Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Thinking wrong thoughts

No no I'll spare you an essay on the nature of sin, I'm not that sort of boy. Here 'wrong' is about thoughts that cause us to do the wrong thing by making erroneous judgments because we are too lazy to work out what the correct answer is. My current book is Thinking - Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman [R with Presidential Medal of Freedom ribbon] which came out for the Christmas market in 2011 and caused a massive stir among the chattering classes = The Guardian. Someone (me?) gave me a copy either that Christmas or the next one and I said I'd read it later. Later is now and amazingly two quite different stories that I had flagged as possible blob-copy have their origins in TF&S; it's weird reading the antecedents after the offspring.

The book is full of neat stories and anecdotes that I want to share, and you're advised to see if you can find a cheap reading copy for 0.01c . . . you can't but for £/$1.99 it is yours! The first point is the assertion that thinking takes energy and there are various appropriate-technology ways you can prove this for yourself. Years ago the clever wags of the american media assassinated the character of President Gerald Ford by saying that he was too thick to walk and chew gum at the same time. Well we are none of us very good at such multitasking. Go for a walk with a numerate pal, ask them to multiply 23 x 47 in their head . . . and watch them stop dead to accomplish this task. Kahneman also notes that walking slowly can be good for thinking things out - he suggests that the additional blood-flow required may serve as a rising tide to float some boats in the brain. But his experience is that walking faster, so that the heart rate and the breathing increases detectably plays merry hell with your ability to think clearly. Our body just doesn't have the capacity -in glucose and oxygen - to think and exercise.

Another point which we have sorted out now since TF&S is that multitasking is no such thing, it is task-switching. Our brains, like single processor computers, can only do one thing at a time and if we switch back and forth fast enough it can look [to ourselves and others] that we are doing them both [or all!] simultaneously. Multitasking is a damn-fool business because task-switching itself is a significant drain on the budget and flip-flopping between tasks comes at a huge expense in energy. Better to stick to one thing and carry it through to completion, THEN do the next big thing. This is why always-on smart-phones and email-alerts are so desperately counter-productive and inefficient.

One of the reasons why I never got into the book when I first received it was the clunky and arbitrary names Kahneman gave to the Fast and Slow thinking modes - System 1 and System 2: I had no intuitive feeling that system 1 was fast; or was it the other way round? and the mental effort to remember which was which made me throw the book to the other end of the sofa. I have more stamina now. System 1 is a set of pragmatic solutions or judgments that work rather well most of time - so long as we only have to deal with finding food and avoiding predators in the Serengeti. In the modern, more complex world these knee-jerk reactions can seriously mislead us. System 2 is the rational, quantitative way that we process information which cannot be easily sorted by the simple fast-track rules. Kahneman recommends forcing yourself to engage the System 2 gears [slow] on more occasions that we are strictly comfortable with because System 2 can show that the first, knee-jerk, pub-quiz, answer is just . . . stupid.

Monday, 27 February 2017

mixed messages

We finally moved into our old granite farm-house 20 years ago this Patrick's Day. It was modest in size, at 95 sq.m split onto two floors. The walls were 500mm thick which meant a lot of thermal inertia and we had two small children at foot. Accordingly we became the first people in Co Carlow to install under-floor heating. That way, the kids could lie about on the floor without getting arthritis and the walls would heat up to a bit above ambient Winter temperatures. Oil was cheap and global warming not yet a source of guilt and worry. The system installed was a landscape of rubberised water pipes snaking all over the ground-floor over a polystyrene subfloor and under a concrete slab with earthenware tile for a finish. These pipes met under the stairs at a distribution manifold that was connected by a large pipe to the oil burner in one of the sheds. We were the last people in Ireland to use that system of rubberised pipes and that diameter manifold because engineers were realising that the life-time of the material was too short. Indeed, our manifold failed after about 12 years but was held together with cable ties and duct-tape to give another 5 years of slightly drippy service.

Two Winter's ago, I came home to a big puddle spreading out from under the manifold and that was the end of our underfloor heating. Luckily, by that time we'd raised the girls and they no longer needed to lie on the kitchen floor reading books and eating cup-cakes [which pretty much sums up their home-education curriculum]. The original parts were unobtainable and we baulked at ripping up the floor and starting again and we had a great wood-burning stove in the living room, so nobody stalks around in their undies during the Winter months. Without wishing to make too much of a virtue out of the merely familiar, I don't miss the under-floor and we're saving a mort of money on oil which is no longer cheap like it was in 1996. Nevertheless I need my hands to be warm enough to type or No Blob. Cooking is fine and there are radiators in the bedrooms upstairs as well as hot running water for a Saturday bath. A small electric fan heater works well in the kitchen so we can eat food without the fork slipping from our frozen claws.

I've taken to making a hot-water bottle and stuffing it up my jumper if I'm sitting downstairs before the fire gets up to temperature. That will last 3-4 hours in the evening and still take the icy chill off the bed come lights-out. The other day, however, I was doing some research on dams and floods [currently] and found myself watching with a sort of horrified compulsion a flash flood coursing across a US interstate highway in some South-Western desert. A couple of huge 18-wheelers, operating on a time-is-money protocol, nudged their way through the stopped cars, revved up, then drove through the flood and away. Another chap impatient waited a minute and then started off in the same direction. As his front wheels got to deeper water they lifted off and the car started slewing towards the road margin which fell away in a boiling torrent across the desert. He stopped, the car paused and the camera operator urged him to "back up dude, that's not sensible" . . . the hazard lights came on but there was no more movement and eventually the tide seemed to ebb a bit. Suddenly I felt sick. I got up, threw away the hot-water bottle had a small drink of cold water and went and stood outside in the cold darkness for a few minutes.  That put a stop to the barf's gallop but I wasn't sure if it might be driven by some dodgy pork mince (Aldi special at €2/500g) and would return with a vengeance later that night. A while later I took myself off to bed - gratifyingly 'fresh' - and woke the next morning right-as-rain.

Here's what I think happened: luckily I have taken my own course in Human Physiology so I know a thing or two about how the body maintains its equilibria. In my lectures on the nervous system, I spend a lot of time on the two divisions of the autonomic nervous system ANS . . . because every year I set an exam question similar to "Compare and contrast the sympathetic and para-sympathetic divisions of the ANS with respect to their neurotransmitters; sites of ganglia; length and branch pattern of the post ganglionic neurons and connexions with the central nervous system". That is fishing for a response about how the sympathetic division is for fright, flight and fight responses mediated by adrenalin and the para-sympathetic uses acetyl-choline for rest & digest to recuperate and replenish after the drain on resources induced by a flood of adrenalin. Adrenalin primes all sorts of systems to get ready for some running, jumping or punching:
  • glucose is mobilised into the circulation
  • your bronchi expand to max up the oxygen intake
  • heart rate goes up to shunt these energy sources to their destination
  • muscles tense or flex
  • pupils dilate to get maximal information
  • you stop peeing to conserve water for sweating
    • you start sweating
  • blood is diverted from the guts
    • there's time to finish the meal if you survive
Parasypathetic reverses pretty much all of these, especially the last, so that you can win some calories back for the next crisis. My bout of nausea came about because the hot-water bottle was causing a lot of intestinal warming and circulation [parasympathetic] but the youtube video was cranking me into a state of anxiety [sympathetic] and the conflict in my ANS was saying "something is not right, I think I'll jettison the last thing I ate just in case".

Now here's another conflict of interest scenario. One of the things you do on a date is take your potential squeeze out for a meal. A large part of that should be rest and digest which kicks in the parasympathetic system and that contracts the pupils in the eyes . . . but you both need your pupils open because that indicates 'interest'.  It's one of the subliminal checks you do as your eyes flick over your partner's face. One cheap and cheerful way to resolve this is to eat in such poor light that your pupils are wide open trying to locate your wine-glass - hence the popularity of candle-lit dinners. If you were a young wan in the court of Louis XIII you might have achieved a similar advantageous effect with Prince Charmant by consuming a smidgeon of deadly-nightshade before the ball. Indeed the Latin name for this member of the tomato/potato/aubergine family Atropa belladonna [ie beautiful lady] makes this use clear. The active chemical atropine is an antagonist of the action acetyl-choline the parasympathetic neurotransmitter and so prevents the muscles of the pupils from contracting. But, it's the parasympathetic system and the effects of oral atropine are systemic and two smidgeons of the stuff can be fatal, whence the common names deadly nightshade or in French cerise de diable.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Nothing worse?

