Sunday, 30 April 2017


Although I do try to bring you sciencey news in a timely fashion, I only have limited sources for primary information and limited time to scan them, so I missed this piece about the death of Lucy, AL288-1, the most complete representative of her species Australopithecus afarensis. She is not the type specimen; that honour goes to an adult mandible LH4 discovered in Laetoli, Tanzania described by Louis Leakey in 1976. Original article. AL129-1, aka Johansen's knee, shows the angle between femur and tibia that is typical of bipedal upright walkers. I met Johansen, Lucy's godfather,  when I was in graduate school. Lucy was an adult female but by no means a strapping wench, weighing in at about 50kg and 107 cm tall. She would have come up to my navel.
JBS Haldane [prev] had a brilliant essay On Being the Right Size which speculated about the effect of various animals falling down a mine shaft: A mouse walks away, a rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes. They have now worked out in excruciating detail how Lucy died: falling from a great height probably out of a tree. Analysis of fossil pollen from the same geological strata as held Lucy for 3.5 million years shows that today's desert was then an open grassland with scattered trees. Australopithecus had clearly 'come down from the trees' because their knees and the angle between skull and neck vertebrae say that they spent most of the time walking upright  in the savanna. But it is suggested that, like chimpanzees and gorillas, they returned to trees to sleep, when threatened by predators and/or to forage for fruit and nuts. Some hold that upright posture is an adaptation to seeing over the tops of the grass. Our dentition and intestines have developed into something uniquely human because of cooking. It is unlikely that Lucy was high up in a tree so that she could munch through a load of leaves: fruit and nuts are more likely because they are quality food. The paper under discussion suggests that the anatomical changes involved in the switch to bipedal walking compromised our ability to scamper about in trees

ANNyway, the poor creature stepped on a rotten branch or missed her footing or got fatally distracted and fell to earth, possibly whacking off/through branches on the way down to an unforgivingly hard ground. The diagram [above L] shows how she may have broken her knee and ankle, then her pelvis, then her ribs and finally took a tonk to the head. That final blow is known as a guardsman fracture where the point of the lower jaw hits something hard and splits there are well as shearing off the condyles where the bone articulates with the skull: ouch!. That sort of bone damage is always accompanied by destructive internal injuries. At least it wasn't lingering.  Maybe it was slippy because she was caught in a tropical downpour, maybe that same deluge caused the distributary crevasse-splay channel which covered her broken body with preserving soil. My first proper scientific paper was an analysis of neogene tooth-metrics including Lucy's; I can't help but feel a sense of loss and a twinge of pain as I imagine her final 9.8 m/s2 gravity-accelerated plunge down to earth.

Sunday hard-chaw 300417

City-boys and softies can go back to their lattes for this one because I going to dump out some material science.  It's about how to shift things without busting your back or using the work of a petrol engine [and thereby destroying the planet].

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Zen and the Art of Going

Aieee! Robert M. Pirsig [R with bike] is dead. Guardian - B.Globe - WaPo. One of the truly original thinkers of the 20thC has passed on. I wrote about ZAMM Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on his birthday a few years ago. As I do, I sent a link to Anthony McWatt the curator of and we had a brief to-fro about Pirsig, ZAMM and MOQ. MOQ is the Metaphysics of Quality and those educated in the school of material things and hard knocks will assume that MOQ is irrelevant to them. Although not a particularly practical person, I don't have much time for metaphysics although it claims to deal with the fundamental nature of reality. You can build bridges that don't fall down and develop new drugs that work without drilling down into the mind-body problem or whether trees that fall in the forest make a sound if there is nobody to hear the crash.  There are levels of abstraction and detail that are appropriate for particular problems: chemistry is a subset of physics and biology is a subset of chemistry.

On his website McWatt quotes an anecdote about Harry Kroto: "At a 1998 presentation in London for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Professor Harry Kroto unexpectedly spent his time elucidating the merits of meccano instead of discussing his recent Nobel award winning discovery of Carbon 60.  His argument being that students require tactile experience to know when to stop tightening a screw and computer use alone doesn’t teach this. When asked at the end of the lecture, whether he had read Robert Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM), Kroto replied: ‘Yes, and that’s what it’s all about!’ " Because ZAMM is the story of a philosopher recovering from madness who needs to keep his motorcycle in trim during a road-trip with his young son. Kroto was making a plea for less book-l'arning and more hands-on in education. Books will teach you why bridges stay up but you have to build one to see how that miracle of engineering works. Because not all structures work as the specs (from a book of tolerances) suggest they should, often because some other factor hasn't been taken into account: resonance from people walking or the wind blowing; cavitation from flowing water; water [or air] hammer; fatigue in bridges; fatigue in planes and ships; expansion of iron oxide. That's why engineers add 50% to the thickness of every structural thing in case they've left something out of the equation.

Harry Kroto, who died exactly a year ago, shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley for their work on fullerenes. Carbon60 cited about is a stable spherical structure with 60 vertices and 32 faces - 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons. It's a sort of uber-platonic solid - something like a 12-face dodecahedron and something like 20-face icosahedron. If you think it looks like a modern football, you are exactly on target. Kroto's interest in meta-stable chemical structures created Carbon 60 in the lab and its spectrographical signature was then detected in red giant stars where this enormous molecule forms naturally in the plasma.  Kroto named their molecule buckminsterfullerene in honour of Buckminster "Geodesic Dome" Fuller the guru architect and designer.

ZAMM was so important for me growing up because I lived in my head but also built bodged things. I wasn't very good at either of these two domains: I only built dwarf walls because my tall ones were dangerously unstable and my brilliant ideas often didn't stand up to external scrutiny.  I took from ZAMM the thought that I could find a niche between thinking and doing; between rigour and range. Eventually I found that I could contribute to the Scientific Endeavour so long as I kept out of the lab, where I was often a danger to myself and others. I was never very successful in science because I lacked finish - I went off the boil after I'd had the idea, thought it through and done the analysis but crucially before I wrote it up and published. The rigour vs range is meant to express my woeful record in scientific papers [requires rigour, peer-review and the bottle to keep going through the publication process] compared to The Blob where I can flit from one topic to another on a daily basis and don't get pulled up for being obscure or off-topic.

Here's one consequence of Pirsig's death: 3.5 years ago I said that you could buy ZAMM for $0.01, but the cheapest 2nd hand copy today is 300x more expensive, presumably to cash in on the blip in demand. The interest in Pirsig will wane over the next few weeks as the Next Big Thing seizes folks' imagination and booksellers will have a mountain of copies to shift. There are in excess of 5 million copies floating around, you should read it if you haven't it might change your life and so continue to validate Pirsig's assessment:
I really don't mind dying because I figure I haven't wasted this life. 
Robert M. Pirsig

