Friday, 31 July 2015

Outcrop circle

Down the rabbit-hole again.  I was looking for a place to stay in Birr, King's County a few miles North of the home-place and came across an option called The Ring Farmouse, Ballinree, which is plonked in the middle of a ring 300m in diameter. It is such a precise feature that it must be the work of human hands. This might remind you of a post I wrote two years ago about the Oola Oval which is a similar, if less regular, feature on/of the landscape.  The current owners of the Farmhouse suggest that the hedgerow dates from the late 18thC and they should be able to verify this by counting the number of woody species in a 100m stretch of the hedge.  The rule of thumb is one new species every century.
Bizarrely [but hey, thanks!] they also draw attention to Clear Lake another feature of the landscape about 12km West on the plateau of the Slieve Bloom "Mountains" [here in Ireland we call anything higher than the kitchen table a mountain].  Clear Lake is a near perfect 30m circle [L from Google maps but it might as well be from NASA] very close to the Border between King's County and Queen's County but is almost certainly not the work of human hands.  How do I know? It's a feeling in my bones but I'm prepared to stake €5 on me being right about both this circle and the other, larger, drier entity to the West.  The lake is located in the Slieve Bloom Nature Reserve which is set aside to protect the hen harrier Circus cyaneus a rare raptor.  And on circular objects of uncertain provenance in the Irish landscape, let's not forget The Ringstone.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Where do the Brits come from?

It's a conundrum where any of us come from, except that, if you go back far enough, the answer is "out of Africa". If you come from the parts of society that 'have money', or had 'land' you can trace your ancestry back quite a few generations . . . if you believe that surnames do actually track Y-chromosomes rather than suspecting that your father is the strikingly fit professional down at the golf club. It's pretty clear that my toney horse-riding protestant "blood-line" was given more vigorous life from the input of the red-headed cook who was the mother of my great-grandfather. If your family were humble artisans, you can only go back to when birth and marriage registration became mandatory in the mid 19thC But we're all lost, unless the Emperor of Japan happens to read The Blob, when we want to go back 40 or more generations. Archaeologists infer things from the shape of pot-sherds and burial practice but nobody is sure if these are culturally and genetically transmitted or just following the fashion of your neighbours. Historical geographers can spin convincing stories from the patterns of place-names - all those *thwaits *gates and *thorpes in what was briefly Danelaw in the East of England.

If you generate a helluva a lot of data, you can get some fine-mapping structure of the genetic make-up of the inhabitants of the UK.  This is what a group led by Peter Donnelly [before on The Blob] and Walter Bodmer from Oxford have done in their People of The British Isles PoBI study.  Published in Nature 19 Mar 2015. They went through their data and isolated 2000+ people all of whose grandparents had been born within 80km of each other.  That takes you back to about 1885 before rural depopulation sent everyone to hugger-mugger in urban stews and marry who-knows-who. They typed each of these people for half a million genetic variants aka SNPs and threw the whole mess into a huge computer program.  For good measure they added equivalent data of 6000+ 'continentals' from Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, France and Iberia and gave it all a damned good shake.  The first outcome is that these data are extremely noisy, so that there is little-or-no predictive power - if you have a particular set of variants at these 500,000 genetic sites you won't have much confidence in placing your ancestors in a given tribe. You can't say you or anyone else has demonstrably Cornish genes or Yorkshire blood.

OTOH, the genetic data map out against the geographic landscape with compelling internal consistency, particular variants or groups of variants are disproportionately common is some of the outlying groups in the dataset. That's the second finding - England has a remarkably homogeneous core [L red boxes] which comprehends the south coast [Wessex], Grosser London, East Anglia, the Midlands up to Mancester and Liverpool and bleeding up the East coast at least as far as Teesside.  The grey heart of this region is 'missing data' nobody in the Great Wen has been there for two generations.

The third through tenth findings is in the detail of the periphery.  The most distant outlier in England is Cornwall which is distinctively different from neighbouring Devon which forms a distinct [pale blue] cluster within 'England', as do the Welsh Marches and the West Riding of Yorkshire [that pale blue is not partic related to Devon's, they just ran out of colours]. Yorkshire is thus a political construct in the same way as Nigeria is, only with two genetically distinct tribes rather than 30. In a similar way the South and North of Wales are inhabited by quite different people - more different than Scots vs English for example.
On the contrary, the Scotch-Irish from Ulster look to be the same as the Scots-Scots or at least those that come from Strathclyde; so geographic features like the North Sea sometime separate people and sometimes link them.  There's another very distinct cohort of people from Aberdeen and surroundings in the Scottish NE. Donnelly and Bodmer decide, in a rather loose and cavalier fashion, that these inhabitants of the Granite City are 'Picts'.  And the outliers, both genetically and geographically are the people of the Orkney archipelago North of John O'Groats. The Orcadians are not only a long way from everyone else [they form the tip of the long left arm in the tree of relationship to the right of the map [L above]] but they have within them three distinct groups at least as different from each other as whole [rest] of Scotland.

The second figure [R ] cross-references the genetic similarity of each of the 17 clusters from the UK with a similar number of clusters from continental Europe.  It there becomes clear that Orkney did take some genetic input from Scandinavia.  Danelaw on the other hand, for all the naming of parts which have stood the buffets of 1000+ years since Jorvik was a Viking stronghold, seems to have left rather little imprint on the present day inhabitants. From these data it is also apparent that everyone in the UK is a mongrel with a lot of input from NE Germany and another lot from NE France with a dash of Iberian, Belgian and Danish to spice things up.  With all this miscegenation, it's no wonder that for 200 years they were the Master Race. But like the Vikings before them the tide has gone out and all that's left is fragments of language.  If you can characterise the venerable Times of India as a fragment.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

For heaven's sake

While the people of the the South-East celebrate the high Summer with a lot of fresh fruit and some snogging in the hollows, in the West they take a more directly religious view of the day. The last Sunday of July is known in Mayo and further afield as Domhnach na Cruaiche or Reek Sunday because on that day thousands of people go on pilgrimage to the top of Cruach Phádraig Croagh Patrick, which translates as St Patrick's [hay]stack or rick or indeed Reek. The mountain is made up of quartzite rather than dried grass, which is interesting geologically for two reasons.  First the rock is run through with several seams of gold-bearing quartz of which analysis in the 1980s suggested ore to the tune of half-an-ounce [15g] of gold to the ton. A cunning plan to take away one of the really sacred places on the island in 40 ton dumper trucks was put forward. This had the potential to realise someone $300 million despite the price of gold being currently in free-fall from its highs of nearly $2000/oz four years ago. The plain people of Mayo were canny enough to realise that they would see none of that and so planning/development permission was refused.

The other geological consequence is that the approach to the summit is largely made up of fist-sized scree and lumpier boulders that make for very unstable footing.  About 100,000 people make it to the summit each year; a third of them in a single 24 hr period at the end of July. They have been doing this for 1500 years [Pathe report from 1964] and so the path has experienced significant erosion. There is no grass or heather left to hold things together. Indeed mountain expert Elfyn Jones pronounced last year that Croagh Patrick is the worst damaged mountain path in these islands. You can see the scar of the pilgrim autoroute in the picture [L]. About 2% of the pilgrims make the climb in bare-feet, just like our 10 y.o Dau.I did yomping up similarly sized Mt Leinster. But because of the tiny footfall, and consequent lack of erosion, on our mountain it was possible for her to do her trek with hardly any contact with bare rock.

