Friday, 31 March 2017

Time in Indiana?

Indiana is 10% bigger than Ireland and has about the same population: 6.6m IN 6.3m IE. Ireland is traditionally divided into 32 counties - 26 in The Republic. Indiana is micro-divided into 92 counties. The United States prefer their democracy local: there are several places in New England where the town meeting allows government by plebicite. The second Tuesday in March = Town Meeting Day - is a state holiday in Vermont. I am sure there are advantages to this form of direct democracy but note that most of the democratic world elects officials and then lets them get on with it.

We've just been dragged through the absurdity of changing the clocks - Spring forward; Fall back - and I had to wander about the house and my car changing the hours hand. My antient but serviceable phone needs to be told what the time is although yours almost certainly can work things out for itself - that's why it's called a smart-phone. Making things easier makes the brain less resilient: computers remember passwords so we forget them; direct debits and tappable cards make it easier to separate us from our money; sustained research gets onerous because of Google . . .

I've ranted about the clock-changes before and there indicated the real cost ($400 million/year in the USA) of tricking about with
our bioclocks: heart attacks, road-traffic accidents
and work-clocks: missed appointments and flights, lower productivity.
So there is a distinct advantage to staying in the same time-zone all year.

Which time-zone, though?  It's not a problem for us in Ireland - we just do what the Brits do. Our largest trading partner and nearest neighbour gives house room to a million of our citizens and it's simpler for the most of us if we just Carry on Up the Colony. Brexit may shake us up and maybe in ten years time we'll sign up to whatever they do it France. Over the last 100 years, Indiana has been through the existential mill over time zones. The continental US has, as shown above, four time-zones and Indiana (and Kentucky and Tennessee) fall across the 'natural' time-zone boundary.  There are 360 degrees of longitude and 24 hours in the day, so the sun rises an hour later if you are 15 degrees further West.  Clifden on the West coast of Ireland is fully 10 degrees behind Greenwich. Tennessee and Kentucky are wide states and comparatively large, so there may be good reason for splitting them but Indiana is small (and perfectly formed) and should, surely, agree to be one or the other.

None of my business, of course, my only locus standi wrt Indiana is that my sister worked for a few years at Indiana University Press and we went to visit with her in Bloomington IN a couple of times. Bloomington is a lovely University town which punches way above its population for Arts and Culture. That was one of the reasons why writer Bill Bryson washed up in Dartmouth NH, another university town, when he returned to America after decades in England.

If you look carefully at the US time zone map you'll see that Indiana (identified with a large blue arrow) mostly follows Eastern Standard Time but there are two enclaves of Central Time at the top left and bottom left of the state. This is made a teeny bit clearer if we look at the timeline for timezone change over the last 100 years:
In 1918 The Feds = US Congress passed the US Standard Time Act to prove that they were running a country not a collection of Greek City States or Balkan republics. That Act also implemented Daylight Savings Time DST although as the US stepped down from a war footing, that part of the deal was rapidly scrapped . . . although re-mandated in WWII. As you see from the multimap image above, Indiana was dumped into Central and stayed there for 43 years, but some counties in Indiana has changed clocks on itself at least 7 times subsequently. The red enclaves in the corners are a rational local approach for uniformity. The NW corner of the state is basically the Chicago IL - Gary IN - etc, conurbation. Chicago is the third largest city in the US and will inevitably suck its suburbs into step. The theatres are in Chicago and you don't want to be late for a performance.
A similar, weaker argument applies to the Illinois-Indiana-Kentucky tri-state area [shown in Red L] which scrapes together a million people. Chicagoland is about 8x bigger. The circular gestalt of IlInKy3 suggests why it shares a timezone. It is within the signal of several TV stations: no better reason than that everyone can tune into 'Friends' at the same clock-time.  Then there is the fraught issue of  DST, which Indiana was notoriously against for many decades: they called it Fast Time. Possibly in reference to the fact that if time ran too fast, the straw would be ripped out of the corn-farmers' mouths and their John Deere hats wouldn't stay on straight.

We thus see that one of the great existential questions of our day is
"What time is it in Indiana?"
If you know please answer on a postcard.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Lipstick on a pig

It pays to increase your word-power was a section in the old Readers Digest where readers were introduced to a short list of stretch-me words that would allow them to use other adjectives apart from f*ckin'. With so many readers from la francophonie, I feel a sense of responsibility to a) spell words correctly b) use standard English or standard 21stC slang rather than words and phrases from the 1910s-1930s where I made a good bit of my autodidactic learning-through-reading. No I wasn't alive in the 1910s-1930s but I've read a lot of material which was written in those decades. I really shouldn't use tuthree = 2 or 3 to mean several or 'a bunch' but I do. I don't recall hearing the phrase lipstick on a pig before.  Very evocative! meaning to throw good money after bad or cover structural defects with a covering gloss or facade.  It was used by Juan Browne in his most recent update on the ongoing Oroville Dam crisis. He applied the phrase to a plan to refurbish the broken spillway by slapping more concrete in a skim on top of the existing fragments of spillway. It is a racing certainty that the crisis was precipitated by a failure under the spillway, so until that is properly investigated and made good then more concrete is wasted concrete.

Juan also quoted "cyclopean backfill" as a proposed solution to stabilising the down-stream side of Oroville's emergency spillway. Like Juan, I had to look it up - that gave me a little frisson of patriarchy because look it up was the standard response from my father when we bothered him with questions. It wasn't very engaging or empathic but it threw me back on my own resources rather than looking for The Answer from an authority figure. Also, finding information was, back then, work: you had to decide which book to read (or whom to ask) and then maybe read through several. A good index was often key and most indexes were not--so-good because they cost money to include. Many of my students at The Institute are more or less incapable of doing things without being told in detail what is required. They're pretty good at looking stuff up because google, the universal index, will even correct their weak spelling and return the answer without them having to stand up and find a book. Harrrrumph! Why is that bad, because the work I had to do schlepping to and through libraries and writing notes on what I found embedded the information. It was a key part of the very expensive education I received which still makes me an asset at the Pub Quiz table.

Cyclopean backfill has quite a lot to do with banana-bread, of which I am currently making a good bit nowadays to make inroads on the banana glut. Some of the banana bread is also made <ho ho> currantly (ie with dried grapes). If you mash up the bananas then they make a uniform slurry which binds with the flour eggs butter and sugar and, as the heat of the oven penetrates, the gloop sets into cake. If you slice or chop the bananas then the lumps tend to sink to the bottom of the cake mix before the matrix sets. You can make a virtue of this by slicing the bananas and putting them into the base of the dish and adding the cake mix on top: best served with custard or cream. Same issue applies if making cherry cake (or simnel cake with little cubes of marzipan); you can slow their fall if you coat the cherries in a dusting of flour. The example [above R] shows a partial sinking failure: cherries more dense at the base.

