Saturday, 19 August 2017


That would be Rhinecanthus rectangulus the reef trigger fish [R pretty], the state fish of Hawaii. I say she be right pretty, tho she but little she is fierce and has been known to bite snorklers who get up its gills too much. I've had a poke at the idea of a state designating official whatevers: state beverage? [that would be kool-aid for Nebraska]. Call me exclusive but surely the state whatever should be characteristic and distinctive; whatever I may think, 7/50 states have chose the Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis as their official bird which shows a want of enterprise. Hawaii's choice of a state fish has been not without controversy notably because R. rectangulus is found all over the Pacific rather than being endemic to the 50th state. Being so widely distributed and living on coral, the species has accumulated quite a lot of genetic diversity but molecular taxonomists are happy that it is one species unlike giraffes and African elephants. They have designated a bar-code
of DNA sequence taken from the COX1 gene which is present in all things that look like Rhinecanthus rectangulus and different in all other animals. Different from Rhinecanthus aculeatus the lagoon trigger fish, for example.The bar-codes are being collected by BOLD the Barcode of Life Data Systems project which so far comprehends more that 5.5 million species.

Not all US states have scooped an official fish from the bottom of the barrel of state identity: so well done Ohio and Arkansas for wasting no legislative time on the matter. Many other states have compensated by designating both a freshwater and marine fish for most of its citizens to forget.

humuhumunukunukuapua'a features in the nostalgic / romantic ballad My Little Grass Shack sung here by Leon Redbone and Ringo Starr. I misheard the lyrics as I want to be with the commies and wahines that I knew long ago which seemed a bit unamerican: it's actually kanes and wahines which is Hawaiian slang for boys and girls: like Feen and Beoir in Cork. You'll see these designations on 'bathrooms' in Hawaii.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Fat lady sings

I've written before about the hardship of getting enough to eat when we came down from the trees and how this anxiety was represented in contemporary art. Numerous examples of these Venus figurines have been dug up across the world. The most famous of which is perhaps the Willendorf Venus which was discovered in Austria in 1908. The salient feature of these representations of the female form is steatopygia to indicate the fat laid down under the skin of the buttocks and the mighty thighs. In a time and place where calories were hard to come by, the ability to store fat was recognised as an indicator orf biological fitness. Fitness as in the ability to survive [adverse circumstances] and produce offspring for the next generation.  Our swallows Hirundo rustica, for example, arrived this year on 17 May 2017 which is well late according to our records. Nevertheless, they are going for a second brood even at this moment: I can hear the nestlings chirrupping for more grub as I write. I'm guessing this is because a drizzly wet August has bought out a glut of insects to feed on. To my mind, the Venus of Willendorf is peculiar, not because of her capacious bosom and love-handles but because she appears to be wearing a tea-cosy over her face (it goes all the way round).

Archaeologists have also deduced that the limestone from which she was carved came from 130+km NE in Moravia near Brno [near where Gregor Mendel worked]. And the workmen had to travel a further 150 km N to pick up the flints hard enough to carve the block.  This speaks to me more of trade rather than itinerant stone carvers. 280km transport of materials is by no means the longest. Ancient objects recovered in England and stored in the British Museum have been proved by Pierre and Anne-Marie Pétrequin to have started their journey from Northern Italy - more than 2000 km!

But enough of Central Europe! Today we're off island hopping to Greece where there is, between Paros Πάρος and Antiparos Αντίπαρος, a tiny islet called Saliagos Σάλιαγκος which until Byzantine times was the head of an Antiparonian peninsula. Indeed, this was one of the earliest sites in the Cyclades to have been farmed. The current islet is less than 1 size and was 'dug' by archaeologists Renfrew and Davies in 1965. Because they were going over the ground with tooth-brushes they recognised a marble pebble as being [part of] another mighty-thighed lady, who in contrast the the Willendorf Venus has decided to take the weight off her feet and is shown sitting down. Less respectful than an earlier generation of archaeologists, the figurine was dubbed the Fat Lady of Saliagos. I've chosen to show the explanatory drawing [R] that appears behind the actual sculpture in the museum on Paros: it's hard to make out what you're looking at in the real thing, especially as the head is missing and the right shoulder too. She is displayed facing front but someone had the bright idea to position a hand-mirror so that we may marvel at her behind - kallipygia indeed.  These islands ar not to be confused with Paxos and Antipaxos on the other side of the Greek mainland.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Erdös Aaron Numbers

A while back I was on about Erdös-Etc-Etc numbers which establish your status in mathematics depending on whether you danced with the Prince of Maths or danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Maths [sing it]. Here's a nice Numberphile story by Carl Pomerance about Erdös numbers and the triggers of creativity. It starts in 1974 when baseball star Hank Aaron equalled [N=714] and then beat [N=715] the home-run record held by Babe Ruth since 1935. Like 1729 the Taxi-cab Number, certain numbers sing to mathematicians. Pomerance, a baseball fan, pondered on the numbers 714 and 715 which were being headlined all that Spring and noted that the prime factors of these two consecutive integers included all the primes up to 17 without dupes:
714 = 2 x 3 x 7 x 17
715 = 5 x 11 x 13
the sum of the prime factors is also [marginally] interesting:
2 + 3 + 7 + 17 = 29
 5 + 11 + 13 = 29
Pomerance wrote a jokey-serious paper about these inter-weavings; which attracted the attention of Paul Erdös; who came down and started a fruitful collaboration with the young Pomerance; which kick-started the latter's career. Years later, Erdös and Aaron are being given honorary degrees at the same place and Pomerance is able to introduce them . . . and get them to sign the same baseball [preserved R]: giving Aaron an enviable Erdös Number of 1.  Sweet.

I must have an  Erdös Number. And in the nature of things it is going to be much less than Heinz 57. There are 500+ people with Erdös = 1, and very few mathematicians with E# higher than 8. Indeed it is almost a distinction to have a really high E# because that means you've been fossicking about on the most distant frontiers of maths. In this deeply databased age, it is, of course, the kind of thing that can be computerised and a number of large-hearted, time-rich people offer help in finding your E#.  You can also game the system if you're well positioned when the Apocalypse starts.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

I am become dumb

I've done I am become Mark where I cited J Robert Oppenheimer's "I am become death".  I have toothsome tales today about two generations of my family. At The Institute I have a useful classroom exercise to reflect upon the [wonderful] diversity that is part of the  human condition. It provides an opportunity to critically evaluate a 'fact' that everyone knows to be true, but isn't. The fact being that adult humans have 32 teeth. Counting actual teeth is real human heads reveals that N=32 is not even the majority condition: most of us have at least one 3rd molar which fails to erupt.
Me, I have only 3 visible 3rd molars; or wisdom teeth as they are commonly called. The upper left M3, although apparent on X-ray, never showed its head above the gum-line. That's okay, my two lower M3s, however, didn't have enough room in my lower jaw and so came out crooked with the occlusal face pointing forward at the adjacent M2. This condition is common enough to feature in Wikipedia  as impacted wisdom tooth [whence x-ray R]. My offspring Dau.I and Dau.II have half their genes in common (with each other and their father) and manifest a similar dental problem. As they crossed into adulthood and their wisdom teeth started to erupt wonk, they went to a dental surgeon and had some of them removed. Part of the argument was that by decluttering the jaw, the remaining teeth would shuffle about in the remaining space and straighten out.

