Saturday, 31 October 2015

What is a man?

People in Ireland with medium-term memories will recall the name Michael Cheika as the rugby coach who brought Leinster, the rugby team, to victory in the Heineken Cup in 2009. The trophy is now the European Rugby Champions Cup which explains more accurately that it is an elite championship for local clubs in the Six Nations. Weirdly IMO, the Irish field province-wide teams Leinster, Ulster, Connaught, Munster while other countries put out city teams like Newport Dragons or Glasgow Warriors. Is it that there isn't enough ooomph in Irish club teams like Blackrock or Old Wesley? The father of the nation Éamon de Valera was a lifelong rugger fan having played it in Blackrock College [but note that the real Blackrock College claims him] when he was young and fit - it caused some inconvenience with the Gaelic Athletics Association GAA who were and are a political, as well a keep-fit, movement.

Dove, a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever, is trying to move out of the soap-is-for-girls niche and sell more of their product to the other 50% of humanity. They've started to interview Real Men and so get their logo out in association with blokes. That's an interesting marketing ploy and is probably working, not least because some of their interviews are gaining traction on youtube. Here, for example, is an interview with rugger coach Michael Cheika which is worth 40 minutes of your time if a) if you are a bloke with kids b) you have never used soap c) you like rugger but not the image d) you've bought the whole package: hard-chaw, pints of beer and fry-ups for breakfast every day. Cheika talks about
  • building a team with different shaped bricks
  • being okay about losing
  • in contrast to divorce, world peace and Ebola; it's just a game
  • but one which brings 50,000 people together in one place with a common purpose that isn't war
  • real men being Who They Are not what someone else wants them to be
  • there are many ways of being a brick
  • the importance of kindness
  • running up a hill with a smile on your face . . . or else
Warning, it's 45 minutes long so a schlep for the sound-byte generation but watching Cheika talk about training is waaay easier than running up a hill with a smile on your face.

Friday, 30 October 2015

A petunia in the onion patch

Derby Day, Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, Australia
Dateline: 30 October 1965
Shock sensation outrage as Jean Shrimpton turns up for the first day of the races without gloves . . . without a hat . . . and showing rather more thigh than Melbourne matrons were used to seeing in a grown woman [youtube hindsight]. When she arrived, assuming that nobody would notice, everyone stopped talking and stared in a show of ill-manners that exposed the conventions of the time as frumpy, intolerant, and all together too floral, my dear. The Ozzie press had a field day, shifting the Derby winner, owner, trainer and jockey off the front-page and showing the best picture of the girl and the event that they could scrabble up. The English press, scarcely less hidebound and conventional than their Australian counterparts, rushed to defend their girl; one of them coining contemptuous superiority to those Colonials with the phrase "petunia in the onion patch". There's no doubt but that Shrimpton, like Hedy Lamarr, was symmetrical.  Me, I'm glad that she and we-all have left the clipped strangled English accent that today's middle-class-southern evolved from.  She was the first super-model: paid £2000 by the textile company Dupont de Nemours to make an appearance at Melbourne races. That was more than the annual take for an average salaryman. Two years later, my father, retiring at fifty after a lifetime in the navy, pulled down a salary of £3000 to work as sales manager in electrical engineering. Dupont was the same multinational that employed Stephanie Kwolek, for far less money, to make Kevlar. I think that comparison exposes the whole silliness with which Western society divvies up the money.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Lost in translation

I was coming out from my human physiology class at the beginning of the week chatting to the last tuthree students. It's a multi-cultural group and one of them was complaining that it was hard learning all the sciencey terms in English when she hadn't quite mastered the basic anatomy in English-as-a-foreign-language. I turned to the Anglophones and said that they should stop complaining about the long words, at least they knew the word "stomach" even if they had a only a hazy notion of where it was.  Then I added that the long words were surely the same, more-or-less, between English and Polish. I picked out Polish partly because the adrift student was Polish, but also because now, in terms of fluent everyday speakers, Polish is Ireland's second language after English and before Irish and French.  I then sat down with Google-translate to compile a list that would prove my point. It started off well:
  • homeostasis; homeostaza
  • cytoplasm; cytoplazma
  • aorta; aorta
But then my theory rapidly lost support with rather complex, technical words having an unrelated term in Polish:
  • carotid artery; tętnicy szyjnej
  • kidney; nerka
  • liver; wątroba
  • pancreas; trzustka
I presume nerka and wątroba are butcher's terms: we use normal English for those things but revert to Latin roots for the adjectives renal and hepatic. The thalamus is a section of the brain right in the centre, behind the eyes, it is straight Greek: θάλαμο meaning a chamber.  The Polish term for thalamus is wzgórze which means 'hill' rather than 'chamber', but hypothalamus follows the same construction as for English: podwzgórze is underhill.  So I had all these in a list for the next class
  • thalamus; wzgórze
  • hypothalamus; podwzgórze
  • adrenal; nadnercze "stuck on the kidney"
  • pancreas; trzustka
  • colon; dwukropek
I put the list up  on the screen, partly to show the Irisher kids that life would be a lot harder for them if they were enrolled in the Kraków Instytut learning human physiology fizjologia człowieka. My handful of Polish students were only a little helpful: they knew wzgórze meant hillock but had never delved enough into anatomy to know that they had one in their head. We had a small discussion about that and then one of them, very tentative and polite, suggested that I might have the wrong word for colon "because, you know, dwukropek is the thing with two dots". Much hilarity!  With hindsight, I should have known that: dwu . . . kropek.  Curse you Google-translate, you have collapsed my street-cred again.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Philip French - gone

Philip French, the long time film critique at The Observer died from a heart attach yesterday after a long illness.  He suffered [the right word here] from Still's Disease, a rare form of arthritis which can exhibit cyclically recurring symptoms [sore throat, joint pain, pink rash, fever] that make you think "pathogen" although none has been isolated yet. In this sense, it is in the same bin as the other [rheumatoid] arthritis RA and the other all too common autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis MS. Our immune system is a system which can pull out all the stops when it comes to fighting infection: hunting out the perps in dark corners and hitting them with a number of sticks. When the immune system is all tanked up and has nowhere to vent its spleen {*} its "effectives" may start biffing our own cells: the lining of the joint-capsule in RA and the myelin sheath of neurons in MS. We don't yet know the target cells or the rigger in the case of Still's, partly and thankfully because it is quite uncommon.
{* the right metaphor here: the spleen is a potent generator of white blood cells}

French's stamina and knowledge about film were legendary. Every week for more than 30 years he a) watched up to a dozen films and then b) wrote 1000ish words of solid and insightful copy about a handful of them.  Because he worked for a great liberal newspaper, he was able to write whatever he wanted and he found a wide readership among people who may not have 'known' film but they knew what they liked and were persuadable to try something outside their comfort zone. Choosing a theme suggested by one or more of that week's films, he'd flesh out the ideas and put them into a cultural context. Not a lot different from writing a regular blog except that he was good enough and early enough to parlay his experience and creativity into a living wage. By empowering and widening the world-view of thousands of middle-Englanders he did an enormous amount for increasing the concentration of compassion, tolerance and appreciation of The Other. A recent interview with Philip French.

