Saturday, 30 April 2016

Another day in court

I was called to Jury Duty a month ago and turned up for The Call last Tuesday.  The cut of my jib was considered too dodgy by the defence's legal teem and so I didn't serve on that jury but was requested-and-required to re-appear in the Courthouse on Friday at 1030.  On Tuesday the 70ish citizens were kept kicking their heels and gossiping for more than an hour.  On Friday, it was the same, to even less productivity: having been kept in the hallway for more than an hour, the Judge sent us away because the Circuit Court schedule had been unduly optimistic and a new trial was not yet started, let alone ready for empanelling a jury.  We are now requested-and-required to re-appear in the Courthouse on Tuesday at 1030.  Recognise a pattern here?  The working day for justice seems to start at 1030. On Tuesday, we got a profuse apology from The Judge but Friday she offered us nothing but instructions. Someone sourly said that "the lads in there get paid by the hour but our time is worth less than nothing" . . . because it was being wasted.

Ireland Inc. gets through a little over €50 billion each year and, like our Justice, is allocated on a adversarial system: a big bruising Minister of Children can insist on more money this year, which means that the meeker cabinet colleagues get a smaller slice of the cake. Actually, the most significant factor in allocating the money is inertia: this year's budget for Department Y is just a tweak from what it was last year, and the year before.  That's because, after the welfare handouts, almost all the money goes on salaries for permanent pensionable employees who cannot, no matter how redundant or ineffectual, be sacked encouraged to take early retirement . . . at a crippling cost in redundancy payments. Nevertheless compared to the three mammoth teats [Social Protection, Health and Education] on which the state employees suck, the Department of Justice is a distance 4th at the pork-barrel taking only 4% of tax-payers money.  Justice includes not only the Courts but also the Gardai and the Prison Service.
Department %
Social protection 40%
Health 25%
Education 17%
Justice 4%
Ag and Fish 2%
Children 2%
Defense 1.5%
Environment 1.5%
Foreign affairs 1.5%
Everything else 5%
In a case like the one which started last Tuesday, all the suits are probably employed by the State: the prosecution lawyers and the judge of course, and the 5 or 6 (!) Gardai who were required as witnesses, but also the lawyers for the defense who didn't look like they would be able to pay their counsel a €1000 a day and probably availed of free legal aid. But I put it to you, ladies and gents of the jury, that the cost to the state is much more than the salaries of all of the above. 70 people have been taken out of the productive work-force for 2.5 hours in one court in one week to empanel a single jury of 12 citizens. I get paid a king's ransom for teaching at The Institute, of course, but there will be some jurors on the dole, so let's call their wages €9.15/hr on average, which is the minimum wage for "experienced adults". That's €1600  for 'being available': not useful, not productive, just available for justice and thereby not available to work. harrumph!

Walking on water

The Given Note
On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.
Seamus Heaney
The Blasket Islands (next parish Boston) are the most westerly extension of the Western European Archipelago - what we have to call the clatter of islands which the Brits and Irish (and a gallimaufry of every other nationality on Earth) call home.  Apart from being home to the fiddler tribbed in Heaney's poem [above and RTE] the Blaskets are also the most significant European nesting site, after the Faeroes, for  Hydrobates pelagicus the storm[y] petrel, Mother Carey's chickens, guairdeall [IE] stormvogeltje [NL]; stormsvala [SE]; Sturmschwalbe [DE]; pétrel tempête [FR]. This, the smallest of seabirds, is named in English for St Peter who, in a famous biblical story, tried to walk on water. Actually the name petrel is more likely an onomatopoeia for the pitterel-patterel they make when skimming the surface scarfing up small fish and crustaceans for dinner. Mother Carey?  may be a corruption of Madre Cara, the blessed virgin. Don't rush off to the Blaskets in hope of adding this bird to your twitcher's checklist because except for 12 weeks of the year, there is nobody home.  The birds return only to mate, lay one white egg, and raise the fledgling before they depart again for their storm-tossed wandering life at sea. They only survive on islands which are free of introduced cats and rats [not Kerguelen so]. When you weigh an ounce /25g, your surface to volume ratio is so adverse that you must keep eating all the time just to keep warm. But for the evidence of almost uncountable numbers of storm petrels, physiological ecologists would have to conclude that these tiny birds had been assigned to the dustbin of extinction.  But hey, there are worse ways of making a living than on a world cruise.

Nevertheless, living on the edge they can't handle really terrible weather and will fly for shelter when they feel a storm brewing. Since man left the safe confines of life on the land, stormvogeltjes have sheltered in the lee of ships and boats when the going gets rough. Mariners have long viewed them as heralds of the coming storm and will use their appearance as a cue to shorten sail and batten down the hatches.  But they will also, in the Neanderthal recesses of their minds, curse the bird for bringing the storm. And in the perverse logic of superstition it is bad luck to kill a storm petrel.

My more literate Russian readers will be hopping from one foot to the other waiting for me to mention Maxim Gorky's poem The Song of the Stormy Petrel which he wrote in 1901 in support of the Revolutionaries who were hoping, planning, plotting to overthrow the Tsar and create a socialist paradise out of Mother Russia. Wait no longer Comrades: Между тучами и морем гордо реет Буревестник, чёрной молнии подобный. which, being translated means: Between the clouds and the sea proudly soars the stormy petrel, as a streak of black lightning.  You can get the whole poem and an English translation here.  I must add that to my favourite poems about birds along with the Kingfisher Alcedo atthis and Dis al.

Gorky wasn't the only one to associate Hydrobates pelagicus with a troublesome harbinger of dramatic change. The storm at sea presaged by the petrel's appearance was a powerful metaphor for a political storm brought about by revolutionaries. Padraig Pearse and his cronies, in formenting their rising against 300 years of Tory misrule in 1916, also recognised the propaganda value of the small apparently insignificant bird that brought a huge storm in its wake.

100 years later, a trio of our friends-and-neighbours submitted a proposal to the GPO Witness History Public Art scheme called ‘Stormy Petrel/Guairdeall’.  As I said before, the centennial of 1916 got two bites at the cherry: once during Easter Week 2016 and again on the date Easter Week fell in 1916. What Alanna O’Kelly, Brian Hand and Orla Ryan wanted to do was recognise a small apparently insignificant group of women who played a key role in the boys' games that went down in flames and guns during April 1916 in Ireland Dublin.  I have amended the last sentence because the rising was essentially limited to the city centre of Dublin. A couple of handfuls of  women set off from Dublin with written and/or rote remembered orders for the local commanders to rise in support of the events that were about to unfold in the GPO in central Dublin. But they were comprehensively dismissed by the Men in charge in the provinces. Having delivered their messages, these doughty female patriots then had a far more difficult journey back to town . . . the shit having hit the fan and the British military on high alert.

How to celebrate the role of women in a long-ago-and-still-too-close rebellion which failed but which served as the catalyst for the foundation of a new state in 1921 just 5 years later?  O'Kelly, Hand and Ryan are from The Arts Block, so their tributes wasn't in the form of spreadsheets, pie-charts and data analysis.  It was more in the vein of evocation, allusion and empathy.  Not trying to document what happened but to show how the actions of Elizabeth O'Farrell, Eily O'Hanrahan Kitty O'Doherty and the rest impact on, and can inspire, our lives today.  The Stormy Petrel / Guairdeall collaboration is taking the revolution to Vietnam later in the year!  Because we are neighbours, we were invited to a performance of the 'living installation' in the courtyard of the GPO last Monday. We were warned that the performance would be running a) as soon as the audience entered the courtyard b) through and around the audience for about 25 minutes. An interesting experience; flat out obvious "he's beHIND you" pantomime, it was not.

