Saturday, 31 December 2016

New Year Old Quiz

I feel little compunction about pulling out the entrails of the GCHQ Puzzle Book like a modern haruspex. It is in the hope that, by making our minds work harder, we can foretell what the New Year will bring. 2017 can hardly be a worse one than 2016.

 As I said in my earlier, rambling round the landscape, review of the GCHQPB, the questions posed are much less universal that the setters would like to imagine. Like us all, the <cliché alert!> tweed-jacketed boffins who work at GCHQ have their own wall-paper of certainty; imagining that because they know such a think, it is obvious to all thinking people. It is a good example of the Curse of Knowledge and an explanation of why black people consistently did worse in IQ tests - because the cultural references in the tests were alien to the denizens of the other side of the tracks. It is impossible to devise any puzzle, even one without words, that is culture-free, but we could work harder at leveling the playing field . . . without just lowering standards of course.

ANNyway, Dau.II and I, with some help from Dau.I [who has been slaying goblins from on top of her wingéd horse all holiday] have, in a desultory fashion, worked through the first, softening-up, section of the GCHQPB which has 68 questions. We've knocked off about 2/3s of them which probably raises us from grade "thick as two short planks" to "safe to make tea in the GCHQ kitchen".  Some of the answers sprang out of the page because they were familiar or 'obvious'; and some yielded a partial solution which, when articulated, was completed by the other; some have been niggling at the edge of my mind for a couple of days. The latter are the type of problem which, in my experience during a life-time in science, yield after a night's sleep or a long ride on a bicycle.
  • 8 Concealed animal
    Here is a list of animals. But which other animal is hiding?
  • 13 A round of drinks
    What could follow Mojito, Eggnog, Riesling, Lemonade, ouzo, ?
  • 3 Calendar Foods
    If we eat Fish on St David's Day, Crab on US Independence Day and Goat on Christmas Day, what do we eat at Hallowe'en?
  • 15 Letter Sequence I
    What is the next entry in each of the following:
    • M, V, E, M, J, S, U, ?
    • E, Z, D, V, F, S, S, A, N, Z, ?
  • 18 Friends in other countries
    Gary has friends in countries all round the world including Argentina, Denmark, Russia, Sudan, and the USA. Which country is Gary in?
  • 23 Link
    What links: D, X, 4th, Y
  • 29 Odd one out
    Which is the odd one out: FIRM, HELM, SOAK, WASH
  • 59 Odd one out
  • 64 Arrange the pieces in alphabetical order
  • 55 Two words
    The following 18 words fall into two sets of nine, according to two other words:
If you can do 64, 55, 23, 13 then you're sharper than, or have different cultural referents to, me and Dau.II

Friday, 30 December 2016

Normal accident

I'm interested in drugs:
  • as a tax-payer because of the mad amount of money given to MegaPharm Inc. to achieve a marginal benefit for an unfortunate sufferer of a rare disease [prev Morquio; Orkambi]
  • as a philologist bemused by the truly daft and eye-crossing names which the developers choose to give their products: infliximab  has been around a long time now and it kinda of trips off the tongue but some of the others just give me a stutterimabitis; daclizumab, solanezumab and aducanumab and adalimumab; . . . but tositumomab? that might stick especially if nausea is a likely side-effect - Toss ye tum, geddit?
  • as a carer lurrying a handful of coloured pills every Sunday night into Pat the Salt my mildly demented father-in-law. They look a lot like sweets, luckily there are no small children to mistake the drugs for something to eat.
As well as teaching human physiology to Pharmacy Technician PT students, who are working towards a Level 6 Certificate,  I share an office with The Pharmacist at one of the local chemists, who works part time teaching at The Institute. She is very discrete - it goes with the profession - but I occasionally get to hear [strictly anonymised] tales of 'mistakes were made'. We are in the process of making up a Level 7 PT Diploma and one of the courses to be offered is called something like error checking in the pharmacy.

As I mentioned in a related matter, a third of all deaths in the US [or any other country where they have doctors] are the result of medical error. I know of one non-fatal prescription error case. Father of a pal of mine elected to have back surgery, which didn't go so well: he finished up with persistent tooth-grinding debilitating pain. The meds to combat this were required so often that his practice team fitted him up with a catheter at his waist, so that he could give himself a jolt of pain-killer when he felt he needed it. Once a month the old chap had to travel up from the country to fill up the reservoir at the teaching hospital which had bungled his surgery. It took him all day with the travel and the waiting. One month, finally sorted, he set off towards the train station, felt a twinge as he crossed the hospital car-park, pushed the admin button and promptly collapsed. The doctor had mis-written his script so he got 50x the required dosage. If this is going to happen, just outside the doors of A&E is the best place . . . so he survived.

That was probably culpable negligence. Normal Accidents are when several small-small errors and misunderstandings, trivial and recoverable in themselves, accumulate towards a disaster. A small example might be when the doctor's hand-writing is so illegible that the local pharmacist wings it when interpreting the scrawl and gets the dose or the drug wrong. You can't ring up the bloody doctor for every script and of course the god-walking-this-earth doctor couldn't be prevailed upon to write clearly. Maybe this is dying away in the electronic world. Maybe that is not a good idea: if you have to work, even a little, then you'll think a little before you dash off the script.
These things are pervasive enough that Charles Perrow wrote a book about them in 1984: Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. This starts off with an analysis of the almost disaster of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident. I was there! Or rather 600km downwind shortly after I arrived in Boston for my PhD in 1979.  It is an interesting case study where a combination of equipment malfunctions, design-related problems and worker errors conspired to cause a partial melt-down.

Network Rail in the UK have put out a handy set of short training films, reconstructing events where something has gone wrong. Here's one where the three men involved in a SPAD - signal passed at danger - speak to camera regretting their actions, inactions and poor communication skills. I think it would be just bonzer to make a similar film with our PT students acting out a prescription error in our pretend-pharmacy lab at The Institute. And lest you think that Lost in Translation is always tragic here's one that's funny.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Sic transit gloria mundi

Boys, boys, they are taking an old Ford Transit apart as an archaeological dig.  Before I went to college, I had a job tooling around the lanes of Devon and Dorset delivering books to primary schools in a Ford Transit. I lived in that van for several months and got to see [a small part of] the World. Archaeologists are super careful meticulous people who, like Louis Agassiz making slow progress across his lawn, are devils for detail. Most of us pay no attention whatsoever: to the food we eat; the things we discard; the places we pass through.

The film is peculiar because it has two over-lapping sound-tracks which are both important and complementary but which no normal person can handle in parallel. That shows that multi-tasking is not A Thing: it is really task switching - flick flick flick - from one channel to the other. That indeed is exactly how computers work: sharing processor time among tasks. Some [women?] are better at integrating the conflicting information. My advice is to listen through twice: once on the left channel, once on the right. I guess the film-makers saw it as a clever metaphor for showing how hard it is to integrate layers of detail into a cohesive whole.

Archaeologists have been restlessly expanding their empires from Roman and Sumerian to British and American. They have, over the last 100 years, developed techniques to sift and sort through the detritus of Pompeii or Çatalhöyük to piece together what life was like in antient tymes. In the early 1970s, they [U Tucson AZ] started turning their attention to modern middens aka landfill. I guess nobody was too surprised when they turned up perfect copies of National Geographic thrown away by the previous generation in 1948. But to find anaerobically preserved hot-dogs and lettuce looking ready to eat was unexpected. These Garbology projects were also important because the generated policy-informing data to show that disposable diapers were only a small fraction of landfill and paper a large one. The Transit project grew from this tradition.

