Saturday, 24 June 2017

First day of the rest of your life

Regular readers will know that I had an absurdly expensive and extended education. Primary school, prep school, secondary school, university (BA), another university (PhD), University of Life (Blob). This has had both good and bad aspects: a) an asset at pub quizzes b) emotional cripple. For neither of my degrees did I dress up medieval (silly hat, pointy shoes, gaudy gown). I might have done it for my parents but I deliberately went to college in a different country, so it would have been faff for everyone. Formal graduation also cost money but my main reasoning was that such ceremonies were a bourgeois charade and/or a silly anachronism, so I probably scotched any suggestion that my graduations should be a family affair.  I have been to graduations every year at The Institute, however, because I have better manners now and more empathy: students want their folks to meet their teachers and I am moderately interested in seeing where they came from. It also gives me access to a bunch of data to analyse I - II. And an opportunity to graze some canapés! For a college (it used to be a Regional Technical College is now an Institute of Technology and will be a Technological University) that is less than 50 years old it is damn-fool silly to confer degrees in faux-medieval costume; so I put on a jacket and tie, sit in with the parents and boycott the academic procession.

aNNyway, yesterday morning I went to my first ever 'Commencements' in Trinity College Dublin. TCD is by far the oldest university in Ireland, and they are hot for tradition, archaicism, and dressing up medieval. The real name of the institution is The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin. They call the terms Michaelmas and Hilary rather than Winter and Spring, the boss is a Provost rather than a President and graduation is called Commencements not Graduation or Conferring because leaving Trinity is seen as a start rather than a finale. This was all explained by The Registrar as a warm-up to the ceremony proper. She also explained that the entire ceremony would be rendered in Latin! making the claim that when TCD was founded in 1592, Latin was an all-inclusive lingua franca which could be used for dialogue whether you came from Bologna or Bristol. Hmmm, true-dat but it is now 425 years later and nobody - nobody - in the room was fluent in Latin so using that language was now exclusive and alienating. Ironically, for inclusivity, Trinity employs a signer for the hard-of-hearing, so the deaf understood better what was going on than the rest of us. And no, the signer isn't fluent in Latin either: he's working off an English translation - although probably using Irish Sign Language not British [big difference].

I was in TCD because one of my project students at The Institute went on to do her  12 week work placement internship in my old Comparative Immunology lab in TCD and stayed on to work up the project [on olfactory receptors in dolphins] for a M.Sc.  She stuck at it and wrote it all up and was in medieval clobber [a snip at €40 for a couple of hours] to Commence the rest of her life.

Now here's an important multicultural issue that is buried in the use of a deaf dead language. Proceedings are signed off with an envoi "Valete senatores, non diutius vos morabimur; valete candidati novis honoribus decorati; valete et vos, hospites acceptissimi. Comitia solvantur in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti."   . . . in the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost??? We're all inclusive for the deaf [N = 380,000 in Ireland] but divil-and-all for the No-religions [N = 280,000] or Muslims [N = 50,000], of which 'my' candidate was one.  I've had a peg at this unthinking religiosity in our local Credit Union. Let me also say that Sign Language is as opaque as Latin to me and Pat the Salt who are both hard-of-hearing.

That done I went off to lunch with Dau.I who works but a half day on Fridays. That was very nice - we went to the student dining hall - called The Buttery in Trinity! - for cheap and cheerful fish'n'chips. By the time we had finished catching up - since last Sunday in Cork two hours had passed and I noted that a crowd, fat with photographers, was gathering again in Front Square. Turned out that Bob Geldof was getting a celeb Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree. Other important people [see above with President Mary Robinson] were also getting tribbed. When the procession trooped past, the paparazzi called "Bob, Bob" and Geldof turned to the cameras to wave. Me-the-Bob muttered to Dau.I " My Public, my Public". The nearest photographer rounded on me and said "You cynical old man . . . but I do agree" and went off to his next assignment. As must I.

Friday, 23 June 2017

little wedges

I've said this before but I'll say it again; the mighty Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) summed up his expertise as "À la vue d'un os, d'un seul morceau d'os, je reconnais et reconstruis la partie de l'ensemble dont il provient". Essentially this translates as "your toe bone's connected to your foot bone, your foot bone's connected to . . . everything you are and do: what you eat, how you move to get what you eat, how old you are". This assertion of knowledge is partly true because of evolution and context. My thigh bone, gracile but strong, says that I am a runner [or could be if I'd only get off the sofa], the thigh bone of a hippopotamus says "plodder" and because of this "vegetarian". My thigh bone is far more similar to Usain Bolt's and Emmanuel Macron's than it is to one of our sheep grazing 50m away. Simply measuring and analysing teeth metrics we used this concept of homology [descent from a common ancestor] to assert something about Australopithecus spp. and the eruption of the genus Homo = humankind.

Archaeologists are capable of similar feats of deduction. From a series of blackened back-filled holes in the the ground, a pot-sherd, an axe-head and some pollen analysis, they can infer the life and times of a neolithic village and mourn its savage destruction. But about 6,000 years ago information became immeasurably richer because someone invented writing and history emerged from pre-history. After 4,000 BCE, therefore, we can begin to name [a few chosen] people and get another source of data about the life and times of people who are long dead. The written data is still super-patchy but nevertheless adds to our understanding on top of pottery fragments and a few crumbly skeletons to autopsy: like ourselves, the pharaohs were prone to TB, malaria, dental caries and thrush.

Denise Besserat was born in 1933 at Ay in NE France where they make the Bollinger >!cheers!< and made herself the GoTo person for understanding the birth and development of writing systems in the Near East. In 1954 she married Jurgen Schmandt, a philosopher and policist, and added his name to hers: Denise Schmandt-Besserat [L].  A couple of weeks ago here was a nice programme about her revelatory insight on BBC World Service which you can read or listen to [with annoying and unnecessary bingly-bongly background music].

We have known about cuneiform since archaeologists started unearthing barrow-loads of decorated clay tablets in Mesopotamia in 1929. These tablets, frozen in time, predate the writing systems of MesoAmerica, China and Egypt possibly because clay survives better than wood, paper or papyrus or more probably because this really was the first method of recording stuff in an abstract way. Writing things down precludes any possibility of the he said she said which is always a real possibility with a verbal agreement. One thing that supports the antecendence of cuneiform is the suggestion that early examples were impressions of tokens pressed into the wet clay.  Later, everyone who mattered agreed that a stroke with a stylus could double for a pressed token and was far quicker and neater to inscribe. That break-through also allowed abstraction for larger numbers. V rather than IIIII and X not IIIIIIIIII is on familiar almost modern territory.