At one point, a young woman starts running desperately through the crowd carrying a violin case. This evokes many things in different imaginations: given the violence of 1916, quite possibly an echo of the 1929 St Valentine's Day Massacre.  Not knowing the details and anecdotes of the journeys of Mother Pearse's chickens, I was probably missing a key reference. Would it be fair to say that Science tries to make things clearer but the Arts strives to make things more obscure?  ANNyway, just when things were getting tense with the relentless slapping run of the girl, her violin case burst open and the family silver spilled out on the ground with a tremendous clattering >!clang!<.  In the ringing silence that followed, the nearest performers got down on the ground and started, with infinite care and attention, to pick up the silverware and secrete it about their person. But here's the thing: none of the audience helped!  We were ALL institutionalised into believing that the girl's accident was 'out there'; in a far country; at another time; irrelevant to our cosy modern lives.

I take it from this that, if we learn anything from history, it is that we learn nothing from history.  The majority of citizens of Dublin in 1916 were mostly annoyed that their equanimity and privilege [Dublin was a long way from Flanders or Gallipoli] was being disturbed by Connolly and his Yahoos. The dispossessed of Dublin, of which there were teeming thousands in the tenements of the North Side, saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity for a little light looting. It wasn't until after bullets and the fires and the judicial executions, that people started to re-imagine the past with themselves in a heroic role.

Damn and blast it! if we cannot even pick up a silver fork to help a poor girl in a play, what are we going to do about a million refugees in Greece, or 6000 refugees in the Calais Jungle or the thousands of refugees currently lodged in unprocessed limbo in Ireland. "Pass the marmelade, darling" ???

Friday, 29 April 2016

The Rhetoric of Wrong

How often do we say "Wrong, wrong, almost right" ?  Probably not half enough in this grey old world of subtlety and nuance.
Interesting Isaac Azimov quote from Quora: "When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
Creationists are just tooo chuffed with themselves when they say that scientists are a bit short of missing links or that the vertebrate eye, with its exquisite developmental and second-by-second focusing, is too complex to have evolved. That last critique is getting very tired, not to say tiring. William Paley, in his posthumously published 1809 book Natural Theology, used the analogy of a watch found on an empty heath. If you found such a fine piece of machinery in such an unlikely setting, what sort of person would think that the cogs and jewelled bearings and the spring had been thrown together by chance? Sure it must have been fashioned by a creator . . . and so had the vertebrate eye.  I like Paley, like me and Jeremy Bentham, he was a Utilitarian.

And my answer to them is "We the scientists may not have all the details but as a program for understanding how the world ticks, science has the bible beat into a cocked hat."  No amount of scholarly exegesis of Deuteronomy is going to make your car go to the mall. Here's another choice: sources of information that will help in your interactions with other people: Jeremiah or Mirror Neurons?  Don't get me wrong, I won the Junior Scripture Prize in school and there's a lot of good in there but there are more, other and better sources of information.

Science is built with facts as a house is with stones, but a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. Henri Poincaré [prev] his bday 29/Apr/1854 today.  So scince is not just the gathering of data but what you do with the stuff.

SciFest 2016

Another year, another free lunch. I thought I was going to have to miss the annual gathering of young scientists at The Institute because of my jury summons.  I was not needed by the law on Tuesday but required to offer my services again on Friday; so Wednesday and Thursday were providentially free. Thursday was SciFest, for budding scientists, and I spent the morning talking to a succession of youngsters about their thrashing at the frontier of science. I've done this before 2015 - stats - 2014 - 2013 All mostly good fun: what is it about the legs of today's youth? Are they wasting away? If these youths are sitting in front of their poster waiting to be judged and an ou'feller with a JUDGE badge approaches, would it not be meet and appropriate to stand up? If you're not going to stand, then could you not at least not mmmble but enunciate c l e a r l y?  If I have to kneel down or bend double to hear what you have to say, while you sit at ease on a chair, then I'm pissed off before we've even started.

If you're in a room with 100 other [young] scientists, would you not have a quick scoot round to see if anyone else is doing something interesting? Science goes in fads and phases, like in the Student Enterprise awards when everyone is making Cupcakes one year and Christmas decorations the next. Two groups in this year's SciFest were measuring the effect of music on cognition and memory. Bob the Matchmaker forced one lot to shift their duff up the hall to meet the other group and they seemed to start chatting way. OTOH, two groups, separated by only 4m were investigating the effect of sugar on reaction time and concentration.  I though one lot had better kit (iPad with reaction time software) but the other had better ideas [although I didn't make that invidious comparison] and so it was a complementary marriage in heaven.  But neither group seemed the least bit interested in talking to the 'rival' company. Conclusion? Teenage boys are less socially adept than girls? more complacent?Although one of these boy groups were the only kids on the day who stood up at my approach and proffered a hand to shake.

Numerous claims were made to me which really didn't stand up to scrutiny because - as ever and always - there was no statistical analysis. Sample sizes in general were small and so you'd get some data like:

Year 1
Year 3
Row Tot
The conclusion / claim would be that 4/6 = 67% was bigger than 1/5 = 20%, and so the Year 1 cohort was happier than the Year 3s: which is mathematically true but statistically silly. You'd need a sample at least 3x bigger and in the same proportion to show, with convincing / reproducible truth, that the rate of happiness decreased as you get older.  Just lash the numbers into the Easy Chi-Square Calculator, lads. I told two groups of young WITS [women in tech & science] that they should take their ideas forward but if they were going for national Young Scientist competition they'd need a) a bigger sample [treating their work to date as a pilot study] b) to bone up on some statistics. Google up "Chi-squared", I said. Science teachers, including ourselves, have a fixed idea that statistics is hard and so we should spare student scientists from ChiSq, t-test, Anova until they are older.  I disagree and assert that biological science without stats is biological stamp-collecting at best. The mechanics of Chi-squared are so simple they can be done on a scrap of paper with a pencil and the test is a powerful item in the crap-detector's toolkit CDT.

As it happens two of the presentations at SciFest 2016 have produced data that is really worrying if true  . . . and someone should be told!  One chap has found 25% toluene in certain cosmetics. Toluene is streng verboten in nail-varnish by the EU, but allowed in the US. Seemingly some US manufactured products are dumped on the European market: if the EPA, or the appropriate consumer watch-dog, doesn't know about this then they are remiss in their brief.  It may be that this is Euro-weenie hysteria or, contrariwise, carelessness with neurological health of US women.  Either way, it's worrying that EU regulations are being flouted.  I think that chap won one of the day's prizes.

The other consumer watch-dogs had taken 1g of potato chips/crisps and popped it in a home-made bomb-calorimeter to calculate a radically different value for the calories in a packet of crisps from the number that appeared on the packet. I was over-excited and misheard their spiel as saying that there were 2x more calories in the packet than in the crisps. That's the urban legend about the nutritional value of the cardboard being higher that the cornflakes they contain. Another project in the room seemed to claim that Cheerios are 90g sugar /100g material but that cannot be true - it's only 22%. I suggested that they should collate their results into a neat table and send them off to Tayto with a polite note asking if they were missing something in the methodology because the results were so discrepant. I suggested that they might score a box full of Tayto crisps from the publicity department at the company.  It wasn't until later that I realised that crisp manufacturers [not just Tayto!] might be consciously underestimating the calories to make it seem that their product was all fun and no fat. So Pringles was more likely to send a hit-man to a school in Co Kildare than send a cases of their wholly artifical potato-shaped food product. Those two projects were altogether much more interesting than the more usual bunch of teenagers asking the opinion of the other kids in their class / school.  How do you feel about crisps? Who cares! show us your fat content or carcinogens.

