Sunday, 31 July 2016

click! click! click!

Now that it costs 'nothing' to take and print a photograph, the servers of the world are groaning under the electronic load of storing all these pixellated images. 10% of the world's electricity consumption is needed to support this cultural trend. If you upload one of your snaps direct from the camera [4MB average] this single image is taking up the equivalent of 300 Blobs stored as Word files. This in itself is a shockin' bit of bloatware because those 300 are only 1,000,000 bytes [1MB] of text, the rest being overhead about format, font and grammar-checking. Clearly some pictures are better than others. I do my best to crank down Blob-illustrations to less than 4kb: enough to give the gist without being super quality: I don't want my readers in Andaman to be frustrated in download time. Here [R] is one by Andrew Caldwell "Royal Spoonbill sits atop of a branch basking in the glow of the nearly full moon in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand." which is shortlisted  for the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year award, all of which are on display at Royal Observatory Greenwich’s Astronomy Centre. And on the Grauniad.  Chekkitout - gorgeous. Mr Caldwell or Insight or The Guardian or Greenwich may take it into their heads to sue me for breach of copyright even though my only purpose here is to give them all a bit of free publicity.

When I go off to Google Images to look for a suitable image to leaven the dull dull dull verbiage of my Blobs, a very high proportion have a ghostly watermark to indicate that the image is owned by Getty or Alamy or Shutterstock which are intermediaries and repositories who act as brokers between the photographer and those desiring to use their image. The agencies have a business model that is supporting hundreds of people of who not taking any photographs. Some of these stock-photo agencies are more rapacious than others.

Carol M Highsmith [L as a Getty image] has been taking thousands of photographs [sample at Daily Mail] to document the American landscape and way of life. For the last 30 years, she has been donating these images to the US Library of Congress, so that they are freely available to historians, geographers, sociologists and bloggers. She was a little pissed off recently when she received an invoice for $120 from Getty to host one of her own photographs on her own website.  You may be sure that little or nothing of that $120 would filter back to her as the original creator. And, as I blobbed last year in Marriage Referendum context, the people portrayed in stock photos have no control at all at all in how their images get used. Highsmith has instructed her lawyers to sue the ass off Getty and Alamy : "The Defendants are not only unlawfully charging licensing fees to people and organizations who were already authorized to reproduce and display the donated photographs for free, but are falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner . . .".  All good fun and of course the lawyers will be eating deeply of the cake. via Metafilter where you can get some interesting lawyerly input in the comments . . . as well as a lot of predictable fuck-you-all Getty I hope you crash and burn invective. The Getty page - ironically of Carol Highsmith herself - shown above L has been "Oops! We can't find the page you're looking for."ed

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Pieces of string too small to keep

One of our neighbours has a woodshed to hold the fuel for their wood-burning stove. Their name isn't Jones, but we had to keep up with them, so we are building a similar pole-barn on the farrrrm, that may hold wood but may also be used for my gymnastic sofa sitting. One of the design features is that the exterior wall is made of hit-and-miss vertical 6x1 planks [view-from-above cross-section shown in blue] nailed to more substantial 6x2 horizontals [beige]:
This nifty arrangement a) saves on timber b) keeps the rain out c) lets the wind whistle through. The astute among the readership will have noted that, because there are two rows of gappy 6x1s, it doesn't save on timber but parameters b) and c) hold true.
The other eponymous feature is that the main structural uprights are recycled telephone poles.  This nifty arrangement a) recycles b) has no high carbon footprint concrete in the footings c) looks rustic. As the foundations are six 90cm-deep holes in the ground and as the poles are tapered it poses a physically demanding exercise in 3-dimensional geometry to get something with right-angles at each of the eight corners of the box. On our mountainy site, an additional complication is that everything is on a 10% slope.  If the barn is 24 feet [7.3m] long, and it is, then there is a fall in ground 'level' of about 2.4ft = 73cm between the top poles and the bottom. After we had our 4 corner poles up & vertical [on two tapering edges each], we put a borrowed laser level on a yellow bar stool [R in centre] in the middle and marked that height all round on the poles. We were then ready to put in the two middle poles so that they were a) vertical b) in line with their neighbours and c) halfway between them. To get them in line we snapped a length of blue baker-twine between a pair of end posts and pushed and pulled and levered the middle pole into position. When we needed to move the line to centre the other pole, Young Bolivar couldn't undo his knot and so cut the line.  Huge drama from self!

I come from a family that never cut string because it is impossible to restore string to its original length after it is cut. When my mother has a parcel to send, she will find a piece of string of suitable length to tie the thing up. The surplus after the last effective knot will not be cut off; it will rather be used up in non-functional but vaguely decorative half-hitches. Part of the ritual of receiving the parcel is to reverse the process, undoing each knot in turn, and putting the string away in a safe place. Young Bolivar, holding a useless 50cm length of blue string, looked at me like I had two heads; but then he doesn't have the benefit of a drawer full of string and ribbons.

This reminded me of a story about Stephen J Gould [multibloboprev] when he got to be director of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.  As Director, he got the Director's office and got the previous incumbent's clutter as well. Bureaus and chests of drawers and filing cabinets and display cases. Gould was particularly tickled to find a small drawer marked 'pieces of of string too small to keep'. That's how I remember the story which is probably apocryphal because Googling the phrase yields a large number of parables, many of them explicitly christian in sentiment.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Journal Club, not

I love my job.  I work at the teaching coal-face of science helping a variety of youngsters fulfill their potential as technically capable contributers to Ireland Inc. and, hopefully, questioning and interested in the workings of the natural world.  The Institute's management aspires to re-casting us as a Technological University, as if a change of name will make us all smarter. For me the defining characteristic of a university is a ferment of intellectual curiosity and structures which encourage wide-ranging interests.  In a university, you can cross the campus and hear a talk about Blaise Pascal's Pensées or the diet of a sooty mangabey Cercocebus atys or the birth of the universe. But it's not so much the availability that defines a university as the fact that members of the community actually cross the campus to hear about things outside their field of expertise.

That's really valuable; there are numerous examples of ground-breaking insight being generated by going to hear about something different. The strange perspective can act as a creative trigger. Universities make a point of having a schedule for external speakers; any academic visitor expects to be asked to give a talk about their research. Usually in parallel, an active academic department with thinking students will run a Journal Club.  Here you're not getting it from the horse's mouth but you should be getting it from the cutting edge.  Since I wrote about reading last week, 24,000 new papers have been published in biomedical science: plenty of choice - surely you can find something to talk about from your recent reading of the literature.  Not reading the literature? Then you're not doing science.  I've had a long, fruitful and interesting relationship with Journal Clubs over the last 30 years.

At The Institute we have a Journal Club but the running of it is like pulling teeth. The post-graduate students maintain that they are too busy to take half-an-hour a week out of their schedule to learn something new. It's like the old adage that if you think you're too busy to do 15 minutes of X - meditation, say -, then you really need to take 30 minutes. Their supervisors rarely turn up to JoClub because of the insane teaching schedule we are subjected to - more than half the working week we are giving face-time to the students. To people who work in factories and offices that sounds like a doddle because those outsiders don't know about class prep, marking lab copies, meetings . . . and the sharpening pencils, checking the e-mail, updating Friendface, filing stuff and trying to find the stuff you filed last month with which all office workers consume their day.  There are also a large proportion of the teaching staff who gave up on active research years ago and devote their remaining hours and years to teaching. Needless to say, none of them ever attend Journal Club. Even when the schedule was let slip to once a fortnight, only the usual suspects could be reliably found at a JC session and only a handful of them at that.  Unsurprisingly, the usual suspects are also up for it if you offer to fill a car and drive to Dublin for some celebrity speaker. It was one of these who made me happy by sending me the link about Sara Seager. The same chap won a $10,000 prize presenting his research in Kentucky last month.  Coincidence? I don't think so!

