Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Killing Flour

Only Connect!  Just a few days ago I was writing about Temple Grandin making the killing floor in abattoirs more efficient and humane. It takes insight and a team of process engineers. Then news came in from Taiwan over the weekend of a bad case of killing flour. In the immediate aftermath, they were able to say nobody died but one of the 500 horribly injured young students has now succumbed. As I expressed my treatises on road traffic accidents and end of life issues, there may be worse things than dying.  It's probable that among the injured in many hospitals near Taipei are kids with no eyelids or no skin on one side of their bodies who wish they were dead.

Combustion is all about oxidation: lots of chemicals, when they combine with oxygen, do so as an exothermic (energy generating) process. It's happening in your brain right now as you try to get my drift - glucose and oxygen are being converted to carbon dioxide and water yielding about 16kJ of energy per gram. That's enough to keep a 100W light-bulb going for 2.5 minutes. And 100W is about what is being dissipated through the top of your head every waking moment. If oxygen is in short supply, this exothermic reaction needs help to get started.  A candle just sits until a flaring match supplies the energy of activation to get things going.  In pure oxygen, the reaction is easier to start. My investigations of explosives have tried to show that the more oxygen incorporated into the chemical, the more energy can be generated: TNT C7H5N3O6 has about 1/3 the explosive power of nitroglycerine C3H5N3O9.

I make a lot of bread, so a lot of flour goes through our kitchen, but it sits there inert in a 2kg bag until mixed with yeast and water.  The dough sits like a damp blob [safe] and even after heating to 200oC for 40 minutes to create a loaf it has no likelihood of exploding.The energy is released later in my head - a blob is converted miraculously into The Blob. But if you trick about with the proportions, you can create a neat whoomph at the kitchen table. You can scale that up into a devastating dust explosion in which finely powdered flammable material is mixed in the right/wrong proportions with the 20% oxygen in the air.  Coal dust in mines, and flour or grain dust in silos are known to be potentially hazardous. An ignition source is necessary but this can be a lit cigarette or even a static electricity spark from a nylon jump-suit. These are enclosed spaces, so it looks like the dust has to be concentrated w.r.t. the available air.

When I was in school, I had a Summer job working in a flour mill as a general dogsbody. One of my tasks was to make the 19thC mill-buildings air-tight in preparation for the annual fumigation against flour beetle Tribolium castaneum, grain weevil Sitophilus granarius, or just plain mice Mus musculus. It was a soul-destroying task. I was given a large roll of paper tape and some flour and water paste and told to go round all the windows. That was fiddly but the hoist-towers were four or five stories high and made of clapper-board that whistled in the wind.  They'd never had an explosion in 100 years because any dust leaked out through the holes in the building's structure.

In was like that at Imperial Sugar in Port Wentworth, Georgia. Granulated sugar was stored in enormous silos and brought to the packing and processing floors by a system of conveyors, lifts, augurs and hoppers all designed by process engineers. Sugar dust was everywhere: in heaps on the floor, on top of rarely-cleaned light fittings, underneath the conveyor belts, in the hair of all the operatives.  You may be sure that the workers bristled when they were welcomed home by "Hello, sweetie".  Like my flour mill, that worked fine for many years until Health and Safety applied their own agenda to the process and enclosed the main conveyor running beneath the silos: to prevent contamination.  That built up the concentration of dust to hazardous levels and, on 7th February 2008, the sugar-dust and oxygen mix met a red-hot faulty bearing and blew up. The fireball travelled up through the silos and set them off which triggered a chain reaction through the factory floor.  The blast blew more sugar dust into the air in a frighteningly sustainable fashion. 14 dead and 40 injured. Explanatory 4min video.

The lesson from this is that you have to work quite hard to cause an explosion using flour-dust. Last weekend on 27th June 2015, impressarios at Formosa Fun Coast in Taiwan thought it would be kool to host a huge end of term party reflecting the Hindu Spring festival of Holi where everyone celebrates by throwing coloured dust and water on each other.  Accordingly the fun-park ordered 3 tons of coloured corn-starch, called the event Color Play Asia and started to sell tickets. With 1,000 people in the arena each with 3kg to disperse, the dust/air ratio crossed the critical threshold and someone lit a cigarette. Whoomph!  It was all over in 20 seconds. The young people, 180 of whom are in intensive care, will be paying for their tickets for some time to come.

Stars and Bars

Along with maps, islands, women in white coats and explosions, The Blob has more than a passing interest in Vexillology - the study of flags.  Flags can be pretty and are occasionally deeply symbolic and are an essential attribute of national identity.  Every country, and probably every county, has a flag and most governments take their flags really seriously: American children pledge allegiance to 
the Stars and Stripes at the beginning of every school day.  There are elaborate protocols for handling the flag - it must never touch the ground; it must never be used on underwear or paper napkins; if hopelessly ragged it must be disposed reverentially preferably by burning in private.

In the 1860s, America was riven by a bloody civil war about the right of several of the states to secede from the Union because of irreconcilable differences over the right to own slaves. It came to a head over the issue of whether the rights should be allowed to extend into the unincorporated territories and allow slavery in the Wild West.  It took half a decade, and more than half a million deaths, to decide that nobody was going to secede and all slaves were to be emancipated. End of slavery is not end of racial discrimination! Humans are inveterate nostalgists, we look back to the past through rose tinted spectacles and cherry pick the positive aspects of times past and air-brush the infant mortality, the casual violence, as well as the lack of smart-phones, cars and frozen pizza.

The Confederacy undoubtedly took a drubbing and endured two generations of officious Reconstruction to dull the pain of loss: financial, cultural and mortal.  There is nobody alive today who experienced the Civil War directly [Albert Henry Woolson, the last surviving veteran from either side, died in 1956 at the age of 109] so it should be possible to put it all behind us and move on.  It's okay to dress up in field-grey uniforms and slouch-hats and re-enact Gettysburg. It's okay for the Dukes of Hazzard to fly the Confederate flag [seen R] as they drive around the Georgia backwoods delivering moonshine. It's okay to sell mugs and tee-shirts sporting that flag.  It's okay for country and western singers to use the same flag as a banner in front of the stage . . . or is it?  If you put it into the context of "I pledge allegiance to the Flag . . . and to the Republic for which it stands . . ." you are bound to ask just what the Stars and Bars stands for.  And then you might ask if anybody in the room might be offended by that symbolism. Whatever about what consenting adults do in private, to fly the Confederate flag regularly outside the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina surely cannot be okay. It implies that the legislature collectively would like to restore the status quo ante-bellum. It says bring back slavery. That is the position anyway of Bree Newsome and other anti-racism activists. She scaled the 10m high flag-pole [youtube] Saturday morning and removed the offending object but was promptly arrested and charged with defacing a monument.  But, as a commenter on metafilter made clear, the flag is not flying over the Capitol, it is flying over a Confederate war memorial next to the Capitol. It is generally considered appropriate to remember dead soldiers even if they fought on the wrong side; if only because "a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end".

If you want to take the position that flags are just fripperies and a bit of fun, then I'm with you. I had a bit of a poke at the BLT folks and their flags as an envoi to the equality [good] news from SCOTUS; suggesting that perhaps the best qualified people <?who they?> had probably not had much hand in the vexillological design. Why didn't they listen to Roman Mars?  But if you take flags seriously then there are serious issues at stake in South Carolina and elsewhere in the Southern States. 

Monday, 29 June 2015

Gay Community News

John Arthur is dead. He suffered as Lou Gehrig suffered through  amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ALS.  It is also known as Charcot's disease after the great 19thC neurologist.  If you're British you'll recognise it as Motor Neurone Disease MND and associate it with the physicist Stephen Hawking.  You may also think of it as "life's a bitch and then you die" because one of the muscle-systems that is ablated by the disease is the swallowing reflex which we all take for granted until we can't eat.  There must be worse ways to go, but I can't think of any this morning.  Stephen Hawking is famous because he is a physicist, who wrote a book that many have bought but few have read, and because his decline is as tragic as anything written by Shagsper.  John Arthur has played a walk-off part in a great legal upheaval across The Pond.