That option was never suggested to me at the appropriate time, so I've had to soldier on with an awkward diastema on both sides at the back of my lower jaw. My dentist [prev], let's call him Bill, is mildly eccentric as dentists go: prone to homeopathy, over-enthusiastic about dental floss, sporting a peach-coloured dentist's chair, and convinced that amalgam fillings are the cause of most of the evils in the world. I like him because he's quite non-interventionist and over the years we've talked about my wisdom teeth and then done nothing about them. One persistent argument which muddied the waters was that he'd rather remove the adjacent M2s which both have [amalgam!] fillings in the belief that the wisdom teeth would then turn face up and shunt forward and serve their turn at the chomp. All Spring this year I had a succession of transitory toothaches and infections which resolved themselves with a few days of vigorous brushing - or just resolved themselves in time.  I figured that, getting older, my immune system wasn't dealing with crud build-up in the subtle, nuanced way of a younger chap and that I was looking at similar problems more often and more serious as senility progressed. Bill and I had a forthright discussion and he agreed to refer me to his current favorite among dental surgeons in Dublin with the imprimatur "maybe it is time".

Anyway, I went at the end of last week. You've got admire the efficiency of healthcare professionals; they don't piffle about when they are working at the rate of  €900/hour. The sports car needs to be paid for. The X-ray of my dentition was produced with a chef's "this one was done earlier" flourish and we discussed whether the top right Mshould come out too because it would have nothing to bite on after its lower partner was gone. I said "Take it"; she sent me out to pay anther €100 and when I returned she gave me two paracetamols, 1 aspirin and an IV shot of midazolam "it's like valium only 20x stronger". The next 30 minutes was a most peculiar out-of-mind experience. A distant aethereal part of my mind registered a lot of crunching and drilling but I couldn't feel a thing because, while I was in a dream-state, the d-surgeon had localled up my gums with lidocaine. Less than an hour later (so the d-surgeon and her assistant had time for a cuppa tea before the next patient?) I was being escorted across the road to my waiting car lighter by 3 surplus teeth and the bones of €1,000.

If the quality of The Blob seems to shift down market over the next few weeks, it's because I've lost my wisdom teeth. "I am become dumb" [that's what passes for a joke here]. Actually I was literally dumb for the first 40 minutes after the midazolam wore off: my tongue and lips felt so thick that I could only mumble. I'll add that, the night after the operation, I woke up at 0230hrs [two-thirty = tooth hurtee, geddit? It's the Chinese dentist joke, to which I so rarely get a chance to give an airing in these right on times].

But there is a serious sensory investigative outcome from this because midazolam is the first player in the current US lethal injection protocol which I've covered before and indeed before. From my experience last week, you could have hacked off my leg with a rusty saw and I would have been frankly, midazolam, I don't give a damn. In that sense alone, the death penalty is not a cruel or unusual punishment as forbidden by the US Constitution.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Cant possibly be wrong

It was delightful to have Dau.II and then Dau.I come home for visits recently. Not least because they did some serious decluttering at the family home. Last November, Dau.I came home from a four year sojourn with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt in England. In exile she had started to learn the Irish language and has been continuing her studies, helped by duolingo and the fact that some of her pals are fluent. She is also down with popular culture in a way that I, in my mountain fastness [well stocked with baked beans, guns and ammo], am not. She asked if I'd heard about the Rubber Bandits and their opinion on the Irish origin for much of the slang used in America. I had not. I asked for examples. She offered
US Dig it? IR Duigeann tu? UK Do you understand?
The next day, I followed up because even I have heard of The Rubber Bandits. They were a viral [16m views] internet sensation arond Christmas 2010 with their analysis of Irish yob culture in [all kinds of NSFW warnings] Horse Outside.

Funnily enough the RBs linguistic twitter-storm started on 11th August; two days after I - it's all about me - made my revelatory insight into the unwitting use of Traveller cant in Waterford. Twitter is maybe not the best medium to have a deep or extensive discussion on matters that require research, or closely reasoned arguments of issues that are not necessarily black and white. But the RBs start off well by citing Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) [Full text]. It's a super useful resource and contains entries such as "GAFF. A fair. The drop coves maced the joskins at the gaff; the ring-droppers cheated the countryman at the fair." Gaff as a slang word has shifted its meaning to "home" over the intervening 206 years. Anyway, the Rubber Bandits assert "So many English slang in this is either from Gaelic or Roma Cant." and in response to a comment from across The Pond say "Yank, words that have their etymologies in the first wave of dirt poor Irish speaking immigrants." followed by the (unattributed) list of US slang terms from Ireland which perked up Dau.I's curiosity.

Meanwhile, in another part of the internet, this casual investigation of etymology by two lads from Limerick has been fueling a shit-storm of indignation. That is because the list of supposed Hiberno-Yankee slang seems to be from How The Irish Invented Slang published in 2007 by Daniel Cassidy. There seems to be no sense of de mortuis nil nisi bonum (Cassidy died of pancreatic cancer in 2008) among certain linguists and etymologists. In 2013, an anonymous gaelgeoir started a blog to debunk, eviscerate and pour scorn [an ignorant, narcissistic fraud with no qualifications] on Mr "Deceased" Cassidy and his one book. This chap has been posting several articles a month ever since on this one topic.  That shows commendable stamina in setting things right: "Etymologies from Cassidy's How the Irish Invented Slang are widely duplicated across the internet. However, many of Cassidy's definitions have been shown to be wishful thinking or completely made up". As the blog was started a full five years after Cassidy died, this may seem like bolting the stable door after the horse is gone. But one of his (I presume cassidylangscam is a He, because none of the women I know get so cross about such a small annoyance) points is well taken. If nobody complains when things are wrong, the error will fester away and other people, less careful about evidence, will believe them to be true. By far the highest number of pageviews I've achieved on The Blob was Stilt-Walking Nonsense which debunked a persistent but erroneous meme. I guess I'd rather folk read my skeptical assessments than the original silliness; but nobody seemed [from pageview stats] to hang around to read other examples of my masterly analysis. It must be added that, like Daniel Cassidy misconstruing the etymology of a phrase, nobody died because they got the scale of sub-cellular organelles all wrong. Nevertheless it's better to be nearer truth and further from error.

Coda: The Internet is vast and wonderful but we shouldn't switch off our crap-detector when we access it. Before you accept or propagate something from the internet, ask yourself whether it is a) more or less correct and b) offensive to the recipient c) cruel and oppressive to the dispossessed  . . . including those no longer possessing life?