His favorite movie of all time was a dark timeless morality play called Bad Day at Black Rock (1955 dir John Sturges, stellar cast) in which one-armed war-veteran Spencer Tracey, in his last film, turns up at Nowheresville, Boondock County looking for the family of a dead fellow-combatant. He's not to be bullied.  You can scoot through a long list of reviews written by French: Stalag 17 - The Manchurian Candidate - The Ladykillers - Au Revoir Les Enfants [a take from Siskel & Ebert] - My Dinner with André [previously on The Blob].  The last two films in the list were directed by Louis Malle.  His autobiography Malle on Malle [available for $0.01] is based on a series of interviews of le grand fromage by Philip French.  Like this: My Dinner with Louis ??

Roger Ebert, the late, great American film critic, passed on in 2013, now Philip French.  Whoever is writing film reviews in English now is standing on the shoulders of giants.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Art of Creation

It's John "Python" Cleese's birthday today [1939]. This time last year his autobiography "So, Anyway ..." was published: to mixed-to-savage reviews: Reactograph; Mail; Spectator. The deal with modern publishing is that you set off on a punishing round of book-signings and 2 minute interviews on talk-shows . . . otherwise the book won't sell and neither your agent, the publisher, the editor nor you will make any money. The talk-show host will not have read your book, the questions will be pedestrian and you have to be out of the studio on a flight to Wichita within the hour.  Occasionally, if you are a big enough star, you'll get to be interviewed in a theatre by someone who has read your book and, furthermore, brings something of their own to the table. That makes it much more interesting for everyone concerned and if it gets recorded and popped up on youtube, then you might sell many books.  This is how I tuned into John Hodgman interviewing John Cleese in an extended 'chat' about the book.  John Hodgman is the thinking man's comedian, very cerebral and ironic. I came across him in an early TED talk several years ago: clever-quirky.

It's quite an interesting dialogue when they start to talk about creativity. Cleese, being an intellectual "ahem! Cambridge" as well as a comedian, actor, writer and director, has read Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation, which has a chapter investigating humour and Henri Bergson's book about laughter
Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique. Cleese goes on to say that he read these fat volumes to see if they had anything to add to his own experience of inducing, or failing to induce, laughter.  There is a certain hubris in that equivalence: Three Men in a Boat (?!):
  1. As a journalist and writer Koestler may have done more than any single person to expose the hypocrisies and sullen violence of totalitarianism - read Darkness at Noon: you'll worry less about having enough credit for your iPhone. 
  2. Henri Bergson was the giant of early 20thC French philosophy who, in his spare time, won the 1927 Nobel Prize for Literature. The long list of smart people who have taken the trouble to disagree with Bergson indicates how disturbing his ideas are. I'm not going to bother reading Le Rire, even in English translation: I know I shall get strangled by the long words.
  3. John Cleese.
That analysis is quite catty but not half so grumpy and bitter as the reviews of Cleese's book cited at the top. Koestler's Act of Creation [Executive summary] I have read, not least because it spends a chunk of time looking at creativity in science as well as in humour and The Arts. Indeed it is as good a bridge as any for the gap between the Two Cultures which all my needle about the Arts Block attempts to expose. Koestler suggests that creativity hinges on "the perceiving of a situation or idea ... in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference". This was classically vindicated in [my telling of] the solving of Fermat's Last Theorem by Andrew Wiles.

The Hodgman interview led me, via the youtube sidebar to a very similar situation at College Tours with Twan Huys and an introduction and subtitles in Dutch. Now I know that stage-fright is plankenkoorts.  One of the many points made by Cleese is that, for him [and by extension any creative person], you need calm and quiet to hear the discord in your mind whose resolution leads to an Aha! moment.  As he sees it, there is very little space in the modern world to hear the still small voice of calm through the earthquake wind and fire of social media immediacy and dingling smart-phones.  I would add
           [4. Bob the Scientist]
that you have to have something in your head to set up the incompatible frames of reference. In science, that requires embedding yourself in the literature, experimental results, half-articulated ideas and rival theories of your field.  Only then do you have a chance of making a really creative contribution.

The final question in the College Tours encounter asks Cleese if he has any advice for the youth of today. His answer is that, after 75 years on the planet he has come to believe that a lot of his progress [and by extension the progress of other creative people] has been due to luck.  That's a rather bleak assessment, although it handily exposes the illusion that the world ticks according to a meritocracy.  But he the adds that the correct response to a random world is to be persistent. The chances of you landing the dream contract or the optimum life-partner on the first go-round are vanishingly small but they can be substantively increased if you keep plugging away. That's helpful advice. I'll add that you should also cultivate a degree of self-belief lest you be undermined by a succession of rejections from people who are far less talented than you are.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Pecorino romano

Pecorino [L mmmmm, so good] is one of the famous Italian hard cheeses; the other being Parmigiano Reggiano aka Parmesan. Unlike Actimel, a modern hard-marketed "good-bacteria" confection, hard cheeses have a history and tradition going back at least as far as the ancient Romans. We have some idea about how the Romans made cheese back in the old days because Lucius Junius Columella (b Gades=Cadiz in the year 4 CE) wrote De Re Rustica The book about Roman agricultural practice. His advice was to use rennet from lamb Ovis aries or kid Capra hisrcus but he also acknowledged the use of vegetable rennet from the dried thistle Cirsium vulgare flowers. Varro [previously], the other go-to-guy for Roman food lore, reported the use of hare Lepus europaeus rennet. Regardless of the source of rennet, cheese-makers should use a weight equivalent to a single denarius or the size of an olive to every bucket of milk; not more: over-egging the pudding lets the enzyme work through all the protein and start action on the fats so you finish up with a rather rancid [butyric acid etc.] product. From Columella's descriptions, the methods for making cheese have remained essentially the same for 2000 years.

This ceramic fragment [R from the BBC] was found just outside the village of Stilton in 2006 by a local potter called Richard Landy. Hat-tip to Gdau's mother (and a person in her own right!). It was identified as a cheese press by the County Council Archaeologist Dr Philippa Walton and dated to the 3rdC CE, because it was recognisably similar to lots of other contemporaneous artifacts which have been called cheese presses since Victorian times. Cheese makers beg to differ. If it's a cheese press then you would expect to find a 'follower' for every press but, in the experience of one farmer-cheesemaker-archaeologist, such flat disks to serve as a lid for the press have never been found.  Others point out that the flared sides of the press would allow several to be stacked one on top / inside the other.  And WTF, the cheesies ask, is with the deep ridges in the base?  The holes are for draining the whey, of course, but no modern cheese has these [decorative? homage to the Earth-mother?] concentric groove-and-ridge arrangements. The consensus seems to be that cheese "press" is wrong-wrong-almost-right: cheese drainers is more likely.  The likelihood of these artifacts being connected with some sort of dairy process was underlined by a 2012 study from Bristol U [and Gdansk and Princeton]: Mélanie Salque and her boss Richard Evershed ran a much older pierced pot-sherd through their gas chromatograph and discovered a cornucopia of fats, alkanes, di- and tri-acylglycerols, ketones and alcohols. Just what you'd expect if you allowed milk to deteriorate for 7000 years. When we make Christmas cake in January it allows for 11 months of tipping an occasional  shot of whiskey over the top to improve the flavour.  Maybe the grooves in Roman cheese served as gutters to allow a similar dosing-for-incorporation with brine, or lead acetate, or whatever-you're-having-yourself.

