Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Elite treat

On the way into work last Friday, I was listening to John Crown, consultant oncologist, former senator and all round talking-head, waxing angry about a novel cancer treatment that was not being offered to Irish patients who were hirpling along with metastasized melanoma. A diagnosis of the skin cancer known as malignant melanoma is decidedly ungood news. But if you have something black and ugly on your skin you want to get to your medico immediately because early treatment and diagnosis is the key to survival. If you ignore it, it won't go away but will send scouts the length and breadth of you body to set up malignant colonies.  If caught early, surgical removal of the obvious lesion and some mop up treatments gives you a good chance of living longer.  But you should definitely take it as a warning and wear a hat, long sleeves, factor gazillion sun-block, if you have to be outdoors in the Summer. It is clear that UV light especially the short-wavelength UVA may damage the DNA of your skin cells and trigger their uncontrolled growth. You should also warn younger members of your family to do likewise because they are likely to carry one or other of the handful of known genetic variants associated with the disease. A lot of these are known as 'tumor-suppressor genes' because the 'normal' form usually deals effectively with the UV damage and mops up wannabe cancers before they can be seen with the unaided eye.

Malignant melanomas have ballooned in recent years, increasing 2-3% year-on-year among over-50s in the USA.  Despite being riddled with the 'wrong' version of the various tumor-suppressor genes, the Irish did not much fall prey to this dread disease in times past: a) there isn't enough sun to get sunburnt b) bare flesh (even exposing the arms or legs) was frowned on my the moral-police c) naked bonking in hayricks never happened. It was a different matter entirely when a pale-skinned, red-hairs, freckly gasún or cailín went out to Australia. Wearing a hat wasn't part of their culture, sun-block hadn't been invented, and the sun beat down on them without pity. So melanoma was much more common in those emigrants than among their stay-at-home cousins.

Mr Crown's case was that Pembrolizumab a Merck product marketed as Keytruda, would save the lives of  some dozens of Irish people whose  got to treatment for Mal Mel too late, or had bad genes or bad luck and are now at late-stage metastasized melanoma for which the prognosis is very poor if left untreated.  Crivens, it's saved the life of 91 y.o. ex-President Jimmy "Guinea-Worm" Carter [prev].  Indeed prognosis is effectively a synonym for curtains and that patient will almost certainly become one of this year's crop of 140 people scythed to the grave by this disease. Pembro [we're on first name terms now] is super-elegant in its mode of action - it gees up the immune system to do its job more effectively.

With the consummate rhetorical flourish which we expect of consultants, senators and talking heads, Crown asked [I paraphrase] "What is the hold up, here? I have patients who have exhausted all other treatment options. The National Centre for Pharmaceutical Economics NCPE has made the calculations and given approval. Is it that politicians have been so prim about forming a government that there is no direction from the new Minister of Health?".  I didn't know that we had a NCPE, let alone that it employs sixteen [16!] people.  Nice work if you can get it but, like its sister quango the Food Safety Authority of Ireland FSAI [prev], there are no current vacancies.

What the NCPE do is some sort of QALY analysis [prev] to determine if the costs [$150,000 /yr!] of a course of treatment outweigh the benefits [another year's life for one person, and much glee among the sales department and share-holders in Merck]. I'm going to guess that, at a minimum, 140 people are in line to take up this drug before they join the crop of dead for 2017. Actually, it will be more because the oncologists will surely want to apply the treatment, which is demonstrably effective as early as possible after diagnosis.  But let's be conservative here: 140 x $150,000 = €20 million. That's 60 affordable social-housing units for families which are currently sleeping on blow-up mattresses in a hostel for homeless men.  But I only mention that emotive statistic because that's what The Media have been talking large about since the election . . . when they aren't talking emotively about Freeing the Water - we Freed the gays last year. YMMV, like one of those choose your own adventure books from the 1980s. Have tried the one called Realekonometrika?
Q. You have €20million at your disposal do you want to:
  • Build 60 3-bed semis in outer Dublinia
  • Buy another year of life for some red-headed over 50s 
  • Treble your money by depriving the haemophiliacs of their free Factor VIII
Now here's a more radical idea, if the NCPE's QALY analysis has given the go-ahead for Pembro and [therefore?] the Health Service Executive HSE undertakes to spend €150,000 of tax-payers' money on a red-headed grandmother with stage IV metastatic melanoma then that €150K is gone west. Why don't we ask the granny, under informed consent, if that's what she'd like the HSE to do with her windfall? It looks like 2/3 of patients treated with Pembro don't survive 'progression free' for six months BUT that means that 1/3 of them do so survive which is about twice the odds compared to conventional chemotherapy. I dunno about you, but if I was faced with those odds I'd ask humbly to find me an ice-flow to sit on and could you please put the money towards the college fund of my bright-as-a-button but poor-as-a-church-mouse grand-daughter. It's Lombard Street to a china orange that the HSE will not accede to this request because they are wedded to pushing money at big pharma.

Monday, 30 May 2016


Margraten [R heraldic flag with two white ducks merlettes] is a small Gemente municipality in Limburg, the 'mountainous' region of the Netherlands. Calling it a town would be pushing it; it's really a collection of villages, with a single fire-service and common bin-collection, a few km East of Maastrict of the EU treaty and at its nearest point is 2km from the mighty river Maas / Meuse / Mouze.  It's quite a bit further South than Nijmegen and Arnhem.  In September 1944 the latter was A Bridge Too Far in Operation Market Garden: the daring attempt to burst through the Siegfried line into Germany to bring about an early end to the War in the West. It was a bloody confrontation and thousands of US servicemen [and British Canadian Polish and German troops as well as, inevitably, many Dutch civilians] died in the short week that the operation was still running.  The consequence for the Dutch of the failure of this bold plan was the dreadful Hongerwinter of 1944/45 whose effects are being felt unto the third generation.

Dead US soldiers that were whole enough to be identified, both from Market Garden and in the succeeding 9 months of the war, were gathered together and interred in a new cemetery in Margraten [L in a stark midwinter]. In 1945, when the war was over and everyone had gone home - if they had one to go to - some 17,000 graves were laid out in rows and plots and sections; all neat and documented. That averages about 100 each day until the end of the war; but it was far busier on some days than others and local volunteers were recruited to help dig and bury. There is also a memorial wall with the names of those missing in action who were never found - blown to smithereens; drowned in a river crossing; consumed entirely in a burning tank.  Over the 70 years, many of the bodies have been claimed by their families and repatriated; but even now there are just shy of 8,000 graves in the Begraafplaats at Margraten.

VE day was on 8th May 1945, my mother was stationed with the ATS near Bruges and took part in the mother of all parties that night. In the Netherlands, the 5th of May is celebrated as Bevrijdingsdag Liberation Day; the USA since their Civil War has set aside Memorial Day to remember their dead soldiers.  It is now officially on the last Monday in May - today! On 29th May 1945, the day before that year's Memorial Day, flowers were gathered from all over Limburg and brought to the US Cemetery. Local people worked all night to distribute the flowers across all the graves as a tribute to the boys who had died liberating a foreign country from 5 years of most onerous occupation. That was gezellig en eerbiedig - it showed that, despite considerable personal hardship, the Dutch were able to show their appreciation of the sacrifice. The flower laying put on a show and a somewhat austere celebration. What happened next is more extraordinary.  A scheme was set up by the town clerk and Lutheran pastor to make a more personal and sustained connexion - each grave was adopted by a Dutch family who kept the flame of love and remembrance alive for those whose families were a long long way away across the sea. That relationship is still maintained.  The dead are still young and fit, though long dead; the original adopters have many of them passed on but the family relationship, and flowers and remembering continues. This may well remind you of Kemal Atatürk's sentiment " . . . After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well". It is traditional to remove hats and play Il Silenzio on that day and again 4 years later.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Lost & hound

Soon after starting work at The Institute three+ years ago, I wrote a feel good story Lost & Phoned, about how our rural network found my lost cell-phone and returned it to me through a chain with four degrees of separation. On Friday night there was a knock at the door while we were eating our scoff at about 1930hrs. It was a young woman with an antipodean accent enquiring if we, or any of our people, had lost a dog; because she and her bloke had found one about 3km away up the rough mountain track that leads to Mt Leinster. Turned out The Bloke was from local - part of the diaspora of The Great Depression of '08 who had gone to seek his fortune in Australia and found himself a good woman as well as a job. This fellow was well fit because the dog was dog-tired and had sustained a cut to the left fore-foot, so he had carried it all the way back to civilisation. Would I care to have a look at the hound? because it was at the bottom of the yard in their car. I do know the difference between a dog and a cat, but asking me to recognise a particular dog and associate it with a particular person is way above my pay-grade, so we called The Beloved from her tea.

