Sunday, 31 January 2016

Sunday dinner 310116

Remember me raving about Jiro Dreams of Sushi?

Seahorse down

Down in Tramore, the resort on the Waterford coast, for a chunk of this weekend. The Event in town was the bicentenary of the wreck of the Sea Horse, which struck a shoal in Tramore Bay at lunchtime on 30 Jan 1816. The ship had been chartered in Kent to transport the 59th Regiment of Foot to garrison duty in Cork following years of active service during the Napoleonic Wars. Five companies, their officers and a number of wives and children boarded the Sea Horse in fine Winter weather on the 25th. But a storm blew up en route, the ship was unable to make landfall in Cork and scudded back East along the coast hoping for respite in the shelter of Waterford Harbour.  She was unable to weather the Western point of the estuary at Brownstown Head and threw out both anchors and 300 fathoms of cable against being wrecked on the shore. The wind cracked its cheeks, the anchors dragged, the ship struck and proceeded to break up within sight and sound of the shore. The people on the beach could hear the cries and prayers aboard the ship but the wind and tide prevented the launch of boats. Nevertheless several men leaped into the sea to rescue survivors who came within reach and 30 were saved. 363 perished, however, including all 33 women and 38 children. So it was a worse ratio than the Empress of Ireland in 1914. Another ship, the Boadicea, carrying the rest of the regiment was wrecked the next day further along the coast. It was the worst loss of life the regiment ever experienced.  Harrowing anecdotes of the day; more.

What do you do, at a distance of 6 generations to mark such an event? A local committee, including descendants of the rescuers, got together three years ago to plan. I made it to the middle of three ceremonies which brought together the British Ambassador to Ireland, the Mayor of Waterford; the Catholic bishop and the Protestant Dean; soldiers from the British Army and the Irish Defence Forces; the Naval Service, Coast Guard, the RNLI, the Civil Defence; a lot of old chaps who had fought in WWII. The Piper's Lament was played, speeches were made, flags were lowered, the Last Post was played, wreaths were laid, and prayers were said. The Lord's Prayer was finished in the Protestant tradition with "for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever" Amen. This difference from the Catholic form of words has caused many an awkward moment during 'mixed' weddings.

HE the British Ambassador gave an address about relations between our two countries and how they had been strengthened by reciprocal visits of the heads of state.  At one point, he referred to the North Atlantic Archipelago, which in his head is not the Faeroe Islands but what I call the WEA Western European Archipelago. In my WEA piece, I hinted at how fraught with political and diplomatic trouble the naming of these parts can be. I found it interesting that HE pitched for NAA with its hints of NATO, of which the UK was a founder member. Ireland has never joined even though 35% of NATO's current members were one-time-rivals in the Warsaw Pact. For the Brits WEA, and its explicit embrace of Europe, would not be appropriate with their half-hearted embrace of the European Dream: not part of Schengen; not part of the Euro-zone; threatening to go off and sulk over the migrant crisis.

The ceremonies in the Church of Ireland parish church wrapped up with Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish National Anthem. Here's the protocol: no matter how whippy the wind, civilian men remove hats; anyone who thinks they know the words may sing along; soldiers in uniform do not remove headgear but salute instead and don't sing along. Either that or none of them know the words. Here they are lads:

Sinne Fianna Fáil
A tá fé gheall ag Éirinn,
buion dár slua
Thar toinn do ráinig chugainn,
Fé mhóid bheith saor.
Sean tír ár sinsir feasta
Ní fhagfar fé'n tiorán ná fé'n tráil
Anocht a théam sa bhearna bhaoil,
Le gean ar Ghaeil chun báis nó saoil
Le guna screach fé lámhach na bpiléar
Seo libh canaídh Amhrán na bhFiann.

Saturday, 30 January 2016


I was taking Dau.II back to the bus for Cork on Sunday night and, being protestant, arrived half-an-hour early at the bus-station in Waterford. What to do? Do some shopping!  So I ducked into Spice World, the oriental deli on the Quays, to buy some cloves Syzygium aromaticum.  Weirdly, having just been talking about that spice, we ran out of them over the holidays.  As I walked down to the back of the shop I overheard a customer asking The Help for jeera, coincidentally I was passing at eye-level a big packet of cumin seed so I pointed it out to them. Customer happy, The Help was amazed:
"How do you know how to speak my language?" he asked.
"What is your language?"
"Aha, that's the same as Hindi, isn't it?"
"Yes, yes, The Boss speaks Hindi, he's from India.  But we understand each other very well"
I pointed out that finding his customer's spice was particularly easy because it had Jeera written in big letters on the packet. I also told him the feel-good story from International Day at The Institute about Pakistani and Indian students finding common cause, common food, and uncommon friendship while away in a foreign land. Here was multi-cultural Ireland working surprisingly well with Indians employing Pakistanis.  Whatever will I hear about next? Russians and Ukrainians in County Roscommon sharing recipes for вареники and agreeing that they'd rather live on the banks of the Shannon than in Crimea.

I came away with a particularly light step . . . and 50g of cloves.  The wholesale price is currently $8,000/tonne.  I paid $24,000/tonne for my itty-bitty packet; that's about right for a mark-up I guess.

Friday, 29 January 2016


It's nice when things work out; when you find a good match. The problem is that science deals with the real / natural world and there's a lot out there that is incommensurate: things that are occur on a different scale so you can never get an exact match. There are, for example, Imperial/US measurements for length (inch foot yard furlong mile) and there are SI ditto [cm metre km] and these systems are internally consistent: 8 furlongs to the mile; 12 inches to the foot vs the far more convenient and memorable 10s, 100s 1000s for all the SI units. But you can never get an exact measure of inches in cm; WolframAlpha says 1cm = 0.3937 inches which for most practical purposes [cutting cheese, short bits of timber, measuring shoes] we can call 40% or 2.5 cm to the inch. When driving a car, 1 km is 5/8thishes of a mile.

I've reflected on the annoying inconsistencies in the lunar and solar orbits, both as to cycle length and to eccentricity, which mess up such important occurrences as equinoxes and solstices;  the christian calendar; and the apparent size of the sun and moon.  If June 17th won't stay in the same place w.r.t. the seasons without adding a day to the calendar now and then, then it seems an Impossible Dream to predict when eclipses are going to occur. Perhaps most extraordinary is that people would care enough to do the calculations, because if we live in the same country all our lives we're only going to experience a total solar eclipse once a lifetime. If we live in the same village all our lives, we'd have to wait about 300 years for the next one. Of course, you'd be able to twig that a total eclipse was a subset of [partial] eclipses and, if it was important enough, you'd start gathering data and making and winning bets with your math-anxious neighbours. Having made your brain bleed with the calculations, you'd surely tend to believe in your immortality.

Eclipses happen because of orbital and gravitational resonances between the earth moon and sun; which are complicated. Any fule kno that the moon orbits the earth once-a-month [moonth! after all]. But it turns out that there are four/five months each of slightly different lengths - and I'm not talking about the wholly artificial man-made 28, 29, 30 and 31 day months.
  • the siderial month is the time it takes for the moon to line up with some arbitrary star in the firmament having gone once round in its orbit. It is approximately 27.32166 days (27 days, 7 hours, 43 minutes, 11.6 seconds)
  • the synodic month is a reg'lar month: the time between successive full moons = 29.53059 days. It's two days longer than the siderial month because, to be full again, the moon has to get back to the same place w.r.t. to the sun and in a month the earth has made two days progress in its own orbit.
  • the tropical month is the time between the moon's passes through the same equinox point. It is for all practical purposes [3 parts in a million diff]  the same as the siderial month = 27.32158 days
  • the anomalistic month is the interval between the moon's closest approach (perigee) to the earth = 27.55455 days
  • finally the draconic month is the interval between the moon's crossing of the plane of the earth's orbit - the moon's orbit is about 5o off-centre of ours = it's 27.21222 days long
To predict an eclipse you have keep track of all these similar but not identical cycles and the ancient Chaldeans noticed a curious thing about their inter-relationships. If you have a solar eclipse in a particular spot on the globe then 6,585 days, 8 hours and 11 minutes later the sun moon and earth will be almost in the same relative positions and you'll have another eclipse. 6585.3211 days = 241* siderial months = 223 * synodic months = 242 * draconic months = 239 * anomalistic months. The Chaldeans called this extraordinary coincidence intersection something in their own dead language; probably the equivalent of "well scutter me pink, mates". We call it a Saros because Edmond "Comet" Halley took the word, possibly incorrectly,  from an 11thC Byzantine Greek dictionary.  The extra 8 hours is a bummer because if it was light enough to see an eclipse in one Saros cycle, it will be dark over the next two and so the local eclipse is easily detectable only after about 54 years: a lifetime. Hope it's not cloudy!