John Arthur was the married partner of James Obergefell. What in tarnation are we going to call the equal partners in a same-sex marriage? That's not going to be decided by the rule of law.

But recognition of the legality of same-sex marriage took a big step forward in the 5-4 decision by SCOTUS on June 26 2015 ruling that the marriage contracted out-of-state by Arthur and Obergefell must be recognised by the State of Ohio and Obergefell is entitled to be named as next of kin on the death certificate.  I'm sure that will have financial as well as practical and social implications.  In Ireland you can leave your entire estate tax-free to your surviving spouse but effectively nothing-at-all to your partner of 40 years. The tax burden is less on gifts to your sister than on inheritance by the woman who has shared your life for decades.  The Supreme Court ruling is now and forever known as Obergefell vs Hodges but the Justices consolidated the case with similar challenges to state law from Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky.  It's also interesting that James Obergefell has been straight [sic!?] and consistent through his trials but the defendants have been but straw men of reaction.  The case started as Obergefell vs Kasich [John Kasich, Governor of Ohio] when John Arthur was still alive.  The case has shape-shifted through Obergefell vs Wymyslo; Obergefell vs Himes before coming to the highest court in the land as Obergefell vs Hodges.

The Supreme Court's decision, which of course applies to ALL 50 states, is as close as it can be and so you may anticipate that this decision is not final except for the compelling tide of history argument. As the old men of the Supreme Court die off they will be replaced by younger people who have more gay friends and more empathy.  It is quite worrying that so many of the positions taken by individual judges can be predicted with sufficient accuracy that you can win money by betting on their opinions.  It shouts that judicial findings are interpretations of the law through a haze of prejudice and certainty about how things should be rather than a scientific or objective assessment of how things are.  I think we can feel smug in Ireland that the issue of same-sex marriage has been determined in the positive by plebiscite rather than by statute. It's probably true that, whatever the legal status of gays in the several states, the majority of voters would rather they were back in the closet and marriages still had a car, a dishwasher, a father, a mother and 2.3 children.

You may feel the need to get with the program spectrum and recognise the flutter of flags that somebody has decided represent their gender identity. Here's the sporcle quiz.  I got 1/10: hopeless, but I can definitely live with this ignorance.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Think like a cow

It is the experience of many who work in science that a disconcerting number of The Effectives appear to be "on the [autistic] spectrum".  I don't propose here to critique the diagnosis of this condition except to note that psychiatrists recognise "pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified" PDD-NOS which shouts my-bailiwick-is-getting-bigger-must-go-viral. In my piece about John Nash, I cited a case of an autistic professor of who used to address her lectures to the blackboard until told that the students preferred to see their teacher's face. Apocryphal but it has the ring of truth. It's weird because although autism is characterised by impaired social interaction and blunted affect, I got a surprising amount of empathic support from my then boss when I returned from my father's funeral.  I think it is really helpful to rescue PDD-NOS people from the clutches of well-meaning but officious folk who long to step in to help. As a community we really need to set the parameters of "the normal range" as wide as possible, so that the different, the eccentric and the out-there are tolerated and let alone.  Actually, with the pervasive planetary worries we face, we should do rather more active listening than mere passive toleration of alternative ways of being.  All this is especially true if drugs follows diagnosis as night follows day.

Temple Grandin was born in Boston in 1949 and with hindsight it was a knife-edge as to whether she would now be rocking-rocking in the corner of an institution.  She was diagnosed brain-damaged at the age of two and didn't talk until she was four. The full time attention of a nurse and speech-therapist and the support of her mother got her into the school system. That nurse needs the same sort of tribute as we give to Anne "Helen Keller"Sullivan.  In school young Temple was lucky to have supportive teachers and administrators because she was unmercifully teased by her peers for being demonstrably different. She finished up in a boarding school for gifted children and went on to get an armful of degrees in various colleges in the USA, culminating in a PhD in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She is now Professor of Animal Science at U Colorado.

The engagement with animal science is not somewhere she happened to finish up but rather a key strand in her life because she claims to think like a cow. Human social norms require a lot of face time. We yak on with/to/at each other, finishing and repeating each other's sentences not so much to convey information as to establish a pecking order and demonstrate empathy.  One of of Grandin's 'symptoms' is an extreme sensitivity to noise and the relentless chitter-chatter, not to say roaring and barracking, of school must have been plain hell. Out on a horse was a far better place to be and that's what she spent a lot of time doing.

I'll use that as a segue to mention a very disturbing (because weird and inexplicable) form of sexual harassment reported by Dau.I the Poet. Since she taught herself to read in the month after her sixth birthday, she has been a 'read early and read often' person. She reads on her lunch-break, she reads on the bus, she reads over breakfast and would rather read than watch the telly.  She does not read while cycling to work (!) but she does read while walking.  More than once, some young lout has invaded her personal space to interrupt her ambulatory reveries by shouting into her face. Nothing clever or articulate: just an inchoate roar.  It seems to be saying: look at me, I am ignorant and egotistical and I will be heard.  A future in politics beckons.

You might think that someone like Grandin with such empathy for animals would have turned vegetarian about the same time as she turned adult but it didn't turn out like that. Recognising that meat, particularly beef, forms a central part of the culture in which she has lived all her life, she has made money if not a living designing abattoirs! That should make you think about where to fight your battles. The insatiable demand for beef means that cows are killed 24x7x52 [closed Christmas Day] and anything that holds up the flow costs money.  Somehow Grandin got a contract to consult for the meat-packing industry and walked through the chute from feed-lot to the killing floor at all time of the day and night. That gave her a cow's eye view of the process and she was able to understand why the bottle-necks occurred when and where they did. If one cow startles and backs-up then a time-consuming, frequently brutal and potentially dangerous intervention was required from the cattlemen with boots and cattle-prods. The example she often cites is when cattle turned a particular corner, one of the flood-lights reflected in a puddle of water and frightened the leading animal. Solution? Dry up the puddle.

Another of Grandin's talents is an amazing visual memory and she was able to take her experiences in the killing fields back to the drawing board and redesign the process so that it was more efficient and far less stressful for the product. No more puddles or shit-slick flooring: non-slip mats throughout. No more abrupt turns: these are replaced by ergonomic curves. No more open sides to the chute: these are poorly controlled and distracting. A light at the end of the tunnel. No more roaring and clanking at the last minute. With these and similar whole-process changes, each animal follows the tail in front, docile and unknowing that only seconds of life remain. The meat hangs better if it is not awash with adrenalin. The throughput goes up and the cost per unit comes down and we get cheaper food.  Fewer people are required to work in this shameful industry. More than 50% of slaughtered animals in the USA have ended their days in a plant designed under Grandin's principles. If you eat meat you should see her 10 minute propaganda video for the American Meat Institute. You might also watch it for evidence of what Reggie Edgerton believes about the intra-spinal circuit control of pacing in animals.  I'll leave you to find longer video footage of her talks for TED, Google and the BBC.

Just as I forbade you to get judgmental about Alayna Westcom being Miss Vermont, it is as pointless to criticise Temple Grandin for her vocation as it is to criticise her taste in cowboy shirts - she's come a long way West from Boston. She has done far more than me for the net welfare of mammals.  But for pity's sake, what are we doing eating meat at all at all?