She didn't know the dog but said that she'd contact the local text-alert and have a calling-all-cars message sent out. And it was so. We live right on the county line and the dog had been found sufficiently far up the mountain that it could have wandered in from pretty much any side of the 25sq.km upland massif so she also called our neighbour across the county border [which bubbles and chuckles along the edge of our Eastern fields] to put out a call to their text-alert. Well it turns out the the Wexford text-alert people don't do missing pets - they concentrate on suspicious people in Hiace vans. But the neighbour called a pal in the village who had indeed heard that a dog was reported missing and he'd get in his car and find out who the owner was. The owner of a lost brown&white spaniel was tracked down to a village about 15km away and it seems certain that the red&white spaniel which had been briefly in our yard was a good match.

Apparently the dog had 'got away from her' while she was walking in the mountains. Hmmm, I hope the dog wasn't chasing sheep because that's a death sentence round here. Many years ago, I was up in TCD and met my old Professor of Animal Genetics at the xerox machine. As well as writing the text-book on quantitative genetics, he was also a farmer of some 40 ha. of fine fields and pasture in County Meath. I asked how he was doing and he replied "Not so good".  It transpired that he'd had to shoot two of his young dogs that morning because they'd come back home with bloody muzzles and a neighbour had reported a couple of sheep 'worried'. The thing about farmers is that they are competent and self-confident and they don't shirk or out-contract, difficult or dirty work. Bleeding hearts will doubtless be aghast at that final solution to a problem which could be (surely!) dealt with by a trainer.

Minority miscellany 290516

Not quite random, but not connected either:

Saturday, 28 May 2016


Q: What’s brown and sounds like a bell?  A: Dunnnnggg.
It is not uncommon for me, while walking across a field of our farrrm, to take a swing at a large turd with my boot to spread its nutritive value out across the grass. Observation shows that the evidence of sheep dissipates much quicker in then this way and makes for a more even sward.  It must be a common reflex among rural folk who are known as shit-kickers by city dwellers.  Those same city-dwellers think that milk comes from a bottle and ham is delivered from heaven in uniform slices encased in plastic and weighing precisely 150g.  Any biologist would suspect such precision in anything derived from the living world.

Since they came across the English Channel, farmers have been mixed farmers – raising both animals and arable crops like wheat, beans and potatoes. It’s different in the tropics with paddy fields and two cash crops a year but in these our islands of the WEA where we have weather as well as climate, it was impossible to obtain cash crops sustainably every year. It was recognised that the soil became depleted if wheat Triticum aestivum or barley Hordeum vulgare was grown in successive years, so that yields dwindled to almost nothing and the farmer went bust. A rotation of several different crops seemed to restore fertility to the soil so that tons of grain and straw could be carted off the fields in alternate years and this system could be driven on in perpetuity.  1) Spring corn 2) rye-grass Lolium perenne and clover Trifolium repens hay followed by grazing 3) wheat if the land was strong, barley or oats Avena sativa else 4) Turnips Brassica napus 1) Spring corn . . . and so on till the end of time. In particular places you might observe more exotic variants: clover - potatoes – wheat – turnips – potatoes – wheat which gave 4 cash-crops in 6 years or even a seven year cropping with 3 years of wheat and 1 of oats interleaved with turnips, clover and beans. The addition of clover and turnips turned out to be a lot more productive than previous systems which left fields 'fallow' every few years. Fallow seemed to restore fertility although folks were unable to deduce why an obviously unproductive year was an investment. Now we reckons it's from the wild clover and its relatives. But a year without food production was also a benefit in making fungal, bacterial and insect pests work harder for their living

Nobody knew what clover and beans did for the soil but somehow those leguminous plants put the land in better heart. Likewise the dung from sheep or cattle, produced as they grazed the pasture or chomped through a desolate field of turnips, seems to give something back to the soil so that wheat grew far better after that treatment.  Research carried out in Rothamstead in the second half of the 19thC showed a) that nitrate in the soil were vital for fertility b) that bacteria in the root-nodules of legumes was capable of ‘fixing’ atmospheric nitrogen and leaving it behind in the soil as nitrate. Martinus Beijerinck, a researcher from Wageningen in the Netherlands was the first to culture a root-nodule microbe on a petri-dish in his lab. He called it Bacillus radicicola but it has been renamed as Rhizobium leguminosarum. I spent the Summer of 1976 in Wageningen doing desultory research in corn and potatoes but I didn't make the sort of discoveries for which Beiierinck became renowned.

Thus Rhizobium spp. bring something to the fertility table. The other bucket of crop rotation inputs are more in the nature of stopping food falling off the table. Animal dung is rich in minerals, particularly phosphates, which are essential in the equations for plant growth.  Sure plants protosynthesise; capturing energy from the sun to make glucose the energy from which drives everything else.  But DNA has a backbone of alternating phosphates and sugars and proteins are made up of nitrogen-rich amino acids: neither of these can be made from scratch by plants and animals. So cow dung is a matter of recycling essential nutrients back onto the field either directly or by gathering a steaming hape of the stuff in the farm-yard and carting it back out to the fields.  Forking tons of shit out over a field by hand was one of the tasks that made farming so labour intensive. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief when 19thC ingenuity developed muck-spreaders that would let horse-power do the work

Friday, 27 May 2016

Smouldering, Pennsylvania

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The economy of the USA boomed in the couple of decades after WWII. GIs returned from Europe and the Pacific War with a determination that the good things of life wouldn't pass them by. The good things in life weren't only the love of a good woman and singing hymns with the Reverend Gusto on Sunday. Th GTiL also included consumer durables - fridges, washing-machines, cars, vacuum-cleaners; but also consumer ephemera - weird-coloured breakfast cereal; a bottle of coke every day; paper plates and a lot of plastic, as packing and as the ding-an-sich - think Barbie dolls and replica M-16s.  This-all generated a lot of trash. So much trash that it could no longer be dealt with the traditional way of firing out the kitchen window into the midden. So municipalities across the US, and indeed across the Western World, collected their tax-payers discards and dumped it all in a convenient place where it wouldn't be an eyesore and not near enough to rich-folks' houses to offend them with the smells. If there was a convenient hole in the ground - an old mine or quarry, say - then the job was half done.

The town of Centralia, PA had plenty of holes and culverts to choose from because it was situated in the middle of the Pennsylvania coal field and there were many abandonned strip mines where shallower seams of coal had been abstracted to leave large dents in the earth's surface. A number of these were re-purposed as landfill or used by the citizenry for night-time fly-tipping of last year's fridge or last month's toy or yesterday's bag of packaging material from the last run to the supermarket.  In 1962, the town council woke up to the fact that they were all living in a tip and as Memorial Day - with its parades and festivities - approached, on 27th May 1962, they asked the local fire-department to clean up the largest of the dumps which was nearest the centre of Centralia.  Like in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, these firemen, rather than putting out fires, started one to burn the books trash.  Maybe to 'dispose' of it; maybe to reduce the heap below the horizon of the pit edge.  There is also a chance that the fire, perhaps started by these city employees on 27th May was coincidental with a fire started a few days or a few years before. On this hypothesis, the Aktion 27 May only served to draw everyone's attention to the fact that the fire / a fire / some fires which had penetrated from the surface into the layers of subterranean mine-workings.

 When the local fire-brigade were called out the next day to put out the fire, they were more in the comfort zone but no matter how much water they dumped on the obvious sources of smoke and flame, the fire sputtered to life again shortly after they left. The city council, somewhat disingenuously called up the LeHigh Valley Coal Company and asked what LVCC planned to do about the fire in their old mine-workings.

The long story short is that the Centralia fire is still burning exactly 54 years after the day it was first noticed/started. The public representatives who either started or failed to stop the fire have succeeded in destroying the whole community: in 1960 nearly 1,500 people called Centralia home; the US Congress allocated $42 million in 1984 to relocate residents. the last handful of residents were formally evicted by the government in 2010. Chunks of the town have subsided as the subsoil was eaten away and a miasma of toxic gases hangs over what's left; so it's clearly not a fit place to bring up children.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

It's a Javi problem

Jakers! you'd think our eSpanish was better: we've had a lot of opportunity to practice it. Currently we have Bolivar, a wwoofer from Venezuela, staying with us for the Spring/Summer.  Two years ago it was O'Manch' a young chap from La Mancha who could prune vines and play the piano.  The first instar was Javier, from suburban Madrid, who spent nearly a year with us in the mid 1990s.  We haven't been exclusively espagnolophile: for a couple of Winters we hosted Tadek a self-sufficient strawberry farmer from NE Poland.