SciFest 2017 - rules of engagement

Like the calendar of the saints, things come round again each year in their season: Christmas and Easter, the first cuckoo, the first swallow, shearing, lambing. Those good events happen mostly at home but The Institute has its calendar as well and the end of April is SciFest time when youngsters get to present their investigations at the frontiers of science. There are prizes to award but I find that a distraction because the best part of the day is talking to the kids about what they have discovered and how they found out what they now know.  I've done this every year since I started at The Institute in 2013 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016 and now it's 2017. I must have had a sensible adult-to-adult conversation with about 100 teenagers over the last 5 years and know a bit about what works with/for me and what doesn't work so well. It's evolving as I get more, and different, experience but it is beginning to gel into a <aaargh noooo! too much in the listiverse already> list.
  • DO have a clearly stated hypothesis
    • DO test it - that's science
  • DO make a poster
    • DO make sure the print can be read by an old chap at about 2m distance
    • DO print: hand-writing, even in colour, looks like kindergarten
    • DON'T make it too slick: 2A0 or A0 laminated [that will be €60 please] makes it look your Dad runs a print shop
    • DO include your names . . . maybe even mug-shots
    • DO include your teacher's name
      • DO acknowledge, by name, others who helped
    • DO include the name of your school
    • DO include pictures / charts: they beat words 1000:1
    • DON'T have block of text with more than 50 words: they will not be read
  • DO make a booklet or report
    • DO include the primary data
    • DO take all the wordy stuff off the poster and pop it in here
    • DO put names and affiliations on the outside of the booklet
  • Some scientists make an A5 or A4 version of the poster as a handout.That's good because
    • it includes your names and affiliation
    • is in the possession of the judge later at the judging
    • ensures that the big poster is readable at 2m
  • DO bring something other than paper-work: a model, a sample, a bit of kit
  • DON'T make bar-charts where the contrasting colours are excel-blue and excel-green they looks too similar: shocking-pink vs excel-blue will do nicely - especially if you are comparing responses/opinions of girls and boys [as you so often are]. Sometimes a line-graph is better than a bar-chart.
    • bar-charts without error bars invite skepticism about lack of replication
  • DO stand up when the old buffer comes to your table
  • DO speak clearly and DON'T read the bloody poster - judge isn't interested in the back of your head . . . no matter how sharp your hair-cut
  • DON'T leave all the talking to Ms Gabby: makes the rest look like passengers
  • DON'T be intimidated: DO push back: DO believe in your own integrity and the quality of your work
  • DO say "thanks for stopping by" at the end of the interview
  • DO offer a hand to shake: it implies two scientists of equal standing; demands respect
  • DO make time to see the competition: it's your day out and you may learn something new or make a new friend <shock> in a different school.
  • DO ignore all these instructions - make your own rules!

Friday, 28 April 2017

Macroom mozzarella

I love cheese, any cheese, all cheese. I first realised this when I was 8 and my Mum had a date with the Ladies Naval Lunch Club and I had a mid-term break, so she took me along. It wasn't a lunch as such because there was no soup or dessert, but a cheese tasting. About eight different British cheeses were presented as cubes on plates and there were probably crackers as well. Up till then cheese was Cheddar, not too strong, not too white, not too challenging. The experience made me appreciate that there was a whole world of cheese out there, some so different in colour, flavour and texture that it seemed a cop-out to bin them all as 'cheese'. Don't the eskimos have 40 words for snow? [hmmmmm QI says maybe not and straightdope claims 1 < N < 40].

But it's true to say that there is a lot of crap not-very-interesting cheese out there and there is not a perfect relationship between cost and quality. Of course a lot of this is down to personal taste - I can't get excited about Halloumi χαλλούμι which the girls used to call squeaky cheese when grilled because of the sound it made when bitten. Halloumi is made from sheep Ovis aries and goat Capra hircus milk and the patties are brined. Mozzarella is in the same family but made from buffalo Bubalus bubalis milk. Cheap mozzarella is made from cow Bos taurus milk and it is usually rubbish. Why would you bother? As a baker, I often make pizza . . . from scratch . . . with flour, water, yeast, salt / tomato passata, fresh rosemary or thyme / cheese, and salami if you can find any in the fridge. It is super cheap and does need the frightening list of stablisers and E-numbers that appear in the ToC of frozen pizza. I never put mozzarella on pizza because we have a fine range of cheap and cheerful cheddars in Ireland, which cook nicely with out weeping sputum.  One of the best meals I ever had was a plate of mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, basil and bread in café at the end of a dirt road on the island of Milos Μήλος halfway between Athens and Knossos. After that cooking mozzarella seemed like murder.

So where is the best mozzarella made? If you answer Italy you get a bzzzzt because the Gold Medal for the 2016-2017 World Cheese Awards has just be won by a family business in Cill na Martra outside Macroom on the edge of West Cork. Being one of the herd of dairy farmers is just hardship especially since milk quotas were lifted and the market has gone into free-for-all free fall. It didn't help when the Chinese limited the import of powered milk either. But there are models for adding value to your primary product and cutting out some of the middle-man. Keogh's potato chips is one example. Nobó trendy ice-cream is another.  Johnny Lynch [L with his buffaloes] was a dairy farmer milking cows until 2009, when he saw the writing on the wall for regular milk and went to Italy to buy some buffalo heifers. That was a huge plunge but the gamble has so far paid off. It didn't help when Johnny got cancer either, but that is in remission.

The heifers had calves and now there are 250 buffalo on the family farm, 80 of them being milked each day to produce 200 kg of fresh mozzarella, that will rise to 250 kg a day as the Summer flush of grass starts to drive up productivity. The milk is sent 30m away to another shed on the steading where Sean Ferry, cheese-maker extraordinary, works his magic on the raw milk. By coincidence, Dau.II went to the English Market before Easter and brought us a round of Macroom Mozz. It was Just Perfick. It rushed me back 25 years to Milos and it wasn't even sunny!

Chekkitout: artisanal mozzarella processing in Italia.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Good night and good luck

G'day, did you wake up this morning? Ed Murrow was born on 25th April 1908, smoked a helluva lot of Camels and died of lung-cancer on 27th April 1965, aged 57. Reporting for CBS from London through the Blitz he adopted the sign off Good night and good luck from fellow Londoners who had no certainty to being there in the morning. In October 1958 he spoke to media moguls, pointing out "Evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live, we are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent . . ." in the corporate structure of Media America whose sponsors prevented criticism or speaking the truth to power, which is a contemporary Quaker phrase for épater la bourgeoisie. Almost more important than censorship is self-censorship, where we are too nice and careful of what we say.  Indeed there is a strong and heroic history of publication under a regime of censorship which has brought out the very best in people both readers and writers. As an accomplished broadcaster heading a team of writers, researchers and producers, Murrow was often good for a quote:

  • No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices.
  • . . . truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful
  • We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.
  • Anyone who isn't confused doesn't really understand the situation.
  • The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.
  • Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices — just recognize them.
The decade after WWII saw the chilling effects of the Cold War where mutual distrust and willful misunderstanding between two ideologies and two super-powers almost brought the human race to an end and caused numerous excess deaths in proxy wars around the world. There was a collective denial of FD Roosevelt's dictum "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" and paranoia went on the war-path. Not content with demonizing the Soviets, everyone was encouraged to smoke out their neighbours as 'communiss'. If you were so fingered and worked in Hollywood or large swathes of the media, then that was likely to be the end of your career. The highest profile scum that rose to the top of this seething mess was Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin who took to making wild but unsubstantiated claims about communist infiltration in the army, the State Department and other central pillars of the establishment.  Although often conflated in the fuzzy lens of history, McCarthy was not and never had been a member of the communist party HUAC - the House Unamerican Activities Committee [prev]. It wasn't only film actors and writers who got on the wrong side of  HUAC and McCarthy: Linus Pauling, double Nobel Prize winner, had his US passport seized so that he couldn't go to Europe for meetings, scientific or otherwise. Robert Oppenheimer leader of the Manhattan Project which won the war for America, he was also stripped of his security clearance in 1954 because he was left of centre. If these grands fromages could have their lives screwed over the anti-communist jackals, it made ordinary people more inclined to shut up and keep a low profile. Really famous people could consider an up-stakes and going to live in Europe, if you had a government job and kids in school you wouldn't advertise the fact that you enjoyed the works of Dostoyevsky. Oh and did I mention that McCarthy had the stiletto out for homosexuals as well as Communists?