Since there were ever prisoners of war, there have been slaves; in almost all human societies it has been legitimate to oppress women . . . and homosexuals have often had a rough time too.  In my life-time we have, through marches and riots, dialogue and legislation, come close[r] to a true emancipation of these untermensch.  When there are 14 billion people our grand-children will look back at our times to ask with repulsion "They ate meat? Every day?".  Worthy, counter-intuitive and interesting as Temple Grandin's work has been, it is rather like lining up the deckchairs.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Little Miss STEMshine

At The Institute we offer a degree called something like Biowonders with Bioforensics.  Every year some students sign up to this because they have grown up with CSI on the TV and think they can handle the blood-splatter and skeletons found in the woods. They wait a helluva long time for any of this on the curriculum and eventually pass out with a degree that is more or less useless for getting a job in forensics in Ireland: of which there are about three openings every decade. We are spending next academic year having a strategic review of our courses and one thing we are all determined to do is scotch the 'forensic' lie and call the course Biotechnology for Superheroes for the generation raised on Spiderman movies. Elsewhere you can complete a BSc in Forensic Science and get a job as an autopsy technician [they call it medical examiner and medical technologist]. Presumably the Faculty at U. Vermont devoted some time and effort to developing their course in Forensics - Blood-splatter 101; Advanced Entomology; Handgun Caliber Analysis - rather than merely stapling the word 'forensics' into the Prospectus as a dishonest after-thought.

I know all this because Alayna Westcom, a rather symmetrical female autopsy technician, secured the title Miss Vermont 2015 this Spring. You can't see much of her symmetrical face because she has been raised on the Little Miss Sunshine school of how to respond when you win a beauty pageant. You put both hands up to the mouth, give a little at the knees and shriek "OMG, OMG", while last year's winner drapes your sash and pins a plastic tiara to your hair. Now you could getting snitty about the elements of popular culture than Ms Westcom has chosen to embrace: how parading fit young women in near-nakedness is demeaning gives a rather one-dimensional view of their talents. She contributed to the distractinglysexy twitterfeed, so she has a sense of humor. Although Only confirmed followers have access to @AlaynaWestcom's Tweets and complete profile, which suggests that Miss Dingbat competitors attract a lot of unwanted attention from lurkers, stalkers and oglers. But you could turn it around and say: here is a successful young scientist who has a peculiar hobby.  No more peculiar than going to Samba school or doing a little light book-binding in the evening after a heavy day pushing the frontiers.

It may seem that some of the contestants in these competitions are as thick as pig-dribble but then so are a proportion of any profession including college professors. With hindsight, the responses to the question "Should evolution be taught in schools?" by Miss USA contestants are a) varied and b) not unreasonable; although we all snickered contemptuously at the time (2011). Is it just me but do a disconcerting number of these women have sort of up-slanty eyes? What's that all about? Most of these women are white, or 'round-eyes' as the Chinese used to refer to Westerners, but the ideal physiognomy now seems to be going East - is it all the Kung-Fu movies on the TV?

Mais revenons a nos agnelles Ms Westcom has been changing her strategy over her years of competing for the titles of Miss Bellows Falls . . . Miss Vermont . . . Miss America. Over the years, the contestants have been asked to demonstrate that they are not one-dimensional ciphers to be ogled at; but are young women who are worth something in their community. She is still raising wodges of folding money for a worthy charity, and she visits old folks homes. Ms Westcom used to offer a [same-old, same-old] dance routine as her way of showing that Vermont Has Talent.  This year however, she has ditched that and her 'extra' is Platform:  Success through STEM.  That's great, like Harry Potter and Nobel Prizewinners, people listen disproportionately to celebrities.  Can't be bad if girls see Alayna Westcom's demo of 'science' and say "that's cool, I'll have some of that" and put an extra effort into their maths homework. The fact that her science demo [L and micro-youtube] is reduced to a 40sec sound-byte is not her fault but integral to the whole superficial nature of these events.

Friday, 26 June 2015


It's five years since Mark Pollock broke his back in a falling-from-a-height accident.  A more recent multiple ffh accident in Berkeley CA has been consuming the airwaves in Ireland as the remains are brought home for burial. Last October, the film Unbreakable was released to critical acclaim and damp handkerchiefs and a few days later I tribbed the female lead in this story.  While Mark struggled back to life, Simone started a new career in scientific research to find solutions to the manifold problems with which her bloke was beset.  One of the people she encountered was UCLA Professor of Integrative Biology & Physiology Reggie Edgerton who has spent 40 years teasing apart the complex relationships between nerves and skeletal muscle. I emphasise complex because, in my Human Physiology course at The Institute, I give a cartoonish overview [R above] of the neuro-muscular synapse and its neurotransmitter acetylcholine and move quickly on to bone marrow.  I know there's more to it than that.

This last week, Prof Edgerton has been in the Trinity College Institute for Neuroscience TCIN talking and setting up collaborative research projects.  Yesterday he gave a public lecture in the Science Gallery which should get people to think around the box of what everyone knows to be impossible.  All too often in science and elsewhere what everyone knows to be true turns out to be wholly unexamined and based on dogmatic assertions rather than any substantive evidence. Our own experience should give us pause to examine the assertion that spinal cord injury is irremediably final and that everything below the lesion is doomed to waste away through disuse. Edgerton maintains that the spine has a large degree of autonomy and can establish patterns of muscular flexion and extension without any external stimulus - they are called Central Pattern Generators CPGs. We know this could be true because we can walk without having to think about it. In UCLA they have induced rhythmic hind-leg pacing in cats and rats which have severed spinal cords.  It's a bit of a trick; you have to prime the system with electrical stimulation and/or judicious drugging of the other neurotransmitters - glycine and serotonin were mentioned - that I don't cover in teaching neuromuscular 101. The results are miraculous to behold. Another example is that the process of standing up - really important for self-esteem in the crippled so they aren't always talked down to - is largely reflexive: pressure on the heel starts the whole lurch forward and up that fit people do without thinking.  And which is an increasing ask for the elderly, the infirm and the spinally challenged.

One thing that Edgerton mentioned more than once is that a lot of the current cures for neuromuscular problems are worse that useless because the are directed at quelling the disturbing symptoms rather than channelling those symptoms into productive patterns. Spasticity, for example, has much more potential for amelioration than paralysis because you have some movement to work with.  As a metaphor, Mormons are required to spend a year of young adulthood spreading the word and they find it much easier to win converts in countries which already have a established belief systems, like catholic Ireland, than in more secular places like France and Britain. The gamma-aminobutyric acid GABA receptor agonist Baclofen is routinely used but maybe should be used less and more training implemented. Drugs are easier to administer than physiotherapy in the same way that they are easier to apply than psychotherapy. Megapharma is the only certain winner.

I'm well out of my depth here but in the questions at the end of Edgerton's talk the idea was floated that conscious thought might be counter-productive in the cocktail of drugs, electrical and physical stimulation that seems to have the potential to make people take up their beds and walk: "no longer conforming to the shape of the chair" as Simone put it.  In my years of drumming my head habitually got in the way - and I don't mean that I would accidentally drub my ears with the sticks. No it was that, if I let my hands do the work, I could perform presentably; but if I looked at the wangering hands they would say "whoa, brain taking over and kerFLUB".  Again, in my years as a not-very-good sambista we were required on parade to a) percuss [it was a chocalho and later a repinique for me], b) sway from side to side together and c) walk forward.  I could do any two of these: if things were going great and I decided to start the swaying then my feet would stop and I'd get rear-ended and heel-stepped by the woman behind me.

I have great hopes that someday Mark Pollock will walk into a room when I'm back drumming and we'll take up where we first met a dozen years ago in Sinead O'Brien's djembe class.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

How to milk a cow.