For a generation after these cuneiform tablets [R section of one] started to be gathered, recorded and compared, nobody had a clue what they meant. Because archaeologists tend to be educated in the Arts Block, they were imagined to be poetry or messages between kings and commanders. DS-B had a hypothesis that they were an example of correspondence counting. This is used by cricket umpires who transfer a pebble from one pocket of their dazzling white trousers to the other whenever a ball is bowled: when six pebbles have been transferred the umpire calls 'over', everyone troops to the other end of the pitch and the six-ball cycle continues. What if the accountants in the marts of Uruk had little blobs of clay to represent a sheep, a firkin of ale, a bushel of barley, or tray of loaves? Scanning a table of pots containing the various tokens was a lot more convenient than going outside in the blistering sun to see how many sheep the merchant had to trade. One firkin/sheep/bushel = one token but it takes two to tango a transaction, so the receipt for sheep became a clay tablet impressed with the correct equivalent of tokens. They have found an inventory of about 300 different commodities represented by tokens.  Read this essay on the evolution of writing from U Texas. Actually, the tokens were initially stored in a ball of clay = bulla for convenience, which was ++ inconvenient because you couldn't see what was inside (they would have paid a lot of barley-cakes for a supply of ziploc plastic bags). So the accountants would write the contents of each bulla on the outside. It took a long time to appreciate that 10 chickens, 10 wine-skins and 10 loaves all had something in common - 10 - and mathematics was launched.

The idea of correspondence of two written records for a transaction/trade is captured by another lovely essay in BBC series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. This is about tally sticks: small (20cm long) billets of willow-wood upon which a series of notches were cut to represent the amount of the debt. The stick was then split lengthwise, half retained by the creditor and half given to the debtor. The notches and the grain of wood matched uniquely and so made an incontrovertible contract. One unintended consequence of these sticks was that they could be traded themselves for other products. The BBC story includes a neat summary of the 6 month long Irish bank strike of 1970. The economy managed quite well for half a year because people - publicans, shop-keepers, feed-merchants - would accept cheques from people whom they knew and use those checks to pay their suppliers and employees. A local peasant economy could make it work with that amount of trust. It brought into focus what money really is. Old banknotes had a flourishy statement "I promise to pay the bearer on demand . . ." signed by the president of the issuing bank. They have dispensed with that in multi-lingual Euroland leading to a further level of monetary abstraction. We've come along way since a handful of clay tokens were the sheep they represented.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

old and gnu

eee but we do love our megafauna. The logo for the World Wildlife Fund is a giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca [the black&white cat-footed one] rather than a nematode worm because pandas pass for cuddly in a way that no nematode can. Although a case could be made that the nematode Baylisascaris schroederi which parasitises pandas makes as much impact on the ecosystem as the cuddly furry one. Let's hear it even louder for the microbial community of those bamboo forests upon which the whole visible habitat depends . . . indeed let's change the logo for the WWF [R].

We've been to the Serengeti before sifting Zebra shit; it is the quintessence of  ecosystem not least because there is a wide variety of fauna bigger-than-a-breadbox which makes it more sexy than Louis Agassiz's back yard in Cambridge MA. A few weeks in East Africa appeals to a certain cohort of the well-heeled travelling public. I think that, in terms of Serengeti biomass, the wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus is probably the top dog. Wildebeest is [duh!] a dutch loanword but we also call them gnu which may be borrowed from the language spoken by the !ung san [prev]. Actually, purists and pedants will point out that if the word is from the San people it is naming Connochaetes gnou the black wildebeest Gnou à queue blanc not the blue variety C. taurinus  gnou à queue noire [See map L: C. taurinus in blue, C. gnou in yellow, C. both-species in brown].The San had been driven to the margins squeezed by the Bantu coming South and the Voortrekkers coming North met on the Orange River. And the only intersect between San speakers, Anglophones and gnus occurred Cis-vaal rather than Transvaal. Did you know there were two species of gnu? I didn't: it's like African giraffes and elephants - there is more diversity than a cursory glance would make you suspect. otoh, maybe the Connochaetes genus has been over-split because the karyotype is essentially the same for both species and fertile hybrids have been obtained. Maybe the French have it, one type has a white tail the other black and that is enough to make them different species. The history of civil rights has been an action to dismiss a similar exaggeration of superficial difference in Homo sapiens - emphatically a single species.

A nice consolidation of some wildebeest links on Metafilter brought on some droll commentary. One author compared 6500 dead blue wildebeest to 10 dead blue whales, which elicited a laconic "Degree of difficulty: getting the whales across the Serengeti." Seems that the restless gnus in the Serengeti and adjacent parts of East Africa go round and round on an annual migration following spells of rain which bring out a flush of grass upon which the gnu, and their attendant artiodactyls and perissodactyls feed. Millions of walking herbivores chomp through thousands of tonnes of vegetation every day. This wall of flesh pushes forward over hill and dale but pauses at rivers, especially if they are in spate or have naturally steep banks or are thronged with tourists in land-rovers hoping to get some snaps for their holiday album. At every river-crossing some gnu get snagged by crocodiles [death-porn link] or miss their footing or are elbowed off the ford by the conspecific press . . . and drown. A couple of hundred rotting gnu carcasses [pic!] are a bit poooeeee but only for a month or so as their protein is recycled. The skeletons last longer and provide slow-release phosphorus for everything downstream for many months. It is surprising how many species depend on these accidental deaths. Each death is a tragedy for the individual  but collectively they happen with sufficient regularity that they can be banked on.  Not just the crocs and the fish, but the hyaenas Crocuta crocuta and hunting dogs Lycaon pictus which haul joints out of the river where what's left nourishes the trees and bushes. And of course the buzzillion flies lay eggs and the maggots feed the birds and the cycle of death goes round. More glossy and more data at Atlantic.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Every light blazing

My late lamented father was a complex chap. Never mean about money but having a few bonnet-bees about certain aspects of the household budget. He was a danger to leave out in a shopping precinct alone on a Saturday morning because he was certain-sure to come back with a device for punching aeration holes in the lawn or a gadget for exercising the calf-muscles. He didn't seem to appreciate that, IF he used the lawn-aerator THEN his calves would get sufficient exercise pushing the thing up and down between the herbaceous borders. Periodically (after he'd seen the monthly bank-statement?) he'd tear through the house switching things off and crying "Every light in the house blazing!" in the hope that his family would rally round and help fight the haemorrhage of kWhs.  I don't think he got much support and things would quieten down after a couple of days - possibly because he decided it wasn't worth the effort. But I'm pretty certain his crusade was not really evidence-driven. In any case he realised that pinching pennies was really quite alien to his sense of self.

In 2012, I had a rather abrupt pay cut as the research money that was supporting me was running out and I was down to one paid day a week. Being time-rich but cash-poor had its advantages and me and Dau.II spent a lot of quality time with her grandparents. It also gave me an inkling of hope for my future in retirement because two old age pensions was way more than I was pulling in for on€-day-a-w€€k. Nevertheless, having but a trickle of money meant that there was no slack in the budget and that is when I stopped drinking. The 2011 data suggested that The Beloved and I might well knock off a couple of bottles of wine a week if we had a glass each with dinner each night. That would be okay if we lived in South Africa where Chardonnay is cheaper than bottled water or in France where they have low taxes on booze pour encourager les viticulteurs. But in Ireland back then, a bottle of Old Red Biddy was at least €5 and two bottles a week was therefore €500 a year. Which was lot for a man on €1,000/mo; so it was farewell to plonk.