I've written about the experience of pilgrimage before: been there, done that, entitled to an opinion. I've also whanged on about the commodification of walking: how difficult can it be? It's what human do; in principle it just takes a pair of legs. The rest of the "kit" deemed to be essential is driven by anxiety or commerce.  Enterprising members of the plain people of Mayo will, for €3, sell you an ash-plant or a blackthorn stick to help you up Croagh Patrick or if that's too steep, will rent you one for €1.50! There is a long tradition of making money from any pilgrim tide. I'm sure you can buy water, fizzy or still, at the standard jumping off point and I'll bet you can buy it cheaper in Westport, the nearest town.

One thing that I learned in Spain is that pilgrimage is hard.  The Camino Frances to Santiago is structured as a physical metaphor for the inner journey.  You start with a brutal climb to a ridge in the Pyrenees and down the other side: that ladles out physical pain - blisters, shin-splints, turned ankles - which you must endure.  Then you must walk for 10 days, often under a broiling sun, through a featureless plain of corn and sunflower fields: you must learn to endure your own company.  Not until you have been through physical and mental fire are you fit to approach the City of God in the midst of the mountains of Galicia. If you could be helicoptered to the top of Croagh Patrick it wouldn't count - there would be no more transformative potential in it than taking a fair-ground ride.

Every recent year, the Archbishop of Tuam has led the pilgrims up on the morning of Reek Sunday and conducted mass from a glass box outside the little chapel. Being the West of Ireland the weather can be unreliable. 2009 was pretty grim and numbers were down to about half the usual amount.  About 18,000 people in need of some spiritual uplift nevertheless went the whole way. This year, 26th July 2015, the forecast was similar but the police and local mountain rescue [promotional video] and ambulance corps prevailed on the holy catholic church to cancel the pilgrimage and hold the commemorative mass in the church near the foot of the mountain. One of the cited reasons was that the Knights of Malta first-aid tent had blown over in the wind. The wind was 'gusting force 7' at dawn but moderating and 25mm of rain fell in the 24 hours. The Man then spent the rest of the day hanging around in the car-park telling people NOT to go up the mountain today, they couldn't be held responsible etc. Well indeed not!  I wouldn't be asking for mountain rescue to rescue me.  Rather "I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied:Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” [Minnie Haskins] There are other sources of help other than the mountain rescue.  No I wouldn't expect to have a deity bail me out if I broke my leg in a fall but I would not be surprised to find sufficient compassion and physical strength among the thousands of other hardy souls who were on the mountain that day. About 5,000 went to the top and back this year including a child of 8 and a 12 week-old infant wrapped up in a back-pack.  The child was reported as mildly hypothermic [shivering] when she came down and the city-boy press quickly shed the "mildly" so it looked like the parents deserved a visit from the Cruelty Officer.  I was trying to put my finger on what was jangling my chain on this one and after a night of troubled dreams I reckon it is the word volunteer.  The aid organisations are all run by volunteers: brave and selfless chaps in high-viz jackets who use their expertise and experience to pull the benighted, incompetent and injured off the wild places of these islands. They do what they do because they have it in them to give. They wouldn't be there but for the folly and misfortune of people less fit.  As I see it they have two options: retire to their tents like Achilles or suck it up and perform some challenging rescues which will be good training for an operation in a blizzard in winter.  What they don't have is locus standi to prevent others from doing what they think is foolish. Otherwise the tail is wagging the dog.

Another problem, as I see it, is that in a temperate island, with no poisonous snakes, no earthquakes or active volcanoes, no tornadoes and a hurricane but once every generation Ireland has very little exciting in the way of adverse natural phenomena. So the police, the weather bureau, and the mountain rescue have the vapours and issue yellow, orange and red warnings if a weather event in the 95th percentile comes through. Talk to people living in the Caribbean through the hurricane season about high winds and heavy rain.  It would be probably foolish, as well as disrespectful, to try paragliding under the conditions pertaining last Sunday but a slippy wet walk was not out of the question.  And the stats bear me out: nobody died.  Next time The Man issues a warning there will be some legitimate skepticism about His judgement.  The case is altered if you are on another mountain and/or on your own and/or with inadequate clothing & calories in similar conditions but religious practice needs to be cut some slack . . . for heaven's sake.

Fraughan Sunday

The last Sunday of July, when you might expect the weather to be pretty good in Ireland, is known as Garland Sunday, Domhnach na bhFraocháin [Bilberry Sunday] or Domhnach Chrom Dubh [Black Cripple Sunday].  All these names and the associated customs have been hanging round the neck of 'Christian' Ireland since before St Patrick came and drove out the snakes and converted the people.  Literally in the case of the garlands which were made of ivy Hedera helix and apples Malus domestica and draped round the necks of  the unmarried adults as they processed to a local holy place.  The original pagan consequences of having young singles of both sexes gathered in one place as darkness fell on a warm Summer night have been sublimated into more seemly rituals. Where we live on the side of a 'mountain' in the Sunny South-East many people of middle age and older can remember having picnics up in the hills to gather fraughans [R] aka bilberries or whinberries or Vaccinium myrtillus on Fraughan Sunday. A few years ago local author and researcher Micheal Conry published a book Picking bilberries, fraughans and Whorts in Ireland: the human story [£50 on Amazon] about the impact this humble species had on the community. There were times, particularly during the wars, when fraughans could be sold for good money to dealers who came from London: the usual supply from the Baltic states being interrupted. Garland Sunday is naturally associated with Lughnasadh 1st August which marks the beginning of the harvest season. Lugh is the god of light and he has been in everlasting conflict with Crom Dubh, the dark crooked one.  This may remind you of another great dualistic religion Manichaeism which burst out of Persia in the C3rd CE and spread through the known world.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

World Hepatitis Day

That would be today.  I have enough on my calendar with Darwinday (12nd Feb) when I have been known to give donuts and Christmas when I have been known to give small presents to children.  I am not about to starting giving people hepatitis at the end of July.  Although I must confess that our sheep routinely and involuntarily share needles when they are being dosed for worms and vaccinated for contractible lambhood diseases.  After a good bit of shifting about, Hepatitis Day has settled on 28th July because it is Baruch Blumberg's birthday. Baruch Whoberg? you may well say, but he was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for identifying the Hepatitis B virus in the blood of an Australian aborigine who was suffering from yellow jaundice.  Jaundice is due to the failure to clear yellow bile through the bile-duct which can happen from wide variety of causes and can sometimes be treated with an intervention of quite elegant simplicity which saved the life of Pat the Salt in the week of his 90th birthday at the beginning of June. The treatment is so easy that it is possible to treat the whole thing as a bit of a joke "Who's the Chinaman seating on your sofa, missus", "B'godde Pat but you're the colour of your Sou'wester" but hepatitis in general is no joke at all.

