research to establish the extent of the ecological damage wrought by humunkind in our efforts to keep everything for ourselves and destroy anything that wanted a share.  But even as she was dying, she spoke to Congress and she managed a canny publicity campaign to ensure that her message was heard.
Fifty years later we can still hear the echo of her voice.


Neal, Neil and Neil but the greatest of them all is Neil (R).  Neil (L) Stephenson has enormous traction because of his Cryptonomicon and lots of other novels which work to meld history, technology, science and people being beastly to each other (ho hum what's new?). I didn't read Cryptonomicon yet although I shd as I'm a Turing groupie.  I did read Quicksilver, however, and I was disappointed in its sweeping depiction of the birth of science in the 1600s midwifed by Locke, Boyle and Hooke (just to mention those whose naymes have come downe to us with an antique final "e").  Wikipedia says that Stephenson did extensive research on the people and the period and it shows because he was unable to leave anything he'd discovered on the cutting room floor.  If he hadn't written 7 successful books before Quicksilver (2003) his publisher would have loosed a really good copy editor on an unwieldy manuscript and carved out a far better, tighter, novel. There: I have spoken. The middle, older, guy who is curiously hugging the other two at arms' length is Neil "Moon" Armstrong.  But as I say, the best of them is Neil (R) Gaiman.  

I've just spent a weekend Google evening with him and Amanda Palmer, his wife, which is the best hour-and-a-bit I've had on the Interweb this month. Dau.I, the reader, is a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and his friend and quondam collaborator Terry Pratchett.  One of her cherished possessions is a ragged much-read copy of Good Omens signed by both of them.  The youtube of their perf&innerview has a lot going for it, not least how she looks at him when he's speaking: whatever the opposite of looking daggers is, she does it the whole time.  It's intense.  IF you ever leaned towards having less stuff, or being content with what you have, THEN listen Gaiman reads the October story from his Calendar of Tales (pdf).

Gaiman's writing often forces us to re-think what we know to be true.  Read Snow Glass Apples in his collection Smoke and Mirrors for starters.

Monday, 26 May 2014


I spent July & August of 1976 in Wageningen in the Netherlands, where I stayed at the International Agricultural Centre, a sort of hotel for agronomists, and it was a positive experience for multicultural me. Dutch lunch was the same meal as breakfast except that there was the soup - that was novel. The foreigners with a smattering of Dutch called this meal de tweede ontbijt. A mad obsession in grown men with cycling - that was novel.  The communal telly covered the Tour de France every flippin' evening: when I arrived on the the 1st July, the tour had been running a week and I was bemused at the enthusiasm for watching fit young chaps toiling uphill on bikes.  But after I few days I got the scope of it and had some of the subtleties explained to me in a variety of accents by my colleagues. Qualified fun.

In 1998, the Tour came to Ireland for a few stages at the start. We piled the girls into the car and drove 20km South towards New Ross, parked in a field, and went and stood by the roadside in the sun with a heaving crowd of gawpers.  Nothing happened for a long time, there were several false alarms and finally the leaders, followed closely by the pelleton, appeared round a sweeping corner of the main road and paced off down the hill until they disappeared round another corner.  They had been visible for about 15 seconds; including the motorcycle outriders, the spare-part cars and the ambulance, the whole experience lasted a couple of minutes.  I'm glad I didn't have to pay for the experience and it was good for the kids to see something that is surely part of European culture.

Patrick Bevin
This year we're at it again.  The Giro d'Italia came to Ireland two weekends ago and cycled from Belfast to Dublin. A pal o mine crossed the country to see that happen but otherwise the event didn't surface for me. On Saturday however An Post Rás, Ireland's parochial answer to the Tour and the Giro was covering 147km between Carrick-on-Suir and Baltinglass via Mt Leinster.  Accordingly I drove (shame!) the 700m to the Cross in good time to see the event.  In contrast to 1998, there were no false alarums because, all techied up with my laptop and the wireless dongle, I could scrape live coverage of progress from the web.  Again in contrast to 1998, I was there alone except for another old buffer with a camera. We were all set to watch in a watery sunshine when a jeep containing two attractive screeched to a halt beside me, thrust 2 Kelly-green Post Rás T-shirts into my hands and zoomed off again. Us two old chaps struggled into the free kit to watch as the leaders, the pelleton and a  l o n g  t a i l  of stragglers went past.  The real thighs had separated themselves from the wannabes by rising from the saddle and driving themselves through the wall and up the incline of "Mt Leinster" (actually only her shoulder at The Nine Stones).

Verdict? - been there, done that, got the T-shirt

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Gerroff the sofa

Stephen Sutton died a week ago. He was 19.  It was not unexpected. He had cancer but he wasn't defined by cancer. He wasn't sad that he was leaving the party early, he was just happy to have been invited at all.  He had a Sense of Tumour (har har): you can see that in his oxter on the left. Getting a tattoo was one of the 46 items on Sutton's bucket list of things-to-do before the clock ran out. One of Sutton's wishes was to host a disco which involved a lot of young people with cancer getting off their faces with drink and flashing lights and waving their prosthetic legs in the air. What's this-all to do with me?  Not a lot.  But it did remind me of The Boy's second job after leaving home & school 20 years ago. He elected to go work for the Centre for Independent Living CIL as part of a FÁS (An Foras Áiseanna Saothair) scheme. FÁS was Ireland's answer to the last 1980s recession - an agency for getting people back to work.  It grew and grew and the directors spent at least as much time, if not quite as much money, thinking up junkets with which to treat themselves and their wives as they did getting despondent youngsters off the sofa with a minimum-wage carrot. So FÁS was wound up three years ago and rebranded as SOLAS (An tSeirbhís Oideachais Leanúnaigh agus Scileanna) the directors of which are not dreaming up cunning plans for foreign travel. Every tuthree years, every state agency in the country gets renamed, rebranded or relaunched - the all-round winners are graphic designers and printers as boxes of letterhead and flyers gets recycled sent to landfill and more letterhead with a different logo gets printed.