If you look to the bottom of the film page, there are a number of links to commentary on the Bristol U project; someone else has used the same 'obvious if you have a classical education' headline as me. A few more comments on the Metafilter page where I picked up the thread. Finally, interesting Art spin-off.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Cheltenham Ladies College

The Boy has lived in England these last several years and spends a chunk of his leisure time solving puzzles.  Crosswords, and logic puzzles, rebuses for the kids and jigsaw puzzles if there is nothing else to keep the neurons firing 'upstairs'. At the beginning of the month, I asked Mr Bezos to send the family a copy of the GCHQ Puzzle Book. It looked like something that would keep them amused over the holiday. Well dang me if they didn't send me a copy of the same book - we must love each other very much.  It's 300+ pages long, so you either have to pace yourself or act like your life depended on it. The latter clearly isn't the case, so the first option is better. It is all too easy to say "Dunno, haven't a clue, don't make me no difference" and move on to the next problem. That way you could flit flit over the surface of the book and pop out the other end without having learned a thing. The only satisfaction is that you've had to work your mind to play the game, working the mind actually burns calories, so it is an antidote to Christmas over-eating without having to leave the sofa.

The nature of puzzle-book book-puzzles is that you are unlikely to learn anything except about the mindset and cultural background of the puzzle setter. I suggested two years ago that the deviser of Times Jumbo Crosswords was essentially a clone of me, so it was easy to get his drift. And that's where the don't care kicks in: I don't want to get inside the mind of some knob who works in GCHQ. There are 5,000 people on the payroll of the Government Communications Headquarters and most of them work in The Doughnut [R], a modern building complex that looks like a plumper, rounder and smaller version of The Pentagon outside Washington. The Doughnut is located on the outskirts of a market town in the West of England called Cheltenham Spa. I had a very expensive education of the sort that could have gotten me recruited by GCHQ if I'd been smarter and more focused and talked to the right people rather than writing terrible poetry and talking to nobody through my teenage years.

Today is the 66th birthday of Clifford Cocks, FRS. He was working at GCHQ in 1973 [aged 23] when he had a shattering insight about the difficulty of factoring the product of two large prime numbers . . . unless you knew what those prime-numbers were in the first place. The only way to find the factors of such a large number is to use a brute-force approach and work through all possible integers that are smaller than the square root of the large number. In 1973, the most expensive computers in the world were about as powerful as the computer in the high-end toaster which your nerdy partner gave you last Christmas, so you could use this insight to encrypt a message. Anyway, nobody at GCHQ was able to implement any useful outcome from Dr Cocks' academic insight about effectively unfactorisable numbers; so the idea just sat in their archives. 4 years later, three quants from MIT Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman independently discovered exactly the same idea and published it as the RSA algorithm. Secure encryption of sensitive data is the key on which depends half the purchases in the run-up to Christmas; including my paying Amazon to deliver the GCHQ Puzzle Book to The Boy last week.

In the forward to the GCHQPB, Kate Windsor, aka the Duchess of Cambridge, notes that her grandmother, Valerie Glassborow and her great-aunt Mary Glassborow, worked in Bletchley Park in the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS): the predecessor of GCHQ during WWII. Bletchley Park is where Alan Turing [prev and prevlier] and his pals cracked the Enigma code to win a significant intelligence advantage coup over the Germans. See The Imitation Game starring Benedict "Sherlock" Cummerbund and Keira "Pirates" Nicely. The connexion between the Duchess and the Cryptanalysist is not so extraordinary. If the GCHQ authors were looking for a celeb to help launch their book and if The Duchess connexion hadn't been available, then there were 10,000 previous employees at Bletchley or its outstations who might have left well-connected descendants.

They might have asked me for example, if I was even vaguely a celeb. I was talking to my mother earlier in the year and she revealed that for one of her postings in the Auxiliary Territorial Service ATS = Women's Army during WWII, she washed up working in a barn in Earl's Croome a hamlet near Tewkesbury in the English Midlands. She was required to carry out calculations with a team of other women. Operating on a strict need-to-know basis, she and her pals hadn't a clue what they were working on but carried out their tasks as fast and as accurately as they possibly could. Once a day, a personable young Lieutenant would turn up with a briefcase and swap their previous day's work for a new set of problems. The Mother is now of the opinion that the young chap came up from Bletchley. It's a bit late to ask anyone for verification of this hypothesis because, at 96, my Mum is almost the last logarithm-girl standing. It's a bit late to find this out: if had she told me this in 1965 then my enhanced street-cred might have spared me a couple of weeks of having my head flushed down the toilet at Dotheboys Hall.

Jul Purygraunz Ynqvrf Pbyyrtr? Orpnhfr vg vf gur fbeg bs srr-cnlvat fpubby gung freirf nf n erpehvgvat tebhaq sbe TPUD npebff gbja.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016


Pat the Salt was born in 1925 and turned 66 and eligible for the Old Age Pension 25 years ago. He and his wife worked brutal long hours in the catering trade and shifted their caboodle every few years looking for work as one enterprise after another came to an end. As they got older, their accumulated experience didn't seem to count for much and certainly didn't count for more money at the end of the week. But it wasn't in them to give up and expect the Gum'ment to look after them. At one point during the recession of the 1980s after a few months between jobs, living on unemployment benefit, Pat up-stakes and went to England to look for work. When he returned six months later, he was told that this evidence of enterprise was going to result in a decrease in his dole because, by leaving the jurisdiction, his clock was zeroed. Whatever! When they finally reached the mystical, mythic age of 66, they could finally relax from the relentless round of looking for work and working and draw the Old Age Pension OAP. It was like Christmas . . . every week. They blessed St Patrick and The Man for this state of their affairs and were really grateful and appreciative of what they got. Every Wednesday night he would take out an envelope and address it as Pat's Entitlements, ready to receive the Pension the next morning at the Post Office. He didn't, however, have any sense of entitlement: just gratitude and certain sense of bemusement that someone was looking after them.

The Department of Social Protection DSP is what runs both the OAPension and the various schemes for allocating different amount of money to different categories of people who #without' but are not yet eligible for the pension. There is a bewildering array of schemes: Job Seeker's Allowance is not the same as Job Seeker's Benefit. You get different money either side of your 25th birthday. You can get a medical card to defray the costs of your medical expenses if you qualify under any one of a number of arcane rules. You may apply for Rent Supplement or Back to Education Allowance or a Carer's Allowance if your mum is real sick. It goes on and ever more specific and confusing and the Department employs a lot of people to make sure nobody gets an allowance to which they are not entitled. Needless to say, nobody is employed to make sure poor Joe Public gets his full whack. The 2017 budget allocation for DSP is just shy of €20,000,000,000 or about 37% of the total government spend. This dwarfs all the other departments, even the bottomless pit of Health which only clocks at €14bn = 26%. And I get a whack out of cost item #3 Education €9bn = 16%. These, the Big Three, take 4/5th of all the money to spend.

As an aside, you need to know how many of us are crowded into our Fair Republic. Here are the figures from the 2011 census. The total population has increased by about 0.2 million over the last 6 years but I'm guessing the proportions are the same.
0 - 14 years 979,590
teens 290,125
15 - 24 years 580,250
students 290,125
25 - 44 years 1,450,140
45 - 64 years 1,042,879
65 years + 535,393
adults 3,318,537
kids+teens 1,269,715
Total= 4.6 million [2011 remember]. I've arbitrarily split the weird grouping of 15-24 year-olds half&half into teens = still at school and 'students' at college and counted only this latter group as part of 'adults'. I'd like to believe that I am a productive member of society, earning my keep by educating students in science and assertiveness. But a number of our students are wasting everybody's time by scraping through exams and causing accidents in the lab; or worse, being on the books and getting a grant from the government but mitching off from class and drinking themselves to oblivion. If these, say, 20% of our students left, then my job would be redundant on a last-in, first-out basis and I'd have to work elsewhere to be a nett contributor to the tax-pot rather than, as now, a nett taker sucking at the government teat.

A radical idea has been in the air in the run up to Christmas, to streamline the desperately complex, and inherently unfair system of Entitlements. One proposal is to give every adult of working age €150 tax-free as of right whether you work, or care for your demented father, or write poetry, or run a soup kitchen or sit on your sofa watching box-sets and drinking tinnies until the cash runs out. On €150/week you can just about pay your share of the rent, and not starve. If you want to go to a concert, or a session in the boozer, or fly to Prague for the weekend then you have to get off your arse and find some work. For those of us on [just barely, me] €50K/yr, €150 isn't very much: €150 x 52 = €7,800 a year.  Multiply that by 3.3 million adults and you get €26 billion which is within a shout of what is allocated currently to the Department of Social Protection DSP. Here's the polemic and the costing for a model of Universal Basic Income UBI put forward by a group of Marxists called Social Justice Ireland. SJI's model a bit more complex than €150 each because they recognise that old people's expenses are greater mostly because of the meds and zimmer frames that keep them alive forever . . . so they get more: you cannot make the grey vote unhappy and expect to win an election.