Since September at The Institute I've been the adult in the room AIRT for a group of final year students doing their research projects. In an ideal world, this would occupy a very large chunk of their time: putting all they have learned in the previous three years into scientific practice. In fact it takes up a mere a chunk [rather than v.l. ditto] and we continue to lurry in more curriculum content which only helps to impede the crucial sifting and integration of facts and concepts. These students, let's call them the A-Team because that's what they call themselves, have chosen to push the frontiers of molecular evolution using computers, software and databases rather than by flipping Eppendorfs or pouring Petri dishes. We have great esprit de corps and typically spend the first few minutes of each class with some gossip and slaggin' before everyone turns to the work before them.

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Isaac Newton
The great thing about science is that there are plenty of pebbles to go round!

The other day, who knows how? we were talking about cookies and someone pipes up "There's nothing worse when you bite into what you think is a chocolate chip cookie and your teeth encounter a raisin" to which one of her pals calls out "You should try HIV".

In the fracas over the stitching up of Sergeant McCabe by circulating a covert and demonstrably incorrect report that he was an abuser of children, many politicians and journalists referred to the accusation as the worst thing that could be said about anyone.  Hmmm, that shows a distinct, and lazy, want of imagination.

It reminds me of a very old frisson joke (must be old: I heard it is school and that was before the first war):
Young person is told by person in authority that s/he has done wrong and will be punished with a whipping:
"No No not the whip, anything but the whip."
"The whip! The whip!"

And that put me back 50 years to the place where I received a chunk of my very expensive education between 1968 and 1972. My older brother, in his last year in school, was promoted to being the boy in charge BIC of a large group of smaller chaps. He was like the non-commissioned officer managing the HR with a specified adult called the house-master. Civil rights were in the air and these two young men decided that corporal punishment - hitting small boys with a stick - was no longer going to happen on their watch. They issued a diktat to that effect, adding that transgressors would be called in to reflect on their sins and misdemeanours; the better to understand why such behaviour was unacceptable in that society. Well there was mutiny in the ranks! Most thirteen year old boys can put up with [indeed embrace in many cases] physical hardship, not to dwell on the pain, but are much less well equipped for Ethics 101.

One dam thing after another

A bunch of allll wet links
  • I had a bit of a hysterical flap about wrote about the Oroville Dam crisis. It seems to have abated, and 200,000 people are returning home after some enforced camping on high ground, although the repair of the spillway is looking at a $100 million bill.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

cartographie des affaires de corruption

Sweetener, dash, kick-back, pot-de-vin, brown envelope, whenever you want something done you can find someone who will expedite your case if you grease the wheels of the bureaucracy. I'm not sure if I have actual readers in France, rather than a particularly active [deranged] scan-bot, but my page-views from that country currently out-number the rest of the world. Alors, mes gars, I thought you'd be interested in this graphical display of cartographie des affaires de corruption in the sea-green incorruptible [a reference to Robespierre the revolutionary with rectitude] Republic. Because you never know when you might need a little help.  According to the perception of corruption survey 2016, France is up 2 places to #23 nudging out Chile but still behind Estonia. Despite my pal Pepe's proud assertion Spain is less corrupt than Syria or Sudan.

You're out of luck if you live in, or are thinking of moving to, Ardennes [77], Cantal [97], Cher [73], Creuse [100], Gers [90], Loir-et-Cher [71], Nièvre [87], or  Sarthe [46]. These departments have 0 [nul nix nada zonders] cases of corruption. The numbers [N] are the position in the list of the 101 départements when sorted by order of population.  You will note that only one of these corruption-free zones is in the top half of the country as regards number of people. Sarthe is located between Paris and Brittany. Its biggest centres are Le Mans, La Flèche, and Sablé-sur-Sarthe: it's okay if you've not heard of the other two because they muster rather less that 30,000 inhabitants [all scrupulously honest] between them.  The first case cited in the Big Think study is that of Roland Dumas who ripped off the family of Giacometti - but I scooped that story earlier this month.

I'm currently reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman which looks under the stones to find the basis of bias: some of the case-studies expose the fallability of our minds but some are just errors due to statistics: such as the Law of Small Numbers. If corruption - or whatever you're having yourself - is rare then you're unlikely to find any cases in a small population. If you're formulating policy, it is clearly more sensible to report the thing you're interested in as a rate [count/population] rather than a raw count. But even if you do that, the small number problem doesn't go away; indeed it tends to get magnified because of the rule of extreme events.

If you have a friend you can carry out an experiment to show this:
  1. get an urn
  2. throw out your grand-father's ashes
  3. put 100 red and 100 white marbles in the urn
  4. you draw out 4 marbles and note their colours
  5. your oppo draws out 7 marbles and note their colours 
  6. both of you note and count the cases where you get all one colour
Q1. Who will get more extreme [all red or all white or NO cases of corruption] events?
Bonus Q: How much more?
Turns out that the 4 marble case will have 8 times ! the number of all-same events compared to the 7 marble draw. You do the math after you have recovered from your surprise. One example cited by Kahneman is the hot spots of kidney cancer rate in US counties. Educated epidemiologists were concerned and surprised when it transpired that cancer rates were disproportionately high in small rural counties [example for most dangerous counties see R from] but they manfully found just-so explanations about exposure to pesticides because farmers are thick as pig-dribble and won't wear protective clothing. Until someone flipped the data and showed that small rural counties also headed the pack for areas which had the lowest rates of kidney cancer; which, of course, you can explain with a story about fresh vegetables, clean water and attendance at church.

Except that there is nothing to explain because the rate is going to fluctuate wildly in small communities.  These data are just data until you start to sink money into some cunning plan on the basis of the numbers. As did the Gates Foundation on foot of a finding that small school were disproportionately represented in the top 'successful' schools; they invested $1,7 billion in dismembering mega-schools into smaller units until someone pointed out that small schools were also packing the opposite tail of the distribution. One smart kid, from a class of 20 high-school graduates, making it to Harvard will rocket her school into the elite category. Next year the school's success will have rapidly regressed to the mean.

Interesting [with maps!] investigation of the Law of Small Numbers using Canadian and US data and suggesting that Bayesian [bloboprev] methods can be used to calculate 'surprisingness' as a second order function from the raw counts. I have to work really hard to get my head round conditional probability and Saturday is my Sofa-time, so I'll leave the heavy lifting to you cher lecteur.

Saturday Miscellany 250217

MiscLinks Sat25Feb17

Friday, 24 February 2017

Unintended consequences

I was writing recently about how taxes not only raise revenue but also shape the behaviour of the citizenry. For everyone reading this, there are choices to be made every day: either upgrade the Porsche or take a second Winter holiday; buy an apple or an orange for teacher; install a new kitchen [the cupboard doors are sooo yesterday] or fund a school-room for girls in Uganda. This is all very abstemious and Protestant but a consequence of desiring more stuff than we can afford.

I got my first proper job in 1983, returning from Boston where I'd worked really hard for buttons to get my doctorate, I secured the penultimate job in population genetics in England before that sub-discipline sunk beneath the tsunami of molecular biology. It wasn't a great job as regards salary - I think it was a tad over £8,000/year - but it was a three year contract which allowed me to get experience teaching and carrying out independent research,  It was the Thatcher years and all sorts of incentives were being showered on the middle classes or those who aspired to join that club. A, with hindsight shameful, policy to sell off the state-owned housing stock was coupled with a scheme called MIRAS Mortgage Interest Relief At Source. This plan allowed ordinary people to buy a home and offset a good part of their mortgage repayments against whatever income-tax they were paying. If you were renting - no dice.

After three years finding my feet and getting my theatre-performance lectures nailed, the University offered me another 3 year contract and we spent that Summer looking at houses in Heaton. This area was made up of Edwardian red-brick terraces, 1930s semi-detatched with gardens and a quite absurd number of non-conformist chapels and no pubs. The absence of pubs was due to a stipulation of the original land-owner of the fields that were built over. It was rather less salubrious than Jesmond where we had been renting for the previous three years; but Heaton had aspirations and was upwardly mobile. We bought the second cheapest house we viewed (the cheapest had a hole in the roof and pigeons in the loft) and acquired a mix of neighbours. Our affluent pals in London urged us to buy the most we could afford but we didn't want the debt and were risk-averse. 37 Cheltenham Terrace cost us £21,000.