Mais revenons-nous a nos moutons. When The Boy said he'd signed up with CIL, I said he was daft, that he wasn't a bleeding heart and so was completely unsuited to such work. I was completely wrong. It was partly because he wasn't a bleeding heart that TB was an asset. The core idea of CIL was to liberate differently-abled people from institutions and set them up in their own households in their own community.  It was partly driven by economics - keeping people in institutions with 24/7 care is budget-sappingly expensive whereas a rota of even 4 or 5 people on close to minimum wage is cheaper - but it also had a strong drive for social inclusion. You can't just park the difficult cases out of sight round the corner and forget about them. Well you can and we did for decades.  Before we set up an institution-based infrastructure, people with deficits as well as people with extra bits were held, and to a certain extent cherished, by the community. CIL found places for their "trainers" to rent and a group of 4 or 5 young "trainees" to provide the 24/7 care that was needed.  A nice conceit!  Each disabled person was the boss, telling the trainees what they required and ensuring that was achieved with care and attention and suitable manual-handling training. TB was assigned to the roster of a young chap with Duchenne muscular dystrophy DMD who, like Stephen Sutton, wasn't long for this world.  DMD was sharing a small house in Clontarf with a chap who had cerebral palsy who was also training a team of youngsters in care-and-attention. The joke in their home was that one of them moved too much and the other not enough.

TB and DMD decided that sitting at home waiting for the end was toooo boring, so let's go down the disco.  Loading up the wheel-chair at night; pushing it to the bus-stop; man-handling the kit onto the bus and getting in everyone's way; getting off the bus and more pushing . . . that was the investment but the deep pulse of the sub-woofers and the jangling lights and the booze and the women was the pay-off. Can you dance in a wheel-chair?  Haway te fuck wi' ye - of course you can dance in a wheelchair: that trainee can turn it so you almost puke your dinner.

TB did that for six months and then hitched off to Germany for the Summer.  When he came back he was assigned to a different trainer who was a bit older and not so much into wild parties. Early the next year, DMD died.  He was 24.  It was not unexpected. CIL forgot to tell TB so he missed the funeral.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Judgement of Paris

If I had been properly educated in the Arts Block, I'd have something to say about this picture by Lucas Cranach der Ältere who was court painter to the Elector of Saxony and a personal friend of Martin Luther. Cranach made at least 20 attempts at capturing the essence of man's relationship with woman or woman's relationship with man or was just cashing in on the desire of chaps to view some naked tottie.  Cranach's work is not now so well known as the several versions of the story by Peter Paul Rubens. But I wasn't (so educated) so I won't (bang on about the symbolic meaning of 'apple').  It would be, in me, just too pretentious.  But I'm not afraid to expose the pretensions of other people, so today I'm going to whack wine 'experts' with some data.

About a decade ago, The Beloved and I were coming up to a significant anniversary and a generous and well-heeled pal of ours said he'd like to send us to Tuscanyshire for a week in a repurposed monastery outside Cetona.  The monastery had been founded by St Francis himself and was set on the edge of a long wooded hill hanging over a stunning view of a broad Italian valley.  The business model was that people with disposable income could get away from the noise and bustle of their life in The West, get fed perfectly simple food and walk in the formal gardens. The furniture was massive and medieval, unbleached linen curtains used to billow in from the windows as the breeze got up after breakfast. The income from this pampering supported a community of young men who had been destroying themselves with drugs in the cities of North Italy. These lads did the cooking, gardening and created art-works in metal and stone. Apart from a quiet and self-contained film director, we were the only guests. One night we were joined in the dining room by a middle-aged chap in a suit with a younger woman. I was taught that they only thing you can sensibly do when invited to taste the wine is to give it a good sniff to make sure it wasn't 'corked' and then let the waitron pour away.  You can't tell if a wine is corked until you open the bottle and get the distinctive whiff of wet dog.  This is caused by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), and/or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA) which are generated by certain fungi metabolising natural and unnatural chemical components of the cork.  There was considerably more fuss at the other table with the wine being scrutinised against the last of the evening light, swirled around the glass, elaborately sniffed and and checked for mouth-feel. Eventually it was declared fit for the young woman to drink.  Food came, we tucked in, it was delicious. Then there was further discrete but insistent commotion at the other table; the sommelier had decided; on mature reflection; that the wine was slightly corked and not fit for either Signore or Signora to drink; a new bottle would be provided immediately; apologies were profuse.  We could only suppose that, on a previous visit, the Signore had forgotten to tip the staff or had sent back some perfectly good food and the staff didn't feel that gobbing in his soup was sufficient punishment.