Several years ago, just before the Celtic Tiger rolled over and died, we had a Polak to stay for six weeks in the middle of Winter.  He came from the far North East up near the Lithuanian border. Tadek was even older than me and his farmlet was smaller than ours but he was a good deal more productive . . . except in the Winter when the permafrost precluded pretty much all out-door work. Coming to work with/for us in milder Ireland was better than sitting inside at home eating pork-fat and slugging down the wódka. We paid him a trifle over the minimum wage and he took home more actual folding money than he'd earn in the rest of the year from his hectare of strawberries. The following Summer I went, at his earnest request, to visit with his family.  It was interesting.  They were cash-poor but close to self-sufficient for food.  Every day, twice a day, Pani Tadek would go out into the field with two buckets: one to sit on and one to milk the cow into. It was a protocol familiar to many rural families in Ireland up until they joined the EEC in 1973. There were no economies of scale but the milk was good and you knew where it had been. You also knew your cow(s) intimately. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a dairying neighbour, and he said I could have a a few litres of milk at the price he got from Megacorp = 28c/lt just about 1/3 of what we pay in the shops.  Eating your own produce has leverage.

Yesterday I went to deepest South Kilkenny to see the future.  The owner, in Owning, of a Lely Astronaut A4 robotic milking machine was having an open day demonstration. You don't need to get your cheek up against the flank of your cows any more.  You don't need to get up at 0500hrs either.  You train your cows - takes from two days to two weeks - to form an orderly queue and amble into the machine's crush.  The front part has a trough with a taste of feed.  The other end has all the mad-robot machinery that you'd expect: little rotary brushes like in a car-wash to clean the udder, which is fairly likely to have been lying in a cow pat at some stage during the previous 12 hours and steam cleaners for the milking machinery.  You can watch the udder being played over by a criss-cross of lasers such as you might get in a shop's bar code-reader in order to get a 3-D image of the teat locations.  Then one by one the teat-cups orientate correctly >!whirr crrrk!< and engage each teat in turn >!ferloop!< and the machine starts to suck.  When the milk is stripped from the udder, the pump switches off, the teat-cups release and get steam cleaned, the front gates of the crush slap open and Daisy walks out and back to the field for more grass. The robot knows it's Daisy (or more likely A0245-01723) because she has a transponder on her collar.  She can't leave the shed through the electronic doors for fresh grass unless she has been recently milked.

There is a dairy-man, but he doesn't get chapped hands or cowpox.  His tool kit is more for cleaning the lines if they get blocked and cleaning the optical sensors so they read correctly and phoning the company when the machine goes wrong. This scales up. Once the computer knows which cow is in the A4, it can respond to the individual cow and to each quarter of her udder.  It's normal for the rear quarters to milk slower and less than the front quarters, and if the rear-left has been giving little over the previous seven milkings, that tells the machine to go easy there. Each of the four lines stops at what it senses is the right time. In the past you had to attach the milking device by hand but it would drop off at the end of the process . . . but drop off all together even though one teat might still be giving and another might be raw from dry-sucking.

If the cows are allowed to choose when to get milked they don't go twice a day anymore, they go, on average 2.5x - 3x a day.  This means that the milk is left at blood temperature for a shorter period and so potential mastitis pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus get flushed out before they can get a grip and so the somatic cell count SCC is lower. If the SCC (mainly white blood cells for fighting infection) is above a certain threshold, the milk will get rejected by the creamery as not fit for purpose. But there are indications that SCC is in fact higher in automatic milking systems perhaps because continual use doesn't allow the milking lines to be really thoroughly cleaned as they used to be after the morning and evening milking sessions. A lot of other milk qualities are measured in-flow & on-site: temperature, conductivity and colour for starters; and these, theoretically at least, allow some milk [colostrum, high SCC etc.] to be diverted from the bulk cold storage vessel.  They also allow, theoretically at least, some diagnostics to be done on the herd - who is getting mastitis, who is yielding the most.

There are questions
Q1. Why do cows have four teats when they generally give birth to a single calf? 
Q2. If let alone, will a cow settle into a routine to be milked at the same time each day?
Q3. Will those preferred milking times be scattered through 24 hours or are there peaks driven by, say, the hormone melatonin which has a daily cycle in concentration.

And the economics: statistics for Ireland 2014:
Cows: 1.14million
Dairy farmers: 17,000
Average herd size: 60 cows
Milk yield per cow 5,000 litres
Payment: 28c/lt
Gross payment: 60 x 5000 x 0.28 = €84,000
From the promotional material that was available yesterday it seems that a Lely A4 can had for €45/day or €16,000+ /year.  That's a chunk off the bottom line before even the electricity is switched on. Clearly it looks more profitable if your herd is bigger: the A4 and the shed to hold it is a fixed cost.  But you can't have an infinitely big herd because it takes 5 minutes for a cow to release all its milk.  If this is happening 3 times each cow is occupying the milking machine for 15min each day which says that the capacity for the machine is a little under 100 cows if they spread their occupancy evenly though the day.

Final question. If we are driving the dairy industry forward talking about efficiency, what are we keeping cows for at all at all?  Wouldn't it be better for the planet if we grew wheat and maize and lentils and ate them direct instead of feeding all those good things to cows for milk which the Chinese government doesn't want any more.  The PRC has just introduced a breast-feeding directive to all their mothers which threatens to collapse the global market in powdered milk.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

How we Die

Lexicographers have knock-down drag-out fights between descriptivists, who report how the language is actually used and proscriptivists, who try to assert what is correct usage. We're seeing similar confrontations regarding end of life issues.  A good few weeks ago, I finally ordered a copy of How We Die by Sherwin Nuland, whom we've met before a) deriving benefit from electro-convulsive therapy b) causing me to faint dead away on the bus.  I've been looking forward to this book for a long time because it is billed as telling-it-like-it-is that, to the nearest whole number per 100, there are no dignified exits from this world.  In contrast to the Hobbesian characterisation of the life of man as "nasty, brutish and short", the death of man appears normally to be nasty, brutish and long drawn out.

If you're hoping for the facts from a surgeon who has spent a life-time trying to keep people alive through his ministrations and ultimately failed in every case, then this is a good place to start your investigations.  If you're looking for objective data about an exit strategy, you can find it here also but under a stern and emotive look of disapproval because Dr Nuland doesn't approve of euthanasia.  He gets far crosser about one case of a young doctor helping a woman, at her request, over the threshold than he does about his own interventionist ministrations that prolonged the suffering of his own cancer-riddled brother. Although, in fairness, he bitterly regrets not staying his hand in his brother's case.

He notes that 85% of the aging population of the US will succumb to Seven Sisters of the Shadows : atherosclerosis, hypertension, adult-onset diabetes, obesity, dementia, cancer, and decreased resistance to infection . . . not infrequently all seven in the one wracked body.  There is a lesson in this for consultants. When the aged person presents with their first acute episode, it would be very useful for everyone if a health audit was carried out at that stage rather than barrelling in to deal with the symptoms and effects of the critical disease state. You can ream out the aorta, insert a stent to keep this key artery open, sew up and de-glove.  But what is the point if the patient is riddled with metastatic liver-cancer or has gangrenous extremities from diabetic septicemia or lost her marbles a long number of years ago. By fire-fighting in one part of the body, you're winning only a little time for the next consuming flare up elsewhere.

But here's the thing: we each of us die but once, so don't gather much data on Ars Moriendi the art of dying.  Doctors OTOH have overseen many deaths and read the literature on countless more and so are in a better position to advise the dying and their relatives as to what are the options. Although it may seem that the punter should have the final say, there are some data to suggest that they shouldn't have the only say. Elderly white men are 5x more likely to carry out a successful suicide than the general population but for many this is misinformed because, on foot of multiple changes in the psycho-neuro-immunological milieu as we age, elderly white men are much more likely to suffer from a clinical depression. If you medicate this, the old buffers become better company, make more friends and can live happy and fulfilled for years after they don't top themselves.