There is much to like about this
  • Sacking all the Jobsworths at the DSP, so they can no longer tsk tsk at the inability of the dispossessed to manage their bennies. From their comfortable chair in a warm office, counting the time until they cash in for a generous pension, they will become redundant to see if they can do something positive for the economy or their fellow citizens.
  • My poor students can complete their assignments on time and turn up to 9 o'clock lectures because they no longer need to work 4 nights a week or all weekend to pay the rent.
  • My poetic daughter - yes I have one - can freeze in a garret holding her pen with fingerless gloves. She may be cold but at least she's not starving and can afford to buy a pot of ink each week.
  • My pal can look after his disabled mother without having to fill in forms in triplicate and prove that his mother is still alive at the end of each month.
I suggest that these changes, facilitated by UBI, may improve the social capital of the nation. More poetry, more science, more plays, more wood-craft for kids.  We can park the pervading weltanschauung of the Protestant Work Ethic that nobody deserves a hand-out and TNSTAAFL. In a way it is the ultimate in letting the market find its own level: folks will do what seems good to them rather than the state making a hames of deciding what everyone should do and dicking about with the tax-system to encourage people to do what The Man considers to be The Right Thing. The wisdom of the crowds may win out here and we get just enough poets, lawyers and engine-drivers and everyone approaches a life that enhances their true self. Take compulsory education now - after 12 years in school half my Yr 1 students don't know aNNything that is useful to them or which makes them productive members of society: can't bake a cake, butcher a hog, saw a plank in half, cut someone's hair or lawn, or change a diaper. The home educated young adults I know can do those things or find someone who can and barter their own skills against.

It is interesting that some of the most media-friendly proponents of UBI are Catholic priests [who have no time for black Protestants or their devilish  Work Ethic?] who are harking back to the radical doctrines of Liberation Theology from the end of the last century. We've met Fr Peter McVerry before; the other one to check out on the airwaves is Fr Sean Healy. Not everyone agrees with the ethos or the economics of this solution for dealing with poverty. But we're going to hell in a bucket with the current business model, so let's toss up some new ideas and see if any stick to the ceiling.

Monday, 26 December 2016


The thing about Christmas is that we all eat too much, and we don't do it mindfully. We're gabbing on to Cousin Betty about the funeral she missed and at the same time forking in another rissole. Uncle Arthur cracks a joke and everyone laughs and suddenly the rissole has gone down the wrong way and you're making the universal sign of choking as you turn blue. If you're lucky, someone in the room will recognise this and do the Heimlich manoeuvre and half a rissole will pop out onto your plate before everyone has finished laughing.

Dr Heimlich died in the week before Christmas at a good age and not from choking. He has shown people how to do the eponymous manoeuvre many times but it wasn't until this last Spring that he had occasion to save someone's life. He did this by manoeuvring a fellow resident in his retirement home. He probably saved a diner in a similar incident a few year earlier. He was rather chuffed that all the theory he'd been spouting did actually have practical utility. We're also grateful to Heimlich for spreading the word. In the 80s when we lived in Newcastle upon Tyne and The Boy was in primary school , our pal P was visiting from Boston. We had an unavoidable date one evening during her stay, so she offered to babysit the young feller. We set them up with money to pay for a an Indian take-out and went wherever we had to go. We missed the drama! The Boy, who got take-out but rarely, was golloping down his portion of rogan josh and managed to inhale a chunk of lamb. P popped it out. At the time, we weren't as fulsome in our thanks as we might have been - it was a little unreal - but we are eternally grateful to P . . . and to Henry Heimlich, of course. He's famous enough to have 10637 Heimlich a main-belt asteroid named after him. And the manoeuvre is 'sexy' enough to have been the subject of a priority dispute with Dr Edward Patrick and a faux priority dispute in a short story by Woody Allen.

In the 1980s, Heimlich was an advocate of malariotherapy as a cure for a rake of diseases due to 'weakness' in the immune system including cancer and AIDS. It is injecting 'benign' Plasmodium parasites into sick people to make them better. we've been there before with Linus Pauling, an expert on the structure of proteins, using his fame [2x Nobel Prize etc.] to over-push the efficacy of vitamin C to cure the common cold, cancer etc.  That's aggravating because people listen to Nobel Prize winners even if they are spouting nonsense. Superficially malariotherapy sounds plausible. Cancer doesn't happen to most of us most of the time because our white blood cells are constantly surveilling the nooks and crannies of our body looking for, and nobbling, cells that are uncontrollably dividing. If there is a tumor big enough to detect, it could be that the immune system is acting a bit dopey. A dose of malaria is claimed by malariotherapists to gee it up generally and the extra ooomph of vitality might take out the tumor as collateral damage. Except that it doesn't work: there is no evidence that cancer patients are better off from having a gratuitous extra assault on their immune system. This may remind you of Muizelaar & Schrot infecting their patients with Enterobacter aerogenes: they were so sure they were correct that they by-passed the Ethics Committee of their institution. And we saw Paolo Macchiarini convincing himself beyond the evidence that stem cells would make new tracheas.

ANNyway, Heimlich bought into this idea and invested time, money and his credibility. There is no scientific evidence that malariotherapy works but Heimlich pursued his certainty with a passion unworthy of a scientist with a functional crap-detector. Then again, then again, before we get all judgmental you've got have a to reflect on Edison's theory that "To have a great idea, have a lot of them". If scientists didn't invest in their creative ideas, we'd make very little progress. Barry Marshall's key auto-experiment on the causes of stomach ulcers probably wouldn't have been approved by his Ethics Committee.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas 251216

There's a story in my head every Christmas morning,  A young chap, comfortable middle class family, is opening presents on the living room floor. It's warm and dry, he has hot chocolate to sustain the work. He's excited as the mound of gift-wrap gets higher. Glittery things emerge. Eventually, there are no more parcels to open and he bursts into tears.
"What's wrong my petal, my love, my heir", go his doting parents.
"It's not ENOUGH", he rages.
True, dat! Once you start with The Stuff it's never enough: another blanket, a second digging-stick. a better obsidian knife . . . and 10,000 years later there's no rain-forest and the water in the stream smells peculiar.
A brief respite from that nagging feeling of St Chrimbo's Disappointment :
Now haway wi' ye, back to the family maelstrom. You know you love it. Joyeux Noël, Счастливого рождества, Nollaig shona dhuit.
Postscript Along the flaggy shore. The words by Seamus Heaney

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Oíche nollaig

Oíche nollaig Christmas Eve is, traditionally in Ireland, a day of fasting and contemplation in anticipation of, and preparation for, the blow-out feed of Christmas dinner: ham, chicken, stuffing, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, roast parsnips a la parmigiano, braised red cabbage. In Catholic Ireland 'fasting' means spuds and fish. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Dau.I and Dau.II, my catering daughters, are going to find so that I can fulfill my fasting vows and full-fill my tum too. Here are some ideas, all delicious. As no Irish fish-monger knows Latin, I've given the girls some clues:
Melanogrammus aeglefinus

Gadus morhua

Limanda limanda

Scomber scombrus

Pleuronectes platessa

Leucoraja ocellata
Clues below the fold

After a feed of fish you'll be after needing some noisy exercise. Move over Lord of the Danazis.

Friday, 23 December 2016


Nigel Slater, the foodie, called his autobiography Toast because that made up such a large part of the Good Things about his growing up and none the less-good things, of which there were many. He's a little younger than me but his description of the grimness of eating in England in the 1960s resonates with a hummmmm. Who doesn't love toast?  It is the only way really to make a sliced white Chorleywood loaf of bread palatable. Any normal teenage boy should, if provided with a toaster and sufficient butter, be able to work his way through half an 800g loaf between the end of school and the start of the evening meal; which might well include beans and yet more toast.