Mais revenons a nos Javis.  He was living with us to help with the children and the logistics of running the farm; in return he was clocking up social welfare credits back home in Spain which he could parlay into a year's unemployment benefit when he returned . . . and getting help with his English. Every Saturday morning when I returned from a working week in Dublin, he was hopping from one foot to the other to do blokey things with me rather than doing Lego with two small girls. One such day, early in our relationship, I suggested that he clear out the drain than runs beside the lane which bisects our property.  This task is important because a clogged drain will fail to carry water, which will spill out into the roadway and sweep it all to buggery.  I know: it's happened to us twice in the last 20 years.  Javi's response was an incredulous "But Bob, that is one hundred metres!" . . . of head-high brambles, small saplings, enormous rocks and invisible quantities of other problems. Not being one to ask something that I was unwilling to undertake myself, I replied "Okay, Javi, let's do it together. We'll start at the bottom and see how far we get.".

40 minutes later, we had not only cleared the drain with slash-hook and sprong, rake and secateurs, but we had piled the mountain of brash onto a large plastic sheet and dragged it down to the haggard for burning. Five minutes after that we were settling down to a nice, and well-deserved, cup of tea. Seemingly insurmountable problems that yield to solution if you start pecking away at them somewhere became known in our family as Javi Problems.  Not so difficult in the execution as anxiety makes them feel when you fail to grasp the nettle. We both learned something that day.

Javi's other problem was that he lacked any personal space, he had a bedroom but the girls were still quite likely to be roaring in the night and would occasionally wake him up, far too early, to finish last-night's Lego project. We had cleared out one of the ruined granite sheds to live in while the house itself was being stripped to its bare-bones and essential services / luxuries installed like running water; a front door that kept out mice; electrical sockets in all rooms; under-floor heating and windows that you could see through.  In order to live in the shed we had created a timber box inside the granite shell and dry-lined it with sheet-rock [walls and ceiling] and tongue&groove pine boards [floor]. That plan was roughly shaken when we were evicted from our home in Dublin before the house on the farrrm was finished. So the shed was filled with furniture and boxes & boxes & boxes of accumulated possessions. Javi knew we had all the necessities for comfortable life in the house - he was sharing them on a daily basis.  The material in the shed must, he reasoned, be surplus to requirements; not least because it had not been used for nearly two years.

One Friday at dinner, he tentatively raised the idea that IF we sorted through the clutter in the shed THEN he could shift his much smaller parcel of stuff and himself into the vacated space. We were willing, the next day was sunny and we sorted through 40 cu.m. of material before tea-time.  The nicer furniture was shifted to the local auction-room where it was converted into cash.  The much-loved but moth-eaten, wretched, touch-only-with-rubber-gloves sofa was put on top of a pile of empty card-board boxes and burned. We didn't know about carbon-footprint in those far-off simple days.  It was a wrench, but Javi's Socratic method worked "This sofa: are you ever going to sit on it again? You have a nice sofa from Habitat in your living room, which is too small to accommodate two sofas.  Can you imagine anyone buying such a sofa? [apart from us, by implication] Shall we just burn it?".  Javi won his own place, which was for years know as Casa Javi, now simply The Casa, because it has housed a number of other inhabitants.  But it lightened the load on our souls by the mammoth decluttering that he instigated.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Agriculture before WWI

We have something like 3000 books in 'The Library' at home; about half of them forming the floor-to-celing insulation on the North wall of our living room. I know I should de-clutter this resource, see as how all the information is available on Google-books.  Sure the information is there but it's still easier to read a book . . . with pages . . . made of paper . . . preferably acid-free so you can fling it acropss the room in annoyance and not have it explode in a cloud of beige confetti.discard from library. My reluctance to off-load this collection of books is that they have [IMO] value. My collection of short stories by WW Jacobs, for example, delight me but wouldn't get sold at a 25c/book stall in a church fête.  If they don't get sold there, they get pulped or burned and that's a shock and a shame and a waste. Crivens, even the Cheekpoint Book Exchange must have to clear their uncirculated books out on occasion.

When The Institute's library was stock clearing last year, as well as Mother Tongue by Lancelot Hogben, I acquired "History of British agriculture 1846-1914" [Amazon: a snip at £4.50] by Christabel Orwin and Edith Whetham.  What High Victorian names!  As the book was first published [1964, Longmans] several years after WWII,  it is unlikely that both authors were born in the 19thC. For a textbook, it is racy enough to get the blood boiling as is the gross inequality of contract law between farmer and labourer. A farm-servant unhappy with his situation was threatened with jail if he legged it away; whereas breaking the contract by the employer was only a civil offence.  Similar tension is expressed when dealing with the economics of agricultural improvement.  A field which is weed-free and 'in good heart' is going to be more valuable both to the tenant farmer who raises food by his toil and ingenuity as well as the ultimate, and probably artistocratic, owner of the land who only gets into a lather while watching horse-racing or prize-fighting. If the farm is let on a year-by-year basis, there is no incentive to lime the soil to sweeten it or install subterranean drainage pipes to lighten it.

There were, to be sure, some improving landlords who took to farming as an alternative to collecting race-horses or stamps and pushed innovations on their tenants: some more practical and others more faddy. Drainage was a huge capital investment which was usually beyond the means or interests of the tenant. The dilemma is that more valuable, better drained, fields are more valuable - they command higher rents but may or may not turn out heavier crops.  Farming has changed, changed utterly even in my lifetime.  My first job, sowing spuds and riddling and bagging them for market was on a 40ha mixed farm about 40km NE of London. It was a mixed farm: the fields were not all laid out for potatoes. Barley and beans and beef-cattle were all part of the process. Cow dung was collected through the winter from the stalled cattle and spread out on the fields in turn.  The beans, with nitrogen fixing bacteria in their root nodules, saved a fortune in fertiliser costs.  The rotation of these crops helped to prevent the build-up of viruses that would eat up the profits and the regular ploughing controlled the weeds. Neither Mr Nichols, nor I, nor Alan and Steve his farm-hands, had a clue about the 'good' bacteria in the soil whose equanimity was severely upset each time the plough turned them over. That sentence alone reveals an extraordinary fact: 3 families were supported on a modest 100 acres with enough to spare pocket-money for barely competent chap from across the river.

Another interesting bit of quirkiness is the weights and measures that were used in the 19thC. For those [pretty much everyone nowadays except those in the USA] raised with the metric system, it must be unspeakably confusing and bizarre to deal with Imperial measures.

  • 16 oz [ounce = 28.3g] = 1lb [ libra / pound]
  • 14 lb = 1 st [stone]
  • 8 st = 1 cwt [hundred weight comprising not 100 but 112 lb}
  • 20 cwt = 1 ton [inconveniently 2240 lb]
wtf? every multiplier is different! as if it's deliberately made into a maths puzzle for school-children. And another parallel system 'Troy' was used for precious metals. And it wasn't just the weights. Lengths were weird too and inevitably different-weird.

  • 12 in [inch 2.54 cm] = 1 ft [foot]
  • 3 ft = 1 yd [yard a sort of short meter]
  • 22 yards = 1 ch [chain, the length of a cricket pitch between the stumps]
  • 10 ch = 1 furlong
  • 8 furlongs = 1 mile [which is this 1760 yards or about 5% more than 5000 ft]
again every multiplier is different not only among the lengths but also vis-a-vis weights.  In the agricultural world the stone of 14lb was far too simple.  If you were measuring cheese everyone agreed to use a stone of 24lb while contrariwise mutton was sold as a stone of 8lb!  I say everyone, but it is entirely credible that a stone of mutton was a different size in some of the counties of the United Kingdom.  That was one of the drivers for the metric system in France and later across Napoleonic Europe. It is much easier for tax-collectors and book-keeping if everyone in the country uses 'Paris' measure.  And the centralising government rode as rough-shod over local weights and measures as effectively as they stomped on langue d'oc and the other regional variants of 'french'.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

White Rock

What's he on about today? Daffyd y garreg wen? Ditto in tenor key with 78rpm crackles?  Nope it's nothing to do with David/Daffyd; it's the White Rock / Pedra Branca a speck [2.5 ha] of shit-covered granite [R in a 19thC painting] in the middle of the ocean 46km East of Changi Point, Singapore but quite a bit nearer to, and equidistant [14km] from, the Malaysian mainland to the North and the Indonesian island on Bintan to the South. Plonked right in the middle of the seaway between the port of Singapore and the riches of China, Pedra Branca was a clear hazard to shipping, as were two other nearby features - Middle Rocks and South Ledge - that rose above the waves, at least at low tide. A dozen vessels piled up on the rocks in the first half of the 19thC alone.