Matt "Numberphile" Cooper explains the Saros cycle much better than me because a) he understands what he's talking about and b) he's got moving graphics. 15 minutes well spent - go on, you'll learn something.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Adam's Bridge

Everyone now accepts that the World is not set in stone: chunks of the planet lumber about the surface of the globe grinding past each other or colliding directly and heaving up mountain ranges. 400 million years ago, during the Caledonian Orogeny [Scottish mountain-building in normal-speak] in the Devonian Period, the NW and SE sections of what is now Ireland came together with a rock-melting clunk. The fractal nature of geology suggests that if an island like Ireland was once in two parts, a smaller area can be joined up too.  The Blob has discussed two examples [Middle Island and its penguins; and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera in not-Morocco] of once-upon-an-islands that have become more or less joined to the mainland in my lifetime.  It cuts both ways: the South and East coasts of Wexford in the extreme Sunny SE of Ireland are disappearing quite rapidly due to coastal erosion. Land-loss and erosion is a central metaphor in Colm Tóibín's brilliant novel about the  history of our Republic The Heather Burning. The Scilly Isles were once a more substantive chunk of dry land and Scillonians can still walk or wade between some of the current islands at low Spring tides.

Sri Lanka / Ceylon is, like Ireland, an island nation which has been riven by sectarian strife since the Brits left. It is about 3/4 the size of Ireland but has 3-4x as many people living there.  It wasn't always so crowded, at independence in 1948, the populations were about the same [7m Sri Lanka: 3m RoI + 1.3m NI = 4.3m Ireland] but the number of Lankans has tripled to about 20 million now.  3/4 of the people are ethnic Sinhalese, 11% are Tamils, 9% are 'Moors' / muslims and the rest a bit of everything else. The Northern part of the island hosts most of the ethnic Tamils who are closely related to Tamils on the other side of the Palk Strait [R 80km wide sat-view; and below] in India.

If you look closely at the coastal geology the Palk Strait is bisected by a string of coral reefs, cays and sand-bars extending between Pamban Island, which is connected to the Indian railway system and Mannar Island on the Lankan side.  That too used to be connected to Colombo by the railway system until a disastrous cyclone washed out the line in 1964. Indeed an Indian train full of 150 people was swept into the sea just short of Dhanushkodi by a storm surge killing everyone aboard. Dhanushkodi was inundated by the water and those that survived the night lost the will to live there and moved away. When the sea receded before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, parts of the old town were revealed for the first time in 40 years. Adam's Bridge is acknowledged in the map above and in my 1938 era map of Southern India in The New Universal Atlas.  Hindu legend says that the bridge was passable by gods and the peculiar square slabs of surface limestone have had people imagining that it was man-made. Actually in the legends, the bridge was constructed not by men but an army of apes led by Nala. Temple records suggest that the whole string was traversable on foot as late 1480 when another cyclone scoured at least one channel too deep to ford. We live indeed on a Restless Earth.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Overlaps and gaps

Charles Darwin spent five years 1831-1836 in his early 20s circumnavigating the World in HMS Beagle. He was on the books as 'naturalist' and was able to go ashore whenever the ship was near enough to land and the calls of naval duty allowed. In one of his memorable excursions from Valparaiso in Chile, Darwin hired horses and took off into the hinterland towards the Andes. He was forcibly struck by finding fossil sea-shells several hundred meters above sea-level. He wouldn't have been surprised at this evidence of a restless Earth, because he had a copy of his mentor Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. But actually seeing the evidence made him start to wrestle with the idea of [im]mutability. On the same expedition Darwin was famously bitten by a barbeiro beetle Triatoma infestans which possibly delivered a load of parasitic Trypanosoma cruzi to his bloodstream.  This infection may have developed later into Chagas' disease. some of whose symptoms the great man displayed: "spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, preceded by shivering, hysterical crying, dying sensations; copious very pallid urine; singing of ears, rocking, treading on air; vision  focus & black dots . . ."  Other people are convinced that Darwin was a pampered neurotic who was a bit of a hypochondriac.

Mais revenons nous a nos geologiques.  One of the Principles that Lyell set out was Stratigraphy, the idea that older rocks underlie younger ones. It's not always true - sometimes the rock layers have been dumped on their sides [as R at Loughshinny just N of Dublin] through some cataclysm or even tipped upside down - but it's a rule, a principle. If you present yourself at the base of the working face of a quarry, the assumption is that the older rocks are in front of you and you'll need a ladder to chip away at younger facies. The problem for geologists is that the face of a quarry or the side of an eroded valley is only so high and the distance between top and bottom only exposes a part of the geological record. To get the full picture has required investigations all over the world piecing the whole story is a series of overlapping chunks.  The names of the geological periods give a hint at the scope: Jurassic exposures from the Jura Mountains in SE France; Devonian sandstones from the county in SW England, the Carboniferous is split into Mississippian and Pennsylvanian sections, Silurian is named from a Welsh tribe etc.  If you find that a characteristic set of fossils at the top of your quarry match those in a rock sample from the bottom of a quarry in Germany then you and your German correspondent have doubled the length of the record.  It's like the amazing history that dendro-chronologists have pieced together by comparing patterns in the width of tree-rings. A single tree lives for a few hundred years but the record goes back continuously for a few thousand.  It may, for example, get us a date on the eruption at Thera that wiped out the Minoans . . . or may not.  Come to think of it, piecing together lots of small data-strings because their ends overlap is how we assemble genomes.

So the usual problem is that the record in any one place is too short.  Surely that's not going to be a problem at the Grand Canyon, the biggest hole in the ground, which is as much as 1800m vertical from the rim to getting your feet wet in the Colorado River. The word is that the rocks exposed date from 200mya to as old as 2 billion years ago.  You might naively go ahead and do a calculation to reveal how much a million years is in metres. But you'd be wrong because there are huge gaps in the continuity of the geological record in N Arizona. I've zoomed [R] into a detail of the picture (which you should check out) of the geological periods exposed in the Canyon. It's the two pinky-grey sections which are most interesting to fossil hunters: the lower, narrower one is from 600-500mya, at the base of the phanerozoic which is also the base of the Cambrian period (another! chunk of the record named from Welsh rocks).  Phanerozoic means 'apparent/visible/evident animals". Before that there was life but it wasn't in the form of neat trilobites and ammonites that you'd be proud to have on your mantle-piece. The two lower grey bits in the chart [R] are very old but also very empty fossil-wise. The unconformities in the [pinky-grey] record arise because for 100 mya the area which is now Northern Arizona wasn't a shallow sea or a swamp but one of the many sorts of habitat which never allows fossils to get laid down.  It's just as well that we have lots of other exposed rocks in Mississippi and Pennsylvania to fill in the gaps.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016


I spent a half year in Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam accumulating cash to pay for graduate school. I have many happy memories, despite having a near-death experience in the workplace. I was hired a bit like a filler-in for a maternity leave except that the baby was the Werelds Grootste Aquarium Tentoonstelling - a huge new exhibition of tropical fish. The extra work was deemed to require an extra worker - me; who would do the grunt work while the permanent staff built aquariums. The centre-piece was the 30-meter-bak: a U-shaped aquarium for tropical-reef fish.  It was a big engineering feat because 30m of glass enclosed 40 tonnes of water and required a substantial steel frame to raise the aquarium to eye-level. We needed to construct a reef: partly to provide some nooks and crannies for the fish and partly to save the punters from having to look through the water at other visitors on the far side of the aquarium.  Someone had the bright idea of carving a rough template in 1m x 0.5m blocks of expanded polystyrene, plastering the slabs with concrete and covering them in coral-pink, green, beige and brown camouflage paint. The result looked convincing but when the tank was filled, the reef peeled off the floor in sections, turned turtle and bobbed to the surface. The density of polystyrene is much less than water: a 3cm thick coat of sand-and-cement isn't enough to compensate. The fall-back was to build the reef-wall from lumps of dull red lava, of which we had a heap from an earlier project. That worked out okay.

