Sunday, 31 August 2014

Compassion for thinking reeds

Right at the end of our plane-ride back from Boston, our slack-gobbed watching of video content was interrupted by chunky heart-throb Liam Neeson to urge us to support the Aer Lingus contribution to UNICEF by shovelling our small change into the envelope which had been delivered with our ear-phones.  His breathy urgings were accompanied by movie-clips of small black children being given medicine or education by young white folks.  None of the black kids had elephantiasis, or river-blindness or Burkitt's lymphoma: not even a suppurating sore or a snot-laden upper lip at which flies were feeding. The Beloved and I promptly complied in an effectively trivial way.  The lady beside me started to fill out credit card details because she had no small change.  We had been caught by a sense of empathy with those children who were like enough to our own that we could give if asked nicely.

I've never been easy about such an approach to giving money to make the world a fairer more evenly resourced place.  But I was too busy, or too stupid, to articulate what was wrong.  It took an essay by Paul Bloom and the comments on the essay to bring my disquiet into focus.  Paul Bloom has a high profile from making his engaging and informative Yale lectures for PSYC 110 Introductory Psychology freely available on the interweb.  In his latest Forum/essay/debate, Bloom has addressed the psychology of empathy and counter-intuitively labelled it a Bad Thing.  His argument is that an emotional response to suffering and injustice is not the most equable way for you or me to lash out our money. Boston and its neighbours are still processing and responding to the effects of last year's Marathon Bombings by, among other worthy things, selling tee-shirts.  People who live in the area have given generously to appeals to help after 3 people died and 200 were horribly mangled.  They have been giving proportionately less to the thousands of dead and tens of thousands of maimed in distant Iraq (or Cambodia)

One of the responders to the Bloom piece is Peter Singer, an Australian psychologist and experimental philosopher who has forced us to think through our ethical stances by posing cases where ethics poses a puzzle - where ethical behaviour is hard work.  For a scientific gloss on the process, Prof Dr Tania Singer (no relation) hooked up Matthieu Ricard, qualified biochemist, serious Buddhist and TED-talker to an fMRI machine while he was being a) commmmmpassionate b) empathising with something.  Different parts of his brain lit up under these two regimes and he experienced the latter as be oppressive and exhausting.  There's more said about whether you want empathy from your doctor [probably not].  The take-home is that if you respond to suffering with the emotion of empathy you may not be helping much and if you give money or time in your response you may be making the world rather less fair than more.

I was off yesterday on a round of desperately visiting friends before the mill of the academic year starts grinding all residual energy to nothing. It will be work & Blob until next May and maybe not even Blob. Over another cup of tea, I was comparing notes with a friend who is scheduled for surgery on his spine. He's been through everything: physiotherapy, aspirin, acupuncture, steroid injections (expensive and useless), paracetamol, guided pain management, ibuprofen, homeoapthy, morphine.etc, cranial osteopathy, chiropracty . . . and sees surgery as the last resort.  But he's also been worn out by well-wishing friends&relations offering their anecdotal reasoning for adopting such a therapy - my poor crippled Auntie May had feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) tea at night and leapt tall buildings within a week. And also oppressed by the empathy slopped out (tsk tsk; wince; shake head; intake breath) by his visitors.

What to do?  Read as much of Bloom's position as you have time and patience for, then read at least Singer's [pro] and Baron-Cohen's [con] replies. One proposal that seems rational and achievable is to return to the medieval concept of tithing. Each month take 10% (or whatever, 1% would be a lot more than I gave to the Liam Neeson appeal) of your disposable income and dispose of it: a cheque to Oxfam, massive tip at a restaurant (preferably the blonde kid in Burritos and Blues in Cork or the dark one in Star Anise in Stroud), folding money to a homeless person . . . Then when the Irish Heart Foundation cold-calls you can honestly say "I gave already". I suggest doing the disposal at a regular time (third Sunday of the month lunchtime immediately after grace) to minimise the effect of whatever your local newsroom thinks you should be empathising about.
"L’homme n’est qu’un roseau,
le plus faible de la nature ;
mais c’est un roseau pensant

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Hermann und Albert

. . . Göring!  Hermann the older was born 12 January 1893 and Albert two years later: 9 March 1895. People of my generation born about 10 years after the end of WWII will have heard of the older chap: the WWI air-ace; early (1922) joiner to the NSDAP in Germany; personal pal of Adolf Hitler; shot in the leg during the abortive Munich beer-hall putsch; poster-boy for rapacious acquisition of stuff from people who were being condemned to concentration camps; patron of the arts; creator of national nature reserves.  But when I was acquiring my history of the 20th century in England in the 1960s, I knew the names of the key players but never reflected that they might have had parents and siblings. Or that those family members might have been of a different political persuasion. A few years ago, I heard about Hitler's Irish nephew - Alois Schicklgruber-Matzelsberger-Hiedler-Hitler Adolf's brother was a waiter at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin and married local girl Bridget Dowling. They had a son called William Patrick "Willy" Hitler who became Willy Stuart-Houston later in life. It's not so much a spelinge problem for the surnames of these chaps like it was for oceanographer Ale[ss|x|j]andro Malaspina, it is more a problem of fuzzy paternity and illegitimacy. But it does make you hope that genealogists are skeptical about following families by relying on surnames rather than on Y chromosome haplotypes.  There is an episode of House (01x02) where this makes a difference - if the surname doesn't track the Y chromosome it won't track any of the genetic predispositions to disease either.

I've mentioned one example of how survival during the desperate years of the early 1940s hinged on an accident coupled with the regime's obsession with keeping their records alles in Ordnung. In the comments of another blogosphere post on the subject, The Black Rabbit of Inlé said with insight: "These “I only survived the gas chamber because >> insert implausible story here <<  could make a decent Ho£ocaust book of their own.". The Landmesser parents didn't make it but their children did and so did Jakow Trachtenberg. The odds were extraordinarily long but people did survive and ascertainment bias leads us to think that we might have made it through too. In statistical terms a random person caught up in die Endlösung was as likely to win the Lotto . . . without buying a ticket.

It is also salutary to reflect that good things did come out of the NSDAP regime: that's why I appended a couple of positive attributes to the tweet-long summary of Hermann Göring's life.  It is fatuous to think that Nazi Germany was wholly black because it leads to the corollary that We are wholly holy white.  One aspect of similarity is that both there&then and here&now everything was/is for sale.  Everyone was/is corruptible by money or favours or blackmail. Not everyone of course, not you. But in Ireland, and apparently even more in Spain, you can subvert the system and achieve a desirable outcome for comparatively little money.

Which brings us back to Albert Göring. Like his brother he came from an immensely privileged background and was used to telling people what to do. He hated the bombast and bullying of the brown-shirts and made several mad gestures of defiance: defending random Jewish women who were being duffed up in the street and using his distinctive surname to cow people who tried to push him around. He refused to use the absurd greeting Heil Hitler and was never known to raise his arm in that salute. His august brother bailed him out on numerous occasions but he still kept on suborning the system to save a few of his friends from the grinding maw of the death-camps. It's an enigma: to go on bucking the system for a decade under increasingly trying circumstances might be more than you could bear to watch if Spielberg is tempted to make a sequel to Schindler's List called, maybe, Thirty-four and Counting. It could be based on William Hastings Burke's book Thirty-Four.  Half of the 34 names are on the list shown above: they are people whom Albert Göring told his allied interrogators would vouch for him.  Like Luther it seems that Göring's attitude was Ich kann nichts anders.  Apart from the few that he saved, he got small thanks for doing right. After the war, the once influential name became a millstone when he looked for work, but he refused to change it like Hitler's nephew.  In a last gesture of tweaking the nose of The Man, a week before he died in greatly reduced circumstances he married his house-keeper so that she would inherit his modest pension entitlements.
Note: no more Nazis for a while, I'm done.