I fell to those reflections because we had a morning of post-graduate student presentations and when we all left I noticed that the last presenting student had left the computer on; so I switched it off. As I walked back to my office with one of my colleagues I wondered aloud how much electricity was being wasted by such "someone else will do it" bystander effect.  I know that every Monday last academic year I had a QM quantitative methods class at the very end of the working day. At about 1700hrs we'd all leave and as far as I was concerned all 20 desktop computers would be on-standby for 16 hours until 0900hrs the next day.  A computer in sleep mode is using 25W or about the same as a lightbulb. Not so much you say but 25 * 20 * 16 is 8 kWh which costs, in Ireland about €2. That's a tenner a week or about €500/yr which was doing much less good to me or the planet than €500 worth of wine. I feel a guesstimation exercise coming on for next year's QM class:
  • Is it worth employing someone to switch off all the lights/computers in The Institute at the end of the working day?
And that's just one computer room, there are probably 20 such room-equivalents on campus = 400 there are 400 faculty and support staff, each one with a desktop computer. If half of all the computers are left on all night that's (400 + 400)/2 * 16hrs * 25W = 160kWh each night or €40. Many of my colleagues leave their computers on each night because the boot up takes so long which is a real deficit if you have a 0900 class and want to print out a quiz for 30 students . . . after a forward-planning failure. I used to do the same thing - and piss-and-moan at the inefficiency of it until I spoke to our IT support person. He said that the boot-up delay was because my computer was under RAMmed so he came over in the afternoon and replaced the 4GB chip with an 8GB version: the boot up then took 10 seconds. Moral: just ask - you may be pushing at an open door.  And switch the bloody lights out, of course.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Now dry your hands

Having two daughters in the catering trade and teaching biology and human physiology in The Institute, I have views on hand-washing and not washing them.  Clearly I R confuse about the matter. I'm much firmer about the art of drying your hands, however. I'll give the students a broadside about arbormort if I see them pulling out fathoms of paper towel to dab their fingers dry. If the kids have to wash their hands before and after lab-class that is a lot of paper towel and we habitually get through the annual quota about 6 weeks before classes finish. Outside the labs, in the "bathrooms", some bean-counter has decided that air-blowers are more economic than paying for paper towels.

On our Cultural Weekend in Cork (march, film, dance, bonding) we went out to dinner before the ProdiJig gig. After a certain amount of geopolitical debate we wound up in Koto: Our Asian inspired menu has been created to soothe, nourish, and inspire . . . you get the picture. We got perfectly acceptable tasty bowls of noodles and polished our plates, so that was okay. But waiting for the bill, we all went up many flights of stairs for tinkle before a couple of hours in the theatre. The hand dryers in the gents were just pathetic and I finshed up drying my hands on the back of my shirt. This is a known thing among blokes. As we walked across to the Cork Opera House, I asked my three favorite women, on the hypothesis that the ladies hand-'drier' was as useless as the blokes',
Q1, How did you dry your hands?
Dau.I. On my skirt, of course.
Q2. How did you dry your hands?
Dau.II, Duh, on the seat of my jeans.
Q3. How did you dry your hands?
The Beloved: I used toilet paper.
All.  Mega-fail! What about the trees? Were they organic, even?
All that intra-family barney and diequilibrium could have been avoited if the restaurant had installed a system that not only saved paper but actually dried hands . . . more effectively than having someone breathe on a glass prior to polishing it. There's no excuse here because Koto has only been open since March

The air driers at work are noisy and hot and almost do the biz in the time allotted. The newest building dubbed the Haughton Teaching and Learning Centre has Dyson blade driers which really do work better than the sclerotic warm-air machines installed in the older parts of campus. a) I wish to receive a gratituity from Dyson for this affirmation b) I intend to take a short walk in the rain next time I need to wash my hands . . . or bring a table-napkin to work - fits folded in the back-pocket and serves as a personal hand-towel. Epic Win!

Monday, 19 June 2017

You can sing it

We've finished exams at The Institute - big phew! all round. Almost all my hours nowadays are practical classes in biology and maths, so I only have to write, have reviewed and mark one Summer exam: Human Physiology for 1st Year Pharm Tech PT1. With all my courses, there is a certain amount of Imposter Syndrome - none of it really taps into my peer-reviewed expertise in the migration of cats; hominid tooth metrics, synonymous codon usage; gene discovery in chickens or operons in the human genome.  There are no operons in the human genome!  I used to get nervous submitting exams in Human Physiology knowing they were to be reviewed by two external experts in Pharmacy.  Then for several years, the feedback was entirely complimentary "good paper, well developed syllabus, fair questions" so I started to believe that I really did know and was effectively explaining important stuff about how the human body works.

The exam papers are reviewed by the externs in February and the answers are reviewed at the beginning of June.  For the first time, all my PT1 students had passed the course, although I'd had to be a bit generous towards some in the trailing tail of the class.  To be honest, a handful of them had done shockin' bad on the exams and had only passed because they had done okay on the numerous MCQ quizzes that I'd put them through during the year . . . and done surprisingly well on their essay on lysosome storage disorders. So I was little defensive talking to the extern and I found myself gabbling about the artificiality of examinations: learn learn learn, cram cram cram, blurf it all out in two hours and forget it forever the very next day.- as shown by some of these university graduates retaking the teenage maths exam. I asserted that my students would remember the information about their lysosome storage disorder for longer than anything that had appeared on the May exams.  It made me resolve to have more project work next year but I also resolved to make some of the key facts more sticky.

At the beginning of the month I was unavoidably listening to adults talking about the berluddy Leaving Certificate, the exam ordeal to which every 18 y.o. in the country is subjected.  As a bit of light relief two presenters were remembering what was top of the pop charts during those fateful two weeks long long ago. Loadsa people txtd and phoned in to report the song that was still buzzing round their heads decades after they had forgotten The Calculus, the terms of The Treaty of Paris 1783 or who signed The Treaty of Paris 1951.

Then I heard an interview with George Hammond-Hagan [similar on the BBC] who has devised a mnemonic resource call Study Tracks.  He is song-writer who had a son going through the goddam exams and so he wrote and sang some songs using the text-books for lyrics.  It has the ring-a-ling-ling of truth. It's got to work for some kids some of the time.  It's a business but here are some samplers renaissance - R&J. Such rapology doesn't sing to me, but it may well work for The Yoof. This is not an original idea: here's Mrs Martin making her maths pupils dance to her tune. And years and years ago Tom Lehrer [bloboprev] nailed the Elements to a song so that Daniel "Potter" Ratcliffe could recite them.