But Nuland also acknowledges a tendency to Doc Knows Best in a paternalistic, patronising and controlling way.  He is scathing about Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society, and his cook-book for finishing the race under your own terms.  Nuland worries that the group which has the highest prevalence of suicidal ideation, as well as attempted and successful suicide [young men] are likely to come across this 1991 best seller and actually off themselves rather than just thinking about it. If old men and young men are both above average in their suicidal behaviour I guess the hard working middle-aged just can't find the time for such luxuries.  The poor buggers are too busy earning enough money to a) give their student offspring a booze-allowance and b) employ a home-help for their aged parents. I won't tell you what the easy way out is but will advise that swallowing paraquat or paracetemol/tylenol is not it.  Aw, heck, just read How Not to Commit Suicide:the iconic and richly informative essay by Art Kleiner originally published in Co-evolution Quarterly. The advice there is more or less summarised by Dorothy Parker
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Nuland reflects on the fact that people who finish up as medical consultants are not a random selection from the population any more than are scout-masters or policemen.  Pedophiles don't just happen to like khaki uniforms and woggles and cops don't just happen to like guns.  Successful senior medics are ambitious and driven - they wouldn't have aced their Leaving Certificate at school and passed every exam in medical school otherwise. But their sense of self can get tied up in externals - the Mercedes, the stethoscope, gratitude from their successful cases, envy of their less successful peers.  They behave less well when their interventions are failing and too often aren't there at the very end - it's as if they lose interest when the battle is lost or that their self-esteem cannot take the assault of failure. It is really difficult for doctors to adopt a less-is-more approach to the care of the dying because all their training, and peer-pressure both formal and informal is about doing something. They may lose their jobs if they fail to act even when they know that action has so little chance of a successful outcome as to be messy, painful and . . . futile.

Shep Nuland died in March 2014 of prostate cancer at the age of 83. He died at home. I hope his carers listened to him.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015


It's Alan Turing's birthday - 103 today 23 June. My Granny lived to 108, so it is unlikely but conceivable that Turing could still be contributing to the scientific literature even now.  As we know from The Blob, he ate a green apple, laced with Prussic acid, and died on 7th June 1954 just before I was ready to make my appearance on the world.  Most of us associate him with his work on the application of mathematical abstraction to the problems of cryptography and computing.  His theoretical Universal Turing Machine is a key concept in the development of computers, his Turing Test is the gold standard for artificial intelligence and, of course, his work in Bletchley Park won WWII for the Allies.  Note to self: must get to see Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game.

But get this, Charles Darwin not only gave us the Origin of Species, he also explained how coral reefs are formed, noted that blue eyed cats are more likely to be deaf, calculated the recycling rate of earthworms, discovered plant hormones and knew more about barnacles than anyone except James Joyce [hilarious intellectual arts/science joke: Nora Barnacle . . . Bloomsday . . . geddit]. Turing also made a ground-breaking contributions in another field but it were so far ahead of its time and the mathematical ability of the scientists who stood to benefit, that Turing was long dead before his 1952 paper The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis was widely appreciated. Not being a polymath or a genius, I didn't even know about Turing's paper until I read an essay by Philip Ball on the reception and ramifications of Turing's paper in the festschrift celebrating 350 years of Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. Philip Ball is something else again, he seems to be able to write a book a month about anything at all so long as it's science.  The essay is for scientists, this video is for Joe Public.

Turing's paper gave a mechanistic explanation for a conundrum that had delighted and baffled naturalists since Aristotle and Pliny: how did the leopard get its spots? [whoopwhoop Kipling alert] Having made the observation, scientists, story-tellers and spoofers [not always easy to tell apart] have been quick to come up with an explanation for Why? Such as:
"Is a zebra a black horse with white stripes or a white horse with blacks stripes?"
"Neither, it is an invisible horse colored black and white so people don't bump into it by accident"

. . . but everyone had been woeful when it came to addressing How? Ball points out that Turing's paper only cites six sources; and concludes that this was because nobody before Turing had really thought about the issue.  One of those citations was D'arcy Wentworth Thompson's classic On Growth and Form, which took 1000 pages to investigate how simple topological shifts could create quite different physical forms in the natural world [L showing that our skull is essentially the same as a baboon's]. This implied that a simple mechanism might underlie the development of complex shapes from a simple spherical fertilised egg.

Turing treated this as a case of symmetry breaking and wondered what sequence of biochemical events could " . . . result in an organism such as a horse, which is not spherically symmetrical".  You don't have to be English to appreciate the waggish understatement but it helps.  Like Watson and Crick's famous "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." from the following year.  Turing didn't give us a clue about what those biochemicals might be but he did outline the mathematics for how waves could be generated - waves here representing concentrations of morphogens: chemicals which can change the attributes of colour, shape or form locally. Waves like the ripples in the sand at low tide or in the Sahara Desert are caused by simple physical systems. Turing was convinced, and wrote the math to prove, that a similar simple physico-chemical explanation was possible to explain a zebra's stripes.
you don't have to be able to read the maths to realise that Turing made a major contribution to explaining diversity in the natural world.  Philip Ball lists at least 40 subsequent authors - in fields as diverse as predator-prey relationships, criminology, developmental genetics, ecology, evolution and molecular biology - who have stood on the shoulders of this giant.
Hats off and have a slice of birthday cake.

Open mouth, insert foot

More on the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality. Sir Tim Hunt, BA, PhD (Cantab.), FRS, was born in 1943 and won 1/3 of the 2001 Nobel Prize for his discovery of cyclins.  These are proteins that regulate the cell cycle, determining whether cells will divide or not. Uncontrolled cell division is an adequate definition of cancer which is a lurking worry for straight white males SWM of sufficient age like me and Sir Tim.  His research had implications for the cure of some cancers and so I daresay he deserved his Nobel.  The trouble winning with the Nobel is that people ever after will listen to what you say; even if you don't have any special qualification to speak on the matter. For example, Sir John Sulston FRS, Nobel 2002 for his work on genome sequencing and development in nematode worms, is now invited to bang on about human population growth and planetary burden because that's what he cares about. I have a position on that too, but nobody is flying me to New Zealand to hear about it.

Earlier this month, Dr Hunt was invited to speak at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul.  In the course of his speech he said "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry."  Noting the sixth ("my") word in that statement it could be taken as a wry comment about a life-time's bemusement about the opposite sex OR it could be taken as a gross example of casual and institutional sexism by a straight white male who had used his position of implicit power to bully young women. Guess which tack the media took?  Now it is true that bullying happens in scientific laboratories and I know one SWM lab-head who doesn't feel that a one-to-one meeting with his female students has been productive unless somebody cries. But because this is not done in a public forum in front of a roomful of journalists, his behaviour is condoned by all his colleagues. The nearest Hunt came to having his remarks condoned was a patronising "poor old buffer, he grew up when men didn't know any better".

Far too many organisations fell over themselves in calling for Hunt's head.  He had to resign from positions at University College London UCL and  the European Research Council ERC, Nature bravely wrote an anonymous editorial calling Hunt's comments "jaw-dropping and belittling sentiments about women in the laboratory". OTOH, another press release from the ERC seems to imply that they are behind him and praise his work on gender balance. The Royal Society didn't (yet) revoke his fellowship and there is no mechanism for clawing back a Nobel Prize. The Times Higher Education Supplement THE employed some withering irony to expose the hypocrisy of UCL's support of women in science by comparing Hunt's case to that of fellow Professor and Serial-Sperm-Donor Gennadij Raivich who appears to be still on the UCL books after conviction for sexual assault. Satire is, in my book, a more elegant and ultimately more painful weapon than being compelled to fall on one's sword.