Friday, 29 August 2014

To thine own self be true

Back in April, I wrote about an unlikely Irish connexion in the famous Parisian photo Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville. Have a look closely at this family photo [L] and ask if you notice something really odd about the people?  If you were a competent historical fashionista you could work out that it was taken in the mid 1930s.  You notice that the two children are very different in size, but that's normal as one if twice as old as the other.  Then you see that the man is about twice the size as the woman and that's a quite disconcerting. I was hunting around for an explanation: you can't see her feet, maybe the bottom of the pond is a step down from the shore.  But even so, she is either petite or he is enormous or both.  But the evidence of two children says that they are within the normal range. My position is that there's not much you can tell from outward appearances.  My dusky friend is as good as me as a scientist, a citizen, a man, a father but he is less respected because he has a better tan.  I've also written about finding pretty suspect a requirement to salute in unison except in the military. "Le patriotisme, c'est l'œuf des guerres. [Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched]" (Maupassant). Since WWII we are especially exercised about that salute.  But we shouldn't be frightened of mere gestures so I'll put up another photo:
There that was painless. The second photo was taken a tuthree years before the first and they are connected because August Landmesser features in both.  We know the date of the second - 13th June 1936 - precisely because it was an event  - the launch of a Kriegsmarine training vessel called the Horst Wessel - and it finished up in the newspapers. If you look carefully (Where's Wally?) you'll see something quite extraordinary in NSDAP Germany - someone is not Heiling Hitler. Landmesser joined the NSDAP in 1931 because he thought it would help land him a job in the deepest recession of the 20th century. That ploy worked insofar as he was soon working a Hamburg ship-yard that was churning out ships for Das Reich. So far, so ordinary; especially if you don't take the high moral ground and deny that you would have done the same in the circumstances. He doesn't appear to have been a true believer, however, and his expression in the photo has been characterised as "Meh". It doesn't really look like a courageous stand against the iniquities of the regime, but going against the flow is really important, somebody has to do it. One of the unconsidered certainties of the time and place was that The Party was not only running the trains on time, it was fundamentally A Good Thing. Landmesser was a little skeptical and this photo is the evidence that he was skeptical at the time rather than by re-writing his personal history after the war.  He fell in love with the small woman in the bathing cozzi, Irma Eckler, and they were engaged but couldn't get married because she was Jewish and he wasn't and the Nuremberg Laws (Das Gesetz zum Schutz des deutschen Blutes und der deutschen Ehre) forbade such marriages. Interestingly, she was a Sephardic Jew whose family had come to Hamburg from Spain via The Netherlands: most German Jews were Ashkenazim. Things went pear-shaped for these ordinary citizens thereafter. The parents were arrested, imprisoned, released, sent to a death camp, sent to a penal labour battalion and disappeared during the war along with millions of others across Europe.  The daughters were separated but, like Jakow Trachtenberg, through a succession of lucky breaks survived. When the famous photograph of the man who didn't salute was re-churned by the German press long after the war, one of the daughters recognised him as her father and the dates-and-locates seemed to fit.  You can fill out the story and see a better picture. Or get a much more detailed and data-rich story.

Landmesser was not a hero in the obvious sense of the word, just a man trying to make the best of difficult circumstances beyond his control without compromising his integrity too much.  His birthday is 24th May 1910. We have a name to trigger the removal of hats and a time to do it.  Make note in diary!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The pipes, the pipes are calling

A feel-good story for the twilight years.
Th biggest bagpipes in all Scotland
from Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf
I've mentioned my father-'t-law Pat as living a life of youthful adventure before he was 20.  He clocked up a lot of sea miles during WWII with a succession of ships in the merchant marine. When I met him, he wasn't great about spinning yarns about his adventures.  Maybe it's because we never asked or maybe it was still too raw 30 years after the end of the war, when I appeared on the scene.  One of the family sagas was about his set of bag-pipes which had been a proud possession when he was courting his to-be-wife in up-country West Africa.  But somewhere along the way 30+ years ago, in rather murky circumstances, the pipes disappeared.  They had been taken for repair at rather a busy shifting time in Pat's life and were never seen again.  Periodically, one or other of the friends-and-relations would get exercised about the issue and start to do something towards recovery but these efforts petered out without getting anywhere productive.  Whether or not you can play the pipes, whether or not you have been to Scotland, if you haven't read Wee Gillis to your children then you have not fulfilled your destiny as a parent.

After twenty years of moving around the country every tuthree years, Pat and his wife settled into a minute cottage on 0.4 hectares of garden very close to the coast in County Waterford. They lived there for about 25 years.  About a year ago, the isolation and dependence on a car got to be too much for these stalwart octogenarians and they moved to a newer, better appointed house right in the centre of town. The transition hasn't been seamless but on balance the move is agreed to be A Good Thing. Then out of the blue a couple of weeks ago, the pipes turned up at Pat's front door delivered by the chap who had undertaken to repair them in the 1980s!  The back-story is long and complicated and has both black and white hats, melodrama and many still unanswered questions.  More directly and recently, it transpired that the repair-man, himself in his 80s, was due for some surgery and wanted to tie up some loose ends just in case the operation didn't go well.  The wayward pipes was high up the list of Things To Do before his appointment.  With doggedness, networking and detective skills worthy of Hercule Poirot, he found the house and providentially found Pat at home.  I'm not sure which of these two old chaps was happier, but I've been grinning like the Cheshire Cat every time I think about the story.  I sent him a postcard to say thanks from America when we were visiting Boston last week.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


Hi Honey, we're home!  We left home in West suburban Boston at 1400hrs local time and arrived home to The Mountain at 0800hrs the following day which makes it sound much more of a marathon than it was. Everyone was happier that we got to Logan Airport in good time but, as there were no real lines at any of the processing stages, we had a good bit of leisure-time in the Terminal.  We put these spare hours to ardently supporting the American economy by purchasing a variety of ephemeral products mostly "food" and clothing.

On the way out we had packed a sensible sort of picnic lunch pitta-bread sandwiches with cheese and salad and some fruit, so didn't get too upset about the lunch that Aer Lingus served.  But on the way home last night, we brought no food and relied on what the airline dished up.  "relied on" isn't quite the correct expression because if we and our 300+ fellow passengers didn't eat for 5-6 hours, the sky was not going to fall and nobody was going to starve to death.  I really think the conventions of airline meals need a re-think, so that you get something to fill the void that is simple, nutritious and doesn't require a huge amount of packaging.  I vote for sandwiches: maybe a choice of  ham&swiss or cheese, lettuce & tomato or hummus&olive.  As it was we got a travesty of a three course meal served in a clatter of silly dishes and sachets: 75g of water; a tiny bread-roll and too big a pat of butter; two tiny crackers overwhelmed by a slab of orange cheese; a dish of lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad with a repellent sachet of dressing; an aluminium dish of piping hot spiced chicken, veg and rice; a plastic-wrapped chocolate brownie for 'dessert'.  No vegetarian option was offered, so I got double chicken.  People get snitty about airline meals, but I thought the main course was pretty good.  I just object to the fussy pastiche of a balanced meal which doesn't really satisfy anyone except the company that gets the contract to assemble it all and deliver it to the airport.

Now here's another example of ignoring the principle of less is more. In the old days, there was a movie screen for each section of the airplane cabin; at a certain stage in the flight, usually after the meal, a film would come to life on these screens. In the mid 1980s I got to see Gremlins high over the Atlantic but without sound because I was too mean to pay to rent head-phones. Bizarrely, a few weeks later I got to hear Gremlins without picture on the Clipper express bus between London and Newcastle upon Tyne.  The best seat on these buses was front row on the upper deck where you got a great view of the landscape as you were whisked along to London. But the TV screen on which they showed the movies was right above the heads of the front-row passengers. Fast forward to transatlantic travel today. Airlines have long since given up trying to sell head-phones to travellers - you get them free - and they have stopped having screens like in an art-house cinema and now embed them in the back of each seat on the plane. This individualisation opens up the possibility that each passenger can choose their own film.  Why have a choice of three when you can offer 42 (!) films and numerous TV programs as well.  Video-on-demand is deeply unsatisfying because I find myself giving up on one film and flitting to another, and getting to watch neither properly.  If the choice was watch Gremlins or read a book, I suspect the overall satisfaction rating would go up.  By the time I'm ready for another trip across the Atlantic we'll all be watching films as wifi retinal implants, so the choice will be nearer to infinite than to 42.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Museum afternoon

In the depths of last winter we went to see gripping, if paint-dripping, film called Museum Hours in which the male lead is a museum guard in Vienna who has used the long tick slow tock clock tick time tock waiting for potential vandals to study the paintings under his charge.  Me, I tend to race through museums glancing at a few of the most striking pictures before heading off to buy post-cards in the gift shop.  But I know that there is another world of insight and interpretation in the best paintings, if only I had the time and aptitude to devote some focussed and informed attention.  Years ago on one of a couple of lonely Bobby-no-friends trips I made to Paris in my teens, I was listlessly rubber-necking through the Jeu de Paume Museum when I overheard an erudite American explaining a picture to his two guests.  As I had just nodded past this same painting, I was amazed at how much detail and sensibility could be abstracted from a painting which had been hardly worth a glance from me.