At about the same time, the Conservative government decided that academics were not being paid enough and all workers in the University / Polytechnic sector were given a 25% pay hike over two years 15% + 10%.  We'd been doing alright up to then and living within budget, so this was windfall money. I promptly went out and bought a Technics stereo system from Japan. In doing so I helped contribute to the death of the electronics industry in the UK to follow steel, coal, cotton, pottery, ship-building into post-industrial oblivion. Very slow hand clap.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Coff coff - particulates

I have been known to rant on about the relative size of things [I - II - III]: I find that knowledge really get me a handle on how things work. It helps if you can internalize the fact that the pancreas must be bigger that insulin; in the same way as Ford's factory in Dagenham is bigger than any one Ford Mondeo constructed there. A typical bacterium is 1μm = 1 micron in diameter; while a red blood cell is 10μm across. But in matters of size the volume or mass - the cube of the linear dimensions is often more useful. That r.b.c., for example is 1000x the volume of the bacterium.

This was all in the front of my thinking on Tuesday night 21-02-17 because it was Science Café Night at Wexford; as it is every Third Tuesday of the month. Our presenter at SciCaffWx works for the local County Council as their Environmental Officer. He's the bloke who makes sure that the earth can probably take the discharge of the septic tank [prev] before the CoCo grants planning permission for a one-off mansion with 'garage' the size of a laborer's cottage.  He talked with authority about the EU Water Framework Directive back in 2015. Ireland is gradually, reluctantly acknowledging that we can't keep throwing any old shite in the rivers and seas. There are too many of us now and our effluent is way more than half a kilo of poo each day. All those conveniences - food, transport, stuff, plastic - and the by-products of their manufacture needs to be disposed of somehow, somewhere.

But this week it was clear that Brendan's brief was broader than the quality of water. He has lately turned to air-quality and in this he is way ahead of the national Environmental Protection Agency or other bodies which have an interest in monitoring what we breathe. First off he defined some terms: PM10 is particulate matter with a diameter of about 10μm; PM2.5 is a quarter of that and PM1 is 1 micron across. The instruments which measure the stuff are so calibrated to give readings for these three classes of micro-matter. The WHO guidelines are that there should be no more than 50μg/m3 in the air. Hmmmm, actually there is no safe level of black sooty particulates in the air we breathe, but WHO has set 50μg as an attainable exceedance value.

In 1992, I forced my attentions upon met one of the Greats of 20thC biology John Maynard Smith at a conference dinner. Apart from Life the Universe and Everything, we talked about the appalling quality of the Winter air in Dublin, where Maynard Smith's daughter was working at the time. He asserted that people in Dublin would throw pretty much aNNything on the grate if it had some calorific content: old inner tubes, sneakers, twigs, broken pallets, milk-cartons. The consequence was a pall of bilious smoke roiling about in the canyons of the terraced streets <coff> <coff>.  It was true, I cycled through it every night on my way home from work. That same year Mary Harney, the Minister of Health, declared Dublin a smoke-free zone, which meant that it became illegal to sell bituminous coal within the city. Peat was exempt for political expediency because it was exclusively produced by the semi-state Bord na Mona - the Turf Board. Nevertheless peat briquettes were/are quite desperate as regards particulates whatever claims they might have on patriotic duty.  The trouble with smokeless coal is that it burned at a much higher temperature [hence smokeless, lads] than aNNy-old-shite and so was rumoured to burn through a normal cast-iron fire grate in short order.

That smokey coal ban was eventually rolled out to other cities and towns across the land . . . but not on to the countryside where political expediency maintains that there is no air pollution. In a small town like Wexford it is only 5 minutes in the car to the nearest creamery that sells Polish [high particulate] coal. I don't think there has been a single prosecution for burning the wrong coal in the wrong place - it's a) unenforceable and b) politically dangerous because the rich don't burn coal they have oil- or gas-fired central heating but the poor are allowed to vote. Despite the leakiness of the legislation, there has been a definite improvement of air quality when you take the trouble to measure it (as they do in Wexford CoCo):
That is a seven day snapshot of particulates captured from the air this week in the middle of Wexford town [pop 20,000]. There is a single spike at tea-time on the 19th Feb 2017 where the value is 60% higher than WHO guidelines say it should be [the red horizontal line]. It also shows that the PM1 values are not really contributing to the load but bumbling along the bottom of the graph. That is a Good Thing because these smaller particles penetrate deeper into the lungs and actually cross the alveolar epithelium and enter the blood. The PM10s otoh tend to stick to the nasal and esophageal epithelium and get swept up and out by the action of the cilia. otoh-otoh, by sticking to the esophagus and being rich in complex aromatic chemicals they give a bit of a leg-up to esophageal cancer.  In New Ross [pop 10,000], contrariwise, a town with no smokeless zone, the spikes are much higher and more frequent:
It looks like pretty much every evening there is a huge spike of black matter into the air in preparation to the gathering of the family after a day or school and work. It can't be good and there is a sense that the government might one of these years bite the bullet and roll out the bituminous coal ban across the whole Republic. Air pollution kills! WHO data suggests that particulates in the air are the cause of 1/8 of deaths globally. Strokes, ischaemic heart disease, cancer, acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases are all linked to excess particulate matter in the air. We've been talking about open fires and what gets burned in them. There's a whole other story about internal combustion engines; particularly diesels idling away in a traffic jam. Two images to hold in your mind:
How's your inhaler? At SciCaffWex, we all got so excited by the data [see above in colour] which is being generated live about particulates that we started to speculate about how it might be matched with adverse health effects. Asthma is so common now that every third person has an inhaler - although most of them don't know how to use it effectively. I wondered if there might be an App [everyone has a smart-phone now] which would pick up the sqrtttt sound of a puffer and send that with GPS coordinates to a central register, picking up the nearest particulate count data on the way. Apparently not: keeping the phone alert for the sound would be a mighty drain on the battery. Other cleverer ideas were tabled among the beer mats. It works, the Science Café.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Gadzooks gazongas

What is it about British blokes and boobs? Do we really fancy the enormous variety? All of us? Is it a cultural thing from decades of page 3 women in the tabloid press or some sort of trigger to the autonomic nervous system or a fine example of run-away evolution driven by sexual selection: like peacock feathers, bird-of-paradise tails, or bright blue baboon buttocks. There is clearly a lot of scope for investigation but you'll have to go to the sister channel boobthescientist for that.

On the other hand, today is the 20th anniversary of the announcement of Dolly the Sheep who had been born the previous 5th July 1996. Dolly was the first large mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. See L for the cloning process that involved 3 mothers for one small, desperately cute, lamb. The cell that provided the chromosomes was from the mammary gland of a mature Finn-Dorset ewe and Ian Wilmut, the research team leader, really wanted to acknowledge the donor tissue by tribbing the top-heavy generously endowed singer Dolly Parton.  At the time I though that was puerile in a snk snk fnarrr Viz sort of way but maybe that's just because I'm a bit priggish. The power behind the publicity facade was Keith Campbell, a developmental biologist, who had produced a pair of cloned lambs Megan and Morag the year before. But M&M were cloned from embryonic cells which were not fully differentiated. So the process was easier. Was it the name? was it a really effective press release from the Roslin Institute? Was it Wilmut's willingness to give a sound-byte or ten? Whatever, Dolly became an international megastar almost on par with her Parton namesake.  The switchboard at Roslin went white hot as it fielded 3,000 incoming calls in the succeeding days. Wilmut went on to secure a knighthood from a grateful country because he was The Face. Campbell, ten years younger, was later acknowledged to have done 66% of the work but didn't get the title. Wilmut, Campbell and Shimya Yamanaka did go on to share the 2008 Shaw Prize for Life Science and Medicine . . . and $1 million: "for their works on the cell differentiation in mammals, a process that advances our knowledge of developmental biology". Yamanaka has won many other prizes including the 2012 Nobel for his work on converting mature cells into stem cells.