Today is the anniversary of another Judgement of Paris.  In May 1976, a British wine merchant organised a blind tasting of some French and Californian wines by the top wine experts in Paris. The take-home was the surprising result that in both the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon category a Californian wine topped the poll.  This was great news for the credibility of New World wines and opened the flood-gates to eminently drinkable wine from California (but later from Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia) into Europe.  But I've looked at the data which consists of marks /20 for each of ten Cabernet Sauvignons - four from Bordeaux, six Californian:
Notice how Claude Dubois-Millot and Christian Vanneque are so certain of their discrimination that they make calls of fractions of a point. If there is any truth in such a test, there should be some internal consistency,  Everyone should more or less agree which are the best and worst wines.  It looks like most people give Freemark a low score, for example, but Michel Dovaz of L'Institut Francais de la Vigne et du Vin thinks this one is the best. There is some consistency:
Christian Vanneque and Pierre Brejoux have very similar taste.  The correlation coefficient between their assessments is a striking 0.91 and the trend-line shown says that they are in agreement.  But I've labeled this Best Correlation because the other pair-wise comparisons are all-to-hell:
Gallagher and Spurrier, the two Anglophones, have similar taste; as do Kahn and Dubois-Millot, but Oliver and Dovaz agree to disagree on most of their assessments (r = -0.59).
My conclusion is that the expertise of these people is absolute bloody nonsense bordering on charlatanism because the data are "all variance and no mean" - there is no consistency among the pundits as to what is good.  Steven Spurrier the (English) organiser said as much at the time "The results of a blind tasting cannot be predicted and will not even be reproduced the next day by the same panel tasting the same wines".  This is damn near 40 years ago but there are still periodical reports of gross inconsistency among professional wine-tasters and, more worryingly inconsistency of the same palate on different days.  Going back about 15 years, when I worked in Trinity College, we had an English graduate student who had 'tasted for Cambridge'. He used to facilitate a wine-tasting every year in the run up to Christmas. To be recommended as a group-morale-building exercise! It was really interesting to have the opportunity to compare different wines: for starters some 'white' wines are the palest green and others a disturbing urine-yellow, but it's silly to rank wines as if they have some absolute 'quality'. Effectively any expertise that wine-tasters have is set at naught when you soak off the label and remove the price-tag.

The one rule that everyone can remember is that you must never drink red wine while eating fish . . . because the sky will fall?  This is addressable by science and it turns out that the problem arises when fruits de la mer are exposed to iron which breaks down a sea-food-specific fatty acid to make a rank fishy smell that puts most people off their food.  Red wines tend to have higher concentrations of iron, so you're more likely to have an adverse experience with red wine and fish but many red wines will be fine and some white wines will trigger the reaction.  Nuance is too much for most people, hence The Rule.

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Type Specimen

When the human genome was delivered into the public domain by Tony "Biotech" Blair and Bill "Compute-guy" Clinton in 2000 we binfoes were all justifiably stoked and/or proud to have contributed in a small-small way or to have known people who had helped make sense of the 3 billion base-pairs that is our genome. It is not wholly clear whose genome was chosen to represent us all.  The Human Genome Project took DNA from five individuals of different ethnicities and created a composite human genome. They were spooked into getting the material into publishable form by J Craig Venter's threat to sequence the whole thing licketty-spit as a commercial venture while the HGP was still plodding towards Bethlehem.  It is a racing certainty that JCV is the main contributor of DNA as well as oomph and leadership to this commercially funded Celera genome.  Celera ("The Swift") being the name of JCV's company.  It is rather more certain that the dog (Canis familiaris) genome was clagged together from DNA contributed (without informed consent) by Venter's poodle "Shadow" (seen here).  Of course we realise with 20/20 hindsight that the completion of The human genome was not the end but rather the beginning a huge series of projects to document the extent genetic variation among us.

The idea that there should be a single genome to represent a species and against which the rest of us are compared goes back a long way: ante-dating the discovery of the structure of DNA let alone our ability to unravel its weave. The idea of a type specimen is at least 250 years old.  Before we had computers to store DNA information or -80C freezers to store the actual DNA, there was a physical specimen in a museum - for small mammals often a preserved skin and skull with a hand-written luggage label tied securely to a hind-leg.  If you turn over a rock in a tropical paradise and catch whatever scuttles away from you, it is not unlikely that you have in your hand a species unknown to science. You verify this by comparing your skull-and-skin to a lot of type specimens in a lot of museums, which is time-consuming but involves travel and schmoozing with fellow enthusiasts in Cambridge MA, and Cambridge UK, Utica NY and Uppsala SE.  If it's different, you get to name it which allows you to exercise hubris, flattery, or a sense of humour. According to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN), the name has to be a Linnaean 'binomer' using Latin or Greek roots or making a proper name look Latin or Greek. Megascops koepckeae (the big owl of  Maria Köpcke) which I mentioned a few days ago is a good example. Because these names are foreign it is conventional to italicise them. The first name represents the Genus - a group of related species - and is always Capitalised.  The second part identifies the species and is always lower case even if, as here, it is derived from a proper name.  Getting to know these conventions is part of what we teach at The Institute.  You know you have arrived as a scientist when you tsk tsk or snicker at some poor mutt of a journo who writes Caerostris Darwini rather than Caerostris darwini.  The poor journo, having an Arts Block education, at least knows where to put his apostrophes, which is more than we can say of most scientists.
The person we have most to thank for sorting the business of naming and classifying the denizens of the living world is Carl von Linné as his mum knew him or Carolus Linnæus as he's known to science from the days when all of us were fluent in dog-Latin. He was born on 23rd May (!today!) in 1707, more than 300 years ago, and has been claimed as the father of modern biological science or even Princeps botanicorum. Before Linnaeus the distinctive characteristics of each species written in Latin were the definition: "Physalis annua ramosissima, ramis angulosis glabris, foliis dentato-serratis".  Everyone knew what group of mutually-interfertile organisms that referred to.  Everyone who read Latin, that is, and had sufficient expertise to recognise a bit of  foliis dentato-serratis if it jumped up to bite them. Linnaeus added a binomer, here Physalis angulata or P. angulata to its pals. The ICZN and the ICN have appointed themselves to keep this system on the rails, make sure the same thing doesn't have two names and the same name doesn't include two species. It gets complicated because the data is biological - noisy, inconsistent, ever-changing and biodegradable.