Blumberg not only did the nifty academic identification thing to explain why one of his global patients was looking crook and feeling crap, he also went on to a) develop a molecular screen to identify blood donations that were infected with Hep B AND b) to develop a successful vaccine against that strain of virus. When that therapy was loosed on children, it reduced the rate of HepB infection among Chinese children from  15% to 1% within a decade. You can hardly begrudge Blumberg his Nobel for thus improving the quality of life of millions (a billion wouldn't be an exaggeration) of people across the World. Saving life and improving its quality is different from encouraging the increase in the human population and I've had occasion to slag the enNobeling of Norman Borlaug and Fritz Haber for causing the latter.  On the slagging front, it is coincidental that Blumberg shared his 1976 Prize with Carlton Gadjusek, one of a handful of Nobelists whom I've met and who occasioned an ethical hand-shaking dilemma. On the small world front, it should be noted that Blumberg was educated in Far Rockaway High School seven years after Richard Feynman, another Nobel who has featured on The Blob. When Blumberg died in 2011 his boss stood up and said "I think it’s fair to say that Barry prevented more cancer deaths than any person who’s ever lived."  Which give a clue about the grosser causes of jaundice.  As an indication of liver failure, rather than a failure in the plumbing of the bile-duct, viral hepatitis can go on to cause complete liver failure, cirrhosis, liver cancer and death.  As opposed to, say, small cell carcinoma of the lung which can rip through you and kill within months, hepatitis can make you feel increasingly terrible over years and years. If you believe in Quality Adjusted Life Years [QALY], ye durty Utilitarian, you'd surely upvote a cure for hepatitis when you come to allocate the cash within your health service.

15% of Chinese children is a helluva a lot of Hepatitis and that's only HepB. There are five identified Hep viruses named HAV, HBV, HCV, HDV and HEV. In evolutionary terms they are as different from each other as viruses can possibly be - some use DNA to deliver their message and others use RNA, for starters - but all have in common a tendency to settle in the liver and replicate there.  Their replication, as with all viruses, involves infecting a cell, subverting the local nucleic acid replication machinery to make more virus, popping that cell to release dozen or hundreds of infective units to recursively repeat the process and propagate the virus. The viral propagation thus interferes with normal liver function which manifests initially as fatigue, nausea and other flu-like symptoms which get labelled as hepatitis when jaundice develops. The cirrhosis and liver cancer will develop in due course if you live long enough. Anita "BodyShop" Roddick, for example, died of a brain haemorrhage before HepC killed her.  Roddick got her dose from a blood-transfusion but many of the other celebs who have a HCV infection in common, got it from shared needles - don't do your own tattoos, kids.

We all take our liver for granted until it goes wonk and then we begin to appreciate how many and how varied are its beneficial functions. I could have had a lot to say about HCV, because its investigation formed a key thread in the Comparative Immunology lab in which I worked for the first part of this century.  But the Blob logs show that I have been unaccountably quiet on the matter.  Will rectify this in the future because there are some ripping yarns to be told.  But for today, take 5 minutes to reflect on the 180 million people across the World who suffer [sic!] from HCV infection.  Of these half a million die each year, which puts it at almost the same level as the big killers malaria, tuberculosis and infectious diarrhoea. Nobody has a developed a vaccine against that cause of hepatitis at least partly because, like HIV, it is a RNA virus which mutates so fast that it is hard for any vaccine strategy to keep up.  Lots of science done, more to do.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Spike Island

Spike Island (Ir. Inis Píc) [L marked B] is in the middle of the complex water-feature known as Cork Harbour.  The city of Cork, however, lies at the extreme Western end of one of the winkly inlets and bays.  In the good-old bad-old days before independence it was known as Queenstown Harbour which is more consistent with geography: Queenstown being what we now call Cobh which looks directly out across the Harbour at the wild Atlantic.  The other bits identified in red are the fragments of infrastructure which constituted one of the "Irish Treaty Ports". The Treaty Ports were one of the results of the negotiations that brought an end to the bloody internecine Irish War of Independence Cogadh na Saoirse in 1921 (truce 11th July, Treaty 6th December). Unrestricted submarine warfare of WWI was still raw in the minds of the British negotiators and the idea of retreating Coastal Defenses 300 km East to Pembroke Dock [previously] in SW Wales was too painful to contemplate.  
So they retained the use of the naval infrastructure at "Queenstown" which meant the dockyard facilities and barracks on Haulbowline Island [A], Spike Island, of which we treat, the two defensive installations that face each other across the harbour-mouth Fort Camden [C] and Fort Carlisle [D] and the batteries at Templebreedy [E] which have 180 degree views of potential incoming.  You can see from the sketch of Spike Island [L] that it too had a fort: named after Lord Lieutenant (1789-1794) The Earl of Westmoreland.  All these forts have been renamed after Irish patriots since the Irish Free State / Saorstát Éireann became a republic.  The ceremonial handover of Queenstown was scheduled for 11th July 1938 and the event went off without a hitch: flag down, flag up, salutes, gunfire. The clear demilitarisation of Ireland was essential for de Valera's plan for neutrality in the upcoming conflict - the Anschluß Österreichs had happened in March, the Sudetenland was seized in October. The loss of the Treaty Ports was seen as a huge betrayal and folly by Winston Churchill.

Fort Westmoreland was conceived at the height of the Napoleonic Wars and building commenced in 1804.  Construction was still ongoing when The Emperor was sent finally to St Helena and the peace-time exchequer didn't pull the plug on the stone-masons until 1820. In 1847, after two years of potato famine and a spike in convictions for stealing sheep and loaves of bread, Spike was used as a holding station for convicts awaiting transportation to Van Dieman's Land.  While waiting they were put to work building both on Spike Island and on neighbouring Haulbowline / Inis Sionnach, between the two of which a temporary wooden bridge was constructed.  Hundreds of them died, mostly in the first decade of the existence of the institution and are buried on the island. It's not a great deal different from either Ellis Island or Grosse-Île which handled more dead Irish people at about the same time.  Spike Island prison was closed finally in 1883 and the place was turned over to the military again.  UCC Archaeology Department has spent the last several Summers with trowels and paintbrushes digging down into the history of the place and presumably have turned up buckets and buckets of clay-pipe fragments as well as buttons, coins and a lot of dead bodies. The project director Dr. Barra Ó Donnabháin has a particular interest/expertise in the dead bodies and making sense of who they were and how they died.  They're at it in the drizzle even now.  If you want to volunteer you can sign up through UCC's partner the Institute for Field Research, which will charge you $4,850 for six weeks of bed, board and getting down and dirty with the dead.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Belgian enclaves II

In Belgium, the issue of language has become a huge political football or a political mill-stone round the neck of the economy. Inability to come to terms with The Other, left Belgium without a government for nearly 20 months 2010-2011. A good case could be made for all Belgians to learn Esperanto. All the great scientists of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment could communicate in Latin although they spoke something else entirely at the kitchen table.  Let's not go back there, though.  On the linguistic-divide map of Belgium [L above] I was immediately taken by the two detached blobs identified by the arrows and yesterday dug a little beneath the surface about the travails of the people of Voeren and other places in Belgium where they are in a linguistic minority. In Voeren it's not clear who is the oppressed minority because of significant demographic shifts in the last two or three generations.
But actually, there are a couple of dozen places [Above] where linguistic 'facilities' are provided ex officio because there is a significant minority on the wrong side of the line that was drawn on the basis of the 1930 Census. Does this remind you of a line drawn across the sub-continent that separated India and Pakistan into two nations resulting in the killing of at least a million people living on the wrong side of the new border?  The first point to note is how tight the line is. There are probably more French speakers in Antwerp or Ghent than in the whole of Voeren but they just have to lump it.  In those Northern cities Vlaams is the language and all official business - and schooling - is transacted in it. Did you know that there are 20,000 Yiddish speakers in Antwerp?  Not quite as many as there are German speakers [N=77,000] on the Eastern frontier and they don't get any 'facilities'.  And of course, the last 30 years have seen a bit of colour added to the linguistic map of Belgium: Berber, Turkish, Portuguese and Polish can all be heard on the streets

#1 and #2 on the strip-map above are Comines-Warenton which are administratively part of the Francophone province of Hainault although entirely surrounded by the Vlaamspreken province of West Vlanderen. That's rather a silly take on the geography because both municipalities have a border with France and indeed 12,000 people live in "Comines" across the border in France. And consider the 3 hectare aneurism of Belgium which bulges out [R] of suburban Mouscron (#3 in the coloured map above) into France. What's all that about? How can that have been experienced before the Schengen agreement and the EU made such anomalies quaint rather than awkwardly inconvenient? Not as awkward as the exclaves of West-Berlin, I guess.The local government is required to supply language facilities to their inhabitants who think know they live Komen-Waasten or Moeskroen. The citizens on this side of the country seem to have settled down together with less aggro than in Voeren.