No Journal Club. No real research. No credibility as a university.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Out of this world

I got a handful of links from one of the very few post-graduate students at The Institute who has an interest outside his own research.  He should be in a university, he has the necessary curiosity. The links were all about the process of post-graduate education: should there be a viva? is an unpublished thesis a mere waste of shelf-space? One of the articles, has three accomplished scientists look back at their PhD thesis with a sense of the past is a different country.

Such is the absurd specialization in modern science that I'd only heard of one of these three spotlighted scientists. One of them was Sara Seager [Shown R with a prototype of her mini space telescope and a background to indicate "rocket-scientist"] who is currently the Class of 1941 Professor of MIT, but she spends a large part of her working life off-planet as an exobiologist.  If the 5 minute Nature interview tickles your fancy, maybe especially if you're a young woman in science, you should bite off another hour's worth of Prof Seager from the series Infinite History MIT. It's trying to produce a biographical sketch of one of MIT's stars but it can't help itself from bigging up MIT. In fairness, Seager maintains that MIT does the best for women-in-science, as a concept and individually, of all the places where she has worked. Those other places included U.Toronto (BSc), Harvard (PhD), Institute for Advanced Study Princeton (postdoc), Carnegie Institute (postdoc). As well as her contributions to understanding the universe, Seager devotes a significant part of her time towards mentoring young women; helping them to be more assertive, have bigger ambitions, and insisting on clearer acknowledgement for their contributions. In a way that's more important than the science direct. As a role-model, as a supervisor, as an external examiner she can make a new generation of scientists, especially the women, to fulfill their potential a little bit more. Not a lot different from Ireland's own source of potential energy.

But let's look at the science, although it may blow your bonce. You can get the easy picture in a 17 minute 2015 TEDx Vancouver talk. When she was a teenager, city-bred Seager went on a camping trip with her father and lost her heart to the stars when she saw them for the first time in their full deep-rural brightness.  She wasn't going to Med School after that. Instead she went to Harvard where she contributed to our understanding of the energetics of the Big Bang with a theoretical and methodological paper that was been widely cited. But you can have an impact in science even if you don't publish widely-cited papers. One way is to talk to others and help them get their half-baked ideas into the Do It oven. After her cosmology paper, Seagar moved sideways into looking for exoplanets because part of the tool-kit developed for the Big Bang project was finding ways of detecting minute signals in the noise of cosmic radiation. I've written about the discovery of the first exoplanet unsteadying the light of star 51 Pegasi by Mayor & Queloz in 1994. The early exoplanets were a) massive and b) near their sun; they had to be because the early detection techniques were crude. Seager reckoned that about 10% of these suns with planets would be so oriented that the crossing of the sun's face by one of its planets could be observed from Earth. Being the theoretician, she modelled the effect of light being distorted as it passed through the atmosphere of a planet before reaching a telescope on or near our own. She also nagged David Charbonneau, one of her colleagues, to get into the heap of data on his computer and actually observe the transit of an exoplanet across its sun. Grateful thanks for that but not authorship on Charbonneau's ground-breaking paper!

In her TEDx talk Seager makes the point that 'astronomers' no longer get their primary data by putting on a woolly hat and a fur coat at night in an observatory. Nope, like the rest of us they work mostly by e-mail and trawling through databases on the computer. Things have moved on since the days of Mina Fleming or Annie Jump Cannon or Jocelyn Bell Burnell whacking stakes into the ground with a sledge-hammer. It wasn't clear 20 years ago that there was much traction in exoplanets. First of all nobody believed they existed, then they thought the whole field was a waste of time and several senior and influential men advised Sara Seager against pursuing such distant and fuzzy objects.  But her take on it was that she and other, younger, star-watchers were on the track of Goldilocks planets: those that were close enough to being 'just right' for life. She has published her own take on the Drake Equation to calculate the probability that we are not alone. Things are looking promising, numerically, the average number of planets discovered per star observed is close to one. That's several thousand planets, now the trick is to winnow out those that might support life.

As we know from Gaia, planets do not just carry life; the two are in an intricate mutually modifying dialogue. There may be only 100+ elements but the number of chemical compounds is near infinite. The exoplaneteers have fingered ten biosignature gases which if present indicate that something living is making them: oxygen, ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, methyl bromide, methyl chloride, hydrogen sulfide, carbonyl sulfide, phosphine, and sulfur dioxide with a reserve list of sixteen acetaldehyde, acetone, benzene, carbon disulfide, dimethyl disulfide, dimethyl sulfide, dimethyl sulfoxide, ethanol, ethyl mercaptan, fluoroacetone, isoprene, methyl ethyl ketone, methyl mercaptan, methyl vinyl ketone, thioglycol, and toluene. Our atmosphere is close to 20% O2 by volume; a tad higher and we would all spontaneously combust. Without photosynthetic plants and cyanobacteria, there would only be a smidgeon of free oxygen detectable in our atmosphere by telescopes from the Planet Zorg.

How do you detect gases in inaccessible places? You do it by spectroscopic analysis of the light. Sodium burns with a characteristic yellow light that we can see radiating out from a street-lamp but equally from a distant star or distorted by passage through a distant planet's atmosphere. A sodium ion is absurdly small; to detect it at a distance of multiple light years is a technological feat that clearly invokes Clarke's third law (* see footnote). If only 10% of the ever-increasing catalog of exoplanets can be assessed for Goldilocksity during transit, then it's surely a good idea to design a technical fix to measure the other 90%.  Wouldn't it be some bummer, if we missed a distant earthly paradise simply because its solar system was a right-angles from our view-point? The exoplaneteers are developing multiple bread-box sized space telescopes [see above R and a snip a $1million each!] that can each clock data from a single distant star.  They are coupling this with a sunlight excluder called Star-shade [L with telescope] from which petals are deployed to occlude the sunlight which washes out any reflected signal of associated planets [explanatory youtube]. The picture [L] is distorted in that the effective distance between star-shade and telescope is not 50m but 50,000km and precisely in line with a known star-system of interest.  More engineering magic required there but I guess no more difficult than landing a man on the moon or docking with the International Space Station [prev].

Having a family doesn't seem to impact on the career of male scientists even if their wives are working full time. But children are a huge drag on the career progression of women-in-science.  It's not fair and we should do something about it. Sara Seager has managed against the institutionally stacked deck to get married and have two children. This in addition to making huge waves in her field. Her husband died, cruel young, in 2011 which left her a single mom with an additional layer of logistical difficulties. She is of the generation that will never be able to afford a home near to her place of work in Cambridge, MA, so a knackering commute is added to her daily life. In 2013, she secured a MacArthur Fellowship which augments her MIT salary by $650,000 as quarterly checks for 5 years. She is putting that all into servicing her home life: the cleaning, the school-run, the after-school, getting the car serviced and waiting for the plumber - so that she can continue to do effectively what she does best . . . be a scientist. Hats off to MacArthur, ditto with sweeping bow to Seager.

  • Clarke's first law When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  • Clarke's second law The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • Clarke's third law Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
from Arthur C Clarke Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Don't wash your hands?

I've learned how to behave from some unlikely sources and some of results have seemed to buck the trend. You don't need to add stones to mountain cairns, for example. Second-hand books and second-hand clothes are perfectly fit for function. I hear now that second hand books have a very short life in hospitals. If they stay in the bring-one-take-one library they can be read multiple times but if they are once taken off the trolley in a ward, then they are marked for incineration because they are now contaminated.  Hmmmm, I'll have to hunt out the evidence for disease-by-book because it looks like optics to me. C. diff  Clostridium difficile is a major player here and I wonder if demonising books lets health-care professionals off the hook with hand-washing. And why do doctors wear neck-ties on ward rounds? C. diff is called difficile because it's damned difficult to keep it alive outside of the mammalian gut.