Linnaeus wrote his ideas down and made a start on classifying the whole living world in a modest pamphlet called Systema Naturæ which was published in the Netherlands when he was 28.  He wasn't the first to use binomers (that honour might go to Gaspard and Johann Bauhin) but he was the first to use them consistently.  By the time Systema Naturæ reached its 10th edition in 1758 it included 4400 animals and 7700 plants, all named and ordered into a hierarchy of inclusive groups: species - genus - family - order - class - kingdom - domain. Along with Sus scrofaTroglodytes troglodytes, Equus caballusMeles meles, Panthera pardus and Loxodonta africana (pig, wren, horse, badger, leopard, elephant) Linnaeus recognised that we also fit into his classification of nature.  Because he used himself to describe this species, he has become the type specimen!  I have just discovered that fact and it has made me quite absurdly buoyant.  He named this our own species Homo sapiens which, because he was describing himself, is entirely appropriate.  If he looked out of the window of his home in Uppsala or into the wider world at the hubris, folly, cruelty and greed of his conspecifics, he'd have been forced to name us Homo dingbatius.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

A whole blogging year

My paternal grandmother, like many of her generation, was very keen on being 'regular' in the matter of bowel movements. My father was dosed to ensure this. Not me, as far as I'm concerned 'shit happens'. I started The Blob in the spirit of "ask a busy man" when I started a new job at The Institute in January 2013. I popped something up when I had a few minutes between work and eat and sleep. There was plenty of copy because I was being hosed down with new stuff every day. Then this time last year, as exams came round and formal classes had finished, I had more time to devote to writing.  A year ago the Table of Contents looked like this:
19/05/13 Map of the Nation
20/05/13 Nothing
21/05/13 Nirenberg and Matthaie (by far my most page-viewed post)
22/05/13 Nothing
23/05/13 European Underwear (really important in this week of European elections)
Since 23rd of May last year, however, I've posted something every reg'lar day.  So today marks a year of My Life on The Blob. Huzzah! That's a lot of writing. A tuthree years ago, I committed myself to writing 700 words a month for a year for a magazine Essay-and-Music programme on the Irish wireless called Sunday Miscellany. At the time, that was a big ask, but I stuck to my pens and submitted 14 pieces of deathless prose before I realised that Sunday Misc was not about to take anything I wrote.  The great thing about a blog is that the editorial staff take anything I write. So I was able to recycle most of the Sunday Misc essays. Like my 100th and 500th posts and my 100,000th word, after 365 consecutive posts, I don't feel the need now to post every day: I've been there, done that.  Years ago, one of the British Sunday colour supplements started a column called A Life in The Day - seems it's still going. The Blob is a bit like that, days clock past faster than I experience new material, so eventually I will have dredged my whole life into The Blob as a series of asides and "that reminds me of . . .".  TMI you may well cry!

Last post

Euradvice from a trusted source IV (see I , see II, see III)
Last post before the European Elections.  I'm sorry that my huge following in Ukraine (привіт вам обом) is not enfranchised in the Elections for MEP that start tomorrow.  They are loyal to a fault in the East and would happily follow me into the very jaws of Strasbourg.  But I can offer voters in the South constituency of Ireland my considered opinion and advice on this the day before Der Tag,  As a trained researcher, I endeavour to find things out, so that you don't have to. There are 15 candidates for 4 seats, which sounds like excellent odds: better than winning the Lotto and about the same as winning a door prize at the AGM of our Credit Union. Except that an election is not a lottery because the names are not pulled out of the hat at random.  Jings!, if they were I'd put my name up for a 4/15 chance of raking in a salary of €84,000 and all those air-miles between DUB and BRU.

These 15 people represent 8 political parties - and 4 Independents. Some of the political 'parties' are so small that the candidate might as well be Independent for all the infrastructural back-up they are going to get from their 'party'.  Take Fís Nua for example, a splinter group of the Greens - the name means New Vision, but is not to be confused with (anglophone) New Vision which loose coalition inched Luke "Ming' Flanagan over the line in the 2011 General Election.  I'm a tree-hugger and my natural constituency is The Greens: I've been out helping them put up posters for the last ten years.  I haven't joined the party however because, in their Irish incarnation, they come across as anti-Europe, anti-Science and West of Centre on the whoowah spectrum. So maybe Fís Nua with its green roots is worth an X?  They fielded a candidate in 2011 called Ben Nutty and another of their chaps, Peadar Ó Ceallaigh, polled the lowest number of 1st preference votes of any candidate ever.  People who follow opinion polls (also known as sheep Ovis aries) have been telling us all Spring that a vote for Labour is a wasted vote as their support is leaking, not to say haemorrhaging away.  Ditto Fís Nua, folks.