Monday afternoon we spent with P in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the edge of Downtown Boston.  We started off with an extravagant lunch, that will require a working week to pay for.  The Beloved had arrived before the rest of us so had the chance to have a quick scoot round one of her favorite Museums after an interval of 30 years.  Over lunch she described a striking analysis of the fluid dynamics of flamenco by John Singer Sargent [El Jaleo R] and filled in the detail that, at the opening of trhe Museum in 1903, Sargent said that Gardner had done as much for the painting by her hanging of it and he had in the painting of it. If I'd been given that sort background when I was young, I might have stayed in the Arts Block and not made the abrupt change to a lifetime in Science.  Then again, I couldn't draw or paint to save my life.

When we finally poured out of the restaurant, somewhat the worse for drink, we only had 45 minutes to cover the whole museum, so I asked to be shown the three key accessions in the building.  El Jaleo was the first and nearest of these. I was then pushed out doors into the Monk's Garden which is a maze of shrubbery-beds with small but perfectly formed trees separated by winding pathways of steel-grey brick. From the chill air-conditioned interior it was like entering a Chinese laundry - warm and damp with a strange smell - and the intricate curves and intersections of the paths made me think of Euler's  Königsberg Bridges problem.  Must get map of museum and count the odd nodes!  Then we rushed upstairs to see the 'white' portrait of Mrs Gardner [L] as she makes a dramatic entrance into a room in Venice.  TB and P were arguing about who was the painter when the absurdly young attendant said "It's Zorn".  As none of us had asked her and she was wearing a uniform we could not hear what she said, so she repeated "Zorn".  Well, dang me!  If I'd ever known anything about Anders Zorn, it has long since slipped beyond my two-week event horizon.  Now it may be that this young woman is an Art History major at one of the myriad Boston area Universities or it could be that she is just paying attention to her surroundings.  Either way, I'm impressed.

But actually none of these exhibits did it for me as much as a long cool dark corridor on the second floor lit from the end by a brilliant medieval stained glass window looted-by-almighty-dollar from some European cathedral.  And it wasn't really the window either, just the length of quietness. You cannot help either but be taken by well of the courtyard around which the house is built - with its attention to detail and the relentless sound of burbling water it reminded me of the Alhambra.  If you have a shed-load of money you can do things right.  We were hanging out of one of the many upstairs windows drinking in the scene when TB suggested "I'll close my eyes and count to 15, and you each have to appear in a different window" but we were far too old and knee-compromised to go off on such a playful romp.

We're heading home to Ireland this afternoon much richer for having spent a fortnight in Massachusetts.  For starters we need a fountain in our yard and at least one room paved in dark red tiles.

Getting the newsletter out

I was tasked to simplify simplify the contents of my mentor's cellar, which meant going through boxes and boxes of papers and sorting them into bins.  It was also an opportunity to reduce the amount of redundant and duplicate material.  About 25 years ago we published a Catlogue of all the data in our research field up to that time. I thought we could shift 250 copies of this compendium without difficulty and ordered that many copies from the printer.  As it turned out, I was able to offload about 25 copies; half of which were freebies for contributors.  For the next 20 years, I schlepped a couple of xerox boxes of remaindered copies around with me.  Then The Boy came home and convinced me that the global interest in this work from now until the end of time could not exceed ten copies and I sent the rest to recycling.  In the cellar last week I discovered another 40 copies, and ditched all but five.

Before I came to America as a graduate student back in the early 80s - a while before the wildly over-optimistic Catalogue - I knew that my gaffer worked at the Carnivore Genetics Research Center.  I also knew that he was editor of a periodical called Carnivore Genetics Newsletter. When I arrived I found that I was scheduled to sleep in the CGRC which was co-terminous with the cellar.  Not only that but I was to help assembling the next many issues of CGN. There were a number of suscriptions to the Newsletter and so there was far less over-production than of the Catalogue.  Nevertheless, I've reduced the back-issues to 3 copies for each number and sent the rest to be recycled.  That's four hefty boxes of redundant material which have been de-cluttered and I feel rather virtuous about that.

Then a couple of days ago, I discovered the crimpers, which were the bane of my younger life.  The Newsletter CGN was absolutely non-profit and run on very narrow margins.  If it had been cheaper for us to make each copy by transcribing it with a quill pen, then that's what would have been done. That was clearly not a sensible option, but there was some debate about whether it was worth paying extra to get each issue collated.  Then the print shop got a new machine which collated the pages automatically at no extra charge as they were printed.  But assembling the front cover, the back cover and the contents then stapling them together was apparently too expensive because we did this sitting round the dining-room table.  The industrial stapler was good for 50 pages but left the staples proud and prevented the the newsletters from stacking neatly.  So I had to crimp the sticking out bits flat with a pair of pliers customized with two flat bars welded to the business end.  I developed an occupational disease called crimpers-thumb where the action of thgis tool raised a blister and eventually a bloody welt.  It only lasted a few days after each session.  Each issue was then stuffed in an envelope, an address label and stamp applied to the outside and the shipment was ready to go.  If I'd known then how many copies of crimped newsletters would never leave the cellar, I would have stopped crimping earlier. But we always got the newletter out on time.

Monday, 25 August 2014

River bank

Back in  the 1980s when we lived in Boston we did a lot of things that we don't do now and not all has changed for the better.  I'm sure that the good days in that distant past have been magnified by our rose-coloured spectacles. Weekends, we went tooling about in an off-white Ford Galaxy looking for notices on lamp-posts pointing at yard sales in the Western suburbs of Boston.  The Galaxy was a six seater (3 front, 3 back) saloon car about the size of a table-tennis table that was just the thing for buying other people's discards for very little money.  Too many hard-back books for 25c and paper-backs for 10c became the foundation of the library that I am now attempting to down-size.  But the memory of those Saturday mornings is a happy one; especially if breakfast at a diner was part of the trip.

As last Saturday approached, I did make some enquiries about how yard-sales, moving-sales, garage-sales and estate-sales were publicised nowadays.  But the Galaxy has long since gone to where dead cars go and I was determined to have one car-free day in the United States of Automobile.  The Beloved was off for much of the day doing mindful things mindfully, so I put out the idea that I would walk along the Charles River until I reached, say, Harvard or maybe further along towards the sea if my knees weren't destroyed. I also suggested that P, who don't walk too good, might like to kayak along and we could keep on chatting as she got her elbows wet, but that sadly wasn't possible. A little research suggested that it was possible to walk on or close to the river bank for 20km or a bit more.  Not knowing what to expect, I set off for the nearest access to the Charles River.  It's possible to compare the [sub]urban Charles River with the deeply rural Barrow which we walked in June.

Well it was just gorgeous!  There is a path on at least one side of the river which starts off almost completely uninhabited by people and with the traffic but a distant hum.  The trees come down to the water's edge and in places have come down in the water.  The path was broad enough for the occasional jogger or cyclist to over-take a slow-coach contemplative like me and two young joggers apologised for startling me by their near silent soft-shoe approach.  The river was placid with lily-pads and geese, the trees were still green with acorns under foot and I was at peace with the world.  As I approached the Watertown line, I found a dollar bill on the path and 20 minutes later I made a detour to a yard-sale (Oh Joy) and spent it on an orange pot-holder and a DVD of Little Miss Sunshine.  Now you can't better yard-sale value than that!