Now it turns out that the US Food and Drug Administration FDA is going after handwash. For years antiseptic handwashes and ditto rubs [the difference is that the rubs stay on; the other is rinsed off] have been generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE). But since the last review of over-the-counter OTC handwash products in 1994, a lot has changed. Such things are being used a lot more often for starters, and technological improvements can now detect smaller residual traces of the chemicals.  In 1994 the approval rug was pulled from under hexachlorophene, which was the active ingredient in pHisoDerm an OTC acne treatment widely used when I was a teenager.  pHisoHex 3% is now available on prescription only.
At the same time phenol, fluorosalan [see L for structure; aka 3,5-dibromo-3¢-trifluoromethylsalicylanilide] and tribromosalan [3,4,5-Tribromosalicylanilide] were also de-GRASEd.  Phenol was the first effective antiseptic, used by such luminaries as Joseph Lister FRS (1827-1912) back when it was called carbolic acid. In the face of puerperal fever, pneumonia and fatal staph infections, phenol was a godsend. It saved lives immediately - pity about it being carcinogenic later on.

Taking out those effective but no longer safe enough chemicals left less brutal (and probably less effective) antiseptics based on ethanol (booze alcohol), isopropanol (just like ethanol but with 3 carbons not 2) and benzalkonium chloride (which you find in your bathroom/kitchen as a component of Dettol and Lysol. The latter's MSDS form looks pretty frightening: "Very hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation. Hazardous in case of skin contact (corrosive), of eye contact (corrosive). The amount of tissue damage depends on length of contact. Eye contact can result in corneal damage or blindness. Skin contact can produce inflammation and blistering. Inhalation of dust will produce irritation to gastro-intestinal or respiratory tract, characterized by burning, sneezing and coughing. Severe over-exposure can produce lung damage, choking unconsciousness or death. Inflammation of the eye is characterized by redness, watering, and itching. Skin inflammation is characterized by itching, scaling, reddening, or, occasionally, blistering." But the FDA is now proposing to crank up the grading of all three products to IIISE. This category throws complacency out of the window and the current push by the FDA is to seek actual evidence that they really are S (safe) and E (effective). The FDA is a at pains to say that we should all carrying on using these handy products until the evidence is in - so the call is purely precautionary.

I heard a very strange radio advert last week from the Food Safety Authority.  They fingered "those over the age of 65" as having weakened immune systems; it also implied that people of such venerable age were getting a little ditsy in the head. They were urged to wash their hands in warm soapy water for 20 seconds before approaching food. "20 seconds is the time it takes to recite Happy Birthday to You, twice" just in case the old dears have forgotten to take off their watches while washing in warm soapy water. I'll report in 3 years time if there is such an abrupt transition in immunological and cognitive function when I turn 65.

I wash my hands very little: looks like I might be right and Lady Macbeth was wrong.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Hello my name was

I regret to report that Dr Kate Granger, geriatrician, will never make it to become a geriatric having died on Sunday at the age of 34. [obit Reactograph, Grauniad] As I wrote in May, she was diagnosed with a fatal and essentially uncurable cancer at the age of 29 and given just over a year [median value for those with desmoplastic small-round-cell tumour] to live.  By engaging with the medical professionals and developing a determinedly positive attitude she stretched her remaining time to 5 years. While she endured what they threw at her to live, she wasn't going to be a passive doormat for the medics to play god-games on. For a doctor to fall sick gives a rare chance to pass through the mirror and see what life is like for patients.  Pretty rough, was the answer that Dr Granger came up with . . . and disrespectful. At least they might introduce themselves, she thought, and then Did I introduce myself at the bedside? In her sickness - she's wearing that fetching hat while waving her MBE [above L] because the chemotherapy has done for her hair - she found time to craft a legacy and make hundreds of new friends. She got a letter, for example, from 10 Downing Street a week ago “Dear Kate, My name is Theresa and I took over from David Cameron as PM last week.”  See my earlier piece for the #HelloMyNameIs . . . campaign.  She also raised her target £250,000 for cancer research in her home county.

Most doctors assert that they have to maintain an emotional distance as they poke our bodies with intrusive intimacy. If they get all weepy while giving bad news, it's not going to help. What Dr Granger wanted as a patient was not so much empathy as common politeness. Everyone has a role in the theatre of medical treatment: a good performance is when the principals - doctor and patient - generate some synergy, so that everyone involved ups their game.  Knowing each other's real name is start. Hellomynameis delivers one part of the contract, but the doctors have to remember and use the patient's name too. It just makes for a better outcome.

Kate Granger won't be bloggin' anymore here. A loss for us all. How we die tell others how to live.

Small small down there doctor joke below.

Ob & Gyn man

Writing about intrusive intimacy in my obit for Dr Kate Granger [see above] reminded me of a story I heard while recently changing the guard at Pat the Salt's palace place. To my mind one of the real peculiarities of medicine is that there is a Master of Holles Street and the other maternity hospitals in Dublin. Until recently the Master invariably had a penis.  I'll have to write soon about Rhona Mahony [R, right outside her bailiwick], the current master, because right now she doesn't even have an entry in Wikipedia.  I've never had to visit an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist but my informant last weekend has . . . many times. Childbirth is a bitch, man.  Her assessment is that Ob &b Gyn men stand out as being suave, affable and confident; if no less brusque than other consultants [time is money - got to get on].  But they, more than other doctors, require an additional layer of distance lest they get a lawyer's letter slapped on them for real or imagined or misunderstood malpractice. Sexual shenanigans are much more likely to get you struck off the register than removing the wrong kidney in surgery. On the other hand, it's just more efficient if you can carry on the diagnostic conversation at the same time as you are busy down there.  At a recent visit, after covering the incontinence, the hormones and the discomfort . . .

Le Vertical: "Are you sexually active?"
La Horizontal: "This is as good as it gets."

She felt him stiffen.  And no, no, not in that way!

Monday, 25 July 2016


Years ago, I completed a personality quiz that asked if I'd ever stolen something, apart from stationery, from my employer.  If I'd been rigged up to a galvanic-skin-response apparatus, I would have tinkled the bell because of the 'apart from stationery'. I know people who are really rigid about this but I'm not one of them. The second job I had after leaving school, after a few months as a hospital orderly, was working as a rep for a major UK publishing company.  It was a cunning plan: I was given a map and a van and 100 boxes of primary school text-books. The Mission was to deliver a box to each pink-blob-identified primary school one week and collect them the next. I covered Devon, Dorset, & Bedfordshire before the school year petered out in June.  It was good fun if a bit lonely in the evenings.

I was paid buttons plus expenses and had to return to head office in Basingstoke periodically to give the management feedback on the uptake of the books and pass on a stack of receipts for diesel and B&B accommodation. For every B&B receipt, which were often hand-written and torn from a generic docket book, I could claim a per diem on the assumption that if I'd been away from home, I must have eaten lunch and dinner some place.  It's so long ago that the standard the cost of a night's accommodation was £1.50! Memorably, I rocked up to a transport caff one evening and got B&B and an evening meal for £1.25. The proprietor was at pains to have us note that he didn't serve chips - truckers ate far too many chips in his opinion - so we got meat & two veg and pudding and custard. I think I had to share a room for that price. After the first set of accounts and a debriefing (nothing to do with knickers here), my line manager (!!) told me that if I altered 
a night's B&B = £1.50
3 night's B&B = £4.50   [everyone would ignore the misplaced apostrophe]
then I could claim 3 per diems and sleep in the back of the van . . . just a suggestion, he muttered, they pay you nothing & sixpence and you're registering a significant profit for the company. Next accounting season, I brought a mat and a sleeping bag and only slept in B&Bs that were precisely £1.50.  The other mornings I woke up in some really nice places and some municipal car-parks. Once, memorably, I picked up two hitch-hiking sailors on leave from Plymouth and finished up getting legless in Tintagel. We all three fell dead drunk into the van long after midnight and woke to a spectacular cliff-top view full of Arthurian romance.