PS Today via neatorama came across this crap-detector for viral videos at The Verge: “I see these detailed explanations where someone very authoritatively writes step-by-step how some video was faked,” he says. “But what they’re claiming is not correct, and they’re so sure about it.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Language borders

Language allows you to communicate with others and conversely hinder your communications with The Other.  Most of us could get a fried egg sandwich at a diner anywhere in the world without having a word of common language. There may however be limits to the dialogue you have with the waitron about the fact that her apron is dirty or that it is raining stair-rods outside and sorry for the puddle.  There are still about 20,000 French citizens whose first language is Flemish. They live up against the Belgian border from Dunkirk south and east including Kassel and Hazebroek. These are all quintessentially Germanic names. These sort of place names spread west as far as Etaples and including the channel ports of Calais = Kales and Boulogne = Bonen. I think that sort of peculiar diversity should be cherished, not least because Fremish is quite different from the standard Nederlands of Den Haag and Amsterdam. You can see a similar retreat in the genetic, linguistic and toponymic hegemony in the shrinking Basque lands in the very opposite corner of France. A few years ago in a Lingo Quiz I invited readers "Draw a tree of relationships among the languages spoken in Metropolitan France: Alsatian Basque Breton Catalan French Occitan (we'll spare you having to slot in Tuareg, Vietnamese, Arabic)."  At least vlaams / vlaemsch are both Indo-European languages descended from PIE, so if we furrow our brows and are familiar with some antique forms of our own language and it matters we can have a conversation with another IE speaker. I remember carrying on a long discussion in a Navarrese church-yard about the process of pilgrimage in my français affreux with a German who was similarly prepared to mangle the language of Baudelaire and Zola. You probably know more Klingon than Basque, though - that's on a totally different tree.

Although it is spoken by people with a better tan, Punjabi is more similar to English than either is to Basque. The first two named are both branches on the great Indo-European tree. Someone, possibly not GB. Shaw said "England and America are two countries separated by the same language!". Punjabi, by contrast, is one language separated by two scripts. I'm primed about this because The Boy's Beloved TBB grew up having to rollick along in Punjabi because that was the best way to converse with her beloved maternal grandmother; who had been born in British India, spend a working lifetime in Kenya and washed up in London as the tides of empire receded in the 1960s. But I was more immediately jangled by a nostalgic report in the Guardian about exiled Punjabis who have been living in Dehli for 70 years since the partition of India. Warning: the report switches into harrowing eye-witness accounts of the process of partition and reciprocal atrocity. That would be today 14th/15th August 1947.  I've written about the maths of partition in the wake of the Radcliffe Report and his bloody, bold and resolute line across the map of the Raj.  As a wonk, of course I want to know about the maths of similarity between Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. They say that Hindi and Urdu are effectively the same language but that Punjabi is different.

It's not easy to abstract those data from the interweb, although here is a rather pretty 19thC-looking tree of IE languages on their separate branches with the leaves approximately equivalent to the number of speakers. That should remind you of the zoomable map of species relationships on the Tree of Life [bloboprev]. The GoTo source for quantified inter-language similarity is a 2003 Nature paper by Gray and Atkinson from which I have editted the two branches shown [R]. From this, I am 'confident' that Punjabi and Hindi are about as different as German and English. Which in my experience is not too difficult to penetrate, especially if you are reading rather than trying to follow dialogue in real time. French and Portuguese are of a similar level of difference. You can check out the whole Gray and Atkinson tree [not too badly reduced and pixellated] here.  Of course, if you were reading, you'd think that Hindi and Urdu are totally different lingos, because they are written in different scripts; but parking jingo, it is sensible to treat them as dialects of a single language called Hindustani.

Punjabi is likewise a single language spoken by 75 million people living in Pakistan, 30 million in India and maybe 2 million in the diaspora [mostly UK and Canada] It is unhelpfully written is two different scripts Shahmukhi [from the king's mouth] and Gurmukhi [from the mouth the (Sikh) Guru Angad].  Shahmukti is clearly derived from Perso-Arabic, written right-to-left and used in Pakistan; while Gurmukhi is written left-to-right in India mainly by Sikhs.

Shahmukhi: لہور پاکستانی پنجاب دا دارالحکومت ا
Gurmukhi: ਲਹੌਰ ਪਾਕਿਸਤਾਨੀ ਪੰਜਾਬ ਦੀ ਰਾਜਧਾਨੀ ਹੈ 
Translit: lahaur pākistānī panjāb dī rājdā̀ni hài
English: Lahore is the capital city of the Pakistani Punjab

Sunday, 13 August 2017

warning: infants feeding

The Boy was born in 1975 and spent the next year or so periodically attached to his mother's breast. Back then, there was only one café that served real coffee: Bewley's, which was accordingly a Dublin landmark. If you got there at the right time, you could scuttle into a 'booth' with high seat backs and have pretty good privacy. We were once summarily ejected from Bewley's for feeding The Boy, who really wasn't into coffee and cherry-buns at that age. The eviction notice was served by a hatchet-faced waitress who conveyed the message with far more disdain that the infringement warranted. We were very young and meekly left the premises. Ireland has the lowest rate of breast-feeding in the EU, with only 56% of mothers trying it at all at all; falling off to a mere 6% still suckling at 6 months. The rate wasn't any higher 40 years ago. The spirit may come upon me later to write about the insanity of not using the ould chest appendages for their evolutionary purpose.

This sort of nonsense is still going on and not just in Ireland. A mother was discretely feeding her infant in a courtyard in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and was told to "<frisson!> cover up please Madam" by one of the fonctionnaires. ERROR! because the lactator @Vaguechera was a twitterer with a fine sense of irony:
That's pretty funny because yer wan is snacking from a cornucopia. And it is by no means the only example of bared stone bosom in the V&A. My mentor was fond of summing up Ethics with "Your rights end where my nose begins". Now we extend this to "Your rights end where my breast begins" or more accurately "Your rights end at the back of my feeding infant's head".

Colour Supp 130817

We know our way around Rosslare Harbour because occasionally we escape from out mountain fastness to Abroad. Not every user of the facilities managed the entry to Exit:

Saturday, 12 August 2017


ἀνάθεμα originally 'an offering' often to the Lord which came to flip its meaning to indicate that which is evil, accursed and to be shunned - something (doctrine) or somebody (sinner) against which The Lord has emphatically turned his face. I was down with Pat the Salt on my regular Sunday gig recently and he remarked that one of his collateral relatives, also ancient, was down to his last penny. This chap had, apparently, battened on to his mother's purse while young and lived the life of Reilly while leaving nothing at all for the other members of his family, including the mother.  Pat said that he had cursed this chap "by bell, book and candle" over many years and was delighted to see this work finally coming to bear fruit.
The ecclesiastical turn of phrase tumbled me back 50+ years to the time when I attended Sunday service morning and evening in Canterbury Cathedral [cloisters L] while I was at school getting my very expensive education.  Those services lasted a long time for a small chap and many of us diverted ourselves by reading the obscure parts of the Book of Common Prayer - the GoTo document for everything about the Church of England.  The math-wonks would try to make sense of the tables for predicting the date of Easter far into the future. The logicians would try to find inconsistencies in the Table of Kindred and Affinity, which began "A man may not marry his Mother, Daughter, Father's Mother . . . " followed by a long list of female relatives.  Back in the enlightened days of 1662, it was okay for a chap to marry his brother, it seems.