By coincidence, I was on youtube a few days ago and came across a remarkable explanation of inertia by Walter Lewin, a Dutch born holocaust survivor, who lectured at MIT.  He was so good at his job that, about the time I started bloggin', he launched a massive open online course MOOC called “Afraid of physics?” with the support and approval of MIT. These MOOCs gave access to science for thousands of people who could never afford to go to MIT, but they also give scientists access to thousands of e-students. Lewin was found to have been asking some of these foreign students for pictures of themselves with their white-coats and the rest of their kit off.  MIT decided he had “engaged in online sexual harassment in violation of MIT policies” and sacked him . . . and removed his on-line material. The latter response seems peculiarly medieval, a bit like burning the books of sinners lest they contaminate the souls of the faithful.  As Lara Dungan [below] said about the Hunt case: how can someone so smart behave so dense.

I didn't behave too well 20+ years ago when called upon to take an ethical position on the sins of Carleton Gajdusek, which were graver than Hunt's.

But satire wins!  Under the hashtag distractinglysexy, dozens of women in science shared pictures of themselves with their arm up a cow's rectum, invisible in bright orange hazmat suits, shovelling contaminated sludge and hugging their centrifuges. Woot!  The Saturday before last on the wireless Futureproof had coverage of the whole sorry Hunt story. Two comments seemed cogent. Presenter Lara Dungan asked a rhetorical "I thought these Nobellists were smart, how could Hunt be so stupid?" [I paraphrase].  A listener acknowledged that women [in science] in our culture might have a tendency to cry more often than men but Hunt, and everyone, should just get over it.  A tendency to weep doesn't make you less able to follow a lab protocol, to take criticism, to have creative ideas, to work all the hours that god sends or to take out the trash. I like that response a lot, it says that difference is okay, not better not worse, just different. As Caitlin Moran said last year, the more different approaches we have, the more likely we were to find a solution to the worrying times ahead.

Monday, 22 June 2015


More on making a living from cutting grass. We really haven't a clue about the complexity of the world but science is making baby-step progress to understanding who interacts with whom in an ecosystem. We were talking at the June meeting of the Wexford Science Cafe, about the complex micro-biological ecosystem which is the soil underneath a wheat-field. The top 10cm is filled with aerobic microbes - bacteria and fungi - as well as earthworms and nematodes and plant roots. Below that, a different dramatis personae holds the stage.  Everyone is happy or at least has come to an accommodation with the neighbours.  Then, sometime in October, Bob the Farmer comes with a 10 ton tractor-and-plough and turns the top 30cm of soil upside down killing all the anaerobic nitrogen-fixers with a blast of toxic oxygen and suffocating their upper-storey neighbours in the murk. This practice suppresses weeds, yes, but also forces a dependence on bought-in nitrogenous fertilisers.  See, we haven't a clue.

But the classic complex ecosystem that we do understand a little better is the African plains of the Serengeti. We know more because the actors are bigger-than-a-breadbox and have been studied for the last 100 years through binoculars and rifle-sights. We think we understand but there are still mysteries like - how does this seemingly parched and unproductive soil support such a huge and diverse biomass from antelope to zebra. A study by Tyler Kartzinel and Rob Pringle of Princeton described by National Geographic goes some way to explaining how everyone makes a living.  It turns out that they are all eating different food. It's no longer necessary or sufficient to roughly bin the mammals into grazers (zebras eat grass) and browsers (giraffes eat trees and goats eat the shrubbery).  How do we know the details of who eats what?  Now I've some small experience sifting crocodile shit to raise a few shillings towards my education. But a swat team from Princeton with binoculars and plastic bags has been scooping up the poop of known mammals and then running the samples through a DNA analysis that identifies the species eaten.  And whoa, the two species of Zebra Equus quagga burchellii and Equus grevyi eat grass, yes, but different species of grass. Now we know; but we didn't until Kartzinel & Pringle had the smarts to think of a technique to sort the input stream at the end of the digestive process. We've known for a long time that you can raise more tons of cattle and sheep on a hectare if you have them graze the field at the same time. I don't think anyone knew the details of how the pasture is partitioned, now we have the tools to answer that question.  Thanks Princeton.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Saving the hay

A few years ago, I was at the English Scything Fayre at Muchelney in the Zummerzet Levels. There had been a plan to have me as a handicap on the Irish team, but we were delayed on a trip by narrow-boat down the River Avon and arrived too late to participate in the team event.  I did trial for individual competition but didn't "make the cut" [Hoot!, a pun, we must be in England].  I was only a beginner then and my 1m x 5m strip looked like very bad haircut when I had finished: all tufts and baldness.  Chris Hayes and Shannon père et fils athair agus mac were able to recruit a ringer with an Irish grandmother and did creditably in the competition. It's that time of year again and the British & Irish Scything Association have put up the results of last Sunday's competitions in Muchelney. If you're struck by the fact that Andi Rickard won the ladies championship by a staggering margin, and placed a creditable fourth in the Open stakes, so may want to see just how she did it.  I suspect that, if her rep didn't depend on it and/or she had to mow a acre, she'd compromise to a narrower swing. But it's wonderful to see what can be achieved in silence by a human being using appropriate technology. The French are asking débroussailleuse vs Faux, quelle est la plus rapide? The strimmer takes twice as long and destroys the peace on the Sunday afternoon with its shrieking. The scyther featured there (probably 2010) is Simon Damant overall champ for 2015, so he's not losing his touch.

The competition squares are a perch in size, this is an area 6.25 yards square, as near as dammit to 25sq.m. It is a peculiar, quintessentially Thomas Hardy, sort of measure until you reflect that it is 160th of an acre. If an ace scyther can knock their perch in 2 minutes, that suggests that an acre could be done 2hr40mins.  Four acres on a long Summer's day?  With time for copious draughts of rough cider?

One issue which is exercising the scythers is how to weight speed and quality when assessing one mower against another.  I can lick through my square and leave half the grass for the rabbits while Simon Damant or Andi Rickard will win almost all the grass as hay against a hard winter. This is a problem that an evolutionary biologist can relate to.  There is no such thing as perfection in the natural world; there is only good enough to survive and reproduce. In mowing you don't need to obsessively cut every daisy but you want to save as much hay as possible between showers.  It turns out <data alert!> that there is no correlation [L scatterplot with correlation coefficient r=0.08 =~0] between quality and speed among the 24 [two dozen] finalists.  Now we all agree that time is of the essence in the uncertain English climate but quality needs to be sensibly factored in; so how about:
score=speed *10/quality
If you achieve perfick quality then your speed would be the result whereas if your quality is 5, your resulting time is 2x your actual time. There is a smaller penalty if your quality is damned good. If you want an existential discussion on Quality try Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  On that basis, here are the results:

Name Time Quality Score
Simon Damant 1.3 8 1.7
Ded Kalaj 1.3 6.5 2.0
Andi Ricard 1.8 7.5 2.4
Andy Coleman 1.7 6.5 2.6
Kevin Austin 2.0 7 2.9
George Montague 1.3 4.5 2.9
Richard Brown 2.9 8.5 3.5
Fergus Waters 3.0 7 4.2
Phil Batten 3.5 8 4.4
Mark Allery 2.2 5 4.4
Dan Britain 3.8 8 4.7
Chris Riley 5.2 8.5 6.2
Matthew Mugatroy 3.9 6 6.5
Nigel Adams 4.7 7 6.7
Jeremy Weis 4.1 6 6.8
Terry Stamping 3.4 5 6.8
John Fenn 4.9 6.5 7.6
Charlie Quinnell 6.6 7.5 8.8
Beth Tilston 7.5 8.5 8.9
Fergus Day 5.4 6 9.0
Anthony Waters 7.2 5 14.4
Olga Damant 15.1 9 16.7
John Adams 11.5 5.5 20.8
Mary Ellis 10.1 4.5 22.4

The scythers on the ground in Muchelney preferred to deal with the speed vs quality issue with a clapometer, and "The judges awarded places (as above) on speed but also taking quality into account".  My ordering is slightly different - Rickard pips Coleman for example - but everyone knows how my results were calculated.  If anyone wants to come down and help mow our Home Field in early July, there will be cider!