Concrete is an interesting material because its strength and functionality depends on an appropriate mix of cement (expensive), sand (cheaper) and gravel (cheapest). Pure cement and water and pure sand/gravel and water are less strong than a mixture and experience or engineering text-books tell you what proportions to use under given circumstances. The gravel provides discontinuities in the matrix which usefully prevents cracks from propagating; similar reasoning staggers the courses of bricks in a wall [R for beautiful example of Flemish bond]. Cyclopean concrete adds a judicious mix of rocks, which if locally available are so cheap as to be free. Engineers must be bakers at heart because the added rocks are called 'plums'.  There are rules for their application:
  • no plum shall be larger than a third of the width of the smallest dimension of the site to fill
  • the total plums shall be not more than 25% of the total mass
  • each plum must have at least 100mm of concrete surrounding it all round
  • air voids must be prevented under the plums
those specifications involve a lot more labour than is required for handling normal out-of-the-mixer-truck concrete and so are only recommended for special situations. Someone believes the Oroville spillway(s) is such a case. I tell ya, this Oroville story keeps on giving and giving to my education.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Where luck comes from

Aploogies if you read this yesterday. A bleary-eye, sleep deprived editor posted the piece rather than scheduled it . . .
It's my Mum's birthday 29 March 1920 today, and I remembered to get a card in the post last week. They say that men marry their mothers. We don't of course unless we're Oedipus Rex. Cue Tom Lehrer. But we probably cue in on some aspect of Mum when it comes to mate choice. If your mother has an Imelda Marcos amount of shoes, you'd better be in a well-paying job before you hitch up with a similar sort of gal. I wrote recently and a while back about how The Beloved landed on her feet when she rocked up to Clive Sinclair's office in 1980. A couple of week's ago I was talking to my 96 y.o mother on the phone. My parents never went to college, at least partly because WWII erupted at just the wrong time. My mother signed up with the ATS Auxiliary Territorial Service and wore a khaki uniform for much of the duration of hostilities. She had an interesting war, made a lot of new pals and loss a good number as well and more or less never talked about those years when we were growing up. I'm only picking up fragments and anecdotes now.

The war being over she was living and working in London. After the Blitz, accommodation was the limiting factor and my mother was bunking in the spare room of the apartment of a married friend of hers while she was looking for work. One evening on the Tube, she got up to offer her seat to a pair of elderly ladies and later on got to sit down again opposite them. They told her that they'd been to visit their sister in hospital and hoped that she would die quickly because their nephew could then organise the funeral before the weekend and it wouldn't interfere with his work. It transpired [TMI do I hear you cry?] that this young man was having trouble with his secretary - perhaps she balked at arranging a funeral for the boss's mother? Nothing if not on the ball, my mother wrote her address on the inside of a cigarette packet and said she could secretary with the best.

Two days later, a letter appeared asking her to turn up for interview at Courtaulds. The company was gearing up from being a rather sedate family firm manufacturing synthetic fibres - cellulose acetate and viscose rayon - into a huge multinational player in the textile industry. She was hired to work for the nephew as secretary and PA and it was soon apparent why he was having difficulties with his secretary - because he was a privileged shit. My mother would be typing and filing away in the outer office and a disembodied voice would emanate from the inner sanctum "Get me cigarettes" or "Bring me coffee" for neither of which was he inclined to say thank you. Apart from the boss, Courtaulds was a great place to work they had a very flat management structure and free lunch in a basement canteen. There was no executive dining room, and the managers sat down with the telephonists in a very egalitarian manner. This went on for a few weeks but over the Christmas holiday [two days long back then] she reckoned that she'd had enough, and resolved to give notice when she returned to work.

On Monday 29th December 1947, she was pre-empted in her resignation speech with the news that George Courtauld's PA had committed suicide over the holidays, and my mother was to go upstairs to work for the great man. He was a very different person to the nephew-feller: charming, demanding, scrupulously polite and busy. My mother got busy too but she was never afraid of work, she just didn't like being disrespected. My mother finished the story with "I suppose I was lucky, I suppose I've been lucky". I demur, luck doesn't fall into your lap; you have to make it - by being alert, being able but also being willing.

Richard Wiseman has carried out a scientific study of Luck and written a book about it [available £0.01]. According to Wiseman, Lucky people . . . are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good. That sounds like the two women in my life.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Lucky is plucky

It's my Mum's birthday 29 March 1920 tomorrow. more coming then

Life from foreign

I was reflecting recently on the latest hot news about evidence for life from the distant past.  Why and how these microscopic iron-rich tubes came from is one sort of question; another is a further push back in time to ask where life itself came from. In casting about to get background on the story [I read all about me so that you don't have to] the phrase Martian meteorite came up and that was intriguing. Space geologists have convinced themselves that some chunks of space debris which have come to earth have been earlier chipped off the old block of Mars, our nearest solid neighbour. What are the chances of that? Well, not very good: of the 60,000 identified meteorites which have made it to the Earth's surface, only 132 have been given the red flag.

How so? On what evidence?  It's all to do with putting things in bins. If you concentrate on some field of the natural world and spend enough time, inevitably you find yourself saying - this whatever is like that something which passed through my hands last week. This alpaca is more like that cow than either was to that horse. This flower has five petals and net-veined leaves and so does that one - we'll ignore the fact that their colours are different. It's the same with meteorites. Space geologists have given names to broad classes of similar extra-terrestrial rocks: Shergottites, Nakhlites, Chassignites etc. Then in the 1970s NASA sent the Viking landers to Mars and these brilliant instruments sampled the rocky surface and the gaseous atmosphere and relayed the readings back to Earth. It turns out that the characteristics - rare earth elements - and the gaseous inclusions - mainly oxygen isotope proportions - of Shergottite, Nakhlite, Chassignite aka SNC meteorites look uncannily like those of rocks on Mars.

Then in 1984, some meteroite hunters in Antarctics found a 2kg lump of yellowish rock now called Allen Hills 84001. It isn't similar geologically to SNCs but the atmospheric signature is, like, totally Martian. In 1996, a microscopic analysis of the surface by David McKay, Everett Gibson and Kathie Thomas-Keprta from NASA yielded the picture [L]. The NASA team asserted that, although ALH84001 crystallised 4 billion years ago and was knocked flying from the Martian surface 17 million years ago, it only arrived in Antarctica 13,000 years ago. Furthermore they suggested that teeny streaks of haematite looked remarkably like similar terrestrial and definitely biogenic streaks. Over the years, the geological, astrobiological establishment have gone at this iconoclastic suggestion hammer and tongs and, to their own satisfaction demolished the several strands of evidence that support life on Mars possibly before life on Earth. One of the factors is that the 'fossils' on ALH84001 are 10x smaller than the smallest current autonomously replicating cells. The stronger case is that life originated Out There and was delivered to Earth as a neat meteorite-borne package and has evolved to the astonishing diversity we see today. That strikes me a a null explanation: it just kicks the can further down the road backwards through time and space to a yet more inaccessible origin, without helping understand how the miraculous transition occurred

With this in mind we should be more careful with sending stuff out from Earth lest we start the life-ball rolling on some other planet that isn't quite ready for it. Before Carl Sagan and the Viking team sent the landers off to Mars they autoclaved them in a pressurised biocontainer and heated the whole parcel up to 110oC for 40 hours. That will kill all the bugs, they thought. Not so much. In F&F this month we're 'doing' anaerobic spore-forming bacteria like Clostridium. These boys form a heat, desiccation and chemical-warfare resistant spore when the going gets tough and wait things out until the local environment gets more sunny.  Like when treating intestinal worms with one dose to kill the adults and then a subsequent does to kill the hatched eggs, it would have been sensible to bring down the temperature sometime during the 40 hours to fool the spores into becoming lifelike and vulnerable and then cranking up the temperature again. In the 1970s we weren't sufficiently convinced that we'd destroyed the planet we live on that making Mars more life-supporting was a desirable long-term goal. Then again, the certainty and technological optimism of those days was not above terraforming another planet for the benefit of mankind. Maybe they did.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Yes we have no bananas

Uniformity is a grand thing altogether in manufacturing if all the screws, chips, widgets and switches in a gizmo are identical THEN you can have economies of scale, Henry Ford [prevorecent] famously said of his Model T " you can have any car, of any colour you like, so long as it's black". He brought the production line to a peak of perfection by insisting that the parts were generic. Perfect for the share-holders, less so for the poor folks who installed the same two bolts in the same position on every car that passed the soul-deadened eyes.  The quality control in the automotive industry is such that you can go to a breakers yard for a second-hand door if you happened to have dinged your motor: it will fit perfectly. Tree-huggers like me are rather skeptical when this drive for identity is carried into the realm of biology, especially in food. There is something wrong in presenting for sale 6 identical carrots or apples in a neat plastic tray.