Another 'party' in the South constituency is the Catholic Democrats aka Theresa Heaney from Cork. CD was oncebthe Christian Democrats - presumably they ditched all the Methodist, 7th Day Adventist, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian reactionaries to launch the newer slimmer Catholic-only Democrats.  Before CD.II and CD.I they called themselves the National Party, presumably to encourage images of National Socialists and the British National Party duffing up sinners (<irony>jews and homosexuals, same thing</irony>).  Her flyer says "Save the married family - it is our future": nope, sorry, it is the Past, our family has been unmarried for 40 years and we know far too many other exceptions for Heaney's statement to be true. Heaney is fighting for the right of women to work in the kitchens of homes where there are two parents of opposite sex. That's the positive, otherwise the party is predictably negative: anti-abortion, anti-divorce, anti-children's rights, anti-change, oh yes, and anti-Europe.  Your call.

The other party you may not have heard of is Direct Democracy Ireland (DDI).  As the National Sodality of the True Cross is looking backwards through rose-tinted glasses to a dancing at the cross-roads idyll in The Past, so DDI are looking forward to an untried and untested New.  DDI has strong positions on fluoride, vaccination and whoowah medicine.  They seem to have links with the right-wing anarchist ungroup called Freemen on the Land who only obey the laws that suit them.  Freemen can be interesting and articulate and add a leaven to the daily grind for the local papers.  Freeman Bobby "Ancient-Y-Chromosome" Sludds doesn't believe in motor insurance but does drive his car about County Wexford and gets booked for doing so.  DDI chair Jan van de Ven is running for MEP in the South: he doesn't believe in electing representatives because modern technology should enable us to decide on all political and social issues by polling the people directly on each issue.  Does he look a bit like a stage hypnotist?

But enough already - here's my #1.  Grace O'Sullivan from Tramore Co Waterford.  She's running as a Green but after their disastrous drubbing at the last general election that ushered in the current wholly reactive Anything But Fianna Fáil government, there are Greens but the Green Party is in ragged tatters.  O'Sullivan looks well fit and well-preserved on her posters. The Beloved met her in the Farmer's Market a couple of weekends ago and said she looked less well (possibly shagged out with the campaign mill) in the flesh. But that's okay, at least she made an effort on the poster-front to look her best because she's canny enough to know that many (most?) people in Ireland vote on such specious information as "I knew his mammy", "he was a great hurler in his day", "his eyes are too close together", "what a tie!". As an expert in telling a deft lie with a photograph, we see her here demonstrating how tall the flood defenses in Wexford need to be if we are to cope with global warming: taller than either herself, or Trevor Sargeant or Cllr Danny Forde.  But we can see that you're not standing up! ye daft green loons.  O'Sullivan has done stuff for her community (lifeguard, lifeboat crew), for herself (surfing champ) and for the planet (Rainbow Warrior) which is a lot more than the fat middle-aged men in suits and/or the daft monomaniacs (pylons, potholes, protestants) against whom she is running.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Allies

Euradvice from a trusted source III (see I, see II)
Euro-elections are almost upon us. In Ireland we have two big parties and a clatter of smaller ones. Fianna Fáil is the natural party of government for the last two generations having furnished almost all the Presidents and the majority of the taoisigh (PMs). The other side of the Dáil tends to be filled with Fine Gael. The parties arose from the ashes of our Civil War - FF being anti-treaty 32-county purists and FG the pragmatic partitionistas.  My pal Kevin Byrne reckons these allegiances go back much further than 100 years.  But in the politics of today you can't slip a sheet of paper between them as far as their centre-right, Christian Democrat policies are concerned.  In the local elections, which are running simultaneously with the European hustings, the parties at county level are the same as those on the national stage: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin, a scattering of Greens and a ludicrous number of independents (currently polling as Ireland's largest party).

In Europe it must work differently, you can't expect a bunch of Slovaks or eSpanish to create a party called Vojaci Osudu or Soldados del Destino just because that's how we (inaccurately) translate Fianna Fáil into English.  FF is likely to return 3-4 MEPs to Strasbourg, but they'd be barely visible pixels in a colorful sea of 766 representatives and so couldn't effectively do anything in Brussels about the potholes at the end of our lane.  Accordingly, the national parties form alliances to form Europarties which, if they vote together, can achieve whatever it is that politicians want to achieve apart from their continuance in office.  FF is enpacted with ALDE, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and I daresay they are happily in bed with British LibDems, for example.  Fine Gael, for all their identity of policy and aspiration, must be in a different grouping, so have joined EPP the European Peoples Party and are snuggling up with Germans of the CDU persuasion. FF would be quite a lot happier with other Christian Democrats except those buggers from FG, of course. If this reminds you of the People's Front of Judea, it must be the way I tell it.

Just the other side of the centre we have Sinn Féin who are allied with "European United Left/Nordic Green Left" which you might imagine would piss off the genuine Irish Greens except that they have thrown in their lot with The Greens/European Free Alliance which is a wholly different shade of green, but looks exactly the same to people of any other colour. The GUE/NGL, as well as a clatter of old-style Reds and Socialists, includes one chap from Denmark representing Folkebevægelsen mod EU, the People's Movement Against the EU. Presumably this Folkluftfartsselskab Rina Ronja Kari is swimming manfully against the tide in Brussels on her basic salary of €84,000 a year excluding expenses. The Labour Party is affiliated with PES aka Páirtí na Sóisialaithe Eorpach or Partia Europejskich Socjalistów or Parti socialiste européen - you get the idea.  But it is now vanishingly unlikely that the Irish Labour Party even nearer the Centre than Sinn Féin will get any MEPs over the line this time.