They started me off in a rented 2 tonne Luton-head van [R on ebay antiques] but this was far too big for the narrow country lanes of Devon. After I sheared off the rear door hinges reversing out of narrow dead-ends, I was transferred to a handier van which was a little too crowded for convenient sleeping. I learned a good bit on that gig: 
  • That the job of a regular sales rep was a bit of a doddle. I went for a week's training with the SW England sales rep who managed to clock in at 2 secondary schools a day and had a 2 hour lunch-break. If he was feeling particularly energetic he'd turn up at a couple of primary schools as well, but if none was convenient we'd knock off at 4.30 and head for the hotel bar.
  • That everyone in the B&B business felt entitled to charge £1.50/night despite a very wide range in cleanliness, hospitality and what was considered 'breakfast' for a working man away from home.
  • That no women were on the road in the sales business.
  • That insisting on strictly accurate accounting only made the accountant's own job harder.
  • That most people are kind
Your dropped wallet is safe with me, I'll find you and return it.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Hobbies 240716


Democracy rules, OK!

For as long as I can remember I have, despite having a British passport, been a republican. Kings and queens are sooo 19thC and the antics of the British royal family in the 1990 (annus horribilis etc.) made the whole thing into a raree show. Part of the problem was the celeb-ification of royals, along with footballers and Big Brother contestants by tabloids and glossies like OK!  Before the Falklands War, the press generally tugged their forelocks and didn't report the private indiscretions of the rich; since then every wart and peccadillo is in the public domain.
Q1. Which of these is not a celebrity gossip magazine?:
¡Hola! - Now - heat - Dink! - CLOSER - Hello!
Q2. Who gives a damn?

But last week I lost some of my marbles and wrote a piece about Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and how he was head-hunted across Europe to be given free board and lodging and a carriage with horses . . . and a plumed hat, in various capital cities. He finished up in a palace in Brussels. His grandson (the point of royalty is that your children inherit the role, the funny hat and the carriage along with another cycle of accumulated inbreeding) is identified with A for Albert in the extraordinary 1910 picture of nine reigning European monarchs [R note the long symbolic penises swords trailing awkwardly along the floor of the chaps in the front row]. There's another Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in the picture identified with an F for Ferdinand Tsar of Bulgaria. They were both second cousins to UK King Edward VII whose funeral brought so many decorated chests to London for the photo.

Ferdinand's mother was Princess Clémentine of Orléans, an immensely wealthy, shrewd and ambitious descendant of Louis XIV Le Roi Soleil. She used her money and family connexions to blag a crown for her favorite son. She had to go to the furthest reaches of Europe to find a billet for her boy but eventually installed him in part of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. To make it more convenient to visit the borders of civilization she personally funded a branch railway line to connect Sofia to Vienna and Paris. Ferdinand was not without assets having been trained as a botanist and entomologist. That makes it sound sciencey but I don't think it amounted to more than that fact that he collected pressed flowers and skewered butterflies. Clémentine was pushing at an open door because the crown of Bulgaria had been offered to Billy and Jack across the face of dynastic Europe before the local boyars voted Ferdinand in. Queen Victoria was shocked "He is totally unfit ... delicate, eccentric and effeminate ... Should be stopped at once." Sounds a bit catty, probably because her sons collected stamps rather than butterflies. The stamps turned out to be a very sound investment.

That line of Saxe-Coburg-Gothas contributed the Tsars of Bulgaria, in name at least, for the whole of the 20thC. Ferdinand's son Boris was head of state from 1918 to 1943. Bulgaria capitulated to the Nazis in 1941, but Boris led a concerted effort to prevent Bulgarian Jews from being shipped to Treblinka. He died of heart-failure, possibly poisoned, in 1943 after a stormy meeting with Hitler. His son Simeon was six years old at the time and still nominally Tsar. He was exiled from his native land and educated in Spain where the family was given asylum. Another dynastic picture [R] shows Simeon with his family wife Doña Margarita Gómez-Acebo y Cejuela and kkkkkids Kardam, Kiril, Kubrat, Konstantin & Kalina
In 1990, shortly after the fall of communism, Simeon returned to Bulgaria where his passport says he is Симеон Сакскобургготски [Simeon Sakskoburggotski]. In 2001 he launched a new political party, National Movement for Stability and Progress (Национално движение за стабилност и възход НДСВ) aka National Movement Simeon II, which swept to power in July of that year, so that on 24th July 2001, 15 years ago today, the Tsar became the democratically elected Prime Minister of the country which his Great Grandmother had bought for her son. The most vehement anti-monarchist can hardly object to that. If you're going to object to the fact that rich and privileged people get disproportionately elected to high office in democracies, you're objecting to a helluva lot of Presidents of the US and European Prime Ministers.

Saturday, 23 July 2016


When I pass some milestone on The Blob - 100 posts, 1000 posts [two years later], 100,000 page views, two continuous years of daily posts - I put up some specious comparison between the current word-count and Moby Dick, War & Peace or Harry Potter.  It's silly because they are different: there is a lot more about whales in Moby Dick, but more intestinal flora on The Blob. On scything, The Blob and Anna Karenina are about evens. I've only read 40 pages of Harry Potter, so I don't know who has more magic.

I mention this because one of the family spent a diverting half-hour flitting through the Blob back-catalogue and wrote to say thanks. I wanted to say how many hours of similar material were available, so googled up "average reading speed wpm"  and found that Joe Normal is able for about 300 words per minute wpm. This means that a typical 600 word Blob takes only a couple of minutes. You'd have to read more than one a day to catch up, of course, because new copy is being generated at a little more than 1 Blob/day.  At 900,000+ words = 3,000 minutes, you could pull two consecutive all-nighters and read everything I've ever written in this medium.  The restless relentlessness of modern life in modern media was captured by James Gleick in Faster!  And that was before Twitter.

In the course of finding out the stats on reading speed. I came across this tendentious piece in Forbes which claimed that reading fast is one of the habits of highly successful people. Thast may be true because knowledge is power and information is knowledge. According to the article, a college professor reads 675 wpm which is about 4x faster than the average teenager. Forbes went a step too far in suggesting that IF you read more/faster THEN you'll be 'successful'; that is faulty logic.  Of course you will want to know if you are a perfessor or a numskull and Forbes provides a link to a speed test on the Staples site. Be careful, you'll be asked a couple of comprehension questions at the end, so some of what you read has to go beyond the optic nerve for processing. Me, I'm there at 285 wpm which is 8% slower than Josie Median and a lot near to the teens than the professors.

One of the key attributes of being a successful scientist is reading the literature.  1.2 million papers were published last year in the biomedical sciences. Of course, nobody is going to read all those because they are being published at the rate of one every 30 secs, night and day.  But you are expected to read, with care and attention, the papers in your field. For example, 2015 saw 1791 new papers published on TLR4, an important (=sexy) immune receptor. Tht's a couple of hours of your day, if you're a TLR4 maven and going to do it properly. No wonder successful professors read fast.

But really is it worth it?  Either reading fast or reading more? There are 200,000 new books published in English in England each year and more in India.  If you have a job or friends you're not going to read more than one book a day, unless you're in the trade, so you can only cover a tiny fraction of what's available. So a case could be made that you may as well not bother.  My father was a reader with taste for history and biography: chunky hardbacks with hundreds of pages.  He also had  a quota of more ephemeral stuff (a daily newspaper and a couple for the weekend) delivered to his home. At the age of 80 he looked at the ticking clock, felt he didn't have enough time to deal with the back-log and enrolled in a speed reading course! This restless quest for new information killed him in the end. One Sunday night he fell asleep in a chair in front of the TV and surrounded by unread sections of the Sunday Telegraph and the Observer. After midnight, he woke up, gathered an armful of reading matter for the morning and stumbled up the stairs to bed. He never made it. A momentary drowsy loss of balance, and no available hand to catch the bannister, pitched him backwards down the stairs. He fractured at least one vertebra and sustained other painful damage. He died five days later in hospital - in somewhat murky circumstances, but that's another story. The bottom line is that, if it wasn't for the reading matter, he wouldn't have been in hospital that week . . . and he'd be 99 this October and still reading like he could take it with him.