My aged father-in-law Pat the Salt likes a banana Musa acuminata x balbisiana in the morning.  Can't fault him on that - slow release, low [51] glycaemic index, loadsa potassium, conveniently packaged. A few months ago, one if his other carers suggested that presenting The Banana with his morning coffee would help everyone get ahead with the day - breakfast could come later (the banana doesn't count). I've  taken this advice on board. But two Mondays ago because of a cock-up with the commisseriat there were no bananas. While he was getting dressed I nipped up to the supermarket to replenish supplies and I was delighted to see 10 singleton bananas bagged up and reduced to €1 . . . WIN! The next week, I went up at the same time and secured the same bargain and last week again. Clearly one of the morning tasks for the fruit and veg department is to gather up all the loose bananas from the weekend feeding-frenzy and sell them off quickly. If Pat is eating 7 bananas a week and I'm buying in 10, then there will soon be an embarras de richesse in the larder, so last time I brought the surplus away to make banana bread: yum!

Unless you live in Honduras you will have been struck by how boring bananas can be. There is no place for pretentious gits posturing about the hint of strawberry or the mouth-feel. All the bananas you have ever eaten are genetically identical of a cultivar called Cavendish. Up until WWII, a different variety Gros Michel was king. But ' Panama disease' a novel fungal pathogen Fusarium oxysporum ripped through the banana plantations about that time and shook Dole, Geest, Fyffes and Chiquita's shareholders to the core. The great banana moguls responded by replacing Gros Michel with another seedless, but crucially F. oxysporum-resistant, strain. Cavendish didn't taste so good but that sort of consumer resistance was reduced to nothing by an aggressive advertising campaign: "These are not the droid you are looking for; these are bananas, they taste delicious." There is an interesting article in Wired setting out this stall: good on the epidemiology, more arm-waving on human [=consumer] psychology.

One of the points made about the vulnerability of bananas is that the cultivars are seedless and propagated by cloning. But this is the same with potatoes - they make flowers and set seed (like tomato seeds) but are propagated by distributing genetically identical tubers in sacks for planting out - in Ireland by tradition on St Patrick's Day when there is a holiday. When I worked in Wageningen on potato blight in the Summer of 1976, my boss had just returned from a field trip to Peru and Bolivia where he'd been haunting the local markets buying up purple, knobbly, diminutive tubers with the intention of incorporating them in a breeding programme for blight-resistant spuds. The banana people could do that too but it would have to be accompanied by a marketing campaign convincing me-the-consumer that variety is the spice of life. Sometime about 1971, when I was still in high-school we went on a field-trip to the local plant-breeding station which specialised in developing new varieties of apple. One of my pals asked the chief breeder what the latest apple tasted like. It was as if they hadn't even considered the issue! Even back then it was all about packability, transport and disease-resistance. So long as it was reasonably wet inside, consumers would buy.

Another reason given for why bananas are particularly at risk is that they are planted in vast monocultures too close together so that a fungal pathogen can spread like wild-fire once it has drifted into the locality from some gap-year student's back-pack. This is why the Irish potato was so quickly annihilated by the late blight Phytophthora infestans in 1845 and many many subsequent years. But a monoculture is not required for Armageddon. As we have seen with black ash Fraxinus nigra and English elm Ulmus minor, the next susceptible individual doesn't have to be next door it merely needs to be within the dispersal range of the fungus or its insect vector.

The Wired article does proceed inductively from the case for bananas to look askance at the depauperate nature of our food variety. Far too much wheat and potatoes, far too few local seeds, nuts and greens and that's ignoring entirely the worryingly narrow diet of beef- and dairy-cattle feeding on tonnes of corn Zea mays and soya Glycine max and us eating the result as hamburger. Our food security depends on us eating much more rocket Eruca sativa, rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus and radish Raphanus sativus. Quite apart from that making life more interesting.


Sunday, 26 March 2017

I am Spartacus

A glorious day yesterday, after a pretty good day [cue Groundhogs] the day before. I had a lot on my plate because Friday-close-of-business my final year project students submitted the first draft of their write-ups. The quicker I gave them feedback, the quicker they could do corrections, and the quicker they could move on . . . final exams are six weeks away and there is lots to bone up.  I was ahead of the year because I'd spent the afternoon of the pretty good day mowing all around me so that the home-place looked less jungly. Accordingly I set to on the project reports at 0730hrs and worked and worked; but when the sun came up properly, I took breaks to sort out the woodpile and level out the dips in the yard. The door stayed open to let the sun warm the hall-floor and two strangers rocked up in the yard looking for information which turned into distracting chats about life the universe and everything LTUAE. To have the use of my legs and a ticker that ticks, to have a job where I believe I do good, to experience the first hot day of Spring, to meet engaging strangers and learn something new. Bliss was it in that evening to be alive.

Last Saturday of the month too! That's Blackstairs Film Society's [multiprev] film night. BFS is when I get to meet my community: the tree-huggers, ceramicists, hill-walkers, and blow-ins who also like films with sub-titles. There were no subtitles on last night's film, but maybe there should have been because I, Daniel Blake is carried on in deepest Geordie. But my ear is quite well tuned to that dialect's cadence because my first academic job was in the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and we lived there for seven years in the 80s. Indeed that was one reason to look forward to the film - to see if they shot scenes in any of the familiar streets of Newcastle.  The committee of the BFS has a tendency to turn aside from fluffy films and scour the World for gritty realism: Mongolian yak herder drowns in quicksand, the difficulties of being transgender in Cuba. I, Daniel Blake is another bitter-sweet story about an honest carpenter who can't work because his ticker has let him down on the job . . . but he doesn't qualify for Job Seeker's Allowance because his doctor asserts he is not fit for work and he doesn't qualify for Social Assistance because an apparatchik behind a Welfare desk decides that he is fit for work because he can walk 50m unaided and must apply for Job Seeker's Allowance instead.  Long sentences are hard to follow and I employ one there as a metaphor of the dystopian Kafkaesque world in which the poor old boy [my age, more or less] finds himself.