Accordingly, a lighthouse was authorized to be built on Pedra Branca by the British East India Company, and several years later this came to pass in late 1851 when the Horsburgh Light was finally switched on. The eponymous James Horsburgh was a much respected hydrographer and cartographer who had died 15 years earlier.  Nobody objected at the time to setting up this manifestly useful edifice and it continues to serve the sailing community to this day. The original spare elegant Victorian tower has since been surrounded by a clatter of hideous concrete and steel constructions [L the two low lying reefs in the middle distance are the Middle Rocks. In historical times, the region has been quite noisy, politically. "Pedra Branca" is Portuguese although it and the surrounding territory were claimed by a succession of Sultans with fairy-tale appearances by warring brothers and ancient treaties. The Portuguese were drubbed out of most of their claims in the region, except East Timor and Macau, by the more ruthlessly efficient enterprises from the Protestant nations of Britain and the Netherlands. After WWII, the Netherlands East Indies became Indonesia; while territory North of the Straits of Malacca were divested by the Brits to become Malaya and Singapore. There was a tentative short-lived union between the two which fell apart amid tears and recriminations, and a couple of bloody race-riots, in 1965 when Singapore was forced to go it alone.  As the great maritime entrepôt for the area, The Horsburgh Light became the responsibility of Singapore until 1979 when a Malaysian government quango published a map indicating that Pedra Branca fell within its territorial waters.  As I say above, being halfway to Indonesia, everyone wanted clarity on that issue.

It might have been a typo, or it might have been the first shot in a diplomatic war to re-jig the de facto sovereignty of the area. Singaporean diplomats requested-and-required their Malaysian oppos to cease-and-desist and publish a correct map showing clearly that Singapore wanted to pay all the oil bills for running the lighthouse.  It only took 28 years for the case to be resolved in Singapore's favour by the International Court of Justice on 23rd May 2008. A couple of football teams of well-paid lawyers and historians fed their children and sent them to fee-paying school off the process for half a working life. Singapore's case was that the islet was terra nullius when 'they' built the lighthouse. We've met terra nullius before in the desert with a fairy-tale princess. Malaysia wheeled out a lot of weasley lawyers, who blew the dust off ancient correspondence to claim the micro-archipelago in the name of the Sultan of Johor.  The wider case was resolved in Malaysia favour insofar as the unbuilt-upon MIddle Rocks were allocated to them - despite being on the further side [to the South] of the ever-so-slightly larger Pedra Branca.  So there was a prize for everyone in the audience!  Two countries throwing shapes over ownership of two worthless specks in need of a lighthouse might remind you of As Ilhas Selvagens midway between Madeira and the Canaries.  Or indeed, Snipe Island, a fragment at the End of the World which almost brought Chile and Argentina to war in 1958. Pedra Branca Dispute for the registered blind or car-drivers [1 hr].

It wouldn't be the Third World if there wasn't a strong hint of chicanery.  In 2013, Datuk Mat Zain Ibrahim, the head of the CID in Kuala Lumpur, claimed that the Malaysian Attorney General, Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, had taken money to 'throw' the case in favour of Singapore. It's somehow heartening to realise that multi-million sweeteners aren't limited to FIFA and the IOC.  I look forward to hearing some Attorney General or Ambassador being accused of doping: that would prove that diplomacy, for all the titles pomp and protocol, is merely a sport like boxing or cycling.
More islands? There is a large Blobo-collection.

Monday, 23 May 2016


The other day, I referred, quite casually and without explanation, to a 10d nail and a 16oz hammer. It's been a while since I wrote about weights [troy] and measures [temp] [tile], but it is fascinating how we have developed such diversity in describing commensurate things. The French put a bit of a kibosh on the romance of it by developing a system that dimensioned the whole world in multiples of 10. When I lived in Boston, I was intrigued to hear the gaffer ordering a packet of 10d [10-penny] nails for rough carpentry.  We didn't use that term on this side of The Pond: he was talking about 3in nails [that's 76mm to everyone else on the planet]. When it came to ordering the lumber [not timber] he asked for 2-by-4s [not 4-by-2s]. They make much of the fact that England and the US are two nations separated by a common language but this is greatly exaggerated - nobody is going to die if you use the wrong term here and no mistake can be made about what is meant.  The 16oz hammer? That would be one with a head weighing  [a nominal] 16 ounces = 450g.

Turn out that 10d nails are so called because in the 1300s that was the cost of a 'long hundred' [=120] of the article. Longer nails were naturally more expensive. In old accunt books you can find such entries as ffor ii c of vi peny nayle = xij This solidified into a convention that a 4d nail is 1.5 inches long and each additional quarter inch added a penny [d] to the cost.  Beyond 10d the relationship stops being linear.  Interestingly, the actual cost of 10d nails didn't change in a straightforward fashion: as inflation ate into the value of money, so the technology for making things like nails got more efficient. In medieval times, each nail had to be hand-forged but when machines replaced artisans, the real cost of making nails fell by 1400x [!!] in the 150 years between 1790 and 1940. When we look at the elegance of scarfed joints between baulks of timber in medieval churches, where the two lengths of wood are mortice-and-tenoned together and possibly held by a drilled hole and wooden peg we wonder at the skill and time required to achieve the engineering requirements. This solution was driven, at least in part, by the fact that nails were of astronomical price but time and wood were cheap. Apparently old buildings were burned to the ground <carbon-footprint frisson> to recover the nails.

There is certain machismo in being able to whack nails into boards with as few blows as possible. You can take part in nail-driving competitions in fairs around the country during the Summer. Only in Russia do they dispense with the hammer! I thought that was as daft as it gets but in Germany real men drive nails into the ceiling by juggling three hammers.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Three Years no holidays

A holiday, in naval slang, is a gap - in a stretch of varnished quarter-deck railing for example. The bo'sun would berate you if you had missed out a bit; as my father used to rail at his children if we hadn't mowed all the lawn. "But you've left a huge holiday behind the apple tree!" So the title means that today I completed 3 years of gentle bloggin' without failing to put up something every single day. Hats off to me! In 2014 After one year of relentless bloggin' it felt like a milestone; on 22 May 2015 after two years I felt smug. Now I'm feeling a bit tired. The Blob is a bit like the tail wagging the dog but in a way the tail has become the dog. Although many posts are triggered by some current event in science, the Arts or politics, it doesn't take much to relate that observation to some part of my previous life.  Indeed if there is no connexion, I probably won't write about it. I must be running out of things to say because it often seems like I've covered every event I can remember. Indeed, it's often like the old joke about Alzheimer's being exciting because you meet new people every day: I'll read something I wrote last year and a) think 'this is pretty nifty' and at the same time b) wonder where that came from.

3 x 365 +1 for the leap year is about 1100 days.  Because I started in January 2013, [without any intention of making it a daily ritual] and because there have a been some twofer days, the Blob is today just shy of 1400 posts and a couple of hundred short of 900,000 words. I don't where it all comes from but I have reasonable idea of where it all goes to: in terms of pageviews you-the-reader is from:

  1. United States 37000
  2. Ireland 34000
  3. Russia 11000
  4. France 7000
  5. Germany 6000
  6. United Kingdom 6000
  7. Ukraine 5000
  8. China 1000
  9. Poland 900
  10. Turkey 500
  11. The rest [N=23K must be at least 50 different countries] nowhere
I went through some shenanigans to get the mail through like the Pony Express . . . until someone pointed out that, like any irksome or tedious book-keeping task, you can have the computer get up at 0630hrs and make a pre-written post public. It's thus possible to stack up a few kilowords on blogspot and disappear beyond the reach of WiFi & broadband.  In rural Ireland you don't have to go far to achieve this.

I'll have more to say about the wonderful wide world [and less introspective navel-gazing] tomorrow.


Foody Film 220516

I'm feeling a little greedy this morning, so I've scarfed up some food and beverage film for you:


Saturday, 21 May 2016

Oecusse and Atauro

Are there any Christians out there?  In this case, I'm not asking impertinent questions about the Blobo-readership.  "Out there" in the present context means South East Asia. Which SEA countries are, as a legacy of colonial rule which allowed super-active proselytizing among the oppressed people, still predominantly Christian?  The obvious one is the Philippines, which was under the thumb of Spain for hundreds of years and is now 83% Roman Catholic of whom about half regularly go to Mass. That's a lot of Christians because the total population of the Philippines [=10n,million] is bigger than any European country except Russia - if you count Russia, with is vast tracts of Siberian tiger taiga and tundra - as Europe. EuroRussians still pip the filippinos because they weigh in at 110,million.  I've not specified the exact population of Pilipinas because it is growing: 101,million last year; 102,million in 2016 etc.  Any other SEA Christian nations? . . .give up? Clue: Flag in top right-hand corner.  Okay it's:

Timor Leste!  Formerly Timor Português for 200+ years from 1i769 to 1975.  That explains why 97% of the people profess to be Catholics and, bucking the trend of all the nearby territory, much less than 1% Muslim. That might explain the exceptional brutality of events following from the Carnation Revolution of 25th April 1974 back in Portugal. The revolution was triggered by despair at the series of unwinnable wars in colonial Moçambique and Angola; and one of the first acts of the new regime was to call back all the young draftees and bundle the different parts of their distant empire into a precipitous independence. The following year, the Indonesian army marched across the border from West Timor and occupied Dili the Timor Leste capital and as much of the jungley interior as they dared penetrate. Over the next 25 years, something like 20,000 people were killed directly by the military and 4x that number became conflict-related 'excess deaths' as food supply and medical infrastructure were severely compromised. Indonesia deposed their own super-corrupt "dear leader" Suharto in 1998 and a UN-led self-determination referendum was implemented in Timor Leste by agreement between the Indonesian and Portuguese governments.  The result was overwhelmingly for independence and this formally came to pass on 20th May 2002 - 14 years ago yesterday.