There were mishaps.  One evening, one of the electricians dropped a hammer onto the floor of the tank cracking one of the 2cm-thick panes of glass. That had to be patched with a specially cut insert.  It was a joy to watch the Surinamese-Dutch glazier confidently scoring the thick glass with his diamond cutter, tapping the the opposite side and then deftly cracking the glass along each line of the template. It fitted snugly into its silicon-glop mortar.  One afternoon, two waitrons from the restaurant at the end of the exhibition hall were pushing a trolley laden with dirty plates across the building when they disappeared into the ground with a loud crash.  Rotterdam is built on sand - formerly the sea-bed - which makes digging trenches for utilities particularly easy.  But sand has very little cohesion and will wash away quickly in running water.  It seemed that one of the many pipes that serviced the aquariums had developed a leak underground and this had eaten away the sand supporting the paving-flags of the floor.  The concentrated weight of two people and 200 plates was too much for the residual structure and >!KARASH!<

As in all the countries bordering the North Sea, and elsewhere,  the erosion of land by water is an occupational hazard in the Netherlands and they have a word for it - waterwolf. Waterwolf has been central to the development of the Zuiderzee which was a freshwater lake called Flevo Lacus in Roman times. The land was mostly peat from accumulations of sphagnum moss in the marshy margins of the lake and its rivers. The peat has some stickiness and supports a certain amount of plant life whose roots hold things together.  But the peat overlies million-year-old sand. When the people turned from fishing and wild-fowling to trading and banking, the growing population's demand for peat for fuel rapidly outstripped supply and the edges of the lake fell into the water whenever there was a large spill of rain.  Dramatic floods in 1282, 1287, 1362, 1421 extended the lake until the dunes separating it from the fury of the North Sea were beaten into submission and the Lake became a shallow bay full of salt-water. The Dutch have spend some billions of Euros over the succeeding years, especially in the 20thC, to reclaim the sea-bed for agriculture and dwellings.  They will be severely pissed off with the rest of us when the sea levels overtop their dykes.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Rabbi Burns

Tonight ye maun celebrate Burrrrns Night in some fashion.  Even if it's only a tot of Scotch whisky.  In Великий Новгород Novgorod-the-Great and {Львів Львов Lwów Lemberg Lviv} it may be difficult to locate a safe source of haggis; kielbasa колбаса won't do - no oats Avena sativa. But I'm sure you can get a bottle of Scotch, even if it's called Sochi Genuine Old Kilt. Burn's Night celebrates the Bard's Birth on 25th Jan 1759.  He was dead before the century was out at 37 of rheumatic fever aka Staphylococcus (tsk tsk me! see correction in comments) Streptococcus infection, which would have been trivial to treat if he'd been born 200 years later. I have facetiously called him Rabbi Burns in the title because he knew a lot . . . of women: he fathered at least 10 children on 4 different women in ten years of active bonking. His picture [appropriately on the Left] is here superimposed with one of his most famous lyrics A Man’s a Man for A’ That. Which you may hear being sung in fine harmony.  Unless you're born Anglophone, you'll probably need the words to follow the Scots dialect.  The jury is out on whether Lallans / Scots is a language in its own right. yet you can still enjoy Tintin in Scots. Burns was just reaching adulthood in 1776 when the American colonies declared for local and democratic so the Rights of Man were in the air and Burns was able to give these sentiments voice. I've had his Parcel o' Rogues on The Blob before: a scathing indictment of the corruption of money and politics.  We should be awake to that: in Ireland, we are due a general election before St Patrick's Day this year.

There's loads more.  Burns penned more than 500 songs and poems and they weren't all political and social rantin':

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Sunday singsong 240116

Surfing youtube clips I came across this last week:
And here's a link to a piece about the virtues of home education in Ireland. We know all the families mentioned because Dau.I and Dau.II never went to school. The peculiar, jarring, thing about the report is that these children are apparently educated by the parents. That wasn't our experience: the girls were given 17 years and 9 months of time and the side of a mountain of space to educate themselves and then they left home.


When Dau.I and Dau.II were caught in foreign by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 we all had to learn how to pronounce at least one Icelandic word. Time for another - Vestmannaeyjar. The West-man Islands are an archipelago of 15 diminutive volcanic islands stretched out from the South coast of Iceland.  They are situated right on top, and are part, of the mid-Atlantic ridge MAR.
In November 1963 a new member appeared from the sea preceded by a huge cloud of steam and smoke. It was named Surtsey after Surtr, a Norse fire-giant, and its birth was well exciting for 9 y.o. me even on a crappy black&white TV. Three weeks after it emerged from the waves, three journalists from Paris-Match landed to claim the island for France but they legged it 15 minutes later, when Surtr gave another dramatic belch. The volcanic action continued until June 1967 at which time the island was about 270 ha in extent.  Since then, Winter storms have taken their toll and about half of the island has been washed away. It was obviously very interesting for geologists and vulcanologists to witness and record the development of a brand-new piece of ground. It was also a great project for several groups of ecologists as they recorded the invasion of land by a succession of plants and animals as soon as the place had cooled down.  Because they can, botanists calculated that 75% of the invasive plants arrived in bird-shit, compared to 16% by wind dispersal and 9% washed up by the waves. The island is a UNESCO heritage site and care is taken to minimise the impact of humans on this natural ecosystem. "An improperly handled human defecation resulted in a tomato plant taking root . . ." makes you (well me, aNNyway) wonder what might be a properly handled human defecation might be. On a human scale, the midwifing of Surtsey seems violent in the extreme. We can't imagine the magnitude of the event(s) which brought 100,000x larger Iceland up from the deeps.

On 23rd January 1973, Heimaey, the only inhabited [N = 4500] member of the Vestmannaeyjar unzipped itself rather dramatically along a line starting about 1km in extent and rapidly doubling in length [L dotted line]. The torn earth sent out a large quantity of hot lava and ash which was uncomfortably close to the small fishing town next to the harbour. Within 24 hours pretty much the whole population was evacuated by plane and trawler to the Icelandic mainland. A skeleton crew of emergency services and fit volunteers remained behind to observe events.  But they were not mere passive watchers; when the lava started to flow directly towards the fishing harbour, on which the entire economy of the island depended, someone had the idea of pumping cold sea water (sea water is always cold round Iceland) onto the advancing edge. An estimated 6 million tonnes of water was enough to cool and slow the advance sufficiently that the still flowing molten rock found an easier way to travel: away from the port. That's what's protestants do, they don't sit on a mat bewailing the will of god, they roll up their sleeves and act . . . sometimes it makes a difference. For those experiencing the trials of Storm Jonas a weekend of snow-and-blizzards along the Eastern seaboard of the USA and think it's Armageddon, imagine having a restless earth event eating the edge of your town for 6 months. The eruption didn't stop until July, by which time Heimaey had become 220 ha larger [grey on map L above]. More room for Puffins Fratercula arctica, of which there are apparently 8 million, to breed!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Russia takes one for the team

Sometimes things get better without us being fully aware of it and without any obvious action by, say, the Irish government; which would like us to believe it is the main cause of all good things. I was listening to Newtalk-FM on the way home from work last night and caught an interview that explained how I might be several €'000 better off now than in 2014. It's the price of oil, stupid. We live 40km from my place of work; it is wholly unserved by public transport and is too far for a sofa-pilot like me to bicycle. I did cycle once when the gearbox fell out of the car and I was barely able to stand when I got home let alone cycle up the final hill.  So every several days, I fill the tank of my modest and handy Toyota Yaris with petrol and am set for another week's commuting. Petrol is much cheaper now than at the end of 2014. We also heat the house with kerosene filling the 1000 lt tank with the stuff about 2x a year.  The price of petrol for cars is taxed up the wazoo but the price of home-heating oil reflects much more directly the price of Brent Crude which is floating about $30/bbl down from a recent high of >$100/bbl.