I, Daniel Blake is directed by Ken Loach and funded partly by the BBC. The BBC is reputed to be full of Lefties and anti-establishment types who find no paradox in sucking at the government teat while exposing government as inhuman and unforgiving and/or suitable for satire. And they have been good to Ken Loach who was making gritty BBC dramas exposing the failings of British society fully 50 years ago. As a young chap I was shook to my core watching his 'hymn' to homelessness Cathy Come Home [1969] as part of the BBC's ongoing series The Wednesday Play. My 12-y.o. middle-class eyes were on stalks as I watch that tragedy of the honest dispossessed unfold. His film Kes [1969], based on the story a Kestrel for a Knave, about a boy and a bird still makes me weep tears of frustration. You can find clips on youtube to give the bitter (there is little sweet here) flavour. Now here's a thing, all the kids in Kes are built like sticks: then there were no calories; now there are too many . . . but many working class kids are still without hope or prospects. Daniel Blake is a contemporary of Billy Casper, the young hero of Kes. Daniel left school, found work as a chippy, he worked, he married, his wife went mad and died, they had no children and he dies in the toilet of the office where he's trying to appeal his denial of Benefit. That's All.

One touching juxtaposition is that Daniel treats the kids, of a single mum whom he befriends, with respect, patience, courtesy and empathy. The Man treats him as a child because he can't fill in an on-line form or  a smart-phone but with considerably less respect, patience, courtesy and empathy. All very metaphorical: to himself and to his friends and neighbours, he is a Mensch. To those who have a pensionable desk job denying benefit to unfortunates like himself he is a cipher. The final scene, at his funeral, has his young friend read out the text of the appeal which he never got to make to the tribunal:
‘I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. 

I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar nor a thief.
I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen. 

I paid my dues, never a penny short, and was proud to do so.
I don’t tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye.

I don’t accept or seek charity.
My name is Daniel Blake,

I am a man, not a dog. 
As such I demand my rights.
I demand you treat me with respect.
I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less.
Thank you.’
What's with the Spartacus reference? Weren't they slaves? My point exactly!

Engineering 260317

Here's a few clips for engineers

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Herring salad

Daddy, daddy, what's a herring?
Well, son, they're all gone now, but it was a medium sized fish on which millions of people depended for protein.
The Atlantic herring Clupea harengus is a medium sized salt-water fish which breeds promiscuously on the sea-bed with females laying about 30,000 eggs each having cranked up their gonads to about 1/5th of their body-mass in the previous few weeks. If you are, or know, a woman imagine having ovaries the size of two sacks of potatoes. There is another species Clupea pallasii in the Pacific and the genus is related to sardines Sardina pilchardus, shad Alosa alosa and menhagen Brevoortia tyrannus all of which are hunted for food. Indeed the family Clupeidae comprises at least 200 named species. The promiscuity at mating time (it is a free-for-all down there both males and females loosing their gametes - eggs and milt - into the unforgiving ocean and hoping for the best) continues in 'normal' life as most members of the family cruise about in huge schools looking for smaller animals - copepods and other plankton - to eat. The herring in turn are consumed in huge numbers by larger fish and marine mammals and this is one reason why they hang out together. The fish in the centre of the school are less likely to be eaten, but they are also less likely to get stuff to eat as the edges encounter fresh copepods.  It is similar at spawning time, there are optimal places to lay eggs but these key locations are often so over-subscribed that the mass of eggs suffocates itself before any of them hatch. In English we call them herrings from the Old High German heri = a host, multitude: a root shared with Heer the modern German for the Army. This word seems to have been loaned to French hareng, Spanish/Portuguese arenque. Nords have a different word: sild NO/DK or sill SE. Herring last a good while if you pack them into barrels with salt and this ability to be preserved and transported made herring an asset in Catholic Europe when everyone  ate fish on Fridays and through Lent . . . except the peasantry: they ate turnips and were right grateful Thank 'ee sir to get that.

Now I like a flag as much as any vexillologist. I've written about some aspects of these symbols before. In particular there's a colorful collection of related flags from the Nordic regions that ring the changes compared to the rather boring tricolours that we have in, say, Ireland and France. No matter how enthusiastic you are for The Republic, it is hard to be inspired by 3 blocks of colour in and of itself. Of course the Pavlovian associations [triumphs at the Olympics, or emotional state funerals Martin McGuinness going L and the like] will work insidiously on the mind until eventually the mere sight of your flag will elicit the tune of your national anthem and a sense of patriotic pride.

Now here's a flag that nobody could love. It looks confused in design and a quite hideous jangle of colours. It's not obvious that this is a variant of the Nordic theme until it's pointed out that it is two flags cut up and sewn together so that two nations obtain parity of esteem from their union. The area covered by the Norwegian cross (top and bottom) is exactly the same as that occupied by the Swedish ditto (left and right).  The two kingdoms had shared a monarch, and a sense of uneasy antipathy, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars when Denmark had been forced to cede Norway to Sweden under the terms of the Treaty of Kiel [1814]. In 1844, after long deliberations in committee, the Unionsmärket [see R] was made the official flag for navies and diplomacy.
It was mocked by many on both sides of the border as neither fish, nor fowl, nor good red herring and was dubbed sillsallaten / sildesalaten from its supposed resemblance to the herring salad [L - egg yolks, egg whites, parsley and pickled beetroot - looks delicious] that appeared on many a Scandinavian smörgåsbord.  The citizens of both countries were forced to tolerate, if not to love the flag for another 60+ years, until Norway unilaterally separated itself from its larger neighbour in 1905. They acquired a rent-a-king from Denmark in June 1905 when a younger brother of the Danish king called Prins Carl accepted the Norwegian throne as Haakon VII. He was there until 1957! I've written about Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a French soldier, was offered the throne of Sweden right at the beginning of this king-swapping saga.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Oroville Update

In January this year, after 5 years without rain there was a dramatic drought-break in Northern California. Suddenly there was more water than anyone new adequately how to deal with. I mentioned the story again a couple of week later by way of saying that Mr Trump's 'promise' of $1 trillion$ was probably not going to be enough to fix all the bridges, culverts, dams and road-pavement that was beyond their sell-by date. The cost of just cleaning up the mess at Oroville up till now is in excess of $100 million. Here's good footage showing water moving before, during and after the over-flow crisis at Oroville.
When we left Oroville on 13th February, the rain had eased off, if you can call 13in = 330mm in 4 days an easing off. The emergency spillway was still in danger of being utterly destroyed through under-cutting by the flowing water and the reg'lar spillway had a hole [see above, the yellow Lego figures are about 2m tall] big enough to bury my 'umble 'ome and another half-dozen houses of similar size. But the California department of water resources DWR were left with Hobson's Choice and had to let water out of the brimful lake down the compromised spillway. Without Hans Brinker the hero of Haarlem to stem the flow, the rushing water ate at the edges of the hole and then ate at the edges of the hill and than started scouring out the very bedrock. In about 20 days, 1.5 million cu.yds = 1.1 million cu.m had been stripped out and dumped into the Feather River below. Every day of that meant another ?$5million? in damage and erosion that would eventually have to be repaired. This what a million cu.m of crumbled concrete and bedrock looks like - mainly grey in the brown river:
You can see the almost white strip of remaining spillway near the top right of the picture. This is after they had scrabbled a channel through the debris field (you can see it flowing along the left edge of the heap of grey rock). They did that so that the level of the river could be lowered below the out-fall ports of the Hyatt power-station at the base of the dam - off-camera to the right. On an engineering side note, you can't run water through the plant unless you are taking electricity off the turbines - if they aren't engaged with the magnets they spin so fast they melt the bearings and explode. They couldn't run the electricity because the cables and pylons tracked off through the flood disaster zone and had to be removed!  It was a fine old mess of a 'normal accident' or one dam thing after another. Here's a picture of before (normal spillway gush 2011), damage (7th Feb 2017) and after (27th Feb 2017):
But the DWR hired every 20 tonne dump truck, every bull-dozer and every monster back-hoe in N California and contracted them to move that rock out of the river. One of these massive diggers costs maybe $50,000/mo to operate and the film footage shows dozens of them scurrying about the landscape. After 10 days of round the clock digging, they had cleared much of the spoil from the riverbed and the water was able to flow downriver. More importantly the power-plant was able to open ports and start to generate electricity again. This meant that anything up to 10,000 cfs (cu.ft/sec) that's about 1 million cu.m/hr which sound a lot but isn't going to make much of a dent when there are acre-ft of water the other side of the dam: it can lower the lake at about 1cm/hr. But snowmelt and rain is adding 5x as much, so it's a wee wee solution. Load-carrying helicopters have delivered new pylons and sackfuls of rock 'armouring' to fill the new canyons below the emergency spillway. These boulders have been glued together with thousands of tonnes of shotcrete - sprayed from concrete mixers through special hose-trucks.  Some shotcrete has been judiciously added as 'pointing' to smooth out the ragged lip of the broken reg'lar spillway.  It's been the most tremendous engineering project; a triumph of American can-do and steady nerves . . . and luck with the weather (all those Christians praying, I guess).  But, being America, there has been a parallel load of bonkers negativity / paranoia: 
  • The rain came because of the contrails chemtrails (of course); 
  • the hole in the spillway was caused by a terr'ist bomb; 
  • the whole thing is god's judgement for fluoridating [bloboprev] the water; 
  • where is the rebar? I can't see any ferro in the concrete from my sofa in Arkansas it must have been left out as a contractor's scam.
  • It's all a plot by Democrat Governor Jerry Brown to spill the precious fluids of god's own America
The top of the emergency spillway is 900 ft above sea-level, the dam itself is 922 ft. On 17th March 2017, the lake level reached 860ft and rising that's 10 ft higher than the recommended lake-height according the the Army Corps of Engineers. They opened the busted spillway aNNyway under minimax conditions. If they dribbled water down the spillway at 10,000 cfs then it would head-cut the lip: potentially back to the spillway gates otoh if they sent the 100,000 cfs max load it would scour the hillside below the lip and fill the goddam river up again. They happy medium expert opinion / guesstimate was 40,000 cfs. That way, the water would blurf into space and into the existing plunge pool where some of its energy would be dissipated.  In many ways the whole fiasco has been an engineers wet dream.

One final thought: nature is full of homeostatic balance and doesn't handle wild fluctuations very well. California's a Garden of Eden. Downstream from the dam are hundreds of hectares of vinyards, olive, almond and orange groves, orchards and market gardens. Those nearest the river are protected by levees - artificial embankments that are held together by inertia and vegetation. Letting the river level go up and down like a yo-yo is ungood: the levees saturate with water from the high water mark; if you allow the water to drain away too quickly the saturated earth slumps into the river taking away years of natural ground-cover and its mutually supporting root structure.

Juan Brown, a local airplane pilot, has been my touchstone for commentary. His channel is called blancolirio and this is a compendium of all 22 of his oroville videos.

Now some context. The $100 million is just staving off disaster, they are still soliciting opinions about the long-term solution and hoping to build it this Summer before the next rainy season.
Oroville may be the tallest dam in the US and the spillway may be 55m across and 2km long but it's not orders of magnitude bigger than other engineering projects that are in urgent need of attention across the USA.
  • IF according to WaPo there are 130,000 such projects
    • ANDIF Oroville has cost 1/10th of $1 billion
    • ANDIF $1 trillion is 10,000x more than that 
  • THEN the Feds should be budgetting $10 trillion not $1
Note: $1 trillion is not twice the size of $1 billion, although that's how we internalise it. $1 trillion is an unimaginably large pile of money. It is the the entire tax-take = total govt spend for a piffling country like Ireland for 20 years!

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Vive le rationalisme!

Alors les gars et les meufs: la marche citoyenne pour les sciences va de l'avant avec le reste du monde!
Where? Here! When 22 April 2017.  I thought it might be nice to use this as an opportunity to have a french geography quiz. As of today there are 13 declared locations for a march that Saturday. Your task is to match place-names with the little pink logos.
Bordeaux
Grenoble
Lille
Lyon
Nancy
Nantes
Nice
Marseilles
Montpellier
Paris
Strasbourg
Thonon-les-bains
Toulouse
For a bonus, you can attempt to sort the places in order of size.

I'm only here for the valence

<The pictures on the right are from the March against Eighth>
Are my ancient bones too old for a bit of protest? Not at all, so long as there are no razor-wire barricades, water-cannon, tasers, or baton-charges by the police.  It's more than 40 years since I was on a march in Dublin protesting about the lack of student grants.  And last Spring, with exquisite poor timing, my Union went on strike on the day a general election was called: so press coverage was almost entirely elsewhere. It's not entirely alien to my culture, then.  We met at the Wexford Science Café this week on Tuesday 21st March as we do every third Tuesday of the month.  I presented an executive summary of the Oroville Dam crisis which is now dissipating from a critical to a chronic problem. It's cost in excess of $100 million just to avert disaster and nothing has been installed to upgrade the ageing infrastructure there. But that's for another time.

The Wexford Science Café WSC has agreed to March in solidarity with others in the USA and elsewhere a month from now in the March for Science. Be careful how you put this information about. The science policy people in Dublin will only get nervous at the prospect of the WSC contingent appearing on their doorstep . . . on a Saturday when nobody will be in their office. March for Science (Ireland Inc.) are calling themselves sciencemarchie which rather more cute than frightening. If you're in Ireland, you may decide to put up a few posters [Link] in your local library or laboratory. If you are in la francophonie, you'll have to make your own. I imagine that there will be similar events Marche pour la science in France. Look out in a university town near you: they may even have affiches.

My girls were marching earlier in the month [picture of march] to assert their rights to reproductive autonomy. I was skyping with Dau.II the night before and she raised her fist a lá Black Power and cried "Fuck the Patriarchy".  I reminded her that, as a patriarch, I could hardly go hollering that on a women's rights march with out getting arrested for solicitation.  aNNyway, back to the riot March for Science. The event is to coincide with parallel marches in the USA and also with Earth Day. Earth Day not to be confused with Climate Day the following week 29th April 2017; or World Environment Day 5th June 2017. I’m planning to be there on 22/04/17 with my I’m Only Here for the Valence [violence] t-shirt.

Unless you did chemistry in high school, that bit of clever-clogs wit may be lost on you. Valency is a fundamental property of each element: its combining power. It's all about the number of electrons in the outer (chemically available) shell of each atom.  This is most easily shown by the series of hydrides for the elements in the top line of the periodic table.
As you travel L to R, each element gets one more electron, so needs to marry one less hydrogen atom to achieve stability. Thus we have CH4, NH3, OH2, FH1, or in words methane, ammonia, water, hydrofluoric acid. We usually write the last two differently H2O and HF, but I'm damned if I can remember why.  There is no BHand I can't remember why that is unstable. So Carbon has a valency of 4 etc.  These orderly relationships and the predictable changes in properties as you go L-R or up and down the periodical table was one of the things that fell me in love with science as a teenager.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Bright pink chemistry

"Jesus and lord of mercy, what is that?"  That's the comment of Cenk Uygur when presented with a picture [L in all it's technicolour glory] of MRM, mechanically recovered meat. Uygur's co-presenter Ana Kasparian otoh figures that it's soft-serve ice-cream but she is wrong as her nose would tell her.  These two were [the link is 2010] and are presenters on the Internet News channel Young Turks. There's something rather sweet in that line up because Uygur was born in Istanbul and lived there until he was eight and Kasparian's great-grandparents barely survived the Armenian genocide carried out by Turkey 100 years ago. The US is a healing melting pot and don't let the current administration convince you otherwise.

I've given my 2c worth about MRM before which even cited the same Jesus and Lord of Mercy movie clip. It's one thing to lash in the tendons, beaks and wobbly-bits into the soft-centre portion of a chicken-nugget - you can hardly object if it tastes alright and doesn't bite back. It's another matter entirely - because it's dishonest - if you fill up the nuggets with fish-meal because that's cheaper on the international market this month. When I was working in Genetics, TCD in the 1990s, The lads in the lab next door founded Identigen a company based on the idea of DNA analysis of food. Their slogan used to be From the Pasture to The Plate and their food traceablity program can track your [dodgy] hamburger back to a particular now-dead cow from a particular herd. Whatever about the past, I want to assure you that McDonalds no longer use MRM in making the nuggets - evidence. It's still a unpretty repellent process but mmmm they taste so good, because McD's have really good food engineers. The cost of a dead chicken is now so low, that it may be irrelevant to try to recover every scrap of fat&protein from the carcass.

Q. Why so cheap?
A. because broiler chickens have a frighteningly efficient feed-conversion ratio. From hatch to 1.8kg broiler takes an astonishing 41 days (just shy of 6 weeks). In the first 3 weeks, the fluffy&adorable chicks scarf down 900g of food on which they ballooooon out to a hefty 635g. The rate of weight packing falls off a tad over the next 3 weeks: getting through another 2.3kg of soy&corn [we'll ignore the penicillin, steroids and hormones], to gain the final 1.2kg of weight for slaughter and market.  You don't need to funnel food into the bird's crops like they do for Strasbourg geese; just present them with ad lib food and water.

One of Identigen's success stories hinged on ham. In the old days, ham was preserved by immersing the better cuts of the annual pig in a trough and covering the whole thing with a mix of sea/table salt NaCl and saltpetre  KNO3, periodically you'd turn the meat and rub the salts into the flesh and eventually the grey hunk would lose a lot of water and acquire the rich pink hue from the reaction of the myoglobin in the muscle and the nitrite. The nitrite is produced from nitrate by lactic acid bacteria LABs like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. That all took time and in the food industry time is money and money is tight. Why not, some dastardly and successful food-engineer suggested, make a brine of NaCl and KNO3 and inject the stuff into the joint of meat - much more efficient. That was given the okay by the EU and the FDA so long as no more than 20% w/w of the ham was injected brine. Guess what proportion was the median concentration of brine in commercial hams: 19.5% is close enough.  The problem with this protocol is that the brine leaks out when the meat is cooked and the muscle fibres tense up under the heat. So food engineering solution Mark II injected not brine but a slurry of water (not more than 20%!), salt and protein powder. The protein absorbed the water as it all cooked and the punters didn't have white snot leaking into the pan from their rashers. For food engineers any old protein will do and Identigen smoked a number of rogue traders by showing that there was a helluva lot of Vietnamese fishmeal in 'Irish' hams.

I used the idea of DNA analysis being used to identify adulterated meat as a class-room exercise when the Horseburger Protocols were super-topical back in 2013. Irish folk love the voice of Maurice Chevalier [although Zank 'eaven for liddle girls may give moderns a frisson of pedophilia] but revolt at the trade which gives that family it's name. Horses are for riding about on the Curragh or winning races at Cheltenham and emphatically not for eating. Horse-meat is for them foreign Johnnies.

This-all is hot news in Canada because CBC consumer watchdog program Marketplace sent a few samples of Subway's 'chicken' off to the Canadian equivalent of Identigen and broadcast their finding that, according to the DNA  Subway's Oven Roasted Chicken Sandwich and Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki were only 50% Gallus gallus and the rest was Soya Glycine max. Subway are shouting false and uttering cease, desist and retract notices to the tune of CAN$210 million. At the moment CBC are not being frightened into submission and are standing by their claims. Shrieking False and Misleading in a very loud voice is not the way science is carried on. It's more the tenor of political debate across the water. We'll have to see whether evidence or assertion carries the day in the commercial world.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Idiotproof

We're almost finished Food and Fermentation Microbiology aka F&F for another year. I'be been taking one section of this investigation of food-process and food-spoilage microbes for the last three years.  Whaaaa'? Who would put me in charge of a laboratory for which I have neither training nor expertise? Well The Institute would/does as part of a decentralisation policy. I think the management got tired and worried that everyone was teaching the same-old same-old despite that fact that science tends to move forward year-on-year. Another issue is the idea that IF someone dies or goes on maternity leave ANDIF there are other people who have done that person's work before THEN the students' suffering/loss in minimised. Downside is that some groups of students get an expert; while other groups are thrown on their own expertise.  I know which group has the richest learning experience!

Any microbiology course needs to use autoclaves to sterilise media. Autoclaves are potentially lethal because they heat hot viscous sticky agar to a very high temperature by increasing the pressure inside a steel bomb. Indeed we've had two blows in the last couple of years: the injuries were not life-threatening but hot and painful. It would be easier and safer if I made all the interactions with the autoclaves: if there is an accident then I take one for the team - I'm almost dead aNNyway. But that is a terrible learning experience and, with my heart in my mouth sometimes, I have appointed each of the kids in turn Autoclave Liaison Officer ALO. The ALO is responsible for loading the bomb, switching it on, screwing down the lid, timing the process, waiting until it cools down, unloading it . . . without anyone getting burned. And begob, they cannot reliably do this, they make mistakes, some of them the sort of mistakes that recently blew hot agar over two of our students and one ceiling. It could be a classic case of I taught them but they didn't learn but I think it's more that they haven't done it often enough to embed the process as a sort of muscle-memory. In F&F for example we've only had 9 or 10 media-making opportunities and I only have 9 or 10 pairs of students. Once a year isn't often enough!

I did have a cunning plan a couple of week's ago, though. While everyone is waiting forty minutes for the autoclave to heat up and cool down, I could make them all sit down and write up the Standard Operating Procedure  S.O.P. for running an autoclave. Not as good as actually using the autoclave every golldarn week but a complementary learning experience maybe. This is difficult, most people will miss out a crucial step or add one in or get them in the wrong order.

Just how hard this sort of communication is can be seen in the Exact Instructions Challenge. These are a series of vloggy films in which parents compel their children to write instructions for making a PB&J sandwich or banana split, and then carry out those instructions as written rather than as intended. What impresses me most about these 8 and 10 y.o. kids is that they have bottle. IF The Dad makes fun of their first attempt by showing how the instructions are [hilariously] not fit for purpose THEN the kid learns and goes off to have a better shot at the challenge. This iteration towards perfection is deeply scientific. Actually skip the science-puffery: it is a really useful exercise in precise communication. You'll need that in the army, on the football field, in an attorney's office, in politics, in medicine and driving in traffic.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Pissteria

A lot of people get unduly exercised, indeed a bit hysterical, about urine; which is a) sterile b) mildly antiseptic and c) remarkably good for the garden. It's less true of women than men that urine is sterile because there is a natural flora in the vagina, but those are Good Bacteria.  I've written before about the virtues of peeing in the shower which include getting fewer cases of athlete's foot and verruccas [it's the antisepsis, silly].  Actually, that potentially beneficial effect is probably unlikely because of the dilution factor.

The dilution factor came up front & centre earlier in the month when the Grauniad and the blogosphere [Metafilter] spent a penny's worth on the subject of urination in swimming pools and whether we the swimming public should be concerned. I don't really like swimming - the medium is cold and wet - but I did go with Dau.I and Dau.II when they were a) small and b) grew importunate about having their father in the pool with them. I was a convenient post to hold on to when they got tired. When actually swimming, I always felt I was going to bump into a bobbing band-aid with my nose, which has indeed happened to me once - once too much! But I never worried about the skin flakes, sweat or other bodily fluids which made up the medium because I am a) numerate and b) not OCD [much]. The point is that there is a lot of water in a swimming pool and only a little water in a bladder.  Even if every punter leaked a little, it wouldn't amount to much. And what is it that you're concerned about? given that urine is a dilute solution of urea with vanishingly small quantities of other compounds.  It is increasingly the custom to ensure that all swimmers wear bathing caps to keep the hair on their heads and I guess that is a good idea. I can imagine that an accumulation of hair will eventually clog the filters. Bald ? You often have to wear the hat aNNyway, because the operatives [I won't call them Effectives] in the pool can't be programmed to interpret the rules for sense.  Is it only a matter of time before we are compelled to shave our oxters or wear little under-arm covers?

Another pee-pee link was in the blogosphere a while back. The German space agency DLR Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahr has been investigating the value of urine for providing sustainable food on long-time space voyages - either going round and round in the ISS or making a bee-line for Mars or TRAPPIST-1. One of the key elements in the scheme is using bacteria to process the nitrogen in the urine - primarily urea which is rather inert and mostly harmless but which has a tendency to break down into ammonia which is quite toxic: ammonia will clean your toilet bowl and U-bend rather effectively. When I worked in the aquarium in Rotterdam we filtered the water through a sandwich of filterwatten and activated charcoal. The filterwatten - I just looked this up - was probably made of polyethylene terephthalate = PET; another use for this remarkable polymer.  Between two layers of PET to catch the big bits, the activated charcoal was basically a set of microscopic tubes and hidey-holes effectively infinite in size. Lodged on the sides of these hollows a community of Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter grows up and does the chemical conversion. Periodically we would clean the filters, but we'd only tip out and replace half the charcoal the remainder served to seed the fresh stuff. Likewise, once a month we'd do a water-verversen: empty half the tank and fill up with unchlorinated fresh water.

Plants prefer nitrates and we prefer to eat plants rather than cakes made of compressed bacteria; although that is surely another option for feeding those astronauts.  If this all reminds you of Dune - book or film - where water is the precious resource and limiting factor - it must be the way I tell it. If you haven't read the book, the relevant spoiler is that when a person died on the desert planet they wrapped the body up in a special cloth and wrung it dry; keeping the water and discarding the husk. I guess the Germans will be too squeamish about the scared temple that is the human body to do anything like that. The metafilter re-churn of the BBC report elicits some wit - if those Longdistancespacejourneygermans [Langstreckenraumfahrt is a word] are going to grow tomatoes from urine surely they will be better growing peas or leeks - ho ho, pee-pee jokes, I too was schoolboy once upon a time.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Biscust

The not-RTE wireless station Newstalk-FM has a science programme called Futureproof which goes out at noon on a Saturday. You'd think I should be able to tune in on a regular basis: I Science, after all. But no, it slips past week after week, although I occasionally hear previews and postviews. aNNyway, I was Home Alone last Saturday plongeuring through a mountain of dishes and switched on the wireless . . . because i R can, too, multitask . . . and there was Futureproof talking about disgust. I missed the first bit in the clatter of delft but caught a bit about Charles Darwin in Tierra del Fuego. The expert on Futureproof gives an example of cross-cultural mutual disgust: The Fuegian lad finds repellent the cold salt-beef on which Darwin is lunching, while Darwin is reciprocally disgusted at having his dinner poked by a naked savage. That's cute, so I googled it up and found the relevant paragraph in Chapter X of the Voyage of the Beagle:
  • At dinner-time we landed among a party of Fuegians. At first they were not inclined to be friendly; for until the Captain pulled in ahead of the other boats, they kept their slings in their hands. We soon, however, delighted them by trifling presents, such as tying red tape round their heads. They liked our biscuit: but one of the savages touched with his finger some of the meat preserved in tin cases which I was eating, and feeling it soft and cold, showed as much disgust at it, as I should have done at putrid blubber. Jemmy was thoroughly ashamed of his countrymen, and declared his own tribe were quite different, in which he was wofully mistaken. 
Whoops, only disgust on the part of the 'savage'. Jemmy is Jemmy Button, who had, on a previous voyage, been purchased by Captain Fitzroy for a pearl button and trafficked back to England to be "civilised". Darwin and his Wedgwood cousins were strong supporters of the anti-slavery movement but didn't refuse a seat at Fitzroy's table. The Voyage of the Beagle was published in 1839, just 3 years after the ship returned from her five year circumnavigation. The Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 28 August 1833, while the Beagle was at sea. That month Darwin was ashore in Patagonia hunting fossils.  But if there is one thing we know about Darwin, apart from the phrase natural selection, it is that he was prolific. He wrote books on a wide variety of topics and knew more about barnacles than any man then living. For The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal, published in 1872, he recalled that moment from 40 years earlier on the other side of the world:
  • In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty. A smear of soup on a man's beard looks disgusting, though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself. I presume that this follows from the strong association in our minds between the sight of food, however circumstanced, and the idea of eating it.
Darwin employed an ac-tor to demonstrate the various emotions which he investigated. And there are two variants in the book for 'disgust': with and without hat. But you know the look "The disgust face expression is one of the universal facial features. It is characterized by a wrinkled nose and lowered eyebrows. The mouth is typically opened in a gesture as if silently mouthing a "bleaghhh" sound".  I see this all the time in my Food and Fermentation Microbiology course. The students have lived such sheltered deodorised lives that any smell is met with a fit of the vapours. A whiff of Pseudomonas or Bacillus brings out a "Glrrrrk" and wrinkled nose. You should try mercapoethanol, I say, that will make you cry.

I was down with Pat the Salt with his daughter The Beloved last weekend and she discovered a tin of fancy biscuits at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards. She passed these round at 'afternoon tea'. As no vicar was expected we didn't have cucumber sandwiches. aNNyway, Pat poked around in the tin looking for something from the 1930s (when he first met chocolate biscuits) and TB baulked: You have to take the first one you touch, Pat, she said.  Clearly the protocol is the same as playing championship chess. If I reflected too long and imaginatively on whether the towels and door-handles were 'clean', why I'd get nothing done when I'm down there. You may bet that he doesn't regularly take 20 seconds [sing happy birthday through in full twice] to wash his hands after using the toilet. I don't, you don't; only pediatric nurses and surgeons do. But you/I/we all should do that; anything less is just a waste of water. Dame Sally Davies, the UK's Chief Medical Officer CMO [equivalent of the US Surgeon General], shows how and why you/I should do that at the end of her lecture to The Royal Institution. Don't watch if you worry about the future in a world without antibiotics. I've mentioned this before . . . and given the Happy Birthday rule . . . but also have given an alternative view.

At the end of the last century, when I was working in TCD, the department stumped up for tea and biscuits at 1100hrs every morning M-F. The biscuits were presented in an old Christmas biscuits tin. We had a post-doc from foreign who would root through the biscuits picking up several with her fingers eeeeuw! before making her decision.  Why did I specify the from foreign back there? Am I a closet racist? Probably! But I would have been equally 'disgusted' if Cathleen ni Houlihaun herself had picked over the biks in that manner. Except that she wouldn't because, in Ireland, we don't do that.

Museum of the moving image 190317

A miscellany of views and reads.
  • Hunting for West: bloke from Montana loses the desire to kill elk when his son is born.
  • Boys aren't total shits they are just boys: Christina Hoff Sommers, revisionist feminist, on her book The War Against Boys, which makes the case that boys hit each other with sticks and don't pull up their socks but aren't less lovable for that.
  • Here's another aspect of different-but-equal in the sexes. Women are getting the bum's rush in medication because the trials are all carried out on young [expendable?] men.
  • Baskets:
    • Splitting black ash to make baskets. Who ever had the first idea to tonk a tree trunk with a lump hammer and then peel it like an orange? Fraxinus nigra, the tree, will soon be following the elm Ulmus minor into extinct from infestation by an aggressive insect pest Agrilus planipennis.
    • Making use of rushes in Ireland. Part 1. I could have popped this one in with the other Irish crafts on Paddy's Day
  • A trib to Henry Ford for setting up a car factory in Cork, near his ancestral home-place. Founded in 1917, the plant floated the local economy until it was rationalised out of existence in 1984. Did we ever consider the Ford Cortina 'sexy'?
  • Did someone [above] suggest that boys are repellent monsters? Not all of them but if this chap says white, I vote for black.
  • Wimomeh the lion sleeps to night. So much variety

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Bingo for ancients

Every Monday for the last year, I have hung out with my aged father-in-law Pat the Salt and the other ancients of the town where that old sailor has washed up. He is the oldest and I am the youngest and the dozen plus between make up the Heritage Group. There is a plan to record Ye Olde Dayes as an oral history project. Four weeks ago, I was getting mildly excited about the prospect of playing Bingo, a game of chance, with The Heritage Group. Bingo is a sort of pub-quiz for know-nothings. They both serve as a vehicle for social inclusion and community. Pub-quizzes require you to recognise Prince Harry and the Taj Mahal; to know the year the pope came to Ireland; and to stoutly maintain that elephants have four knees even when you know this is nonsense. For Bingo you need to be able to count up to 90.  The latter should be easy if the numbers are called out in whatever language you speak.

Last week, we had a practice session so that everyone would be up to date with a game that they might not have played for 50 years. Getting up to speed with the protocol is the major part of the battle except if the numbers are called in a foreign language . . . or a language that you left behind even more than 50 years ago.  As part of Seachtaine na Gaeilge, the week of Irish language, we signed up for playing Bingo in Irish. On the Monday of Patrick's Week we all gathered in the room above the library to play Bingo as gaeilge. Instead of regular, normal 15 numbers or a block of six bingo cards, someone had gone off down the interweb and come up with a children's version [R with extra big numbers].  This did not make things easier, not least because we'd been in training the week before with adult cards. Does it matter? Not much, because, as I say above, it's just a bit of craic to pass an hour or so with friends. But then again, in these super sensitive times, maybe it is a teeny bit disrespectful to suggest that because old people are a bit leaky top and bottom they can/should be treated like children, hmmmm?  But there is a long tradition along these lines since Wm. Shagsper if not before:
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Friday, 17 March 2017

St Patrick's diplomacy

If you're getting complacent in your St Patrick's Day nostalgia, the picture above will shake you to your boot-heels. It was put up on Social Media to promote Paddy's Day at the Railtown Café in Vancouver BC and created a diplomatic incident drawing adverse and ironic comment from all over. Railtown is the sort of place that shows a salad with a slogan "If looks could kale . . ." The dribbly Guinness picture has since been removed from the interweb and if you turn up there today with an Irish passport, you'll get a free pint and a chaser of Old Jimmy. I was writing the other day about pretentious gittery. There are experts in any field and there are people who go through the motions of being a connoisseur [from the French to know] but are basically all bark and no trousers.Wine is a case in point. Far too many men make a big palaver about choosing the wine at a restaurant and then make a big show of congratulating themselves for making such a wise choice. They'd be more honest if they just scanned the wine list and chose the second cheapest claret.  Those who drink Guinness used to assert that they could taste the difference between a pint brewed in St James's Gate in Dublin from one brewed in Park Royal in West London. But they never put themselves to a blind tasting under controlled conditions; they just mouthed off about how this pint wasn't the same as that one and how they longed to be back in Morrissey's of Abbeyleix - which was, and is, conveniently halfway between Dublin and Cork before they built the motorway.

25 years ago, I used to drink pints of Guinness a couple of times each week to keep the boss company but my heart wasn't in it and it was a relief when the Summer came round and we could switch to lagers. When I got old enough to resist peer-pressure, I switched to Smithwick's ale which is less of a challenge and less full of hang-over inducing congeners: you may keep your fusel oil, tannin and acetone.  The Irish Bar is a marketing device which has garnered million$ for those who export Irish road-signs and photographs of the 1923 All Ireland GAA champions to Kuala Lumpur and Budapest. Whatever else they serve, there will be Guinness on tap as that is a quintessential part of the Oirish Experience.

Years ago, a couple of years after I'd met my pal Pepe Malpica, The Beloved and I were on holiday in Spain and spent a couple of days at Pepe's gaff in suburban Madrid. He arranged for me to give a seminar at his institute and I was happy to do that as part of the the process of scientific networking. I reckoned it would also increase his street cred by having an foreign national giving a talk there. After the talk, he propelled me along the corridor to meet The Director - who'd been far far too busy to come to the talk. We were introduced, we shook hands, we made small talk for 90 seconds and then we were bounced out to the PA's office. Pepe talked rapidly in Spanish, I was told to sign a slip of paper and an envelope was thrust into my hands. In the hall outside, I opened the envelope to reveal a fat wad of pesetas - something like €200 is today's money. I was amazed and immediately offered to cut Pepe in for half. He was appalled and in full hidalgo mode said that I had impugned his honour by suggesting such a thing; the money was an honorarium and standard practice in that place for foreign dignitaries.  Anyway, he continued, I've got a treat for you.

Apparently his presence wasn't required for the rest of the afternoon and we drove for many miles through the suburbs of Madrid until we pulled up outside an apartment complex with a little row of retail outlets at street level. One of them was an Irish Bar and we spent the rest of the afternoon in there. He wasn't above letting me buy the first round of pints from my new found wealth. In among the usual paraphernalia that you get in such places, there was a python in permanent siesta mode behind the bar in a glass case. That was either super-ironic - St Patrick is supposed to have driven the snakes from Ireland - or just bonkers. I don't think it will catch on in Abbeyleix.