Oddly, apart from a deep distrust of Indonesian soldiery, Catholicism is almost the only thing the people [N = 1.2 million] have in common because, in a territory about 1/5th the size of Ireland or a little bit bigger than Maryland, they speak at least 15 languages: Adabe, Baikeno, Bunak, Fataluku, Galoli, Habun, Idaté, Kairui-Midiki, Kemak, Lakalei, Makasae, Makuv'a, Mambae, Nauete, Portuguese, Tetum, Tukudede, Wetarese and Waima'a.  Those on the red-list are endangered, so you'd better hot-foot it out to Timor if you want to talk to the last few speakers.  Portuguese is making a somewhat reluctant come-back after being very effectively squashed during the Indonesian occupation but the official lingua-francas are Indonesian and English. About a third of the population understand English and a similar number are more or less fluent in Portuguese.  The linguisitic map [L above] covers about 3000 sq.km including part of the border with West Timor and Dili the Capital; each colour a different predominant language.  Timor Leste includes an exclave further along the North coast of the island called Oecusse and two offshore islands, only one of which, Atauro, is permanently inhabited.  They have their own endemic languages, of course, but many people on Atauro succumbed to the blandishments of Dutch Calvinists 100 years ago and are now Protestants.  They don't seem to be notably more industrious than their Catholic neighbours, so they aren't Protestants as we understand the term in Ireland.

Any more obscure facts about Timor Leste?  Nobody from the country qualified for the 2004 Olympics but they were allowed to send two wild-card athletes both marathoneers.  The man Gil da Cruz Trindade did not finish but the woman Aguida Amaral did coming in second last at 3hr18m; half an hour later Luvsanlkhündegiin Otgonbayar from Mongolia cross the line to wrap up the event. The winner took 2hr26m to cover the course.  Four years later in Beijing, another pair of athletes were oooshed in as a courtesy Augusto Ramos Soares did not start and Mariana Diaz Ximenez did not finish. Soares was more ready for it in 2012 London and took the now traditional second last place in his marathon ahead of  Tsepo Ramonene of Lesotho. His oppo Juventina Napoleão also finished second last ahead of our own Caitriona Jennings.  We heard rather too much about Katie 'Bruiser' Taylor and her gold at the London Olympics, perhaps we should have noted that Caitriona Jennings was fitter, braver and more gutsy than 99% of her compatriots watching on the telly back home in Dublin . . . and she didn't punch anyone in the face either. For heaven's sake, where did that come from? let's get back to the coconuts and beaches of Timor Leste.

Friday, 20 May 2016

On Edge again

A palomino sent me and El Asturiano a link to the 2016 Edge Question. I started having rant to myself about The Edge without really knowing what was shaking my equanimity. The contributors attempting to answer the 2016 question are the Usual Suspects: friends of John Brockman, the Great Facilitator.  Many of them were asked their opinion in 2015, 2014 and back to beginning of Edge time BET. Then I started to sound oddly and grumpily familiar and it dawned on me that I'd written a whole critique of the 2016 Question and the Cult of the Celebrity-Pundit back in January. Before that realisation, however, I'd followed the link and read what Freeman Dyson [prev] and Matt Ridley had to say on the matter-in-2016-Question.

Matt Ridley wrote about the connexion between lack of intestinal worms and the rise-and-rise of allergies in the Western World.  I found myself nodding about that, not least because I've recently recognised that others have recognised the association myself.  Nina Jablonski says something similar although her piece is about the relationship between the intestinal flora and obesity and other health issues. The microbiome is the new black.

Dyson, who is always good copy and full of sense [chekkitout youtube], had a rather interesting comment about the Dragonfly telescopic array which is super-efficient, because intrinsically cheap, at finding dim objects in the depths of space.  They are better at this mundane task than fat (foundation and government supported) super-big telescopes and cost a fraction of the price.  It is a great example of appropriate technology producing a neat solution rather than getting suckered into the idea that, as more is better, so more money is better. One of the criteria of success in science, as defined by bean-counters who believe all that matters must be measured, is the amount of external funding acquired by your researchers, departments or institutes.  As with American elections, there is a frighteningly good connexion between investment and result. Nevertheless it is a crude surrogate for actual scientific progress - difficult as that is to a) define and b) quantify. Dyson recommends that a third of all money allocated to funding research should be ear-marked for modest mom-and-pop research projects by comparative unknowns. As Aled Edwards has identified, much [far too much] of scientific research follows safe well trodden paths rather than veering sharp left into jungle to make radically new discoveries. If most of these cheap left-field research ideas come to nothing, then not much is lost. Most Big Science projects come to not-very-much themselves and they beggar the tax-payer. Back in my Jan EdgeQ critique, I cited Judith Rich Harris's essay for pointing out that most published research is useless, boring, or wrong.

Dyson's suggestion made me think about the whole goddam, smug edifice - The Edge; it's 2016 Question, and indeed science itself. Scientific, medical and agricultural 'progress' has been instrumental in creating 5 billion more people than can be sustained on our small blue dot. That's the excess since 1916 when there were less than 2 billion living people on the planet. Their demand for:
  • bright plastic buckets; 
  • throw-away containers with barcodes
  • huge homes in absurdly inclement regions like winter New England;
  • a helluva lot of uncomfortable shoes in closets 
  • a private automobile and dirt-cheap fuel to make it go; 
  • a server in Finland next to a hydro-electric plant to store 100,000 crap photos of kittens doing antic things in bathtubs
has buggered the planet.  The creators of the small grey cinder we won't be able to inhabit don't seem to be mobilising 'science' to sort out the ramified problems engendered by technology.  Let us, accordingly, not ask, the undoubted;y brilliant, Steven Pinker, Martin Rees, Paul Bloom et al. what they think again. Let us rather ask an articulate teenager what she thinks we should do and give that a go.  We can't finish up in a worse place.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The lens of history

Interesting juxtaposition on the Main Page of Wikepedia today [L].  If you're on holiday in Greece don't ever be tempted to wind up your delicious meal with a 'Turkish Coffee': the waiter may well serve it in a 'dirty' cup. Apparently, the stories of catering people gobbing in the soup of objectionable customers are greatly exaggerated; but why risk it?  Every Greek delicacy on the menu on the island of Kalymnos Κάλυμνος  will have an almost identical counterpart on menus in Bodrum, 30km East on the mainland. Some hold that there is far too much culinary chauvinism which is unhelpful for food historians and reasonable people who yearn for a beaker full of the warm South.

"The Greek Kingdom and the Greek diaspora in the Balkans and western Asia Minoraccording to a 1919 Greek map submitted to the Paris Peace Conference [L clipped from larger map of the area]. Today 19th May marks the anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's landing at Samsun / Αμισός on the North coast of Turkey to start the Turkish War of Independence which is known in Turkey as Kurtuluş Savaşı the "Liberation War". In 1919, the region was a political and economic basket-case. The Ottoman Empire had been known as the Sick Man of Europe by such players as Czar Nicholas of all the Russias Николай I Павлович from as far back as 1853.  But, you wouldn't trust Czarist Russia (or their French and British rivals for hegemony in the Near East) for an objective assessment of the state of the Empire's health.  The Turks won the Crimean War (with a bit of help from the Brits and the French and Florence Nightingale [prev]) in 1856 and the Gallipoli Campaign of 1916 (Brits and the French on the other side this time) but had lost the war by 1918 and the Victorious Allies were determined to dismember the Ottoman Empire and allocate wide swathes of it to themselves. In the War of Independence, the Greeks waded into Thrace and Western Anatolia to protect "ethnic Greeks" and secure a bit of pie for themselves. Bodrum was after all known to Ancient Greeks, including Herodotus who was born there, as Halikarnassus Ἁλικαρνᾱσσός. Even as WWI proceeded the Turks had forcibly shifted some of these people from their coastal patrimony East of the Aegean to the interior where they couldn't aid and abet the enemy. During the Liberation War, much ugliness occurred and the modern consensus is that ethnic cleansing was part of the process. The map shows areas which are essentially Greek [yellow], essentially Turk [green] and a mix [hatched], it was generated by the Greeks so should be read with your skeptical hat on.