The numbers: the current price for 1000 lt of kerosene is €440 down from about €840.  That's €800 that I can spend on other stuff [shoes! booze! phones!]. The price of petrol is €1.20/lt down from late 2013 highs of €1.70. That's 50c/lt less and I consume [fuck yeh planet!] something like 40lt in each of 40 weeks a year that's another €800 for me. As cheap oil washes through the Irish economy, there will be further jolts to my sense of prosperity. But my point is that they aren't jolts but rather a warm glow which puts pre-election tax-cuts very much in shade. And now sanctions have been lifted from Iran and they have been explicitly invited to sell their oil into Europe that is surely not going to increase the price at the pump.

Coincident with the fall in oil prices, The Blob has seen a rise-and-rise of traffic/page-views from Mother Russia [L]. As an oil-exporting nation, this collapse in the global oil price must be tying their economy in knots. With government revenue way down, there will far less money for salaries and services for ordinary Russians. Heavens! there might even be a fall off in deliveries of champagne to the Госду́ма Duma.  Спасибо друзья!

Planet Nine is bigger

Space is, as the name implies, empty but it is also vast and when [almost] empty is multiplied by vast:
the result is a helluva lot of of stuff out there, albeit rather dilute. A year ago, I was concentrating on the local debris left by a generation of space exploration. Today I'm further from home out near the Kuiper Belt [R with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune identified with initials near pink blobs]. On The Blob, it's becoming traditional to give Mike "Prince of the Minor Planets" Brown a trib in January each year [2014] [2015].  I like his style although he his career has not been without controversy: largely in priority spats about who saw what first.  His demotion of Pluto from status as the ninth planet to one of several Trans-Neptune Objects TNOs, at least some of which are bigger than Pluto, is no longer controversial. Pluto is only a planet in aged books of pub-quiz questions. Brown is in the news again this last week because he's changed his mind! Changing your mind in science is just as rare as it is in other fields: changing your mind requires yielding to persuasion or data or evidence - and not many people are happy to make the mental and emotional effort.

We are now being asked to believe that squitty little Pluto and Sedna and Makemake and Huamea are being brought into line by the Mother of all TNOs: a huge lump of a planet perhaps bigger that Neptune itself. You can name squitty little minor planets after obscure Polynesian deities to show how down you are with minority peoples, but so far everyone is zipping their gobs and calling the big one Planet Nine (hypothesis) . . . except Brown and his co-worker Константи́н Юрьевич Батыгин Konstantin Batygin who refer to their hypothetical planet as Fatty. That's the level of respect in which major discoveries are held at CalTech: previous CalTech names include Easterbunny, Santa and Xena the Warrior Princess.  Here's the evidence from a CalTech press release:
The thing to abstract from the picture is that Planet Nine [Yellow orbit R] is pushing its gravitational weight about in such a way as to entrain several small TNOs into highly eccentric orbits pushed out on the other side of the sun. They are also 30o out of true with the main planetary disc of the Solar System. These six planetoids with most distorted orbits were cherry-picked from a computer model which included 92 TNOs which were set in motion by Rodney Gomes, an astronomer from Brazil, in 2012.  He suggested either a nearby Mars-size cause or a more distant Neptune-sized planet.  That idea was taken up by another consortium of astronomers which included a former collaborator of Brown's called Chad Trujillo; they also suggested a large object as an explanation for distorted orbits in the far distant, freezing cold outer limits of the solar system.

Brown and Batygin thought this was was a load of bollix most unlikely and set up their own computer simulation to come up with a more reasonable explanation. Now they are rowing in behind the new normal to vote for a large and very distant ice giant about 5000x the size of Pluto; 10x the mass of Earth and 20x further from the sun than Neptune. Their calculations say that the current alignment of the six off-centred planettes [hey, new coinage! please 'like' it on Friendface-astroblogs] is highly unlikely to have arisen by chance (P < 0.00007) and so must have been laid in place by mean-motion resonance with the hypothetical planet. I haven't seen the probability calculations but they will have to have taken into account the 92 - 6 = 86 normal-shaped orbits of the other TNOs in the original Brazilian model.  By Brown's account, stomping along the corridor at CalTech to thrash out the hypothesis, the model, the simulation and the evidence with Batygin was "perhaps the most fun year of working on a problem in the solar system that I've ever had."  I like that a lot; having fun while doing great science is one of the best advertisements for the field.  It sounds like the collaboration enjoyed by Cédric Villani and Clément Mouhot although they were separated by the Atlantic at the time.

Now the hunt is on to find Fatty with a telescope. The mathematics predicts its location with a certain amount of fuzziness so it's not a random search in the vast emptiness.  Actually, with the persistent occurrence of pre-covery in this field, it is possible that a telescopic photograph has already 'seen' the planet and has it stored in an on-line archive. Planet Nine might well be revealed by a 15 year-old night-owl from Иркутск Irkutsk with a computer. Look out! Or look to your screens.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Interplanetary comms

I was on about the science-bard Christian Bök and his cunning plan to send his poetry out for appreciation by the plain people of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. One of the points in that essay is that we're quite possibly 'at nothing' to have been a) sending out radio-traffic or b) listening to incoming radio traffic at SETI the Search for ExtraTerrestial Intelligence. That made me think about how we can possibly expect ET and his pals to make sense of a string of binary digits. Carl Sagan and Frank Drake did it all with graphics in the famous NASA gold-plate that was attached to the outside of the Pioneer spacecraft:
It makes you wonder what they were thinking to imagine that this was an efficient way to reach other forms of intelligent life.  Frank Drake is after all the originator of the Drake Equation:
which allows us to guesstimate how many intelligent communicative civilisations there are in our Galaxy. The answer is not very many anywhere near here. Sure if 'someone' happens upon a small object lost in interstellar space, the plaque might be a reasonable way of telling where/who we are.  The star-burst is centred on our Sun and indicates the distance and direction of the nearest stars and it's important to communicate that people don't wear clothes and that as a species there is a relatively mild sexual dimorphism. A radio broadcast is more efficient because it goes out in all directions and travels a lot faster/further than a steampunk space-ship. 

You can send the Golden Plate out digitally as a string of 1s and 0s repeated endlessly. If ET can read radiowaves they will have reasonably sophisticated mathematics, the reasoning goes, and so will know what is a prime number.  If the picture is constructed as N lines of M pixels each, where both N and M are primes, then there is only one way to assemble the string into a two dimensional picture of black and white pixels.  Actually there are two ways (M x N) or (N x M) but that shouldn't try the patience of the recipients. Alan Turing and his pals at Bletchley Park worked days and nights to crack the Enigma code. Actually there are other possibilities: like the lines could be written L to R or boustrophedon [from the Greek βουστροφηδόν = as the ox ploughs = lines running backwards and forwards like a knitting machine].  It turns out that prime numbers are primes regardless of how many fingers you have.  We count in 10s, computers do binary, ET would presumably count in octal because, like Mickey Mouse, he only has four digits on each hand.

For the actuality of  making 2-D pictures on a rectangular grid, check out Matt Parker's Stand-up Maths routine of programming Excel to do this.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Bleeding bonkers

The Gardai were called to a house-party in Cork City during the early hours of Tuesday 19th Jan because part of it had spilled out onto the street in the form of a blood-soaked naked man who was attempting to eat the pavement. Inside there was more blood and more people off their heads. The discarded packaging and interviews with coherent people in the house seemed to indicate that 2-CB was the immediate cause of the paranoia and hallucinations.  It's not clear where the blood came from but there is no reason to suspect "gastrointestinal effects and kidney problems" which were quickly flagged as possible side-effects of this class of drugs.  Even the designated chemist on Newstalk-FM radio this morning had difficulty with "2,5-dimethoxy-4-bromophenethylamine" so everyone settled on 2-CB in the subsequent discussion.