In Ireland there are two official languages, with Irish taking constitutional priority if there is any dispute that gets confused in the translation.  This is why Justices of the Supreme Court are fluent in both languages (are they? probably not!).  All official docs are available in both languages. Flyers from the Referendum Commission telling us about Marriage Equality came through the door bilingual despite everyone in the country being fluent in English. That is a significant burden on the tax-payer but we suck it up to show that we are no longer a British colony.  Road signs tend to be Irish only in the Gaeltachts where everyone pretends that Irish is the only available language. That's a minor inconvenience and adds a bit of colour to the environment.  It's ironic that language is the only medium we have to communicate (apart from a hug) and is so often used as a barrier to communication.

Footnote 1: Mouscron is home to Louis-Philippe Loncke who parodied the oddly compelling "Inspired by Iceland" post-Eyjafjallajökull promotional video about Iceland which suggests that all the stereotypes of Iceland have been internalised but with extra dance!
Footnote 2: One of the hamlets that make up Comines is Ploegsteert which is twinned with Wolverton in Buckinghamshire, England. This is partly because of the 1974 discovery of a trove of WWI letters from a soldier called Albert French who lived in Wolverton but died at Ploegsteert in 1916 two years before he was eligible to enlist. Young French would have known this killing field as Plugstreet Wood.  It was here that the famous Christmas Truce soccer match of 1914 was played between British and German soldiers.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Belgian enclaves I

Belgium is a country in the same sense that the USA and the UK are countries but sometimes you'd find this hard to believe.  You see [L] that the map of Belgium has three colours based on the language spoken by the majority of inhabitant is each community. Flanders in the North where they speak Vlaams - a dialect of Netherlandish [yellow]; Wallonia in the South where they speak French [red] and two separate fragments along the Eastern border where they speak a variety 'Hochdeutsche' German [blue]. Brussels is orange because they've agreed that the capital is going to be bilingual.  Me being me, I cued in on the oddities in the map which I have highlighted with a couple of big arrows. There is a fragment of Flanders surrounded by red in the East and, for balance, a slip of Wallonia surrounded by yellow on the other side of the country.
In the East lies Voeren, a village known by part of the populace as 's-Gravenvoeren and as Fourons-la-comte by some other inhabitants. I've zoomed in to the relevant part of the map, which also includes Baarle, a town split between two countries of which the Belgian enclave is entirely surrounded by the Netherlands. I've been to Baarle and so has The Blob. The situation is more complex than a bit of Belgium entirely surrounded by Orange but not as complex as Cooch-Behar in the sub-continent.  The plum-coloured lump on this map [L] is the Belgian province of Limburg and the peninsula marked NL is the Dutch province of Limburg and the red bit under the NL is Voeren.  It would all have been simpler if the historic Duchy of Limburg could have been kept under a single jurisdiction.  But in fact the Duchy of Limburg was a totally artificial madey-uppy construct imposed on the local people by the occupation forces of revolutionary France at the beginning of the 19thC.  They wanted to call it Meuse-Inférieure, a département of Greater France a little downstream from le département Meuse which has "55" number-plates. King Willem I, however, insisted that the medieval Dutch-sounding name be used. The revolution of 1830 created a mostly Catholic predominantly Francophone country called Belgium and under the Treaty of London 1839, Limburg was divided between the two countries of Belgium and Netherlands. The detached fragment of Southern Limburg was added to the province of Liège for administrative convenience. With even that much historical background, the enclaveness of Voeren begins to look a little more ordinary. The Francophoneness of Belgium was much less certain or complete than successive Kings of the Belgians would like to have believed and Belgian political history has been dogged by factions obsessively picking at the scabs of linguistic heritage ever since. 

In Ireland we compel all state-employees (teachers, police, judges) to be 'fluent' in Irish, so that if someone, wherever they live from Achill to Wexford, needs services in Irish they can be accommodated. This option was briefly entertained in Belgium. But Flemish-speakers generally seemed to be able to retain sufficient French from school to communicate with their neighbours. French OTOH was, from the foundation of the state. the language of The Man and The Establishment often couldn't be bothered to learn the language of the Flemish proles. Does this remind you of Kashmir? ANNyway, the territoriality principal was adopted instead.  This said that the official language of each region would be that which was spoken by the majority. You have to petition for services if you are of the minority in your area and if you can muster a quorum - 16 parents can petition for their children to be taught in the language they speak at home. The territoriality principal is full of pride, exclusion and inconvenience . . . although it saves taxpayers money with monoglot roads-signs. We got lost the first time we drove through Belgium because we didn't recognise that Anvers, which was all that appeared on road-signs in Wallonia, was the same as Antwerpen where we were headed.

100 years after the establishment of Belgium, the government felt the need to firm up the linguistic border that cut the country in half like a weeping sore. In 1932, the 1930 census data for all the municipalities along the lingoborder were consulted on the question "What language do you speak at home?" with allowable answers Français, Vlaams or Deutsch.  The people in Voeren spoke Limburgish which was Vlaams in the sense that Frisian is Dutch: i.e. not very much. But given only three choices, and allowing for self-declaration, the data came out clearly in favour of "Vlaams" being the dominant language in the area.
Constituent hamlet 1930 1947
Vlaams Français Vlaams Français
Moelingen 73% 27% 44% 56%
's Gravenvoeren 75% 25% 44% 56%
Sint-Martens-Voeren 90% 10% 58% 42%
Sint-Pieters-Voeren 87% 13% 50% 50%
Teuven 91% 9% 47% 53%
Remersdaal 76% 24% 24% 76%
Total 81% 19% 43% 57%
N=4065 N=4010
It was, accordingly, treated as a Flemish community with language concessions for French rather than a French community with language concessions for Flemings. There were red faces all round when the 1947 census results came in 15 years later, which showed that a lot of the Flemish speakers had moved, or more likely died, and they had been replaced with so many Francophones that the language balance had see-sawed the other way.  These things are taken very seriously in Belgium and the potentially explosive results were kept under wraps for another 6 years. The six little villages were added, or restored, to Limburg in 1963 and merged into the Uber-community of Voeren in 1977. The very idea that a sliver of Flanders was being subsumed by Wallonia, or v.v., raises strident thin-end-of-wedge end-of-our-heritage questions in parliament. Although there have been violent demonstrations in the past, currently the war consists of slipping out at night and using a spray can to obliterate words on road-signs which you and your pals deem to be offensive.  In 1999, an EU regulation determined that 'foreigners' could vote in local elections.  As a lot of [genuine, orange-underpants] Dutch people live in Voeren and commute to work in Maastricht, their contribution was decisive in restoring the balance of power to the Vlaamspreken Voerbelangen party at the expense of the predominantly French-speaking Retour à Liège party.  Really, you'd think that people would find more important things to be exercised about: malaria, climate change, the end of the eurozone  . . . but then I would say that - I'm white, male and speak English like a native. I'd probably be chronically pissed off if WWI or WWII had gone the other way and I had to apply for a driving licence by filling in a form in German or Russian.