The lens through which these same historical events are viewed is not commutative for present day Greeks and Turks. The latter rejoice that, for 100 years, and largely through the peculiar vision of Atatürk and his pals, they have been living in a modern predominantly secular society with aspirations to join Europe. The last Emperor was deposed and the Caliphate was closed down. The Greeks would rather remember and remember and remember the disaster of the early 1920s which was brought about, at least partly, because of the hubris and delusion of their leaders; and the internecine feuding didn't help! Hemingway wrote some shocking reportage from Smyrna/Izmir as the Greek army in defeat evacuated the port. As they left, the first squadrons of Turkish cavalry were entering the suburbs. Thousands and thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees were crowded along the water-front hoping for a boat that would never come. Four days after the army left, a huge conflagration broke out on 13th September 1922 and in the ensuing chaos, somewhere between 10,000 and 100,00 civilians [uncountable numbers, basically] were killed. Smyrna lost any chance of remaining a Greek city and became definitively Izmir. Greece retained most the Aegean Islands, even those which, like Kos, where a) far closer to Turkey than Athens and b) not demonstrably Greek in population. I've written about modern Kos last Autumn as the Gateway to Refugee Europe.

Oddly, much further North, Imbros Ίμβρος and Tenedos Τένεδος [See map above] were assigned to Turkey despite being almost exclusively inhabited by Greeks.  This was to suit geopolitical pressures because Imbros in particular stood across the Dardanelles. The cultural integrity and autonomous status of the Imbriots was guaranteed by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) but there are only 300 left out of a populations of 8,600 for the island.  Which is, incidentally, now known as Gökçeada. A series of decrees from a central government made it increasingly difficult to maintain Greek schools, Greek farms and Greek holidays, so many Imbriots packed up and left.

I suspect we'd all be a lot better off if we didn't know anything about the ethnic background of our neighbours. It is far more difficult to wheel out the prejudice if this information isn't recorded. The Finns are resolutely ignoring ethnicity on their censuses. If you don't know how many black people you have then you cannot legislate to treat them differently.   And before my Yankee-dog readers get too smug you should reflect on your recent ancestors' treatment of ethic Japanese, even unto the second generation [google Nisei if you haven't read Snow falling on Cedars by David Guterson] during WWII which is a generation more recent than the doings in Smyrna.  And my loyal Russian readers should reflect on the subject matter of the winner of this year's Eurovision Song Contest 1944; which hinges on the forcible migration of Tatars from their home in Crimea to Uzbek SSR "because they had collaborated with the Germans".  But the correct response is not to get the knickers all in a twist and say that Ukraine is deliberately "offending Mother Russia". Might it not be more helpful so say that we are 25 years into a radically different political regime and it's +70 years since the events in question, so anyone actively engaged in the policy or implementation of ethnic "migration" is long dead.  Nothing to see here, time to move on?

Now here's the weirdest thing. It turns out the today is Atatürk's birthday.  The cute hoor timed the start of the revolution to conflate his birthday and the birth of the republic in everyone's mind.  At the Atatürk museum in  Şişli near Istanbul they have on display, amongst many other artifacts associated with his life, His Underwear.  If anyone thinks "I have his shoe, the shoe is a sign" I suspect you'll be in good company. A quote from The Great Man is in order "Humankind is made up of two sexes, women and men. Is it possible for humankind to grow by the improvement of only one part while the other part is ignored?". I covered "his" quote about the dead of Gallipoli last year.

Taking in each other's washing

For thousands of years since we came down from the trees, human beings had to shift for themselves. If you couldn't find enough mongongo nuts or hunt down a deer, then you starved. We are all recognisably human, different from dogs and cats and even chimpanzees, yet we each have different abilities. One can run really fast and another can make the best arrow-heads while a third knows where the best honeycomb can be found. In the Olde Days, society depended on recognising that all god's chillun got a place in the choir: the guy who makes the arrowhead gets a share in the antelope pie.  It's a got a lot more complicated since then and there are quite peculiar ways of making a living. It's not only on Golgafrincham that there are telephone-sanitizers.

One peculiarity of modern Western economies is that The Effectives - those who make and do things - support a fid of people whose contribution isn't so obviously necessary, When the Irish IDA per$uade$ MegaCorp to set up a 1000 person call centre in Ballylinerental, they know, and their political masters know, that there will be more than a 1000 new jobs. The corner shop will take on extra staff to sell breakfast-rolls and newspapers, the centre's management will need a personal trainer or two, and there will be a helluva lot of telephones that will need regular sanitizing. It passes my understanding how the pay-scales are decided: my skills in analysing the chicken genome don't seem to command the same money as the VP Sales in MegaCorp who doesn't sell anything; he just encourages other people to sell things. I'm not naive enough to suppose that if I urge you, my people, to analyse more genomes, then I'll start pulling in the big money; it doesn't work like that.

But leaving aside the inequality, inequity and iniquity of pay-scales, it beggars belief that Ireland Inc. is carrying 300,000 public sector employees.
Which according to the OECD [above] is about 25% of the workforce. You prolly can't read the headings so I've arrowed IRL - we're between Poland and the UK who have very different economies and pay-scales but the same proportion of government dependants. That's sort of heartening, shows that our nepotistic feather-bedding is neither the worst nor unique. The antidote to all these functionaries is to reflect on the Indian Civil Service ICS which, from 1858 [end of The Mutiny and the East India Company] until 1947 [independence, partition and the end of the Raj], ran India, which then had a population of 300 million. And how big was the ICS?? About 1,000 men! - pro-rata from our times you'd expect about 300,000 * 300m/4.5m ~= 20million.  Even at the end, in 1947, the manpower of the ICS was just 980 people about half of which were 'European'.  A nice job if you could get it - which was difficult because you had to pass a highly competitive examination. You still do!

If I want to claim petrol money for a jaunt to Dublin to see my mates an item of CPD [continuous personal development - much beloved by modern bureaucrats], the application has to be signed by 3 people and the cheque authorised by another 3. They can't all be strictly necessary; can we not trust the authority of the Head of Department without having her overseen by the Head of School?  And so on through the whole country.  Even in the private sector.  A neighbour was explaining why Keenan's of Borris the local engineering firm has declared bankruptcy.  Apparently, every time an employee went on maternity leave the company took on another worker in the office; but when the new mum returned to her desk they were too kind-hearted to let the temp [who was inevitably the cousin, niece, daughter of someone] go. Miriam Lord, political commentator from the Irish Times dug up a hilarious pun for those public representatives who recently became part of Enda Kenny's minority government "There are Independents and Endapendents"

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Giving Nasc a shout

A good few years ago, The Boy was dating a podiatrist, or was it a chiropodist?  a foot doctor, in any case.  Her friends became his friends and a lot of them had been through foot-school together.  I was most struck by the fact that one of them, who practised in West Dublin, gave one day a week of her time to work in homeless hostels sorting out their feet. I'm thankful to have the use of my legs . . .and the appended feet; and appreciate how important keeping them in good nick is; but cutting corns and designing insoles is a long way from my vocation.  I was therefore full of admiration for Christine: grim as middle class feet might look like without shoes, those of the long-term homeless must be far more daunting.  It was such a direct way of doing good within her means which was a little better than tithing her income as the best Christians are expected to do. A day pro bono is 20% gross but less after a rapacious government has taxed it down to size,

More recently we were down on the coast doing some care and maintenance on the property. We enlisted the help of some younger and fitter people: a Georgian from საქართველო in the Caucasus; a Portuguese from Venezuela and a couple of South Africans. Within 24 hours we heard that family members of two [independently] of these youngsters were in trouble with the Irish immigration service.  Both relatives had to enlist the service of Nasc in Cork City to help them stumble through a maze of red tape. In one case having received a letter based on false information drafted by an apparatchik of the Irish system. It required a trip to Dublin for the fonctionnaire to retract the letter.

Nasc - which means link in Irish - has been in business for 16 years next month.  What business?  Try their mission statement: "Enable migrants and ethnic minorities to access justice and human rights and work to achieve a just, inclusive and equal society".  Ireland is not a bad country, dissenting citizens are not disappeared at midnight or banged up in concentration camps.  Nevertheless we have just this week been found guilty by Comité européen des droits sociaux CEDS / European Committee of Social Rights ECSR of violating the human rights of our Travelling Community; by failing to provide adequately serviced or adequate in number halting sites for these people to carry on their traditional lives in our midst. Travellers are definitely 'our own' and the government, local and central, can't look after them; so it is a big ask to expect the government to look after the tide of people which has washed up on our shores these last 20 years.  Nasc wants to be, has to be, entirely independent of the government if it is to give unbiased information and advocacy to the immigrants whom it serves.  They get a certain amount of help from the voluntariat: people like Christine but who care more about dark people than they care about dark feet.  But there is, has to be, a core of paid staff to provide continuity and defined areas of expertise.  They get funds from, for example, the Cork Education and Training Board CETB and the HSE Lottery Funds but their biggest fan is Atlantic Philanthropies.