My walk got  noisier and busier as I slouched into town, but just after the Eliot Bridge where the river loops North, I saw a small but perfectly formed tree with a horizontal bough at eye-level.  I noticed it because it had two pieces of laminated paper nailed thereto.  I had discovered the Poetry Tree on The Charles project which enjoins us to "Enjoy the poetry, the River, and our glorious world.".  That's kind of sweet and added a cherry to the icing on the cake of my day.  What poem?  A Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost:
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun. 

etc etc etc
Yes, Frost wrote about other stuff than those two roads diverging in a yellow wood.  Frost's is not tum ti tum ti tum poetry and needs to be read with a gravelly New England accent.

I tease The Boy about hot-housing his daughter for Harvard. Three hours after leaving home I had completed my mini-pilgrimage to that daunting seat of learning.  The Shonk has done his bit, it's up to the parents - and G'dau! - now: they have 15-16 years.

I met P in Harvard Square for a beer and a bite and we talked on-and-on until the waitron plunked a bill firmly on the table and then we talked some more on a convenient park bench.  P suggested that such a 12-15 km walk could be banked against the oppression of the 7 hour flight which we're due to take on Tuesday night.  But I don't believe in a River Bank. A mystic, wonderful walk is not something that can be stored against the future; it can only be lived in the now.  We talked so long that I missed the last bus from Watertown and had to walk an additional 3 km to get home. But I borrowed a pair of winged reeboks from Hermes [see what poetry does!] , and it was a stroll.

Not perhaps a perfect day, but certainly a pretty good day.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Walden Three

Walden One:
In 1845 at the age of 28 Henry David Thoreau built himself a wendy house in the woods South of the town of Concord Massachusetts.  He lived there for two years and paid attention to the natural world that surrounded him.  Purists get snitty about his achievement in the same way that regular people get shouty at vegetarians for wearing leather shoes.  "Oh it was only half an hour from his folks' place and he took the laundry home every weekend." ". . . and he bought supplies at the store before he walked back to his hut" "He had visitors! not much of a hermit was he?". He wrote up his experiences in Walden, or Life in the Woods, which finally got published in 1854, which was tribbed on The Blob this summer. Indeed Walden the book is rather like a blog. It is a book much quoted but rarely read and used to project unreader's anxieties and certainties onto a backdrop of second-growth New England woods.  But it is what it is: one man's attempt, which may not be exactly consonant with yours, to make sense of his life.  I think, I believe, that young men and women need to act on Thoreau's opening sentiment before they let the life into which they were born dictate what happens to them. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." If they don't they are likely to join “The mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation."

Walden Two:
Is a book, a novel, a manifesto by the behaviorist BF Skinner. Skinner spent a large part of his life trying to understand how humans and other animals operate.  He was a reductionist, knowing that trying to make sense of the blooming buzzing confusion that is the external world is difficult so needs to be simplified. Actually for most of us, blooming buzzing confusion descibes our interior world as well.  But not for Skinner. He carried out numerous experiments on rats in cages and clocked the number of times they pressed a lever when offered good or bad things. His findings were reliable and reproducible and we now know rather a lot about how rats behave when their world is reduced to a plastic box proportionately the size of Thoreau's hut. Skinner's confusion then dropped away and he became certain that what happened in the box could be extrapolated to more complex situations. Up to a point, that is true, but his vision of the world, described in his Utopian novel Walden Two, is rather creepy. It's a long time since I read it, but if you try to grasp things like happiness and productivity what stays in the hand is a dead thing choked by the clumsy process of measurement: all that is worth living for has drained out between our clutching fingers. Oscar Wilde: "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."  Me, I've never seen what connexion Skinner felt there was between his book and Thoreau's, but I bet he was certain-sure that the two were linked.

Walden Three:
When shall we three meet again? We've been in Massachusetts for more than a week now and our friends-and-relations have been asking us if there is anything we want to do. Boston is one of the great cultural and intellectual centres of the USA, if not The World.  We lived here for several years a generation ago and have visited often in the interim, so we should have a list of places to see and things we want to do. We are hopeless tourists and really just want to hang out on the stoop or round the kitchen table yakking and drinking tea.  But a couple of days ago The Beloved confessed that she'd never been to Walden and we were whisked out to Concord by our friend PWalden pond is now a State Reservation and available for a strange mix of recreational activities: you can canoe but not sail, electric boats are okay but petrol-driven boats are verboten. Fishing is good but dogs are banned. You can't ride a bicycle but I saw horse-shit in the woods. They have created a replica of Thoreau's hut right in the parking lot beside the ice-cream truck, so pilgrims don't need to go out into the woods at all at all, they just need $10 to park their vehicle.  But if you do go along the edge of the pond, stepping over the bodies lying on the muddy sand of the beach, you quickly reach the site of the original shed.  Despite the injunctions not to step off the path and actually into the woods, and the mill of people, and the granite plaque set into the ground behind the site helpfully identifying "Thoreau's Woodshed" the experience is rather wonderful. Nearby there is a heap of stones and people have piled these into little ziggurats and towers to show that they were present long enough to make a small difference and by implication that the site had made a small difference to them.  One could think of our experience with piled stones climbing to the highest point in England Scafell Pike 25 years ago. Alternatively you could reflect on La Cruz de Ferro which is a huge iron cross driven into a heap of stones between the villages of Foncebadón and Manjarín on the Camino de Santiago. I'm glad I went to Scafell, and was transformed by walking the Camino, walking to Walden was somewhere along that spectrum.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Precious water

On our field-trip to Cabo Verde we did more than play cards and get drunk on cheap beer (and push back the frontiers of science); we observed a different culture at close quarters. We divided our time in the archipelago between Mindelo, an old British coaling station in the North and Praia de Santiago, the nation's capital in the South. The Northern isles are called Barlavento (windward) and the Southern group is Sotavento (leeward) from the prevailing wind direction. In the Caribbean it is vice versa with the Leeward islands in the North and these facts determined the direction in which the infamous triangular trade cycled.
In Praia, we had rooms in a little hotel in the centre of town about two blocks from the central market. The dining room was on the flat roof which doubled as the laundry. We knew what was for dinner depending on the sounds coming from the sack that passed our doors on the way from market to pot - usually goat or chicken. I got up early and watched the town coming to life each morning from our 2nd floor balcony. One part of the unfolding daily play was the children who went down hill each with an empty 25 lt drum and came back 10-15 minutes later carrying it full of water on their heads. Ten years later, my girls were born and they were forever being told what a cushy billet they had with water coming from a tap in the kitchen. But that luxury wasn't in the house when we bought it in 1996. The Beloved used to go to the spring with her sibs to collect water for the house in the mid 1960s and we thought that was a chore we could spare our own children, so we sunk a bore-hole and installed a bathroom, kitchen sink and a flush toilet.

I'm reminded of that because of a post from Russianside about his grandmother's dealings with water which were almost religious in the respect and value that was put on every cupful.  It's more than the fact that clean water was hard to come by, although that was part of it, certainly for the women and children whose task it was to fetch water. If you have to carry 10 lt of water for a few hundred meters uphill, you're not going to use it to flush the toilet. As the Duke of Edinburgh harrumphed it "Biggest waste of water in the world: pee half a pint and flush two gallons".

We're in Massachusetts for a couple of weeks and they've just paid the quarterly water bill.  The units are HCF, hundred cubic feet = 750 US gallons = 2840 lt or just under 3 tons of water. The citizens of this town pay more if they go mad on their water consumption, so there are three bands:
Band Water Sewer Cost
0-20 HCF $5.84 $8.60 $14.44
21-70 HCF $7.00 $10.33 $17.33
>70 HCF $8.41 $12.40 $20.81
The implication is that up to 20 HCF [57 tons!] of water per quarter is 'normal'; and only when household consumption exceeds this do premium rates apply.  That's 600 lt a day.  You'd need a large family of Cabo Verdean children to supply that: one child would take so long s/he'd miss the whole school day.