Qs for SF canvassers: do you see yourselves as brokering a more Solidarność agreement between Saskaņas Centrs in Latvia and Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς in  Greece?

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Some neck

Euradvice from a trusted source II (see I?)
A slight digression: There has been a bit of traffic on the blogosphere recently about the "thigh gap": the desirability of seeing daylight between the legs of women when they stand with their feet together.  Most people of my grannie's generation would put that down to rickets. What can be achieved easily with photoshop has now become so desirable that youngish women are handing over folding money to surgeons to liposuct tissue from their inner thighs.  Don't try this at home girls.  We now expect photographs of attractive women on magazine covers to be 'enhanced' to fit whatever mad standards of beauty are current in whatever culture we find ourselves in.  So celebrity pimples, cellulite, eye-bags, lip-fuzz or normal sag are tricked up so readers with real bodies feel gross and inadequate.

Unless you've been asleep for the last 4 weeks or live in Kentucky, you'll realise that we are, here in the EU, running up to a European election.  Depending on the day traditionally used for such matters, which varies among countries, elections are happening on Thursday 22 May (UK, NL), or Friday 23/05 (IE - note on Blobendar in kitchen), or the Saturday (LV, MT, SK) or finally on Sunday 25 May 2014 (all other countries). Except Czecho which gives a choice of voting on either Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings. In Ireland we are voting for MEPs but also for local County Councillors. Each and every election the candidates in this country print dozens, hundreds or thousands of posters on corrugated plastic sheets up to 1m squared. It adds a bit of a buzz to things for a few weeks and jangles up the landscape until the day after polling when they all get recycled sent to landfill. You have to wonder, though, what some of the candidates are about when they present themselves to voters.

If celebs can have their image tarted up - watch Jennifer Lawrence breathing heavily - why can't grossly obese politicians do something with their photographs before they print 1000 rather larger than life copies of their jowly head&shoulders.  Many of these fat men in suits have no necks - their heads sit monumentally on a trunk or plinth of flesh. How many chins does a chap need? Nobody would hold it against them if they chose a photo of their younger self, so long as it wasn't in a babygro. If they can tell a white lie on their perceived age would they not air-brush off some of the goitre? I'm sure it would achieve a few extra votes.  In my family we used to joke that deeply inbred people had no necks and teeny tiny ears. So there's that aspect of the message, too, especially in the remoter rural parts of the country.  It's all very well voting for your cousin Jethro but you don't need to bear his children.

I guess the most famous association of neck and politics occurred in Winston Churchill's speech to the Canadian parliament on 30 December 1941.  He related how 18 months previously as the Western front collapsed before the Nazi onslaught and the BEF had to be evacuated from Dunkirk, his generals had a final meeting with their opposite numbers in the French army which was on the point of surrendering.  The Brits assured the cheese-eating surrender monkeys that Britain would fight on regardless of what their erstwhile allies did.  When this was relayed to Marshal Pétain he predicted that the English would have 'their necks wrung like a chicken' within three weeks.  Churchill then paused for dramatic effect before saying "Some chicken" [laughter, applause] "Some neck" [general hilarity, roars of approval]. I should explain to my приятелі in Київ and Донецьк whose idiomatic English is not-the-best, that neck means cheek/gall/impudence. I don't want you to think that I agree with the Simpsons or Dylan Moran's clichés about the French and their army. Cue Le Boudin!  Ooops no, they're all Germans. Cue La Marseillaise! or La Marseilaise!!  Or with the lyrics clearly enunciated by Edith Piaf.

I should add that the meaning of neck has changed over the centuries. The Duke of Wellington was born in 1769, probably in Merrion Street Dublin, and grew up as Arthur Wesley. In 1798 changed his name to a more pretentious Wellesley when he was old enough to know better.  In 1796, en route for India with the 33rd Regiment, during a lay-over in Cape Town he paid court to Henrietta Smith a lively young gell from a good family.  Wesley wrote that she had ‘pretty little figure and a lovely neck’ because young gentlemen in that era didn't refer to the bosom of young ladies.

Electoral advice:  don't vote for anyone who is is wearing a tie on a size >18 collar.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The voluntariat