Clearly, it is better to have an adult donor because the full set of desirable qualities will have been compared across many sheep and hundreds of identical super-sheep can be generated from The One. This is better than going back to the genetic lottery each generation because that mix will persist in churning up undesirable qualities or combinations of genes. It is standard process in population biology called regression to the mean: the offspring of the elite cannot be more elite than their parents so look nearer to normal. But you have to be certain-sure that the mix you go with is indeed The Best rather than only Best in the few traits that we can, or care to, measure. For sheep this might be about fleece quality, or weight-gain from weaning, or docility. But you should also try to factor in desirable qualities of disease resistance from a fizzing-good immune system. It's also handy to set it so that the cloned lamb [Dolly R with birth-mother] is genetically different from the surrogate mother. The white face could not be the genetic offspring of the Scottish blackface.

Ironically, Dolly contracted JSRV [Jaagsiekte sheep retrovirus] one of the many, many viruses to which sheep are prey [prev Schmallenberg]. This after a short happy life consorting with David the Ram to produce 6 of her own lambs: called Bonnie, Sally, Rosie, Lucy, Darcy, and Cotton, as you ask. The JSRV developed into lung-cancer and Dolly was put down in 2003. There was much critical talk that the diseases she contracted were the act of an angry god for upsetting the natural apple-cart but that's very unlikely. Dolly has four identical twin sisters Daisy, Debbie, Dianna and Denise who haven't yet gotten JSRV or arthritis. Dianna? What sort of a name is that? I bet it's to scotch any idea that Diana, Princess of Wales is being disrespected á la Dolly Parton. You wouldn't want to rile up the Windsor family - they give out the knighthoods.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Sounding off

I continue to read John Stewart Collis's The Worm Forgives The Plough and am ploughing more slowly through the second of the original pair of books. I reviewed the first a while back. The second book Down to Earth is a bit like the second of Alex Bellos' Popular Maths books: by no means without merit but with a sense of it being the bits which didn't make the cut in the first book. It is mostly about the several years he spent tidying up a few acres of unmanaged woodland. I thought I'd be more engaged with a book about woodsmanship, in which I must build some expertise because we planted a wood that will soon enough require thinning, coppicing and pruning. Maybe it's just nostalgia that made Collis so engaging when he spoke of wrestling a horse-drawn plough through the stubble or building a straw rick in the corner of the just harvested field. I'm not going to do either of those things on this planet in this life.

I learned one extraordinary thing about wood from Collis. In graduate school in America I was sparkle-eyed with admiration with my fellow student Chris Burnett that he could recognise pretty much any tree species native to New England from its Winter silhouette. I could with difficulty recognise many of them from the shape of their leaves although there are many which are like the bird-watcher's little-brown-jobs [LBJs prev] only distinguishable by experts or long experience. I am getting quite good at distinguishing which logs are going up the chimney by the smell. Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna [L above] has a peculiarly medicinal aroma, for example.

Collis asserts that each species of timber sounds different when you chop into it! That has the thunk of possibility because each species is traditionally used for different purposes. The functional utility stems from some advantageous aspect of anatomy. Ash for axe-handles, elm for hubs, oak for barrels, cedar for siding,  That would be Fraxinus excelsior, Ulmus glabrata, Quercus spp. and Thula plicata. Collis's claim gets extra traction because he later quotes Thomas Hardy as saying that his Woodlanders "From the light lashing of the twigs on their faces when brushing through them in the dark, they could pronounce upon the species of tree whence they stretched, from the quality of the wind's murmur through a bough, they could in like manner name its sort afar off". Collis then asks all the local woodlanders of his own acquaintance - 60 years on - if they are capable of this uncanny trick . . . Nope!  I'm clearly going to have to be more awake to my senses when I go down in the woods today but not turn completely credulous.

On a barely related matter, check this out: Every home kneads needs butter. Butter is kneaded elsewhere: with care and attention and these artisan butteristas pay particular attention to the sound the butter makes as it gets squidgy. I'm only half alive when/if  I concentrate merely on how the stuff tastes.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Incentives work

When I was writing last week about the middle ground of effective politics, I treated taxes as necessary to provide the infrastructure on which civilisastion depends.  But there is another side of taxation: it serves as an incentive for citizens to Do Right - as that is determined by the current ethics of society. Those ethical values are not set in stone: time was when slavery and thumping children was okay but homosexuality wasn't.  That's important because recognising those changes gives licence to push against our unconsidered certainties like right-to-life [the old rather than the unborn]; the desirability of depillating (female) oxters; that owning a car, a TV & a cell-phone and having access to broadband is a Right.

Every budget here in Ireland, the tax on booze and cigarettes is likely to increase. This generates enough money to pay for the armed forces, the justice system and all the zimmer frames the country currently requires. But, insofar as the cost of booze has an impact on consumption [not so much apparently: alcohol consumption being price elastic], taxing the stuff also reduces the rate of liver disease and drunk driving. In the 1990s we were all repelled by the drift of cheap carrier bags all over the streetscape and landscape. In March 2002, the Irish government introduced a levy of 15c on each plastic bag at point of sale. The effect was amazing, lots of people acquired canvas bags and everyone eschewed the tawdry 'free' bags and were able to empty a kitchen drawer full of the repellent sacs. Folks like me don't ignore speed limits (so much) now that speed camera vans are hidden in random dips and curves of the road network. Disincentives seem to work.

Incentives work as well, if you can write off part of your mortgage payments against income tax, then you will be encouraged out of rented accommodation and into owner-occupier land. We bit into this cherry cake in 1986 in England and have become absurdly rich as a result of getting on the 'property ladder' early. Because we had bought cheap in a rising market we had more disposable income. We didn't want to get rich but we did buy into the idea of home-ownership. Enough to take maximum advantage of the SSIA scheme in 2001-2002, a cunning plan for catching votes put out by the same government that dealt with plastic bags. SSIA allowed citizens with disposable income to save part of it regularly for 60 months and get a 25% bonus from the government at the end of five years. €254 (the max monthly) * 60 is more than €15,000 without including any interest payments. When this became accessible in 2007, the government added another €3,800. It was like the lotto! The rich (well, the hard-pressed middle) did very well out of this so long as they didn't invest their windfall/savings in property . . . in 2007 . . . at the top of the bubble. My pal K, 30 years younger than me, paid €320,000 for a new-built, shoddy-built, 2-bed flat in Outer West Dublinia where there were neither buses nor shops nor schools. The poor couldn't ante-up for a deposit [some refused on principle] so they stayed poor and because the SSIA gravy-train had left the station, they effectively became poorer. Mortgage interest relief and SSIA were among a raft of measures which pleased the middle-class voter but drove a deplorable wedge between the haves and the have-nots. K will die in debt simply because he's a generation younger than me but, even with my pension contributions in rag-order, I'll be comfortable in my old age.

Here's an interesting article about perverse incentives and unintended consequences during the birth of Australia. As everbode kno, white Australia was started as a dumping ground for undesirables after governments started to get squeamish about the death penalty for stealing a pheasant or a handkerchief. The first fleet left England on 13th may 1787 and arrived in Botany Bay 36 weeks later. The 11 ships brought more than 600 male and 172 female convicts having sustained a mortality of 5.4% on the long long voyage. We lily-livered moderns whinge on when London-Sydney takes 22 hours in tourist class. The convict transports Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Prince of Wales, Scarborough and Lady Penrhyn were contracted by the government on cost-plus basis. William Richards the contractor was paid for the use of the ships for the service but could also claim allowable costs - provisions, rum, water, storm damage, a flock of chickens for the officers - up to a maximum amount. Lime juice for the scurvy probably wasn't on offer although it was 'in the air' following the advocacy of Captain Cook, and became standard issue on Royal Navy ships in 1795. Richards wanted to make money but he also wanted further contracts and so had an interest in doing a good job in delivering all the cargo that he'd shipped.

Transportation was thus deemed a success and let's have more of it. But the cost made people gasp and stretch their eyes: it came in at Oz$100 million in today's money, which made it seem like the convicts had been on an all-you-can-eat cruise-liner. In 1790, a second fleet was assembled by a well known slaving company Camden, Calvert & King who had a wide experience of shipping people across the ocean but rather fewer scruples than Cap'n Richards. They also had a different form of contract - fixed-price per head loaded - which was considerably cheaper than cost-plus. There was no penalty if the cargo didn't arrive at the other end and the vessel's captains were free to sell surplus provisions at the other end of the world. The consequence of the costing system was a mortality rate of 27% on the voyage and a further 15% on delivery. The 600 desperately sick and lousy folk that survived had to be looked after carefully by the local government.

I picked up the sorry tale when it was flagged on metafilter.The comments there make numerous comparisons to current economic practice w.r.t. health services etc.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Miffy gone: sniff sniffy

Dick Bruna died in his sleep last Thursday 16 Feb 2017. He was 89.  In 1955 he created Nijntje. A baby rabbit = konijntje had appeared in their lives when they were having a holiday in the dunes near Egmont aan Zee. The baby rabbit srarted to feature as the star of stories he used to tell his his infant son Sierk, and eneventually morphed in a super cute minimalist white rabbit in a series of children's books. His father was in publishing = A.W. Bruna & Zoon. We met Miffy when we lived with our own infant son in Utrecht and Rotterdam in 1979. I think the first book we bought there for The Boy was Miffy goes Flying [Above L]. In his youth Dick Bruna hung out in Paris with Matisse [bloboprev] and Picasso and declared that Matissse's late collages were a primary source of his primary colour style. There are no car-chases in Miffy, no down-your-throat lessons, just simple pleasures and normal events. Miffy is in a quintessentially Dutch way gezellig.
Dank U wel, Dick: petje af!

LifeHack Sunday190217

I was down with Pat the Salt, as usual, last weekend. He was a little under the weather but so was the cat. Me, I had the full use of my legs, which was/is a blessing.
  • Use a child's plastic beach spade for scooping up cat vomit from the carpet.
  • A while ago, I came across this list of life-hacks. Metafilter, I guess. You are  sure to find one of two of them handy.
  • One of the comments pointed out that daft faux-useful handy hints were given traction by Viz Top Tips. The Boy and I read Viz as a sort of Geordie patriotic duty when we lived in Newcastle upon Tyne in the 1980s.
  • Cash up front for a 50 sq.m home in Hawaii. Simplify, lads!
  • Have to pop this in somewhere: minority integers like 383 need to have their 15 minutes of fame. Why, it's a Woodall Prime!
  • In honour of Carrie Anne Moss - mentioned yesterday - The Hollies sing it.
  • About 90% of my students at The institute profess I can't draw which riles me up because I've said the same thing in my time. Here is the Antidote to that self-knocking nonsense - tnx Russ.

Saturday, 18 February 2017


Earlier I was having a snarky side-swipe at my Alma Mater Trinity College Dublin for being 'nice' [in the old sense of possessing, marked by, or demanding great or excessive precision] about my pension rights. Writing the word Trinity gives me, as it should any heterosexual male who has seen the film The Matrix, a tiny Carrie-Anne Moss frisson. Because Trinity things always come in threes it turns out that today is the 50th anniversary of the death of J Robert Oppenheimer the godfather of the atomic age.  He was hired by the military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves to herd the scientific cats at Los Alamos and construct first a theoretic and then an actual atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was an odd / inspired choice. It seems that Groves was impressed by the breadth of knowledge that Oppenheimer had acquired during his very expensive education: Harvard, Cambridge, Göttingen, Cal Tech. He was definitely not the mumbling, over-focussed cliché of a theoretical physicist. Richard Feynman [bloboprev] expressed his admiration for the pragmatism and clear-cut decision making of the best officers in the military. Their can-do attitude was not going to get side-tracked by a fit-of-the-vapours over the private life of the men under their command.

Oppenheimer was a self-admitted fellow-traveller in 1930s California with decidedly left-wing views and many friends in radical circles; although never a member of the Communist Party. That acquired much more significance after the war was well over and the US had immersed itself in its decades long cold war with its former ally the USSR. In 1941-1945, there was a real war to win and the US military-industrial complex was prepared to have [m]any strange bed-fellows to get the job done against Germany and Japan. In San Francisco, Oppenheimer had a long-term relationship with Jean Tatlock, a definite member of the CP, a physician/psychiatrist, and a lover of poetry. She introduced her bloke to the works of John Donne the English metaphysical poet from the 17thC. She suffered from depression all her life and committed suicide in 1944 shortly before her 30th birthday. Oppenheimer was devastated and named the Alamagordo atomic test site Trinity in tribute to a couple of much loved Donne poems:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 
John Donne Holy Sonnet XIV
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown 
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie 
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown 
That this is my south-west discovery, 
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die, 

I joy, that in these straits I see my west; 
For, though their currents yield return to none, 
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east 
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one, 
So death doth touch the resurrection

Oppenheimer's more famous foray into the territory of the Arts Block is his recollection when the Trinity site was finally used and generated a massive explosion. Two Hindu references vied for his attention; quotes from the Bhagavad Gita (XI,12): "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one" and at the same time "kālo'smi lokakṣayakṛtpravṛddho lokānsamāhartumiha pravṛttaḥ" (XI,32)

"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Whatever his unspoken thoughts at the time, observers noticed a change in his demeanour immediately after the successful test at Trinity. Whatever his later doubts about whether atomic weapons were a good thing, at the time his palpable relief at success was transformed into a sort of swagger; as captured by fellow physicist Isidor Rabi "I'll never forget his walk; I'll never forget the way he stepped out of the car ... his walk was like High Noon ... this kind of strut. He had done it."

slouching towards a pension

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

My first wage-packet, for a week's work riddling and bagging potatoes, was £6.50; the second week I got £6.50 and a 4 stone = 25kg bag of spuds. That was more than 40 years ago and money wasn't the same thing but 25kg was a lot of potatoes and it was a bit of a mixed blessing when I handed it up to my mother. My subsequent 'career' hasn't been notable for its forward planning or sense of direction: my working life would be better described as ragged series of lurches rather than a career. For one thing I've never had a permanent job: in a lifetime in science I've never had a contract longer than three years and have had two stop gap contracts of six weeks. I also had 15 months on The Dole between finishing 2x three year contracts in an English University and shifting to Dublin. Through the 1990s and until 2002, there was no obligation for employers in the Irish public service to pay a contribution to the pension of short-term employees, so there is a a gap of 13 years in my pension contributions. I've been continuously in employment in Ireland since 1990, so I've paid my 'stamps' and am entitled to the Old Age Pension after my 66th birthday. I see what my aged widowed father-in-law Pat the Salt has to live on, and it won't be all beer and skittles and chocolate biscuits if the state OAP is all I had to live on. I do have the six years of public service work paid into the University Superannuation Scheme USS in England; that means that I will get 6/80ths of my final salary (index-linked!) when I get to retirement age. As I was on the lowest possible "1b" academic pay-scale back then, that pension will be about enough for a Mars Bar each week.

I really enjoy my job at The Institute: every Monday morning I put on my happy face and try to encourage our students to push the frontiers of science. Nevertheless all things must pass and about a year ago I dropped in on HR to find out exactly when I'd be put out to grass and make room for someone younger, fitter and preferably with more X chromosomes to be a more realistic role model in/for science. I didn't get a straight answer, but the nice and efficient lady from Pensions asked if I wanted to consolidate my pension into a single pot. I looked dense, so she explained that, as I'd worked in other institutions in Ireland, I'd be getting dribs and drabs of fragments of pension from several sources and that might be bitty and inconvenient. If I gave her authorisation, she'd talk to her oppos in UCD and TCD to find out what I was owed.

UCD got back to her with commendable promptness to say that I had a couple of years of pensionable service in their bank and a couple more where I could buy back a pension entitlement. I didn't understand this and asked if I had any choice. Mme Pension said I had no choice, so we agreed to amortize my salary by several €'00 over the next 5 months to pay off the debt to UCD and so acquire pension rights. I did a rough calculation to work out that I'd have to live for 5 years after the pension to make the transaction a netto win for me. That seemed likely given a great grand-mother of 103, grandmother of 108 and a mother still functional and independent at 96.

TCD [Formally known as The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin / Coláiste Thríonóid Naofa Neamhroinnte na Banríona Eilís gar do Bhaile Átha Cliath] were far more magisterial in their response - indeed we didn't hear anything for more than 6 months . . . then a lot of excuses and finally . . . an accounting. I owed TCD €29.72 and also had some fully paid up contributions. If I sent them a cheque for €29.72 they would send my pension rights to The Institute for consolidation. The cheque had to be made out to:
"The University of Dublin Trinity College (closed) Pension Scheme 2009"
which is the longest payee name I've ever encountered - it didn't fit on the line available.  The upshot is that between 2002 and 2012, I accumulated 5.034 years of service including the fragment bought for €29.72 a couple of weeks ago.

5.034 years? That final 4 seems spuriously accurate: a single day of service in 1/365 = 0.0027 while two days service is 0.0055. It looks as if TCD believes I finished my last day at lunchtime and they're damned-well not going to pay pension for the final afternoon on the assumption that I spent it in an alcoholic haze unfit to push a pram let alone push the frontiers of science. That's why they call her Trinity of the Generous Hand.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The consistency of blood

Arragh, boys, blood is thicker than water.
True, dat! Even in the metaphorical sense that family ties mean something. In my human physiology course, I preface our investigations of the circulatory system - blood-pressure, homeostatic control of - with an inventory of components. Mammalian blood - yours, mine, Fungie-the-dolphin's - is about 54% plasma; 45% red blood cells and 1% white-cells+ platelets = 100%. Other sources reconfigure these data as 99% of blood cells are RBCs or erythrocytes and 1% white cells. This 1% is trotted out so widely and with such certainty, that my skeptical hat starts whirling around on my head.

One of my other courses is 1st Year Cell Biology where I have a couple of lab sections most years. These classes meet, awkwardly, alternate weeks, so the course runs in two-week chunks with half the students off and half on at any one time. This is awkward because there are an odd number of weeks in the effective teaching term, so one lot of students gets ahead before Christmas. But that's okay because in the middle of term 2 is Rag Week - when Classes Continue As Usual [stated Institute policy] but nobody turns up. I carefully rejigged the order of practical classes so that Rag Week would complement the 'missing' week over Christmas and all the students would be back on a regular 2 weeks schedule. But then the Student's Union shifted Rag Week forward a week and my cunning plan for equity of class-time went down the toilet. Dang! those failures of communication.
My colleagues and I agreed that we could do something with prepared blood smears, which would build on the regular class on histology [microscopic structure of different tissues] which we've just finished. My soul rebelled against a strictly come microscopy plan of draw a T-cell, draw a neutrophil, compare and contrast an eosinophil with a basophil. Although the different sorts of white cell do have beautifully different structures, some of which can be cleverly related to function. I thought, contrariwise that we could all generate some data about the relative proportions of each type. Data is good, without data there is no science.  This is what we did:
Get a prepared blood-smear slide on your microscope; in focus; under a 40x objective [as see L]. Flip the field of view to some random place and count the white cells. The white cells are conveniently stained with blue nuclei and I've flagged them with red ticks so you know what I'm talking about. The red cells are the pale pink lads - pale pink because they have no nuclei; no nuclei so that can be packed full of oxygen carrying haemoglobin. There that's easy: there are four (4) white blood cells. But we want a % - to compare to Wikipedia's 1% figure - and that means counting the red blood cells. Whoa not so easy. I'll tell you that in the picture [L] there are 650 +/- 10; I know I counted them . . . by printing the picture out and putting a dot with a marker on each cell as I counted it.
Down the microscope that's not possible, so you have to make an informed estimate of the number of cells. This is what I did. I counted the cells across the diameter of the circular field of view. N=~50! That's probably correct-ish because the field of view at 40x is 0.45mm = 450μm. That says that my rbcs are each 9μm across - suspiciously close to the known diameter at 8μm.

The area of the whole field is πr2 25 * 25 * 3.14 = ~2000 cells but that's only true if the cells are cheek-by-jowl, wall-to-wall without spaces. I'd say that, in the picture, as on our prepared slides, about half the picture is cells and half spaces between cells, So the total cell count is about 1000, the class's indepnedent estimates of white cells in view were 1, 6, 4, 10, 8, 5, 4, 10, and 7 [average 6] so the answer is that 0.6% of blood cells are blue white. Which to the nearest whole % is 1% ! Well done us, we've verified something that everybody knew to be true. But . . .
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. 
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” Mark Twain
I've had occasion to cite that before.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Killing the starvelings

In my trib to the late lamented Hans Rosling, I mentioned his pioneering research on a weird East Africa myopathy called konzo. In that case, the symptoms were brought on by eating too much cassava Manihot esculenta and getting cyanide poisoning. In the news last week they ran a story about another way in which desperately hungry kids, who can't wait, get wasted.

Lychee Litchi chinensis is a fruit originally from Guangdong which you find on the dessert menu in Indian restaurants. It has been cultivated in China for at least 1000 years and its delicate aroma and sweet taste have seen it eaten with gusto by emperors and peasants. The trouble is that lychees don't want to be eaten, especially not eaten ripe, and so they mount a chemical offensive against vertebrates, including us, who want to scarf down a sackful. What's been happening over the last 30 years is a series of local (parts of India and Vietnam) epidemics of a non-inflammatory encephalopathy. So it's not meningitis, which is good, but nevertheless it's been killing about 100 poor Indian children every year just before the rains come. For a long time, nobody could figure out the cause, and suggested various contacts with rat or bat bodily fluids and an uncharacterised virus.

But, as with konzo and the toxins in cassava, epidemiologists are now convinced that it is due to eating too many unripe lychees on an empty stomach. The active principle in lychee is hypoglycin A a peculiar amino acid with a cyclopropanyl group in the side chain. It is relatively innocuous in itself but gets processed as if it was a normal long-chain amino acid into an active principal which a) inhibits the production of glucose [hence the name] but also b) blocks the degradation of fats, which is an alternative source of energy in the absence of glucose. When a hungry youngster raids a lychee orchard and fills up with fallen fruit, he is liable to refuse dinner and this also lowers circulating glucose. These kids are living on a metabolic knife-edge anyway and reduced sugar means that the brain is starved until convulsions and loss of consciousness ensues. Like with the Ames test, sometimes the liver's normal function can process cause something to become toxic. Similarly, sometimes the process of inflammation, normal a Good Thing, goes over-the-top and kills the young and fit as with the 1918 'flu epidemic. The cure for lychee sickness can be addressed on several levels: don't eat unripe lychees; have a mixed diet; don't be poor.

Some observers were sharp enough to note the similarity with Jamaican vomiting sickness, which occurs a long way from India but among children of a similar demographic. Lychee is a member of the family Sapinaceae, which includes such exotics as ackee Blighia sapida and soap-berry Sapindus mukorossi (from which the family name) but also all the maples Acer spp. and the horse chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum.  Ackee fruit also contain hypoglycin A, especially when unripe and can precipitate the same hypoglycemic encephalopathy. The advice above about avoiding unripe lychees can therefore be generalised to other related species . . . but don't go mad in your prohibitions: maple syrup is still fine. You probably know that horse chestnuts are mildly toxic but that's nothing to do with hypoglycin A: that species has a load of saponins which, among other effects, can punch holes in the membrane of red blood cells. We've seen before that chestnuts were key to the production of acetone in WWI; and in the way of unforeseen consequences, this led to the formation of the state of Israel.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017


If you're a native Irish speaker, or had the language beaten into your head by an angry nun, you may pronounce the title tChocky-tChocky which may give you a Republican frisson from the united-Ireland slogan Tiocfaidh ár lá [pron: tChocky aw law and meaning Our Day Will Come]. It is, however, a literal translation of Housey-Housey which is one of the many names for the game called Bingo: others include Lotto.
In these WEA islands, Bingo is played on a card consisting of 3 lines of 5 numbers running from 1 to 90, arranged so that the single digits are on the left of the ticket and the 80s are on the right. See [L] for strip of three. If you buy a set of six cards then all 90 numbers are there but they are in different combinations from the cards of your neighbour.  The game is that the numbers are selected at random by a Caller and you-the-punter have to check off each number as it is called. If you check off all your numbers you yell out Bingo! or House! and have your card checked against false claims. For your pains, you win a modest prize and The House takes a modest profit for the heating, lighting and general bonhomie. The alternative is the boozer, although increasingly alcohol is available in bingo halls as well. It tends to be a working-class [or/and unworking-class] pursuit, mostly seen as harmless fun and a nice night out for a laugh and a natter with your chums.

I was at the Heritage Group with Pat the Salt last Monday morning. The HG consists of the demographic which might do Bingo together if there was a convenient hall: being past middle age, mostly female and generally drinkers of tea. It was the first meeting since well before Christmas and there was a bit of gentle catch-up before some planning went in towards what was on the schedule for 2017. One cunning plan is to  participate in Seachtaine na Gaelige which happens every year in the run up to St Patrick's Day. The idea is to meet in the library in three weeks time to play Bingo as Gaelige. There was some gentle ribbing by the old chaps against the couple of members who hadn't suffered through Irish in school because they wouldn't know the numbers: A haon, a dó, a trí, a ceathair, a cúig, a sé, a seacht, a hocht, a naoi agus a deich. Never having recited, to the thump of a belt, the following doggerel:
A haon, a dó, asul agus bó,
A trí, a ceathair, bróga leathair,
A cúig, a sé, cupán tae,
A seacht, a hocht, seanbhean bhocht,
A naoi, a deich, císte te.
Okay French people, I'll render that in English:
One, two, an ass and a cow,
Three, four, leather shoes,
Five, six, a cup of tea,
Seven, eight, a poor old lady,
Nine, ten, a hot cake.
Much hilarity was also had at the idea of putting some of the traditional calls into Irish. It would be boring and mechanical if the numbers were just read out, so more or less all the numbers have tags or epithets: legs 11; half-a-crown 26; rise-and-shine 29; all the threes 33; almost retired 64; clickety-click 66; two fat ladies 88; top of the shop 90. Some of these are more quirky and peculiar than others, so I've no idea how well they will render into Irish or even if there is wildly different convention for characterising the numbers. "dhá na mban saill ochtó hocht" ? As the Caller is like to be the librarian, virtually the only adult in town with any fluency in Irish, we'll have to see what her deep experience of Bingo is.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Indignity at work

Do you ever have that feeling "Whatever happened to X?" after X, having been wall-to-wall coverage in The News, drops off the radar like a falling stone when some New News supersedes it? The News-desk editor has absolutely no sense of tying up loose ends or giving closure; not least because a case could be made that the news is designed to keep us off-kilter and worried about nameless horrors. We've come a good long way from 1930 when, on Good Friday, the BBC announced at 9 PM "There is no news" and cued some music. Ah lads, in those days there were some absolute standards. Now of course we have 24 hour rolling news on BBC, Sky, CNN and Fox. If it's a slow news day, any old shite will get reported with the same air-time as the end of the world as we know it or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Last week there was an interesting report on RTE's Drivetime about something rotten in the state of the National Museum Service. This is one of the guardians of our culture and sense of identity: golden torcs, a stuffed quagga, Constance Markiewicz's hand-gun from 1916, the head of de Valera as a baby, all that heritage; all those artifacts. You'd imagine it was a "grand job if you can get it" job, a bit like getting your knees under the table at an Institute of Technology. You don't have to carry a gun [except Countess Markiewicz's, reverentially, when you get to dust it], or stand over a hot stove for 10 hours a day, or sit at the telephone trying to sell things to people who don't want them . . . and as a public servant the tax-payer is lurrying payments into your pension fund. It's also pretty exclusive, only 150 people work for the service spread across Head Office next to the Dáil; the Dead Zoo, Collins Barracks, and That Place in Mayo where they have all the sprongs, creels and donkey-carts How hard can it be?

Quite hard, and extremely demoralizing if you have a dysfunctional management who shout at you in private, humiliate you in front of co-workers, and find fault with pretty much everything you do. And always there is the threat that you'll be let go and bang goes the pension. Things were getting so bad that someone brought in a Dignity at Work expert from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre to carry out a workshop about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Do you think that management were required to participate?  Then someone else commissioned and HR guru from Belfast to write the confidential Work Positive Profile Management Report which RTE got sight of. A WPPMR sounds quite upbeat, no? Would be harder to file it away if was an Endemic Bullying in the Workplace Report.

20% of 100 respondents felt they were habitually bullied at work, a further 20% were reckoned at risk of work-related anxiety or depression. 70% felt that morale was poor. RTE found a psychologist Stephanie Regan who had worked with museum staff between 2008-2012.  "I am over 25 years doing this work. I never heard the story being so consistent and coming from individuals not in the same room." Her reports were ignored by the Museum Management >!surprise!< and filed away as too difficult to action by the management's managers at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Affairs. It seems that if you complained in the Museum Service you could kiss goodbye to your flex-itime and/or promotion whereas as if you submitted a written complaint - it went straight in the shredder.

That's the Irish way: by seniority or "pull" you rise to the top of your organisation, you are now Grade 3 or above, sending your kids to fee-paying schools, buying a dacha in the country . . . this management lark is a doddle - until some managing is required of you. Then it turns out that you have the leadership skills of piranha, the charisma of a dead sheep and you couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery. It's the difficult cases that require management, organisations have inertia and in normal conditions they motor on nicely without being poked or pushed. Indeed poking and pushing, in normal circumstances, is probably counter-productive because the implied criticism gets people's backs up. And when things go tits-up on your watch? You can be confident that there will be leave-of-absence on full pay and then redundancy and a severance package because it will cost more to fight your union through the courts.

But back to last week's News! Unfortunately we're not going to hear any more about the skullduggery and bullying in the National Museum because everyone is getting their salacious teeth into the Gardai, the HSE and Dept Justice over the McCabe stitch up.  Any silver lining here? Only this: that the bullying isn't only being meted out on women - grown men have been seen to cry in Collins Barracks.

This isn't the first time I have had occasion to sound out about Dignity in the Workplace I - II or grossly inappropriate behaviour - bullying in school - bullying in college - [not] bullying pensioners. What happened to kindness?

Monday, 13 February 2017

Oroville 2017

About ten months ago, I was worrying about the Mosul Dam across the Tigris River in far off Iraq. It was constructed on Saddam Hussein's watch but also on a really dodgy foundation. At the moment 10 billion tonnes of water are behind the dam and at least 1 million people are downstream hoping everything will be okay.

Right now in Northern California, they've been having a lot of rain after several years of drought [Lake Oroville just 3 years ago] - dang that climate change! The Oroville Dam is the US's tallest and is made of concrete-faced rubble. The lake behind is full to brimming and so water was let off down a concrete spillway. That GUSH of water - 35,000 cu.ft/sec = 1,000 tonnes/sec has eaten a huge hole in the spillway and the water has topped out the emergency spillway next door. The emergency spillway is just a concrete lip - never used in the 50 years since the dam was topped out 50 years ago - at the top of a rock-and-dirt hillside falling 230m to the Feather River below.  If the water flow undercuts the emergency spillway lip then water will start to lower the hill top possibly catastrophically: a 10m lowering of the lake is conceivable and the lake is 6,000 hectares in extent; that's a lot of acre-feet of water.  Water is coming into the reservoir at an estimated rate of 5,000 tonnes/sec. Weather is forecasting several more storms coming in this week.

160,000 folks downstream of the dam also know that the dam itself consists of an eminently erodable soft centre and they've been ordered to evacuate to higher ground to the north. RTE is still headlining with Maurice McCabe but does cover Oroville on Page 5. I've clipped a pic from RTE to show the was-concrete spillway and the emergency spillway to the left. The dam itself is massively off-camera to the right. Millions of salmon fry in the spawning gravels downstream - they're screwed (sorry). You can pick up enough links to satisfy your further curiosity at Metafilter.
Let's us hope that we don't have a Vajont 1963 , or even an Eigiau 1925 over there.

Stitch up

This is mainly written for my French readers, so that they can imagine for 10 seconds that the same sort of insiderism doesn't happen in La Belle France. It's such a huge story here in Ireland that we haven't heard about Donald Trump for week, but I doubt if it will get much traction in Toulouse or Toulon.

Three years ago, I gave an executive summary of the story of Maurice McCabe a Sergeant in the Gardai who didn't approve of his colleagues cleaning the slates for their friends&relations. It was, at the time, routine for gardai to erase motoring penalty points from the police computer system. It was probably seen as a victimless crime: sure what harm if my nephew isn't fined €80 for going 10km/h over the limit? Sure no harm at all until the same nephew ploughs into a couple of children walking to school. That's why we have penalty points, to give a reminder that speed limits are a public good even if we all think of them as a private pain-in-the-arse. Nobody was grateful to Sgt McCabe - not his colleagues, not his line-manager, not the head of the gardai, not the Minister of Justice. Probably not even General Public a soldier famous for using the Network to wrangle a favour. Ireland is a small country with about 2 degrees of separation.

Just a small example of that: about a month ago the Minister of Education Richard Bruton [prev] came to open our new Admin and Teaching building which includes <snark alert> a penthouse office suite for our President. It was good to see him in the flesh because it was nearly 18 years since we'd last met. Back then we set up the Home Education Network because we were worried that new legislation to deal with truancy would impinge on our constitutional right to educate our kids at home . . . OR would force us to have school-at-home with lesson-plans, written syllabus, learning outcomes, deliverables, a school-bell and 40 minute lessons.  In 2000 I was delegated to phone the opposition Minister of Education, one Richard Bruton and younger brother of just previous Taoiseach (1994-1997) John Bruton. ANNyway, I found his number in the phone book, dialed in and said "Could I speak to Richard Bruton?" "Speaking", came the reply. I fell off my chair! I assumed that he'd have a staff or at least a secretary or PA to screen his calls. He was happy to meet a small delegation of us tree-huggin', rice-cake eatin', Birkenstock wearin' oddities in the Dáil. And it was so: he listened with attention, he wasn't stupid and he gave us to believe that our case was safe in his hands. Of course he was mainly looking for ammunition to lob across the floor of the house at the real Minister of Education but he also wanted to be kind and seen to be effective. That's how and why articulate, middle-class, O'White folks can (or used to be able to?) get their penalty points quashed. You more or less just have to ask the right bloke. Being articulate, middle-class, and tanned isn't enough.

Maurice McCabe is in the news again this last week. The timeline is here [be careful the Irish Times has strict limits on reading their content for free]. This story will run and run until The Man is prepared to listen to awkward whistle-blowers rather than rushing to shut t'buggers up. Seems that in 2006 McCabe may have hugged, tickled or in some way behaved inappropriately with a child who was on a play date with his family. The father of that child, another garda, had been subject to disciplinary proceedings on foot of a complaint made by McCabe. These two events are treated as related. The allegation of child abuse was investigated and deemed to have no grounds for prosecution. Depending on your preconceptions you may think "no smoke without fire" or with my Dad that outing paedophilia is getting to be a game that everyone can play on the neighbours or in their own heads. In 2013, seven years later, Tusla the child-protection agency was informed of the allegation of child sex abuse by a worker in the Health Service Executive HSE. The cuddles & tickles of 2006 have been transformed into something much worse. The report circulates [where? how far? how many knowing smirks?] for two years until December 2015 before McCabe is informed of the allegation. In June 2016 Tusla admits that it cut and pasted their 2013 report to sex it up as a clerical error. Six months later they decide to apologize to McCabe, a month after that the apology is delivered to McCabe's neighbour (!). You couldn't make it up. People here are comparing it to the GUBU scandal of 1982 (*) when a murderer on the run was discovered hiding out in the home of the Attorney General.  As talking-head Fintan O'Toole writes - the story of this stitch-up of a public servant is either appalling [incompetence, stupid error, lack of oversight, poor judgement etc.] or chilling [your life can be destroyed on the whim of your manager]. What do all the managers do when they're not thinking about who to play golf with this weekend?

One of the seepiest aspects of the whole sorry story is that opposition politicians like Brendan Howlin Lab. and Marylou McDonald SF have been leading the pack with self-righteous innuendo. Howlin used Dáil privilege to out the Minister of Justice and also out McCabe's sexual misconduct allegation. "Are any other state agencies involved in the smear campaign against Maurice McCabe" asked McDonald in the Dáil to indicate that she knew about Tusla and the HSE before the shit hit the public-domain fan. And perhaps the key "and if a wolf did come out of the forest, what then?" [it's a Prokofiev reference used previously] question to ask is: Does a paedophilia rap - even if true - mean that everything you said about dubious and dangerous practice in the Gardai becomes unbelievable? Yes and not only in Gubuland.
(*) grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Darwin's last days

Darwinday today as it was last year and indeed for me every previous year back to 1982 the centenary of Charles Darwin's death. Events that year gave some traction to the canonisation of St Darwin of Downe which is pursued with quite evangelical vigour by some who 'believe' in evolution. When I worked at Evolution Central in a couple of Genetics Departments, I used to bring donuts in to work as a sort of agnostic host. My fellow believers were happy to glom down a donut on Der Tag but generally forgot about the great man for the rest of the year. The trouble is that, to be successful in science, you need to specialise and focus on one area of expertise - like cyanogenesis in plants fr'instance - rather than flitting from one thing to the other as the fancy takes you. I was never a very successful scientist because I was always starting something new before I'd wrapped up and published the previous project. That butterfly mind makes me a successful, or at least prolific, blogger.

As Robert Heinlein said specialization is for insects: you can't understand, let alone explain, evolution unless you know some biogeography, some embryology & development, some taxonomy and comparative anatomy, some geology . . . and some genetics helps too. If you have spent the last 20 years studying mutations in the upstream control control region of a single gene in Bacillus subtilis, you're not going to do well in a TV debate with an intelligent designist.

The final year honours course I taught in Newcastle was a whistle-stop tour marshalling the evidence for evolution a) as Darwin knew it and b) as subsequent developments, like Mendelian genetics, had added to and fleshed out that evidence. Even back then I filled out the Evolution course with nifty anecdotes about mutilated bears and Slijper's goat, rather than sticking strictly to genetics. I was driven to develop, write and deliver that course because one of our students, a biblical fundamentalist [Plymouth Bretheren?] asked me to recommend a book on evolution that she could present at her church's monthly book club. I was completely wrong-footed by this request because, although I could think of a few books, I couldn't there and then convince this young wan that evolution was a better explanation of the marvellous diversity of life than God's Grandeur. And this was just a couple of years after I'd taken BI504-Evolution sitting at the feet of Lynn Margulis in graduate school. Shame on me!

If you ask most biology students - those in the bible-belt of the USA possible exceptions - if they believe in evolution they will say Yes, of course without the least blush of shame that 'belief' is a disturbingly religious word. Furthermore, because they have neither read the Origin of Species, nor taken BI504 or my Evolution from primeval soup to hominid nuts course they are not qualified to assert such a belief because they don't have a coherent bank of evidence to back that belief. Same goes for almost all the teachers of biology in school and college.  Today, in honour of Darwin's birthday you might resolve to read The Origin - you won't be disappointed and you will be blizzarded by quirky facts. If you're French, and that's currently more than half my readers, you might pick up Thomas Glick's The Comparative Reception of Darwin for less than $10. I was lent a copy by Lynn Margulis in the 1980s. That shows that Darwin had a different impact on thinking people on the Continent than in insular Britain where they made Darwin FRS, FLS, FGS and FZS and knighted three of his sons . . . which?:
On dit que Darwin spent 20 years not writing the Origin of Species because he was conflicted by religious doubts and was only goaded into committing his thoughts to paper to avoid being scooped by Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858. That is peculiar because all his children grew up to be agnostics and felt that they had taken that position from listening to their Papa. Nearly 100 years ago a peculiar story was put about that Darwin had a sort of death-bed conversion and invited a bible thumper called Lady Hope to preach to his servants and tenants in the summer house at Downe. The idea of this evangelical busybody pitching up in Darwin's bedroom in the last year of his life to hear his confession has the ring of augmented truth. It's the kind of thing my Great Aunt Lily would have done. That dreadnought lady had a habit of ringing the doorbell of whatever grand house she was passing and insisting on viewing the staircase or the Adam fireplace in the main bedroom. The fact that all Darwin's children [the seven who survived to adulthood are shown above] were adamant that the meeting with Lady Hope had never taken place doesn't fully allay suspicion.