Ed Murrow had huge street-cred and trustability. Nevertheless, it took a certain level of courage-of-conviction to take a set against the prevailing winds of US politics. He finally had enough of the witch-hunting and decided that he'd expose the Junior Senator from Wisconsin as a shallow, gross, vengeful ignoramus. Murrow quietly indicts McCarthy on the TV. After McCarthy has been given 30 minutes of air time to give balance [it's on youtube but I'm not going to make it easy for you to find], Ed Murrow wrapped up the case and threw it in the bin.

You may if you choose see how this piece reads 
replacing every instance of communist with Muslim.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Put them off the road

I am all for personal autonomy on the principal of 'your rights end where my nose begins'. So long as you don't endanger or inconvenience other people, then you can do what you want: collect match-box cars, eat kimchi or read Harry Potter. I was recently deprecating thee idea that old people should be given carte blanche about when they would retire from a government job. Because that decision affects a lot of other people - the younger replacement, the patients/mistakes of an older doctor who has accumulated experience, yes; but also less dexterity, poorer eye-sight and slower reactions. In his 70s my father was diagnosed with late-onset diabetes which made him much more likely to fall asleep at the wheel. His children reckoned that was as good a way to go as any and weren't inclined to stop him. Then one of us imagined him falling asleep with a crocodile of primary school children just round a blind-corner. That imagined scenario opened up the mind to a wider view of our responsibility. We weren't forced to act upon our concerns because the old chap fell down the stairs and died [or possibly was terminated by "medical misadventure" - his hospital records were found to be missing] in hospital 4 days later.

My mother was a few years younger and not diabetic, and lives in a remote area of rural Dorset so she continued for several years to drive her car, which she called SS Independence, in and out of town. But in her mid-80s, her 3 year post-70 licence fell due and she called it a day. Luckily she had built up significant resources of social capital since she moved to the village 30 years ago. Anyone who needed a lift to town, or something picked up or had an appointment with the doctor knew where my mother lived. Before she became a pensioner, she spent years as a volunteer driver for Meal-on-Wheels. Now, having turned 97, she is the Oldest Inhabitant and a sort of mascot: someone will be available if she ever needs to get somewhere. My aged father-in-law Pat the Salt, in similar circumstances in a different country announced on his 85th birthday that a) he wasn't going to drive the car any more; b) nor was he going to mow the lawn. That's all rather commendable, where responsible elders threw in the towel before anyone was hurt. And I didn't mind mowing the lawn every other weekend in exchange for my dinner.

My Mum had a pal who confused the brake, accelerator and clutch while reversing in the recycling-centre; the old dear shot backwards across the hard-standing and whacked into two other cars. The police were understanding and struck a deal: she wouldn't have her day in court IF she agreed not to drive again. And it was so. The cost of running a car (which for most of us spends 23/24 hours each day parked somewhere) - insurance, tax, depreciation - is so astronomical that you can take a helluva lot of taxis in a year and still be ahead financially.

The story of Ben Brooks-Dutton's family has a less happy ending. His wife was whacked by an 85 y.o. who wasn't able to work out the difference between brake and accelerator pedals and died in a bloody mess on the sidewalk while Brooks-Dutton and his infant son looked on helplessly. The Perp was sentenced to 18 months in Christmas Week 2014 but that didn't bring the victims any satisfaction. Like a lot of people who suffer because 'mistakes were made' Brooks-Dutton didn't want the old chap to do time in chokey, he just wanted to prevent the same thing happening to anyone else. He has spent the last several years blogging about the situation in which he, and indeed the wider community, unwittingly finds himself. The Brits encourages people to grass up their elderly neighbours and family to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority DVLA so that the driving license can be revoked. I guess you are expected to talk to your Mum or Dad first, before bringing in The Gumment to sort out the problem.

A lot of the responsibility is shuffled off onto the local doctor who is expected to tell their elderly patients that they are no longer safe behind the wheel. That would take rather a lot of backbone and the doc might well decide that, on balance, keeping the old fellow driving is the best option for him even if it increases the risk of unknown people. Cars promote self-sufficiency, social inclusion, efficient shopping, and a sense of freedom. But y'know a lot of the deficits of being deprived of personal wheels can be made up in a fully functioning community where people looked in on their elderly neighbours, helped with the shopping, fixed a dripping tap or replaced the light-bulb in the bathroom. There is a halfway house between caring for yourself and being cared for by The State. The support of your neighbours doesn't have to be monetised or bureaucratised. It's not original to me; it's called Adopt-a-Granny.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

My thumbs have gone weird

Withnail & I groupies, of which I am one, will recognise that phrase from the opening scene.
Over the last year-ish, I have developed a peculiar - because intermittent - pain in the base of my thumbs; mainly in the right (dominant) hand but also occasionally in the left digit. If you take the trouble to look, rather than taking the whole amazing feat of bio-engineering for granted, you'll notice that your thumbs have but two phalanges. The other fingers have three, jointed together by knuckles. With wonderful economy of developmental instruction, the great toes also have two pieces and the other toes three. This gets a little ridiculous when you get to contemplate the pinkie toe of a toddler and realise that her tiny toe, no bigger than a wart, has three diminutive bones inside.  If you try to touch the base of your pinkie finger with the tip of your thumb you'll see the palm fold in half as the thumb's metacarpal flexes over to obey your instructions. The seat of my trouble [L indicated by red arrow] is where the thumb's metacarpal makes contact with the wrist.

It's not usually debilitating, and as a Protestant, I have high pain thresholds from wearing that hair-shirt all day and plunging into a cold bath before breakfast. But it makes holding a pen and writing a pain and I have to do this to give feedback on the many lab-books which I get to mark each week at The Institute. I was mystified as to the root cause, but The Beloved had a theory that I had sustained an awkward blow from a sheep at the last shearing. After toughing it out for months, I finally made an appointment with a local physiotherapist who was going to give me more care and attention than my GP. It's a difference in the business model: one client an hour rather than 12 and no licence to prescribe drugs. I had two sessions, one more or less exploratory  and a second follow-up after two weeks of prescribed exercises.  The exercises were designed to build up the muscles which moved and supported the thumb-joint to take some of the strain off the ligaments that hold the bones together.  I was instructed to press the thumb against an immoveable object in three or four different directions for the count of five and repeat 10x, for as often as I had patience. I found I could do this nicely as I drove the car to work. After the second session, the physiotherapist said she could do no more for me. I feel better for having consulted a professional, am reassured that I don't have bone-cancer and have a set of exercises which can do no harm if I carry them out assiduously.