I've introduced my PT1s to The Memory Palace for blood pressure but there are lots of ways in which something will happen that will make more sticky the ideas, the lists of attributes, the main players in Human Physiology.  If I was deliver myself slightly late to class in a bright red leotard, brandishing a huge hot-water bottle and moaning about the pain d'ye think they'd remember the four attributes of inflammation . . . forever?

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Dadical

Dadical is a new coinage, as far as my daughters are concerned, having been applied to me yesterday. 'Popsicle' would have been possible except that it is already a word for something cool and refreshing: hardly applicable to The Da. Back in  April, Dau.I and I went on the March for Science in Dublin. The agreement was that she'd come out For Science if I would come out for The Gays. That was tentatively fixed as having a date with the Dublin Pride March on 24th June 2017. But 2 months is a long time in radical politics and I washed up in Cork this weekend because a) it was my birthday yesterday b) therefore Dau.II had bought us tickets for ProdiJig, a hoofer troop of which she is a fan. Here we are, Dau.I and her Dadical [Left for Rights! close-up below] wearing identical repealthe8th badges.
Because good things always come in threes, it turned out that Dau.I could get her pay-back and we could have a family outing round Cork city centre, by going on the local Repeal the Eighth rally, which kicked off at 1330hrs yesterday. Here  I explained the issues about the 8th Amemndment to the Constitution back in March. With two daughters in the 20s, I get to hear about those issues from the horse's mouth as one might say. A case could be made, and the girls are quite keen to make it, that only women of child-bearing age have a locus standi on the matter and they invite nuns, grannies and blokes of any age to just hold their whisht about the rights and wrongs of abortion. My late lamented, and rarely PC boss had a phrase "your rights end where my nose begins" which I am inclined to take up on his behalf. That's  a trip-off-the tongue way of articulating an overarching tolerance of diversity. Matter-a-damn what you do at home - eat pray or love whomever or whatever you wanted because it was none of my business. It's not a literal nose as the boundary - mowing the lawn or raising cain at 0300hrs on a week-night is not tolerable unless your neighbours all have ear-plugs.

One problem with Rights is deciding who is to vindicate them. I don't think that normal people would have much tolerance for a return to trial by combat in which the strongest, fastest or wiliest fighter was demmed to have found favour with the deity. We still haven't cracked the closely related problem of trial by lawyers because it is clear statistically that the richest person wins disputes a disproportionate amount of the time. It is more or less a sham to appoint a lawyer to fight for the dispossessed because they are hobbled by lack of money.  ANNyway the effect of the 8th Amendment as it has come to be interpreted is that the right to life of the unborn trumps pretty much any right of the mother except avoidance of her death. The vindication of this right has led to one high profile case, Savita Halappanavar's, which killed both mother and child and that doesn't seem to be the best possible outcome by an objective assessment. The right to life was brought into focus again in 2015 when a woman, 17 weeks pregnant was kept on life-support after sustaining a catastrophic internal blood clot that left her brain-dead.  The Hippocratic Oath is specifically against abortion but we don't need to adopt wholesale the ethics of ancient Greeks whose civilisation had a foundation of slavery in the silver mines of Athens. We could move to the 19thC with Arthur Clough's verse advice "Thou shalt not kill / But need’st not strive / Officiously, to keep alive." which I've trotted out before on end-of-life issues.

Here's the thing, right now we are in an 'every sperm life is sacred' era: caught between a life is cheap time when a child could be hanged for stealing a handerkerchief and an uncertain future. The trouble with Rights is when they are prefaced by a starement like "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .".  To which the skeptical reply is Whoa! no we don't. Rights that were obvious to all thinking people at some time in the past are now considered repugnant to many. The rights of the unborn are a super-polarising concept about which it is hard to have a rational discussion. Discussion degenerates into a recital of anecdotes (I gave two, Savita H and life-support,, in the prev para); young women fall pregnant for all sorts of reasons and travel to the UK for a termination - at a rate of 10-30 every day so they already have the ability to safely become unpregnant. If The Patriarchy would just shut up, this Irish Right could be vindicated in an Irish clinic. Another place to start the discussion might be to suggest that we throw out the Absolutes - because we don't give an unqualified right to life to Syrian refugees, or starvelings in the Sahel or Somali pirates. We now live in a 21stC where 7.5 billion people are eating their seed-corn and despoiling the planet. Fewer people please: coral reefs, rain-forests and every species on the IUCN red list have rights as well as every person or proto-person on the planet.

Techno Sunday 180617

A few bits on technological solutions to making things.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Use it or lose it

Can you hold a pencil? Although not recognised as such by the Transportation Security Adminsitration, pencils can be used as a lethal weapon, if hexagonal they can also be used when there are no dice available, or to fish termites out of a hole for dinner. Chimpanzees could carry out any of those tasks but only humans can use a pencil to write their name . . . or The Grapes of Wrath. That's because we can use our thumb, index and middle finger in a 'power-precision grip' PPG and manipulate the pencil to make marks of tiny precision and delicacy - not only writing but drawings, graphs and diagrams that accurately convey and record meaning. Some drawings are so realistic that you wonder why the perp didn't use a camera. The PPG isn't only used for pencils but for lifting jam-jars, bullets, day-old chicks and baseballs. It is hard to program a robot's computer to pick up an egg without crushing but your muscle and mind achieve this without a conscious thought. It takes time to get these tasks right, babies are clumsy, can't get the spoon into their mouths and make a sloppy mess all round them until they learn how. Letting Petal feed herself is a long haul strategy but it pays dividends. Baby led feeding, adopted by The Boy and his family, saves a mort of money because the kids pick over the family dinner rather than being catered for with Gerber Glop, Materna milk puddings or Cow&Gate creamed rice. But BLF also drives the development of the mind, autonomy and a sense of self.

One of the things that neurologists are discovering is that the doors of perception need to be opened and closed, and frequently oiled, if they are to develop and retain utility. The brain is plastic and there are many potential calls on a neuron. After a stroke, you may laboriously recover the use of your limbs and the power of speech by re-purposing and recruiting other neurons to filfill the functions ablated by the ischemic event.  If you are born without eyeballs then the part of your brain destined to become your visual cortex is effectively snapped up by other functions and put to good use. This is an argument for embracing hearing-aids - to stop the auditory cortex closing shop altogether.  If you don't use your hands to carry out finely dextrous tasks then your don't get to keep the motor neurons and that may have negative impact on your general cognitive development.