If you haven't got a potter in the neighborhood to make you a roman cheese press, you can still give your cheese a damned good squeezing using a 'stilton knot', whereby three corners of a square cheese-cloth are gathered together and tied with the fourth.  The knot can be incrementally forced against the cheese mass as it loses moisture, so that you finish up with a neat round of cheese with a distinctive belly-button on the top.

The Blob had a slice about Roman bread from Pompeii a couple of months ago. I can see I'll have to follow this up with a more complete investigation of Roman diet including their notorious fish-sauce and the details of peeling grapes.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Sunday surf share 251015

It's St Crispin's Day and the 600th (!) anniversary of the slaughter at Agincourt.

Bob Pretty

I have an understandable interest in Bobs. Bob the Island, Bob the Point, Bob the Province, Bob the Builder, Bob the Asteroid, Bob the Socratic, Bob the Gypsy, Bob the Thunderer, Bob the Farrrrmer, Bob the Cheap have all made an appearance on The Blob, some briefer than others.  Then I was looking across the room at the floor-to-ceiling book-case from my home-base on the sofa and thought it was time to offer tribs to W.W. Jacobs.  Who he?  I mentioned him a while ago as a off-piste author whose works I cherish.

I discovered his writings back in the days when I used to do yard-sales and church-sales accumulating historical atlases and Swahili dictionaries against the day when we would have more children who would need education. Many WW Jacobs stories are nautical in nature, echoing and elaborating tales remembered from his childhood fossicking around the London docks of Wapping and Bermondsey where his father was a wharf-manager. As a navy brat, I am favorably predisposed to books that go down to the sea again to the lonely sea and the sky [cue Masefield sounding like WB Yeats; or less sententious by Tom O'Bedlam]. As he was born in 1863, Jacobs' experience was at least as much with wherries, barges and lighters as it was with craft driven by steam or diesel engines. He did write several novels but he also submitted a great number of short-stories to the periodicals that flourished before wireless and television cornered the market in light entertainment from the 1930s. You may find wearing his attempts to render phonetically the dialect of his working-class protagonists but the same could be said of Kipling who had shares in the company that produced apostropes:
The uniform 'e wore   
Was nothin' much before,   
An' rather less than 'arf o' that be'ind,
Jacobs' reputation now lies almost entirely on his authorship of a ghost story called The Monkey's Paw which has frightened the bejaysus out of boy-scouts for the last 100 years and was filmed in 1948 and more recently in 2013. I've no time for that sort of stuff but his gentle, ironic, funny stories about ordinary folk in slightly out of the ordinary situations are worth the ten minutes it takes to read them.  A very common trope in the collection is to have the story started off one of two elderly men.

One is the nightwatchman on a London wharf who has a fund of comeuppance tales about three sailors ashore between v'yages. Their names are Peter Russett, old Sam Small and Ginger Dick and they usually contrive to piss all their money away in an astonishing variety of ways almost before they've found lodgings ashore. The stories are simple enough but you want to watch out for the throw-away remarks which are doubly funny because they are unexpected. The innocent are there to be bilked as the sheep are there to be shorn but nobody dies. Peter's Pence is reasonably typical.

After he married, Jacobs moved with his family to the suburb of Loughton in Essex before it got entirely drowned in urban sprawl.  He recast the village as 'Claybury' with a pub called the Cauliflower which has a permanent resident in an long retired peasant who idles the days away cadging drinks off passers-by. Anyone who buys the old codger a pint will get a story as sure as you can now get money from an ATM if you have a PIN. But it's delightful how many ways a stranger can be artlessly persuaded to do the right thing by the oldest inhabitant. The anti-hero in this thread of tales is Bob Pretty, the local poacher, fixer and bamboozler who always turns out to be innocent of whatever outrage is committed on the other villagers and is painfully hurt that any of his neighbours would think badly of him  . . . again.

It looks like almost the entire oeuvre of WW Jacobs has been put on line by The Literature Network.  It's not as good as reading his stories in an old cloth binding printed in 1924 but it's all there.  Enjoy, I did.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Winds of Change

Just four weeks ago, I went all Armageddon on you by flagging a temperature anomaly in the North Atlantic.  The naive physics of it is that a or ml of water weighs, by definition, 1g; whereas a of air weighs 1.2mg.  Water has about 800x the mass per equivalent volume. Increasing the temperature of 1 lt of water by 1oC will bring up the temperature of 800 lt of air as things equilibrate.  That's what causes the winds: as this warmed air surges upwards and is replaced by cooler air from the surface surroundings.  Not quite a Dresden fire-storm but the principle is the same. I suggested that the pool of cold water in the Atlantic may shift the Gulf Stream further South and make for a cold dry winter here in Ireland. On the other side of the World, The Blob has been warming the air above and shifting the weather in quite unpredictable ways.

Nearer the tropics in the Pacific, El Niño is shaping up to be the second most massive example of this cyclical weather pattern since records began.  Previous biggies have been 1982-83 and 1997-98 and last night the meteorologists were telling us that El Niño had spawned the heftiest wet wind-storm ever recorded with sustained winds over 320 km/h and gusting even rougher. This would make it a category 7 hurricane if the scale didn't stop at category 5 = anything above 250km/h. To put that into parochial perspective, the Darwinday Storm of February 2014, had highest recorded winds of about 160km/h and that's the gusts not the sustained blowing. We're still clearing up the consequences. Hurricane Patricia, as they have called this monster is going to make landfall against the West Coast of Mexico this weekend with unbelievable storm-surges to flush everything that falls out to sea. 250km/h will take your car over a roadside hedge.  It is certainly comparable to Typhoon Haiyan that ripped through the Phillipines in 2013: Tacloban experienced 5m high storm surges at that time, which looked frighteningly like a tsunami. The best guess is that the force of Patricia will be broken by the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental but carry on into Texas where it will deliver up to 200mm of rain - 2 months supply - in a few hours. Sometime later it will be hosing down over our friends in New England and the Canadian Maritimes. STOP PRESS: the force of the storm is dissipating rapidly as it hits the coast between Puerta Vallarta and Manzanillo.  The people who abandonned their vacations at P.V. may have over-reacted.