Now my bread, which I know is real [flour, water salt, yeast] bread, doesn't toast. After a go through the toaster [which pops automatically when it decides the slice is done], my bread is dried out on the surface but doesn't get any colour.  Not really sure why the Maillard reaction - between the amino acids in the gluten and the sugars in the starch - doesn't occur here; but it's a bit disappointing. Then again, my bread is a meal in itself and doesn't need to be re-cooked to be appealing in itself or a grand vehicle for cheese, butter, jam or Marmite.

We had a family get-together down in Waterford this last weekend and I was tasked with bringing a long list of vital things away [sheets, towels, pillow-cases, a tea-pot, milk, all the side-plates and at least 8 mugs etc. etc.] from our mountainy home. The Beloved, Dau.I and Dau.II arrived at more or less 12 hour intervals from different places and I made two trips to meet buses in the nearest town. Of course, I forgot some things . . . and the sky did not fall. One of the more annoying leave-behinds was a fresh baked loaf of Bob's Famous Sourdough. I did remember a slab of Bob's Famous Flapjacks, so nobody cursed me out. We needed some bread however, so I threw together a loaf of reg'lar yeast bread the first evening so that it would be ready for breakfast the next day. But that wouldn't fill the bread-sized hole in the menu for that night and I bought Rowan Hill Bakery / 2 white baguettes / bake at home in 8-10 minutes, 300g for 59c. 178 calories.  How bad could they be? I asked, reflecting that they would at least have the virtue of being hot and crusty. They were okay.

But the next day I was faced with the last half one and decided to split it in half lengthwise and toast it. No more than my sourdough, this stuff doesn't toast either; it chars. Well before it was due to pop up, the cut face of the 'baguette' was covered in soot and the smoke-detector went off.  That's rather less satisfactory, in my book, than just drying out. And if this story is making you think about Goldilocks and the three porridge bowls, it must be the way I tell it. I am at a loss to explain why these things combust in a toaster because there is no gunpowder in the list of ingredients: Wheat flour, water, salt, dextrose; emulsifiers: mono- and di-acetyl tartaric acid esteres of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids; acidity regulator  sodium acetate. The Wheat is in bold to remind the coeliacs that bread is made with flour.

I won't be buying Instant Gratification Baguettes again in a hurry because they're not: not instant, not gratifying and not baguettes. If I make another commissariat error in future and need bread now, I'll knock up some chapattis [flour, water, salt] in 8-10 minutes: same time, half the cost and something that is simple, honest and appealing. As Michael Pollan and his family noted, 'convenience food' is often a Bill of Goods. If I have 59c spare, I'll buy 300g of chocolate biscuits: nobody is going to make health or convenience claims for them, and no normal person can tell the diff from fancy choc.bix.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Shut up, already

For the last nearly two years, we've been meeting once a month in for Science Café in The Sky & the Ground, the last traditional [ish] pub in Wexford. We meet on a Tuesday, possibly the quietest night of the week and some of us buy drink, so the pub is grateful for the business. We just want a quiet corner to talk about lithium or radon or the microbiome or the Big Bang without having a TV blaring out the results of the soccer. That usually works out okay, but they do have music piped through every room on the premises and we often ask the bar-staff to turn the volume down. I think, indeed, it is possible that you can switch out the sound from the speaker immediately above your head. What's all that about? why does the comfortable silence that surrounds a half-drunk pint or a half-drunk bloke have to be filled with mood musak? Does the management imagine that we'll buy more dhrink if we're lulled into a state of uncritical torpor?

Y'all must be fed up with hearing the Little Drummer Boy in every store this week. Dau.I tells me that modern retailers slope the floors in their shop-floors to make gravity drift the punters towards The Thing of the Week, and puts the clothing display rails in subtle pits which make it a teensy bit difficult to escape from. Can this be true? It is literally years since I bought clothing outside of ALDIDL. Dau.II keeps me in socks each Xmas and I inherited my father's office shirts [N=a dozen] when he died 15 years ago and they lasted me in rotation for at least a decade. I still wear them to work (only the cuffs are frayed) if The Beloved is off-site and cannot inspect me as I leave the house.

Shortly after I arrived for grad school in Boston, I went up to the University Bookshop to purchase the the text-book for the multivariate statistics course which I'd signed up for. I was less calm in those days and was incensed that a functional warehouse, almost entirely filled with purely functional course material, should have piped music. I stomped back to my lab and wrote a ironic sarcastic memo [this was about 5 years before e-mail became generally used] to the manager, saying that I thought musak in the university book-store was dishonest and offensive. He wrote back a memo saying he didn't like my tone, that my feelings were therefore irrelevant and he'd consigned my note to the bin. I learned something: that the language used is part of the message and that intemperate comms never achieve their purpose. I wrote several angry memos and e-mails after that but didn't send them. That was therapeutic.

We have the Campaign for Real Ale to thank for the fact that The Sky & the Ground in Wexford serves a bewildering array of 'challenging' beers. Now a group of British celebs of a certain age and background [Stephen Fry, Johanna Lumley etc.] have elevator music in their sights with a Campaign for Freedom from Piped Music called Pipe Down. It is unclear whether their objection is to the fact that piped music is unashamedly low-brow or if it's driving up the rate of hearing loss. Whatever, their fact-sheet claims that a sizeable minority of those surveyed detest mood musak. 17% of Sunday Times readers hate it more than Syrian refugees, Europe, or having to pay tax on their share portfolio.  Have you noticed that Aldi and Lidl don't have musak? Don't seem to stop folks buying groaning cartfuls of groceries there.  If you join PipeDown you can get an envelope full of stickers and a newsletter which will make it easier for you to tell shops, hospitals and airports that you'll be taking your business and your confused and partially sighted mother elsewhere.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A little learning

Like many families in the electronic age there is a fair amount of poorly controlled round-robin e-mails. If we were ALL on Friendface, I guess this chit-chat and updating would happen there; but some of the crumblies are hold-outs from signing every detail of their personal life over to the apparatchiks of Zuckerburgshire. A tuthree days ago, for example, we were informed that one of the teen-generation had featured in a video made a the Chester-Beatty Library. You won't be able to guess which of the girls is being tribbed because she doesn't look a bit like me - no grizzled grey beard for starters.

When the girls were educating themselves at home, we used to approach the home-education get-togethers with a certain amount of dread. You wouldn't see other families for a few months and so the talk often started off on a catch-up of what had been happening in the interim. Partly because several months would be compressed into several minutes and partly because the Home Ed community has its share of truly extraordinary kids, the lives of others seemed to be replete with prizes and achievements. By contrast our own girls seemed mainly to have sat on the sofa binge-watching Desperate Housewives or House MD and making a lot of cakes. Of course that brought on a twinge of feeling that we had somehow failed the girls with our laissez-faire ideas of education. I don't think the other parents were being boastful or trying to put one over on our family and its inadequacies. At the time I wrote about Celebrating the Ordinary. Now that the girls have left home to plough their own furrow, I like to think that by minimising the pressure on them to Achieve, they were given space to develop their true selves. Apart from a Gap Year in a Woowah Steiner College during which she turned 18, Dau.I has been, like her sister, an autodidact in the University of Sofa Life. She did also spend three weeks of the Summer she was 15 at CTYI in Dublin. And the next year she did a week-long Arvon Creative Writing course in Yorkshire. There is a certain kind of home-educated girl who is a read-all, read-all-the-time, reader and Dau.I was one of those: Shakespeare and Jane Austen; Busty Women on Flying Horses; Essays and Novels;  Cookbooks and Travel; yes even Harry Potter and the Streetcar of Greenbacks. She could also bottle-feed lambs, shovel chicken-shit, paint a wall or paint a picture, make a roast dinner and be kind to old people.