Another rich seam of interest was the Service of Commination, regularly scheduled for Ash Wednesday but allowable at other times as directed by the local bishop.  Commination is a word rarely used today but it is basically bringing down anathema on certain categories of sinner. Basically cursing them out; which was,  for cruel young bravos, a welcome change from goody-two-shoes Christianity . I can do no better than give you the list of categorised black-hats:

CURSED is the man that maketh any carved or molten image, to worship it.
And the people shall answer and say: Amen.
Minister: Cursed is he that curseth his father or mother.
Answer: Amen.
Minister: Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour's land-mark.
Answer: Amen.
Minister: Cursed is he that maketh the blind to go out of his way.
Answer: Amen.
Minister: Cursed is he that perverteth the judgement of the stranger, the fatherless, and widow.
Answer: Amen.
Minister: Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbour secretly.
Answer: Amen.
Minister: Cursed is he that lieth with his neighbour's wife.
Answer: Amen.
Minister: Cursed is he that taketh reward to slay the innocent.
Answer: Amen.
Minister: Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, and taketh man for his defence, and in his heart goeth from the Lord.
Answer: Amen.
Minister: Cursed are the unmerciful, fornicators, and adulterers, covetous persons, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards, and extortioners.
Answer: Amen.

Quite so! Especially the miserable baastid who removed my land-mark.

Later on the Commination Service, having fingered everyone who has done wrong, the congregation is invited to consider their own position. "Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness . . . But lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts . . . Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean" Purgative? we don't use them so much nowadays; it is "an agent that produces a vigorous emptying of the bowels, more drastic than a laxative or aperient".  The natural consequence of this supernatural shit-storm will require "thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow". Thus the Service of Commination is a useful, if metaphorical, cross between a launderette and a car-wash.

Saturday Night Theatre 120817

I've scratched up some super filmlettes this last week and the Colour Supplement tomorrow is chocka, so I'll lurry them in today:

Friday, 11 August 2017


There's a chapter in Surely, you're joking Mr Feynman in which the great physicist addresses the Two Cultures conundrum. His painter pal Jerry holds that "Furthermore, scientists destroy the beauty of nature when they pick it apart and turn it into mathematical equations." but Feynman claims a deeper sense of awe because it drags in more than how a thing presents "It's an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is."  Rather wonderfully the two friends agree to trade trades and teach each other to open the doors to the non-overlapping magisteria. As it happens Jerry doesn't learn much physics but Feynman becomes an accomplished painter [to add to his already manifold talents grrrr].

I'm still reading Tim Dee's book The Running Sky [prev]. His April chapter is substantively about nightingales. For my sins I have a feed from where one of the FAQs is "What is the most British thing ever?" For me it might be writing an entire book about birds without a single use of the Latin name / Linnaean binomer. It's like those foreign johnnies aren't going to care which bird yer man is talking about; what's the french for twitcher? For the record nightingale is Luscinia megarhynchos or rossignol philomène / Nachtegaal / Nachtigall / sydnäktergal, its a sort of thrush with a notable song: no not that one; nor even that one; this one the birdsong.  A theme in Dee's book is assessing whether nature poets, notably John Clare [R before he went mad] the peasant poet, know whereof they write. He is certain that John Keats had listened with care and attention to the real thing before he wrote Ode to a Nightingale.  The cadence of the poem accords with Dee's own experience of hearing nightingales singing their hearts out in the gloaming. I wouldn't know about that because I have a tin ear and, for a biologist, a pathetic knowledge of birds but I do rate Keats. Indeed, when I was in my late teen wan poet phase looking for a garret in which to contract TB I would have gotten
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time 
I have been half in love with easeful Death, 
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme, 
To take into the air my quiet breath; 
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
tattooed on my chest, if I'd known where to find a tattoo parlour.

Dee appears a little conflicted. He tries to be terse, business-like and shipping forecast in his dealings with birds. "I banished all conversational allusion to the poetic bird when in front of the real thing, attempting to record my encounters only in the department of my mind stocked with metal filing cabinets: 21st May 1977, Ingelstone Common, Gloucestershire, wind light southerly force 2-3, 2230 Nightingale 3 H"  but it's hopeless and he continues "The H means heard. The anti-poetic minimalism didn't work. It didn't need to work. The nightingale doesn't require protection from poets. I realised I was only doing what Keats said I would. All variants of the bird - poems, musical settings, scientific investigations, plumage descriptions, song transcriptions, dreams - all our nightingales are are just accounts, the equivalent of a notebook entry, 3 H."  I find that profound, inclusive and quite humbling. As I've said before science is A way of knowing: not better than Keats just different.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

I am become Mark

Interesting repost from Tywkiwdbi about charity-scamming.  Using the sprat of a $check$ you become caught as the mackerel that will keep being solicited`by the whores of the charity sector.  I've commented before about overhead in the fund-raising sector. You are exhorted to do some research before you Give: to ascertain how much of your donation goes to front-line services and how much filling the waist-bands of the CEO, the Board of Trustees, the Fund-raising Liaison Officer. We were naive enough to get some of our work published in what some have flagged as being a predatory journal - an academic journal which lives off the page-charges rather than for scientific credibility.

This has had the unfortunate effect of flagging my mail-box for "we'll have some of that money, stupid " campaigns. Targetting your mail-campaigns is less crucial now that you no longer have to pay to put a stamp on an envelope but being efficient must have some benefits. These solicitations have been quaintly illiterate and wonky on apostrophes and I will not be responding to them directly.  I enclose an editted list, so as to help you-the-reader get "your vast expertise and eminent contribution" Out There.