After 50+ years of reading, I conclude that, despite The Blob's Science Matters headline, information doesn't matter. Kindness matters.
Moby Dick? There's a great thread in Metafilter set off by a young chap who twigs that Moby Dick, a the classic of American Literature is sooo gay. The discussion is summarised by WidgetAlley thus "I can't believe a (probably) young person being surprised and delighted to find that their own minority identity reflected in a piece of the Western cannon of great literature, which is almost exclusively advertised as by and for straight white upper class men, and talking about it in a humorous way, is being met with snobby-sounding, "Why didn't this person already know about this?" Because that. That attitude right there. That is why they didn't already know about this."

Friday, 22 July 2016

Shear stress

I only use titles like Shear Stress to suck in engineers under false pretenses. Make them step away from their construction sites and get down and dirty [Q. What's brown and sounds like a bell? A. Dunnnng!] in a different way. Last year, on the 10th of July, we were much later that we'd like to be shearing our ewes. [R Shearing the rams by Tom Roberts 1890]. See also Ramming the Shears by Michael Leunig?  This year, the 10th of July came and went and we still hadn't seen Paddy the Clip; although we knew we were on his list. The only thing that makes farming viable as a way of making a living is if YouTheFarmer do pretty much everything yourself. If you have to employ 'hands' to do the ploughing, mowing, shearing, muck-spreading, milking and doctoring, then you'd go bloke. Contrariwise, if you can do these things and have the appropriate equipment, you can do them when it suits you.  If the weather is fine and dry, everyone wants to cut grass for hay or silage; the contractors are mad busy for all the daylight hours and into the night.  If you have, as we have, a handkerchief-sized farmlet, then you're going to be last on the contractors list and you'll probably miss the rain-free window in the weather, the dreaded ragwort Senecio vulgaris will be up in your meadows and the thistles Cirsium arvense will go to seed with abandon. The sky won't fall, but the farm will be a mess.

Yesterday we were off-site.  I was up in Dublin listening to Reports From The Frontier by a couple of bright young scientists in TCD. The Beloved went off in the opposite direction to look after Pat the Salt, her aged father. Young Bolivar was holding the fort and shaking sticks at the sky  to prevent the rain falling until Friday lunchtime because we'd been promised a shearing session on Friday morning. Mid-afternoon, I was on a noisy street in Dublin when I got a call from home to say that Paddy the Clip would be coming at 7pm and would I be coming too? I caught the next available bus to Enniscorthy, where'd I'd left my car that morning.  I had, I though, plenty of time . . . to buy some eggs, a bit of fish-for-friday and a bottle of plonk to wet the fleeces. Half way through this process, I got another call to report that Paddy was incommming in 10 minutes and where was I?

This year we have 24 ewes - up from 19 last year; which tells you how successful we were at the lambing in 2015; that and the freezer full of ram-lamb which we are slowly working through. Worse than having the shearer come early was the fact that a little drizzle had started: a wet fleece is ungood for quality: the moisture encourages bacterial and fungal destruction and may even lead to spontaneous combustion.  Anyway, I arrived about 10 minutes after the shearer and was able to throw on my work clothes and help unload the shearing floor from the trailer. We decided to do the shearing up in the polytunnel where it was a) not raining and b) less fly-blown c) nearer to an active electrical socket.  And it was done.  It took a couple of hours at about 5 minutes a sheep.  This is not record breaking but I don't think that I notably slowed up the process.  My task is to first catch your sheep, then up-end her and deliver her, sitting, to Paddy.  He then, without apparent effort, removes the fleece.  A much diminished animal is then allowed to rejoin her pals.

I only finished down on the floor once and that was more of a stumble than losing a wrestling match. But subduing sheep is a young man's task, I'm not as bouncy as I was, and Young Bolivar had a go. He is up for anything: carpentry, block-laying, stone-masonry, graphic-design and now sheep-dragging. Some sheep are harder to handle than others: this is partly glinting yellow-eyed malevolence but mainly due to weight. Some of the sheep you can almost lift with one hand and others are the size of a small pony. The fleece is proportional to surface area. Despite being late to shear we only had 2 sheep with fly-strike . . . same as last year.  If we kept proper records we'd know if they were the same animals and could off-load those sheep as trouble.  Then again, I'd rather 'off' the yellow-eyed monsters. Strike is caused by the blowfly [probably Lucilla sericata, Ir. = carrchuil] and a period of warm humid weather makes it more likely. The later you shear, the more likely that at least one such weather event will occur. Dagging, which I did last year, helps clean up the read-end and so reduces the likelihood. I still smell of sheep this morning but I'm happy we're done for 2016; not least because it rained all night and the fleeces would be sopping if we'd left the sheep out in the field unshorn.

The price of wool in Ireland is now €1.00/kg down from €1.45 last year.  Damn those Chinese for not wanting to make more blankets!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Nice work if you can get it

Isn't he gorgeous? Young, dashing and with a whole dinner on his chest. This [appropriately shown R looking Right] is Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld who later became Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and later still Leopold I, King of the Belgians.  He was one of those kings-for-hire that sprang up in 19thC Europe. Saxe-Coburg being one of the fragmentary Principalities that made up Germany before WWI.  The name change was about a shuffling of bits and pieces of territory among the nobility consequent on the death of a distant relative - all these chaps were distantly related to each other. Leopold was married in 1816 at the age of 26 to Charlotte, the daughter of the British Prince of Wales.  That was considered a Good Thing and Leopold acquired British citizenship.  But Charlotte, like so many less well-connected women of the time, died of puerperal fever the following year.  Her son didn't make it either.  Actually, a case could be made that less well-heeled women survived better because they weren't being tricked about with by doctors. His nephew Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had another go at marrying into the British royal family, plighting his troth with Queen Victoria in 1840.

A few years later in 1832, Leopold was offered the throne of Greece but decided that the situation in the Southern Balkans was too unstable to be comfortable.  And b'godde it was a long way from Brighton. The Greeks managed to secure the services of another minor Germany royal called Otto. When Belgium got fed up with being part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, one of the reasons was that the Southern provinces were largely Catholic and the North more Protestant.  So there is a certain irony that the most acceptable available King was a practicing Lutheran.  Anyway, Leopold accepted the position and was crowned in Brussels on 21st July 1830 to create the Kingdom of the Belgians.  In consequence today is a public holiday in Belgium either Nationale feestdag van België / Fête nationale belge / Belgischer Nationalfeiertag according to which language your municipality falls into. It must be one of the few things about which the divided country agrees.  Then again, I'm sure there are republicans in Belgium who'd rather have their head of state elected,

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

What is death?

What is Life? The physical aspect of the living cell was published by Cambridge University Press in 1944. It is a short book in seven chapters based on a series of lectures given by physicist Erwin Schrödinger at Trinity College Dublin in 1943 while he was working at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. That was ten years before Crick and Watson worked out the structure and function of DNA and started the field of molecular biology.  It was written for intelligent adults not scientists but had an disproportionate impact on the thinking of the key early players, including both Crick and Watson independently, in the process of finding out what genes are and how they tick.  That's 72 years ago and we now know a helluva lot more about these matters.

One of the many residual problems stems from over-specialisation and a failure to integrate information discovered at different levels of detail. Ecologists work in the Serengeti and write up in Departments of Ecology and know the difference between a hartebeest Alcelaphus buselaphus and a wildebeest Connochaetes gnou from the dung they leave behind. Geneticists by contrast only go to the Serengeti on honeymoon and spend their lives in the lab wrestling with DNA. They never go to seminars in the Ecology Department because they are too busy flipping open eppendorfs and running the contents through gel rigs. Physiologists and immunologists fill in some of the gap but they are no better at recognising birds or bees than their teenage children, and really don't integrate evolution in their daily practice.