Chuck Feeney made his millions running Duty Free Shopper DFS starting in Hong Kong in 1950. That was only a few years since the first ever duty free shop in the world was opened in Shannon Airport in 1947.  Not a lot of people know that the Duty Free idea was dreamed up by the catering manager at Shannon, Dr Brendan O'Regan.  Chuck Feeney, an Irish-American from New Jersey was thus an early adopter and made a lot of money selling cheap booze and expensive perfume to people waiting to fly.  In 1982, having ring-fenced enough money for himself and his family to live comfortably, he started Atlantic Philanthropies AP to give his fortune away. He is famous for his modest life-style; quotably saying that a man can only wear one pair of shoes at the same time.  For many years he insisted that the recipients of his generosity should keep the identity of their benefactor a secret. In 1996, his remaining stake in DFS was bought by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), which brought another stream of loot into the give-away bins.  The following year, he grassed himself up as Chuck-of-the-generous-hand in a pre-emptive strike before his anonymity was blown in a court case.

AP doesn't hand out money to everyone. It has interests in particular parts of the World (.bm .ie ,au .vn .za .us) and particular causes: ageing, children [$1million to Barnadoes], health, reconciliation and human rights. Giving chunks of money to Irish Universities in the 1990s is credited by some for helping to kick the Celtic Tiger into life.  So AP has made a difference. They also stumped up more than $11million to Free The Gays during the Marriage Equality Campaign last year.  This shows that a dollar [or two] in Ireland can leverage a huge societal change.  In the third world that dollar can leverage more because a) they have further to go b) the dollar's buying power is enormously greater. AP has given something like $40m to University of the Western Cape UWC outside Cape Town. That's where Cedric "TCoffee" Notredame and I taught a course in 1999; the students were hungry to learn in a way quite different from our experience in Europe. UWC declared bankruptcy the following year! Chuck Feeney's cavalry saved the day. With such enthusiasm for education, you know that the things [buildings, professors, equipment] that money can buy won't go to waste.

The best thing about Atlantic Philanthropies is that it has been so effective in off-loading the money that it is going to be wound up in 2020.  It would be easy to set up a self-perpetuating trust that will live on after the death of the founder. Such an entity would require a board of trustees and fund-raisers and a CEO and CFO and a roomful of drones to deal with solicitations for money. Feeney has no time for that and, at 85, not much time left. He reckons it will be more fun to see the last of his fortune redistributed than keep an extensive staff in the style to which they could easily become accustomed. This concept of Giving While Living has inspired, among others, Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Mais revenons a nos Nascs! Accepting, welcoming and integrating them foreign johnnies from 180 countries into Ireland is, and will be, a big challenge. AP recognises that Nasc plays a key role in this process by providing independent advice and advocacy. Supporting a small catalyst for change is the best way to invest in an inclusive multicultural future for the island.  It's not [only] about the pierogies and bhindi bhajis!

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Fat of the Land

Dau.II was up from Cork a few days ago: for a funeral so it wasn't all happy. At the afters, we were sitting together when the woman next to me leaned across and asked "And what do you do?"  Dau.II's answer was "I'm manager of a restaurant in Cork" and it's true.  She left home 3 years ago and immediately started being productive and paying taxes.  I have a pal who is a serial entrepreneur: he's trying to make money, create jobs . . . and pay taxes too. Him and Dau.II are The Effectives keeping the rest of Ireland Inc. on the road. We are trying to reduce the number of people who are sucking at the government's teat but it's difficult and someone has to supply the milk.  As an electable politician, the one thing you can promise your constituents is jobs for the boys or, for the better heeled with higher expectations, a seat on the board.
That's just under 300,000 people working for the state out of a population of 4.65 million.  The largest chunks are the health service and education both sectors which have substantially increased their numbers since 1994. The the middle of last week, the Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Leader of the Labour Party announced her retirement from the latter part of her portfolio. When she took on that task, she compared the difficulty of doing that job with that of being President of the United States. Herding cats is notoriously difficult and the Left is more schismatic than the other side. But really how difficult can it be to manage a minority party which now only has 7 members of parliament? 

Another constituency that makes big of the difficulties of their jobs are senior civil servants and incumbents on Boards and Quangos of which we have uncountable numbers - possibly 732 each with an average of 12 members. So you may want to adjust your image of Mother Ireland's generous bovine four-quartered udder to one of a sow and her farrow. The chairman of Bord Bia or the Broadcasting Complaints Commission [just as examples, lads, I'm not picking on you in particular, I could have started at the <alphabetical> bottom with the Women's Health Council] have unique skills so they command a high salary to keep them in post. I too have unique skills - nobody in Ireland has discovered more avian-specific Toll-like receptors than me - but I can't seem to be able to monetize this toolkit. Things have changed since James Joyce complained that "Ireland is an old sow that eats her farrow": now she supports us all in the style to which we have become accustomed. Not all of us, there are only 300,000 on a government salary . . . and a further 2 million (!) on a Medical Card - which is a fair surrogate for those who are netto being supported by the State: they receive more in benefit than they cough up in tax. That leaves 2.2 million. But 1/4 of those are children, who [harrrumph the youth of today]can't be expected to help with the farm or take a newspaper round, let alone earn enough money to pay tax. I think I'm correct in the maths to say that 1.65m folks like Dau.II [with her widder's mite] and The Entrepreneur [with his "limo" and "millions"] are carrying the other 3 million of us. It's a heavy burden.

One of the things me and The Entrepreneur have in common is an interest in the Food and Drink business. I don't mean that we are famous trencher-men, carving off slabs or meat and swilling it down with tankards of mead.  It's more in the nature of aspiring to make the Irish AgriFood sector more interesting and more diverse: he by setting up a company or two; me by teaching a course in sourdough bread, sauerkraut and (of course) cheese glorious cheese. Bord Bia have recently turned out a massive glossy document called Starting a Premium Drinks Business in Ireland. You could fault the over complex HTML [turning pages and that sort of nonsense] which will suck up the bandwidth but Bord Bia is not interested in supporting low-lifes who don't have broadband . . . Except that broadband is utter crap through the whole of West Cork and rural Cavan whence all the new food enterprises have sprung over the last 20 years.  But that's the sort of thing government employees do: spend a lot of time arranging the deck-chairs to 'help' the people. When the ship goes down, the deck-chairs, which can't support a drowning person, will just prevent Dau.II and The Entrepreneur from swimming away from the wreckage.  Even when the ship is still afloat, there are enough deck-chairs to 'helpfully' impede progress to the front of the boat where eyes-wide-open people can spot the icebergs. Those nominally in charge of Ireland Inc's economic recovery are on Deck 7b seeking permission to open the Reserve Deckchair Locker.  But their authorising manager is in the Executive Dining Room waiting for the Executive Sow to serve milk.

Monday, 16 May 2016


Q. What do you call the chap who graduates bottom of the class in Med School?
A. Doctor.
This old joke is clever but not so funny. Especially if you reflect on a new report in the BMJ which suggests that medical error is the third highest cause of death in the US. I mentioned this at the end of a trilogy of pieces on compassionate usemedical hubris.and medical certainty. Here's a summary of the findings and suggestions for change. Mederror, at an extrapolated count of 250,000 US cases/year is a long way behind heart disease [615,000] and cancer [590,000] but a long way ahead of respiratory issues, accidents and strokes. Should we not be glad that Alzheimer's also features high on the list?: it means that your father has survived the other killers into old age.  As always, there is interesting commentary on Metafilter, from people are the coal-face or in the firing line and so have something relevant to say. Such as:

1) Of course Med-error is a large killer because US society (neither the doctors, nor the patients, nor the insurers) can stop itself picking at scabs. Insurers are paying for everything and passing on the costs to the insured whose tab is picked up by employers because individuals can't even afford the insurance let alone the real cost of medicine, let alone the cost of medical treatment. Every change from 'normal' has an intervention and the medical profession believes it can cure everything at least some of the time.  If every sniffle, every rash, every pain and every lump is swung at by one or many medical practitioners then some mistakes will be made.  Even if the proportion is small beacuse the doctoring is excellent, the volume will make error a large player in the statistics.

2) Let's look at the BMJ study critically, instead of accepting the credulous take on it by journalists who would like to make A Story of it. To one commenter it looks like the study is statistically flawed and therefore redundant.  If the statistical methodology is crap we can, along with Trisha Greenhalgh, move on to other matters without getting our knickers in a twist.  Without sound methods and sound statistics there is really nothing to see here.