My friend Chris del Bosque and his family have taken a compromise position. They have running water in the kitchen and a bath and a shower but they have refused to have a flush-toilet. Everyone shits in a bucket and someone, the man of the house usually as it happens, periodically empties the pail and its contaminated sawdust on the compost heap.  They're away on holiday and he was instructing the house-sitter about how everything worked and she asked why they don't have a flush toilet - wouldn't it be easier? The answer was "I don't feel really happy defecating in drinking water".  "But" she replied "it's not drinking water - that comes out of the tap: it's toilet water."  It takes folks a little time to fully appreciate how everyday taken-for-granted things work.

Actually millions of people in The West have decided that the drinking water that comes out of the tap is not really drinkable, so they buy bottled water for drinking and use the 'drinking water' for flushing the toilet, washing the car, washing the vegetables and boiling spuds. It's a market worth $100 billion a year and has the unintended consequence of filling landfills and the ocean with billions of single-use plastic bottles. After a long dry July, we've had a couple of storms which have nicely brought on the grass in the fields for the lambs.  I've also managed to harvest 2 tons of water from the outside of the poly-tunnel, so that we can water the tomatoes, green beans, courgettes and lettuce inside. I don't feel really happy about using the tap water to irrigate the vegetables.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Aimé Bonpland

Aimé Goujaud was born in August 1773 in La Rochelle the citadel city on the West coast of France. I'm not going to get all certain about the date because it is reported variously as 22nd, 29th and 28th, perhaps with a crowd-sourcing leaning towards towards 22nd (today).  It is a good example of re-churning in the interweb where people cite someone else's guess without thinking too much about it.  It is clearly difficult for most of us to pop round to the Mairie in the city of his birth and ask to look through the birth register.  Somewhere along the way the young chap dropped Goujaud and rebranded himself as Bonpland and this is the name by which he is known today.  He lived in exciting times, not only the French revolution and the long wars of Napoleon but also exciting scientifically.  Bonpland left La Rochelle when he was 17 and went up to stay with his brother who was a trainee doctor.  They hung out with and was taught by the hot scientists of the day including Lamarck and Humboldt. He may even have met Lavoisier before that great man was executed.

In 1799, he joined the exploratory expedition to Central and South America of Alexander von Humboldt and spent the next 5 year collecting plant specimens.  They had hoped to join the amazing scientific & military expedition to Egypt, which turned up the Rosetta Stone, but missed the boat and drifted West to Madrid.  Another expedition was there afoot and in June, they sailed for Spanish South America. Bonpland seems to have been the botanist, leaving everything that moved to Humboldt.  It was virgin territory for European science, and like Darwin a generation later, their parochial European minds must have been blown by the sheer diversity of life surrounding them as they paddled up the Orinoco. They were able to confirm the existence of the Casiquiare canal, a distributary which joins the enormous (880,000 about the size of Ukraine+Belarus) Orinoco and humungous (7 million about the size of the contiguous 48 US states) Amazon drainage basins.  He found, pressed and described 60,000 species of plant.  This was so much data that it took him 8 years to get it into print as the magisterial Plantes equinoxiales, which he co-authored with Humboldt and others.

After ten years in France, he returned to South America with a bee in his bonnet about maté (Ilex Paraguariensis) a shrub related to holly that is rich in caffeine.  He tried to set up a colony/ranchero to cultivate this plant which is consumed in vast quantities in South America as a change from tea and coffee. In Ireland we drink tea till it seeps out of our ears getting through 3.2kg each every year.  But this is in the halfpenny place compared to maté in Uruguay (10kg!! for every man woman and child) or Argentina (5kg pppa).  10kg is about the level consumption of coffee in wired countries like Norway and Netherlands.  Now coffee is best brewed off-the-boil at 88-93 degrees C.  Whereas tea needs to have hotter (> 95C) water to extract its different cocktail of chemicals.  They say that maté needs an even lower temperature of  about 82C.  If your husband keeps making crap coffee, why not get him a thermometer?

My great-uncle Hardress living "alone" with 17 servants in his mansion in King's County in the middle Ireland used to consume quantities of maté and nobody seemed to know where he acquired the habit.  As with the other caffeinated beverages there is an extraordinary amount of ritual associated with consumption of maté - aficionados put the twigs and leaves into a gourd and suck the warm seethe through a perforated silver straw.  If you believe such things, yerba maté yields twice the level of anti-oxidants as green tea. I understand that it is attracting quite a following among the woo-wah people. The Mayo Clinic has some balanced things to say about the risk associations of drinking this possible carcinogen.  Bonpland has a lot to answer for promoting it.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

underground archaeology

Before we left home I was on a youtube jag watching ancient episodes of a BBC documentary series called Timewatch. It's like CSI for historians. In 45 minutes, they set out a historical problem (where exactly was the Senlac Hill of the 1066 Battle of Hastings?), wave their arms dramatically at the landscape, bring in a back-hoe and an army of volunteers with trowels and paint-brushes, find some arrow-heads in an unexpected place (yessss!) and roll the credits. It's all good fun and you learn a little with each episode. One thing you don't learn from such a neatly packaged TV programme is that archaeology is damned hard work, often working in a limited window of time before the real bulldozers come in to start work on the motorway or city-centre car-park. One thing you do learn is that context is everything.  It drives archaeologists bonkers when Joe Public turns up at the museum with two silver coins and a pot-sherd which they found in Granny's attic - where in heck did she find them, they need to know.

When we moved to the farrrm 18 years ago, we started to clear out one of the sheds that had been used primarily as a fuel store. The fuel was peat, dug off the face of the mountain, air- and sun-dried during the Summer and brought down as a Winter store in creels or later on a tractor-trailer.  What we inherited was 80cm of peat dust, which was only good as humic bulk for the garden, with some nutty fragments that were good to go in the stove.  But there was also an archaeological dig's worth of other material: a bicycle with one wheel (buckled) ; a pair of trousers; some bottles; waxed milk cartons; baler-twine; bones;  fertilisers sacks; another pair of trousers. It took me months of elapsed time and many trips with the wheel-borrow to clear the shed so that we could fill if with our trash. If I'd cared I could have estimated when hessian sacks were replaced with plastic and when tetrapak cartons arrived in rural Ireland

I've been in my gaffer's cellar, on and off, for a week now.  Coming up for air and cups of tea and then plunging down to deal with another dusty box of papers.  It's very much like an archaeological dig down there because the papers are layered: an incoming letter is next to its reply - often helpfully held together with a rusty paper-clip.  This context is important because The Gaffer had several consuming interests that he was inching forward in parallel.  In broad terms his main interests were
  • genealogy: in particular the Taft Family descendants of Robert Taft Sr. who appeared in Mendon Massachusetts in 1675; including the President Taft who thought Brandeis was too liberal for the US Supreme Court.
  • numismatics: notably tavern tokens and market tallies which are coin-like metal objects with enigmatic markings "The Crown - Settle Road - 4d" which need to be tied down to a time and place by diligent research through 19thC street directories.
  • biological evolution: the place I fitted in as we worked our way through New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the Portuguese Atlantic Empire making genetic diagnoses of cats in an effort to reveal the patterns of human migration in the 1600s, 1700s amd 1800s.  It's a long story for another time.
I've been scanning through a stack of correspondence about Spitalfields market checks, when the pile will suddenly switch to some pages of a Catalogue of Gloucester Tavern Tokens and then be disconcertingly replaced by a list of of Taft descendants from Cinncinnatti. It doesn't help that, in an exercise of thrift, the blank side of galley-proofs of one project were used as rough note-paper for another. There are days and days of work in here - his work over the last 25 years; not mine over the last week.  When a rubbing of an minimally inscribed tavern token flutters out of a file marked Staffordshire, I have been careful to put it back there, so that the work of diligent research does not need to be repeated. I was particularly struck by this issue when processing an album of ancient photographs of worthy 19thC Tafts with mutton-chop whiskers and high collars [and that's just women]. The names of these old buffers were written beside the photo but the glue had long since failed; so I had to keep each cluster of photographs next to the cardboard pages on which they lie.  Without that context, they become just another anonymous 19thC photograph. The identifications might have been made by an old lady, long since dead, who knew these chaps and their wives as a child.  If this makes you want to go and chat with your own grandmother before she slips her cable, I suggest you arrange to do it this weekend rather than at some indefinite time in the future.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Food engineering II