While at the Woowah college in England, she secured part-time work in the Veggie-Crystals-Woowah café in town and when the academic year finished, she parlayed that into more nearly full-time work as well as a bit of drama teaching. She continued to acquire books, visit the library and read. It's not quite true to say that she's never had a lesson in her life, but she 's had not more than 30 minutes a week on average of formal instruction in anything and everything. This November, after 5 years in the monarchy next door, she returned home to open the next chapter of her life.

On the first Friday of December she cadged a lift into work so she could catch a bus up to Dublin to hang out with her CTYI pals of yore. I had to be in work at 0900 but her bus wasn't until lunchtime, so I left her in my office to surf the web on company time. On my desk were the October and November multiple choice quizzes MCQs for my Human Physiology course. After exhausting the delights of Facebook and Snapchat, she turned to these tests to see how much she knew about how her body ticked. MCQs are a bit of a fudge. If you answer at random you're going to score 20% and you can usually eliminate 2 or 3 of the options as clearly wrong, If you do dibs on the remotely possible answers you should be able to score 50%. Actually this is why I do assessment in this way, because for that course I run a no child left behind policy.  You can be a perfectly competent pharmacy technician without knowing anything about HumPhys. I try to make the material relevant and interesting and crack a few jokes along the way but if they come through not knowing that a red blood cell is smaller than the pancreas then it's no biggie for the pharmaceutical industry or the local chemist.

The quiz asked perennial Bob-questions like
  • shift these from alphabetical order to order of size:
    glucose haemoglobin mitochondrion pancreas T-cell 
  • ditto reorder from top to bottom:
    colon esophagus duodenum stomach rectum
  • how wide is a capillary?:
    8% 8μm 8rbcs 8πr2 8mm
  • the coronary artery a) has pressure receptors b) is found in the neck
    c) is blocked in a stroke d) carried deoxygenated blood e) serves the heart
  • which A helps control blood pressure?: Alcohol dehydrogenase;
    Antibiotic; Angiotensin II; Atrium; Angina
  • which C is found the a cell's nucleus?: Chromosome; Cytoplasm; Chloroplasts;
    Cellulose; CFTR
  • how many chromosomes do you have in each cell?:
     One: two: 23; 46; 3 billion
Now I think many of those things are what any educated person would / ?should? know. If you have no idea of what's happening inside you among all the wobbly bits, well, it shows a want of curiosity. They are the kind of things that a previous mentor of mine referred to as "a Time Magazine level of knowledge" about whatever. I'm not a politician but I have some idea about what's going on in Syria; I know the plot of Romeo and Juliet; I know when the French and Russian revolutions occurred; I know that DNA forms a double-helix . . . because these things have been covered in Time Magazine or your local equivalent.
ANNyway, Dau.I scored 78% and 88% on the two physiology quizzes. That put her in the top quarter of the students who have spent the last term learning this stuff. It sounds like a home-ed boast [see above] but it's not: she's not a rocket scientist - she's widely read and she's curious and she has a good enough crap-detector to reject 3/5 of the possible MCQ answers. If a reasonably intelligent person with a bit of General Knowledge can score 80% on an assessment like that and the average mark is 62% then it's rather an indictment of my teaching. Or it's an indictment of the education you get out of 12 years in school. What do they teach people in school biology if nobody knows how many chromosomes humans have? All that maths and they can't make change in their first job as a cashier in the local shop. Years of 'geography' and they've never heard of Oman or Oklahoma or Omsk.  It's as if the innate, persistent, annoying curiosity of a six year old gets the stuffing knocked out of it in school.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Time wise data foolish

More evidence that you can be asleep at the switch while analysing data. We wrapped up the Yr2 Research Methods course with an exam test quiz [quizzes are less stressful] so that The Lads could demonstrate their competence in using Excel for elementary statistics. Question 2 presented a bunch of data which purported to be the arm-length of 20 boxers. I asked the, now, excelperts to calculate the mean and standard deviation for these data:
104 126 108 107
78 102 109 102
113 92 101 114
109 122 123 84
100 100 132 117
I then claimed that Katie Taylor had a reach of 118cm. If you've lived outside of Ireland,  or indeed under a stone in Ireland, over the last ten years you won't recognise the name as the doyenne of girl-on-girl prize-fighting boxing who has won handfuls of medals at the European, World and Olympic championships for getting more punches-to-the-face in than her opponents. The question in the quiz was whether a) Taylor had a longer reach than 20 other boxers and b) whether that might explain her success. What you have to do is a one-sample t-test: compare Taylor's reach with the average reach, controlling for the variation in the reach of the others. In excel-speak it's something like this:
=(average - 118)/(
You should do a two-tailed test because for all we know having a shorter arm may be advantageous [quicker reaction times? more punches per second?] When you do this, you find that indeed Taylor's arms are significantly different, and longer, than the average. Pretty much everyone in the class got this far correctly - they had been well schooled by myself and are not stupid. They then motored on saying things like "because her arms are much longer than other boxers, she will be at an advantage and so win all her fights". Only one person in the room actually looked at the data to note that 3/20 of these potential opponents had even draggier knuckles than Ms Taylor. The fact that this chap was not the swiftest arrow in the quiver is maybe significant. Quick can sometimes be the antithesis of thoughtful. I was careful to put this across to other sporty students when everyone in the class measured their reaction times.

I picked this as a dataset worthy of analysis because these students are sporty types and the media have uncritically billed Katie Taylor as a Hero of the Republic First Class because she brings home medals 'for' Ireland. That is rather suspicious in my book, surely we want Ireland Inc. to rise in the global consciousness as comely maidens dancing at the cross-roads, Kerrygold butter, fresh caught salmon and U2?  Ho hum, in this world, anything that will give the economy a boost is welcomed even if it is the pornography of violence. Two of the sporty types who sat the quiz, both blokes, were with me on this. One correctly answering the question and then gratuitously adding "she's a beast"; another claimed that she had killed a man with a blow to the head but, because the incident had happened in international waters, she couldn't be prosecuted. I think that is rather unlikely but I've written before about boxing and contact sport encephalopathy CSE.

Let's note here the death at aged 29 of Konrad Reuland, an American footballer who played tight end for the Baltimore Ravens and the \Indianapolis Colts. He sustained a brain aneurism which bled out at the end of November, underwent corrective surgery but died anyway. Nobody mentioned CSE in their fulsome obituaries. I wonder if the last few people who 'sacked' him on the playing field feel the teensiest bit guilty?

Monday, 19 December 2016

La Môme Piaf

Édith Giovanna Gassion was born in Belleville, Paris 101 years ago today on 19th Dec 1915. At some early stage in her chequered [don't mention the war] career she acquired the name Édith Piaf = sparrow Passer domesticus. I'm showing my age in recognising her in this birthday tribute because she died in 1963 about the time I started to learn French in school, so she was not part of my middle class southern [UK] culture when I was growing up. The Beloved au contraire grew up in a multicultural society on the edge of the Sahel in West Africa. Her mother Souad went to school in Egypt and Lebanon speaking better French than English, had more than a passing resemblance to Édith - diminutive stature and considerable back-bone - and both women had a veneration for Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Souad gave her daughter an LP of Piaf's greatest hits for a birthday just after we got together. We were at the time bone-poor students who had a very limited collection of records, so we played Piaf almost until the disc wore out. As it happens today is the anniversary of ma belle-mère's death last year and the family gathered to remember her this last weekend. Souad taught me that there is no future in regrets, and I'm grateful for that even more than for the many servings of baked ham and megadarra that I ate at her table.