The breadth of subjects which some of these publications embrace is almost as butterfly-like as The Blob: aging, badgers, calendars, drugs, engineering, flags, genetics, haematology, islands, jokes, karyotypes; languages, maps . . .
  • Dear Dr. Bob Scientist, Greetings for the day!! I am glad to reach you on behalf of World Geochemistry 2017 Organizing Committee, after having a view at your vast expertise and eminent contribution in the research relevant to Geochemistry. We urge you to speak . . . wide range of subjects, to foster learning, inspiration and wonder . . .Warm Regards,, James Michael, Program Manager 
  • Dear Dr. Bob Scientist, Greetings of the day! In view of your past publications & research areas, we would like to invite you to the special edition on Community Medicine: Population Health. We are also receiving articles for our Special issues on Entertainment-Education, Community Mental Health Services, Cortisol, Upper respiratory tract infections, Undernutrition, Anaemias. Grace Christy. Jacobs Journal of Community Medicine
  • Respected Bob Scientist, Hope this mail finds you in jovial mood! Dentistry [Journal Impact Factor: 1.08] Journal editorial team is in quest of clinical and research articles in subjects such as Prosthodontics, Operative dentistry, Implantology, Endodontics, Periodontics and Dental materials. Kindly let us know your interest towards our invitation. We are waiting for your response. Suruchi Ahuja, Journal Coordinator, Dentistry.
  • Dear Colleague,  Greetings from Pollution Control 2017. We have attempted to contact you earlier regarding the Conference and as we are aware of your busy schedule and your engagement in many other activities, we would like to take the pleasure of contacting you again regarding registration towards Pollution Control 2017. It is to inform you that we are providing huge discount on registration packages. Katherine McKnight, Conference Manager.
  • Dear Dr.Bob Scientist, I hope you are doing fine. I am pleased to introduce you to the Journal of “Archives in Chemical Research” .The journal is inviting eminent personnel’s for the contribution towards the upcoming Issue. Best Regards, S.Shreena, Journal coordinator, Archives in Chemical Research.
  • Dear Author/Researcher, International Journal of Medical Research and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Invites you to submit your research paper for publishing . . . Editor in Chief:
    • At least that's blunt and impersonal rather than faux-chummy.
  • Attn: Bob. How are you today ?. I have an urgent transaction i want to disclose to you and which will be of great interest to both of us. Thanks. Mr. patel Hassu. READ BELOW CONTENT AND GET BACK TO ME. You may have heard about huge sums of money being stached away and some hidden in private houses,water tamks,warehouses and some shops in shopping malls in Nigeria, Recently Nigeria Government placed certain percentage etc etc.
  • Dear Bob Scientist B, Greetings from the Journal of Climatology & Weather Forecasting. Please consider this friendly reminder! It’s a great privilege to write an expert like you about our journal ‘Journal of Climatology & Weather Forecasting’ comprehends focused and broad areas of research . . . Oceanography, Sea surface temperature anomalies, Flood, Thunderstorm, Radar reflectivity, Vertical wind shear . . .in Climate and Weather. With regards, Jerry Pinto, Journal Manager
  • Dear Dr.Bob Scientist, Greetings from Advanced Materials 2017! We are happy to bring to your notice that Conference Series is hosting the “13th International Conference and Exhibition on Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology”. Regards, Karthik Daniel | Program Coordinator | Advanced Materials 2017.
  • Dear Dr. , Hope you are doing great! We are pleased to inform you that we are launching “Special Issues” for the journal of Virology & Retrovirology Journal. We respectfully invite eminent expert like you to handle (as Editor) a special issue of your interest mentioned below. Looking for your response on publication and your recent project you are working on. Many thanks, Hinemoa Grace.
  • Dear Hope this email finds you well! We are pleased to announce a Regular Edition on "Pollution". At the onset, we cordially invite you to submit a manuscript to the upcoming edition on “Pollution.” Jenny Meyer, Editorial Office- SM JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL TOXICOLOGY (SMJET)
  • Dear Colleague, We are currently accepting submissions for Original Articles, Reviews, Short Communications, and Case Reports. We also have a Special Section that includes Letters, Experiences, Interviews and other type of publications from all fields of International Journal of Nursing Didactics (IJND), Journal of Medical Biomedical and Applied Sciences (JMBAS). Best regards, Dr Vivek Daniel Editor.
  • Dear Bob Scientist, On behalf of Editorial Board of the British Biomedical Bulletin, I invite you to submit a manuscript to be considered for upcoming issue. The journal aims to publish articles in all aspects of research on Women’s Health, Issues and Care that include topics such as Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Genetics, Computational Studies, Biophysics, Immunology, Translational Medicine Biomedical Research, Physiology, Pharmacology, Biochemistry, Personalized Medicine, Surgical Instrument etc.
  • Dear Dr.Bob Scientist, The Committee welcomes papers on Journal of Aging Research And Healthcare. Manuscripts submitted before July 23, 2017 will be published within in 14 days. Each invited author should make every effort to present his/her paper in this journal by presenting the best innovative article.With warm regards, John Abraham, Editorial Office, OAP 616 Corporate Way, 
This extra traffic is not enough traffic to annoy me and it would be easier to delete this nonsense quietly. But there is a research project here trying to identify, by house style "Greetings of the day!!!!" etc., the journals which come from the same stable. You may imagine that the corporate overheads are less than the "National Cancer Research Institute": probably no more than a hard-working entrepreneur in Bangalore with a cousin in the US who is prepared to check the PO Box in Austin TX which at rare intervals receives a manuscript. You should no more believe that Mr Enterprise O'Bangalore (BA Bombay, failed) is called Grace or Katherine than my call-centred pal who identified herself as Attracta Looney. I guess on the face of it, I'd rather become a Mark for these wannabee Maxwells than like J. Robert Oppenheimer "I am become Death, destroyer of worlds"

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Lack for nothing

In the Spring, at one of the weekly Heritage Group meetings in Tramore, Pat the Salt and I were told that the Waterford slang for a girlfriend is ‘Lack’. Everyone around the table, men and women, seems to be agreed on that. It was news to me, because I'm younger and not Waterford. One of the Heritageers found an article in an antient newspaper claiming that the term derives from the Russian word for ‘girl’ or girlfriend. It all stems from the days 100+ years ago when Waterford pig-processers were shipped to Czarist Russia as experts and brought that term back with them. Lack seems a long way from Подруга = Podruga, the Google-translate for girlfriend or amie. But my network is wide and I put the problem to Sergej one of my ex-students, an ethnic Russian with a Lithuanian passport who was often the smartest man [including me] in the room in class at The Institute. His reply was not absolutely negative but not wholly convinced / convincing either.
L, A, S (because C in Russian gives sound S), and K, it will be first four letters from the word ласковая = laskovaya - “sweet, soft, etc”.

And that's where I had to leave it in May.  Three months later, following the projects of Michael Fortune folksie film-maker from Co Wexford, I came across a few of his videos of Wexford travellers speaking De Cant or Gammon. This is a cryptolect spoken by the travelling community of Ireland who share neither genetics nor history with the Romani / Gitane / Gypsy people. There are just some commonalities with roamin' life-style and a common experience of distrust / hostility from the settled community. It is a topic fraught with political and linguistic problems starting with what it is currently okay to call them a) as insiders and b) as outsiders.  In my life-time the polite form of description of Americans with a better tan has been [I think! - any of the following terms could be now or have ever been deeply offensive to someone] negroes, coloured people, blacks and Afro-americans. It is now streng verboten to refer to travellers as tinkers; and there are many and worse terms that I cannot write down.

ANNyway here is a very brief lexicon for Shelta / De Cant / Gammon
Feen = man
Byor  = woman; also spelled beeor, beure, beoir
Golya = child
Sooblik = boy
Lackin = girl
Conundrum solved. The plain people of Waterford are unknowingly speaking Shelta: the language of the despised and dispossessed. The word Shelta is probably derived from Irish siúladh = those who walk. And the plain people of Cork use beoir and feen in their argot.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017


I've spent my whole life trying to get an education: if you start off on that journey, I guess it never finishes. Like for my home-educated daughters, the coverage is patchy: stronger on women in science or islands than on dinosaurs or dragoons.  My father was a painter with a better eye for landscape than for the human figure but I was/am utter crap at painting anything more intricate than a fence. Part of this is because I live in my head and draw how things must be rather than how they actually look: my buckets have flat bottoms and circular tops. I know nothing of art but I know what I like:  Dial M for Mondriaan - Matisse - Munch - I'm only here because I googled Hokusai parody and got the meld of Hokusai, Munch and van Gogh [R]. The Great Wave off Kanagawa part of the collage is perhaps the only work by Hokusai which is widely recognised in The West. I had it as a poster on my wall when I was a student but my eye was so superficial that I didn't twig that one of the waves was Mt. Fuji.