Fast forward a few weeks and I was talking about my thumbs [it's always about me me me] with The Boy's partner and she made a comment about ligaments and pregnancy. That send me back to an earlier Blob about the symphysis pubis which is the little sprig of connective tissue that joins the two wings of the pelvis in the front. In normal everyday life you want minimal spring down there because your pelvis is made for walking. At the end of pregnancy women do better if they develop a little more give: it makes delivery of an outsized head easier. Women who didn't get sufficient elasticity during childbirth didn't make it and their children didn't either and those who developed this developmental trick now people the planet. The switch between firm and springy doesn't always work for all women and I mentioned two cases, friends of mine, in my previous symphysis piece. Describing the functional trade-off doesn't tell you how the solution is achieved. Because it's part of normal human physiology, you won't be surprised to hear that hormones are involved. Hormones are the work-horses of how we tick; they are produced in one place (an endocrine gland) and act elsewhere. 'elsewhere' they encounter a hormone receptor and that triggers a set of biochemical reactions inside the cells of the body. If those biochemical instructions are generic: "replace collagen with elastin in the ligaments" then, although the primary target is the symphysis pubis, ligament loosening is likely to be quite wide-spread. The hormone primarily involved is called relaxin and it is related in structure to insulin. The cruciate ligament in the knee, for example, is believed to be adversely affected in pregnancy. You want to take it easy on the soccer field if pregnant and not only because you are carrying a spare football about your person. [Early] pregnancy didn't stop Serena Williams winning the Australian Open in January.The hormonal changes of pregnancy are mediated by two 'master' [a highly inappropriate coinage in the circumstances] hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Women produce more estrogen during a single pregnancy cycle than during the whole of the rest of their life. That's a big change in concentration and unexpected consequences are likely to pop up in unexpected places. The thing about evolution is that whatever works well is what gets fixed in the gene pool even if it doesn't work perfectly.
Evolution is Good Enough.

Monday, 24 April 2017

New Ireland

The world is littered with New: New Zealand, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, New Ireland, New York, Nova Scotia, Но́вая Земля́ = Novaya Zemlya because some strangers washed up on the shore and called the landfall after some place back home. It's like that in Ireland: so many people have washed up here since the Celtic Tiger started its roar 20ish years ago. Nobody has yet suggested we call the place Nowa Polska but there are regions of the country where Poles are proper common. I love it: more choice on the food front; different ways of thinking, better talent on the sports field.  I'm not saying that black people run faster, but surely just by increasing the population and its diversity we can stretch further up the long tail of talent. It's not always easy.
I was listening to local hurling star Lee Chin [L in green jersey] being interviewed on NewstalkFM this week. If you close your eyes - or listen on the wireless - he's pure Wexford, he eats rissoles. The name is, of course, a bit of a give-away and Lee Chin got most cross when talking about the casual racism meted out on his poor old Chinese Dad. As a super-fit sporty-person, he got less slaggin' in school than his more obviously foreign father.

But getting slagged in an Irish school isn't particularly because of being 'foreign'; any difference will do. The son of a pal of mine, with impeccable Irish antecedents since before the famine, was also educated in Wexford and wanted to learn. Accordingly, he sat in the front of class, paid attention and asked questions . . . while trying to ignore the rain of spit-balls coming at the back of his head from the know-nothing gobshites in the back row. There was no street cred to be had from academic excellence and he only survived because he excelled in cross-country running. Despite all the educational handicaps, that chap went on to win a prestigious scholarship [free dinner and accommodation in college for 5 years] at Trinity College Dublin. Smoke that, know-nothings! In his interview, Lee Chin was asked if life for the New Irelanders was getting easier in 2017 . . . long pause . . . and the short answer was No, casual racism is endemic.  It must be worse if your parents look different and you don't excel in any sports. The other poster-boy for success in sports despite not having a full quota of 'Irish' grandparents, is Dublin GAA footballer Jason Sherlock, who can be met-for-a-soundbyte at Punchestown Races.

We got sent this collage of pixellated New Irish by the only Twitter-active person of our family. We were stunned to see Dau.I as part of an assertion "We Are Irish" as if there was any doubt about it. She was born in a farmhouse in North County Dublin - that alone being sufficient to secure her green passport. But it's true that she looks a bit dusky exotic against post-card cliché freckles-and-redhead Irish colleens. Her grand-mother, after all was born on the edge of the Sahara and came to Ireland 60 years ago when her prayers to St Patrick were answered. Back then in the 1960s, a good natural tan was rare and much admired, not to say envied, by the women who are now part of the Heritage Group in Tramore. If you read through the comments attached to Úna-Minh Caomhánach's collage there is some rather tired old certainty about what constitutes Irish. "Of the native population group that made up Ireland for the majority of it's history? You can use  for this." I've been caught on the wrong side of the shutters by people who make such statements. It's utter nonsense put about by people who got their Irish History from picture books and the Christian Brothers. The Poles, Syrians and Pakistanis are just the latest waves to tumble to our shores. Half the Irish surnames are Norman French - FitzAnything, Power, Redmond, Neville, Morrissey, Lynch. Are they blow-ins or 'Native Irish'. Is there some magical date after which incomers cease to be Irish? Tory big-shot Norman Tebbit modified his Cricket Test for Britishness with one based of the uniform worn by your WWII grandfather. That is like calling Fine Gael the Blueshirts because some of their ancestors went to fight for Franco in the 1930s

If Éamon de Valera can be born in New York City without the benefit of a parental marriage cert and go on to write the Constitution for the nascent Republic in 1937, then everyone can be a lot less certain and judgmental about what it takes to be Irish. Harrrrumph!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

A quiet riot

March for Science rounding into Westland Row

We had a nice airing, Dau.I and I, on the March for Science yesterday. Our poster only works if a) you are aware of the ironic rally slogan “I’m only here for the violence” and b) you have sufficienct chemistry to know that valency refers to the number electrons available to an atom for chemical reactions. I had to explain part a) to two of my scientific friends, one of whom invited me to make a Venn diagram to show the intersect between the violence-meme-gettit people and qualified chemists, hmmmm N << 10 he suggested. Another ironic poster which made an appearance (not for the first time!) yesterday was “Up with this sort of thing” to suggest that anyone who attends a rally or protest is a member of Rent-A-Crowd. At least our “Only here for the valence” was original if not universally comprehensible. Dau.II told her sister that "the march will be top-heavy with people who think they are as clever as Dad thinks he is clever".  If you have call-and-response to promote internal solidarity then:
What do we want?
Evidence-based policy.
When do we want it?
After peer review.
works well enough. But if the purpose is to push out a message to passers-by, or the fuming folk on the top deck of a bus delayed by your science-solidarity rally then 'evidence-based policy' is not terribly helpful instantly forgettable mouthful and 'peer-review' is mere jargon. In the Irish Times, the Provost of Trinity College, a bio-engineer, is quoted as advocating policy-based science. That's bonkers got lost in translation. No scientist I know is willing to be told what to research by some policy-wonk.

Depending on whom you ask, either 600 or 1,000 people were on the March. That count was surely enough to allay my concern that only three handfuls of moaners would turn up to inconvenience the traffic. The March was originally conceived as a show of solidarity with our brethren in the benighted USA where they seem to be parking 60 years of scientific progress in medicine, agriculture, space and genomics and going back to witchcraft and blood-letting. Whatever about solidarity with my pals for the US [two of whom were out in Boston], I was delighted to bump into lots of old friends from this side of the pond; people whom I haven’t seen for a decade. I bodged up a prototype travelling placard consisting of two bamboos, string, duct-tape and a roll of plastic. Because the prototype worked, in short order I had 4 placards (and only two hands)
  • Only here for the valence
  • No such thing as a fish on one side and Skeptical About Science on the back
  • Wexford Science Cafe
  • Blank
I handed off the Wex Sci Caf  poster on someone who was willing to carry it and never saw it again but Twitter did [L]. A handle on the other slogans can also be had through Twitter. I had a blank/spare in case my wingman, Dau.I, had a creative dove descend upon her. Someone had suggested on the wireless that every scientist at the rally should bring a non-scientist with them. That's important because otherwise the whole thing looks like a Me Me Me demand for more support and recognition - eliciting "they would say that, wouldn't they?" It turned out that there was another rally / protest in town starting about an hour after the March for Science. That was to express concern that the new 21stC National Maternity Hospital would be built by the tax-payer but administered by the Sisters of Charity, a religious order that owns St Vincent's Hospital. We went over there to see what was going down after the science stuff finished up. "We'll have Nun of that" was the level of sloganism.