Thus on one level we know how we die [bloboprev]: small black children die from malaria and infectious diarrhoea, gay white males no longer die of AIDS, straight white males and their wives die of atherosclerosis, hypertension, adult-onset diabetes, obesity, dementia, cancer, and decreased resistance to infection but until recently nobody bothered to look at what happened to genes after death.  Why bother? There's nothing we can do now, no further interventions are possible. Wrong! It turns out the behaviour of genes in dying tissues is wild and wonderful and offers us clues to better medical practice on/for the living.

This has all surfaced from a couple of recent papers tracking post-mortem gene activity at various time-points after death in mice Mus musculus and zebra fish Danio rerio. Those species were chosen because they are standard 'genetic' organisms and we know how rather a lot about their physiology, development and genetics. We also have the hubris to believe that we can terminate the lives of such creatures at will in the cause of science. One of the great technological break-throughs of the last 25 years has been the techniques of Next Generation Sequencing NGS [bloborecent] and microarrays which allows us to look at the 'expression' [switch on, switch off, ramp up, slow down] of thousands of genes in one high-throughput experiment. We're not afraid of Big Data any more because the whole schmeer can be loaded into mighty computer and the sense sifted out of it.

Far from being a slow general decay of function as the oxygen runs out, there is a complex pattern of genetic activity. Some genes start up, even days after death. At the least exciting, the reproducible sequence of genes metaphorically turning red and green can be used to accurately calculate the time of death; so forensic scientists will no longer need to turn the corpse over to see how much blood is pooling under the down-facing skin.

Another more intriguing finding is that a number of developmental genes get switched on for the first time since they were used to sculpt the fetus before birth. What's all that about? At the moment, the best [but not very good] explanation for that is mechanistic: some aspect of the biochemical conditions are similar in these two, before & after, states.  That's intriguing and may let the hounds off to find out what are those aspects.  Maybe there's a clue that can be used as a medical intervention to prevent failures of correct in utero development: polydactyly, spina bifida, maybe even microcephaly [whoop whoop Zika alert].

Another observation that has the ring of truth is that a number of 'cancer genes' are switched on after death. That may help explain the peculiar finding that recipients of transplants experience a blip-up in their likelihood of developing cancer. We can imagine doing something about that. All you need to do [this will be 20 person years of work and $3million] is drill down in to the peculiar zombie state of the "dead" people who contribute their organs for transplant - because their liver-and-lights can't be dead if they're going to be useful to the recipient. There are ethical issues attendant on that: would anyone dream of suggesting that doctors' fingers are quicker to the switch on the life-support system if there's a young chap on the ward with no kidneys?

I know all about this because it was the topic for discussion at last night's Science Café at Wexford. The SciCaff is wholly unpredictable; in June we were just three, last night a full coven of thirteen turned out . . . appropriately enough for a zombie night out.  I was particularly delighted because four students from The Institute appeared! I'd heard in class at the end of last academic year that a handful of them had a mighty 60km commute from Wexford each day and I put them on the SciCaffWex mailing list.  This was the first time they'd freed up their calendar sufficiently. We all, young and old, had an interesting discussion about What is Life and how the post-mortem papers illuminated what we knew about this, the fundamental philosophical problem for thinking reeds.

Being the polymaths we are, the other paper up for discussion was an amazing essay by the Czech poet/immunologist, Miroslav Holub, one of the few people in the last century who successfully had a foot in the two cultures. He is not to be confused with Václav Havel Czecho's poet/president, let alone with Michael D. Higgins our own ditto. Holub was known internationally to immunologists for his discovery/development of the nude mouse, which, in addition to having no hair has no thymus! No thymus, no T-cells and a severely compromised immune system.  As a poet, he was a pal of our own Seamus Heaney who invited him to Dublin in 1992.  Just about half a century after Schrödinger, TCD scooped another really interesting central European.  Read the essay, it reflects on the nature of death and the essence of life as the T-cells leak out from a muskrat Ondatra zibethica that has recently become dead in swimming pool.


Not a misprint for knickers, which I covered in continent-wide depth and mathematical precision in 2013. Dau.II and her bloke had a two night break in a Spa Hotel a while back and I got the low-down during a Skype session a few days later. I asked, because I'm like that and the apple falls not far from the tree, if she'd come away with the shower caps. Apparently not, but she'd scooped the double-wrapped tea-bags & sugar sachets from the complementary tea tray.  The Bloke was in the background making loop-de-loop gestures around his head but eroded his high moral ground by coming into the foreground suggesting that the dinky bottles of shampoo and conditioner were more useful spoils of spa.

18ish years ago when the girls were tiny, I was in the international jet-travel stage of my life. As the Irish node of a European quango, I was off to Brussels or Oslo or Helsinki or Lausanne or Bari or Hinxton about once a month. In those days, before Ryanair started a drive to the bottom, you got a 'free' meal served with dinky cutlery on any flight over an hour. Just about functional for scooping some engineered food product from a melamine or tin-foil container, they were just perfick for small hands . . . so I popped a set into my carry on.  If I travelled on a different airline, I brought off a different set of mini cutlery, so there would be a choice at home. And, of course, I brought home the dinky bottles of shampoo from the *** hotel where I was billetted.  Is that bad? I guess. And it's not a victimless crime - the accumulated pilferring put a stop to the last "luxury" of international travel and contributed to the avalanche of throw-away plastic which is sent to land-fill after one use. Cheaper for the airline, a disaster for the planet.  I don't do that any more - too much stuff. I am the only person in The Institute who re-uses the throw-away plastic spoons - mine is now as brown as the inside of my works tea-cup. One advantage of rarely washing my cup, apart from saving water, is that nobody else is tempted to use it.

Back in my travelling day, that cup often came with me on foreign travel because the cups at continental dining-rooms were piffling little things almost demi-tasse in size. I need a good three cups of tea to re-hydrate in the morning and bringing my own, larger, mug meant fewer trips back to the buffet. And yes, I'd bring the little plastic packs of jam back home for the girls - especially if they looked exotic: Aprikose, boysenmarja, aardbei.  If I was in Nederland, I'd do my best to nip round the corner to an Albert Heijn and buy a couple of packets of hagel. I paid for the hagel but I think the jam was just as exciting to small girls . . . the taste of not bought but stolen apples.

I got some of my training in this in graduate school. My boss there taught me a lot about genetics and more than I needed to know about parasitology. But he also taught me how to live: how to be thrifty but not mean. He could ask for two fried eggs and a glass of beer in 15 languages. This life-skill only let him down once, in Turkish, when his order was received with looks of incredulity but delivered as two dozen fried eggs. We were on a field trip to Canada once and the flea-bag motel where we stayed had offended him, so, as we were leaving, he threw the toilet rolls and the waste-paper basket into the back of the car.  I remonstrated that this clutter would do us no good and he growled "Wha'? I paid for this. I could have been on the toilet all night from the meal we ate there."
Years later, we were visiting Boston when the Senior Center across the street had their annual stuff sale. He was delighted because he could buy himself a new top-coat against the forthcoming Winter. Plenty of choice in high quality men's over-coats - it was an affluent suburb - and Neil secured one for $5.  I congratulated him and suggested that it would do for many years if he got it dry-cleaned occasionally. "Dry cleaned??? It would cost $15 to dry clean and I can buy a new one next year for five bucks".