3) In one study, a survey of 184 US hospitals found 38,000 definite and 3,300 possible errors but only 1,233 =3% of these had an adverse effect on patients. That shows that you can vary the dose or give the wrong drug and still not cause damage 97% of the time.  If getting it wrong has so little effect, is the corollary true - that the right dose and drug does pretty much nothing for you 97% of the time?  Is a large chunk of the medical bill only doing good for MegaPharm's shareholders?  We know that 50% of HepCV patients don't respond to the standard interferon-alpha treatment but they all get given it.

4) For safety's sake! can we turn [junior] doctors out of the emergency room after they completed an eight hour shift?  Let them get a couple of beers, a meal and a good night's sleep and come back 16 hours later refreshed. Sleep deprivation makes you angry, careless and make mistakes.  You wouldn't or shouldn't drive a car if you haven't slept for 24 hours, so don't think that you can make difficult decisions or carry out delicate procedures while dopey. Of course, if there's a train crash, everyone will work crazy hours until the emergency is cleared.  But routine 24 or 48 hour shifts speaks culpable bad management.

counter 4) The argument is made that doctors are made by experience and experience is delivered by hours at the coal-face. You can't clock up your 10,000 hours if you have to knock off and go home after every 8.  Having long shifts in emergency rooms means that you have to take responsibility for long-term care - you can't hand the patient over to the next guy with the insouciant thought that she was alive when I left.  On 36 hours shifts, when things take a turn for the worse, you know exactly what you did earlier - you don't have to scrabble through the notes left by the last doctor which may be unclear or incomplete.  At least electronic notes means you don't have to read their handwriting!

5) In a litigious society like the US or Ireland, it is financial damaging to admit error, so nothing is learned from mistakes because they didn't happen. I particularly like the phrase"even discounting defensive sophistry on the hospital's part" when the system closed ranks to prevent a family finding out what went wrong. That is a continuing theme in a recent series of medical misadventure cases in Ireland that involved children. No amount of compensation can bring the child back to the bosom of its loving family - but a full and frank investigation might prevent the loss of another child from the same cause. That's what the parents want: a memorial.

6) An interesting critique of EHR electronic hospital records, which are designed to make the doctor's job easier and make sure s/he doesn't forget some vital test.  It's a mighty checklist, which my surgical pal Mac fingered as being all glossy optics which can cover bad practice,  But most EHRs are just a tsunami of information pulled in from the path.lab., the patient's general practitioner, the CAT scan facility, and the pharmacy.  These things are designed by designers not doctors so you get possible contra-indications listed alphabetically (why?) rather than by severity. Another beef is that the software allows the harrassed and time-short doctor to import yesterday's report for today's, rather than having to write out the same-old-same-old again.  Doctor's get into the habit of doing this without editting the import - so that the patient is much improved much improved much improved for days on end but never gets actually better.  The EHR, is deconstructed / exposd: not as a mechanism to promote efficiency but as a means to record everything . . . so that it can be billed.

Don't worry! It may not happen; probably won't happen to you because you're younger than me. Most of those 250,000 medical errors happen to old folks whose time would have come soon anyway. As I suggest in 1) above almost all your lifetime experience with medicine occurs in the last three months of your life.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Musical hilarity 150516

A selection of musical links:

talk to the hand

It might be a follow-up to my piece last week about sign-language but this is so super-cool it needs a bit of a trib in its own right.  Did you know that there are 70 million people who are deaf or deaf-mute and so rely on some form of sign language to communicate?  That's 1% of the world's population!  It works okay if you are in your family or at school or training in your new boyfriend but it really doesn't work if you're new in town and trying to buy a 16oz hammer and a packet of 10d nails in the hardware store.  A couple of geeks from MIT have got you (and 70 million others) covered.  They've invented a glove with a lot of location sensors that can pick up the movements of your fingers, fore-arm and wrist in real time. Show and tell. The movement is then interpreted into sound or written text and it comes out like the GPS robot in your car's navigation system.

If you think the idea or the implementation or the utility of this invention is sort of cool or neat, then you'll want to read the commentary at Metafilter where I first heard about it. Such a device is patriarchal, demeaning to deaf people, implicitly denigrating any form of communication but larynx-speech and should be banned.  The kids who dreamed it up should be sent to Sensitivity School to appreciate that no True Deaf person would have any use for such a contemptible . . . toy.  I dunno, some people must like to sound cross all day - I meet them all to frequently at The Institute. Talk to the hand!

Talking of cars - here's a couple singing&signing along while driving with both hands off the wheel. Don't do this away from home, folks!  If you must sign in a car then make sure you are stationary in the driveway at home.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Time for a walk

Shortly after we moved into the farrrm, when Dau.I and Dau.II were still tiny, we acquired an extra man in our family.  If you live in town, you can leave even quite small children to their own devices at home while you nip round to the shops for a loaf of bread for their tea. It's probably not a good idea to combine the trip with a visit to the pub for a couple of stiffening gins against the bedtime routine. Down the country, a couple of miles from any shop, going for 'a few messages' is a huge logistical exercise:  leaks have to be taken; the kids have to be dressed against the weather . . . even if they're asleep; buckled into their car seats; the car-keys need to be found. We put out a call for an au pair to be the extra adult while I was off-site pushing the frontiers of science in Dublin . . . and the only candidate was a young chap from Spain. Javier was built like a Greek god and had long blue-black Superman hair, so he was easy on the eye and easy to be around in other ways; and useful too - he'd take the girls off to the river for walk or cook tortillas. When I came down from The Smoke he was eager to outdoorsy, manly things on the farm and park the small children for a while.  We communicated in a mixture of English, eSpanish and Latin.  He knew as much Latin as me because he'd had a year of Biology in University in Madrid.

He'd gone to University to read Biology because he was smart but also, despite a quite suburban upbringing, because he was passionate and knowledgeable about the natural world.  University had not served him well, 1st Year Science required book-learning the names, attributes and taxonomic relationships of trees rather than going out to hug them. I could, accordingly, ask him to cut down some Fraxinus excelsior [Ash / Fresno] branches as a treat for the sheep and be confident that he wouldn't kill them with the fruit of the spindle tree Euonymus europaeus. We learned a lot from each other.  Oddly, although all my working life has been spent among professional biologists, I've only known a few naturalists. Like Chris Burnett, who could recognise and name a tree from its Winter silhouette or Des Higgins, who knows more about the taxonomy of Irish spiders than anyone else alive and has recently gone a little bonkers about bird-watching. Me, I'm terrible at this sort of thing, although I've kept patchy records of the annual arrival of cuckoos Cuculus canorus and swallows Hirundo rustica in our valley. You've probably got to have a mentor for this sort of engagement with the natural world and really you have to start early.

If you're already grown, then one way to give the natural world a whirl is to try a trek.  Not a yomp up Mt Leinster before breakfast but a journey that takes a few weeks. It's almost Summer at The Institute, which is when folks can clear a bit of time and clear out.  This is a bit later than Chaucer's motley crew set off for Canterbury in ca. 1376:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote  . . .
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes
Today is Ed Ricketts' [L] birthday, he's long long gone, killed at the age of 50 in a stupid accident in Monterey, but because of what's been written about him, primarily by John "Mice and Men" Steinbeck, he still lives on as an inspiration to professional biologists.  Indeed, at the time in the 1930s, he was one of the very early professionals in the business: making a living collecting lab specimens for museums and universities 'back East'. Like Javi, he had dropped out of college in U Chicago but unlike Javi, he spent the succeeding several months on a long trek through the American South just after WWI. He wrote it up later as an elegiac essay called Vagabonding thru Dixie, which you are urged to read.  I've blogged Ricketts before especially in how he informed my philosophy of education.

In 1920 you could vagabond through Dixie in the same way as Patrick Leigh Fermor [prev] vagabonded from the Hook of Holland to Byzantium in the late 1930s. Or Laurie Lee busked round Spain in 1936. Horses and mules "git up thar mules, dag gum yore hides" then outnumbered cars and trucks on the road. To get the same sort of a stretch nowadays you have to travel off-piste - nobody wants to get wiped out by an 18-wheeler doing 100km/h.  You can make a mad macho marathon of it like running the Appalachian Trail. Or a more modest, and very lonely, contemplative schlep along the coast of Portugal as I undertook in 1989. Many people experience a sort of transcendence on the Camino de Santiago: strange and wonderful things can happen on that trip if you keep your eyes and mind open and don't have too many expectations. You might even glimpse a kingfisher Alcedo atthis. I've watched a couple of documentaries this week about the Pacific Crest Trail, which starts at the Mexican desert in the Spring and hopes to reach the Canadian border before Winter snows block the last pass.