I fancy myself as a food engineer, but of the structural rather than chemical sort.  Last Summer I compared a traditional Victoria sponge with less than 10 ingredients with its commercial equivalent which requires more than 40 foods & chemicals.  When Dau.II was visiting last weekend, as well as exploring the attics, she put on a hazmat suit and investigated the deep-freeze.  Actually our deep-freeze is not too bad, there are no biological specimens and we do try to rotate the stock.  But she did discover a relatively recent cache of frozen pizzas and apple-pies from Aldi. Maybe two months ago, I dropped into Aldi on the way home from work to buy some milk and butter and saw apple pies marked down to €0.99 and I dithered about whether it was worth it.  A couple of days later, as the sell-by date approached, the same pies were down to 50c, so I bought three . . . and a couple of Quattro Formaggi frozen pizzas which were in the same bin at the same price.  The pie I assayed the following weekend was fine and the price was right.

Nothing would please my girl last weekend but that we should take out one of the emergency convenience food pizzas and eat it within the hour.  The whole idea of frozen pizza being a convenience food  is sort of bonkers because there is nothing easier to make than home-made pizza, or simpler, or cheaper.  All it needs is a little elapsed time and maybe 8 minutes of labour.  Ingredients: bread dough (flour, water, salt, yeast), tomatoes [passata, or tinned and blended], cheese.  Optional: basil, oregano, pepperoni. To make a pizza into a convenience food you have to process the ingredients and add all kinds of other stuff a) to keep the ingredients apart until cooking commences b) to keep the material in appetizing condition for weeks or months.

Stone baked pizza base topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, red Cheddar cheese, Gorgonzola cheese and goats cheese. (no apostrophe for the goat, tsk!). Ingredients: Pizza base (Wheat flour, water, sunflower oil, Dextrose, salt, yeast); MOZZARELLA CHEESE (20%) (Milk); TOMATO SAUCE (18%) [water, tomato puree, sunflower oil, sugar, salt, dried oregano, fried onion (onion, sunflower oil, rice flour, salt), garlic power, black pepper, cayenne pepper. RED CHEDDAR CHEESE (7%) [Cheddar cheese (Milk), colour: annatto]. GORGONZOLA CHEESE (5%) (Milk), GOATS CHEESE (5%) (Milk).  The most likely food allergens/neuroses are helpfully highlighted in bold.  There is a somewhat disconcerting disclaimer as well: May contain celery, egg, fish, crustaceans, and soya.  I know the USDA allows a certain number of insect wing-cases to appear in food products because they are a) tiny b) unavoidable  . . . but lobsters?!?  There are a lot of extras in the table of contents but this product doesn't appear to need truly weird chemicals like stabilisers, anti-oxidants and emulsifiers.

Verdict: it's like eating cheese on a biscuit. There is so little give in the cooked product you could probably use it as an emergency gusset plate for a bridge.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Venn diagrams

I've used Venn diagrams many times in the Blob, without explaining where they come from.  Their virtue is that, if you keep them simple, they are obvious to all thinking people: they show data in a way that is intuitively understandable.  It turns out that they have been around (since ~1890) for a long time . . . or maybe a short time - some fields of logic and mathematics must ask "how ever did they manage before Venn diagrams?".  They were invented by a philosopher and logician called John Venn whose 180th birthday (04Aug1834) merited a Goodle on the Google home page a while ago.  The beautiful, and appropriately simple, stained glass window [L] was commissioned from Maria McClafferty in 1989 by Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.  The inscription reads "JOHN VENN; FELLOW 1857–1923; PRESIDENT 1903–1923." which is no more than the truth, but a lot less than his contribution to mathematics.  The maths here are interesting, he was elected President when he was shoving 70 years of age and died in harness at the age of 88.  Some people are clearly functional for years after the current official age for retirement.  Venn's big year was 1883, when he turned 49.  In that year he was elected to the Royal Society, obtained a doctorate (D.Sc.) from his University  . . . and returned his dog-collar to the Church of England.  He had taken orders in 1859 and obtained "livings" in Surrey and Hertfordshire which brought him an income, although how he reconciled that with being a fellow of his college in Cambridge requires more research. Where did he live?  Was he really grateful for railways to shuttle him back and forth between Sunday sermon and weekday senior common room?

Note 1. For those who had a less expensive education than me and are not in the Inner Circle from which Britain's spies were all recruited, I'll point out that Gonville and Caius is pronounced "keys" in the same contractive way that Worcester is "wuster", Cholmondley is "chumley" and Featherstonehaugh is "fanshaw".  I hope that little lesson stops you being exposed as a cad and bounder next time you're at Ascot or Covent Garden.

Note 2. It's only the top part of the window that commemorates John Venn, the multi-coloured square below tribs another alumnus of G&C called R.A. Fisher.  I'll get round to writing about him in due course but here I'll mention that Richard "I-hate-my-father-so-of-course-I'm-an-atheist" Dawkins called Fisher the "greatest biologist since Darwin".

Monday, 18 August 2014

Write more letters

I spent a good part of the last few days underground in the place where I used to live a generation ago.  My mentor from graduate school died at the end of March and one of my tasks this week is to sort through boxes of his scientific papers in the same cellar I had inhabited in 1979.

My Scottish granny was thrifty but I didn't live with her and really learned thrift in those months along with multivariate statistics and the fundamentals of ecology.  The thermostat in the house was set at 60oF which is 15.5oC: a huge tank full of air in the cellar was heated by a furnace and forced through pipes into every room in the house.  The roar of fans and furnace was the background symphony of my life asleep and awake. In this regime I learned what my personal thermostat was set to.  Hot air rises and the cellar, despite the furnace, was the coldest place in the system. If the true temperature was 60F, I could do my home-work, albeit wearing a sweater, if it fell to 58F, I couldn't concentrate even if I wore a hat and gloves.  Clearly I'm made of softer stuff than Scott, Челюскин and Amundsen who worked away with icicles on their eyebrows. I'm glad it's Summer!

To a close approximation, none of us write letters, the US Postal Service estimates that, on average, they deliver 6 personal letters a year.  But we all love getting a letter with a stamp in the post. One other thing I learned from my gaffer was to make a carbon copy of each letter that I sent, so I'd know what I'd said when the reply came.  I have a drawer in one of the filing cabinets back home that has these CCs filed by year.  They peter out in the late 80s when I got a word-processing computer and cease entirely by the mid 90s when almost all my comms were by e-mail.  I've been reflecting that my biographer is going to have only patchy material to work with because all those e-mails have long disappeared in a poof of dispersing electrons. When Chris del Bosque spent a year in Spain with his family a few years ago, I resolved to send a regular letter to his casa sin internet in Extremadura.  And just as he returned, Dau.I left home and I wrote every week to her, so that she'd have a direct connexion with home.  So for those two years, the daily doings on the farm and in my head are recorded in minute detail - although I must remember to print them all out and file them away under 2010, 2011.  Of course, The Blob kicks in at the beginning of 2013.

Yesterday in the cellar, I unearthed a box of 1980s letters from me!  Many of them handwritten, so unlikely to have been copied by the writer (me!) - another few pieces in the jigsaw for my biographer.  And not just mine, I was reading an account of how The Boy got lost catching the wrong bus coming home from his first day in secondary school in 1988.  I bet he doesn't remember that.  Either that or he now feels troubled whenever he gets on a bus.