When I was growing up we played with wooden cotton reels, saucepan lids and sticks, It was like reading the book rather than watching the film of the book. Our imagination filled in the bits between saucepan lid and shield; between Lego and Bridge of the River Kwai; between a plastic airplane and Dresden Valentine's Day 1945. Children then lived in their heads and could subvert efforts to make them play in particular ways - as exposed by Saki's story The Toys of Peace. The youth of today have no patience with wooden blocks or cardboard boxes because they have Lara Croft [bloboprev] to steer through somebody else's imagination.  David Gaul and his boss Johann Issartel at Dublin City University have got some data [PMID 26735589] on how the modern world may be turning the digital generation into blobs unable to zip up their own coats or pick their own noses because the only fine motor skill FMS they can carry out is a swipe or a tap.
Next time you see someone tying the shoe-laces just look at the task sequence required: it's a wonder that we can carry it off at all and I know my twin sister had to do this for me when we first went to primary school. Gaul and Issartel measured 250 kids divided between 2nd, 4th and 6th classes = aged 7, 9 and 11 and found that they got better at a standard set of motor coordination tasks as they grew up. That's good, you'd hope the young shavers were learning something over those 5 years.
Key: fine motor precision (FMP), fine motor integration (FMI), manual dexterity (MD) and upper-limb coordination (ULC). The bars are mean and std.dev. for 2nd, 4th and 6th class. Quite a lot of variation there.  But concern developed when they compared the skills to the normal average for children of the same age:
Key: [annoyingly different from the tasks in Fig 2 above] fine manual control (FMC) and manual coordination (MC) units and Total Fine Motor Composite (TFMC). You can see that 2nd class students start off close to the average [the 50 line] but steadily fall behind 'normal' as they grow up. David Gaul was on the wireless the other day and he suggested this increasing deficit was a) disturbing and b) possibly due to the swipiness of the youngsters environment decreasing their capacity to do up a button let alone sew another one on when they oafishly rip the original one off trying to force it through the wrong button hole [I paraphrase!]. Skeptics among you will note that the error bars are all large and comfortably embrace the 50%=normal point on the standard score axis. Trouble with social science and medical experiments is that it takes yonks to gather up any kind of sample at all at all and even then it may not be statistically robust. The blue 2nd years are different people to the green 6th years and the difference in the means may be a statistical artifact. I hope that the authors aren't going to park the project having gotten this publication out because there is a longitudinal study crying out to be done: same kids tested at two year intervals. And of course, we need someone from Montpellier or Bordeaux to replicate the study in French schools. And a control set of home-educating children to see if school is sapping the will to live of the children who are ground through that inexorable mill. This reminds me of another place where the external environment impinges disastrously on neuro-musculat development - the myopia epidemic driven by the absence of sunlight.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Anti-inflammatory in the balance

Inflammation is a good thing, it is the body's response to physical and biological assault and mostly it works a treat. The other day I was yanking my boots out of the car-trunk and nicked my finger on a tooth of the chainsaw.  It didn't hurt but bled quite a bit and the hole was sore for about 24 hours. A nice clean cut; any bacteria flushed out by the blood flow; some local white blood cell activity to mop up the remaining bugs involved a little swelling, a little tenderness and a little redness. Sounds like inflammation to me - I share an old Latin mnemonic with my Hum Physiol students:
  • Calor heat
  • Dolor pain
  • Rubor redness
  • Tumor swelling
Sometimes, however, inflammation can be a disastrous over-reaction. Cholera toxin is no fun - it's a toxin after all - but the body's response to the presence of Vibrio cholerae is to flood the intestine with fluid to flush out the toxin producing bacteria: flush flush flush until the cistern and the header-tank run dry and you die of dehydration. They say that fit young people, with active inflammatory /immune systems died disproportionately during the Spanish 'flu pandemic of 1918: the treatment worked but the patient died. One of the consequences of developing an auto-immune disease - rheumatoid arthritis; multiple sclerosis; psoriasis; psoriatic arthritis; lupus; Goodpasture syndrome - is that there is tissue damage. Tissue damage means an inflammatory response which means calor dolor rubor & tumor which is a bloody nuisance and makes you feel utter crap for much of the waking day.

What if, some medical researchers asked, we could damp down the immune response. That would alleviate many of the distressing symptoms of auto-immune diseases and might even promote a bit of healing in the damaged tissue. One of the positive outcomes of 30 years of molecular biological research is that we now have model incorporating some of the key players in the inflammatory response: both what molecules are involved and what cells play a part. As with the nervous system, we reckon that the cellular response is controlled by external molecules = "ligands" which dock and bind with receptors embedded in the cell membrane. "Molecules which are produced by one cell type and act on another cell not in immediate proximity" is a definition of a hormone. But in the context of immunology and inflammation such molecules tend to be called cytokines. Each cytokine will have a particular look&feel and function and will only be effective if it makes contact with a specific receptor. Both cytokines and their receptors are proteins of which we have an inventory of about 100,000 different forms, some quite closely related to each other. Clearly there are two ways to turn inflammation down a notch or two:
  • destroy, disable or interfere with the production of one of the cytokines
  • put a spanner in the cytokine receptor to prevent docking
Stress is also A Good Thing - it is a way of keying up your physiology to deal with a problem - tiger; alpha-male; sudden change in weather; potential mate - but is ultimately damaging if it goes on for too long. Human Physiology, I intone at almost every lecture, is about the checks and balances of homeostasis. Short cartoon, reasonably on the right track. Homeostasis is maintained in the normal run of things by having both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines and dribbling them out in the correct proportion for the given situation.

One way of nobbling a cytokine is to develop a 'biologic' an antibody against that molecule. I've written before about the absurd unmemorable hard-to-say names for drugs. But there are some clues: if it ends in -mab it is a monoclonal antibody developed by injecting the . . . heck I'm not going to explain this because it's w-a-a-a-a-y outside my competence so I'll hand you off to John Nguyen at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences - what's a MAb and how are they made.
More etymological clues:
  • omab (original and not the best) = murine monoclonal antibody
  • ximab = chimeric (part human part mouse) monoclonal antibodies like infliximab [prev]
  • zumab = humanized (less mouse more human than ximabs)
  • mumab = fully human monoclonal antibodies are made in human cell lines skipping the mouse protocol. Try saying adalimumab with clarity and authority when explaining its potential to a worried patient.
  • Another John Nguyen gallop through a bunch of specific MAbs, their names pronounced and the uses described
The point about MAbs is that they are extremely specific; they will nobble the target molecule and leave everything else alone. So there are usually fewer side-effects. I've written about infliximab before which targets TNF-α a cytokine that cranks up the inflammatory response when cancerous cells appear.  Its name tumour necrosis factor tells the story: with TNF-α tumours are suppressed without it they grow.  Clearly TNF-α is A Good Thing because cancer is the Black Hat of modern Western medicine . . . except when it runs away with itself and cranks up inflammation when it shouldn't. This is the case for a string of auto-immune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis RA, ankylosing spondylitis, inflammatory bowel disease IBD , psoriasis, and refractory asthma and all these disorders can be treated with anti-TNF therapies.