The Health Service Executive HSE, and the Gardai, promptly issued a warning to young people to "just say No" to illegal drugs and floated the idea that, whatever the adverse effects of phenethylamines in general and 2-CB in particular, any "2-CB" you buy on the interweb is unlikely to be made in an FDA-approved laboratory; you might get poleaxed by the congeners/by-products that haven't been completely purified out after manufacture of the active principle. By-products might even 'stretch' the product a bit so you can get more pills from each run?  I think it's important that people a) know what they are talking about [that's the science] b) appreciate how their statements will be taken up by the intended audience [that's the common sense - empathy - politics - psychology].  We had an interesting discussion at the Wexford Science Cafe the evening after the Cork story broke in the national press. Because one of our number works for the Environmental Protection Agency, we were talking about an EPA report on emissions from a waste-processing plant in Port Laoise that broke in the Spring of last year. We were actually talking about the coverage of the EPA report which was tendentious to the point of being wrong: there is no story if the EPA goes in, tests the air, and pronounces it within EU safety guidelines. It's 'better news' if you can get an unqualified person, preferably an elected representative, to castigate the report as a 'whitewash'. It's certainly better for the election prospects of said representative.

BUT my point was that we-the-scientists have a duty to do the science diligently and reproducibly but also to convey the results in a way that is easily understandable by intelligent people who are not science-trained. The latter might be called Pinker-pinter skills. Where it is politically important, the bar has to be set lower: understandable by the publicans, bookies and auctioneers who stand for election without ever having been to college (and more power to them for doing so!). Writing research grant applications nowadays typically requires another task: the writing of a lay-summary - 300 words explaining the purpose of the project in words that a public representative or a tax-payer can understand.  Partly because of "The Curse of Knowledge" this is damned difficult to do well.

What are you going to do if you're young-and-foolish and bored and have some spare cash andif a bunch of alien suits tell you not to do something?  As I rounded off the story of CD28 in Northwick Park two years ago, such a statement might even alert drug-free youths that there's a more exciting world out there (or in there, because the excitement is all in your head)  . . . and have them take Mum's credit card off to Slovakia to order up some of that 2-CB.  The comments under The Independent article are informative about the effects of 2-CB and related compounds, written by people who clearly have experience in the field . . . which none of the HSE talking-suits have.

Mais revenons nous à nos drogues. If you want 2-CB on the street you may find it easier to ask for Nexus, Bromo, Eros or Spectrum.  The key element is  β-phenylethylamine (β-PEA) which is a perfectly natural minority neurotransmitter found in the central nervous system of many mammals including us, but also in chocolate and some other foods that have been subjected to microbial fermentation. Because it's a natural product, there are natural enzyme systems for breaking it down and limiting its a) effect-time b) toxicity. It also makes it rather difficult for drug enforcement agencies to ban the possession of β-PEA. Mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine) [R above] is another chemically related natural product; in this case derived from the peyote Lophophora williamsii cactus. Mescaline has a long history of being used by people to mess with their brains. Aldous Huxley's book the Doors of Pewrception, which I read as part of my very expensive education, brought the idea of tripping on mescaline to a wider appreciation in the West.  He wasn't the first or the last celebrity to brag about the experience.

What's going on?  According to my Human Physiology course, neurotransmitters and hormones travel a short (NT) or longer (hormones) distance to interact with a particular protein 'receptor' embedded in the cell-membrane of particular cells. This causes things to happen inside that cell. The very same natural NT may have either an excitatory or inhibitory effect on different cells - there are more receptors than there are NTs and hormones so the latter all have to multi-task. The dosage will be very finely tuned.  Drug companies seek to interfere with this natural system either with agonists (enhancing the effect of the NT) or antagonists (knocking the NT or its receptor on the head).  Drugs delivered in lumps in mg [huge!] quantities are neecessarily a very blunt instrument as we saw with the artificial delivery of Factor VIII to haemophiliacs. Mescaline is presumably peyote's way of encouraging herbivores to piss off and eat something else. Only people have considered that a little of what you fancy here does you good.

Many of the marketable β-PEA derivatives were first dreamed up and synthesised by Alexander and Ann Shulgin in the 1990s. Alexander was converted to the benefits after a session with mescaline and devoted many years to chemical experimentation in the field. They wrote a text-book for do-it-yourself psycho-active chemistry called PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story: it's an acronym, stupid - Phenethylamines i Have Known And Loved.  Because Shulgin is a giving sort of guy, he put all the protocols up on the interweb: here's how to make 2-CB at home.  It reads like real chemistry "A solution of 100 g of 2,5-dimethoxybenzaldehyde in 220 g nitromethane was treated with 10 g anhydrous ammonium acetate, and heated on a steam bath for 2.5 h with occasional swirling. etc etc."

What to do? The debate hinges on whether we should make psychoactive drugs illegal. That will shift the manufacture to a shed next to a brothel in Bratislava or Bangalore and the supply to a really edgy group of hard chaws.  Or is it safer to bring experimenting with your mind under government control? That way, the possibility of disastrous break-down in quality control is minimised and the government makes a tidy income from the trade like they do with alcohol and tobacco. I think I'd rather the money went to the government than to a bunch of violent and unstable hoods. But it's not going to happen.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Encoding the secrets

In 2010, Craig Venter "created life": he made a sequence of DNA by wholly artificial means and inserted it into the geneless husk of a bacterium and the resulting chimera hummed and thrummed and came to life by starting to replicate. Like god or evolution he didn't put a random string of the DNA 'bases' together but a series of modules that coded for genes that molecular biology had shown to be functional.  One of the giant-shoulders on which the project was bases was investigation into a 'minimal genome': the smallest collection of genes that was demonstrably self-sufficient.  It's a lot smaller than the genome of lab pack-horse Escherichia coli which contains about 4000 protein-coding genes.  Which is turn is smaller than, say, Pseudomonas fluorescens which is about 6500 genes in size.  Why the difference?

Well, in Yr3 F&F aka Food&Ferm aka Food and Fermentation Microbiology, we're currently isolating and characterising LABs - lactic acid bacteria - on which so much of the interest in food lies.  Without LABs no cheese, no yoghurt, no kefir, no koumiss, no sauerkraut, no kimchi, no sourdough bread . . . and no silage for winter feeding of the dairy-cows that produce the milk that allows the LABs to work their milky magicin the dairy industry.  One of the peculiarities of LABs is that they are "fastidious" - or fussy or selective.  They won't grow well on regular 'nutrient agar'; they need some supplements. And if you add even 0.5% yeast extract, by supplying a cocktail of amino acids, vitamins and goodies, then the LABs will grow.  They make tiny pin-point colonies on a Petri dish as opposed to the big gobs of snot that Pseudomonas will develop, but they do grow and multiply.
Q. Why are they fastidious?
A. Because they lack the biochemical capability to make a rake of essential nutrients.
Q. Why do they lack that capability?
A. Because they have a reduced-instruction-set for a genome: typically only 2000-2500 genes in size.

Is 2000 genes the smallest possible? No: Venter and Co. used Mycoplasma mycoides as a template for their computer generated life-form.  It manages quite well, thank-you, with  only 1000 protein coding genes. One interesting thing about The Venter Genome which I addressed in an earlier trib is that the development team inserted 4 'watermarks' into their artificial genome, which contained encoded information.  This info included a list of the authors, an encrypted key to the code, and some deep quotes to show that they were Renaissance Chaps.  The code wasn't designed to be unbreakable and me and my smarter pal Kevin were able to crack it - albeit using two rather different methodologies. Wanna go? The watermarks are still on line.  Encoding in DNA, hmmm?  Maybe we can write something more meaningful than a list of Venter's employees and collaborators and a quote from James Joyce. If we need 1000 genes = 1 million bases to encode the replication machinery and essential metabolic systems, then we can write a lot more than a tweet of information in another 'payload' million-bases.  You'll need 3 bases for each letter in English or кириллица, so 1 million bases can make a text of about 50,000 words. You can say a lot in 50,000 words.