I'm on a Hokusai jag today because last week I had a hot date with The Beloved at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle, where there is an exhibition The Art of Friendship Japanese Surimono Prints until the end of August. Hokusai features extensively in the prints on display but I find I prefer the [more accessible] hand of his contemporary/teacher Totoya Hokkei. Early 19thC Japan, like early 19thC Ireland, was a grossly unequal society and the highly educated idle rich exchanged New Year gifts with each other; often as illustrations counter-poised with poetry. Your status was commensurate with the fame of the artist and poet you could commission. I show [L] an example Dancer with hand puppet of horse CBL J 2234  from the exhibition catalog. The reproduction quality is lousy but if you look at the blown up inset, just above the two white lines of the bridle you can see the characters for 二 2 四 4 七 7 九 9 十 10 and 十二 12 below the symbol 大 [large]. This was essential information for organising you tea-parties, ikebana and visits to your favorite geisha during the coming year because it told you which of the lunar months were set for 30 days [大] and which for 29. With everyone being super sophisticated you wouldn't want your servants to be privy to this information as they tidied up your papers.  It was as if Tom Cruise commissioned a short-print-run graphic novel for Christmas with pics by Alan Moore and text by Neil Gaiman.  This is terribly appealing to the puzzlist in me: I don't know any artists or poets so I'll have to generate something really obscure myself for next year's New Year cards.

I'll share with you another piece of clever clogsery in CBL J 2169 The dry-shallows shell = minasegai [pic]  a print by Katsushika Hokusai and poems by Tsuru Hinako and Yomo Utagaki Mugao, one of which goes
mimachi kara  
nagusami katera
sebumi shite
kasumi no umi ni
hitohi asoban
waiting for the snake / to beguile the time / I wade the shallows / of the sea of mist / and enjoy the day.  The reddened first syllables of each line form an acrostic for the name of the illustrated shell mi-na-se-gai.

Hokusai is quoted as saying something inspiring for those too old to win the Fields medal: "I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature." I am firmly of the opinion that old chaps like me should retire early to make room for the younger generation. But when I articulate this, people say "Oh no, your experience is such an valuable asset". True, dat and Hokusai seems to say that, for things which matter, only experience can generate true depth of sensibility. But our ould-fella experience and, well, wisdom, is valuable but not invaluable; new ideas matter too.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Self love

We have Dau.II staying for a few days [home is where they have to take you in, when you have to go] which is pleasing. In consultation with her sister, she made us all sit in a row on the sofa last night to watch What we Do in The Shadows [trailer] a mockumentary in the Spinal Tap tradition which follows the trials and tribulations of a group of vampires sharing a house in Wellington NZ. It features as writer, actor and producer Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords: an acquired taste which I share. One of the funny scenes in WWDITS hinges on the fact that the boys need to primp themselves up before going out on the town but, being vampires, the mirrors don't work; so they have to help each other out as to hair-style and costumes. Me, I'm a vampire with the mirrors - I just never look in one except on the rare occasions [full moon coming up] when I am trimming my facial hair. But I know people, men and women both, who spend a chunk of each day occupying the bathroom checking that their eyebrows are still present.

Two snippets which recently appeared on the blogosphere suggest that I should really spend more time in front of the mirror to find attractive people to hang out with. The first is a study, originally from Plos One in a paper called Is Beauty in the Face of the Beholder? Here a bunch of couples were asked to rate how attractive they found photos of their partner. The researchers photoshopped the images to include an increasing percentage of the viewers own facial features. The answer is that you like your partner best if they have about 20% You about their image. Like Goldilocks - not too much because we're not into incest but not random because that would be miscegenation. The scale on which these two sins are balanced varies according to cliché - backwoods swampies are always shagging their sisters but lynching any tanned chaps who want to take those sisters to the store for a soda.  I got annoyed that the optimal % similarity is reported as 22% when there is a detail-swamping amount of variation in the data: better to call it a fifth 1/5 or 20%.

This basic idea was picked up by a bunch of tech whizzes at National Geographic who used covert surveillance cameras to capture faces and photoshop them, on the fly in real time, into test images on a bank of ipads. The punters rated images that incorporated some of their own features more highly that unretouched pictures. What disturbs me most about this is the technological possibilities in a world where CCTV cameras watch our every move [more in the UK than any other country by all accounts]. The Nat Geog study implies that operatives can, on the fly in real time, modify the CCTV footage of a robbery so that the perp gets a darker complexion. The pictures on the left are from a Buzzfeed study where the same woman had her self photoshopped by experts across the world to establish Global beauty standards in 25 countries. There's a bit of cliché here too: guess which countries cover those naked shoulders. But there are also some useful controls where different photoshoppers from the same country have come up with a different gestalt for beauty. I guess there is something in these investigations but we really need to polish up our crap-detector when assessing the results: reject studies with inadequate controls or too small a sample.

A rather different example of self-love popped up in a featured article in Wikipedia a couple of days ago: The Letter Name Effect. The science of letter preference started out in the world of marketing. If you want to sell more laundry detergent what letters should you have on the packet: is it better to call the stuff Swamp, Surf, or Sodium-triphosphate? It turned out that the letter prefs varied according to whether they appeared in the punters own name: the initials, yes, but also the letters that came in other places in the name. Jozef Nuttin, from Belgium, started the scientific ball rolling in 1985 when he noticed that he preferred car licence plates which included J, Z, F and N. That study has been replicated numerous times, with different alphabets, in different places. The effect is sufficiently strong that it has been used as a measure of self-esteem: if you don't rate yourself you don't recognise your initials. Apply skepticism to these tail-wagging-the-dog meta-studies.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

sew on a button

It's a Bank Holiday weekend in Ireland and there are events all over. It's rather hot on the community history in Dunmore East the weekend and on Friday I showed up by invitation for two commemorative events.  Last year, along the coast in Tramore, they had the bunting out for the bicentennial of the wreck of the Sea Horse. In Dunmore this weekend is the centennial of the loss of the u-boat UC-44 and the miraculous rescue of  Kapitan Kurt Tebbenjohanns [looking self-consciously casual for his folks R]. UC-44 was a mine-laying submarine which had the misfortune to contact one of its own deadly spawn in the middle of the night of 4th August 1917 and sink to the bottom with almost all hands. Kapitan Tebbenjohanns was in the conning tower and bobbed to the surface alive but 2 miles from shore. There was a big bang and three young Dunmore men, Jack McGrath and brothers Tom & Patsy Power, decided to row out on the dark mine-bobbing waves to see what they could find . . . and pulled the Kapitan from the drink. I'm sure he was as surprised and delighted to be rescued as my father-in-law Pat the Salt who was torpedoed off Halifax almost exactly 25 years later. I have my own, extremely modest, experience of delivering flotsam to Dunmore.  From rubbing shoulders with local historians all Friday evening, I gather that the celebrations over the 1917 rescue were also rather muted - because the British Admiralty soon salvaged the wreck and its code-books and didn't want the Kriegsmarine to know that their ciphers were compromised. There an informative essay on mines and minesweeping on the Russianside blog this week. Where I was guest-blogging last week, and here's another essay on WWI u-boats

Organising local commemorative events is enormously time- and energy-consuming. It's not too difficult to get the German [UC-44] or British [Seahorse] ambassador down, or have the Mayor of Waterford appear with his chain of office: that's what they do.The local difficulties and sensibilities are what usually consume the most emotional energy. You can't invite everyone to lunch with the Ambassador and the organising committee has to listen to old Bob Bitterroot telling them how to run the event while relentless dissing their efforts in the pub. I was invited to the opening of the [excellent, informative and interesting - it will be on-line soon] commemorative exhibition ex-officio being grandson of the harbourmaster at the time of sinking / rescue. They couldn't un-invite me when I confessed that the The Major started his long incumbency five years after the events of 1917. Albeit under a false flag, I was delighted to chat to the great and the good of the maritime world of Waterford Harbour.