Sunday, 17 August 2014


It is all so long ago. With my two week event horizon, 15 years seems impossibly far away.  But back then, rather than being a humble foot-soldier of science teaching in a modest Institute of Technology in the Irish Midlands, I was an international quangoman, clocking up air-miles and nicking teaspoons from a wide range of different airlines. I achieved this by being in the right place at the right time, becoming the Irish node of a European consortium that provided bioinformatics infrastructure, developed software and offered training courses. It was a classic EU initiative - equilibrating upwards so that the marginal edges of Europe got closer to the military-industrial-capitalist rich countries at the hub. Closer economically but also closer socially, so that Calabrians from Italy could meet Cantabrians from Spain at the Universitas Cantabrigiensis (as us classically educated chaps call Cambridge) in England.  I was famous in three continents back then on the back of As Easy as ABC Aoife's Bioinformatics Course which I had developed with Aoife McLysaght before she was famous herself. This time last year, I was remembering the courses I was asked to teach in South Africa, which enabled us to celebrate Dau.I's 6th birthday sipping ice-cold chardonnay on the top of Table Mountain.

But a few months earlier, I'd been doing the same thing in Turkey. I don't think the Turks are going to be joining the EU any time soon with the Greeks insisting that they don't drink Turkish coffee like the rest of us but rather the indistiguishable ελληνικού καφέ. Nevertheless, the Turks joined our bioinformatics quango and were quickly allocated money to run a training course in their country.  A handful of the top guns in the field, and little-old-me, were asked if they'd like to spend a week in Turkey at someone else's expense. The course was organised in the early part of 1999 to take place at the end of September. At 0300hrs on 17th August 1999, there was a tremendous earthquake, epicentered on Izmit, a biggish city (300,000 pop) 100km East of Istanbul.  It would have been legitimate, even easy, to cancel the course, but the Turks don't wimp out at the first hint of trouble, so we were told to come on anyway.  We yabancılar were to be accommodated in the über-swish brand-new private Sabanci University which was just about to take in its very first students, while the course itself was to take place in the neighbouring Gebze Yüksek Teknoloji Enstitüsü. Both these places are about halfway between Izmit and Istanbul, so we spent a lot of time in a minibus tooling from the üniversite to enstitüsü to seaside taverna for lunch and back again. We also spent many hours tooling around the world of bioinformatics because Gebze IT had an undamaged computer suite. What we didn't do is spend a lot of time tooling around the internet because the earthquake had severed all the phone-lines and it was like being back in 1992 downloading packets at 300 bps. In the last ten minutes each day before being whisked off for dinner somewhere interesting and delicious, I'd try to send an e-mail home. It was painful - the glacial speed of the connexion coupled with the Turkish keyboard rich in diacritics, accents and funny letters made it  v e r y   s l o w.

On the Thursday, we knocked off early and minibussed into Byzantium to see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  It was, for me, a pilgrimage to be walking on the same beat-up paving that Emperor Constantine XI (Κωνσταντῖνος Παλαιολόγος) trod during the final mass before the Ottoman Turks sacked his city on 29th May 1465 and finally ended the "Roman" empire. We went for dinner afterwards at a little restaurant in a narrow street somewhere in the city. Opposite was a small hotel and, before we minibussed back to bed, I had booked two nights there for the following weekend. It was far better, even on my own nickel, than spending two nights virtually alone in the empty campus at Sabanci U.  I spent Saturday wandering around a huge covered market buying star & crescent tee-shirts and diamante Turkish slippers for my girls, and cushion covers for the sofa and a box of Turkish delight for The Beloved.  Irish pounds (this was just before the Euro) were a lot harder than Turkish pounds so everything seemed to be for half nothing.

The last day, when I made my way to the airport, I still had a Turkish lira symbol black.svg100,000 note left. I thought about buying a bottle of plonk but that would have left me with a handful of truly useless change, so I resolved to send it to the impoverished graduate students who had helped out on the course. When I got home I forgot to do this and the banknote went into a drawer with all the kroner, rand, escudos, finnmarks that we all used to accumulate back then (huzzah for the Euro!).  Sometime about 2004, I took all the foreign folding money (mostly replaced by Euros) to the bank to get what I could for it. I think I came out with a about €20. But I still had the Turkish lira symbol black.svg100,000 note because it was now, after 4-5 years of gallopping inflation in Turkey, worth 17c and the bank couldn't be bothered with the exchange.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

On your high donkey

We're stopping out in a suburb West of Boston called Newton.  The local paper, in what must be a very slow news week. has been making a meal of a 'plagiarism' scandal perpetrated by the city's  School Superintendant; a popular and affable chap called David Fleishmann.  Now, we all agree that plagiarism - presenting someone else's words or ideas as your own - is a Bad Thing. At the Institute we have policies in place to teach the students the iniquity of thought-theft. And everyone likes a spot of irony, so the Washington Post picked up the story to shake its head sorrowfully at the idea that the head of the school system should be presenting such a bad example to the youngsters under his care.  Must be serious to make a nationwide splash like the President of the University of Guanajuato or Ireland's Chief Scientific Officer of Ireland turning out not to have a degree. In these cases, the plagiarist secures an advantage by fraud.

What Flieshmann was actually guilty of was lifting an idea and a phrase from an earlier speech by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and recycling it for the Commemcment Address at the High School graduation ceremonies. What he said: "Lastly personal connection, the nuance of empathy and understanding is often more incremental and complex than Twitter" what the Governor said "Real human connection, the nuance of empathy and understanding is often more gradual and elongated than Twitter".  It is a Good Thing to articulate a message that meaningful communication sometimes requires more than a 140 character soundbyte.  Neither man conveyed this idea with notable fluency let alone poetic inspiration but it's surely not worth making a song-and-dance about such 'plagiarism' in a speech. You don't want an already rather clunky address ground to a standstill by a series of citations and footnotes.  If you 'follow the money' to ask cui bono - who benefits?  Surely not David Fleishmann!  Possibly the student body, if they can tear themselves away from their smart-phones long enough to listen to the Superintendant.

A couple of sharp and uncompassionate reporters from the student newspaper quickly occupied the high moral ground by exposing the said plagiarism.  In English we call such moral rectitude Getting on your high horse, but that dignifies the attack rather more than it deserves, hence the title of this post.  What's interesting is that Fleishmann was docked a week's pay for his gross moral turpitiude and felt obliged to utter a grovelling apology for his supposed sins. A week's pay is $5,000!  This chap gets paid more than twice the Police Chief.  In my book, which as you know is not squeaky clean and without sin, nobody has come out of this very well, but Superintendant Fleishmann does not have the blackest hat in the room.  Maybe he should give up making Addresses and pay someone else to be original, creative and inspiring. Plenty of choice: Neil Gaiman, Steve Jobs, Harry Potter's Mum.

Friday, 15 August 2014

A moofae a tae?

Would you like one, then?  If ye come frae Aberdeen you're almost certain to answer in the affirmative, probably by saying "aye".  If you come from elsewhere in the WEA, you'll probably say yes also.  If you're reading this in Київ or Омск and English is not your first language, then you're quite possibly bemused by the phrase even if you could hear it spoken in a Scottish accent. It's asking if you'd like a cup (mouthful) of tea.  I've just finished reading Parisians: an adventure hisory of Paris by Graham Mott.  His occasional use of slang French (always with a English translation) made me realise that my "French" conversation skills are so far adrift from normal usage that I must be close to unintelligible in France. A moofae a tae is "Doric".  That name is now given to the language spoken in the NE of Scotland centred on Aberdeen, where I was discussing the bible a few days or forty years ago. The name comes from a clever analogy to the distinction between Attic (educated Athenian) and Doric (Spartan rustic) Greek in the days of Sophocles - only in Scotland where education is so highly regarded could such a classical reference achieve acceptance outside the Academies. Doric used to apply to all Scots but now, as I say, it's limited to a (substantial) corner of Scotland, Lallans is what is spoken in the Lowlands i.e. South-Central Scotland.  I think such regional variants of the language(s) should be cherished because diversity is good. Scots/English is on the edge of what is a language and what is a dialect of a language.  Discussion of such matters is politically charged and so difficult to assess scientifically.  But whatever your position on the spectrum you can still enjoy Tintin in Scots.