But we can all agree that Belgians, whatever they speak, make the best fries.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The eyes have it

Dopamine! Or rather they don't . . . any more. One of the remarkable things about evolution is how we grow up symmetrical.  Our arms grow to the same length! That's an amazing fact that should be a source of wonder but is effectively invisible until someone buggers it up. Thalidomide anyone?  If it's so obvious to all thinking people, how would you make-it-so that the amount of growth hormone is perceived as precisely the same at two places as far from each other as it is possible to be while still attached to the same circulatory system? Here's another growth and development conundrum - how did your two eyeballs grow from tiny dreamy infant eyes to far-seeing adults eyes and all through that time maintain a focal length correct for the lens in front?  It's the dopamine stupid!  Dopamine is one of 100 [!] known neurotransmitters but here, like other NTs adrenalin and noradrenalin, it acts as a (growth) hormone.

I was up in Dublin yesterday and picked up a handful of oldish Science and Nature magazines from the coffee room.  Several of them still in their plastic mail-wrappers.  I'm glad I'm not the only one who pays for a subscription and then doesn't get round to reading the latest stuff from the two premier general science journals. In between drooly dozes on the way home on the bus, I was leafing through the easy-to-read parts when I was brought up all standing with a WFT statistic . . .

96.5% of Korean 19 y.o men are short-sighted! And those stats are echoed in most other countries.  In two generations, the proportion of myopic Chinese teens has gone from 10% to 90%.  Elie Dolgin has written a gob-dropping essay about the cause and effect of the myopia [L] epidemic in 19/Mar/15 Nature called The Myopia Boom.  That's 4 months ago and the story has already sunk beneath the woefully short attention span of the media. We know and worry about the obesity epidemic - Ireland's teens are fatter than the EU average and the country is scheduled to top the European obesity rates at 86% of adults by 2030.  We're not doing much more than wringing our hands over that, but I haven't heard anything about the rise and rise of myopia. Although, of course, I have noticed that opticians are occupying a lot of prime retail space in our city-centres. It could be that there is a very simple solution to both problems - get the kids outdoors every day.

It gets back to how you would force the eyeball to grow at a rate precisely correct so that light can focus on the retina. You use the light . . . to stimulate the production of dopamine in the cells under the retina; this light-induced blat of dopamine prevents the elongation of the eyeball which is the physical cause of myopic unfocus.  You also have a complex system of muscular responses to give your eye some "accommodation": so long as dopamine gets the retina more-or-less the same distance the iris can tweak the lens to precisely focus the incommming. This accommodation is what is failing in my aged eyes over the last year forcing me to take on two sorts of glasses.  That's the sort of absurd kludge that evolution delivers - and it works fine for people who spend every day out on the Serengeti gathering berries, hunting down an occasional pig and sitting in the shade telling stories and flirting.

But it's not candle-light!  Even a 100W electric light bulb is nowhere near sufficient to induce the photochemical reaction. One of the many things I learned from Mr Wilkinson, my high-school biology teacher, is that we perceive light on a logarithmic scale and he showed us how this works by taking a light meter on a field trip to the bluebell woods at Blean.  Our subjective impression of  double the light intensity was actually 10x in terms of photons, foot-candles, talbots, candelas, lumens or lux.  A well-lit classroom might shine 500 lux on page or key-board and we're fine with that for learning the names of the Presidents of the Republic and making Lara Croft do our bidding but children need 10,000 lux for 3 hours a day to keep them out of Specsavers until they are middle aged. They don't have to do anything out there - they can read a book - but of course being out in the fresh air makes it easier to get some exercise that will fight off the flab. Obviously the solution is more complex than that.  You'd rather your kids contracted to buy spectacles than contracted melanoma but ignoring these data is not part of a solution.  Ministers of Education, Children, Health please note . . . and do something about it.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Phone security

Last October I was exhorting us all to put your Next O'Kin in your phone under the name ICE.  I've done a couple of things since then to make this system work more effectively.  First was the reflection that my Nx O'K is quite likely to be in the same disaster that requires some paramedic to dial ICE on my phone.  It won't be helpful if a phone starts ringing in the same mess of twisted metal and spilled fuel - might even spark the final conflagration.  So I've added an ICE2 as a backup - Dau.II, as it happens, a woman with considerable presence of mind and practicality and in the right country.

The second protocol improvement was to resolve to switch the phone ON when I'm about to start a car journey.  Unlike for most of the people my mobile phone is not a permanent prosthesis but what it says on the tin: a mobile phone. When I'm not mobile, t'bugger is OFF, saving battery.  I don't have any friends, so it never goes off in meetings or concerts even if I forget to switch off.

Dau.I had a lost phone adventure ten days ago. Not unlike my own lost and phoned story of 2013. She went off for the weekend and had the phone in the car which gave her a lift back to town. . . but didn't have the phone when she looked for it 2 hours later at home.  She retraced her steps to the car and several times she emptied her bag; which has a lot in common with the Tardis except that there was nothing phoney about it.  It was a bore and an inconvenience but she wrote it off and started afresh with another phone.  Well, two days ago the original instrument resurfaced.  It had fallen from her clobber when she got out of the car.  Someone had helpfully picked it up and put it on a near-by wall, so it was nowhere near the car when she looked a while later.  Someone else had picked it up and taken it home . . . and borrowed a charger . . . scanned through the contacts until he recognised a name . . . called to ask if any of Contact's pals had lost a phone . . . and so it eventually came home to roost.

That Feel-good Story was possible at least partly because of the small-town interconnected world that Dau.I lives in Crustiewold, Gloucs in England. Not unlike the rural-Irish no-privacy world her parents inhabit. But it was also possible because she recognised from the start that PIN protecting your phone is a dumb-ass thing to do.  A PIN makes it difficult for a white-hat to do the right thing as in the story above; whereas if your phone falls to a black-hat then the SIM will be stripped out and tossed so the PIN is useless there.  All the password does is protect you from having your family and flat-mates reading your texts or calling Kiev until the credit runs out.  As your PIN is likely to be the birthday of your BFF or Nx O'K, your untrustworthy roomies will brush aside that sort of security like rice-paper in the rain.

Anyone know how to disable the password - The Boy's birthday as you ask - on my phone?  And no, the PIN on my Debit card is different.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron

I reckon that for most of us the microbe we associate with "human intestinal flora" is Escherichia coli. We'd be quantitatively wrong though, because E. coli and its near relatives the enterobacteriaceae together make up less that 0.5% of the microbiome.  Like Escherichia and  Neisseria gonorrhoeae, "hard to spell, easy to catch", Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron looks like a mouthful but actually breaks down easily: theta-iota-omicron.  I think that's a great name, like a college fraternity, but I know of no other species named after a clatter of Greek letters. Rather than being a homage to someone called Thio, the name was first recorded more than 100 years ago by Arcangelo Distaso, a microbiologist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, in a 1912 paper "Sur le putréfaction de la paroi instestinale de l'homme".