I had an interesting conversation with Tony Bab RN retd, who was invited to Dunmore to talk about the salvage of the UC-44. Roy Stokes the author of U-boat Alley: The U-boat War in the Irish Channel During World War 1 was also there and getting such an on-message author was a bit of a coup by the Dunmore committee. Bab rose to be Chief Petty Officer, a rank which is the absolute back-bone of the navy. Naval officers, like my father and grandfather, come and go but the CPOs provide the organisational continuity and actually implement the orders that percolate down from the bridge. Bab started life as a naval artificer. I've written with breathless admiration about Tiffies before. In the 1930s, my father acquired a great education - history, geography and geopolitics, languages and knots, navigation, sailing - in the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He was really good at pub-quizzes. In the 1960s, Bab was getting his training as a good pair of hands: electrical and mechanical engineering, damage control, plumbing, communications, radar, ventilation. There is nothing that tiffies cannot do. 

Another event last week was IGGNITE an international jamboree for Girl Guides. A number of teenage girls were interviewed to talk up a storm about the Guides.
Q. Why did you join the Guides and what's so good about it?
A. My pal was in so I said I'd give it a go; you learn to sew, like, and stuff like cooking.
But, duh, well before I was old enough to join the Guides in my cross-dressing phase, my Mum taught me to sew on a button and hem up a trouser leg because she wasn't going to be always available to do it for me. She also taught me how to make flapjacks and fry an egg. CPO Babb and my father both had a housewife and were also taught how to sew on a button or fix a torn shirt . . . and splice a rope or trice up some shear-legs to lift a load. You shouldn't need to join the Guides to get these basic life-skills.

In science, you can do a higher degree PhD or MSc to build on the fundamental information that you acquired in college. What you get from that is a deep knowledge about something often relatively obscure. For a few weeks at graduation, you know more about your field than anyone walking on the planet. But that deep knowledge won't get you a job. You become an asset in the outside world because you've been trained in resilience; resourcefulness, critical thinking; inter-personal relationships; obeying instructions and making your own decisions; organising your data, your ideas and analyses; presenting your findings to the boss, to other scientists and Joe Public. 

The exhibition in Dunmore was formally opened by Richard McCormick, President of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, who gave a long and passionate speech about how such commemorative events, although attended disproportionately by old buffers, should really be for the youth-of-today. He learned his trade as a fisherman, than which there is no harder or more dangerous way of making a living. His point was that the training he got at sea; which today's youth would get if there were any maritime jobs out there on the great rolling ocean; was an education of much more general applicability: resilience, resourcefulness, critical thinking; inter-personal relationships; obeying instructions and making your own decisions. The difference between me doing a PhD on human genetics and migration patterns in New England and the Canadian Maritimes and Pat the Salt running away to sea at the age of 14 for his education in the University of Life is that, at no time was I in danger of bobbing about in the Atlantic with only a floating spar between me and Davy Jones.

Sunday with shanties 060817

I really should lay off the youtube: all that band-width, so little benefit.  But it's gotten to be a habit with me [truly weird dancing with polyandry]

Saturday, 5 August 2017

End of Hebrides

Life's a beach, and then you die. Too many of us treat the process as a race: to get furthest with the mostest. But we all finish up six feet down in a six-foot box - unless we choose to quick-release our carbon foot-print with cremation.We may as well try to pay attention to the landscape along The Way rather than hurtling heedless towards this dank and wormy finish. I consciously gave up the bike and started walking to work in 1985 in an attempt to be more mindful of the process rather than treating as dead time. In 1989 I walked 700km alone along the coast of Portugal; 15 years later I continued the journey from Tui on the Portuguese-Galician border to France. Those 900km were less lonely, indeed it was a bit of a mill going upstream along the Camino de Santiago.  I was talking large last Winter [12 years later] about Part III of the Process of Pilgrimage and my researches turned up the Hebridean Way which runs 250km from Vatersay [V on Map R] in the South to the Butt of Lewis [BoL on map].  It requires only 2 ferry trips - Barry to Eriskay and North Uist to Harris - because several of the islands have been joined together by permanent dry-shod causeways. The cycle-way is 18% longer and has been completed in 12 hours, but I bet Mark "The Whizz" Beaumont didn't hear a corncrake Crex crex or stop to see larks Alauda arvensis ascending.

But, lookit, if you consider that map of the Outer Hebrides carefully you'll notice a spray of blue dots further South than Vatersay, which is the most Southerly inhabited island in the archipelago and is conveniently connected to Barra. Therefore infrastructual deficits [lack of beds, boozers, ice-creams, and plasters for blisters] exclude the other small blue dots from the Hebridean Way. But that's not a sufficient excuse to leave them off the ever lengthening island inventory on The Blob. So let's hear it for Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray.  All those *ays: from the Old Norse for Island so Eriskay Island is a solecism.

It is annoying for everyone that there are two Bernerays in the Outer Hebrides. Damn silly and confusing. There are, indeed, two townlands [the smallest civil division in Ireland] in County Carlow; we live in the real one and lose post to the other one occasionally.  U.S. Board on Geographic Names is briefed to have unambiguous place-names, but their writ runs not to Scotland or Ireland. Nevertheless the two Bernerays [Orig. Bjorn's Island] are differentiated in Scots Gaelic: Beàrnaraigh na Hearadh (Berneray of Harris) in the north and Beàrnaraigh Cheann Bharraigh (Berneray of the Head of Barra) at  the very South. Perhaps because nobody lives there anymore Beàrnaraigh Cheann Bharraigh is now widely, if loosely, called Barra Head which is a synecdoche [bloboprevs].

Turns out that there are two Pabbays [Old Norse Papey island of the fathers/monks] as well: effectively paired off location-wise with the Bernerays one pair looking across the Sound at Harris and the other associated with Barra. Pabbay of Harris was cleared of its human inhabitants in 1846 to make way for sheep. That was a tragedy but not unexpected as the Highland Clearances spread across Scotland in the 19thC. The depopulation of Pabbay of Barra occurred with more shocking abruptness when all the adult males were drowned in a storm in May 1897 and their relicts packed up within a few years to find an easier life elsewhere. The crags and cliffs of Pabbay attract climbers: checkitout if you have a head for heights.

Next down the sea-lanes, Mingulay is apparently from Norse Mikilay Big Island: although technically it is smaller than Vatersay its cliffs make it rather more imposing. The human inhabitants hung on until 1912, when they decided that the hardship and isolation wasn't worth the candle. I guess they didn't want to hold their tenancies until a tragedy similar to Pabbay's overtook them. The 19thC was, for most inhabitants of the West European Archipelago WEA, the Age of Stuff. Candles, forks, cotton cloth, tea-pots, tea . . . if you worked hard enough you could aspire to such extras and in Birmingham or Roscommon it was easy enough to get things delivered. The level of literacy in the Highlands and Islands was probably higher than other bone-poor regions of the country and reading newspapers fueled a sense of "we'll hae some o' thae gibbles". Mingulay's access to the outside world was from the open strand. Getting yourself and your groceries ashore from a boat-tender was hard enough, but a piano posed huge problems. The Leaving started in 1906 when 3 families decamped to the flatter machair Vatersay as squatters, and over the next 6 years the rest of the people drifted away to better, or at least easier, places. Mingulay was acquired by the National Trust of Scotland in 2000. You can get Derek Cooper's nostalgic Hebridean Road-to-Mingulay Trip for £0.01 on Amazon, I'll probably bite too!