Apart from ranting on about statistics, I made a point of insisting that each team put their names on their presentation poster to show that they took ownership of their data and were proud of what they had achieved. If the name was on at all, it was usually added as a sort of footnote - and for them I suggested that immediately under the title would be a better location for the authors.  I passed by a stall later and saw that three names had been added to the top of the poster with a black marker.  It looked horrible, but it was nice to see that somebody had been listening to my suggestions.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The wheels of justice

. . . turn slowly but they grind exceeding small.  I was called to Jury Service a month ago and I was quite anxious to do it. I've only been asked twice before and both times had an unavoidable prior commitment . . . that passed muster with the County Registrar.  A very wide range of people are excused from this essential act of the democratic process. It almost seems as if you have any sort of government sinecure job, you can avoid the call.
  • Ineligible: the President of the Republic, the Attorney General, judges, lawyers, Court Registrars, gardai, soldiers
  • Disqualified: perps - anyone who has served a jail term
  • Excused as of right:
    • pensioners
    • members of parliament: both Dáil and Seanad
    • clergy, monks and nuns
    • aircraft pilots and ship's captains
    • full time students; teachers and lecturers if their line manager deems their service essential
    • senior civil servants ditto
    • doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists, vets, pharmacists
Who's left?? a) the self-employed including farmers, b) the unemployed and c) workers in retail and industry. Employers are obliged by statute to continue to pay their absent workers but the self-employed just lose a day's work; or many days' work if they draw a murder or complex financial scam case.  You don't get paid expenses or mileage or even get a free parking pass.  It would cost me about €40 in petrol if the case went on for a week. If you are empanelled for a complete day, you can claim a lunch in the court canteen.  No cash-in-lieu if you bring your own gluten-free salad.

Yesterday about 70 people answered the summons to attend the local court for 2pm. We were seated in a spare court-room for "15 minutes - 30 at the outside" which bled into 70 minutes. Then we were told to pack into the open court and wait until our names were drawn from a box by the Registrar of the Court. If your name was called you were told to go sit in the jury box. When 16 names had been drawn [a jury and 4 substitutes], these potential jurors were sworn in one by one.  But both the defense and the prosecution have the right to challenge up to 7 people whose face, dress or demeanour they don't like. The accused are in the court and identified as to name and address and their alleged crime. Rather than being sworn in, jurors can ask to be excused if, for example, they know the perps or any of the witnesses or the gardai on the case.  All in all, twice as many people were called as were required.  I thought I was clear when 11/12 seats in the box were filled but my name was drawn next, I stood up and was promptly told to stand down again, excused. The defense didn't like my lecturer's Harris tweed jacket or my haircut or thought my eyes were too close together. Us rejects, and those who were summoned but not called, are required to present ourselves again at 1030 on Friday.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

de minimis

. . . non curat lex. 'tis the Latin, usually translated as The law does not concern itself with trifles. It is the very old (common law) idea that law-time should not be taken up with tupenny-ha'penny supposed injuries. Some idea of the breadth (or indeed narrowness) of its application is given here. We'll get the schoolboy hilarity out the way first:
There was a law student called Rex,
Who had very small organs of sex.
When charged with exposure,
He said with composure:
De minimis non curat lex 
Now to the serious.  We were last weekend in the ninth week of being without a government because the people elected a clatter of demogogues without party affiliation or legislative policy beyond the fact that clean, chlorinated, cholera-free water supplied ad lib and costless from the kitchen tap is some sort of right.  In normal circumstances it is not much loss to have such a long holiday from further legislation to curtail our freedom to do daft and destructive things.  Look at the Belgians, they spent 20 months under a care-taker government because their elected representatives preferred to posture over immemorial rights and privileges rather than talk turkey / dindon / kalkoen with someone whose native language was different from theirs. We could have a government tomorrow if the two largest parties FG & FF, both right of centre christian democrat CD in flavour, were prepared to look to the future rather than continuing to re-hash disagreements that their grandfathers had in the internecine Civil War that helped birth the nation 100 years ago.

Well last week we needed some law because previous parliaments had drafted legislation that is so internally inconsistent and poorly thought out that serial perps are being let out on the streets to re-offend because judges are unable to keep them banged up in chokey. Justice accords rights of appeal even to those whom everyone knows to be a bad hat.  And proper order too: what everyone knows is all too often wrong.  Everyone knows that water comes from the sky, for starters. You can read the full text of Section 99 of the 2006 Criminal Justice Act, and see what you can make of it.  If it's easier <not!> you can read it in Irish because that's your constitutional right. The section allows judges to suspend all or part of a custodial sentence a) to keep minimise over-crowding in jails and b) to provide a bit of a carrot towards rehabilitation. That's fair enough.

The idea with suspended sentences is that they hang over you: if you come before the courts again, you can get sent back to the original court for committal to jail because you are already under sentence. It is typical of the lumbering law that even this summary justice is a two step process.  It's very difficult to get access to the law if you are in jail: your solicitor and barrister has to come to you for starters. And it is unconstitutional to deprive anyone, even perps citizens known to the gardai, of access to the law and if your first sentence is vindicated by a trip to jail, then you cannot easily appeal the second sentence which triggered that vindication. Mr Justice Michael Moriarty, who set the constitutional hare running would rather have a mugger out on the streets mugging some other innocent than deprive said mugger of his right of appeal.  The provisional Minister of Justice sees no problem in rushing some legislation through the Dáil to patch yet another hole in the teetering edifice of Irish law.

Just last September, a handful of drunk drivers had their convictions thrown out because the docket printed out by the breathalyser, which was the primary source of their conviction, was not issued in both Irish and English. The Irish language is a beautiful vehicle for poetry and a key aspect of national identity, but is it really more important than stopping drunkards careering about the roads? The fact that the person de-convicted by that loophole was a Romanian national, who would be about as fluent in Irish as one of our sheep, merely adds irony to absurdity. As a naive utilitarian, I have to ask if the greatest good has been served to the greatest number if a grossly irresponsible, not to say murderous act, has been allowed to pass unpunished to preserve the fig-leaf of national pride in a moribund language.

No harm in giving Anatole France another canter round the conscience of those who work in law:
"La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au 
riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, 
de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain."
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread. Vive l'égalité! . . . mort aux innocents.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

A touch of Lyme

Lyme disease is named for a small town in Connecticut where the connection between ticks and feeling crappy was first noticed. It appears to be caused, not by the tick bite itself, but because that bite delivers a dose of Borrelia burgdorferi a spirochaete bacterium and cousin to Treponema pallidum the cause of syphilis. "feeling crappy" is deliberately generic because diagnosis of borreliosis is difficult as the symptoms vary widely depending on the individual and how long the bacteria have been 'on board'.  You might get a fever, chills, palpitations, tingling in the feet, rash, facial palsy / paralysis (!) joint-pain and/or arthritis [CDC, Atlanta]. The rash is classically [75% of infections] bulls-eye in shape [L on elbow joint] with a welt at the site of infection and a ring of red moving slowly out from this centre; erythema migrans in Latin.  As I said before, when I was concentrating on Ixodes ricinus the tick vector, Lyme disease is rare in Ireland.  That's good, of course but, because outside your doctor's experience, is frequently not diagnosed, which makes the discomfort last longer and lowers the chance of getting well.  That's a bummer because prompt treatment with antibiotics like doxycycline or amoxicillin will often achieve a complete cure.

Last Tuesday I was down at the Wexford Science Café, which we started up a little over a year ago to meet once a month and chat about science.  As in any such organisation it is difficult to get active participation, so I set off from home fully prepared to warn everyone to buy wellington boots against sea-level rise. When I arrive a minute late, I found that I had doubled the audience.  I guess everyone had already bought boots or boats and didn't need me to fill in the details. That was fine and I spent an enjoyable hour chatting with the other Sci-Caff stalwart, comparing notes about teaching science, which we've both spent a life-time doing. We agreed that young people were shockin' ignorant about sex - nothing new here - and then moved on to farrrrming, sheep, sheep-dogs and . . . ticks. I said that Dau.I and Dau.II and Rashers-the-dog would often come in from the fields with a tick attached. The Beloved used to dab the bug with tea-tree oil or acetone before pulling it off the skin with eye-brow tweezers.

[This is not considered best practice by the CDC.  Better to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and apply a steady upward pressure.  If it breaks, have another go at the attached portion and then slather with rubbing alcohol, iodine or similar. Do not, if possible, squeeze the abdomen lest you cause a regurgitation of its Borrelia rich contents. The earlier you do the removal the less blood you'll lose and the less Borrelia back-wash you'll get too.]