We should really all pay more attention to B. thetaiotaomicron because it is a major component of our gut bacteria and performs a vital task for any of us who eat either plants or fungi, which is all of us except for some extreme Masai and Inuit who eat only meat.  B.thio has a genome coding for 4,800 proteins, so it's a little more biochemically capable than E.coli but it is particularly rich in enzymes that can process the complex polysaccharides that are a major component of plant and fungal cell walls. That makes more digestible sugars available for us and presumably reduces the bulk of the stool. The presence of these bacteria is therefore really important for the weaning transition when we take infants off the breast [or more likely off formula milk in Ireland] and start to shovel rice- and wheat-based pap into their gaping maws. Without B.thio there will be colic, sleep deprivation, ill-temper, battery and divorce. A recent paper in Nature, suggests that Bacteroides spp. may have gotten a toe-hold in the human gut when we started to incorporate a lot of yeast [bread and beer] in the diet.

Because it is there, B.thio is an 'opportunistic pathogen', it can be responsible for what Distaso was studying in his 1912 paper which can be translated as "pathogenesis of the human gut wall".  This is particularly so in cases where abdominal wounds and peritonitis have made a hole in the gut wall. It's a problem because B.thio is resistant to many of the antibiotics: because of its biochemical toolbox, it just sees antibiotics as more food. But its normal function and normal interaction with the cells of the intestinal epithelium shines a light on the complexity and subtlety of our relationship with the bugs inside. B.thio for example secretes metabolites that encourage the development of vascularisation of the epithelium, so that the goodies created by its digestive enzyme scan be more effectively carried away to the liver.  It also seems to play a role in the development of the mucosal surface which is a key physico-chemical barrier keeping potential pathogens at bay. So little known, so much to learn.

Thinking at stool

Last night was Third Tuesday so it was Wexford Science Café night.  Last month we had a very interesting and informative presentation from Denis Shannon, organic farmer, about the low input, great output way he runs his small-holding.  It's all about the microbes, stupid!  By looking at and living with his fields over nearly 20 years, he knows each low patch and subterranean boulder and remembers exactly where he dropped and spread a load of farm-yard manure 3 years ago. That will be ready for carrots this Spring. His knowledge of his clods is like James Rebanks' knowledge of his ewes, which is to say near omniscient. In neither case are their sources of income generic 'units' that can be safely treated as equivalent. Larger, more affluent, more 'modern' farmers haven't got the time for that and horse out fertiliser in quantities across the fields so that, on average, they hope to get the dose correct. And because, for these new-magnates, time is money and fertiliser is artificially cheap [VAT-free in Ireland!], there is a tendency to throw a little extra out of the hopper for luck. Extra fertiliser destroys the ecological balance in water-courses as it runs off the fields and boosts the growth of oxygen-depleting algae.

We can, from our city sofas, take the high moral ground on this over breakfast (that's why we try to get The Blob out early each morning) and then retire to the bathroom to ease ourselves. A quick sit, a quick shit, and 12 litres of fecally contaminated water is sent off-site.  Not so smug now, city-boy?  We're not all like this, even in the West.  A vanishingly small cohort of out-theres are engaged with their outputs the same way  as Denis and James are engaged with their inputs. When we moved into the farrrm in 1996, we found no flush-toilet, indeed we found no running water except that which trickled down the drain beside the lane up to the house.  Old Ray, the previous incumbent, did his business in various corners of the fields, presumably in the lee of a hedge if it was driving rain. If every bucket of water had to be carried from the spring, he wasn't about to contaminate one with coliform. He died and we bought, and he was almost the last of a dying breed: there are very few homes in Ireland today that don't have indoor sanitation.  That's progress.

But is it? The presenter last night at the Science Café had questioned the assumptions behind this normality and come up with another solution. When Chris Hayes moved into his grandfather's place ten years ago there was a septic tank and a crappy drain-field and a flush-toilet but he revolted at the idea of contaminating 2 gallons of hard-won potable water every time one of his children 'went'.  After thinking about it, he put off his philosopher's hat, seized his carpenter's saw and built a comfortable and seemly frame round a sturdy 20 liter bucket in a corner of the bathroom. Cost €28. Over the last decade, three times a week, he has carried a full bucket off to a 'humanure' compost heap, covered the contents with straw, given the bucket a rinse and returned it to station. That's a whole lot of bucket!  His calculations indicate that he has carried 18,000 lts of waste, weighing perhaps 10 tons, to the compost heaps at the bottom of the haggard.  That's a lot of honest exercise. This last month, however, after more reflection on the contents of the bucket revealed that 2/3 of if was (sterile) urine, he's parked the old system and installed a urine separating toilet [R above] at a cost of €800 [!?].  His arrangement is a teeny bit more complex than the picture but not by much. Sitting on the seat swings opens a door above the larger hole and advances the collecting tray one notch. There is a mini-voltage electric fan which evacuates any smells and also dries out the stool. This handily reduces the weight that has, eventually, to be schlepped off to the compost system.  The bucket still has to be emptied but now only thrice a month rather than thrice a week. The urine is diverted to a drain lined with alder and willow that will grow taller faster with the nitrogenous boost. Alder Alnus glutinosa is the wood of choice for making seats for saunas and willow Salix spp. makes baskets.  You have to exercise a little caution here because although urine is rich in [growth-rate limiting] nitrogen it is also rich in salt.

We were well impressed, in a good for you + glad it's not me way. But the question we asked was: who is in the market for a such a clever piece of engineering.  With Chris's original system, the kit was all generic: planks, screws, paint, tiles, grout, bucket but I can't just now think of an alternative use for a separating toilet bowl - it's too big for a hat.  If someone is making them and someone else is selling, who in heck is buying?  Where is the market?  Surprisingly extensive . . . and growing. Not only for building-sites and pop-festivals but increasingly as the most economical solution in new-build houses under draconian [and not before time] regulations for the safe and sustainable disposal of human waste. Safe disposal brought to mind some home-eddy friends of ours in West Cork, who had a bucket in the bathroom system but whose bathroom was upstairs.  All went well for many years until the fear an tí stumbled at the top of the stairs and delivered a full bucket explosively to the hallway below.

It's not all or nothing.  As Ireland moves into metered water, and we effectively have to pay for each drop, more of us are going to be less thoughtless with the flush-handle.  In 1998, we had a huge party and needed to cosset our toilet a bit.  We put a sign [not original to us!] up saying "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down."  It was too much for some of our guests to break the habit of a lifetime, but some obeyed the instruction and nobody died.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A spotlight on drowning

This time last year, I spent a long weekend with Dau.II (re)learning how to sail on Lough Derg.  As an experience, it was, like the curate's egg "good in parts": the pedestrian aspects were the best.  Having a pint in a bar before dinner and after a day in the fresh air. Getting a really tasty clam-chowder down my neck for lunch. Toasting the lake in ginger-beer from solid ground after we had wrapped up the whole experience without finishing up in the drink.  Two things I didn't mention in my report last year because they were still raw.