Monday, 18 July 2016

Killarney de Luxe

It must be genetic: my family segregates about 50:50 between 'high-maintenance' and 'timeless simplicity'. Dau.II leans towards the latter, having no desire for foreign holidays, fast cars or fancy clothes. She left home just before she got the vote and in short order found a place to live, and a job and started to pay a modest amount of tax. She gets paid less than the much talked about 'living wage' of €11.50 but (of course) more than the minimum wage of €9.15. There are few people with more capacity for contentment.  Living wage definition: It is a wage which makes possible a minimum acceptable standard of living. It is evidence based and grounded in social consensus. Consensus gives me the creeps, it smacks of uniformity which makes life so much more boring than diversity. After Dau.II moved into her first apartment in Cork, to express the affluence of their lifestyle, she said "We lack for nothing. Why, there are four sorts of cheese in the fridge". She spends a lot of time in her own kitchen cooking up a storm.  Luckily her bloke has one of those young man's metabolisms that, given a toaster and sufficient butter, can work steadily through an 800g sliced loaf and not put on an extra kilo.
Last week, she was asked to take a week's holiday so that the time-manager could roster more of the newbies and get them trained in before August's madness. They could have sat at home looking contentedly down at the swans on the River Lee and making progress through the cheese, but she got in touch with one of her high-maintenance rellies and asked for the best website for a fancy hotel.
And that's how Herself and Himself finished up having a Summer 2 Night Spa Break at the the Muckross Park Hotel.  As you see from the promotional picture [above] the rooms are enormous and en suite with spectacular views.

The 2 night deal throws in complimentary limousine bicycles, towelling bathrobes - all the promotional pictures seem to feature fit young people doing unlikely things in white bathrobes like it was a cult initiation - unlimited breakfast and a choice of either one 4-course dinner-for-two or one afternoon tea ditto. They plonked for the dinner but lashed out on the afternoon tea as well to get the full de luxe experience.  Imagine having your tea&cakes delivered by a disembodied hand [L] in front of a roaring log fire: soooo Dracula. The tea deal included a soupçon of fruit compote served in a little chocolate cup as well as more predictable iced dainties and crust-trimmed sandwiches. Pity about the unromantic china cups in the picture, eh? they look like the robust catering-ware that we have in the works canteen at The Institute or that Hans Rosling used as a teaching prop at Lindau. As you might expect, Dau.II and The Bloke were, apart from children-with-parents, the youngest customers by at least 20 years.  But there was not even the slightest hint by the staff that they were some sort of imposters. Working in the catering trade herself, she was able to have a bit of a laugh with the workers, and I think it must have been a relief for all hands that here was a table that wasn't going to be insufferably pretentious about the claret.

A couple of days after they returned to quotidian Cork, we had a post mortem by Skype. I've been to lots of some fancy hotels - always on someone else's nickel as I'm more of a hostel man myself. But most of them concentrate on the facade and the promotional push and let the details, the crumbs and the accumulated scuzz fall where they may. 20 years ago, for example, the best hotel in Athlone was The Prince of Wales which was all Victorian brass and plush-industrial carpet on the ground floor but shabby and worn out [including a dangerous hole in the carpet] after you turned on the landing towards the bedroom floors. My bedroom had a view over air-conditioning ducts and a discarded sneaker. At least the [different] hotel was clean when I was in Athlone again two years ago. Let me report that, as well as perfectly pitched service, The Muckross Park Hotel was spotless for the 24/2 that the kids were there.

A recent biography of Montaigne [bloboprev] is called How To Live ... [reviewed]. I'm still on the look-out for clues to this perennial question. I think Dau.II may be on to something in thus supporting the local economy. Because I know my own business model [bodging, make-do, austerity and less] is more in step with the 19thC than the 21stC and I certainly don't claim it is good for all times and all people.


I had a birthday last month and Dau.I the Reader got me a couple of books: one about Dick Feynman and creativity and the other a medical autobiography in essays by Lewis "Lives of the Cell" Thomas. If you follow up the links (I know nobody actually does this), you will see that I was delighted to have had the opportunity to read those books. Last week she was on the Skype and asked if I'd started Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie and I looked disconcertingly blank. As well as the two books that arrived in the post, she'd left that one on the window-sill wrapped in brown paper when she was last at home at the end of May. Sightlines had sunk almost without trace under a clutter of Lidl catalogs and unsolicited circulars for car-insurance.

Eee, but I do love a good book of essays - it's like a chunkier, slightly less ephemeral blog. Many people give tribs, as original and best, to Montaigne's Essaies and I do like parts of that book but I also like very much Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek, which is a series of reflections about the immediate neighborhood of Dillard's Virginia back-yard. If you tell it right, then there is something profound in the inconsequential. If you want something less natural history and more embedded in the Arts Block, you may try Ex Libris by Ann Fadiman which is famous for its list of words to prove that you've read a lot: monophysite, mephitic, calineries, diapason, grimoire, adapertile, retromingent, perllan, cupellation, adytum, sepoy, subadar, paludal, apozemical, camorra, ithyphallic, alcalde, aspergill, agathodemon, kakodemon, goetic, opapanax.  If you know the meaning of more than five of these then you've had a yet more expensive education than me. Or a very cheap autodidact education; because Dau.I knew a whole bunch of words in that list which I didn't and her education cost precisely nothing. Why, I just used the word sepoy last week. Both Sightlines and Ex Libris are in the 0.01c remainder bin at Amazon.  As is Findings, an earlier book of Jamie's essays [reviewed].  Buy any of these for your beloved's bday . . . and you get to read them yourself - win-win!

Sightlines is written by an established writer who is also Professor of Creative Writing at Stirling U in Scotland. Being a writer, especially a poet, is possible if you have tuberculosis and are starving in a garret (worked for Keats) but you get to travel a bit if you're a Professor - either on your own nickel or at someone else's expense. Kathleen Jamie has made copy out of St. Kilda [bloboprev], Greenland, North Rona, paleolithic caves in Spain, the moon and the whale museum in Bergen. No, she hasn't been to the moon, no woman has, but she's made the logistically difficult trek to those other places and found something poetic and interesting to say about them. You know she's a poet because, on page 2 she writes "Goose feathers, caught on the dry leaves and twigs, frittering in the terse breeze". Terse breeze? that's arresting because it's not quite right.  But maybe she worked long and hard to craft that sentence so that it was both arresting and true to the poet's experience. The next page the breeze has changed: "It’s a stern breeze, blowing from the land, inscousant now, but, like everything here, it carries a sense of enormous strength withheld." Inscousant? I don't think that's a word - it's used nowhere else in the googleverse. Typo for insouciant? but it can hardly be both stern and insouciant?? Later, in the chapter on an eclipse of the moon, two more challenging words appear: "A shadow crept onwards, upwards, smooring the moon's light as it went . . ." and later "A smirr of cloud drifted across."  Now smirr is a good Scots word, which she uses in another essay about the moon: "It shone through a smirr of cloud, spreading its diffused light across the water."

It's just wonderful to be pushed in this way, having to work at the text puts you back in school maybe; but it also compels you to think about what you're reading rather than skimming through to get its general sense. Sometimes there's more to an essay or a poem (or both as with some of these pieces) than the meaning: the metre, the resonance, the precise language is itself a joy.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Love is deaf 170716

I didn't set out to find three short amateur movies about the trials of being young and deaf in a hearing world but I did:
One of the family e-round-robins fingered a tweet by AC "longhair/philosopher" Grayling citing this flashmob as an example of the European culture that Brexit was leaving behind.
Me, I demurred, slamming it as a successfully viral - 11.7m views - advertisement for Banco de Sabadell.  I like the idea of a flashmob very much; that a crowd of commuting workers would be surprised by joy when assaulted by a 'spontaneous' Arts event. Strike that, no major railway station wants or would tolerate that sort of thing during the rush-hour; but it's okay to use these 19thC cathedrals to St Engineering as a performance space mid-morning..  Here's one that is a little less in your face or in your pocket:
More filmlets without deaf people:

Community compassion

You might wonder where my recent interest in the treatment of the demented sprang from and I'm not about to tell you. But I will share with you that, in Ireland, the police have no specific training in dealing with demented people. That seems a bit of a hole because there are a lot of people who qualify for being on the Alzheimer Society's books and that number is not diminishing. In one small Irish town, the local cops get an "Alzheimer Call" about once a week but that is almost always a missing person call. That can be dealt with in a relatively generic way: missing child, missing dog, missing granny - there's a protocol.  Once they've hunted down the quarry, they deliver it home and write a report. They don't have to speak to the dog or the demented old person. There might be questions asked about why the child legged it, but not the other cases. But what if the demented person isn't missing but in the police station? Is there an efficient, compassionate, effective way of dealing with her? We all appreciate that not all dementias are Alzheimer's; there's syphilis-induced General Paresis of the Insane GPI and schizophrenia for starters. Also there are degrees of being bonkers but the diversity and difficulty of diagnosis isn't sufficient excuse To Do Nothing.