I shrugged and said that there were worse things that getting a tick or two. But my friend replied to the effect of "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" [Wittgenstein] and went on to describe how her niece, a nice young woman from the Irish Midlands, had taken a tick-bite that had destroyed her life because it had developed into full-blown borreliosis. The lady was still alive but scarcely able to walk across the room and currently on four (4!) different medications to deal with the infection and its wild array of symptoms.

Borrelia is definitely on the up in Ireland, albeit from a very low base.  There is a suggestion that this rise in frequency has been helped by the influx of Poles to the Ireland, whose home country is endemic for Borrelia. I take that with a pinch of salt, because Lyme disease is on the rise all over the world for reasons that are not completely clear. Ticks are found wherever you find sheep but not all of them carry the spirochaete. I'm giving you here a heads-up for Tick Awareness Week which kicks off exactly a week from now on 2nd May 2016. Check out the new children's book about ticks The Adventures of Luna & Dips. There is a wide range of devices for tick-removal but any old fine tweezers will work effectively. Fore-warned is fore-armed!

Monday, 25 April 2016

Red Hat Day

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we've no money for butter.
Jenny Joseph
The Roman Catholic calendar has a saint for every day of the year and many days have several saints doubling up.  The secular world also has a chocka-calendar; every day the fuckin' chicken another thing to celebrate.  Today is, I gather, Red Hat Day.  The Red Hat Society has been networking and supporting women over the age of 50 for nearly 20 years. In 1997, Sue Ellen Cooper, a California artist, bought herself a red hat, and later gave another to a friend of hers, acknowledging Jenny Joseph's poem.  It is a statement that you don't have to disappear or sit out on an ice-flow just because you are genetically dead. Life after menopause is also more than being a parking attendant for your children's children. Your post-menopausal life is likely to be longer than the pre- section, so it's going to be a long time waiting for the end [Linkin Park link].

The Red Hat Society exists to support people who fit their demographic. This involves local gatherings, called hoots, and more formal events. There is a merchandising section for fripperies such as red hat cup-and-saucer sets, post-its, notelets and bra-shaped cookie cutters. But also a link to the practical like incontinence pads.  There would be a lot less of that if health services privileged boring old pelvic floor surgery rather than sexy open heart work and liver-transplants.

It wouldn't be a modern thing if it wasn't monetised.  You can join for $20 a year, which sounds like a little money if you can afford $7.50 for a thrift store hat, which is how it all started. On the other hand, $20 x 70,000 members becomes chunk of money - much more than $1,000,000 and the merchandising is not a loss leader. So there is a head office supporting the whole organisation which in turn is supporting a number of people [all female & over 50, you have to hope] with salaries.  A hundred years ago, you earned money producing stuff - shirts, shoes, knives, coal, bicycles.  Now you make a living marketing concepts.  I'm straining nnngggg, nnggg to go viral myself, but it's not happening. Maybe I should start a merchandising section: Bob hats [eeeuw see thumb nail R], Bob mugs [unwashed so nobody else is tempted to use them] etc. I won't be selling incontinence pads, however, I'll be needing those myself.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Census Night

Big day for data-wonks in Ireland: tonight is census enumeration night in the Republic.  The government, through its Central Statistics Office, has handed out nearly 2 million census forms over the past month - one for every household in the country. The homeless will be swept up and quizzed with some care by such groups as the Simon Community; and hotels will have a lot of extra work to do in the morning. Ireland goes through this ritual every five years whereas the Brits, who started the idea off in these islands, are on a ten-year cycle.  That is a little ironic because, the austerity government has been cheese-paring about the cost of the exercise and has used almost exactly the same model and list of questions as for 2011. Doing it every 5 years acknowledges the fast-moving pace of our increasingly multi-cultural and dynamic society, but you he to move the questions along with the times for this to mean much.

The cost of the exercise is pushed up because each of us is assigned to a census enumerator who is required to give out each census form and collect it in person. Ours drove up the lane on Tuesday for the 3rd time of asking and found us up to our wrists in sheep-fleece, so I didn't have much time to waste on the transaction. Nevertheless, she kept me at her car-window for a solid 10 minutes gossiping about our neighbours and, when I confessed to working at The Institute, my work-colleagues. I guess you'd only apply for that sort of part-time temporary work if you were 'interested in people'; but you'd wish that they had been schooled more in discretion as well as GPS and Eircodes.  That would be a mild harumph!

Another thing that has been exercising a vociferous minority is the question of religion.  For reasons of cost-saving and inertia we are presented with the same old same old list as last time:
Q12 What is your religion? is given 7 choices:

  1. Roman Catholic
  2. Church of Ireland
  3. Islam
  4. Presbyterian
  5. Orthodox
  6. Other, write your RELIGION
  7. No religion

The Humanist Association of Ireland is urging us all to not tick the first box simply because we collected a load of money when we did First Communion 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The Irish Times is arch and too clever-by-half in explaining the issues. Religion is, according to the HAI, a regular practice, not a set of rituals only dusted off for weddings and funerals. "The HAI appreciates that some people may want to identify themselves as Atheist, Agnostic or Humanist or even leave the question unanswered. Marking ‘No religion’ is better because in doing so your count is added with others to show the true number of those with no religion". While it would be hilarious to record your religion as Jedi or Giant Spagettista, a surge of No Religion just may implement change in the governance of our increasingly secular society in matters of education and health provision. Would you rather have nuns or doctors in charge of your local hospital?
Parents [L parent who, despite the red hair and Aran sweater, is identifiably protestant from the width between her eyes] across the country are going through all sorts of shenanigans, including the cost of first communion and confirmation to get their kids into the local school despite the fact that it has the RC parish priest as chairman of the board of governors. [Propaganda vid] They don't want to sign up for a school-run nightmare for the next decade and they don't want to be ghettoised with a lot of long-hairs and tree-huggers in an Educate Together school (if indeed there is one anywhere close) or <frisson> join the Home Ed whoowah Birkenstock-and-ricecake brigade. There is a certain social éclat in getting your kids into the dinky local protestant school if there is one nearby: they will will rub shoulders with the children of doctors, barristers and entrepreneurs. I know of outrageous hypocrisies to achieve this entré to the local Church of Ireland national school or hoping to follow U2 into the black protestant portals of Mount Temple Comprehensive in North Dublin.

I'm going to have trouble with Q30 What is (was) your occupation in your main job? I'll be spending the night with my aged and esteemed father-in-law Pat the Salt.  He's been on the planet for 90+ years and has been a lot of things since running away to sea as a cabin-boy in 1939. I really don't know which of his many occupations paid the rent for the longest time and it may be hard to get dates from him. I don't think he is exceptional in this regard: the days of a a permanent and preferably pensionable job for life are no longer likely for many-or-most of us.  We need to plan for a portfolio society and if the census is about anything it is about planning for the future by extrapolating from today's data. Q30 assumes a single job in the same way as Q12 assumes Catholic. Both those assumptions are a) wrong and b) potentially expensive and destructive.

Droning on 240416

A few links that have up-cropped these last few days.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

At school with The Bard?