The juxtaposition of the two rallies presses the button for a worry of mine which I has trying to articulate with my Skeptical About Science slogan. I talked to a young chap at the science rally who was carrying around a "more science | less religion | in our schools": look at my slogan, kidder, you want to be careful about those scientists who believe in evolution . . . but couldn't marshal the evidence for that belief. I know, I've been there.

Being creative 230417

Interviewer: Five days a week you deliver a 2 minute piece in the character of Fred Dagg.  Do you ever find yourself stuck for an idea? 
John Clarke: Frequently, and I just have to get myself unstuck to meet the deadline.

And as evidence that even the most creative and funny people have a limited fubnd of stories and anecdotes, here's John Cleese listening to his mother; and here he is again, different studio, same script.  John Cleese once described Palmerston North, NZ as the most boring place on Earth. The town retaliated by naming their municipal trash tip Mt Cleese; go Kiwis!

Hilarity for intellectuals: philosophers play existential soccer.

On matters of existence and non-existence, here are a bunch of parents explaining contraception to their teens. via Metafilter where one commentator points to the several layers of ignorance among the parents. Kids are pretty funny, some of them, This is another case where the education is best left to experts; or parents who can be bothered to find out where their Cowper's gland is.

My grandfather built racing yachts in Dunmore East, where he was harbourmaster, in the 1930s. But I can't be the only one who finds it compelling to watching Lou Sauzedde show us how to build a boat over 11.5 hours of video time. I reckon that 11.5 person hours is about what it took us to build a model boat over Easter. Should have gone for the real thing.

All a bit heavy? Try some lightness:
The Tide is high Blondie
You're Still the One Shania Twain (ignore the weird video of chap in and out of bath)

Saturday, 22 April 2017


<Hazards of country living alert> A while ago, I referred to the worrying welter of scandals in the Gardai as a shit-storm. That would be a metaphor! But it was in my mind because, as I finished the first draft of that essay, we took delivery of 250kg of manure from Bolger's our agricultural supply people. That's not a quarter tonne of slurry or FYM but rather 5 handy 50kg plastic bags of 18-6-12 in the form of white pellets. The numbers on artificial fertiliser always refer to the % of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium NPK  so our 18 - 6 - 12 mix is heavy on the ammonium nitrate which we hope will give the grass a boost.  We have abandonned our naive aspirations to run the place organically, as the yield of hay was dwindling year on year. We had a very dry and windy week before the delivery day which meant that the truck could pull up our 300m of dirt and gravel road without difficulty. Jimmy the Driver kindly delivered two bags to the top field which saved me having to push 100kg up a 10% slope in a wheelbarrow.

I reflected that the lane was behaving itself and that it wasn't always like that. 4 or 5 Winters ago, my neighbour-above heard that Veolia was offering free sewage sludge to anyone who would cart it away. Part of what Veolia calls Sustainable Management of Public Assets is a sewage treatment plant outside Kilkenny about 40km from us. Neighbour had contracted to have 100 tonnes = 5 x 20t loads of sludge spread on his fields.
The first load went up the narrow lane and past our house without tooooo much trouble and only a little slippage. 2 hours later, the truck had completed the round-trip for another load. She slipped more in the same place that had caused trouble the first time and the slipping displaced more road-surface so the hole became deeper and smoother than before.  The third load arrived as darkness and the lightest of drizzle fell. This time the truck just wasn't able to get past the sticking point at all at all.
As well as the delivery truck, the contractor had a tractor with a front-loader [as Left] and another tractor to drag the spreader [as Right]. Seeing the traction trouble, they attached a chain from one of the tractors to the front of the truck and tried pulling. That arrangement made but little progress and further gouged the road.  They weren't going to be beaten because there was no profit in returning 20 tonnes of sludge to its point of origin. As a last resort, they decided to try pushing the truck up the hill with the front-loader behind and the other tractor pulling like a dog in front. Progress! the train inched up hill until the back axle of the truck hit a bump and lurched upwards, the front-loader lost its purchase and went downwards sweeping off one set of back-lights . . . and fatally knocking off the clip that held the back gate of the truck closed. Somewhere between 5 and 10 tonnes of black sludge spewed out in a heap on the roadway.  It was now full dark but the lightened truck was able to get up into the field to dump the rest of its load. On a nice concrete standing, with a tractor and front-loader at hand, clearing up a few tonnes of sludge is the work of moments. on a wretched uneven gravel road the front loader is of little use. I had to get to work the next morning and the heap was between me and civilisation, so me and the three lads set to with shovels cleaning up the mess. I got some exercise and they got some overtime so nobody was too pissed off but the contractor refused to deliver the remaining 40 tonnes to such a benighted destination.

Jimmy the Driver liked my story but, of course, had a better. It was about his neighbours who had a septic tank blockage. We've had one of those - the first symptom is that the toilets don't flush because the whole system is backed up.  They called the slurry-spreader guy who came with his rig. He decided that the first step was to suck the pipe-work clear and then empty the septic tank. So he fed his input/output hose up the 10cm Wavin pipe from a convenient inspection chamber, went round to the PTO and switched it on. There was a simultaneous cry of alarm from inside the house but it took the slurry guy a couple of seconds to twig that his rig was on blow rather than suck. A second is a long time when you're blowing sewage: the ceiling, the walls, the floor of the bathroom were "festooned". Jimmy finished his tale with an ominous " . . . and the bathroom door was open".

That's the trouble with technology and convenience: it's all good fun until it isn't. If you live like Thoreau, or a family of home-educators, under a simplify simplify regimen and independent of the flush-toilet then you can face the planet each morning without feeling a twinge of guilt about contaminating clean drinking water with coliforms, bleach and toilet freshener every time you flush. As I've mentioned before, you can have an accident with the shit-bucket - an argument against having an upstairs bathroom - but that does not require an industrial level of cleaning up.

Friday, 21 April 2017

March for Science in April

Don't say I didn't warn you because I did, but tomorrow Saturday 22nd April 2017 the March for Science is happening at a venue near you-hoo. The Wexford Science Café agreed to send a delegation to Dublin to start of the event in the heart of the Dublin Digital Hub at 2pm. We the Café scheduled a meeting on Tuesday to arrange logistics, meeting points and the distribution of banners. I was hoping for some practice with suitable call&response and chanting: "give us a T, give us an O, give us anOther, give us a T: what's that spell? TOOT! what's that spell TOOT!]. Well, as you might expect only four people turned up and two of them are going to be unavoidably elsewhere on The Day. I have tried to gee up some sort of response at/from The Institute and on my core-business research mailing list but had more sorry-I'm-elsewhere excuses than I had positive responses. The main response has been a deafening silence. Of course, nobody is answerable to me for whether they go or tarry at home, so I continue to hope that I'll meet loads of my friends, colleagues, collaborators, ex-students and like minded strangers when things kick off after lunch on Saturday.

But I tell ya, boys, if only 30 people turn up the the March it will be a PR disaster for Science in Ireland because the message will be that we're insufferably smug doing very nicely thank you. And thanks for the Government who, through Science Foundation Ireland SFI, has allocated a mind-bending €5 billion to scientific R&D over the last 15 years. Talking of mind-bending, that's €5 billion not spent on mental health and suicide prevention. Or replace that last phrase with whatever engages you this week - refugees, homelessness, cleaning up the police, tuberculosis, opera.