One of the wonderful things about Piaf for foreigners is that, as well as a having a gutsy all-in style of singing, her diction was precise and so listening helped my French no end.  But don't listen to me, listen to her belting it out:


Sunday, 18 December 2016

Janus & Epimetheus

Jaysus Janus! I work hard to understand, so that you don't have to. Today is the 50th anniversary of the 18th Dec 1966 discovery of Epimetheus by Richard Walker. Epimetheus is a moon of Saturn whizzing around the giant planet with an orbital radius of about 150,000km. That's from the centre! Saturn itself has a radius a tad under 60,000km, so Epimetheus is a bare 90Mm above the cloud tops. The moon is tiny compared to Saturn but still a substantive chunk of territory 130 x 155 x 105 km so bigger than Corsica and smaller than Sardinia. Walker reported his observation and was able to calculate the orbital radius from the photograph. Trouble is that 3 days earlier on 15th Dec 1966, Audouin Dolphus, working from the Paris Observatory Vive La France! had snapped another picture of a moving object that was 90,000 km up from the surface of Saturn. He called his chunk Janus and because of the astronomical rules of priority [mighty slag-fest prev] the name Janus stuck to both slabs. Janus is bigger: 203 × 185 × 150 km or about the size of Corsica and Sardinia combined. You should know that Dolphus won an academic argument with Gerald "Kuiper Belt" Kuiper [bloboprev] about the geological composition of the surface of Mars. Dolphus was vindicated by the Viking Landers in his iron oxide theory for why it is the Red Planet.

This-all caused a certain amount of consternation among those who care about the moons of other planets because the two sets of observations were very difficult to reconcile into an orbit that could refer to a real object in physical space. As physics-trained people, it must have made them scratch their heads and think of an electron bi-locating - being in two separate places at more or less the same time. Further observations and a creative Aha! moment by Stephen Larson and John Fountain in October 1978 fell the data into place as two separate bodies occupying the same orbit. Actually these boffins can calculate to a precision that one orbit is about 50km wider than the other, that's a level of resolution rather less than the diameter of either body. That's the same orbit in my book. The existence of two slabs of rock was confirmed two years later by pictures when Voyager 1 got up close and personal in its fly-by past Saturn. The picture [R] was taken much later by Cassini: Janus [R.R] is 40,000km further from the camera than Epimetheus [R.L].

How does it happen? How do two chunks of rock dance round the ringed planet without ever (so far) bumping into each other? "So far" because this pas de deux has clearly been going on for much much longer than 50 years. If you try to investigate the how and why [let's start at Wikipedia, folks] you are presented with a highly authoritative but deeply confusing diagram that implies the two moons oscillate back and forth in their orbit. This is emphasised by looking at moving-image evidence on youtube which seems to show Janus and Epimetheus coming to a screeching halt every 4 years and going into reverse. It certainly does not help that these orbital relationships are called horseshoe orbits. This is bloody nonsense as explained by the patient people on Quora. The inner moon travels faster than the outer one and eventually catches up with its partner. As they get close the force of gravity heaves them together so that they swap orbits, the inny becoming outy and outy going all inny. The inner moon travels faster and several years later catches up with its tag-partner and they swap places again.

Horseshoe orbits are shown much more clearly by a pair of MOVies in the Wikipedia entry for Cruinthe, a small body in orbital resonance with Earth which is billed by some people from the Arts Block as being our second moon. As one of the QI panellists said at the time "Who comes up with this shit?".

Sing it out lads 181216

Sing, alone or together, but sing!

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Christmas Spirit

Jaysus, it's that time of year again, when we used to celebrate the Birth of Our Lord and now we pay tribute to St. Mammon. I've been invited to four work-related Christmas parties already and have managed to slip out of three of them without causing offense. There is a time in your career when it is A Good Thing to participate in these events. A healthy atmosphere at work hinges almost entirely on the esprit de corps of the workers and this is boosted if everyone gets wasted together once or twice a year. Showing face as a good sport makes it a little less likely that your character will be dismembered behind your back by The Viper. I've suggested before that the faux-jolly aspects of work-place Secret Santa aka Kris Kingle can be ameliorated by cruelty as when a group of Finns presented a scythe to a lonely and socially awkward colleague. Numberphile's Hannah Fry at least has an algorithm for making the SS / KK strictly anonymous.

A while ago in the run-up to Christmas, I was talking to the lady-what-washes-the-bottles when we met on the corridor an hour before classes started. She gets up at 0500hrs every workday morning to get ahead with the day before she wakes her 3 sons an hour later. She's not the sort to fob the chaps off with an energy bar or a bit of toast to set them up for a day's book-l'arning. She's also not the type to go flaithulach at Christmas. Indeed she and her siblings have agreed to throw in €10 for each of the kids [N = 8 at the moment] in the next generation, so that each one can get something substantive rather than a bundle of tat that is no good for child or planet. This year, her youngest threw a bit of spanner in the works. Turns out that one of his Aunties volunteers with the Simon Community in Galway, where they have 17 homeless children among families on their hands this Christmas. As well as bringing them in for a proper Christmas dinner, Simon likes to get each child a token Christmas present, so that they have something to unwrap after dinner. Young Master Plongeur, aged 7-and-three-quarters, asked his Mum if he could give €10 of his Xmas loot to the folks in Galway: "That way one child over there will be sorted". His Mum was surprised and a little proud and said that she'd stump up the cost of sending the cash. Then the little blaggard put the screws on his older brothers to follow his example; so they had €30 in the pot.

But it didn't stop there, because his teacher heard about the scheme and got him to say what he'd done to his class-mates. Even they were impressed. I say even they because the young feller has a bit of a speech impediment and the other chaps would normally only acknowledge his existence when flushing his head down the toilets. At the end of of his spiel, he turned to his teacher and asked her if she'd ask the other members of staff if they'd like to contribute to the fund "It's only a tenner. Miss". The upshot and bottom line is that, through the generous heart and dauntless determination of a small-small chap from Wexford, the Galway chapter of the Simon Community has got the Christmas present angle now fully covered and can put €170 towards nappies, sleeping bags or hot soup. Why am I blinking? . . . it must be dusty in here.

Of course, lots of people are generous to the homeless at Christmas [via tywkiwdbi] via reddit] where there is lots of on-point commentary from the homeless. "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little" [prev on quote attribution]. And from homeless we may shift to adoption: girl presents adoption papers to her beloved step-father; and girl petitions foster parents for same.

Friday, 16 December 2016


Margaret Heafield was born in Boondocks Paoli, Indiana on 17th August 1936. She was good at mathematics and secured a Bachelor's degree in Math with a minor in Philosophy from Earlham College. She married Mr Hamilton, a chemistry student at Earlham, immediately after graduation and became a teacher in high school to help fund her husband's post-graduate degree at Harvard Law School. They had one daughter. In the early 1960s Margaret now Hamilton moved to the Boston area to pursue her own post-graduate dreams in math but signed up with MIT when they needed quants to help predict the weather.

She couldn't have arrived at a more exciting time. Everyone knew that there was more to predicting the weather than red sky at night shepherd's delight and mackerel skies and mare's tails make big ships have small sails. They also knew that weather was chaotic in the sense of 'exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions' and hard to predict further than a few hours ahead. In Ireland of course predicting the weather is easy: it's either raining or about to rain and these states oscillate with a fair degree of regularity. The MIT boffins realised that they would need computers to do the calculations because the equations were so necessarily complex that, without computers, you'd only get the answer after the weather front had passed through. It was the same story with cracking the Enigma code in WWII: no point in getting the news after the enemy strike had happened.

There was a sense in the early days of computing that the sexy stuff was in the hardware and the boys corralled that off for themselves. As we saw when remembering the career of Grace Hopper, the software was seen as, well, soft and sort of peripheral to soldering and replacing the blown vacuum-tubes. So there were openings for young women on the software side, and Margaret landed one of those. There was no job description called software engineer because that role was being crafted by the ingenuity and ways-of-seeingdoing of the likes of Grace Hopper [prev] and Margaret Hamilton.