After two days of instruction with a competent sailor, we allowed to take the company boat out on the lake on our own for the day.  It started well, the wind was barely stroking the surface of the water, I told the office that we were heading off to the Clare shore again. When we got out on the open face of the lake the wind got up to a modest Force 4 and the boat started pick up speed and to heel over in the way it is designed to do. Suddenly the illusion of Cap'n and crew being in charge was rudely unsettled: jakers the floor wasn't even horizontal anymore. It would almost be true to say that there were a couple of puddles in the bilges of our craft that didn't come in over the side.  Luckily Sailing 101 lessons had included instructions for turning the boat into the wind to take the speed off.  We turned round before we were half-way to our intended destination and lurched and waltzed back across the lake to port. When we sat on a bench a couple of metres from the shore with a couple of bottles of ginger-beer, there was a sense of never-again.

When we went out on Sunday morning for our second day's instruction, we noticed that there was a police car on the other side of the marina, which was still there when we got back in the evening.  The previous night, a retired couple who lived on one of the yachts had been returning home after a few drinks in the pub in the village. She missed her footing and plunged into the water between dock and home and had drowned; there was nothing effective that her husband could do about it. As one of the marina workers said cynically: that yacht will be for sale soon. All assurances from the same chap that it was impossible for us to tip out of the sail-boat of which we'd been give in charge were slightly less credible given the continued presence of the police-cruiser.

This all came back to me last week because of an ad on the wireless from the RNLI lifeboats which had the chilling sentence "Half the people who drowned last year didn't intend to get wet".  A third of the coastal drownings occurred when the victims were "walking or running" for example; while only 10% involved people who were making a living on the sea. The sea can be both unpredictable and unforgiving but in absolute terms it is still less dangerous than cars. It is absolute numbers that the government should concentrate on when deciding how many tax-dollars should be spent on advice and propaganda. In 2014, in Ireland, 114 people drowned, compared to 190 dead on the roads in 2013 [most recent easily available data: 2013 RTA deaths was the first blip up after 5 years of steady decrease].  The drownings were highly skewed as to sex-ratio 80M:20F.  Men dying more by accident (50%) than suicide (25%) and women more by suicide (50%) than accident (25%). Although because of the skewed sex-ratio the common cause of death by drowning is 'accidents happening to men'.  Second in the list of 22 contributory factors is alcohol consumption; which has the ring of plausibility: young men drink too much and do silly things on the edge of the water. The sea may be unpredictable and unforgiving but, in general, you either die or you don't.  If the RNLI or the lifeguard or one of your sober pals fish you out of the drink in time you're likely to make a full recovery.  This is not so for drinking too much (or at all if current drink-driving rules are followed) and driving a car where there is a long grey desolate area between easeful death and walking away from the wreck: broken limbs, broken spine, broken hopes.  The relative hazard of water vs cars is hard to quantify but I'm sure water will kill you more effectively if measured in person-contact hours.  We all spend hours and hours on the road each year but only a few venture near or on the water with regularity.  Me, for example [I'm normal!]: I spend 2.5% of my time [225 hrs] commuting to work by car - less than I spend preparing and eating food [500 hrs] or bloggin' [750 hrs]; but that's still far more than I spend at hazard from drowning . . . walking, or running near water.

Now here's some data that I am at a loss to explain, so I'll share it uninterpreted.  UK data source. As in Ireland UK drownings disproportionately (75%) male.

Ireland UK Ratio
Total pop 4.5m 60m 1:13
RTA deaths 162 (2012) 1574 1:10
Drowning 150 218 1:1.5
In contrast to Seamus Heaney's assertion "Man to the hills, woman to the shore. (Gaelic proverb)" Irish men appear to have a dangerous, too often fatal, fascination with water.

Monday, 20 July 2015


When the girls Dau.I and Dau.II were small, we acquired a copy [I may even have bought it!] of Stronghold, a logistics and warfare game which they loaded into a an old Dell "laptop" the size of a briefcase. The idea was to acquire and manage resources - wood, stone, beer, wheat, peasants, spears - to build a castle and develop a position of power with [dis]respect to other local magnates. They played each in her own distinctive style: one more amused to maintain a happy people dancing round maypoles, talking in rustic British accents and making bread; the other more keen to "take it to Baron Corpulent" who lived on the other side of the hill.  One of the acquirable resources was  a pack of savage war-wolves which could be unleashed with deadly effect on lightly armed troops from the other side. Both of the girls are working in the catering trade but only one of them eats meat.

But I'm not here to have a nostalgia attack about how the girls learned their maths and engineering by counting arrows and mustering the materiel for making things rather than going to school.  No, today we are back to 20 July 1304 and the end of the Siege of Stirling, a telling episode in the interminable wars that were fought between England and Scotland until they were united under a single "nosmo" king in 1603, and finally achieved full political union in 1707. One of the persistent problems in Scotland's history was the early death of successive monarchs, leaving infants as the oldest direct descendants. Edward I "Longshanks" of England (b.1239; r.1272-1307) was known as Malleus Scotorum, Hammer of the Scots. But he preferred to go through the rule of law as conceived in medieval times and in the early 1290s arranged for John Balliol to be appointed King of Scotland while acknowledging that Edward was his liege. Balliol's father was the founder of Oxford's Balliol College.  That showed how intertwined were the land-holding of the magnates of those days: everyone who was anyone had land on both sides of the border and this conflict of interest made for trouble. King John lasted but four years before the impossibility of his situation, between English hammer and intransigently independent Scots anvil, became impossible.

After invading Scotland in force to bring these unwilling vassals to heel and prevent them getting too chummy with the French, Edward had cleared all resistance except the strategic castle of Stirling overlooking the then most down-stream bridge over the Forth.  The Scots garrison held out from April 1304 until Edward built the largest trebuchet [L diagrammatically] known to have been constructed in medieval times.  The diagram shows the theoretical features which hinge on mechanical advantage.  A huge (5 tons was possible) counterweight on the short side of the arm falls a short distance under gravity and shifts a smaller weight at the end of the longer arm. That smaller weight travels faster and further than the counter-weight.  The Scots in Stirling castle didn't weren't allowed to surrender until the English had actually used their new toy to knock down a section of the curtain wall. The English accounts, kept in Latin and itemising payments to carpenters and other effectives, called it Lupus Guerre which was translated as Loup-de-Guerre, Ludgar or Warwolf.

Don't imagine that the physics and engineering implied by the cartoon above is, in reality, straight-forward.  One of the issues is how to bring the counterweight back up to height after release and this was apparently solved by teams of men in two circular treadmills. 8 fit-soldiers weighing 500kg have to walk 30m in a suitably geared mill-wheel; actually it's more efficient to make t'buggers run further with better gearing ratios.  With smaller trebuchets you can achieve the mechanical advantage with a  series of pulleys but the long lengths of rope involved require constant attention to prevent kinks and tangles.

The other issue is getting your payload furthest with the mostest and this is largely about tricking about with the release mechanism [L]. A key element of the trebuchet is the sling which extends the length of the delivery arm in the same way as a pelota basket extends the arm of Basque Jai Alai players.  Extended arm means faster travel and speeds of 100km/h can be achieved. A lot of the early-modern mathematicians were employed in the field of ballistics because medieval princes wanted to get the biggest bangs for the bucks. It was soon calculated that a 45o launch would give you the furthest trajectory, but sometimes furthest is not the most desirable. Lobbing a missile beyond the far wall of the besieged town was less useful than landing a plague-dead corpse in the market square. The sling for the payload has a fixed and a ringed loose end, which is held in place by a pin [L]. The angle of the pin dictates the moment of release, and the Master Armourer would be responsible for the fine adjustments.  And of course the whole machine has to be shifted left and right to get on target.