Dr. Christian Bök, a Canadian poet has been obsessing about the idea of writing something for all time rather than the ephemeral triumphs of getting a paper in Science. He's not piffling about with Escherichia coli either: that's far too likely to snuff out if, for example, Earth gets too hot for all the mammals. No: Deinococcus radiodurans is your only man for immortality. It is a really remarkable organism: the radiodurans means withstanding radioactivity: if zapped with sufficient X-rays you and me and Escherichia coli will roll over and die because ionizing radiation will destroy DNA. Deinococcus OTOH has developed ways of restoring its genetic material after it has been fragmented in this way.  The point is that if you have a message for all time and all space and wanted to send it out there to share: Deinococcus radiodurans might be the ideal space-ship.  If the question is "What's the message?" the answer might be "42".  That's a cheap shot.  I really don't know what humanity knows that we really should share with little green men from Planet Zorg.  Do read the piece about Christian Bök: it's a more thoughtful explanation of the technical issues of cosmic communication than I can manage.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016


Satisficing - that's a great word; a watchword for good sense; a portmanteau word from satisfy and suffice. As an evolutionary biologist, I assert almost every week in class that this is how evolution works. Perfection only exists in the cartoon 2-Dimensional world created by creationists. Real life in all its wonderful diversity has been shaped by evolutionary solutions that were good enough to get an organism over a hump in life's path . . . so that s/he could hump a conspecific and perpetuate the species.  Satisficing was coined by PseudoNobel Prize [pseudo because Nobel didn't endow the Prize in Economic Science] winning economist Herbert Simon. He maintained that agents in economics (like you and me) do not go for optimum/best/max.benefit solutions because those things are elusive and we lack the capacity [too mant parameters to juggles and integrate] to decide which outcome is the very top of the heap. Accordingly, we reject options until we encounter one which is above a threshold for acceptability and we take that. We have met the idea before in choosing a toilet at a pop-festival.

I came across satisficing in the first few pages of a Christmas Present The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin. The book claims to tell you how to be a Boss in your everyday life: never forgetting your car-keys or the names of your children.  Satisficing is the first nugget; I'm hoping for more as I read on.  I'll add it to truthiness in my list of concepts to make my way successfully in a complex and potentially hostile world.

Here's an exercise in memory from Levitin's book. Presenting a list of words below I request and require you to read each one out loud taking a second on each word (normal reading speed is 140 wpm - so slow down . . . and focus).  Just do it: you might learn something about yourself.
Now turn away from the screen and write 
down as many words as you can remember.

If you wrote down DOLPHIN or OLIGARCH you're either living on another planet or living in Russia. Among earthbound Anglophones, 85% of people successfully recall REST because of the primacy effect in memory; and 70% get NIGHT because of recency.  But 60% of folk confidently write down SLEEP although <check!> it's not on the original list. That's because of association.  It's also a false memory: which may . . . or may not . . . be the explanation for the naked woodwork lessons I think I had with my Uncle Jim in the shed at the bottom of his garden.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Living dangerously

I wrote a couple of years ago about a drug-trial carried out in Northwick Park in England that went horribly wrong.  Researcher felt that they knew how a certain section of the immune and inflammation system worked and thought they had a clever way of nobbling it when it went wrong - in the Northwich Park debacle they were hoping for a cure to rheumatoid arthritis and/or leukemia. That's suspect immediately: it is hard to think of two diseases, not caused by microbes, that are more different in their causes or symptoms. Any therapy that has the possibility of curing them both is likely to lie quite deeply embedded in the body's defence system so it might well be expected to have unexpected effects elsewhere.

These last tuthree years I've been teaching two days on/for the TCD MSc in Immunology.  My angle is comparative immunology - how the immune system varies among organisms because they are subject to different pathogenic assaults.  Humans tend not to get viral diseases that are spread by bird lice.  The research the Masters of Imm I - II carried out was asking the underlying question "Is the mouse Mus musculus a good model for this disease or its cure?".  If the relevant genes are present in both species, in the equivalent part of the genome, and have the same exon structure and similar upstream control regions then we are more confident that the rodent will inform us about how the disease works.  If not, then not-so-much.  The catastrophe in Northwick Park was blown up - like the heads of the unfortunate experimental participants - by the fact that, for this system the mouse is a poor model for what happens in humans. Yes, they'd carried out the expriment safely on a large sample of lab-mice.

Over the last week, we are getting a story, which is being given out by the teaspoon, about a Northwick-like story from Rennes in Brittany.  Science can be trusted not to overstate the Rennes story and give a reasonable take on the scientific background.  The drug being tested seems to be a psychoactive compound based on one or other of the molecules concentrated by Indian hemp Cannabis sativa. Like with Northwick's aspiration to cure both RA and cancer, the Rennes experiment aims at multiple targets incluing 'anxiety' and 'neurodegenerative diseases' - the latter could be anything at all - multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, Motor Neurone Disease.Whatever little we know about how the immune system works we know bugger-all about the subtleties of the nervous system.  I'm teaching it currently at The Institute in Human Physiology class.  A key problem with understanding the nervous system is that there a couple of handfuls of known neurotransmitters: dopamine, adrenalin, GABA and acetylcholine, serotonin, and some others. The thing is that each of the neurotransmitters must be double-jobbing and capable of reacting with lots of different receptors in a variety of different cell types.  Many of these are also hormones which act-at-a-distance so if you flood the system with neurotransmitter X it is a racing certainty to have lots of side-effects. The target in Rennes is an endocannibinoid receptor, so named because it reacts to the presence of the active compound in cannabis. We know that, but we have no idea what other compounds it reacts to although we are reasonably confident that the 'natural' stimulus is Anandamide, aka N-arachidonoylethanolamine or AEA. None of this complexity appears in biochemistry text-books - there everything is represented by a set of labelled blobs connected with confident arrows.  These cartoons represent what has been painstakingly won from controlled experiments in an wholly artificial system that can be run in a glass test-tube to generate a response that can be picked up by a laboratory instrument.  Clearly the endocannibinoid receptor has functions that we didn't know about!

It's a wonder that so many drug trials go off without a hitch or at least without killing people. One chap has just died in Rennes and three others are likely to be quality-of-life-impaired indefinitely. Getting paid to hang out in a government approved testing centre must have seemed like easy money . . . until it didn't.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Sunday bing bong 170116

We had a piece on the wonders of Lake Baikal in Siberia

Small is hot

I was reading the FT online in the dark on Sunday morning last week, while the sourdough was proving and a batch of apple&mince pies were baking: it was an article called the Great British Curry House Crisis. It was about how small 'Indian' restaurants were having to adapt to survive in the world as we now live it.  In the second half of the 20thC, the curry house took off across Britain as enterprising stokers from Calcutta or Chennai jumped ship in some British port and decided to cook like their grandmothers did back home. About 80% of Indian restaurants are owned and operated by Bangladeshis, most of them from Sylhet where Bangladesh borders Assam. When they needed a bus-boy or a chef or a plongeur, they wrote home and sent for their younger brother or cousin of nephew. They sent their daughters home to be married, so the braid joining Sylhet with Bradford and Leicester grew stronger. You'll put up with a lot if you're working for family and however rough the accommodation or long the hours, they were still better than conditions or opportunities in Bangladesh.  That's no longer possible: the British government doesn't need to import cheap labour, they need to shorten the dole queues.  The other side of the squeeze is economies of scale. I wrote recently that the price of cloves had halved, but that is a fall from a very high price; the prices of cloves, cumin, turmeric, coriander have all gone up but the competition is fierce to the price of a curry can't increase in parallel.  The solution seems to be grow or die.  Another problem is that the food engineers of Marks & Spencer can create a product that is better than the average curry house - although less exciting than the best. Brits like curry but they also like to eat at home in front of the telly and they want reliable rather than challenging.  Like the pubs before them, a lot of family-run curry houses are going to the wall.  Comments on Metafilter give the perspective in Seattle, Portland and LA.