Berneray of Barra shut up shop in 1910 after being continuously inhabited - the folk made a living from fishing, fowling [guga / gannet same thing blooargh!] and a few rows of spuds or oats - for at least 2,000 years.  There were hardy people living there to tend the lighthouse [L looking romantic] up until the 1980s, when the lighthouse was automated.  It looks a bit of a peculiar location until you twig that this view is looking South and that the lighthouse is hanging over a mighty cliff to illuminate the hazard of the Hebrides to shipping travelling North. You have to also appreciate that the lighthouse isn't there for when the weather is fair enough to see it clearly. It's there for when Atlantic storms roll in with 3000km of fetch to build up some ship-crushing waves.
All this depopulation spells a contraction of the appendages towards a more centralised, convenient, homogeneous way of life. But diversity is our hedge against an uncertain future. As alternative lifestyles are deemed to be impossible /unsafe / too costly to maintain, we lose the perspective to look from the outside and evaluate critically the assumptions we've made in embracing the currently dominant political and economic certainties. otoh, we don't want to embrace every red-blooded boy's romantic fantasy about the islands [R] and the red-headed Hebridean girls who live there. Contraction from the wild places is a bad move if the underlying assumptions are faulty because "if a wolf did come out of the forest then what would you do?" Cue Peter and the Wolf. Which brings me to the music of this part of the Hebrides.

  • Mingulay Boat Song. Written a generation after the great leaving by Hugh Robinson which consciously imitates the rhythms of an island waulking songs and/or sea shanties.
  • Eriskay love lilt by Judith Durham 1964.
  • Arragh sure, we may well throw in the Skye boat song, although strictly that's to Skye from Uist. Warning: Outlander: more fantasy alert!
  • Now we've heard waulking songs on The Blob before but the sanitised [not a wen, nor a goitre, nor a rheumy eye to be seen] Outlander version is not without its attractions.
  • Ah go on then we'll have another 

Friday, 4 August 2017

less than dead

I'm a sloppily pedantic person. I like things to be 'correct' and 'just so' but almost every time I look back over a previous post I find egregious errors.  Cue confiteor: I've neglected to include the Latin name for some organism, I've used its when it's is correct and the other way round. I've omitted the accents from Irish and french words.  This is particularly wearing because blogspot / blogger's recognises é as a completely different character to e and so if I want to see if I've written something about Aimé Bonpland I have to search both Aimé and Aime in case I missed the accent aigu. With magisterial inconsistency blogspot-search treats Aime and aime as equivalent.  Thanks be that I'm not an apostophe nazi because Unicode 'right single quote' [in HTML you write that as &#x2019;] is actually the preferred option over 'apostrophe' [&#x0027;]. If you're writing code you can't allow slack-arsed errors to creep in by cut&pasting &#x201c; when you mean &#x0022;  Here's a list of  unicode possible quotie symbols [in hexadecimal!]
U+0022 = " quotes
U+0027 = ' apostrophe
U+0060 = ` grave
U+00B4 = ´ acute
U+2018 = ‘ left single
U+2019 = ’ right single
U+201C = “ left double
U+201D = ” right double
and because 80% of  my readers are french
U+00AB = «  guillemets en chevrons gauches
U+00BB = » guillemets droits
I'm glad I have that on record for myself. But nobody died because I popped an apostrophe in the wrong place unless Hauptsturmbannführer Apostroph has an apoplectic fit while reading The Blob from his fastness in Paraguay.  Things are different in Apple-land and sometimes you see characters like � [U+FFFD] in HTML docs on the web where your browser can't read the writer's symbols - almost always because of a problem with accents or special characters like > < / \ | & which are often 'reserved characters' in coding languages. HTML tags use <bold>to make thing bold</bold> for example. Technical details.

It's more difficult, because errors matter, if you're programming for the Health Service Executive HSE: you can't afford to write sloppy code there because some unfortunate's life might depend on it. About six years ago, the HSE moved into the 21stC by digitising all their X-rays, CAT scans, ultrasounds, MRIs etc. rather than depending on developing large sheets of photographic paper and holding them up to the light. This has obvious advantages: you can make a back-up copy; a houseman in Donegal can look at the same digital image at the same time as the consultant in Dublin; you don't need a courier to take the X-ray to the receiving hospital. The system has an acronym [must be important] National Integrated Medical Imaging System (NIMIS) and seems to operate on two levels:
  • the radiology information system RIS which is the original definitive copy usually pored over by the clinical team before treatment is meted out
  • the export copy which goes to the picture archive and may be retrieved later and by a wider subset of interested parties
A picture on its own is worth bugger all, it must have context and interpretation, so each picture acquires 1000 words of relevant commentary. Seems they have embraced speech-recognition technology, so the busy consultant can dictate his comments and these are captured digitally and attached to the image. That's all modern and cool. The problem was that the speech-cog software captured ". . . the aorta is less than 50% occluded" as ". . . the aorta is < 50% occluded" which is entirely acceptable in the context: nobody is going think <50% is the beginning of an HTML tag. The problem arose when the original notes became an export copy. At that stage, because the coders were asleep at the switch, the < disappeared like the cheshire cat and the message became ". . . the aorta is 50% occluded".  Whoops.

Why that is most likely significant is because of threshold values. The medical commentator will have in mind the critical values - those that require intervention. < 50% means everything is okay because 50% is the alert threshold; bald 50% is nay-kay and may precipitate intervention - a stent; more X-rays to give you cancer; another €1500 of tax-money for a confirmatory CAT scan.

There are several worrying things about this:
  • that is should happen at all in the export copy transfer
  • that the coding company's QC didn't pick it up
  • that the system has been running for 6 years and nobody on the ground noticed the anomaly
  • that there are now likely to be other errors (less overt and so harder to find and that much more insidious). Up to this week we were totally confident that the coders were worthy of their hire. Part of the confidence lies in the fact that the HSE paid them a shed-load of money. Could we have that money back please and could a few heads roll?
Richard Corbridge the HSE's Chief Information Officer has resigned "Corbridge’s decision to leave has nothing to do with the news that thousands of patients may need medical tests re-done because of a computer error."

I was a crap coder. I never mastered hashes aka associative arrays: they just wrecked my head so my iterative loops ran slower; I used <horror>GOTO</horror> statements; I was always forgetting the line-end ";". But I was a careful coder, I never believed that what I had written was delivering the correct output: I checked chunks of code with a calculator; I stress-tested it with non-numeric inputs; I asked if the outputs were reasonable. I have also hacked at other people's code when it mattered and found that it wasn't delivering the correct answer. I am proud to be on a select list of 385 people who found a glitch in PHYLIP.

Good news for the potentially 25,000 affected patients. After all which would you rather be?
less than dead