The trouble is that although the MAb is extremely specific - it will take down TNF-α only - TNF-α is a key work-horse in maintaining homeostasis all around the body. By controlling the level of this cytokine to mitigate the debilitating effects of RA or IBD, the patient no longer has enough of the stuff to do its says-on-the-tin tumour necrosis job and lymphomas are a common side effect under long-term use of infliximab. This robbing Peter to pay Paul is a problem in many aspects of modern medicine and the good doctors spend a lot of time and money juggling the competing forces to get a drug and a dose that is a Goldiloxian just right. Cue not strictly relevant fragment of verse:
I balanced all, brought all to mind,  
The years to come seemed waste of breath,  
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

La Joconde

It's someone's birthday today and the triptych above gives a clue as to who deserves a roaring conflagration of 538 candles on her cake. I'm sorry, if there are any youthful readers of The Blob, but this woman has more likes than young-wans Taylor Swift, Adele and  Ariana Grande put together. I have here cast her in a heroic role to show how far her picture can deviate from 'the truth' and still be recognisable. I don't think a satirical pastiche of Ariana Grande as Miss Piggy would work; not least because half the kids who sing along with AG because they know all the words would not recognise a cultural icon of a previous generation - how quickly they forget.

ANNyway, Lisa di Antonmaria Gherardini was born in Firenze on 15th June 1479. She never got to taste Firenze's famous Sou'wester Cake because that's from another time . . . and another place. But the consensus is that she lived a longish and happy life; hence the enigmatic smile. She married, at 15!, a cloth-merchant in Firenze called Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, was comfortable financially and had six children (one daughter died young) and passed away, in the fullness of her years (for those days! next week I'll be the same age as she died and I'm not quite ready to go yet) in July 1542. Her, now mega-famous, portrait was begun by Leonardo da Vinci in 1503, when she was in her 20s and convincingly matronly and content - if you believe the smile.  The painting is, as everbode kno, now behind bullet-proof glass in the Louvre in Paris. Of the 10 million people who visit the Louvre each year, 80% of them are poured out of tour-buses so that they can tick the been-there-done-that box in their itinerary.  That's 20,000 people a day trooping past and ignoring the amazing treasures that are in other rooms of the old royal palace. The folks back home in Kyoto, after all, think that the Nike of Samothrace is a brand of shoe. Why not listen to Emma Durrant talking about something Louvrelse in her best Dublinese.

The portrait, although commissioned by the Giocondo family, was whisked away by da Vinci who continued to work on it for another ten years in Italy and France and I don't think it ever got to hang in the Giocondo's hallway. Accordingly, knowledge of its provenance was lost and speculation grew legs.  Many famous women were seriously suggested as being the model: Isabella d'Aragona,Cecilia Gallerani, Costanza d'Avalos, Isabella d'Este, Pacifica Brandano, Isabela Gualanda, Caterina Sforza. There is even supposition that the actual sitter was Leonardo himself in his pre-beard days, or his impish assistant Salái. The latter claim is vigorously disputed by the suits at the Louvre.
In 2005, Armin Schlechter, a scholar blowing dust off the antient folios in the archives of Heidelberg U discovered a marginal note in a copy of Cicero's Letters written in 1503 by Agostino Vespucci. Seeing the painter Appeles referred to by Cicero, Vespucci wrote in ink "Apelles pictor. Ita Leonardus Vincius facit in omnibus suis picturis, ut enim caput Lise del Giocondo et Anne matris virginis. Videbimus, quid faciet de aula magni consilii, de qua re convenit iam cum vexillifero. 1503 octobris" [Translation]. Scribble scribble Mr Vespucci tsk! That sort of thing may well remind you of  the most famous marginalia Hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet written by Fermat and serving as a challenge to Mathematicians for the next 350 years. Incidentally Agostino was cousin and contemporary of Amerigo Vespucci whose name was attached to the New World over much stronger claims by other explorers.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Mental load

As you know, if you've been here before, I surf a corner of the blogosphere which starts at 8-10 jumping off points and then goes off down any rabbit-holes that there present. Even these same-wavelength places have quite long fallow periods where there is nothing that captures my imagination - heck, that might be me in one of my downers. Then there will be a flurry of stuff that calls [yoo-hoo, you!] to be followed up.  If we still had children at foot, or I was a proper farmer, or I rejigged my course notes every year at The Institute, then I wouldn't have time for butterfly hops about other men's flowers.  Then again, I didn't start bloggin' myself until I was furiously busy at a new job and only a week ahead of my students.  I wouldn't say something like "If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it." that was Lucille Ball, I just lived it.  aNNyway, one of those jump-stations is Metafilter aka The Blue and the other day I saw a piece about role-filling in heterosexual relationships; that in turn was citing an original source. That source is interesting because it helps builds my knowledge of contemporary colloquial French because the author Emma is a thirty-something cartoonist who writes in French Faillait demander but gets her stuff translated into English You Should've asked when it goes viral. Her bailiwick is "Politique, trucs pour réfléchir et intermèdes ludiques"; which is whatever is floating her boat this week.

When I worked in the zoo in Rotterdam in the late 1970s, we all mucked [literally a lot of the time] in together but joked [*] that some of the daily tasks were vrouwenplicht - women's duty - while others were for The Men. As the latest addition to the team, I did all the [vrouwenplicht!] cleaning and polishing of the front panes of all the aquariums as soon as i started work and before Jan Publiek was allowed in to grub them up with their poky, pointy finger prints.
*you could make such jokes in those days without
fear of being called up by an Offense Tribunal.

Emma's position is that, although modern chaps fondly believe [ahhh bless, 'em] that they carry half the sky around the house -
  • they change diapers nowadays, 
  • can wash dishes or or at least load the dish-washer
  • can clean a toilet and mop the bathroom floor
  • cook up a storm for eight on the weekend - esp if barbecue involved
  • as well as the [bizarrely: who makes these decisions?] manly stuff
    • take out the trash
    • mow the lawn
    • wash the car
    • fix light-fittings
in fact all the mental heavy lifting is carried out by women.  The extensive commentary on Metafilter seems to agree.