Here's a zoomable map of the locations of satellite marches: only one in Ireland but a few in France.
Here's a Nature series of viewpoints expressed by scientists on whether the March is a Good Thing. There is a disconcerting amount of woolly thinking expressed there. Here's another set of positive assertions from Irish scientists. For less nuance and more soundbite, here is a selection of placards which you can copy, if you lack the imagination to invent your own. In anticipation of a bit of a riot, I've got a back-up poster with the slogan "You'll never take me alive, Cu". And I'm also thinking of writing a message in ASCII, so that only the geekiest will understand the message. One of those signs is suspiciously close to's mission statement Making Earth Cooler.  But maybe originality isn't required so much as a bit of passion and Being There at one of the Marches. I've made my banner out of an old t-shirt, three bamboos, some string and some red poster paint [R held by a daft old buffer giving the science salute, so that others will know that he is One of Us].

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Ready or not

It is a convention that young people playing seeker in hide-and-seek are required to holler "I'm coming, ready or not" after they have counted down from 50 and before they set off on the hunt. But for the rest of us, for end-of-life issues Matt 25:13 applies "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the son of man cometh."  This ignorance applies to the more likely event of an away match whereby we stand at the pearly gates visiting Himself rather thatn preparing cucumber sandwiches and a really strong pot of hot tea against His arrival. I was recebtly having two separate conversations with Dau.I and Dau.II and they told me, in no uncertain terms, that I'd better sort out my clutter and 'papers' before I popped my clogs because it absolutely was not their job to do that after the event! Years ago, when I was working in TCD, our department retired the old Secretary <phew!> and replaced her with a newer model. The new woman was efficient and sunny in a way that we hadn't known we were missing until the new regime became established. I told her one day that keeping my paperwork in order was easy . . . so long as nobody disturbed the filing heap on my desk. Back then, I had a good memory for time and place and locate a document quickly because the more recent material was nearer the top of the heap and my birth certificate was way down below and actually in contact with the desktop.  She looked at my pityingly and said "My father used to say that you haven't done your job unless you can fall under a bus and nobody will know the difference". If you have a proper filing system then a very large part of your accumulated knowledge and expertise is captured for your successor.  We didn't talk about SOPs Standard Operating Procedures back then but The Blob has had quite a lot to say on the matter. Writing SOPs is a chore but a necessary chore. ANNyway, as I said recently, I'm ready to go . . . sorry about the paper-work girls.

Before the last general election, our Fuhrer Taoiseach promised everyone that he wouldn't lead his Fine Gael party into the next election. The election of 2016 was a debacle second only to the Brexit referendum across the water. The people rose up against the political establishment and elected a pot-pourri of lefists, mavericks and single-issue bee-bonnets. That left Enda Kenny the Taoiseach a-scrambling & a-scrabbling to hold onto power with a gallimaufry of political agreements consisting of smoke, mirrors, duct-tape and string. But that government hasn't come unstuck yet after running for more than 400 days. The jackals top dogs of his own party are trying to pretend that they are fulsome in their support of their party leader and have no interest in having a heave against him. There is a long-standing feeling in Irish politics that he who wields the knife rarely inherits the throne. We have a had a number of political crises this Spring - mainly about [not] paying for water and the honesty of the police - and in late February things almost came to a head.

But Kenny hushed the barking and growling by saying that he had committed to giving President Trump a Polish Arm Rock on St Patrick's Day as has been traditional since John F Kennedy occupied the White House 45 years ago. Bringing tribute and a lurid green tie to your suzerain [See R, Kenny slightly to the L of Trump] has been traditional since The Maltese Falcon and earlier when Charles le Gros bought off the Vikings in 886 CE. But what's with the Poles?The Polish Arm Rock is a mondegreen for A Bowl of Shamrock: far too many announcers and commentators on Irish radio are slack with their diction.  In February it seemed churlish even to the curs to stop the old chap from having a last appearance in the limelight of Washington before retirement, when he returned would be time enough. But immediately on arriving home Kenny announced that Brexit needed a steady and experienced hand [his naturally] at the tiller of the ship of state until the the Border and broader issues were resolved. This caused some wag to quip that, whatever about Brexit, Kenny was holding on until the Third Secret of Fatima was revealed and Ireland won the Soccer World Cup.

There's a lot of this delusion of indispensability about. The head of the Irish police Garda Commissioner Noírin O'Sullivan [L with her cap of invincibility] recently reported that she is on a journey to reform the Gardai and would be remiss in her duty of care for the organisation and indeed the state if she was to get washed away by perfect storm of scandals and revelations about (best case) absence of effective management in the force or (worse case) willful dishonesty, corporate bullying and incompetence at the highest levels. In brief:
  • A mid-ranking policeman authorised the tape-recording of all calls to police stations in 1996 because he couldn't be bothered to read or didn't understand the technical and ethical implications of changing the brief from recording 999 calls to recording all calls. It took the Garda management nearly 20 years to twig that they were sitting on a mass of human-rights violations.
  • The Gardai managed to claim that they had administered nearly 1 million alcohol breathalyzer tests that never actually happened. This became obvious when an audit revealed that the number of breath-test claimed was 17% greater than the total number of kits supplied! If you can't believe those Gardai statistics then how are we to trust their reports of rural crime, drug busts or financial chicanery on the back of which the force relentless asks for more funding?
  • In the same week, it transpired that 14,700 motorists had gotten convicted in court because they had not been properly served with a fixed-price notice and thus given the choice of paying a fine and saving everyone a lot of court time.  The timeline and numerical details are captured in The Journal.
  • All this is separate from the enquiry about who was party to the corporate hounding of Garda whistle-blower Maurice McCabe, whose plight The Blob touched on fully three years ago and which The Blob blew up again in all its seepiness and dishonesty two months ago.
Despite the shit-storm, Noírin O'Sullivan is on her journey and the Taoiseach has absolute confidence in his Garda Commissioner. They will be clinging to the rail of the bridge when SS Ireland plunges into the depths, backed by Celine Dion. Let's ignore the hand-washing and listen to Lady Macbeth: "I pray you, speak not. He grows worse and worse. Question enrages him. At once, good night. Stand not upon the order of your going, But go at once."

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Stradivarian nonsense

Recently, I was doing my regular Sunday boys-night-in with Pat the Salt. The old fellow decided that there was nothing new under the sun on the telly and stomped off to bed. He was/is right on one level because the first things I caught on BBC after bedtime was a repeat of a 2011 BBC Horizon programme called Global Weirding. Old video material can often be caught on youtube but not this one so I had to find it on DailyMotion and here it is. We in Ireland are cultural slaves and chattels of the Yankee-dogs and I was not aware of >!Vive La France!< Daily Motion until just now - it was founded by Benjamin Bejbaum and Olivier Poitrey in Paris in 2005 and has got to be richer and less derivative in content than youtube, its much larger rival. ANNyway, back to Old Horizons: Global Weirding is a jumpy cut / cut /cut overview of the history and hazards of global warming. The title itself dates it a bit - global warming is no longer quite The Thing - we tend to call it climate change nowadays to acknowledge the extra cold freezing winters that are one consequence of poor old Gaia being on her last Cheyne-Stokesy gasp.