At the end of November 2013, I confessed to beginning my very expensive education in a village called Titchfield between Portsmouth and Southampton in S England. Today it is Shaxper's birthday and I was rooting around looking for something interesting to say about England's poet-playwright in honour of the day. Poet he may have been but he was crap at spelinge. There is no record that he was born on the 23rd April, which is celebrated as St George's Day in England and elsewhere. Young Wm is, however, recorded as being baptised on the 26th April 1564, so if he wasn't actually born on the patron saint's day, saying so makes for a certain cohesion in the telling. 52 years later he died on the 23rd April 1616 exactly 400 years ago.
Apparently he went on a bender with Michael Drayton and Ben Johnson, literary friends and notorious topers, drank too much and 'died of a fever'.  On trifling evidence others have suggested a stroke finished him off. Others have noted that he sat up and wrote his will about a month earlier, and that his signature [R] is a little shaky; so maybe his fever had lasted longer. And there is no evidence that he died on the 23rd, but he was buried in Stratford on the 25th, so as at the other end of his life se non è vero è ben trovato. Shugspew is rightly respected for raising the hairs on the back of your neck:

The thing about what passes for research in the Arts Block is that there is far less data (a handful of letters and documents in this case) and  you cannot do experiments with the written record.  Furthermore you can extrapolate as wild as you wish from mere hints, or very partial sifting of the material, to conjure up a story which might as much be fiction as anything in Shakspar. And of course, the Bard's tales must have derived partly from his own experience which laid threads in his mind from which to spin magic. Contrariwise, only a fool would insist that he must have been to the 'coast of Bohemia', Verona, Athens or Navarre. From very skimpy data and close reading of the text of one of Shogspore's plays, Love's Labours Lost, some scholars are suggesting that Wm spent a number of years in Titchfield as tutor to a young aristocrat and/or as a schoolmaster. The evidence extends from such tenuous logic as a girl being described both as black as ebony and a whitely wanton with a velvet brow Conundrum! How can a dark-skinned woman be described as ‘whitely’??? Because ‘Whitely’ is not a reference to Rosaline’s skin, but to ‘Whitely Lodge’ – a property owned by the Wriothesleys [Wm's sponsors and patrons] a mile or so away from Place House . . . in Titchfield. This must be true because it has been picked up by the BBC. What is more certain is that was Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton [L stryking a pose and shewing a legge] was probably Wm's pupil / companion when growing up. Many people believe that the  'onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr W.H.,' is really HW the 3rd Earl and some further suggest that the same person is both the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. It looks like HW was, in the Byronic sense, mad bad and dangerous to know: he was a brawler, boozer and eclectic in his sexual preferences. The relationship between the two men depends on how much you want to accept homosexual innuendo / action or just put the language down to extravagant flattery and a difference nuance in the English of 400+ years ago. Like 'The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end ... What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours'.  You wouldn't get Brian Friel or Seamus Heaney talking like that to anyone.

When I was in school, we went to service every Sunday in St Peter's Church down in the village of Titchfield, where all the Southamptons are buried.  None of my teachers back in the 1960s made any suggestion of a little literary gayness in the village back in the day. It would have enlivened the English lessons.

Friday, 22 April 2016

The price of milk

For the last several years the white exudate has been retailing at €0.75/lt. You can pay more of course in the belief that Avonmore or Dairygold or another branded product is a) different and b) better than ordinary full fat milk from ALDIDL or any of the other multiples. When she drank milk, The Beloved would buy 'organic' at €1-a-pop but she's now consuming unmilk made of almonds, soya or kumquat pith and a lot of emulsifiers (which stop these wicked brews separating into their component parts).  My sister always said that, although she liked a glass of milk as much as the next child, she could really empathise with folk who found it repellent. Who works hardest to get the milk to our tables?  Apart from the cows [nnnggg, nggg, more oxytocin lads], it must surely be the dairy-farmers who get up in the dark and have to fight back anxiety about mastitis, brucellosis, TB and somatic-cell count. Not to mention the cost of calling out the vet for a difficult birth. What do they get for their trouble? 22c/lt  = about 30% of the take. When I wrote about milking robots less than a year ago the price was 28c/lt

The price is low right now - indeed below the cost of production - because there is a glut of milk and milk-products on the global market. That means farmers going into debt or eating their savings to keep the whole capital-intensive show on the road.  The average herd size is 60 cows each producing about 5,000 lt a year. So the gross income is, say, €65,000. This is more or less what you'd pay to acquire the herd at the Mart, with maiden heifers fetching €700-€1,000 each. The price fluctuates wildly, adding to the farmers' anxieties.

My neighbour is not going to sell his milk to a consumer in China: he doesn't have the contacts and his Mandarin is shaky. Especially not since the Chinese government last year made it very difficult to import dried milk in an effort to encourage breast-feeding. Many years ago, farmers came together to achieve economies of scale, locally and then on a larger stage. The local creamery had a manager and cooling vats and a tanker to collect milk from the farm gate.  They also had feed and troughs and wellington boots and buckets for sale when the farmers came in to get paid.  The local creameries merged into conglomerates until the map of Ireland looked like late medieval Germany - a rash of principalities, margravates and fiefdoms having carved up the island into spheres of influence.

A little over a year ago the Irish Dairy Board, which acted as a sort of Holy Roman Empire over the vassal states, was rebranded [repellent phrase, implying new logo and letterhead but the same old management with their same old tired and complacent ideas about how to market a) milk and b) Ireland Inc.] to Ornua - The Home of Irish Dairy. Plain Ornua will doa: I'm guessing their marketeers think NewGold is a suitable change from (so yesterday!) KerryGold. This week, reluctantly and because they are compelled to do so by recent legislation, Ornua released partial data about the remuneration package of their 9 top executives and 14 members of the Board of Directors. For the executives it works out at an average of €450,000 each - doubtless with rather a lot of range top to bottom. The Directors have given themselves a pay hike of 44% to about €35,000 each. Directors have expertise and contacts and probably a real job; they turn up to a meeting a tuthree times a year and get paid close to the average industrial wage [€43,000pa] to do their few hours a year steering the good ship SS Ornua through the sea of surplus milk.  Like a lot of suits both in government and in management these blokes [they are ALL blokes!!] take credit - and a fat bonus - when something global-good happens and shirk responsibility when the chips fall the other way. There is nothing to prevent a chap from taking up numerous directorships and pretending that there is no conflict of interest. Harrummph!

There are 17,000 dairy farmers still active in the country, if the top executives halved their gross pay and shared it out among the workers at the cow-face, each of the latter would get €250 - enough to pay their water bills.  We haven't had a government these last eight weeks, because 90/157 deputies were elected on a Water Falls From The Sky ticket and that's not a sufficient qualification to run a whole country.  About 40% of the people who should pay their water charges have so far failed to do so. Cows drink a lot of water and washing their udders and the floor in the milking parlour takes even more.

Another year at the frontier

Last academic year, I was put in charge of a roomful of final year project students for 6 hours a week through the entire 30 weeks of the teaching year. Each student was working away on a short section of the frontiers of science, cutting at the weeds and shrubberies of ignorance to throw a little fresh-air and clarity on the world.  It was all the most fun you could have indoors under artificial light. At the end of our sojourn together, they clubbed together and bought me a mug, some tea-bags and a packet of biscuits - as a bit of an in-joke from the journey. But also an appreciation of the fact that I had given it socks for hours and hours week after week. I was touched to have made a difference but also embarrassed to accept something for doing what I had to do: partly because it was the job description but also because, like Martin Luther and W!ld,  I could do no other.

This year it was the same deal.  Instead of 16 students, about half running with one of 'my' projects; this year there were only 14 students but a higher proportion working directly under my supervision. But the intensity was similar and the projects were wide ranging, so I had plenty to get my teeth into. Scooting about on one of the few wheelie-chairs that worked in the broken down 'Business' computer room that we were assigned. One minute I'd be slowly talking through the basics of sequence analysis again; the next I'd be having a grown-up discussion about the evidence for genetic competence in gammaproteobacteria. Different students, same principles, same doggedness, same aha! moments,same absenteeism, same extended tea-breaks [not me, no time] and the same sense of contented exhaustion at the end of each day.

In the final class before wrap-and-submission, I was rushing around as fast as usual, occasionally pausing to oil the smokin' wheels of the office chair, when student #stat3buriedtargets asked for my attention, stood up and started a little speech of appreciation on behalf of the class.  She then presented me with a hamper of chocolates and cookies [possibly chocolate pizzazz] including a bottle of white wine.  I was, of course, touched and certainly surprised, but I told them that it was unprofessional to do that sort of thing because what I did was part of our contract with the frontiers of science.  When I got back to the office, I showed the box, with its cellophane and ribbons, to my roomie. Her response was  "If this tradition goes on and up, next year they'll be giving you a car".  I thought that was a bit of a jump, but with 3 or 4 years to go before retirement, I could see the then 4th years clubbing together to buy a shockin' pink zimmer-frame in 2020.