We live in changing times! My father never changed a diaper in his life. I could and did; both in the 1970s with The Boy and in the 1990s with Dau.I and Dau.II. I could also sew on a button, turn up a trouser-cuff, cook, bake flapjacks, wash dishes and saucepans and clean a bath. But I remember, when Dau.I was about 8 weeks old, I was tasked to look after her for several hours while The Beloved went to a business meeting in town. At the end of the afternoon, the child was clean, fed and uninjured BUT diaper bin hadn't been emptied; there were dishes in the sink; the laundry was one wash behind schedule; the bed was unmade; and I had no idea whether there was sufficient tea, sugar or eggs in the house. I sent a You Should've asked link to the family and got two responses.
  • One from The Boy pointing out that the French do less housework than any other civilised country.  Skeptix alert: that is published in a British newspaper; an average of 16hrs/wk in France compared to 19hrs/wk in UK and you may be sure that stacks of ménages français do more [and less] than the UK average - the data distribution is going to be heavy on the variation and low of the average.
  • One from The Boy's partner: "SO not true in our house!"
That tells me that, in one family [so anecdote not data!], over three generations, The Man is stepping up to the plate and not just stepping up with a plate waiting for it to be filled.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Having it all

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
WB Yeats b 13 June 1865
As I am reminded by word-a-day today is the birthday of W.B.Yeats. As it happens, two years ago on his sesquicentenniel, I had a go at the dichotomy in the poet's life expressed by his poem The Choice quoted in full above.  A case could be made that Yeats was both pompous and self-regarding and his pursuit of Maude Gonne was annoying and her daughter goaty, but some of his poems sing in a way that they can be readily appreciated by children. Others are full of references which boiled up to the surface from the turmoil in his mind and finished up on the page.  That makes him a suitable subject for scholarly research and the bane of the lives of Irish students sitting Leaving Certificate English. That's what they do in the Arts Block - try to track down the references and sources of poets long dead.  That's why it's important to speak to creative people now before they schlep off to the heavenly mansion - saves time later when all you have is a bunch of letters and manuscripts.  You can check out the spoken word of , for example John Maynard Smith, at WebOfStories.  Then again, if you ask people - Harlan Ellison - Cédric Villani - where their ideas come from they'll probably have a madey-uppy story that is only partially true.

ANNyway, contra Yeats, I am sure you can live both a virtuous life and create a body of work that will amuse and edify after your death.  Not tooo virtuous, that would be boring but you should try to live the life you have rather than think too much about positioning yourself in posterity. It is most likely that you and everything you did/wrote will be entirely forgotten 50 years after you peg out . . . except by your grandchildren. As evdence I offer the difficulty I had trying to locate a single photograph of Jane Gibson.

This gives me an excuse to recommend Michael "Moneyball" Lewis's 2012 commencement address at Princeton.  It is a nice exercise in humility and hubris in recommending that we at least pretend to believe that nobody makes their own fortune. It's not really to do with naked ambition getting to the top by placing a boot in the faces of those under him on the ladder; we can all escape from where we started if we form an orderly queue.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Toponymie Bretonne

I was reading about the tales of Sir Charles Malcolm's feats of derring-do as a naval officer. He was part of the final invasion of Metropolitan France in the Napoleonic Wars: a raid on Abervrach in Brittany in which the Brits captured a number of vessels in the harbour and sailed them out for prize money. That was on 18 July 1815, a full month after Waterloo and three days after Napoleon had surrendered to Captain Maitland on HMS Bellerophon off the coast of Rochefort. It was lucky for Malcolm that there was no radio in 1815 because the war effectively came to an end on 15th July 1815 500km to the SE on HMS Bellerophon.

Abervrach? I asked, that looks peculiarly Welsh and it is because what we now call L'Aber-Wrac'h is the most Northerly of the rias of La Côte des Abers, the multiply indented coast of Brittany formed when the valleys of numerous rivers were flooded with sea-water at the end of the last Ice Age. Ria is the technical term to geologists - that word has been corralled from Galician=Gallego where a similar coast line is found. And, of course, both places were the End of the World Cabo Fisterra or Cabo Finisterre [ES] for the Iberian version and Finistère which is the département marking the end of the Breton peninsula. I've been to Cabo Fisterra with The Boy and drunk a toast to the setting sun in super romantic circumstances.  The nearest we've got to Finistère was a holiday we spent in a gîte in the arm-pit of Britanny between Nantes and La Rochelle in 1984. The gîte was a cottage in a marsh; the floor of the garage was 5cm deep in seep for the whole week we were there; and the mosquitoes were the size of humming birds.

Aber and Inver are essentially the same word in the two branches of Celtic. I've given a short explanation of the difference between P-Celtic (Breton, Cornish and Welsh) and Q-Celtic (Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic) languages and how a consonantal shift made it harder for people from different parts of NW Europe to communicate. Aber is very common in Wales: Aberfan, Aberdovey, Aberystwith but is outnumber 3:1 in Scotland by placenames beginning Inver-.  The Aber-s are mainly in the East = Aberdeen while the Inver-s are N and W = Inverness.

Mais revenons nous à la Bretagne! Charles Malcolm's raiding party cunningly landed upstream of the harbour at Kerzalou. The landscape is peppered with Ker- names: Kerhavell, Kerbérénez, Kerougoun and Kergongan are all within a couple of km of Kerzalou.  So what have got? All my info is from Claude Evans at U Toronto and Pierre Flatrès [fr.wikipedia] at  Université de Haute Bretagne.
  • Aber = estuary
  • Ker = stronghold village ultimately from the particle kag-ro Old British for enclosure. Equivalent to Welsh Caer-
  • Plou = parish ultimately from the Latin for people plebem 
  • Lan = monastery or place of worship; equivalent to Welsh Llan and frequently translated in French as 'Saint' Lanlouran = Saint Laurent.
  • Loc = place ultimately from Latin locus
  • Tre ultimately comes from Trève a division of a parish; or an old Celtic root Treb = a settlement.  I have mentioned Tre Pol and Pen as place- and personal names in Cornwall.
Somewhere we have a photograph of a very happy Pat the Salt drinking a glass of cold white sitting in a hot bath in Plouhinec on the South coast of Brittany. For a few years he ran a hotel in Kilkee = Cill Chaoineadh Ita [the church of the lamentation of Saint Ita] in County Clare which could claim to be Ireland's Finisterre as the next parish West is L'Anse aux Meadows [prev] in Newfoundland. aNNyway Pat and Souad were instrumental is getting the town of Kilkee twinned with the commune of Plouhinec in the 1980s. When they retired in the 1990s, the family clubbed together to send them to visit their old drinking buddies in Brittany.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