Animal feed

It's kind of weird that we have completely different standards when it come to dealing with animals compared to humans. We have the 'humane killer' out when a horse breaks a leg but keep sad old husks of Alzheimered people alive for months cultivating their bed-sores in a puddle of bodily fluids.  And the standards of food are suspiciously different.  Lamlac milk replacement is a third the price of tins of powdered milk from the oriental emporium. I think the sheep-muesli we boost our ewes and lambs with is quite tasty, and it is 35c a kg!  I wonder that we don't eat more 'animal' food more often.

Years ago when I was a smart-assed teenager, I was working in a feed-store for the Summer - loading bags of horse-feed into the backs of estate-cars and selling the odd slab of dog-food tins. My boss would open a tin of Chappie, the cheapest dog food, if he'd brought his hound in to work and the smell was something else when he poured this vile slurry into the dog bowl.  After the first time, I had to insist that he opened the tin outside.  OTOH, the up-mark brands looked 'good enough to eat'.  One evening I drafted a letter purporting to come from an indigent pensioner asking if there was any reason why Pedigree Chum, which "I" fed regularly and loyally to my dog Shep, wouldn't be a suitable alternative to the Fray Bentos Beef-Chunks in Gravy that "I" could buy for 3x the price in the supermarket.  I sent if off to Customer Service, Pedigree Petfoods and in due course received a diplomatic and informative reply.

I paraphrase "Pedigree Chum is certainly safe for human consumption, it is made from beef and highly nutritious. It is true that some of the meat might come from carcasses condemned because they carry too much liver-fluke but the high temperature and pressure of the canning process would kill any fluke eggs.  So Pedigree Chum is the best thing imaginable for Shep but is quite safe for your elderly self to consume as well."

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when Mike the Vet regaled us with a story of sailing back from France with copious supplies of alcohol and other goods which were cheaper in French hypermarchés than in Ireland.  After one dreadful and potentially fatal night trying to reef sails in a storm while drunk, they all agreed to limit their intake to a nautical tot every night until they got home. But somehow relationships between Captain and the two crewmen had deteriorated to a considerable extent.  One evening the skipper volunteered to cook dinner and served up a dish of spaghetti with meat sauce which the crew declared was nutritious but bland.  Afterwards the skipper crowed that he'd served them spaghetti and dog-food because they were mutinous curs. Nobody died.

A few days ago, a more willing voyager into the unknown reaches of pet-food surfaced on the blogosphere. Anne Kadet decided to indulge in a 6-day dog-food binge. She started off with a bowl of Kibble which is the standard dried dog-food she bought for her own hound. It was gritty and gave her jaws a work-out. Like Mike the Salt above, she found that tinned pet foods was palatable but bland and really needed salt to go down.  A nutritionist pal advised that canned pet-food was safe because of the cooking/canning progress but that there had been several cases of Salmonellosis from eating dry Kibble. The best things that went down that week were Simply Nourish tins of dog food: tasty but ferociously expensive at $12.30/kg. You shd read Anne's whole article - it's funnier and savvier than I could make it.  But why do it for a jape when you can taste pet-food for a living?

The other side of town from The Institute, a pet-supplies emporium has just opened up which has aisles and aisles of indulgence for you and your companion animal: reindeer steaks, smoked salmon chunks, and tooth whitener.  It's like a little sliver of California has come to dreary ould Ireland.  My experience is that dogs would rather be scarfing down sheep-shit or very old road-kill which makes the comparative immunologist in me wonder how their digestive system copes with the bacteriological assault.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Cheap eats

Unknown Festivals Department. Today in Ireland and wherever the diaspora has a cousin of Michael Blanch is Lá Cuimhneacháin Náisiúnta an Ghorta Mhóir or National Famine Commemoration Day.  This is a ragged-arsed grudging sort of event that hasn't yet taken off. Michael Blanch, a nice chap from Tallaght, has spent much of this century barracking anyone who will listen to institutionalise the remembrance of the Great Hunger of 1845-1847.  You may hear more about it today if you live in Strokestown, Co Roscommon because that is the 2015 designated venue.  Chekkitout on Wikipedia to see the gradual collapse of government resistance to the idea or the CCIFV friendface page for pictures of Mr Blanch, the primum mobile, and his family.  This CCIFV is not to be confused with the Google-more-important [GMI] Chambre de commerce et d'industrie française au Vietnam. Currently the commemorations seems to centre on making a raree show or a pantomime of the tragedy by dressing up as mid-19thC peasants and walking to the haunting, Giacometti inspired, famine sculpture [R above] on the Liffey Quays in central Dublin. We all might get more into the spirit of those savage times by eating nothing but lumper potatoes for a month and then nothing at all for a week.  It would do something positive towards the obesity epidemic that is our current scourge.

I've gone on and on before about cheap food.  The assumption behind this is that, while in some cases, you get what you pay for, there is a also a helluva lot of mark-up in the price. You pay for a lot of unnecessary packaging, transport and advertising not all of which is really adding value to the food. Only 1 wine-lover in 10 could reliably recognise their favorite expensive tipple if it was presented in an unlabelled decanter.  Some yellow-pack products are every bit as good as their branded equivalent because they are the same thing packaged differently and sold cheaper because Aldidl has contracted to take 10,000 tons of the stuff under their own label.  You have to a) use judgement but b) more importantly use blind tasting experimentation to decide where you can shave $$$s off the weekly grocery bill and not compromise on quality.  I often cite a statistic I picked up when I was in Graduate School in Boston. In 1982 you could live for a year on $150 if you could tolerate a diet of soya-beans and lard with a little liver and a little orange juice. That's $12.50 pcm back then. Since, we've had inflation but also some falling off of the price of food and the debate over on Quora is whether you can live for a month in the USA allocating only $10 for food.

It seems to be possible if boring and you have a micro-credit loan of $30 to start off. That will buy you
25lbs rice @ $0.39/lb;
25lbs split peas @ $0.69/lb;
20lbs pork fat @ $0.25/lb
= 1,773 kcal/day in the FDA recommended balance of 32% fats; 55% carbs; 13% protein. I reckon you'd get scurvy on that diet but as in 1982 an occasional slug of OJ would soon clear up the bleeding gums.

The comment by Meghashyam Chirravoori suggests that a rather interesting vegan diet [potatoes Rs. 15/kg; Bottle gourd or onions Rs. 25/kg; Tomatoes Rs. 30/kg; sugar, rice, aubergine, spinach or okra Rs. 40/kg; sunflower oil Rs. 90/kg; Lentils Rs. 110/kg; 12 Bananas Rs 50] can be had for about US$18/mo. So it's not really cheaper to survive in the third world.  The main difference, given the number of people living on less than $2/day is the proportion of their income that goes on food. My reflections suggested that the Celtic Tiger youth of Ireland would think nothing of dropping €4 on a single lunch.  Eee when I were a teenager, I worked a 40 hour week bagging potatoes in a freezing barn for £6.50  . . . and we lived in a cardboard box in middle of t'road. 4 Yorkshiremen I - II.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Black pots and white kettles

We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British
public in one of its periodical fits of morality.
Tom Macaulay
On Moore’s Life of Lord Byron
Shortly after midnight last Tuesday a balcony in Berkeley CA filled with students, most of them Irish, snapped off its moorings and pitched its human freight into the street below. Six died immediately and 7 are in hospital, 2 of them in very poor shape. It's the sort of story from which the press make a lot of hay and sells more copies. And, friends, we buy those newspapers or listen to the radio and shake our heads at the tragedy of it, and are sure to tell anybody who missed the news. It was the first topic of conversation at the Wexford Science Cafe that evening. This is a strong argument that utilitarianism (greatest good for the greatest number as if all men were created equal) will fail because we care a lot more about people with whom we can develop a sense of empathy. What has engaged the conscience of the Irish media this week: six dead J1-visa students, or a million black babies dying this year from diarrhoea, TB or malaria?