Thirty years ago I secured my first academic job in NE England and found myself as the token population biologist in a very molecular Genetics Department.  I needed a computer with some ooomph, which meant learning another operating system to help me forget OS/VS1 which, for example, had allowed me to teach myself FORTRAN as well as to word-process, and print out on a daisy-wheel printer, my PhD thesis. In Newcastle upon Tyne, they had embraced MTS (Michigan Terminal System) which was handy enough but took some getting used to.  I ferreted out a chap in IT who was a) an MTS whizz and b) generous with his time, so I used to go down the road to pull on his coat quite a lot.  In the course of one of these sessions I mentioned with a approval a pal-o-mine who was volunteering to do something for the community. My MTS contact dissed the whole idea sharpish because if my middle-class friend (who had a job) was volunteering on another project as well, then he was depriving a worker elsewhere of a job.  I was confused and clearly out of my depth with the political implications; I didn't want to get in a fight over it so I didn't articulate the basis of my approval of voluntary work: I just slunk away.  I hadn't done a lot of volunteer work myself except a tuthree days and nights back in 1972 at Stansted Airport.  There, then, I had helped Ugandan Asians get off the planes and make their way through a huge hangar into a new life in Britain.  They had just been expelled from their country by Idi "batshit-bonkers" Amin with 90 days notice and what amounted to little more than hand-baggage.  I was there to help with the heavy-lifting at the Women's Institute tea table. It was an interesting experience and I thought I did those bewildered people some small service, if only by being demonstrably kind, courteous and welcoming. They'd experience a different reality of life in Britain soon enough when they tried to find work and a place to live in, say, Leicester.  I felt back in 1972 that it was a bit o craic.  In 1984 when challenged to think about volunteerism I thought that there were some things that shouldn't/couldn't be monetised.  If the WI (and little old lifting & carrying me) hadn't been there on those nights, the unwilling guests of the nation would have had a very cold welcome and no tea at all at all.

Yesterday, I was listening to Marion Finucane on the wireless as she interviewed with approval a bloke, a professional comic, who was an active volunteer with Blood Bike East.  These chaps - they are mostly chaps - take up some of the slack in the Health Service Executive HSE by delivering blood, blood products, breast-milk and X-rays between hospitals out of office hours.  That is on the face of it a worthy and commendable aim and all of Finucane's guests thought it was excellent idea. Except that,  if BBE didn't exist, this work would be carried out by taxi-drivers or couriers. That means that there are some taxi-drivers and couriers who are on the dole because there isn't enough work to employ them. People on the dole are more likely to get heart-attacks, depression and a rake of other maladies up to and including suicide.  Each of us may do the utilitarian math, like I did on Cryptosporidium, and quite probably come up with different answers.

Now, I'm a teacher (a label I'm getting more comfortable with after more than a year at The Institute) as well as an evolutionary biologist (in which suit I've been pretty comfortable for a long time) and I'm not in it for the money. I work on my teaching all the hours I have available after The Blob; baking bread and flapjacks; bottle-feeding lambs; scything the 3 acre; splitting wood for next winter and getting drunk on cheap red wine. I was joking about the last - it is impossible to get cheap red wine in Ireland.  So when I was asked to teach on a course at another institution a while ago, I was willing enough to share my expertise in that way.  But I didn't think I should do it for free, because the other place was charging the students whom I was teaching some thousands of €€€ for the education they were providing.  Sorry, who was providing facilitating  (me, I don't provide education, I help people learn) the education?  hmmmm, let me think, would it be the institution or the teachers or both together? Well let me say that this other institution was most unwilling to share-crop the proceeds by paying me, say, the minimum wage: it was as much as I could do to get them to pay the bus fare and that only on the presentation of receipts. I don't think the people with whom I dealt in that institution really understood what I was getting all Jesuitical about.

This has been brought into focus for me because of a report on Metafilter pointing at a quite angry piece-to-camera about the Rise of the Voluntariat. Read it before you volunteer next. The coinage is a deliberate echo of the proletariat of Marx. The labour of both groupiats is exploited by Capital to amass profit for directors and shareholders. Geoff Shullenberger the author has some thoughtful things to say about unpaid externs, the on-line educator Coursera, and volunteer translators. "We should continue to expose the expanding extraction of profit from labor forms premised on “intrinsic rewards.”  I love my job, it's great fun. I don't need to be incentivised to do it by (more) money. The Institute is, however, charging students or their parents or the government on behalf of the students a chunk of money to get access to the classes I and others facilitate, so they should, and do, pay me.

When I was in America, I saw a sign on the back of a plumber's pick-up saying "Please don't ask to borrow my tools, they are my living".  Helping your neighbours is a great thing, it lifts the spirit even as the barn is being raised. But I'm not so happy to ask my friends-and-relations to do me a favour in a matter of their core business.  When one of our trees needs surgery, I am right happy that Chris del Bosque can find time to deal with it; it's absurd to think that he should do the work for free.  Next time either of is need to replastic a polytunnel, however, I know we'll be there for each other happy to work all day for dinner and a couple of beers.

Heck, if it was easy I wouldn't be blobbing about it.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Fianna Fail = For Fluoride?

Euradvice from a trusted source I
We have European MEP and local elections coming up this week, so we are going to be visited, even up our remote lane, by candidates wishing (us) to contribute to the democratic process. A tuthree weeks ago The Beloved forw me an e-mail from a friend of a friend of a friend of Aisling FitzGibbon thegirlagainstfluoride exhorting us all to pull sharply on the lapel of anyone who appears on the doorstep looking for votes. As she says on her tin, Aisling wants us to request-and-require our political representatives to ban the involuntary addition of fluoride to our water supply. After compelling my EnvChem students to get their teeth into some research on the issue, I have a position on this which is more or less in agreement with TGAF, although perhaps not so vehement.  Hey Lads: it's not too late to buy the 2014 calendar in which she and her pals get their kit off for the cause.