votie totie

Here is the story of the UK election is microcosm. My sister lives in Stroud in Gloucestershire about halfway between leafy Cheltenham [GCHQ] and industrial, University-town Bristol. Stroud has a peculiar mix of people: tree-huggers and poets (Laurie Lee); it used to be a mill-town; bankers who commute to London; shop-keepers who sell stuff; retirees who collect the pension and spend it locally. Dau.I also lived there for four years until she repatriated herself  6 months ago. There is therefore a bit of an edge between traditional Labour voters and those who naturally vote Conservative. In the 2015 election, the big issue was Brexit but also the old Left/Right ideals that have engaged voters since the Great Reform Bill of 1932. In 2015, the Conservative candidate won; this time round UKIP was irrelevant (having achieved its one-issue manifesto) and Labour, 5,000 votes behind, really had to up its game if it was to prevail against the Poll-ratings when the election was called.
Party
2015
2017
Diff
Labour/Coop
22947
29994
+9.30%
Con
27813
29307
+0.20%
LibDem
2086
2053
-0.20%
Green
2779
1423
-2.30%
UKIP
4848
1039
-6.30%
Voters
60819
63816
+1.50%
3,000 more people came out of the woodwork in 2017, and presumably many of those were The Youth voting for the first time. In Stroud UKIP people seem to have transferred mostly to the Labour guy and I guess many of the Greens turned Red. The Sister would be a natural Green but voted tactically for the Labour candidate. But she didn't want to see her first preference go unrecorded so she signed onto SwapMyVote and agreed to vote Labour IF a stranger in another constituency voted Green.  Her vote for Green wasn't sufficient to get a second Green MP over the line. SwapMyVote is a child of the social media age - how it works - but serves as a stop-gap until the UK really embraces political diversity.  A bit more than a stop-gap, maybe; it serves as a way of showing that there is a real desire for wider platforms in politics. The alternative is to not vote at all because it is nall a waste of time and deeply alienating and depressing that your vote - as a green, as a gay, as an actor, as a separatist, as a republican, as an immigrant - counts for nothing which you care about.

Finally, some commentary on the Results. "Jonathan Pie" longer version starring Afshin Rattansi. Labour apparatchik Alastair Campbell on why embracing the DUP to shore up a minority government is politically insane [go to 2.22 mins] w.r.t. the Northern Ireland peace process.

Sunday sundae 110617

There I was trying to define a short ton - a measure of weight used only in the US - and I found myself at the National Institute of Standard and Technology NIST, Fossicking about there I found a recruitment screen for CSI:
That's quite enough work for an over-taxed brain on the weekend. There follows some light relief.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Cautiously hopeful

A good day for democracy across the water.  The Brits, they do love an under-dog and are happy to see hubris chastised. I was very bitter and twisted about Brexit ,which struck me as an example of the folly of the democratic process. Last year, the people of the UK were given a referendum on whether to remain in the EU or leave. They got that, rare for them, access to direct democracy because of an election promise made by the British Prime Minister to bring the right-wing of the Conservative party back into line and to undermine the rise and rise of UKIP the UK Independence Party. That seemed like shoo-in but turned into a shit-storm when the electorate -  widely ignorant of the economic or social effects of being in or out of the EU - voted by a narrow majority to leave. Brexit is divisive and polarising because nearly half the voted wanted to remain but now have to leave because their parents and grandparents remember WWII . . . and Waterloo . . . and Blenheim . . . and Agincourt.

Old fashioned socialists believe in tempering ambition and profit with some care for the dispossesed. For them the result of the election, which Labour lost, had them capering about the streets with undisguised glee: Anywhere but Westminster - Jonathan Pie.  Pie chortles "This is The End of New Labour" because Jeremy Corbyn the current Labour leader is the sort of old fashioned, scruffy, beardy, tree-hugging, anti-war socialist that went out of fashion in the 1980s as the patrimony of the country - the housing, the transport infrastructure, the telecoms were sold to the highest bidder in an effort to make things more efficient. First by the Conservatives on a tide of patriotic jingoism durimg and after the Falklands War and then by the 'New' Labour Party.led by Tony 'Weasel' Blair which moved firmly to the Centre and carried on the same careless populism which saw the haves have more and the have-nots get nothing-at-all.  All my adult life the two main political parties fought for the centre because [normal Gaussian bell-curve distribution] that held the most people. In short order you couldn't tell the difference between Left and Right because they all bought into the politics of market capitalism: low taxes . . . to incentivise; low benefits and welfare . . . to incentivise. This would all work IF there were enormous amounts of feather-bedding and sinecures in the public service [which there probably was] ANDIF uneducated young people could find a job if they cycled far enough from home. Margaret Thatcher, to whom Theresa May is too often compared, famously said "There is no such thing as society" but that soundbyte needs to be put into context ro understand her intent.  It is too easy to hear those words quoted in the pub and go first quiet, then angry and then shouty. Heck, if it was easy to solve the manifold problems of a post-industrial society, then we-the-people or our elected representatives would have sorted them.

The election delivered an unexpected change in the balance of power: far from giving the Conservatives a larger share of parliamentary seats so that Theresa May has a stronger mandate for negotiating Brexit, they are now 8 seats short of a majority. A disastrous result for the Tories and Theresa May, personally, not to mention 33 Tory MPs who thought they had a comfy billet until 2021 and now have to get in the limousines to find a job. But it is a good day for diversity. There is now a strong, stable, loyal opposition who will put a stop to the gallop of a Hard Brexit and temper the shameful disparagement of them foreign johnnies by little englanders. It is a pity that the demographics expose the fissures in the no-such-thing-as-society: old vs young; urban vs suburban (there is, to the nearest whole %,  no rural population left in England); white vs others; haves vs dispossessed.  This is why Labour and Corbyn could not - dare not - campaign to roll back the Brexit referendum fiasco because their support came from two almost irreconcilable constituencies: educated youth who are overwhelmingly pro-Europe and the post-industrial ghettos of London, the North and the Midlands who have no clear current or future role and so look back to a rosy fantasy past of cream cake, strong tea, the Blitz and Dunkirk.

Let's look at the data which expose a real and present inequity in the antiquated system of voting from which the UK seems unable to progress. Here are the numbers
Party
Seats
NetGain
Pop%
Seat%
Con
318
-13
42.5
48.9
Lab
262
32
40.0
40.3
SNP
35
-19
3.0
5.4
LibDem
12
3
7.4
1.8
DUP
10
2
0.9
1.5
SinnFein
7
3
0.7
1.1
 Plaid Cymru
4
1
0.5
0.6
 Green
1
0
1.6
0.2
 Ind
1
-4
0.5
0.2
UUP
0
-2
0.3
0.0
 SDLP
0
-3
0.3
0.0
 UKIP
0
0
1.8
0.0
 Other
0
0
0.5
0.0
Total
650
The anomalies thrown up by first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all electoral system means that the largest party tends to get far more seats than the popular vote would give them (compare Pop % and Seat % for Labour and Conservative: by rights the seats should be C 276 vs L 262. And the LibDems should have nearer 50 seats than 12. The only hope minority interests and alternative parties have is when they are geographically constrained: Scottish Nationist Party SNP gets almost 2x the seats they deserve, while Plaid Cymru in Wales and Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein in Norhern Ireland all punch above their weight.  Half a million people voted Green, that 'should' be enough to secure 10 seats but they only retained Brighton Pavillion. UKIP likewise should have won 12 seats but got nothing. Check out your auntie's constituency with the Guardian. Wider view of the result with Vox. In Ireland we have multi-seat constituencies so a lot more than 2 main parties and interests get to secure representation. This is not great for government either because too many woowah single interest people get elected and have to be squared - Free the Gays; Free Water; Free Univesity; Free treatment for CF; Free fish on Fridays; Freedonia!