It is a peculiarity of the Irish fish&chips industry that, like Sylhet and curry, almost all the Italian chippers hail from a tiny village in the Appenines South East of Rome called San Donato Val di Comino, the family names there are Borza, Macari and Cafolla.  Wherever you see these all over Ireland you can be sure of a single and chips or a one-and-one, but it's only in Wexford that you find the rissole.  A tuthree years ago a couple, about my age, went on holiday to a village near San Donato and Himself found the parents of a pal from school.  They used to run the local chip-shop but had retired to the warmth of the ancestral village. He was welcomed with open arms.  I daresay the school-pal is now working in financial services or driving a bus - anything rather than serving battered cod to well-soaked people as the pubs close on Friday nights.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Grote MannDrenke

We've had some floods in Ireland this last December and we've been heroic and despairing and stoic and bitter and wet about it. But however bad it's been, we have to acknowledge that it's been worse in other times and other places. 16th January <today> 1362 in the North Sea, for starters. That was the date of a storm surge drive by a huge SouthWesterly gale sweeping in from the wide Atlantic known as the Grote MannDrenke or the Saint Marcellus' Flood.  The most notable loss was the city of Rungholt in the North Frisian Islands in the Duchy of Schleswig.  Rungholt was a community of 2000 people, prosperous from trade and industry, and the whole place was sucked into the sea that terrible day. 2000 sounds like a village in 'today's money' but on medieval scales it is substantial. For centuries afterwards, fishermen would bring up relics from the drowned land. These relics may stop development of a huge new off-shore wind-farm in the area, as Vattenfall is ring-fenced <metaphor!> as an archaeological site following discoveries.

Actually, 1362 is known as the Second Saint Marcellus' Flood because a similar event, from similar causes had devastated NorthWest European coasts on 16th January 1219.  Across the sea the Grote MannDrenke was the nail in the coffin of the prosperous city of Dunwich, which in its heyday rivalled London as the principal port of Eastern England.  It was progressively eroded to a hamlet by floods and storm surges in 1286, twice in 1287, 1347 and finally in 1362.  The map [R above] shows the city of Rungholt in the middle of the island of Nortstrandt.  The island itself survived for a while longer, but is now very wet all the time. It makes you think about impermanence.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Officer Hours

My father was born in 1917 but brought up an only child in the company of his elderly parents and an extensive array of [maiden] aunts who had all been born and grown up while Queen Victoria was still on the throne [of Ireland! as part of the United Kingdom]. In many ways he was the last of the Victorians, with a value system that was couched in the moral certainties of that era.  We didn't call him Pater but he was nevertheless rather a remote figure - often literally remote when he was at sea. As a sea-captain, he was lord of all he surveyed, his rule was law and if his rule incorporated some eccentricities and peccadilloes, then the men around him just had to suck it up.  In no way was he a tyrant but he preferred some things to Be Done Right. He hated, for example, to see flags tangled on flag-poles and would order the nearest sailor to down-haul and re-set it.  This used to mortify us children, if we happened to be walking with him. Even worse was that he liked to finish up a meal with a cup of black coffee and he wouldn't accept it half-slopped in the saucer: the steward had to take it away and try a 'take two'. That must have been a bit of an ask in a Force 6 gale at sea.  I've no doubt that canny stewards worked out that the way to do it was to carry cup and saucer separately and clink the two together at the last second as they approached the white table-cloth: sailors are known for being resourceful.  All sailors, for example, from admirals to ordinary seaman carry a housewife [pron. hussiff] or ditty-bag: it is a sewing kit for replacing buttons and repairing small tears and generally getting to look ship-shape and Bristol-fashion.

We were, in turn all taught how to sew on a button and hem trouser turn-ups. The Da had a small fund of Victorian jokes, some quite unsuitable for polite company, that would ease conversation along at parties. Growing up at home we had lunch at 1300hrs. That's 1 o'clock +/- 2 minutes. It was a hangover from the institutional regime in which my father had bedded down during 35 years at sea in uniform. He wouldn't have a fit if lunch was late but, even long after retirement, he'd drift, watchless, in from the garden on the ding! of One, asking if lunch was ready. And he was never, ever late for an appointment.

Well, the Old Man died about this time of the morning on 15th Jan 2001 - exactly 15 years ago.  He'd taken a tumble downstairs and suffered a series of "medical misadventures" in hospital before dying four days later of iatrogenic things nothing to do with his fall. We immediately upped-stakes and flew to England, thinking that it would a funeral in the Irish style which is almost as expeditious as for Muslims who have to be underground with 24 hours. Died on Tuesday, waked on Wednesday, buried on Thursday would be the Irish norm: I like that because this ritual gives closure. Between the jigs and reels (waiting for an autopsy, waiting for a slot in the schedule at the nearby Abbey: as a pillar of the community a rather public service was thought appropriate) it was nearly ten days before his mortal remains were finally send up the chimney at the crematorium. It was very wearing for my mother and was only possible because modern undertakers have cold-storage facilities. A few weeks later, still in the grip of Winter, we agreed to have a much smaller service in the village where he'd lived for his final 25 years. His ashes, in a neat wooden mini-coffin were to be interred just outside the door of the medieval village church.

It was Sunday. The immediate family and the neighbours gathered for the memorial service at 11 o'clock. The organist was playing the introit when it dawned on us that there was no casket. My mother had assumed the vicar would have seen to that, the vicar was sure that was the family's business and the undertaker was 20 miles away. Note: undertakers are available 24/7. My brother slipped out of the church and phoned the undertaker, the organist continued playing. The Brother and the undertaker agreed to meet half way at a pub car-park and he sped off in his Land Rover. The organist continued playing until she'd absolutely run through her repertoire, then the vicar started the service off speaking v e r y  s l o w l y and we carried on as if everything was on schedule. The service eventually finished and the casket made a simultaneous appearance as if that had been planned all along. The Da was not without a sense of humour and would have been tickled at the irony of being late for his own funeral.

Thursday, 14 January 2016


One of the culinary triumphs of my dear departed mother-in-law was her baked ham which she did in the style Un jambon piqué de clous de girofle. Dau.II spent some time with her towards the end of her grandmother's life trying to capture the essence of the recipe for posterity; she may not have succeeded but she does make an exceedingly fine ham nevertheless. What am dis clou de girofle? you monoglots will cry.  Well it's гвоздика, spicchio, clavo, clove . . . Syzygium aromaticum. You can see why we use Latin to uniquely identify exotic species. Clavo [ES] = clou [FR] = 'nail, spike' because the flower-bud that we put into apple-pies looks like a small fancy nail. Spiccio [IT] = segment which hints at the other use of the word in English in a clove of garlic. I've always assumed that our 'clove' came from culinary old French clou but now I'm not so sure: clove is the irregular past tense of cleave = to split into segments. Chambers 20thC Dictionary goes with 'nail'.

My grandmother, who was a good plain cook without much exotic in her kitchen cabinets - certainly no garlic - nevertheless put a single clove into her amazing apple-pies.  Like Dau.II, I tried to capture the recipe before my Granny died but the information was elusively vague: "rub enough butter into the flour to make such a texture, go easy on the water, chop but don't pulp the apples, don't forget the clove".  That was very good for me, because it opened my mind to allowable variation and [unwitting] experiment. Making sourdough and sweet-yeast bread regularly is rather wonderful - every loaf is different but every loaf is good. I did manage to inherit, through my mother, her recipe for oatmeal flapjacks; which have been delighting young-and-old ever since. Movie supplement.

Cloves have a powerful and distinctive aroma the main constituent of which is eugenol [structure R] but like any plant there is a factory of other 'secondary compounds' that give 'notes' to the smell.  A wine-taster would be able to tease these apart from the nose. Whether it's the eugenol or one of the minor constituents, cloves have a numbing effect on the mouth if you chew/suck them.  But the FDA is now suggesting that there is no scientific evidence for clove's efficacy in reducing tooth-ache.  There is no scientific evidence for clove actually working for a very wide variety of complaints for which it is mobilised: vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, farting, hernia, multiple sclerosis and hiccups. They say that a cream containing cloves, ginseng root, angelica root, Cistanches deserticola, Zanthoxyl spp, Torlidis seed, Asiasari root, cinnamon bark, and toad venom will help problems with premature ejaculation if applied as a cream to the penis. Cripes! You could also apply a mix of 2 eggs, 100g of butter, 200g of flour, some sultanas and a pinch of nutmeg and bake in a moderate oven for 40 minutes.