When Margaret moved from weather work to war work, trying to predict when and whence the Russians were going to launch the first missile strike of Armageddon, she was assigned a Newbie-hazing programming project. Far from being intimidated by the gnarly code she was tasked to make work, she untangled it and made it do her bidding. This may remind you of Aoife McLysaght solving an intractable coding issue a generation or two later. Having once started working for military-industrial complex, it was a short step across MIT to the Draper Lab which was writing code for the Apollo space project. By this time Margaret had a 4 y.o. daughter at foot, anti-social hours were being worked and when necessary the child came to work. One time the girl pressed a button which said Don't Press This Button and erased part of the code for a flight simulation program. Margaret used this to push for more redundancy and safety nets in the code. to make it more robust and, well, safer. NASA was trying to fit a massive task into the limited  but bulky hardware that was the best money could buy. Or at least the most expensive money could buy which isn't always the same thing. NASA insisted there was no room for a lot of back-ups and fail-safes against every absurd eventuality that the software people might dream up. Whatever about female pre-schoolers, no Astronaut was stupid enough to press the Don't Press This Button button. Except that on the Apollo 8 mission one of the astronauts did indeed press the button and unravelled part of the program on which his return to Earth depended. They had to rebuild the code by wireless.

After this the NASA management paid a little more attention to the unmanly cries for safety first, or at least safety second or maybe just a bit of safety if-and-when it didn't affect the ambitious time-line of the Apollo project. But in way, the NASA brass was right, it was an inherently risky business that required a lot of contingent events to fall out as predicted. If you agonised about unlikely accidents then the rockets would never leave the ground. Neil Armstrong, trained as an engineer, reckoned he had a 50:50 chance of getting to the Moon and back.

So when the big day 20th July 1969 arrived and Eagle approached the surface of the Moon with Armstrong and Aldrin aboard, a bunch of lights flashed and buzzers went off to report numbered error messages. Neither man knew what the errors meant. Mission Control had seconds to decide whether to abort the landing. But Margaret Hamilton had written the code and she knew that it was a prioritisation overload. The on-board computer was getting itself all tied up trying to execute more tasks than it had memory to accommodate. Some of the mission-critical tasks were being put on hold while trivial tasks were being addressed. By killing the currently inessential tasks, enough memory was recovered to get the bus down to a safe landing in the Sea of Tranquility. Margaret Hamilton deserves a large part of the credit for including priority codes for each of the tasks in the program.

Like Dennis 'dmr' Ritchie, Hamiliton was there at the beginning of the digital age and her Ways of Seeing, her obsessions and worldview cast a long shadow across how geeks should behave. In November this year Barack Obama gave a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Margaret Hamilton; and one also, posthumously, for Grace Hopper. Tribs on SciShow with some details of how Hamilton's interventions and planning mattered. Or in writing: Brief bio of Hamilton, NASA & Apollo on Wired. For example, her experiences with curious children, foolish astronauts and the design of complex programs that might encompass thousands of lines of code, led her to develop USL a Universal Systems Language. By looking at the structure of the software and formally mapping the dependencies of the several parts, programmers were forced to act defensively. They were effectively forbidden from making glaring errors; errors which Hamilton had calculated to be the most likely to occur and/or the most damaging. She must have studied Utilitarianism in her Philosophy classes at college.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Parts per millicentimartin

The bold Dau.I is back from her sojourn in Egypt England and we've been catching up . . . about each other but also about what's been going down in the social media. The Blob is my, almost entirely one-way, contribution to this vast consumer of electricity; so I'm not really up to date on all those celebrity scandals, hilarious kitten videos and viral memes. As an ex-pat, she's spent at least as much time as me tuning in to what's happening in Ireland. We were comparing notes about food content and food labelling - about which I have something of an interest.

Someone told me the other week that grated cheese is quite a bit less than 100% cheese. The idea of buying pre-grated cheese as a 'convenience' really makes me chew my beard in frustration. How difficult is it to grate cheese ffs? When the kids were growing up, they would grate cheese unto and into a whole lot of dishes and never sustained injury or 'lost' more than 7 seconds per meal. That's 7 seconds per family not per person! Grating the goddam cheese in a factory far far away is no advantage if the shreds are going to clag together again between factory and plate. Accordingly the food engineers dust each separate fragment with a talcum-powder-like mixture of cellulose and potato starch to prevent 'caking'. Although these additives typically are only 2% by weight, they will affect the cooking properties and mouth-feel of the product.  By massively increasing the surface area of the cheese, attack by moulds is much more likely and you really shouldn't leave an open half-used bagful about, even in the fridge.  Unless, like me, you're okay with a dash of blue in your food. Dau.I has been working for the last several months as a dinner-lady in an English school. They grated cheese almost every day for up to 200 kids and attendant adults . . . using a Magimix food processor with a grater attachment frrrpp - a kilo - frrrpp - another.  Doing it by hand as she used to aged 5, doesn't scale up.  Dau.II, otoh, working in a Burrito bar says that they buy their chopped onions every day in a big bags because it's just not cost-effective to do it by knife.

Additives on the food morphed into the Tayto gluten scandal of November this year.  A lady in Wicklow bought her coeliac kids a bag of gluten-free O'Donnell's crisps which triggered a reaction. Surely all potato crisps are gluten-free???  In the early 1990s when I used to cycle into work, I was much distracted by a clever-clogs advertising campaign which billed oats Avena sativa as a fat-free food. Well duh, of course it's fat free. You might almost as well try selling bottled water as fat-free. But modern crisps are a long way from thin slices of spud fried in oil and salted. They are now sprayed by the food engineers with a villainous concoction of 'flavorings' to match the nonsense the marketing department is writing on the packaging. And apparently a lot of these additives use wheat-flour as a distribution vehicle. It turns out that O'Donnell's is now owned by Tayto, Ireland's Original, but Tayto is owned by Largo. If you go high enough up the chain everything is owned by General Foods or General Motors.  Inevitably this led to a long to-fro, occasionally pretty funny, on Reddit.

Anyway, it seems that there was a cock-up in the production line at Largo/Tayto and 'normal' crisps with more than 20 parts per million ppm found there way into the gluten-free bags. The Indo's reporter got way out of his depth in the science and invented a new nonsensical measure called a ppmg. This is stupidly conflating two things which mean the same thing 1)  ppm and 2) mg/kg or mg/litre. mg per kg is readily understandable because the units top/bottom are the same. parts/mg is about as meaningful as pants/kg. That's a problem because if you can't report the facts correctly, (because the journo, the copy-editor and the Editor are all ignorant of science) then it casts doubt on everything else you and your paper put into print.  It's as if you compared the economic power of two rival nations in units of shirt-buttons.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Getting a start in research

I had an e-mail from one of our cohort of 2014 graduates who has been working in a pharmaceutical lab for the last couple of years but wants to move into a more research-led way of life. I read What Color is Your Parachute:  A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles back in the 1980s and have never needed to read anything else. That's partly because contracts have fallen my way over the last 25+ years and I've never felt restless enough or dissatisfied enough or ambitious enough to change direction. You can't be bothered to read WCIYP now, unless you are a) in the process of shifting careers and b) at your wit's end. You may be at your wit's end because your protocol for finding a new job is not fit for purpose.

One of Rchd Bolles evidence-based bits of advice is: don't bother to apply for a job that has been advertised . . . it has already been filled and the ad is only HR equal-opportunity optics. You need to get out in the jungle and hunt down your own opportunity.  Here is my executive summary of WCIYP vintage 1980 [the book was so successful that it has had a new edition for each of the last 40 years - get the 2015 edition it's much cheaper!] lightly editted from the reply I sent to our ex-student:

My SOP for getting a research post is [SOP = standard operating procedure]:
1a. Look into your own head/heart to discover what really excites you in science, you'll be committing 1-3 years [MSc] or 3-6 years [PhD], so you don't want to start with something you actively don't like.
1b. BUT, don't over-analyse this. You have no idea how research is going to turn out; the best, newest and most boat-floating ideas come in surprising places.  You could almost pick a lab at random and you'd be as likely to make a key break-through.
1c. The thing that will impact hardest on your success and happiness is the cohort of graduate students with who you wash up. The bosses impact comes a close second but is actually in second place.

2. Go into your own history to see what your real assets are. Are you a Good Pair of Hands? = technically capable, dextrous, and able to intuit what's happening in the eppendorf? Or are you, like me, a little bit clumsy at the bench, and happier at a desk thinking things through?

3. Is there, on your CV, something that really stands out in your toolkit - where you are better than most and with which you would be useful and reliable. Reproducibility is a key aspect of the scientific process.