I was listening on the wireless to an interview with someone who worked for the Asperger's Society. She was shilling for her people and her charity, of course, but she was also informing me and Joe Public about what it's like to be on that spectrum. They (we?) don't like to be touched / hugged, for example. I thought it was because I was British. If everyone appreciated that touching and personal space might be an issue here, then we'd have more appropriate approach distances and make someone else a bit more comfortable. Making people comfortable is the key to good manners.

A young chap I know found himself in trouble with the police recently and was shocked at how little consideration he got. The beat cops didn't want to hear his story, they just wanted him to do what they told him and do it now.  Hmmm, that was instructive.  In Ireland, the police are not armed, so there was no chance of my young pal getting shot - he passes for white for starters - but his treatment / objectification was on the same spectrum as that experienced by the black chaps who are getting offed by law-enforcement  at the rate of one a month in the USA.  Kottke has a piece on the mentality of would-be law enforcement officers which is consonant with my superficial psychological analysis from two years ago.

If young men have an excess of compassion then they sign up for Médecins Sans Frontières MSF or the Red Cross, not the police.  But I suggest to you that we all have some level of compassion and that, with appropriate training / intervention this might be nurtured. It just takes a passing thought of "there but for a very expensive education go I" to give us pause before demonising The Other. If the Minister of Justice makes a Compassion Course a merit-winner in the dreaded CPD [continuous professional development] requirements for police officers then there may be slots for the rest of us to fill if a particular course is not fully subbed up by the Gardai.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Mealamine not!

Melamine [R for structure] is a super useful chemical: look at all those nitrogens. Without a chemist's eye, it looks a bit like TNT tri-nitro-toluene. But with TNT it's a case of look at all those oxygens: the chemically embedded oxygens help the explosive reaction along, giving it desirable qualities of brisance, although lots of other explosives - RDX, PETN - have more.  So one of melamine's uses is as a fire-retardant - nitrogen is a sort of anti-oxygen and we're right happy that it makes up 78% of the atmosphere - any less and we'd all go whoomph in a spontaneous combustion.

Melamine also combines very handily with formaldehyde [the body pickler] to make thermosetting plastics like Formica.  Formica was The Thing when I was growing up: super for counter-tops - a swipe with a wet cloth sure beats scrubbing down a deal table with a bristled brush. Back then the other techno-wonder was 'melamine' cups and plates which are essentially the same as Formica. You could fire a melamine plate at the floor and it would bounce. Much lighter than china, too, if you're going for a picnic.

Switch tracks here. The difference among the major food groups fats, carbs and proteins is that the proteins are made of amino [-NH2] acids. Each unit has at least one nitrogen atom. I think most of us think of 'protein' as more valuable than mere carbohydrates. None of us, not even the vegetarians, in the West have diets deficient in protein although vegans [no eggs, no dairy] have to work hard to make up their quota.  In the Third World, otoh, getting enough protein can be a bit of a scrabble, and this is particularly imperative for infants: without sufficient protein you have really short kids.

How do food manufacturers get the data to fill in the 'quantity of protein' line the table-of-contents? They use the Kjeldahl test, a classic 19thC chemical assay invented by Johan Kjeldahl in 1883. I've done [or students have done under my supervision] a Kjeldahl test and, ominously mistakes were made.  But if you leave me out of the equation, the Kjeldahl test is universally adopted to estimate the protein content of foods, because it is simple, reliable and reproducible; and it scales up.

But Kjeldahl is 'gamable': you can adulterate, say, milk powder with a white dust that is particularly rich in nitrogen . . . Melamine!  Today marks the anniversary of when the Chinese milk powder scandal of 2008 blew up. Mao and his people in the PRC had a vision of a socialist paradise where no child was left behind and everyone had a fair chance at getting an education and making an honest living. But it's really difficult to make everyone a saint and as the PRC started to join the rest of us in a financial incentive driven economy, opportunities presented themselves. ANNyway, on 16th July 2008, 16 (sixteeen!) infants in Gansu were diagnosed with kidney stones.  It must have been a bit like the multiple cases microcephaly that's blown across South America this year. Nevertheless, it took a smart epidemiologist to recognise that there was a case to answer. Then it took a bit of legwork to a) find further cases in neighbouring provinces and b) track down a cause. A nice controlled experiment I reckon - some Chinese mothers still using their breasts for the purpose intended and some thinking that 'formula' was the coming thing. The formula babies had all the kidney damage. In the heel of the hunt, 300,000 small children were found to have consumed the melamine-tainted milk, 54,000 were hospitalised and a handful sustained so much kidney damage that they died. Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, adults, died as well - executed by the central government for making too much money distributing 'protein-rich' milk. Multinational capitalism had a case to answer also because Western dairy combines, including Nestlé, Unilever, Heinz and Cadbury, had bought into Chinese concerns because, frankly, the market in China is HUGE. The market in China affects the price Irish dairy farmers get at the farm gate - that's globalisation.

Friday, 15 July 2016


On 15th July 1799, a slab of granite was unearthed from the ramparts of a delapidated fort near the town of Rashid at the mouth of the Nile. It had been put there by an ignorant Ottoman soldiery as fill for their defensive position. It is a dull record of tax exemption given to the Priests by the Pharaoh Ptolemy V in exchange for them validating his accession to the crown and indeed to godhead.

The key to the stone's importance is that it served as a key, because the officialese legal niceties of the political transaction is written in three languages: Greek, demotic [wot ve common ppl spoke] and antient/religious hieroglyphs, a form that was then only used in church. Think the Latin mass or Hebrew before the foundation of Israel restored that dead language to a vibrant and effective form of communication. IT's written in greek because the Pharaoh Πτολεμαῖος Ἐπιφανής was a descendant of a Macedonian Greek general who seized power in 303 BCE as Alexander the Great's empire collapsed. In Ireland we don't do hieroglyphs any more but all official documents are written in English and the de facto moribund Irish language - in any translation dispute hieroglyphs Irish takes precedence.  The Rosetta Stone features as part of A History of the World in 100 Objects [its podcast] by Neil MacGregor director of the British Museum [bloboprev]. I've also mentioned the stone in passing in my piece about Aimé Bonpland.

I've been meaning to write a blob about Champollion and Young and their cracking the meaning hieroglyphs code through Rosetta's simultaneous translation because eeee I do love a code Elvis - Venter - Eircode - DNA - ASCII - COBOL - Enigma - Playfair - Binfo - Bok. And I may find a hook to do a Champollion trib, but today it's about graffiti and history.  The Rosetta was unearthed by French soldiers and looted as spoil of war by the British a couple of years later.  It finished up on display in the British Museum. When I went to visit as a teenager - before The First War, kids - it was black with the incised letters helpfully picked out in white. Many people therefore believed that the stone was basalt. When it was cleaned in 1999, the stone was revealed to be a gorgeous twinkling grey granite with a pink seam running through one corner. The cleaning also drew attention to a fourth language [see L] etched onto the side: "CAPTURED BY THE BRITISH ARMY IN 1801".  After two hundred years, this defacement has become part of history and so seems less offensive. No archaeologist or restorer would have the temerity to leave their mark so permanently today.