In the medium term, they are also predicting a wet winter in California, which might sound like a good thing after a four year sustained drought has withered the fruit on the orchard trees. Nobody wants the rain all at once, though!  Furthermore, there is historical precedent for mega El Niños to swap out for a compensatory La Niña - the drying antidote to to the excesses of El Niño. There is a cunning plan afoot to re-introduce beavers Castor canadensis to the wilder upland parts of California to slow down the travel of water and retain it in slower, ponded rivers and streams. The clean fresh water of rain is getting to be an ever more precious commodity.  We don't have a great record for conserving it and trickling it out; beavers couldn't do a worse job!

What it looks like to Millennial Me is not so much that we have global warming but that we are due for much greater extremes of weather as the homeostasis of the last several thousand years breaks apart. I'm telling you this now, friends, so you can get to the shops before your neighbors. First World list including Spam, pepper-shaker and non-dairy creamer.  Costco's $800 Armageddon Food Package is more about shelf-life: "Freeze-dried foods have a shelf life of up to 25 years.  And the list of essential hardware is long.

Friday, 23 October 2015


Sometimes you are brought up short by a revelation about something you've known for 50 years.  In the course of my very expensive education, I learned, and embedded, stuff at the age of 10 or 11 which the current generation of students are being taught at the age of 18. Take Latin: I was utter crap at Latin in school; I never did the home work and when required to 'construe' [translate] the doings of Caesar or Pompey would blurt out complete nonsense. But some of it stuck and it helps making sense of species names in biology. I won't easily forget how to calculate the area of a triangle [h * b/2] or the beautiful derivation [R] for that rote-learned formula.
In QM [remedial math] class last week, the kids were required to calculate the surface area of a solid hemisphere having been given the radius and the formula. It's not difficult but requires attention to check that all the elements have been accounted for before lashing down the answer spat out by the omni-present calculator.  The two elements are the area of a the flat circular base + the area of half of a sphere with the same diameter.  π*r2 + 2π*r2.  Last week, I was explaining to one of the lads that a solid hemisphere requires not only half the sphere but also the base [a very Latin construction that - non solum . . .  sed etiam was a cliché that appeared regularly in Caesar's Gallic Wars].  I am often brought up all standing by the holes in the education of the young: you can assume nothing as 'obvious to all thinking people'.  I final digression: in the pre-Quiz I set in the first class was "If the hub-caps on my car are 35cm in diameter [I measured, it's a Yaris], what is their surface area?" about 20% of the kids didn't know what was a hub-cap so their answer A = 35 x 35 = 1225 was correct in their hub-capless universe.

When you write π*r2 + 2π*r2 it becomes 'obvious' that the area of spherical part is exactly twice that of the flat base.  I may well have noticed that in my math-laden teenage years but it struck me as being almost mystically surprising and internally consistent last week.  It's obvious that you require more paint for the curve than the flat base but exactly 2x as much?

The fact that a sphere's surface area is 4π*r2 is more difficult to prove than the triangle, so I'll refer you to two quite different methods on youtube: mostly geometry and mostly calculus.  Another observation known to Pythagoras and his pals was that the surface area of a sphere is exactly equivalent to a circumscribing cylinder [L] excluding the lids on the cylinder. The cylinder area is easy to work out if you can imagine getting some tin-snips [pause to deal with "Excuse me Dr Scientist, what are tin-snips?"] and cutting up the seam [think tin of beans] of the cylinder and flattening it out into a rectangle.  The shorter side or height of this rectangle [shown L] is 2r and the longer side is πd or π2r so the area is 2r * π2r = 4πr2 !
I'm sorry if you think this is all obvious to the point of dull but it's qualitatively the sort of wonder that later and greater mathematicians reserved for the extraordinary connexion between π [the ratio between a circle and its diameter], e [the base of natural logarithms]  and i [the square root of -1] known as Euler's identity [formula R]. Gauss [the little snot] from his seat on Cloud Nine of Mathematics said "if this formula was not immediately obvious, the reader will never be a first-class mathematician".  It leads to a thigh-slappin' math-geek joke:
Q. How many mathematicians does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. One! = -eiπ
And while we're on nerd-geek hilarity, I'll share a limerick that was going the rounds when my long-dead dad was in school and has recently surfaced to delight a smart young medical student of my acquaintance:
a dozen, a gross and a score
plus three times the square root of four
divided by seven
plus five times eleven
is nine squared and not a bit more

Thursday, 22 October 2015


Aspirin is just about the only medication I take.  I used to pop vitamin C as we approached Winter but the evidence for its efficacy is so marginal that I decided this time last year that I wouldn't put myself in thrall to 50mg of grass-skirt and maracas.  I was going up to Dublin after work a couple of weeks ago and felt the beginning of a whiff of a headache, so I chewed up one aspirin and before I got to the motorway, the headache was gone.  Call it placebo, but for me it almost always works thus.  But then I only take about one aspirin a year so it's not a  reliably large dataset. I don't do paracetamol [aka acetaminophen phenacetin]: it just wasn't part of our very limited pharmacopoeia when I was growing up.  I've also absorbed the information that death by paracetamol is a particularly grim way to kill yourself because it destroys the liver without, usually, drifting you off to quietus.  By the time symptoms start, and they are horrible, or you have second thoughts, it is too late to administer the antidote.

Aspirin, au contraire, has a chance of precipitating Reye's Syndrome - especially in children.  But that definitely hadn't surfaced as a possibility when I was young.  Reye's is a peculiar disease that triggers liver malfunction and occasionally this upsets some homeostatic balance so that fluid builds up on the brain: even if your kid is not one of the 20% who dies, a trip to intensive care is often indicated and there is a strong likelihood of long-term damage. That is one side of the risk assessment.  The other side is that Reye's is extremely rare: about 6 cases for every million children and that made it difficult to make the association between aspirin and the clatter of characteristic symptoms of encephalopathy which were described by Australian physician Douglas Reye and his colleagues in 1963. The association with aspirin, especially when used to counter the temperatures induced by influenza and other viruses was noted by Dr Karen Starko and others after a case/control study in 1980.  It took 6 years and several other studies to convince the FDA to change the warning labels on aspirin. Sales of aspirin took a hammering after the news got out and those of paracetamol got a complementary boost.  It's a good example of the precautionary principle: better not to use aspirin with children because the adverse consequences, though rare, are really adverse. The incidence of Reye's has collapsed over the last 30 years and is now bumbling along at about 1 case per million.  There are far more likely causes of childhood mortality to worry about - like taking your child to swimming, cello, hip-hop or drama classes in a car.

I thought that was all we had to know about aspirin but last week I came across a 2009 article by Karen Starko [again] in which she claims that aspirin has probable cause for being implicated in the disproportionate death rate among fit young adults during the 1918 influenza pandemic.  This has always been a bit of a mystery: it's usually the very old or very young and/or poorly fed who peg out when there are epidemics. In my own mind, I've explained it (superficially) as getting killed by an over-active inflammatory response to the viral insult. What kills you in cholera is that the toxins produced by Vibrio cholerae trigger an immune response that calls for a dramatic flush-through in the intestine: you die by dehydration.  If you can keep clean fluids up for a couple of days then the bugs calm down and/or go elsewhere and you survive. Dr Starko observes that one of the symptoms of aspirin poisoning is pulmonary oedema: you can't breathe efficiently if your lungs are full of fluid.  Back in 1918, doctors were recommending quite large doses of aspirin to reduce the influenza-driven pain and fever and may, unwittingly, have killed even more of their patients than normal. Could be; hard to test; and we're unlikely to repeat the mistake after all the Reye's brouhaha.

One other bit of murk in the history of aspirin is a controversy about who did what in the laboratories of the German chemical giant Bayer. The standard story is that aspirin was first synthesised by a Bayer chemist called Felix Hoffmann.  This is what Hoffman put about, even citing a specific date - 10 August 1897 - when the protocol was finally sorted out. This was disputed by his line-boss Arthur Eichengrün who maintained that Hoffman was just a pair of hands doing Eichengrün's bidding. Shades of Lemaitre and Hoffmann here: everyone wants to be associated with a success strory. The fact that the older man was trying to defend his reputation writing from the Theresienstadt concentration camp adds a bit of needle to the haystack of claims. Eichengrün was banged up in the camp because he had failed to make it sufficiently clear that he and his company were 'Jewish'. Even without the stuff about aspirin, his reputation would be held up high by his development of protargol in 1897; it was for two generations the drug of choice against gonorrhoea.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Another mouthful

There is a huge, complex and infinitely fascinating ecosystem real close to my heart: about 15cm South in the transverse loop of my colon. Of course, it's only 'huge' in the fractal sense: it's much smaller that the Serengeti but it now has almost as many named species. Remember Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron ? It has a curiously long name whose origins I've still not been able to explain and it does useful things in our guts. Up until last night, I hadn't even heard of another polysyllabic microbe Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, let alone hazarded spelling it correctly. In contrast to B.θιο, there is no mystery in the name. It is the only species in its "Poo-bugs" genus and the specific name honours the late great German microbiologist Otto Prausnitz. DNA evidence wrenched it from the genus Fusobacterium 20 years ago. That was a very strange place to put F. prausnitzii because it is more closely related to Gram-positives like Clostridium than the Gram-negative Fusobacterium. There is also increasingly less mystery about its function which is important because it makes up between 5%-15% of the gut flora in healthy adult humans. For a single species out of the 1000-10000 bacterial types 'down there' that makes it a big player probably the most numerous.

Normally, your intestine, and mine, is in balance. It's not a monoculture of E.coli or F.prausnitzii or anything else. Harry Sokol and Philippe Langella in Jouy-en-Josas, France are working on the interface between gut microbes and host health and happiness. One of their key findings is that F.prausnitzii is conspicuous by its absence in people with inflammatory bowel disease IBD. IBD manifests in a suite of uncomfortable symptoms and is given different names depending on how flarey-uppy, how bloody and how persistent these symptoms are: ulcerative colitis UC, irritable bowel syndrome IBS, Crohn's Disease CD. The absence appears to be because F.prausnitzii is extremely oxygen sensitive EOS.  One of the effects of an inflammatory response is to send in a bunch of white blood cells that release reactive oxygen species ROS to clean up the threat. This takes out at least for a while. But one of the biochemical capabilities of is the produce lots of butyrate by partial oxidation of glucose. Butyrate has been shown to reduce the severity of inflammation in colitis when, for example, added to the darkness intra-rectally. Because of its extreme sensitivity to oxygen, it is difficult to grow on a petri dish in the lab. Clostridium difficile C.diff , a relative, is also, like Eleftheria terrae, notoriously difficult to culture. But progress has been made in working out a cocktail of additives [flavins and cysteine or glutathione] that will allow laboratory culture. That's good because you can then imagine scaling up to produce a generous handful of that can be introduced to suppress IBD.  This approach has shown considerable success against C.diff, which is a single rogue species that gets the upper hand in peculiar and particular circumstances - like in hospital after a heavy dose of anti-biotics.  With IBD it's not so easy because IBD is a wholesale shift in the make-up of the microbiota.

Think Serengeti.  Even after 60 years of studying the East African ecosystem, we have a very superficial understanding of the interactions. Literally superficial because we haven't a bog's notion about the role of the soil microbiota.  If one species of antelope or monkey gets uppity the managers of the wild-life reserve could perhaps deal with it: rifle, virus, predator. Although many such rough, simplistic human 'remedies' create as many problems as they solve - like cane toads Bufo marinus Rhinella marina in Australia. If it rains for 60 days straight and the Ngorongoro crater next door to Serengeti fills up with water and half the inhabitants drown then a quick-fix is less conceivable.
I started off down this rabbit hole after reading a 26th Feb 2015v Nature Supplement: Innovations in the Microbiome.  It's all behind a goll-darned paywall, though!  Harry Sokol seems to be on ResearchGate, I'll have to work out how to 'upvote' or 'like' or 'thumbs-up' his work and resist the temptation to endorse-bomb the poor fellow.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Echt Toll

Christiane Volhard was born on 20 October 1942 >!today!< near Magdeburg in the Eastern part of Germany. They escaped to the West after the war and she grew up in Frankfurt. After a workaday PhD at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen working on gene expression in Escherichia coli, she decided to switch to the study of drosophila development. She was briefly married to a chap called Nüsslein and Nüsslein-Volhard became her distinctive scientific handle. She overlapped for a few months with a just finished PhD student in the same lab called Eric Wieschaus who helped her find her feet in her new field.  After pursuing their careers in different directions and different places for several years, they washed up together again at EMBL in Heidelberg in 1978.  It was one of the great, productive, hardest-working, scientific friendships of the late 20thC.

If you want to see a scientific collaboration that really delivered you can't do better that watch a delightful two-hander when she and Eric Wieschaus [R in the late 1980s] look back on the old days when they were young and at the very peak of their game.  Sydney "apoptosis" Brenner and Francis "DNA" Crick famously shared an office for twenty years and bounced ideas off the walls, some of which turned out to be really valuable insights into how the biological world worked. EW & CN-V shared an even smaller office and made it work for them and for science. You can't be crammed up against another person in this way without a mutual respect.  They both recognise that their unique talent is the capacity for observation; they were both really good at detecting uber-subtle differences from "normal" in a screening factory for mutants in developing fruit-fly Drosophila melanogaster larvae.  When they were in the tiny lab adjacent to their minute office a key piece of kit was a top-of-range optical microscope with two sets of eye-pieces.  They were scanning through hundreds of fly larvae bearing mutations, looking for those that changed the pattern and process of development. They'd know simultaneously that this slide was interesting and their friendly rivalry hinged on one being 2 or 3 seconds ahead of the other in claiming gold.  The interesting mutations were so rare that normal people would easily become slide-after-slide-after-slide inattentive - like being a quality controller on auto-pilot in a Saab factory.

She is famous in the legends of science for being so taken aback by one of the mutants that she cried out "Das ist ja toll!", [toll previously] presumably just before Eric twigged what they was looking at. Maybe he'd stepped out of the lab for a moment. This mutant was all belly and no back and so the complement to an earlier mutant that they had named dorsal.  It turns out that the proteins derived from these genes are part of the same biochemical signalling pathway: toll near the top - embedded in the cell wall detecting incoming signals - and dorsal near the end where it acts as a 'transcription factor' [homologous with mammalian NF-κB] switching on genes in the nucleus.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Eric Wieschaus and Ed Lewis scooped the 1995 Nobel Prize for their ground-breaking work in understanding embryonic development, one of the great miraculous mysteries of biology. How does a fertlised egg [N=1 cell] come to be an adult human [N=100 trillion cells] that is recognisably different from her dog which started off from essentially the same zygotic starting-blocks?

Toll was clearly important in the control of embryonic development: it sets up the dorso-ventral axis without which no growing, dividing cells will know where they are or where they are meant to be.  It was a staggering surprise when in 1996, Bruno Lemaitre and his boss Jules Hoffmann, working at CNRS in Strasbourg, discovered that flies mutant in Toll were abnormally prone to fungal attack [L adult fruit-fly riddled with fungal growth - the furry cardigan is a web of fungal mycelia]. The immunological importance of Toll and its pathway was emphasised when Janeway & Medzhidov and Bruce Buetler realised that mammals had homologs to Toll that were vital for correct immune function. We've met their favorite toll-like receptor TLR4 before sweeping TLR3 and TLR5 aside in its demands for attention. Hoffmann and Buetler shared the 2011 Nobel Prize, the others here named did not [ooops?!].

If the 1995 Nobel went to Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus for discovering the first insect TLR Toll and the 2011 went to Buetler and Hoffmann for first nailing the immunological function of the mammalian TLR TLR4, do you think that the 2027 Nobel will come our way for discovering and characterising the first avian specific TLR TLR15?  No, I don't either unless and until the 20 billion [!!] imprisoned chickens break loose and take over the world. It might, however, go to those who are re-claiming a developmental function for TLR in mammals after TLRs-in-immunology took all the attention over the last 20 years: you know who you are.

We are so amazed when a woman makes it to the top in the boy's world of science that interviewers always ask her about being a woman in science rather than about being a scientist. As I paraphrased Dr Curmudgeon last year:  "Sir, a woman's sciencing is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." CN-V talks [briefly] in a Nobel interview about the lack of respect that women who aspire to be scientists are likely to attract and expresses a dilemma about whether she is doing girls any favours by encouraging them to edge into the boy's club.  Nevertheless, in 2004 she set up the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Stiftung a foundation to help young women scientists juggle their careers with the exigencies of family life. So she clearly does believe in science for women and women for science and has coughed up a wodge of money to endorse this feeling. She is indeed echt toll; prima; fantastisch; klasse; wunderbar!
Mützen ab! und alles Gute zum Geburtstag!

Monday, 19 October 2015

It's just an epigenetic phase

There's an arresting moment in Michael Sandel's Harvard lecture series on Justice when he asks his audience who is an only child or the firstborn. Virtually everyone in the room puts up their hand, with the implication that younger sons and daughters are grinding away in some State School because they weren't smart enough to make the Ivy League. One implication of that is: parents lavish care and attention on Dau.I and run out of steam or interest or money for Dau.II, Dau.III and Son.IV.  The idea that some hormonal change makes second and subsequent children duller, if not exactly dullards, is hard to credit. On the other hand, you could note that rich well-connected families are small, while large families come from poorer neighbourhoods which have crappier schools. I think the status of this is that the observation is true but a widely accepted explanation is still awaited. If you a) haven't seen the Sandel Justice lectures b) have teenage children; then they are recommended.  We sat through a chunk of them before Dau.II left home as leaven from serial binge episodes of House, Desperate Housewives, Masterchef and The Wire.

It appears that birth order may affect whether you will grow up gay.  Seems that with each older brother blokes become a third more likely to love blokes. That doesn't mean that all fourth boys are gay; it means that if, say, 5% of #1s are gay then 6.6% of #2s are and 8.8% of #3s. If that's true, and we're still citing only that 2006 study, we're still adrift about the chemical / psychological /genetic mechanisms by which the phenomenon is achieved. Until the observation is incontrovertible, it is a waste of time to talk about, for one widely circulated example, the maternal immune system getting increasingly fed up with all the extra testosterone down there.  Now my pal El Asturiano has flagged a link in the most recent Nature which suggests that gay is probably not genetic but might be epigenetic. He also came up with the neat title to this post.

Epigenetics is a rather hot topic in genetics these past 5 or 10 years. Most famously in the investigations of the Dutch Hongerwinter of 1944-1945.  After the failure of Operation Market Garden [bloboprevious] when capturing Arnhem became A Bridge Too Far, occupied Netherlands suffered a terrible famine because the Germans diverted all available food to their core territory and the Allies were not in a position to make up the calorie deficit. A study in 2008 reported that children who were in utero during those desperately hard times grew up smaller than their siblings who were in process when their mother was comparatively better fed both before and after 1944. In particular they noted that the gene for insulin-like growth factor II (IGF2) was methylated in such a way as to damp down the effectiveness of its growth-promoting protein.  These epigenetic changes don't effect the underlying DNA but they definitely alter the way genes work . . . and the changes can persist into subsequent generations. You can imagine why such epigenetic control might be a good idea: if times are tough and belts are tight you need to be small and hardy to survive but the system needs to be flexible because cyclical good times favour fatter and taller offspring.  John Greally [see below] has written an informative editorial about the current status of epigenetic studies.

The genetics of gay has always been a bit of a conundrum because it is hard to work out how such a trait could be 'adaptive'. Gay people are surely less likely to have offspring than their heterosexual siblings because we are still ultimately dependent on one sperm and one egg to start the next generation and straight people can achieve this union with rather less trouble [5 minutes in the car-park outside a disco is all that is strictly necessary]. Everything-is-driven-by-selection people are therefore reduced to more subtle arguments about women benefitting if they have a gay brother on hand to help with the household chores and raising lots of nieces and nephews. A Nature report finding epigenetic tags to certain genes to be more common among homosexual men is the sort of thing that keeps the journal afloat as the general science journal of record.  Nature is fully commercial and much of the content is firmly behind their paywall, so material that is freely available may have slipped through the editorial process as too-sexy-to-turn-down. And even a cursory reading of the report should set your skepdar a-whirling because the key finding is based on only 37 hetero-homo identical twin pairs AND was only correctly predictive in 2/3rds of the cases. They report "UCLA computational geneticist Tuck Ngun [the lead author] will present the work on 8 October at the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Baltimore, Maryland".  It's coincidental only in The Blob (because I read Natures out of sync) that just two weeks ago I was writing about a psychological study published by Nature that also allowed sexy to outweigh grossly under-powered to get something into print which should not have been published at all. And it would be good if the editors at Nature would reflect on their own failings when they take the high moral ground to criticise systemic failings in other areas of science and politics.

Well it seems that there was some robust criticism when these sketchy findings were presented to several hundred active researchers at ASHG15 rather than an editorial board that wanted a bit of spicy copy. Among them was John Greally who gave a really stonking talk to Irish Binfos two years ago in Galway.  He was at ASHG15 and blogs about the tearing asunder of the study, and also about the review process that should have stopped the publishing of such a weak preliminary study much earlier.  There's a great pop-sci summary of the methodological flaws in The Atlantic. It's really refreshing to have  a skeptical, clearly written critique of science and the flaws of the scientific process in a glossy magazine. There is another seam of comment and opinion on Metafilter. Now it may turn out that this little dataset is the first feather in the wind of our understanding the developmental under-pinnings of homosexual attraction; but on its own, as it stands, not yet replicated, it means . . . nothing.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

100000 PVs

A milestone sort of day: The Blob passes 100,000 pageviews.  This is, therefore, all about you Dear Reader. We just passed 1000 posts = kiloblob and for the last two years+ they've been going up at a tad over 1 per day, so you might think that each post gets about 100 reads.  It doesn't work like that, however, because all most all the the PVs are to the opening page rather than to a particular post. At the moment The Blob is getting about 150 strikes a day [R showing PVs/day over the last month] , sometimes a little less than 100 [I get worried that a steep decline to oblivion in imminent] and very few days it scrapes over 200 [I delude myself that I'm about to go viral and start schmoozing with Justin Bieber].

As both of my friends live in Ireland, and as I do quite a bit of strictly local parish-pump stuff, I'm not surprised that Ireland provided the biggest chunk of Bloboreaders.  They have, however, recently been topped out by Merkins who are about 70x more numerous and have a high proportion of native English speakers.  I continue to be bemused by the number of readers from Russia [N=144m] and Ukraine [N=44m].  It might be because of an early post twinning Irish counties with Ukrainian Oblasts.  But that can't be the only explanation because I have virtually no readers from Belarus [N=9.5m] despite my linking their Voblasts with the 6 counties of Ulster.  The top 10 sources account for +80% of the traffic to The Blob, so there is a rather long tail.

Pageviews in a blog are a bit like citations for scientific papers: they peak a few months after publication and then disappear to a trickle over the succeeding decades. I don't expect any of my papers from the 1990s to get any more notice.  Hot as they were back then, science has moved on and folks are now citing more recent material. Some of my posts have been 'important' because I'm saying something new and interesting but much of the material here is strictly ephemeral and is in no sense timeless. Apart from that, some of it is impenetrable: not even I can understand what I was going on about in some of the earlier material.  Nevertheless, with my two-week event horizon, it's fun to pick random material from the Blobopast.  I think that must be what happens because older posts tend to have more PVs than more recent. I am up on the top page of Google for some stuff: I'm #1 for "Maude Delap" above Wikipedia for example. That's quite gratifying because I have been compiling a List of Women in Science which I think is rather good but which gets very little attention. ANNyway, 4 Blobs in the list below of posts with >200 strikes are these little essays about women making their way in a boy's world. The green Blobs seem to be accidental or from spam-attack because there really isn't anything in them that justifies the interest.
The World through Geoguessr 386
100-up 363
Jocelyn Bell Burnell turns 70 346
Pythagoras and the bean stalk 335
Maude Delap a life in the wet 326
Footless and fancy that 322
Eat! enough of the washing already 321
Potential energy 315
The Madness of the Inclined Plane 287
Vexillology a la Nord 222
It's not helping your kids
Total for >200 8386
The 100-up post is really just a list of names of people who appeared early on in The Blob, so the interest here must be due to quite obscure biographical combinations put into Bing or Google: "Frank Ramsey Gene Wilder" "Ralph Leighton Raj Padam" and "James Gleick James Joyce James Lovelock" are all top-hit at Google.  Last weekend, for example, I got a slew of Bing hits looking for "Phoenician Deity" because that clue had featured in my 2013 Christmas Crossword and so I was halfway down page 2 at Bing. I presume some Sunday paper crossword in the Midwest was foxing readers with a comparative religion deficit.  In the US Midwest that would be everybody.

ANNyway, thanks for your continued attention, I write The Blob because I can do no other but it's nice to know that someone somewhere is reading the stuff.  Now if you'd only recommend me to your well-connected cousin in Minsk, I'd maybe get some traction there and be invited on a speaking tour by the Belarus Minister of Culture.

Sunday Misc

    Sunday is where we do a little light rechurning of material on the interweb and pop up a few links that are interesting but which I can't pad out to make into a full-sized Blob.  Sometimes people out there have the last word . . . if I added anything I would just detract. Today it's a mix of musical and visual entertainment, from Cork, Denmark, Portugal, and Japan.  Some of these may be of interest.  If you have children, before you read on try to identify the film from which the illustration [L] is clipped.
    • It's more than 2 years since I tribbed up The Talent from West Cork. Back then W¡ld were trying to get their extensive back-catalog of original work out into the public domain because it is both original and good.  It's not only because one of them is Dau.II's bloke.  They have since spent a chunk of money and hours and hours in the studio to get a professional quality demo album together.  It's almost ready to go viral, recoup their outlay and still have enough over to buy the yacht which Dau.II aspires to marry.  While we're waiting, maybe check out an even more out-there musician from Denmark whose stuff is rather compelling. Den Europæiske Spejlbue [the European Mirror-bow] is a mixture - by Frisk Frugt [Fresh Fruit] an alias for a young chap called Anders Lauge Meldgaard. I hope you like it. Reviewed here.  Order the vinyl [naturally] from tambourhinoceros.
    • If that's too outré for you, or too-too Dansk, then you can brush up your Portuguese with Mariza singing a trib to her African granny [with English subtitles], or to the white rose. If it turns out that fado turns you on, then go back to Amália Rodrigues, fadista essencial do século 20.
    • After all the Blobotraffic on Scott "Appalachian Trail" Jurek in July, you might enjoy a short documentary about the Barkley 100 a brutal 20 x 5 = 100 mile 60 hour [max] cross-country jog-trot.
    • Until I saw this 16 min documentary critique of the works of Hayao Miyazaki I wasn't really aware of how much simple pleasure I got from watching his animated movies with Dau.I and Dau.II when they were the same age as Kiki of the Delivery Service [L above]. You don't really have to listen to Lewis Bond's voice over, the images are so lovely on their own.

    Saturday, 17 October 2015

    Ther is a wode called Heyle

    In 1251 Hugo de Northwold the Bishop of Ely commissioned a survey of his estates which included the statement [original in medieval Latin] There is one wood which is called Heyle which contains fourscore acres. When Oliver Rackham read those words in the great Coucher Book of Ely in the 1960s he realised that the small patch of woodland which he had campaigned to save as an island of ecological diversity had been in continuous existence for at least 1000 years.  The worthy bishop was not talking about a recent plantation but an already ancient, constantly changing, but also immutable complex of trees.  Trees, yes, but also bushes and coppice stools, and carpets of bluebells Scilla non-scripta, and woodmice Apodemus sylvaticus and beetles and birds. Rackham was born on 17th October 1939, so in 1962 he was still very young. a scholarship boy, recently graduated from Cambridge with a 1st class honours degree in Natural Sciences and working towards his PhD.

    I came across him [L posing in Hayley Wood] when I was sharing a house in Dublin with two long-haired botanists 15 years ago and I borrowed a copy of his Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. It was brilliant, I spent the whole of the following weekend ripping through it with a sense of delight.  By applying his eyes, informed by a lifetime's study of maps, manuscripts and placenames; and tangled banks and transects through the landscape; Rackham could conjure up the whole dynamic history of a hedgerow between field and wildwood. He was a notable iconoclast, rubbishing cosy certainties about what trees were and how woodlands should be handled. He realised that, to be a resource for weekend walks they must be managed and indeed had been managed by foresters for many generations. That felling trees for building was part of the process. That you couldn't hurry the process of regeneration on. That forestry was playing the long game. When the Great Storm of 15-16th October 1987 swept millions of English trees to the ground, Rackham was vocal "A fallen tree is not a dead tree" about letting some of the corpses be left to fulfill their natural destiny as a home to beetles and fungi.

    James Lovelock was with him on this. When I last met Lovelock, he had just given a presentation in UCD.  In response to a tree-hugging question at the end of the talk, he confessed that, when he bought a small-holding in North Devon, he had planted a biggish section of the property with 'native hardwoods'.  With 20/20 20 year hindsight, he regretted that he'd not just left the small rough fields alone to develop in a natural ecological succession. That way the real native hardwoods, best suited to the local micro-environment, would settle in and grow up.  It only takes one extra lifetime to reach steady state.  If you hurry things impatiently on you risk causing incalculable damage.  Imported (even imported from the next county) tree saplings carry not only themselves but also a whole ecosystem of microbes and fungi . . . in equilibrium there but maybe less so here.

    Rackham was also an expert on the evolution of the landscape of Crete [he needed his place in the sun like any other English academic] and neatly said “One should not assert that goats eat everything without having watched goats.”. We are all of us picky eaters and the our food preferences can profoundly affect the landscape. By observing and recording and mapping he could explode a number of myths about the state of the English countryside: the wildwood was not destroyed to build the British navy; woodland was rather destroyed when cheap coal made the management of woodlands uneconomic.  The Hayley Wood Trust was able to preserve a key element of its ecological diversity by the judicious use of wire fences to exclude invasive deer Muntiacus reevsii [Prev on The Blob]. Not one to waste things, Rackham recommended "Eat Bambi" as a partial solution to the ravaging of saplings.

    Rackham's last book The Ash Tree was written in response to the threat of ash die-back disease which is caused by a fungus Chalara fraxinea or more properly Hymenoscyphus fraxineus.  It was imported into Ireland in October 2012 from continental Europe because the EU barely recognises biological species let alone ecotypes. If your county council wishes to plant a roadside with a screen of trees they are obliged to put the contract out to tender across the EU.  If a company in Italy can come in cheaper than one from Roscommon, the CC is more or less obliged to accept their delivery of 100,000 whips, and the appended microscopic beetles, fungi and bacteria. Those trees may not grow so well, or at all, 1000km further North.  Oliver Rackham died on Darwinday this year having collapsed over dinner a few days before. He had made a difference.

    Friday, 16 October 2015

    Closure 1946

    <distress warning>don't read this one if you're squeamish about hanging</distress warning>
    On this day 16th October in 1946 it was the end of the road for Ribbentrop, Keitel, Kaltenbrunner, Rosenberg, Franck, Frick, Streicher, Seyss-Inquart, Sauckel and Jodl.  They were people at the top of the NSDAP tree who were deemed to deserve death by the  International Military Tribunal (IMT) generally known as the Nuremberg Trials. N=10, because Hermann Göring finished himself off in his cell the night before and Martin Bormann was either a) already dead trying to escape from Berlin or b) safely on his way to Paraguay under an assumed name. We've met the human side of Göring, and particularly that of his brother Albert, before. The trials were set up so that it wouldn't seem that summary justice had been performed: evidence was marshalled, witnesses were called, there were lawyers for both prosecution and defense and the public theatre went on for nearly eleven months, having started on 20th November the previous year. It was by no means the only trial and certainly not the only executions that were meted out on the losing side of WWII.  The niceties of protocol were observed: the military officers among the condemned were denied the option of a firing-squad because they were deemed to have dishonoured their uniform by the actions.  Accordingly between 0100hrs and 0300hrs in the morning all ten men were hanged by the neck until dead.
    The man in charge of the actual operations was Sergeant John C Woods [L posing for the press with the tool of his trade], who had risen from the ranks when the US Army asked for a volunteer to train as a military hangman. 16 Oct 1946 was by no means his first job. He had helped to off a substantial proportion of the 140+ US soldiers who had been condemned to death between 1942 and 1945 under authority of the 1920 Articles of War. The number who died on his watch has been variously reported as 34, 60-70 and 340. Hanging was the mechanism of choice to achieve a humane killing and Woods followed the standard operating procedure SOP established by Irishman <huzzah> Samuel Haughton who applied science to the problem and calculated a formula for doing the job right.  It's a balance between allowing a lingering death by strangulation, which is very distressing for the spectators and a longer drop where the head is completely separated from the body, which really frightens the horses. Although the trial was public, the Allied authorities drew the line at a public hanging á la Révolution française.  It was a rather delicate line because they were trying to hold the high moral ground and distance their questionable wartime actions [indiscriminate bombing of civilians or unleashing the very first weapon of mass destruction etc.] from those of the opposition. At another trial at about the same time, for example, the Soviets tried to foist the NKVD murders in the Katyn Forest onto NSDAP shoulders.

    Despite his extensive training hanging US squaddies, Woods is widely believed to have miscalculated the length of drop for several of his Nuremberg victims who took between 10 and 25 minutes to be pronounced dead. The military had constructed 2 gallows which were designed to get through the grisly business as efficiently as possible. It is claimed that Woods or his assistants were obliged to swing on the legs of the dying Keitel and Ribbentrop to finish them off and keep things to schedule. One of the consequences of destroying the brain-stem is that the sphincters down below open up so the legs are no longer clean. As Sherwin Nuland asserts, death is usually both grim and messy but there is something peculiarly repellent about judicial executions when they try to be humane. Closure? au contraire.