These things were lost in the mists of time as gunpowder-based siege technology swept the world.  They have been lovingly reconstructed by the sort of chaps who dress up in cardboard armour and whack at each other with rubber swords on the anniversary of great battles of the past.  There's one which is set off regularly each Summer in Warwick Castle in central England, and another in North Wales.  But why piffle about with beams made of ash Fraxinus excelsior which you can weld a trebuchet out of scrap steel and launch a few cars into the air . . . why stop there when you can launch a car with a boat and it's trailer?  That's an interesting vid because it shows a work in progress, the missiles are flying every which way until the boys master their kit.  That's what real science is about - finding how the material world works by controlled experiments. On the all-good-fun-front, check out the annual Punkin Chunkin event in Delaware. Real engineers of course make their stuff from raw stock; bricoleurs make it from old bicycle wheels and repurposed washing-machines; wannabees go to Amazon to buy a trebuchet kit.  But a warning: don't do this at home: it could all go horribly wrong.

Punkin chunkin could qualify as an extreme example of yesterday's list of weird sports.  [Weird. adj. More interesting than baseball or soccer].  I forgot a couple of others:
Extreme ironing. "Mixes the thrill of outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt."
Mountain unicycling. Bonkers.  I wouldn't even be carried down those slopes on my sofa.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sunday sport

I object to the fact that the wireless is wall-to-wall with sporting features on Saturday and Sunday afternoon in Ireland. The only way to escape is to watch Masterchef on youtube or read a book . . . or go outside and mow the lawn.  The sports covered on the radio are wholly predictable and there is a lot missing to hear the description of a ball tooling up and down a pitch rather than actually seeing it. So now we can bring you some alternative sports of which you should be aware.  Mostly they involve very simple equipment - a plastic stool, a wheelbarrow, a cheese - and are agreeably free of rules and regulation . . . and such modern nonsense as health&safety and the never-ending imposition of insurance.

Cheese rolling.  What it says on the tin.  You roll a big cheese down a steep hill and plunge after it.  First to the bottom wins the cheese. Vagabrothers 8'30" reportMinimalist clip for 2015.
Pakour with wheelbarrow.  The latest thing to come out of Germany.  You may leave your skateboard at home.
Wife-carrying.  A long tradition in Finland as "vaimo kuljettavat" where you carry your wife round an obstacle course.  Most successful couples start, and finnish, with the woman upside down in the "Estonian" style. Vagabrothers 7'30" report. or with the Telegraph: Shorter, stronger, wetter.
Sporthocker. Another daft aus Deutschland form of parkour . . . at least you can sit down when you've finished your antics in the streets. 
Wood-chopping, Basque-style. You stand on a section of log in sneakers and chop though the wood without trimming your toe-nails.

All good fun and no more dangerous than rugger.

Old art travels fast

The iconic paintings of Lascaux are so familiar that they seem like old friends and so anatomically correct that they have been used to document the presence of now long-extinct mammals in that place and that time [R, obviously a horse; maybe Przewalski's horse E. ferus przewalskii which wasn't in Europe in historical times].  What was that time?  Somewhere around 18,000 years ago, people were painting this gorgeous and accomplished representational art.  Much better than this modern human could blob out on the roof of a cave by the light of a guttering tallow-lamp.  Earlier art exists and even earlier hand-stencils (clearly the work of an anatomically modern human!) and ochre discs go back as far as 40,000 years in Europe.

They have known about other limestone caves in other parts of the world for many years but there was a feeling that the hot wet tropics would make a the preservation of such art very difficult; and therefore Indonesian rock art most be much more recent. Well not so.  A team from U Wollongong in Australia have done some nifty science to date the earliest and latest possible dates for some wonderful pictures [and some less bonzer hand-prints] of mammals, including a probable babirusa, that were present on Sulawesi close to 40,000 years ago.

The technique hinged on the relentless accretion of calcium carbonate nodules (called cave pop-corn by the in-crowd), stalactites, stalagmites as the limestone is dissolved in the running water and recrystalised elsewhere.  In places the art-work has been varnished by datable calcium warts.  By cutting out a microcore of rock above and below the paint and analysing the relative contents of uranium vs thorium in each layer, the Wollongong team and their Indonesian collaborators have been able to date the art in one series of caves.  That fact that it appears to be as old, but not older, than the art-work of Southern Europe is remarkable.  There is no earlier art known from Africa or Australia - despite aborigines having been in Oz for 50Kyr.  The proposal that this sort of carry-on should have evolved independently at the same time at opposite ends of the range of modern humans is too unlikely to contemplate.  So we are left to conclude that itinerant artists were on the move, scoping out the local minerals, plying their trade, impressing the locals, training apprentices and painting, painting always painting. This reminds me of one of Primo Levi's great stories in The Periodic Table; Lead is about an itinerant leadsmith who walks his life away in search of new seams of heavy rock.

Movie time from Nature! Beyond the paywall (free for college people with proper infrastructure): Nature News&Views.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The math of love

Yesterday, we looked a sampling problem for boy-warriors. There is a sort of similar problem in statistics where you are trying to get the best product and need to know when to stop trying and settle down with good-enough rather than spending the rest of your life looking for The Ideal . . . house-cleaner, life-partner.  As an unBLT bloke, it is unlikely that the first girl you meet is the best possible match for the bearer of your children: those chances are 1:3,500,000,000 and falling as more potential mates get born in Africa and East Asia. You should accordingly reject that childhood sweet-heart and go on a few dates with other women.  How many other women?  There is an excellent Numberphile video which couches this problem in terms of accessing a clean toilet at a pop-festival.  I know that nobody follows my links, so I'll try to give you a flavor of Dr Symonds' arguments. Let's suppose that you've arrived on Pitcairn Island and you can date each and any of the three Tahitian girls you've kidnapped.  If you break off the relationship you cannot go back and you are trying to pick the best possible life-partner.  YMMV, of course, the girl who'd suit Fletcher Christian may not suit you. The prospect of a long-term relationship with Princess Di or "This year's Most Beautiful Woman" [People magazine says so] Sandra Bullock makes my heart sink. In what follows, a lower number is better: #1 is best but #2 is still better than #3.

If you pay your court to each girl in turn [no two-timing, there is no privacy on these desert islands], there are six possible permutations which you can experience:
First Second Third Pick First Reject 1
1 2 3 W L
1 3 2 W OK
2 1 3 OK W
2 3 1 OK W
3 1 2 L W
3 2 1 L OK
and let's say you have two strategies: 1) accept the first girl on the first blind date or 2) scope out the first girl but reject her and accept the next girl who is 'better' than the first.  I've set out the results in the table above.  First past the post gets the best solution [#1] 1/3 of the time and avoids disaster 1/3 [#2] of the time.  OTOH, the red number solution of reject first and take the next better wins 1/2 of the time and only draws the booby prize 1/6 of the time.  That's clearly a better solution and it scales up from a population of three to a population of 3 billion. But this simple strategy is subject to the law of diminishing returns as the number of available girls gets larger. Turns out that optimally you should sample 37% of the girls/toilets/cleaners [to see what's out there for choice] and then plump for the next option which is better than what you've already seen.  The mathematical argument is set out for those who don't suffer math-anxiety.  Another solution would be to get one of the cleaners to go to work on the crappy t'ilets.