4. Beef up your statistical expertise. All biological data is noisy, and most biologists are crap at stats. You don't need a formal qual in this but if you can talk the talk (power analysis, sample size, parametric vs non-parametric stats etc.) at interview you'll be memorable. If this is too much of an ask then don't sweat it: 90% of biologists are statistical illiterates.

5a. Decide if you want to, or have to, stay in a particular geographic location [aged parents, partner with job, crap at foreign languages, loyalty to soccer team, proximity to good surfing breaks]. The decision tree is way easier if you have to live in Ennis.
5b. 'Foreign' is waaay bigger than Ireland, so more choice. Did you ever want to live in Prague or visit Australia? English is the language of science and you're ahead of all those lads who only speak Czech or Oz.

6. Start your research career by researching suitable labs. Get your network out and ask your boss and more senior colleagues if they knows a good lab in the field you identified in 1. above. Join researchgate and/or linkedin and make pals there, or just use it as a dataset of people and places to suss out.

7a. Any effective lab PI is going to get at least one unsolicited CV a week. That same PI lands a grant with salary/studentship once every 2-3 years. It is unlikely that your CV will land on the desk in the 2 months surrounding the arrival of the money to support you.
7b. I think a thumbnail pic is a good thing to include: it shows that you aren't black or a woman.
7c. Always send a covering letter with your CV, addressed by name to the boss, citing any mutual acquaintances and expressing enthusiasm for working in that lab. Indicate that you know what they do there: read 3 recent papers and critique/applaud them. Suggest how your toolkit (key points in CV) would be an asset to that lab. Keep this letter to a single side of A4 and three paragraphs.
7d) Send the CV in the post, with a stamp: it shows that you value yourself and the process at least to the extent of €0.72c. Nobody writes or receives letters anymore, so you'll be a stand-out.
7e) Copy-edit anything you send. Spelinge errurs or misplaced apostophe's destroy your credibility as a careful scientist and are disrespectful. Have someone else [your cousin from the Arts Block??] read your CV and the cover letter.

8. Go Visit! Say that you're going to be in town in such a week (invent a wedding) and could you drop by to talk about the field and get advice about where the hot points of development are? Promise you'll only take 10 minutes of the PI's time. It's called an informational interview and it establishes your name and face in the PI's mind far better that one of 50 CVs arriving by e-mail that year. Go visit works well in foreign too. Take a Ryanair weekend break to Prague or Madrid and arrange your chat for the Friday or Monday. If the PI gets money in the following few months, they'll remember you. Don't over-dress for this meeting. No over-needy suit&tie, just clean casual - you're on vacation and just dropping in. Going to Madrid or Prague will be good for you anyway: travel broadens the mind.

9. The commercial sector does research as well as universities.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

For this relief

I was writing the other day about fermenting cabbage to make sauerkraut. Michael Pollan's position is that all the interesting aspects of food preparation / cooking are clever way to spare our digestive system from doing too much work. Compared to other primates, we have feeble stumps of teeth and are, even now, in the process of losing our third molars because we no longer sit on our arses chewing through a mountain of vegetation to make a living. By cooking and fermentation we pre-digest our food to release the goodness. Our guts are much shorter than those of our nearest more strictly vegetarian relatives the great apes, and with that much less weight of tripe, humans can run further than any other mammal except perhaps hunting dogs Lycaon pictus.

I had a close encounter with the indigestibility of cabbage when I lived alone in Dublin 4. My family were living down the country but I only got to eat with them at weekends because I was working in Dublin. Most nights after work I'd go round the corner to the small supermarket in Sandymount Green and stand in the check-out line with other single professionals getting the makings of dinner for one. It was sad, but at least the people in the line were cooking rather than copping-out with a take-away. The packaging didn't work well for us: a tin of baked beans is a lot for one person over the age of 20 especially if it is part of a balanced meal. One night I bought, going cheap, 500g of value stir-fry mix. This was basically a huge heap of shredded cabbage with a token garnish of peppers, mushrooms, carrots and bean-sprouts. After I brought it home, greedy me realised that we were going away for the weekend and on Monday I was off to Brussels for work. Ooops catering error: if I didn't finish the stir-fry that night I may as well throw the stuff away. I don't come from a family that throws food away, so I cooked it all up and chugged it all down.

The blood rushed from my head to deal with the meal and I soon fell into a drooling slumber in the living room chair: it had been a long day. Two hours later, it was full dark but I startled awake with a feeling of unease . . . below.  As my father used to say "I felt a little rumbly in the tum". I had a small glass of cold water and waited . . . but finally threw on a coat and went for a long walk along the edge of Sandymount Strand. The mass of undigested cabbage was sitting like a so many wood-shavings in my stomach which was clearly overwhelmed. I was reminded of a dramatic moment in the film Far From the Madding Crowd when a farmer relieves one of his cows of a nearly fatal case of 'bloat' by stabbing the beast in the side to release the gas.  Couldn't find the clip but here's the procedure carried out by a modern vet with a trochar.

Mais revenons nous a nos choux! The walk, or time, or jumping up and down finally developed into a brief sense of nausea before I emptied my stomach copiously over a low wall into some burgher's shrubberies. For this relief, much thanks as Francisco said to Bernardo. I felt better immediately and went home to bovine sleep for what remained of the night. Moral: never eat alone.

Monday, 12 December 2016

It's too easy to be wrong

I was watching  the Cooked miniseries on somebody else's Netflix account. This is the beautiful set of documentaries [loosely] based on Michael Pollan's book of the same name [prevliers]. In the middle of the second episode, touching on the obesity epidemic, they wheel out Harry Bazler, food pundit, to say "The solution to obesity is to tell people that you can eat what ever they want for dinner - soup, Caesar salad with extra croutons, entrée, dessert with ice-cream; whatever - so long as they made all the dishes themselves, from scratch."  If folks had to work to get food on the table then a) they'd appreciate it all the more b) they wouldn't be bothered because we're all fundamentally lazy. This reminds me of [enormous] comedian [sort of] and singer Harry Secombe's diet "You can eat as much of what ever you want . . . so long as you don't swallow it." Money makes it easy to disconnect the work we put in at the office or driving a backhoe from the handing over wodges of folding-stuff at the supermarket check-out. Sorry, Junior, I had to work for 1h45m to pay for that dorky plastic thing you covet. Same with putting petrol in the car: especially if paid for with plastic.

Same with maths. Back in the days before electronic calculators you had to multiply two numbers by hand: preferably on squared paper. As Minister Agriculture , I have been tasked to find out the total weight of the Irish to plan for next year's food production in the 5 Year Plan of Our Great Leader. I could split 4,757,976 into  999,175 children at [average] 25,125g and 3,758,801 adults at 75,378g; set the numbers up as two long-multiplication sums and add the results:
     3758801    999175
     x 75378   x 25125
     -------    ------
    30070408    losing
   26311607-   thewill 
  11276403--   tolive-
 18794005---  boring!-  
But that would take me 6 or 7 minutes. Nope, I'd rather be an engineer about it and round things up and down to get an approximate answer and then add 10% in case next September turns really wet. Something like
Adults = 3,600,000 * 100,000 * 3/4 = 270 billion grams
+kids = 1 million * 25,000 = 25 billion grams.
=300 billion grams
If I was iffy about rounding down the number of adults to 3.6 million I could round them up to 4 million with a weight of 300 billion grams (+25bn for the kids) . . . or I could split the difference.  If students had to work [harrrumph the youth of today etc.] to make such calculations then a) they'd soon learn where they could legitimately cut corners b) they'd be less likely to make ludicrous order-of-magnitude errors about the volume of concrete blocks or a soccer ball or the time it takes a pendulum to swing or the size of things in the real world.  As it is, any maths they see, even easy stuff like €1.49 + 3.99, they switch on their calculator and switch off their crap-detector.

When the aliens from the Planet Zorg come down to harvest the Irish for quality control [prev] before shipping the rest of the humanity off-planet they just want an approximate answer to determine how many space-freighters to send.