A few days ago Tywkiwdbi posted a link to a series of "how to understand Doric" youtube videos, from which I've clipped the moofae a tae phrase as a come-on.  It's a bit like One-Minute Japanese in it's style: a bit laborious if you just want a flavour.  The sidebar of the Doric videos led me on to channel called BeautyCreep which has some interesting meanders through Scots words and phrases which you may care to test yourself on before getting BC give you the answers.  What do these words mean in regular English?:
piece in a poke

Thursday, 14 August 2014

From The West

We arrived in Boston about 5 hours ago.  It's still yesterday here in Massachusetts.. The cool thing about Ireland having a most favored nation status is that part of the airport has ceded extra-territorial rights to the US Customs and Immigration.  Accordingly flights from Dublin to cities in the US can clear customs before they set off which saves a lot of time when you arrive in the States.  The disadvantage is that it adds another layer of queues.  We spent 4.5 elapsed hours in Dublin Airport this morning, mostly standing in warehouse sized rooms filled with long snaking lines of people - some hot-and-bothered; but most calm and friendly.  1. Check-in line 2. Airline security, remove shoes and hold trousers up with hand line 3) US airline security, remove shoes again line 4) Customs and Border Patrol line.  We had been led to believe that Aer Lingus were no longer serving meals on the flights - their booking website had offered us a sirloin steak for lunch at €17.50.  We declined and packed enough fruit, salad and sandwiches to feed us on board.

As a farming nation, US Customs are rightly concerned about importing agricultural pests. Nobody wants colorado beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) eating fields of potatoes.  As we approached the front of the final line The Beloved noticed a small-type notice itemising all the things specifically unwanted in America: including "fruit".  We asked, a tad ironically, if we would be required to declare two apples and the answer was "Yes" and "throw them in that orange bin" too.  That was surprising and sad because I woiuld have gladly eaten my appie while in line the previous hour.  But when I asked "What about this tomato?". I was told that I might keep that.  Quite properly, the US Customs are following the US Supreme Court on the big debate "Are tomatoes fruit or vegetables?".

In 3 hours on the ground we covered perhaps 100 crow-flight meters between the end of each line and the front.  On the plane that time took us halfway across the Atlantic. Aer Lingus did serve lunch, and tea, and even leaving out the apple, I ate more than was good for me.  That was bad, but watching Little Miss Sunshine again on a postcard-sized screen was good.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Cruel and too usual punishment

Hello readers from far-flung parts of the globe. Do they still tolerate judicial killing where you live?
13 August 1964 marked the end of that era in the Western European Archipelago WEA. Fifty years ago was our last outing for capital punishment. At 0800hrs on the morning of that day, two rather inept murderers Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen were hanged simultaneously one in Liverpool and the other in Manchester. The last execution in the Republic of Ireland had occurred 10 years earlier; the Irish authorities had to borrow a hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, from the UK. Pierrepoint officiated at the end of 450 people over his 20 year career. But after he retired there were so few hangings in either country that there wasn't enough work for a full-time position. Harry Allen (no relation) who terminated Gwynne Evans was a bus driver and then a publican for his day job.  Jock Stewart the other executioner on that day in 1964 was an airline engineer.

In Ireland, The Criminal Justice Act 1964 reduced the circumstances which allowed capital punishment to treason, murder of police or prison guards and some battlefield situations for soldiers. Charles Haughey, later controversial prime minister, was the Minister of Justice at the time. There were no cases where even these limited circumstances were deemed appropriate for judicial killing and the death penalty was abolished by the Criminal Justice Act 1990. The sky hasn't fallen. There are some who claim that the rate of murder convictions has increased significantly since 1990 but I don't think that's to do with the final abolition of the death penalty.  The rate of murder held steady for 10 years after capital punishment was in practical terms abolished by the 1964 act. I think the rise to a new higher plateau  in the last 20 years is more to do with internecine feuds among Dublin and Limerick drug barons than the removal of the ultimate sanction from the statute books:
from There is also evidence that murder increases when more lethal weapons are available (NRA in USA please note!) - data from:
The blue trend line imposed on the graph by the Crime Council is only one way of interpreting the data. My crude green steps suggest that the availability of lethal weapons bleeding down from The Troubles in the 1970s caused a 3-fold increase in lethal violence.  But with fuzzy, stochastic, small-sample data it is easy to put whatever spin you fancy on that sort of information.  Capital punishment is all too common in other countries, we don't need it here.  Do you, there?

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The moral compass of culchies

This time last year I reported on a study which slit the scientific method up the middle and exposed the wobbly bits: it was not a pretty site, but got us nearer to The Truth. Nosek and Motyl carried out the same experiment in political experimental psychology twice and got completely different results. [Golldarn but you could ask these trend-setters to have Smith & Jones names so we can google 'em easier: Nosyl & Motek?  Mojo and Botox?]  A difficult name did for Matthaei's place in history and share in a Nobel. N&M's result was a disappointing bust until they wrote up The Process and went viral. Experimental psychology is just so damned clever. The practitioners think up these nifty ways to expose how we think and gather up a load of data to test their hypotheses.  The results are important in deflating our own delusions of honorable behaviour in the real world. Three years ago Marc Hauser, poster-boy of the field, resigned his tenured position at Harvard because it was becoming clearer that he'd massaged his data to fit his hypothesis.  The über-trendy and self-regarding talk-shop Edge, where Hauser had been gabbing with the best of them for years, promptly purged him from their web-site as effectively Stalin air-brushed Trotsky out of all the party-photographs. There was a while where you could see what all the fuss was about but those repositories of historical truth have also been suppressed, so we can't make our own judgement of just how good this bloke was [at pulling the wool over his pals' eyes]. This happens a lot (twice is far too much) : The über-trendy and self-regarding talk-shop TED went and purged talks by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake from TEDxWhitechapel because they actually pushed the frontiers of science rather than talking about it. If that makes you want to find out more about the purgees, then you're probably on the right track [see Streisand Effect] in the pathless land.  Me, with my squidgy moral compass think that the actions at Edge were more shameful than Hauser's original sin.  As for TED, someone should give it a revolver, a chair and an empty room.

Phew that's the backstory. Now the contrary science. Contrary science is the only part that is worth reading about.  A million scientific papers a year get indexed in Pubmed the database of biomedical research papers. Most of them are tedious bits of sand in the cement: not even a brick in the wall. There is a well documented phenomenon in the history of science where one study finds something new and exciting (yay! progress); a replication is organised (different place, different researchers, different sample [size]) and finds no such effect; third study agrees with the first; seventh study agrees with second; fifth study has another take entirely. It is the zigzag path to truth. My pal El Asturiano reads and kindly filters and fillets it for me, but occasionally I find time to glance there myself.

And today I found this How Can Two Studies Say Cleanliness Makes You More And Less Forgiving? which cites two different studies in the sketchy field of Experimental Ethics where Nosek and Motyl (I'll get it right if I write it often enough) also made their famous contribution. The experimental details  are hidden behind paywalls at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and at Psychological Science neither of which should be confused with the Judean People's Science of Psychology or the wholly reprehensible Journal of Splitters' Psychology. That's okay, I guess. Scientific publishing is expensive and in today's on-line world  the Journal of Scientific Woowah has to get something for their fixed costs if they are going to share their (hmmm?) intellectual property. But which, if either or both, of these reports am I going to cough up $40 for?  The one with the best methodology of course. Trisha Greenhalgh has told us eloquently that if the methods, or in these cases the sample sizes, are suspect then we don't need to read the rest of the paper however exciting the conclusions. Shamefully, but normally, the Abstracts don't include any inkling of the sample size or the statistical tests used to come to these more or less opposite conclusions about the Lady Macbeth Effect. The only available variable is the authors' address, so I must conclude that the worzles (we call them culchies in Ireland) of Devon sampled by the PS report have a different moral compass to the street-wise Londoners published by JESP. Hold the Presses!

The replies on the io9 piece extend the argument in useful and informative ways.