On Wednesday, the NYT continued its coverage with second-day reporting trying to put the tragedy into a wider context.  What is a J1 visa? for starters. Why do so many Irish youngsters avail of this opportunity to work in the USA?  What sort of people are they?  In the course of saying that J1 is generally seen as a great thing to do and a great opportunity to grow up and experience a different culture, the NYT piece quoted an article by Cahir O'Doherty in www.irishcentral.com from last September.  Mr O'Doherty suggested that some of the 8,000 2014 J1 students from Ireland had behaved badly and used the phrase shamed the nation in his headline. It's not super-sensitive of the NYT to dig this up at a time when flags were flying at half-mast and Enda Kenny our Taoiseach [Prime Minister] was offering condolences and receiving them from other heads of state. Joan Burton, leader of the Labour Party and Tanaiste [Deputy Prime Minister] on the other hand preferred a bit of retroactive censorship by calling for the removal of the offending article from the internet. Me I'd rather allow people, including the press, freedom to express ideas, even tactless and unpalatable ideas. It is just believable that the head of our government might have locus standi to express our collective grief but it was wearing yesterday to hear Chris Donoghue from Newstalk FM hectoring a spokesperson for the NYT to apologise for calling into question the innocence of all the dead and injured students.  I have read the actual words of the NYT article and I can't see the connection implied by the indignant Donoghue, but then I do have a blunted affect. If anyone is to be blamed for using the word shame in the context of J1-visas it is Cahir O'Doherty last year at Irish Central.  He could certainly have analysed some data a bit before trotting out one and a half anecdotes to blacken the names of all the Irish J1s who ever went to America.  Bad timing the NYT, though.

Mary McAleese, our last President, who probably shouldn't have been taking a public stance on the marriage equality referendum last month [but did], decided to write a letter to the NYT from her position as a) a former President of Ireland and b) a former holder of a J1-visa.  She invited the NYT to hang its head in shame for "reaching for a lazy tabloid stereotype". What is it with all this shame, though?  Isn't shame-calling all too stereotypical for Irish Catholics?

You'd hope for a little more empathy from McAleese because ten years ago she was at the receiving end of a tirade of self-righteous indignation and had to issue a grovelling retraction for comparing the position of Catholics in North Ireland to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. She later called her remarks 'clumsy and hurtful'; and a 'dreadful assertion', and also admitted that sectarian stereotyping cut both ways when she was growing up in Ardoyne, N. Belfast. Ian Paisley Jnr, giving a roll on his Lambeg drum, said "Her comments are completely irrational and are designed to insult the integrity of the Protestant community".  What she could have said is that her comments were substantively, or at the least qualitatively, true. Of course, there were no death camps in Northern Ireland but there was institutional sectarian prejudice: no matter what your skills there were jobs that couldn't seriously apply for, places where you couldn't safely live, schools where you couldn't enroll your children and flags that you couldn't raise in your front garden. There are many cases that have the whiff of Kristallnacht and McAleese's own family were forced to move from their home in 1972, so she knows, and still feels, what she is talking about. Do you think, after 30 years of The Troubles between the civil rights marches of the late 1960s and 1998's Good Friday Agreement, that nobody now knows or cares what school you went to when you apply for a job in Northern Ireland?  Acknowledging our own faults is an important step in making us better people but it is also important to say it like we see it rather than try to pretend we are all singing from the same hymn-sheet.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Rational borders

Eeee, but we do love an enclave: a little hold-out surrounded by a larger political entity OR we love an exclave: a pioneer in hostile territory.  They are often reciprocal, depending on your political point-of-view; but not always. The four-colour map theorem, which was proved by Appel and Haken in 1976, is pushed to its limits by the punctilio of medieval princes who insisted that a particular outlying field, church or hamlet was their property. These ancient asserted boundaries got locked into the borders of modern countries as kings, princes, electors and the maharajahs were put out to grass or up against a wall to make room for modern nation states.  I once spent an enjoyable afternoon fossicking around Baarle, and have given you an e-scoot round Berlin exclaves but I'm keeping Büsingen in reserve.  [R The colour-coded who-owns-what in Germany about 1800 CE] Brandenburg in pale blue is splashed out South and West from the heartland of Prussia.  It took two world wars to knock these fragments into a single Über-state and I don't think anyone is richer for the loss of interesting diversity except bankers.

This month, the governments of India and Bangladesh have finally agreed to some territorial exchange to sort out a clatter of exclave/enclaves in Cooch Behar where they are known as chhits.  It's been a long drawn out story since the Raj was separated in two by fiat of Louis Mountbatten the last Viceroy of British India. He announced the fact of partition on 3rd June 1947, at the same time announcing that Independence would be achieved a mere 10 weeks (!!) later at midnight on 14th /15th August.  The details were worked out by a Boundary Commission of five men chaired by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, but the hard decisions were all made by Radcliffe. When you reflect on the amount of time and money the Irish government has spent on commissions and tribunals to clear up its scandals, you might wish for the bloody, bold and resolute decision making of Radcliffe's team. Bloody is one of the operative words because when you draw lines across the map to achieve a utilitarian majority-rule ideal, there will be some actual people on the wrong side of the line. The fairness of Radcliffe's decisions is shown by the numerical equality of 'displaced persons' - 7,226,600 extra Muslims in Pakistan and 7,295,870 extra Sikhs and Hindus in India according to the 1951 census figures. That's about 3.5% of the total population in the sub-continent at the time. As seen in the film Gandhi and this mini-documentary, anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million people didn't make it far enough to become displaced but were murdered along the way.

The Boundary Commission devoted most of their severely limited time sorting out the densely populated Bengal and Punjab but when the dust settled the border between West Bengal [India] and East Pakistan was, shall we say, still leaky.  Rangpur was assigned to Pakistan while the district Cooch Behar joined India a couple of years later.  These two political entities were nevertheless hopelessly entangled [L map of part of the problem] the identifying numbers of the enclaves are far larger on the map than some the enclaves themselves. Holdings had, according to legend, been used as stakes in a long series of card/chess games between the Maharaja of Cooch Bihar and the Faujdar of Rangpur.  As in Baarle, there are enclaves within enclaves, but Cooch Behar has the only third-order enclave in the world: a bit of India in a bit of Bangladesh in a bit of India in Bangladesh.  This fragment is only 0.7 ha - about the size of a soccer field. But it is by no means the smallest enclave at issue; this is Natatoka a sovereign part of India about 20m x 50m in size. These are clearly trifles, but the largest exclave is 25 sq.km in extent and home to 20,000 Bangladeshis who cannot get access to electricity.

The absurdity and expense of these anomalies was recognised immediately and the Prime Ministers of the two nascent states had agreed by 1958 to tidy things up. But in democratic states such things cannot be decided by diktat and the problem started to inch its way through legal treacle to the Indian Supreme Court.  Matters were just about decided when the 1971 Pakistani civil war broke out which bloodily split that nation in two and negotiations had to start again with the government of Bangladesh. The two biggest respective enclaves were joined to the 'mainland' in 1974 by agreed corridors.  Actually, the Indian side of this bargain wasn't fulfilled until 2011 because constitutional lawyers needed to feed their families for a generation. The result of a bilateral agreement signed on 6th June 2015 is that India cedes 7,000 ha [70sq.km] to Bangladesh and receives nearly 3,000 ha in exchange.  You'd need to be a lawyer to be sure that this will sort out where each flag will fly.  The people who own the land are to be given the choice of what passport they wish to hold.  I hope it all works out without a massacre or two.