One of the many things that is annoying about the fluoride issue is the amount of inertia in the system. Fluoride was first introduced into the water supply in Ireland in the 1960s, slavishly following the Brits who can afford to carry out research on matters of bio-medico-enviro importance.  The evidence back then was that fluoride could significantly lower the rate of dental caries, which was a cause of distress, disfigurement and lost work-days.  The case is now altered; the rest of Europe having taken the opposite position.  Tooth decay has gratifyingly declined across the continent and indeed the OECD whether governments fluoridate or don't.  But we're still shelling out €4million each year for something that is wastefully administered, of doubtful dental efficacy and potentially damaging to other aspects of our health. Traditionally in Ireland, we barrack our public representatives about wholly local, NIMBY, selfish issues: pot-holes in the roads, a discretionary medical card for my mum/charlady/trisomy21-neighbour. This year it will be wind-farms and high-tension electricity routes.  I may explain what the issues are later to my Ukrainian and Russian readers but I may not: none of the people I know who are getting all exercised about these power-infrastructural issues have thrown away their kettle, microwave, or electric drill as a way of reconciling supply and demand.

I suggest that anyone coming to the door with the Fáinne of the Republican Party be asked ironically if FF stands for For Fluoride.  I'm sure we can think of similar jibes that will leave candidates from other parties speechless and flustered. Not having television, we have few enough things to amuse us.And it will be a welcome change for the WannaBeRepresentative not to trot out their empty platitudes about filling pot-holes.

Saturday, 17 May 2014


In the SE quarter of Ireland there are three rivers known as The Three Sisters which rise rather close to each other in the low hills of the Midlands and rush off in all directions before coming together again at the village of Cheekpoint and the Headland of Peace which has been transliterated from the Irish Ros an Sith as Russianside in Co Waterford.  The rivers are lovely in that understated way that helps normal people fall in love with the Irish landscape.  The Brahmaputra and the Ganges also rise really close together, the former in Tibet North of the Himalayas, the latter from the glaciers of the South face. The Ganges is the great artery of India, holy and powerful and at least 12 times longer than the Barrow the longest of our Three Sisters. The Brahmaputra flows a long way parallel to the Ganges until they come together in the World's biggest delta.  People in Ulster or Україна are likely to know bugger-all about the geography of South Central Asia, so I've imported a map:
We get floods on our rivers, particularly in the town Clonmel on the river Suir: another of the three sisters; the last being called the Nore.  It's a pain for town-centre businesses which are now no longer insurable against flood because it's a running certainty that it will be gumboots-all-round most Winters. But in Bangladesh, 6000 people die in floods every year.  I'm sure that will help the plain people of Clonmel reflect on how fortunate they are to live in a place with such unspectacular weather.

The problem in Bangladesh is a bit like the problem with our intestinal flora. In the past both have worked reasonably well; periodically things have gotten out of control but they have settled back down again after a flushing flood induced by unseasonable rains (Ganges) or unwashed hands (colon).  The one thing most of us can remember about Ancient Egypt and the Nile is that the seasonal floods brought a dose of Central African silt, mud and nutritious sludge which ensured the fertility of the flood-plain, dynasty after dynasty for 5000 years.  Since we had the hubris to intervene in the balanced regime of our guts by periodical medical onslaughts on the creatures living there, many of us are badly out of kilter with other aspects of our health: fat, wheezing, shedding skin and hair, and possibly getting cancer.  Similarly, there have been attempts to control the flow of water in the Ganges delta and that has tended to cause devastating floods at intervals rather than 'normal' floods that brought down a billion tons of sediment each year, most of that was washed out into the Bay of Bengal.  A billion tons is close enough to all the topsoil in a medium sized Irish county.  The sludge that didn't get washed out to sea extended and filled in the delta with nutritious material in which to grow wheat for chappattis and lentils for dal.

Normal floods can be controlled and harvested by normal methods - in the case of Bangladesh by lots of man-power and baskets.  In the case of Ireland as well until back-hoes and tractors appeared on the scene two generations ago.  The short handful of bachelors who used to live in our house would shrug on their crombie overcoats and trudge up the hill to trick about with the drains if they heard on the wireless that a storm was due.  A shovel and a few sods high enough up the mountain could save the lane from getting washed out. After the storm passed through the water could be allowed to flow down the hill again to provide drinking water for man and beast.  In Bangladesh they used to open the dykes that surrounded the polders at times when experience and legend suggested that they could capture some silt and then close up again when the tide turned.  When the dykes get out of human scale you can no longer capture the life-giving mud and when, under extreme weather conditions, the super-dyke is breached you are likely to lose your fields, your home, your family and your life.

There are two related problems for Bangladesh: one is that the land is sinking at between 5 and 25 mm a year partly from the effect of tectonic shift and partly because of compaction of the soil as water and air get forced from it by traffic and the broiling sun. The other is that, under the rules of global warming the mean sea level is rising, so that the relative difference in the height of land and tide is getting less each year.  The article in Nature has a great map with notes on the different sorts of evidence that show the land is sinking. The consequence is that pretty much every region of the entire delta has experienced at least one catastrophic since 2000 and nobody is suggesting that these floods aren't going to return. Of all the countries that are threatened by rising sea-levels, Bangladesh is perhaps the most populous country at risk, with a large proportion of her 150 million people living no more than a broom-stick above the high-water mark.  The Dutch, The Experts in water-meets-land matters, have formed a joint venture with the Bangladeshi government to come up with some workable solutions to this issue.  You have to do scientific research before you start any works because otherwise you are as likely to make the situation worse as make it better

But let's end on a more positive note.  The Brahmaputra, like the Severn and the Petitcodiac, is one of the few rivers in the world that experiences a tidal bore - and the water is so warm you'd hardly need a wet-suit if you wanted to surf upstream.