Cloves are definitely exotic. They were one of the main drivers of a very early multinational trade that made some people mind-meltingly wealthy. Not the poor peons who picked the cloves off the tree, of course, but rather the Sultans who required them to do this task and the adventurers who sailed from Europe to collect them. Time was when the entire trade was filtered through the Sultan of Ternate a small 110km2 island off the coast of Halmahera in the Northern Malucus/Moluccas, now in Indonesia. When Alfred Russell Wallace needed to mail his world-shifting essay "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type" to Charles Darwin, he went across the strait to Ternate because the smaller island had all the infra-structure for international mail.  But neither the Sultans nor the Dutch East India Company were able to keep the monopoly under control because Syzygium aromaticum will happily grow in a wide range of tropical places including Zanzibar and Madagascar.  Nevertheless, about 2/3rds of the world trade 140,000 tonnes/year) comes out of Indonesia.  I don't want much - one clove for each apple pie I make - 5g/year will be plenty.  Now would be a good time to buy - the price has collapsed to about US$8,000/ton from highs more than twice that in 2013.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016


You know that old saw "Those who can, do . . . those who can't, teach"?  There are countless variations and one of them might be "Those who can, write books; those who can't, write about reading". Weirdly over Christmas I had two analyses of the process of writing thrust upon me. For Christmas, Dau.I gave me a copy of the The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby. It is the writer's critical diary of the books he a) bought and b) read between 2003 and 2006. There is a only a small overlap between the two sets. As Hornby gets prodigious amount of new books, you may be sure that if he doesn't read them very soon after getting home, they will become mere insulative wall-paper in his office. I like Hornby's writing, I've been amused and informed by Fever Pitch his soccer-fan book and High Fidelity his [auto]biography of a music groupie and About a Boy about two males growing up: one a child, the other an 'adult'. He is funny and can be gratifyingly cruel in exposing pretension and nonsense. The Spree is a bit like a blog: Hornby can put whatever he wants down without having to develop a sustained coherent plot or get it past a really critical editor.  It is therefore a little inconsequential and a little dated? David Copperfield may be for all time, but many hot properties from 10 years ago have gone down the toilet of history. Indeed, I was about 100 pages in when I started to realise that I'd read the book before; probably when it was first published [2006] but almost nothing had been retained by my 'mind'.

While I was over in England, I started reading dipping into The Boy's copy of The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life [2015] by Andy "Writer-Editor-Bookseller" Miller [Grauniad review].  It's an outrageous sub-title which exposes a lot of our reading as First World Stress.  It's a different class of thing when people in the Horn of Africa talk about how fifty great bowls of mealie-meal porridge saved my life. If I hadn't gotten The Polysyllabic Spree in my stocking a few days previously, I might have had an unaccountably strong sense of  déja vu about Miller's reading list. The concept is the same although the list is different to Hornby's and the analysis/exegesis is better developed. 50 great books inevitably includes a lot of 'classics' which Alan Bennett defined as "a book that everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have":  Middlemarch, War and Peace, David Copperfield etc. I'm never sure if these achieve their 'perpetually-in-print' status because they are timelessly good or because nobody got round to reading anything else:  that classics are the Harry Potter of yesterday.  In a telling chapter Miller intercalates a critical analysis of Moby Dick and The Da Vinci Code.  As a writer, he is able to join the long list of critics and writers who have recognised that the writing in The Da Vinci Code is sketchy, unconvincing and ungrammatical.  Pundits like Stephen Fry, leave it there - misplaced apostrophes and shonky sentence structure make the book beyond redemption: utter crap . . . without pausing to wonder why TdVC has sold 10 millions copies more than the complete works of, say, Stephen Fry.

Miller isn't so cheap or dismissive and makes an interesting editor's point.  He asserts that the publishers should be ashamed to have let such poor English go out under their imprimatur: do they not employ copy-editors? Indeed, surely Dan Brown could have caught the worst of his unhappy writing if he'd been bothered to re-read it.  There is no credibility in the suggestion that TdVC was deliberately badly written in order to generate [even adverse] comment in the press.

Miller also makes a writer's point. He writes, not as a diary or as therapy, but to be published. He would be delighted if any of his books acquired traction and sold half the number of copies that Dan Brown's has racked up. He doesn't think it is fair, appropriate or dignified to slag off a fellow author because he has made money - good luck to him indeed.  But when Miller asks the rhetorical question Would I write a galloping pot-boiler and be slap-dash in its writing? he says he wouldn't . . . couldn't do so.  He writes like Luther, because he can do no other, what he writes comes from some internal well-spring of creativity. . . when he is inspired/driven to get something down on paper.  The externals: money, copies sold, Booker Prize, favorable reviews in the Guardian; are irrelevant to the creative process. Me, I'm still waiting for The Blob to go viral and get me a job writing for money but that's not why or what I write.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Wallace Line

As I said before, Alfred Russell Wallace was a much travelled person. After a trip up the Amazon with Henry Bates, he went East and cruised about the spice islands collecting a staggering number of species new to science.  He has something like 500 species named wallacei or wallacii after him; as well as craters on the Moon and Mars  - but those are just hat-tips: he never got that far from London. Joe Public knows him because he lit a fire-cracker under Darwin's couch by sending The Ternate Letter to the great man which contained the core of the latter's own Big Idea. Darwin lay on his couch reading for about 50 years after his return from his own mind-opening voyage on HMS Beagle. There was a huge incoming correspondence from all over the world describing weird and wonderful aspects of the biological world; including of course the above-mentioned Ternate Letter from Wallace.

The Theory of Natural Selection proposed independently by these two men was the cohering conclusion to several strands of wildly different data:
  • The graded similarities among adults of related species: we look more like our dogs than either looks like frogs - it's the nipples, stupid
  • The divergence of embryonic development: a 6 day whale fetus is almost indistinguishable from a 6 day bat fetus
  • Trends in the fossil record
  • Biogeographical distribution: that are no marsupials in Europe outside of zoos; the flora of Ireland is really similar to the flora of England and wildly different from Brazil's - the explosive difference shook European naturalist [Darwin, Hooker, Wallace, Bates, HuxleyHumboldt, Bonpland etc.]
Darwin was a little lax in documenting his specimens - all his Galapagos finches were labelled 'Galapagos' but the key insight was that each island in the archipelago had different species. Wallace OTOH became acutely aware of the of the geographical provenance of his burgeoning collection and he started to notice trends and patterns.  He has been called the father of biogeography because he really put that way of thinking on the map.

Actually, that's literally on the map, because as well as the hundreds of species named for him, he also 'owns' a chunk of the East Indies called Wallacea and the most famous, not obvious to all thinking people, boundary in biogeography  - the Wallace Line [R in a bold blue] which marks the end of Asia and the beginning of marsupial land.  It's not as black-and-white, on/off as the bold line implies and there's another Lydekker's Line which separates Australia and New Guinea from the smaller islands to the North and West. Wallacea is the tropical paradise between the two lines is the grey where the flora and fauna show both Asian and Australasian attributes.  Of course 'grey' is entirely the wrong word to describe the brilliance of life in the tropics.  Wallace's Line is quite unexpected - why is there such a shift in fauna between Bali and Lombok when the two are separated by only 35km of ocean? That becomes a lot clearer if you metaphorically drain the ocean to levels experienced during the ice-ages when the water was all piled up in mighty glaciers and at the poles. Even with the seas 120m below the current datum, there is still a deep wet cleft between those two islands marking the boundaries between the archaecontinents of Sunda [W] and Sahul [E].

Wallace was also remarkable for his longevity, dying at age 90 in 1913: a year an a half after Alfred Wegener published his iconoclast suggestion that the continents have been romping about the face of the globe crashing into each other and groaning apart. That's why you find marsupials in Australia and South America but not in Ukraine or Ireland. But everyone ignored Wegener until 50 years after Wallace was dead.