In one of the snippets, they show a woman playing a Stradivarius and saying the the unique quality of sound ["nearest to the human voice" the violinist intones], is due to the fine grained wood that the maker had at his disposal. My crap-detector immediately tuned up a notch and I Googled "blind testing Stradivarius" which popped up two studies - Indianapolis 2011 and Paris 2014 which showed that, when confirmation bias was taken off the register, the expert violinists didn't rate the Strads as better or even distinctively different from quality modern instruments. In one test the expert players were blindfolded and asked to rate fiddles as antient or modern. They were right in 31 cases <win> but wrong 33 times <oooops> but were only humble enough to confess that they didn't know on 5 instruments. This is so close to the expected result of tossing unbiassed coins, that you might even cite it as being too accurately on the random button to be credible. Like RA Fisher's [prev] suspicions that Gregor Mendel [prev] had fudged his results. This is the sort of evidence assertion that works in the fiddling world. More Stradiworship, gets a little tiresome in the light of the evidence above.

One deeply concerning aspect of the above results is the certainty in the assertion of the expert even when they were bzzzzzt wrong. As scientists it should be okay to say more often "heck, I just don't know the answer to that . . . I'll endeavour to find out." rather than push out another weak paper with insufficient power to answer aNNy question. Mark Twain said it better “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.

We have seen the exposure of wine experts as charlatan poseurs in a formal blind tasting. Where the experts were unable to read the goddamned label they were no better than thrown dice at comparing different wines. Ditto pretty much any male who gets hold of the wine-list at a fancy restaurant. The French, bless 'em, talk large about terroir  to explain the unique quality inflated prices of Premier cru wine and they may be right but you can use evidence based instrumentation to improve quality . . . even in California. And Doris Lessing famously showed that experts in the publishing world could only recognise talent in someone who had been previously published. I blew a gasket recently about designers slagging off comic sans.  It doesn't have to be like this. If you didn't obey my instructions and watch Steve Mould and Matt Parker bending over backwards to eliminate bias in testing their hypothesis that Canadian plastic money smells of maple syrup, you can do so now.

Don't go way thinking this Expert culture is not harming you; and bitching when someone makes a career out of pulling off such a coup is probably sour-grapes. The phenomenon is not limited to rarified marginal fields like wine-tasting and high-end Booker Prizey publishing. It is everywhere there are people in charge of other people. In Ireland definitely, and in your country probably, there is a managerial class who claim a fat salary and possibly an annual bonus because they are The Managers.  And they do manage . . . so long as nothing strange or different or unexpected happens. In good times, organisations trundle along and could be successfully managed by CEO's goldfish. But when the glass is falling and there's a dark-cloud roiling up and over the horizon then they start making terrible decisions and/or abandon ship . . . and it turns out that HR has arranged a contract that requires the crew to lob a huge severance package into the departing Captain's gig.

Now I'm all cross, I'll have to consume a nice cup of tea and listen to a bit of Bruch - not on a Strad though, because Stradivarius is a bill of goods.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017


The Beloved's brother is typo designer. I know he scoots through The Blob sometimes since sometimes he'll send lists of the typos he's found in recent postings:
BTW couple of ‘a’s missing from The mould unbroken:
I'll tell you a parable about that. Years ago, about when I was getting born, my gaffer PhD supervisor was a teenager in Caribou, Maine. Not place sparkling with opportunity but a boy needs money and he got a job in a local feed-store. 

Very helpful since I know I must let some errors slip out when scribbling out 600 words in the wee hours of the morning while holding some boiling hot bevvy in my other fist. I check things through following the first frenetic go but I've job to get to & sometimes I miss egregious boo-boos.

In 1969, Georges Perec, quite the weird French writer published his book in which the letter E did not present itself, except I suppose for the four times in the writer's monicker over the title [L count 'em]. Quite the coup, eh?, since E is the commonest letter in French & English both. When written into English, the book presented twice the work to the fellow who succeeded 'fiendishly': to keep close to the story but work within the deleted Es controls too.

The post-title is the word used for such writerly conceits [here's the reference which is subtly self-referencing]. The word comes from the Greek λειπογράμματος = omitting one letter. Perec did not suggest his effort to be the first to try going E-less, the honour goes to Ernest Vincent Wright who wrote 50,000 E-less words whose full-text is to be found here, for, written in 1939, the book is out of copyright. Perec belonged to Oulipo, the group of lingo nerds who constructed wordy oddities to bemuse other people. More on Wright & Perec. I guess they could both be dubbed surtout inoffensive.

Monday, 17 April 2017

My Son the Engineer

I was down in Tramore over Easter with Pat the salt and three subsequent generations.  Only a few years ago, Good Friday was strictly for contemplation and reflection. The church was open so that the faithful could attend to the Stations of the Cross following Jesus up the road to Calvary. Everything else was emphatically closed, so you had a choice: go to church or stop at home.  This year may be the last in which Good Friday is a black day w.r.t. the purchase of alcohol but you buy anything and everything else. And of course, Saturday is fully open for business, in case you don't have enough Easter eggs, or sufficient food for one of the great blow-out feasts of the Irish calendar: dinner on Easter Sunday.
Someone nipped up to Cahill's on the corner of Market and Main for a bit of retail therapy d'amuser les enfants.  I was presented with a flat-pack wooden puzzle of HMS Prince of Wales[L Amazon - Ebay] and told that I could use this vehicle to bond with my 5 y.o. grand-daughter. It consisted of 6 sheets of plywood 37 x 23 cm with 190 pieces ready to punch out and slot together to make a 3D model of the WWII battleship.  I guess not all engineers build dams and bridges; some spend a life time stress-testing lego bricks or designing wooden models. I am not at my best with intricate things requiring attention to detail; especially not when under time-pressure. Whatever is the opposite of A Good Pair of Hands, that is me. What started as a barely audible grumbling as I inserted two key early structural pieces upside down and had to lever them out again, grew in a crescendo of cursing as the pieces wouldn't fit together but were getting rained out of the template for G.dau.  "Not so fast, darling, we don't want to lose any bits" mutter mutter. Eventually the little one's auntie, Dau.I, had to take me aside and tell me that sort of language was wholly inappropriate in front of a five y.o. - who is only trying to help.  Here is a more technically competent youtube father knocking-up his model with 'help' from a similarly aged tot. The model is extra-ordinarily well-engineered but no perfectly and including a 4 x 4 cm square of sandpaper "to smooth the rough edges" really does not answer. I note that Competent Dad in the video has a pair of sharp-nosed clippers in his work-space which are really the only way to make some of the tenons fit their mortice.

I knew I'd never have the patience or interest to complete the model and thought that the best gambit would be to play for time until Gdau.I was taken home by her parents after the holidays: . . . oh look! is that the time, I have an important meeting in the pub . . . I really must wash the car again . . . Pat needs to go for another walk. But, like the cavalry, The Boy aka My-Son-the-Engineer took charge and took apart my last two 'contributions', sharpened one of the kitchen knives and sawed away until the relevant parts sat neatly in the correct place.  Competent Dad says it takes 2 hours to complete. That information is nowhere to be found on the (commendably minimalist) packaging or instructions; because there would be no sales of the product in this modern age. No normal 21stC person is going to have sufficient attention span.