Thursday, 21 April 2016


<warning>If you're going to have a fit of the vapours reading about 
sex, lice or the clap you shd stop reading after the first paragraph</warning>

The latest addition to the humanstock on our farrrrm is young Bolivar, a very handy chap from Venezuela who is wwoofing for a few weeks to improve his Inglés.  WWOOFing?  Working Weekends On Organic Farms - not necessarily organic or weekend; usually farms and mostly working. The Darwinday Storm of 2014 did damage to our trusty polytunnel; notably whacking the doors off their hinges. It has taken us until now to think about repairing them. The sheep also needed new troughs for the muesli that we supply during the months when there is no grass growing. The last pair of troughs, purchased 4-5 years ago have been out in the wet too long, too often and are 'delicate'. If you've ever watched sheep in a feeding frenzy, you'll know that 'delicate' carpentry is not fit for purpose anywhere near them. ANNYway, over a few days, reusing as much wood as possible, Bolivar has made 4 light-weight door frames from 3x2 timbers with beautiful mitred corners and elegant cross-bracing. He has also built two 2.4m troughs that would withstand a feeding frenzy of rhinos: either Ceratotherium simum or Diceros bicornis or indeed both.

The question arose about how to prevent the new wood rotting away and I found a tin of Ronseal Garden Gate and Fence Preservative in one of the sheds. That could be slapped on the doors without worry but, if it was designed to kill fungi and insects, might it not also do damage to the sheep as they licked the last crumbs of meal from the cracks? The interweb to the rescue!  Accirduing to the label, RGGFP is a mixture of Permethrin and Propiconazole.  The latter is a triazole based system anti-fungal agent which inhibits an essential enzyme in fungal metabolism, so it is aka demethylase inhibitor or DMI. [-ase for enzyme] So that deals with fungi, although it also has some inhibitory effect on the feeding of some beetles.

Permethrin OTOH [structure L] is the boy for the arthropods, and will kill not only insects but ticks and mites, which are more closely related to spiders.  We decided to operate on the precautionary principal and only paint the outside and underside of the troughs and give two generous coats of the stuff for all the exposed surfaces of the door. We've met ticks before, both as the carriers of a fabulous range of human diseases and sucking moose Alces alces dry in Canada.
But I knew close to nothing about mites, their distant relative. A couple of days after reading the ingredients off the tin of wood-preservative, I was reading, with some urgency about mites. In particular I was reading about the itch mite Sarcoptes scabiei [L, not to scale!! it's only 0.5mm across: I've numbered the legs to show its fundamental spideriness], the cause of a distressing non-fatal infestation called scabies. Scabies spreads through prisons, refugee camps and homeless shelters because the sheets (if any) and the blankets (if lucky) don't get washed enough and get shared out of necessity. The mite is quite delicate and cannot survive for more than a tuthree days absent from a warm human body to feed off. Leaving the blankets on the floor for a few days is sufficient to kill the mites but you can also speed things up with a good hot wash in the bathtub or, if you have one, a washing machine. You can't give your child a scalding wash in the bathtub without killing it along with the mites . . . so the treatment of choice is Permethrin.  If you slather a sufficiently concentrated solution of Permethrin on the the child's body before bed, all the mites should be dead in the morning; do it again in a week's time to be sure to be sure. It's a peculiar demarcation that mites are found only on the body, in contrast to lice Pediculus capitis which only inhabit the head.  And don't even think about crabs Pthyrus pubis, they live down there.

You'd have to be quite unlucky if you caught scabies by, say, picking up the blankets to wash them. It requires prolonged skin to skin contact for direct transmission without using blankets as a vector. The itching results because the mites actually burrow through the top layer of skin like moles in a pasture. Or indeed like the Guinea Worm Dracunculus medinensis. So I suppose it takes time to leave one person's epidermis and migrate to another's. Prolonged skin-to-skin contact is symptomatic of sex, so many epidemiologists count scabies among the STIs. scabies is both easier to spell and easier to treat than, say, gonorrhoea.

Clean bedding, cleaned child and you're back to the status quo ante. Except that you're not quite as you were before: your immune system has been primed to act against the mites and the next time you are presented with t'buggers, you'll be itching the next day; whereas it took 4-5 days from first infection before the dreadful, infuriating itch manifested itself.  So it's another example of our immune system being the primary cause of the discomfort rather than the pathogen itself.  but relax, I am certain sure that you can't catch scabies from reading about it.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Irish in the kitchen

We were up in Dublin Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for a family birthday: the perp was aged 70 not 7 so there was no cake and none of the boys ate the candles for a dare. On the way down the street to the venue we fell to talking about Dublin coddle, which we all agreed was not one of Ireland's culinary triumphs.  There are a number of variants on the theme of onion, cabbage and potatoes in Irish cooking [nobody would call this stuff cuisine]:
  • champ - potatoes and scallions with butter, milk, or buttermilk
    • as thick as champ = a dullard; ignorant as champ at a wedding = boorish
  • boxty - a pancake of grated spuds, buttermilk, flour, egg;  fried.  Not a million miles from latkes, драники, cmunda, nálečníky,or Reiebekuchen
    • boxty on the griddle
    • boxty in the pan
    • if you can't make boxty
    • you'll never hold your man
  • colcannon - spuds and kale [or cabbage] and lurry in the butter and full cream milk
    • Did you ever eat Colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?
    • With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
    • Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
    • Of the creamy, flavoured butter that your mother used to make?
    • [sung with full harmonies by Mary Black and others]
  • coddle - a stew made of boiled rashers, sausage, spuds and onions
    • traditionally including pearl barley [glarrrk]
    • it is left-over dish, traditionally served on Thursday to clear the pantry for Friday fishday; so you can lash in whatever you find in [or behind] the fridge and nobody will be any the wiser
As we strolled partywards M said that the little beige blobs of sausage that she found in coddle always made her think intestines. Even the best Irish sausage is heavily adulterated with cheaper ingredients [rusk, meal, sweepings] than the lips, hooves and wobbly-bits that go into, say, Polish sausage.  But, like the Irish Spice Burger, these sausages are designed to be tasty and they are. Me, I'd rather have my sausages [and rashers too] fried to buggery and served on the side.

One of the most extraordinary changes in fortune for a vegetable is that experienced by kale in recent years. Its huge dark green fibrous leaves were forever seen as fit only for animals to eat - or at a stretch eaten by the peasants who minded the cattle and sheep. With the Portuguese, I've had a long-time affection for kale as an essential ingredient of caldo verde - a dish which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life. Now kale has become [€4/kg] money and is a) widely available shredded in bags from supermarkets b) featured in unlikely settings by celebrity chefs.  Google up "kale and . . ." and the big G suggests "kale and banana smoothie" . . . with almond milk.  Holy Mrs Beeton, what has the world come to?!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Inner Circle only

One of the graduate students at The Institute, to whom I've often given a lift to some off-campus science event, now feels he is old enough and ugly enough to book a room and invite a visiting speaker. The speaker is a friend who is going to give a short communication on a Bio-safety Index used for plant growth promoting bacteria (PGPB) which he developed as part of his thesis research. I teased the organiser by asking if there would be biscuits to sweeten the deal.  He replied that of course there would be tea and biscuits but he didn't want to announce the fact in case the room was flooded with gannets only interested in free food.  I liked that approach very much and replied in my sententious fashion I'll do my best to be there.  It sounds really boring, but my experience is that you get hidden gems in unlikely places and I never miss an opportunity to get some education - the biscuits are a bonus.  I can buy biscuits but nobody can buy somebody else's accumulated knowledge expertise and insight. If I didn't turn up regularly, I would never have heard Aled Edwards' stunning talk about Funding Fondling.

There's a story of the Nobellist Richard Feynman [multi-prevs] about how a student Physics Society up-state sent him a nice letter asking him to give them a talk.  It was just after he got his Nobel, so they agreed to announce the talk as something obviously Physics-Nerd: Professor Henry Warren from the University of Washington is going to talk about the structure of the proton on May 17th at 3:00 in Room D102. That went off, one of them met him at the airport, he gave his talk, they all had a fabulously nerdy discussion and he went home.  When the news filtered out, the Faculty and Admin were FURIOUS because they'd missed a change to schmooz with a Nobel Prize winner.  Feynman felt he had to send a letter of apology to the Faculty Advisor for Physics. That letter is probably framed on the dude's office wall, like the folks who received a $2.56 cheque from Don Knuth - which shows again that celebrity all too often trumps merit.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Spice Burger

Sunday-eight-days, I was down with Pat the Salt on my reg'lar night cooking a scratch meal with the old man and not insisting that he eat his greens. I try to do my bit to clean up/out the fridge which is always a gallimaufry of pots and tubs filled with a variety of left-overs and over-catering. "Rotate your stock", I mutter as I create something edible&safe with the last sad slice of ham that is approaching its sell-by date.  I am not as ruthless for the bin as some of his other carers and do try to convert things into tasty calories rather than becoming a problem at the landfill.  The previous w/e The Boy had been over from England with his family.  He had been shopping and got unaccountably nostalgic for Spice-Burgers which is, and I quote, one of the most popular foods in the country. That is pushing it on two levels a) it's not food; it's a food product b) it's mainly popular among undiscriminating children and bone-poor students.  If it's so popular, how come Walsh's, the family firm that makes the things, went bankrupt in 2009?  The rump of the company was bought up/out by a Combine and Spice-Burgers are back on the menu across Ireland.  I can't imagine a French family having a few for dinner.

The Walsh family from Dublin have been making these things since 1950; and they are not dissimilar to Wexford rissoles, which at least have the virtue of being made fresh . . . from nameless ingredients found around and behind the fryers in chip-shops.  Spice Burgers OTOH, come in lurid plastic packaging [above R] with a sell-by date a couple of weeks after manufacture. Their contents are also nameless because it is a secret family recipe, which was the subject of a bitter row in 2009 between the company and the son of the founder. ANNyway, The Boy had bought a brace of these food-products and then bottled out of cooking and eating them - possibly because he's no longer a starving teenager and possibly because Real Food was on offer for the whole of his visit home.  So a week later, on the very cusp of the sell-by, I brought the Spice Burgers away home, and shared them, one each, with Bolivar who is visiting from Venezuela.  Viewing the little bread-crumbed patty on his plate, Bolivar asked "¿Que es?" and we were neither of us able to answer.  Although The Beloved boldly stated that they were meat,

That's only partially true because 'meat' is a long way down the table of contents:
Water, rusk (gluten), onion, beef (9%), beef fat, crumbs (gluten), soya protein, wheat flour, beef connective tissue, rapeseed oil, seasoning (salt, herbs, spice, more rusk (gluten), yeast extract, sodium sulphite, flavouring), potato starch, cornflour, modified starch, more salt.
Jaysus! another food product which has more water in it than anything else. How much more?  The maths says that, as beef is 9% and we will suppose that the fat, connective tissue, binder and flavourings total 8% then 83% is left.  Of that at least 10% must be onion and 11% must be rusk (gluten) so water in SBs cannot be more than 60% and might, with more rusk-and-onion be as little as 30% but cannot be less.  They are one of the most popular foods in the country because they were created by a butcher from Finglas who knew that if you lurry in salt, fat, flavourings; package it in a crispy crunchy coating and cook it so it's ready to eat then people will want to eat them.  Especially if you can adulterate stretch out the 'meat' with a lot of cheap filler so the price comes way down.  That man, Maurice Walsh, he was a true food engineer long before that became a job description.

This food ingredients critic felt a little "uneasy in the tum" about half an hour after consumption; which might have been hysteria and soon passed off.  Like Mr Eastcoastman's ice-cream, you have to wonder whether any of the mix get converted to useful protein or calories.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Sunday Shambles 170416

Shambles "From ME shambil, place where meat is butchered and sold, from OE sceamol, table, counter  ultimately from Latin scamillum, diminutive of scamnum, bench, stool", now defunct except in several English towns and cities as a place name, similar to 221b Baker Street or Pudding Lane where the 1666 Greta Fire of London started.

Unique solution

When the family left after the Easter holiday, I found a book near the surface of one of the heaps in the living-room. Someone must have found it on a shelf and started reading it. My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles by Martin Gardner.  Gardner had an endless fund of cleverness, turning out a column called Mathematical Games every month without fail for 25 years!  Two of my favourite books growing up, each read ragged, were his Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions and More MP&D.  All three books cited here were full of stuff first launched in the SciAm column. After the death of his wife, he returned home to Norman OK and died there, alert to the last, in May 2010 at the age of 95. He's probably done more to inspire smart young people and encourage them to think a little bit more than any other writer in the 20thC.  The nice thing about his books and his puzzles is that they engage at a variety of levels: some fiendishly difficult; some requiring a lot of grunt work; but many yielding to insight and/or a clear marshalling of data. When you can't work it out yourself, the answer rarely makes you think either that was dumbass or I'm a dumbass but rather that was clever, I could be that clever, I'll try harder next time . . . and another critical thinker is launched.

On a something for the weekend basis, here's one of the puzzles. I read, gave up on, wrote a Blob, slept, did a day's work, slept and looked at again. If you don't give up, you too can crack it.

Three schools -- Democritus, Pythagoras & Anaxagoras  -- competed in an athletics meet. Each school entered one man, and one only, in each event. Susan, a student at Pythagoras High, went to cheer her boy friend, the school's shot-put champion. When Susan returned home later in the day, her father asked how her school had done.
"We won the shot-put all right," she said, "but Anaxagoras High won the track meet. They had a final score of 22. We finished with 9. So did Democritus High."

"How were the events scored?" her father asked. "I don't remember exactly ," Susan replied, "but there was a certain number of points for the winner of each event, a smaller number for second place and a still smaller number for third place. The numbers were the same for all events." (By "number" Susan of course meant a positive integer.)

"How many events were there altogether?" "Gosh, I don't know, Dad. All I watched was the shot-put."
"Was there a high jump?" asked Susan's brother. Susan nodded.
"Who won it?"  Susan didn't know.

Incredible as it may seem, this last question can be answered with only the information given. Which school won the high jump?

Better still put this to your favourite numerate 13 year old. Answer. No peeking until you've given it some time!  Anaxagoras Who? Pythagoras on The Blob. Democritus.

Saturday, 16 April 2016


Were we talking about the power of running water? We were. But that was Ice-cold in Greenland, [chekkitout the more famous Ice Cold in Alex with added product placement] although not actual ice. I just picked up from metafilter a two year old link to Landsat imaging for course of the Ucayali River in Peru by Zoltan Sylvester. Landsat has been taking serial photos of the Earth from space since 1972 and these data have been immensely rich and useful documenting the changing face of the planet: most dramatically shown in Zoltan's clip of the developing ox-bows and bends in the Ucayali.  Don't think of Peru as all towering cliffs and Andean mountains like Machu Picchu or Cuzco; the Eastern side of the country forms a major catchment for the Amazon basin and it is as flat as Holland - hence the meandering flow.  Meander is named for the river in SW Turkey which the Greeks named Μαίανδρος; Maíandros; and the Turks borrowed as Büyük Menderes while English generalised the name for any river that writhes across the landscape. Super gallery of [static] images of ox-bows and loops on MyCarta.

Sell car buy boat

Not me, I won't need a boat: my home is 230m above sea-level.  You flatlanders and coast-dwellers you need a boat or at least some attractive wellington boots. It's not really flatlanders that are going to feel the wet it's only those who live less than, say, 10m above sea level.
What am I talking about?  Data! From the Danish Meteorological Institute DMI which announced that a warm front pushing in against the Western glaciers of Greenland [red on right] has caused an anomalously early spike in melting ice.  The ice on Greenland accumulates during the Winter when it is dark and cold and snows a lot and then melts in the Summer when the sun raises itself above the horizon. For centuries there has been net gain, so the Northern Dome has ice up to 3km thick!  'Melts' is defined as being covered by more than 1mm of liquid water, so it might be dismissed as a mere surface phenomenon.  Nevertheless 12% of the ice was so covered on 11th April 2016, a full month earlier than this sort of melt-level has been achieved over the previous 25 years. Liquid water tends to run away downhill exposing the ice below to the sun's rays thus allowing a run-away melting. However much we might worry about melting Arctic ice-caps, most of that ice is already submerged, so melting won't result in a much sea-level rise.  Greenland OTOH is a massive island (although not so massive as the Mercator Projection distorts it), so all its ice is above the tide-line.  If it all melts it will raise the mean sea level by 6m and the additional water is going to accelerate coastal erosion in those places which are susceptible. Even if you now live 20m up, the sea may be at your front door before you sign on for the pension.  Everyone in Bangladesh should now start applying for visas to live elsewhere.

If the melt-water would just slip off the surface and start diluting the sea locally and/or covering it with a layer of fresher less dense water, then we'd only have a diverted North Atlantic Drift, brutal cold Winters in Ireland as I erroneously predicted last September for this last Winter. But what the water tends to do is run towards a local minimum and then plunge down a moulin to the base of the glacier where it acts as a lubricant to detach the glacier from the underlying bedrock - making the groaning grinding journey to the sea go incrementally faster. Be afraid, be very afraid - buy boat, buy big enough boat.  But what do I know?  My data-driven predictions of last September, about the end of the world as we know it a cold Irish Winter, were completely wrong. At least buy some wellington boots, though.

Friday, 15 April 2016


During the two cold Winters of 2009, we were snowed in on our "mountain".  At 230m above sea-level, this is a mountain in the Netherlandish rather the Andean sense.  Nevertheless there were 10cm of snow between the farm and the railhead in Enniscorthy 15km away. For Irieland, 10cm is a LOT for snow. There are only 5 snow-ploughs in the country and three of them are within the perimeter fence of Dublin Airport [I exaggerate only slightly]. I had been working in Dublin as the snow fell but was expecting to get picked up from the station by The Beloved when I was heading home.  It wasn't going to happen as our antient car had bald tyres without snow-studs. We arranged for a near neighbour who works in Enniscorthy to pause at a convenience store on the edge of town to pick me up and whisk me home.  Well Irish Rail wasn't able to deal with snow and my train ground to halt in Bray and arrived 3 hours late in full dark at Enniscorthy, so I missed my lift. I set off through town prepared to walk home [I'm well 'ard me] if that's what it took.  At the last roundabout, I put out my thumb under the last streetlight and said I'd hitch until 100 cars had passed.

I've written before that, since the epidemic of axe-murderers [both driver AMs and passenger AMs], hitch-hiking has ceased to be part of Irish culture; so I wasn't hopeful.  Nevertheless, at about car 75 a friend and neighbour half-recognised me out of context, picked me up and delivered me to the bottom of our lane.  He had been doing some engineering work in one of the small factories and was heading home a little later than planned, so it was providential.  As we drove out chatting, I imagined how handy it would be to know who in your mobile-phone-book was in town at the same time you were. He glanced at me with an incredulous are you having a game with me? look and said "Haven't you heard about Foursquare?" which had launched earlier that year.  Foursquare is dead handy for the apped-up because it means they can meet any of their pals for coffee if they're both in TriBeCa, NY, NY at the same time: social media indeed. The interweb elf in one phone must be talking to the elf in the other or they are both sending petal-messages to the fairy-cloud.

If you're in the business of persuading people to buy things that they don't need - possibly because those folks didn't know such things existed - it's handy to know where people live. If I want to know what's on at the cinema, I don't care much ado about theatres in Dublin, New Hampshire.  Same with hearing aids; vendors might be happy to drive 250km from Cork to Dublin to secure a €2500 sale but don't want to be directed to a potential customer the other side of the pond. If the advertisers know where the IP address of my computer is, they can save me hassle and save themselves money. If they're smart, the way some sections of the interweb are smart, they'll also want to know whether I'm pregnant, or a pensioner or deeply into paragliding.  They can infer this information from what my IP address has been interested in: it's the paracord or the incontinence-pads, stupid.  That's how I had a month of being badgered to buy a toaster that cost more than my car.

Here is an interesting story [via Metafilter] about the downside of these linkings of people and computers; especially when you set a robot to create your database. MaxMind is a number-crunching company in Massachusetts, they were set up to do the math-grunt for Advertisers matching physical location with IP numbers.  Each computer has a unique IP, so the USA must have a well over 1 billion to allocate a GPS location.  Sometimes, MaxMind just had to throw up their hands: they knew the computer was in the USA but couldn't zero nearer than that . . . so they assigned it to a latitude and longitude more or less in the middle of Kansas which is in the middle of the USA. Formally, this is the centre of the contiguous 48 states.  When you throw in enormous Alaska and diminutive Hawaii, the centre shifts nearly 1000km NNW to the edge of S.Dakota. I've looked at the difficulty of deciding which centre is The Centre for the UK. It turns out that 38oN, 97oW is in the middle of somebody's farm. MaxMind didn't care, they just assigned more and more IPs [eventually 600 million of them!] to this as-close-as-we-can-be-bothered-to-get-it field outside of Wichita.

Their easy solution created a huge headache for the family who lived at Centroid, USA because lots of people used the MaxMind data in ways [often foolish and unconsidered] that hadn't been anticipated. The law of unintended consequences played out as police agencies came looking for the computer which had sent a drug cartel's assassination order or the computer which had sent a suicides cry for help. MaxMind were wholly unaware of the effect of their cavalier decision; just as the Kansas farmers were unable to explain why they were being criminalised. MaxMind are changing their name to RedFace reassigning all these (there are other similar problems) generic addresses to the nearest substantive body of water. That way, agencies who act before they think can demand back-up from the US Coastguard. The discussion/ comments at the Metafilter link are worth reading. The story provides an interesting insight in how our universe is tunnel-visioned by the extent to which we can imagine it.

Thursday, 14 April 2016


Were we talking about the filum Unbreakable back in 2014? We were! Did we have a tribute to the unbustable woman behind the unbreakable man? We did!  Are we going to have a mind-crumpling non-sequitur? We are!

You know that I've been bigging myself up as a food-engineer, although this doesn't usually mean more than reading, and making ironic comments about, the table of contents of such food-products [not the same thing as food] as cake - pizza - irish salmonsausage - potato chips - sheep mix [mmmm so good].  I'm not the only one in the business of looking at what goes into food and failing to wax lyrical about it.  You get the drift from the title of this youtube clip "YOU WILL NEVER EAT THIS ICE CREAM AGAIN, SICKENING RESULTS!" The commentary is quite as SHOUTY as the title implies. and it is far too long for the actual information it contains; but the fundamental elements of the investigation is a scientific experiment looking at the different physical properties of different brands of ice-cream. You might think that the main difference would be whether the product is mostly "milk and cream" N=2 or "modified milk ingredients" N=2, but you'd be wrong. The key thing is that the cheapo brand doesn't melt even after 12 hours on a counter-top in a US kitchen [that would be 20oC [phew what a scorcher].  That's pretty ominous,:what is your poor duodenum going to do with such a robust material?

My assessment of the investigation diverges when the 4 bowls are left out on the counter for 10 days. Mr Eastcoastman heaps further scorn on the unmeltable ice-cream because it has now acquired a rich coating of fungus. But I'm much more concerned about the 'quality' products which after ten days at 20oC don't seem capable of supporting life. Can't be doing me much good either, huh?  Despite being a champion eater of the stuff in graduate school, I gave up on ice-cream about a year ago not because I read the label, but because it made me slightly uncomfortable in the hours afterwards. Doctor, doctor, am I lactose intolerant? Should I put almond milk in my porridge? Can I afford it?

Here's Mr Eastcoastman having a puck at Kraft Singles, a "cheese based" product. He compares the bright orange wubbly squares with real cheese on the basis of whether he can set fire to it with a lighter.  If it doesn't burn, it must be poison, the argument seems to go.  Well Mr E, have you tried burning an apple recently? or spinach?  As a positive control, let's think of things that readily burn but are not usually considered food: newspaper, twigs, my cotton underpants, camel dung . . .