The Beloved and I went to a funeral during Easter week and during a gap between two events in the ritual / protocol we went a short way off site to find a hotel to sit out the wait.  It was evening, the lounge/bar of the hotel had a smattering of customers including two, almost cliché, nuclear families of successful parents and 3 small children. The children, being of the age that's in it, had their faces bathed in the blue glow of their separate 'devices' and the parents looked wrecked. A perky waitron came to take an order for drinks before dinner and, because three childer were present, put three sheets of outline pictures and box of coloured crayons on the table. That was quaintly retro by about 20 years; I don't think that colouring pictures is going to cut much mustard if the young chaps can alternatively steer Lara Croft [R with rack and pistols] through a labyrinth wasting the Black Hats. Pity that the boys will turn out myopic: those computers - all good fun till someone loses an eye.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Bunny

Rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus are associated with Easter because of the phrase 'breed like rabbits' and their association with fecundity. English takes its word for the feast of death and resurrection from Eostre an Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess. French Pâques and other romance languages Pascua, Pasqua, Páscoa, Paști and Nordic: påsk, påske, and even Greek Πάσχα go straight to the Aramaic root of pasha = passover. So let us celebrate some rabbits:
I hope the Easter Bunny is generous to your kids: don't eat them all at once. Actually, don't eat aNNy of the children and have them go easy on the easter eggs.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Sex Dust

I know nothing about Gwyneth Paltrow except that she was super-androgynously wonderful in Shakespeare in Love. If you haven't see that film, you are advised to find it next convenient weekend and give it a trial. So many people find Shakespeare a trial that an antidote will not go amiss. Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing [prev as home educ tool] is good in a BBC sort of way and is not without its jokes but Shakespeare in Love is freed from the shackles of bardolatory and can play it for laughs. The fact that Tom Stoppard, one of the best English language playwrights of the 20thC was screenwriter for, gives it a depth of characterisation and romantic intensity rare in Rom Coms. I was taaking loike Shagsper arl larst weekend and so and Paltrow frothed up unbidden to the surface of my mind.  Imagine my surprise but two days later to see the said Paltrow being slagged off for putting lives at risk with her dodgy cook books.

It's a rather sad indictment of the state of the nation if you can sue an Ac-Tor over a cook-book that she has gotten published by riding hard the camel of celebrity. The implication is that poor rich Paltrow is somehow responsible if some idiot follows her recipe for cooking chicken and spends the next 3 days on the toilet. Caveat emptor, anybody? Would you follow aNNy advice from Justin Bieber? Victoria Beckham? Gwyneth Paltrow is being slated for suggesting you wash your chicken before cooking it.  I used to do that myself, so I can hardly take the higher intellectual ground on that one. I don't wash the chicken any more because I now know it sends a fine aerosol spray of Campylobacter-laden water all over the kitchen counter, the salad, my eye-brows and the kitchen taps. I know that because I was on the payroll of a six year, million € research project comparing the immune system of chickens Gallus gallus and us Homo sapiens especially w.r.t. the response to Campylobacter.

Once you've started on a Paltrow slag-fest it's only two steps before you find that she is fronting a whole industry of parting suggestible people from their money. Caveat googleator! you pop in a name for a bit of back-ground and within two clicks your eyeballs are on stalks of incredulity. Now, I'm with you on the barricades if you want to stop the poor and dispossessed being exploited by rapacious capitalism. But somehow my passion goes off the boil if I'm expected to protect the rich and foolish from spending their money in dopey ways. And if I wanted to stop people from cashing on on their celebrity then we'd have to have the sort of revolution where I would be the first against the wall when it comes. About 10 years ago, Paltrow launched an on-line newsletter called GooP. The name is based on her initials - separated by two eye-balls on stalks at the daft stuff she advocates. One of her California pals designed the website with an enigmatic [metaphor for deep, clever] drop down menu bar that is curiously hard to read because the typography is not fit for purpose:
Note that the first link is to The Shop. There along with shoes, bags and accessories you can buy [this post has caught up with its title at last] Sex Dust, which is produced by a company called Moon Juice. That sounds squidgy if you have followed the antics of Diana "Landmines" Windsor over the last 30 years or squelchy if not. If you're like me, your brain is now awash with images you'd rather not have over your breakfast cereal. Stop now if you are squeamish but, with all those precious bodily fluids in mind, Sex Dust had me Googling "Freeze Dried Semen". And yes, it is A Thing. Artificial Insemination AI has come a long way: it stands to reason because if the boy and the girl were in the same room or paddock then the need for AI would be diminished, no? The semen 'straws' used to be frozen and transported in liquid nitrogen which requires a bulky container to transport the precious teaspoonful. Someone had the idea of freeze drying the sperm which would allow the stuff to be sent through the post in an envelope. Like so much powdered milk. Scientists are still working on the technology because freeze-drying currently destroys the motility of the wee spermatozoa but not their genes / chromosomes and they have to be injected directly into the ovum [it's called Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI)] if fertilisation is to have a chance. This is the sort of research that's going down: "Adverse effect of cake collapse on the functional integrity of freeze-dried bull spermatozoa." PMID: 24747720.  But that's just an aside. Revenons nous a nos accessoires de mode:

Sex Dust is member of a product line of wellness "foods". In this case wellness means well-marketed because this stuff is not for theThird World or the unemployed. The word Dust may conjure up powerful positive association with the stuff in Philip Pullman's rather good fantasy-fiction trilogy which Hollywood squeezed into a single film The Golden Compass.
  • Beauty Dust
    • Ingredients: Organic Goji, Rehmannia, Organic Schisandra, Pearl, Organic Stevia
  • Brain Dust
    • Ingredients: Organic Astragalus, Shilajit, Maca, Lion's Mane, Rhodiola, Ginkgo, Organic Stevia
  • Dream Dust
    • Ingredients: Zizyphus, Organic Schisandra, Organic Chamomile, Polygala, Organic Stevia
  • Power Dust
    • Ingredients: Organic Astragalus, Ginseng, Organic Eleuthero, Organic Schisandra, Rhodiola, Organic Stevia
  • Sex Dust
    • Ingredients: Ho Shou Wu, Organic Cacao, Shilajit, Maca, Organic Schisandra, Cistanche, Epimedium, Organic Stevia
  • Spirit Dust
    • Ingredients: Organic Goji, Organic Astragalus, Organic Reishi, Longan, Salvia, Organic Stevia
Here's an investigative journalist taking one for the team by buying a pot of Sex Dust , gagging it down her throat and trying to persuade the stuff to stay down. Everything on the ingredients list above contains a little Organic Stevia which is probably steviol a 'natural' sweetener which was banned as a potential carcinogen by the FDA between 1991-2008. It is derived from Stevia rebaudiana, 'candyleaf' a shrub native to South America. I don't have the patience - right now - to find out the Latin names of the other magic ingredients, let alone get to grips with the efficacy of any of them to promote 'wellness' in anything more that a placebo induced psychosomatic sense. Evidence-based food engineering will have to wait.

But I'll devote two minutes to the maths. These dusty products retail, in a nice professional looking jar which contains 42g of material, for $30. That's a tad North of €700/kg.  Where is that on the scale of thing to eat?  Here's a table:
Price per kg
Potatoes €0.80 Fancy Brie €15 Nutmeg €38 Bayleaves €197
Bread Flour €1.25 Cinnamon €17 Dried thyme €37 Dust €700
Cheap Brie €4.50 Cloves €25 Fresh thyme €44 Saffron $9,700
That's sort of interesting. Thyme Thymus vulgaris which grows like a weed in Ireland is more expensive than exotic tropical products from The Spice Islands; that's globalisation for you. And what's with the bayleaves? We planted 2 little bay trees 15 years ago and they are now about 4m tall and 3m across, we have a gold-mine in the back-garden. I've got the name for our retail division: