Friday, 29 September 2023

I could read the sky

I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs. Make a basket from reeds. Splint the leg of a cow. Cut turf. Build a wall. Go three rounds with Joe in the ring Da put up in the barn. I could dance sets. Read the sky. Make a barrel for mackerel. Mend roads. Make a boat. Stuff a saddle. Put a wheel on a cart. Strike a deal. Make a field. Work the swarth turner, the float and the thresher. I could read the sea. Shoot straight. Make a shoe. Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes. Plough and harrow. Read the wind. Tend bees. Bind wyndes. Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories. I knew the song to sing to a cow when milking. I could play twenty-seven tunes on my accordion.

That's the entirety of Chapter 9 in I could read the sky [1997] by Timothy O'Grady (words) and Steve Pyke (pics) A list less fighty than, say, Heinlein's . . . except the boxing; more handy than Anne Fadiman's [bothoprev]. The respectful Forward is by John Berger - of course given this book's words+pics country-life homage to his A Fortunate Man. Here's a 20m retrospective on RTE from earlier this year.

The book is written as a memory palace of an ould feller who escaped from the West of Ireland when he was vigorous to seek his fortune in England; but he can't stop cycling the rolladex images of his youth. He works as a labourer ; recreates in the boozer ; plays a mean accordion ; gets married ; is widowed ; dies in a bedsit in London. Along the way several of his friends-and-relations die violently because health & safety was sketchy among McAlpine's Fusiliers. When he was born, his little community was self-sufficient and introspective. By the time he comes home to be buried, half the houses in the townland are roofless and abandoned: the families who lived there scattered or dead. 

The tale is not 'true' and it's a little happier than the many tales of the lonely Irish diasporans with no kin to claim their body. The London Irish Centre runs a befriending service for the lonely ex-pats. The photos in the book are not 'true' either, in that they are a pastiche rather than documenting a specific community at home and in Britland. But as the quote at the top recognises, a life lived without the trappings of 'success' is not necessarily unhappy or unfulfilled.

Wednesday, 27 September 2023

Strange meeting

No not Wilfred Owen. We did that 3 years ago.I can't find this story in The Blob which is surprising because, to a close approximation, my entire life has been chopped into memorable sentences and chunked into this site. Anyway, at the tail end of the last century, I was able to midwife a handy self-teaching manual called As easy as ABC - Aoife's Bioinformatics Course. It got some traction in the European quango of which I was the Irish Node and I was invited to use the document while teaching in person in several other countries. The second time, I was in Oslo, my Norwegian oppo was on maternity leave and I was left partly in the care of a post-doc from Colombia. At the end of a day on my feet, completely talked out, this chap insisted on dragging me up two floors to meet The Other Person from Ireland

I was too weak to resist and it was churlish to refuse but I didn't think that just because we shared  a homeland we'd have anything in common. Despite my grumpy expectations it turned out to be a lucky [make your own luck] event. She had been through the same course and graduated from the same department as me, about 10 years later. Back in those far back days, she'd been really good friends with another graduate who was then running a parallel bioinformatics support service in the next building to me - we had lunch together almost every day. I mentioned that we'd just moved down the country and were raising two girls in The Blackstairs. She asked if I knew Pat-the-Post, who was her father's bestie and her own godfather. Indeed so: he was our regular (remarkably kind and helpful) postman. A few years and a repatriation later, my new Oslo pal met an artist in our yard and they started a successful Arts-meets-Science collaboration; but that's another story.

Our Oslo meeting is not the wild coincidence it seems at face. I would guess that the number of Irish  post-graduates working abroad (before the Celtic Tiger really started barking) is within one order of magnitude as the number of Universities on the planet [N=~25,000]. So it's not wild to have an Irish person in each one of those: more in the US and EU, fewer in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. And my course was billeted in the biotech building. Irish Biotechnologists is a finite group which are probably 2 degrees of sep apart.

Did I mention that we celebrated Dau.I's 6th birthday watching the sunset from the top of Table Mountain? I did! There were dassies Procavia capensis [L]. We were all there because a) the ABC manual had secured me a week of teaching in Pretoria and Capetown b) The Beloved's brother TBB lived in Capetown and our girls were hanging out with their same-age cousins. So I have [thin] skin in the game. TBB met a binfo pal of mine on a walking trail on table mountain a few years after that birthday party. But that binfopal was then living-and-working in Capetown, so they were almost destined to meet at some stage if they had any kind of off-campus life at all at all.

Fast forward 25 years to last week. I was fossicking about in the lane when I said Hi to another walker: we get a good bit of hill-walking traffic. He stopped to chat; I suggested a route to his destination to include St Fursey's Altar; The Beloved had already had words over the gate of the sheep-paddock, which had established that random walker - call him Antidorcas? - was a South African from Capetown and secured an invitation to take tea on his way down from the hills. It was nearly dark and "tea" was long over when there was a knock at the door. But our new pal was brought to the table and fed own-self-make pizza and own-self-grown cucumber. Dau.II was also tucking in on the other side of the kitchen table and it came out that both young people had been through the Home Education mill.
"After a couple of years home educated, I went to a Waldorf School . . ."
"How old are you? which Waldorf?"

Turns out that, aged 12, he was besties with one of the Capetown cousins! Small world.

Monday, 25 September 2023

Making sense of fritters

Prof Brent Seales, Director of the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, UK United Kingdom University of Kentucky is involved in the Vesuvius Challenge and high-tech meitheal to reveal the linguistic contents of a batch of carbonized papyrus scrolls which had been covered in ash at Herculaneum for 2,000 years. The villa where they were last read, was [perhaps] owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso the father of J. Caesar's third [or 4th] wife Calpurnia. although Lucius was 100+ years dead at the time of the Vesuvian eruption of 79CE [Bloboprev on carbonized Herculaneloaves]. Each scroll - there are 600 of them more or less intact - look like nothing so much as a Gregg's sausage roll that's been put in a furnace.

The Vesuvius Challenge is offering a $1million prize to the first team to "Read at least 4 separate passages of continuous and plausible text from the scrolls, each at least 140 characters long". So if your submission is four consecutive tweets from Stephen Fry - even if in Latin - you are not going to win. But that's a big prize for a big ask; so there is a letter prize of $40K if you decipher 10 characters on a fragment at least 4cm² in extent. Plausibility rules apply here too. It will be a software solution where the algorithm calls out enhance! . . . enhance! . . . until there is no contrast left to work on - all that's left is grey e-soup. The two large$t sponsors of the prize are a) tECHbRO JosephJacks who is gate-keeping his LinkedIn account with a dorky bot-cancelling task which took this dull-human 3 attempts to crack. b) Alex Gerko was-a-Russian British currency trader.

It is clear from the frags shown [L] that some parts of some scrolls have been tweezered loose but far more data has been >!poof!<ed to dust by earnest / arrogant employers of prior art in the field. It's like the 17thC antiquarians who dug holes in long-barrows in search of treasure and thereby destroyed forever and all time the archaeological context and stratigraphy which allows sense to be made of the artifacts. To archaeologists, a set of carbonized post-holes and some pot-sherds is more valuable than Sr Narciandi's golden torc from a week ago.

The smart money at the moment is non-destructive X-ray tomography which can non solum tease out the layers of each roll, sed etiam separate the ink from the matrix . . . and read it. 

My MeFi pals discussed the challenge in March  and proved less interested in the scrolls' literary potential [altho there was one vote for new poems by Sappho] and more in material that would yield insight into the daily lives of ordinary folk at the zenith of the Roman Empire - bring on the shopping lists, like.

Sunday, 24 September 2023

Misc Match

Geog 101

A something for the weekend at-least-100-years-old puzzle due to Henry Ernest Dudeney:

Friday, 22 September 2023

Moths on the pillow

Two years ago, we walked a troubled league near Thin Places with  Kerri ní Dochairtaigh picking up feathers and stones because they were there so fucking perfect: exemplars of their kind. You canna keep a poet in a box, they have to walk about  this dark world and wide  looking sideways at feathers and stones and the beating heart. The rest of us don't even notice the feathers, let alone reflect on how form and function collide. The rest of us shear away from Thin Places where real life steps through those rents in the fabric of the universe to confront the other

But on this All Soul’s Night there is
no respite from the keening of the wind.
I would not be amazed if every corpse came risen
from the graveyard to join in exaltation with the gale,
a cacophony of bone imploring sky for judgement
and release from being the conscience of the town.

More? Canongate have brought out a continuation of This Observer's life Cacophony of Bone which starts between Solstice and Christmas 2019 when Kerri and her feller M, bunk off from Derry to hunker down in a micro-cottage on a now barely visible defunct railway in Co Westmeath. Their rough haven in a sea of troubles is about halfway between Lough Derravarragh and Granard Co Longford. The book is dedicated to Ann Lovett of Granard [and see Paula Meehan stanza above] and Kerri often swims in wild Derravarragh with the Children of Lír and in-real-life wild things: feathered and finned. With hindsight it was an awkward time to start a year of living together up a laneway surrounded by bogs. Even as their van pulled into the yard, SARS-CoV2 was scything through Wuhan and was about to change what everybody could and couldn't do. In another life (same planet) my mother died, in the fullness of her 99 years, three weeks after Kerri and M had their first breakfast in their new home. At her memorial service in February 2020, rumours of Covid were drubbing louder and that was the last time I was in England until the end of August this year.

 The title Cacophony of Bone is an acknowledgment of the litter of skeletal remains that are scattered about the fields and ditches . . . if you pay attention and care to look. Kerri has a collection of these skulls and pelvises which rub scapulae with the feathers and perfick stones that can be found on beaches - when we're permitted to travel from bogland to shoreline. As well as wild-swimming and bogland walks, Kerri records the process of final revisions and proofing her first book aka, in the book's Victorian convention of reference by initials, "TP". In one sense this choice is legitimate - it's a journal! -  in another it's exclusionary to the reader. JH is John "Derry's Own" Hume who died, and is here fondly memorialized, in August of the year of marking time - that's okay. M is Kerri's life-partner, unless it's referring to M's business partner M. Other writers, incl Manchán Magan [prev] are mostly credited in full, while personal pals and supporters are reduced to a letter grade. I guess they know who they are, and it's none of my biz.

I had a swipe at the word unimaginable in my review of TP. CoB's over-used word is surreal. It can almost always be replaced with surprising, unusual, peculiar and is rarely used in its dictionary sense of the intersection of dreams and the unconscious with reality. Now, authors and especially poets can adopt a Humpty-Dumpty (When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less) attitude to language but loose massaging of meaning make the writing flabby.

Two particular and personal celebrations twine through this journey-in-place: i) getting on the waggon after years of crabby hung-over mornings and ii) getting with child, which brings its own crabby mornings. I used the f-word in the first sentence of this Blob, which is not something I do a lot. But in this piece it's not out of place? That's how babies are made and, after surreal, it's the most over-used adjective in Cacophony of Bones. 

But leave aside the carp! Read this book for its lyrical ruminations on nature and our place there. Kerri ní D is mind-open to whatever the world throws at her; she pays attention and is grateful for small-small things. Growing lettuce in her own garden becomes a source of wonder and accomplishment; waking to find a moth on her pillow is a message from the old gods; just by being there, by bearing witness, she soothes the troubled breast. Hers, but ours too by proxy. 

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm
. src
sing it

And the child? Reader, she delivered him!

Wednesday, 20 September 2023


We had 24 hours of drizz 14-15 September last week. That's rather extreme for Ireland because the fronts tend to move in from the Atlantic and move smartly across the country for their destination in Cymru across the water. But Met Eireann issued a yellow [orange for The Déise and The People's Republic of Cork] rainfall (spot flooding possible) warning as a gert big slobby wet blanket settled down over the island. This may [wtf do I know?] have been an out-rider of Hurricane Margot whc was building 1,000 km due West of the Azores [mappe see end]. It is amazing and wonderful to be able to see these satellite / radar pictures so appropriately annotated: it really does help in predicting when to bring the laundry in off the line.

It is The End of Days: the driest June and the wettest July since records began and the hay still uncut. In June towards the end of the May/June drought we depleted all our rainwater storage and were reduced to using the standpipe and groundwater. Prev on drainage rates. Clearly we need more than 3 tonnes of stored water to be self-sufficient in the poly-tunnel. Our 1 tonne back-up storage was depleted over the rest of the Summer but there was sufficient "current" water to keep the tomatoes from going thirsty. The 24hrs of drizz was steady enough to fill every receptacle but not so heavy as to fill the drain and drive me out in the dark will tarpaulin jacket and a shovel.

Nevertheless, I was up and down to the polytunnel between dinner and midnight tricking about with the pipes, pumps and buckets. When the in-tunnel 1 tonne IBC is full, I've been in the habit of guttering the water into my new in-tunnel lawn. But that night I inserted our industrial wheel-barrow into the flow and held on to 200 lt there as well as filling its smaller cousin. At the tail end of Summer, this is surely overkill because we are past peak bean and approaching peak tomato. So even if we have further EndOfDays anomaly drought in the Fall, it won't be critical.

Last year we had an extended dry spell was 2018. Metachat pointed me at a report on Hungersteine = hladové kameny which mark the low-low watermark at certain places on the Elbe and other central European rivers. These are normally invisible except to snorklers but, in the past, local folks have memorialized drought-disasters in {1417, 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892 &1893}by carving the date and a warning to those who come after "We cried, we cry and you will cry."


Monday, 18 September 2023

torc torc

Found art is a thing. It's 100 years since Marcel Duchamp presented a signed urinal as an object suitable for an art exhibition. That's clever-clogs enough, but it gets tired when, say, Carl Andre tried [successfully] a similar thing 50 years later. I'll leave the art know-alls to counter Ruskin's crit of another work of art: “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

The Blob was a couple of tales about someone being a) in the right place b) at the right time c) with their eyes truly open d) appropriately educated to see meaning in an object out of place [and time]. Tetradrachm and our own Ringstone. Because good things always - eventually - come in 3s, another found object [wonderfully R] coursed over my horizon last week. Sergio Narciandi is, in order of importance, i) the brother of my pal El Asturiano [polybloboprev] ii) a massive history buff iii) working for the municipal water company.

At the end of August, Sergio was working along a remote part of his infrastructural territory when he saw something glinting in the dirt. Strict anglophones can get the gist here. He wiggled out a fabulous golden torc from the Bronze Age. Because he knows and cares about the common heritage of Asturias, he immediately grassed himself up the the appropriate authorities who gave a little whoop, vacated their desks, piled into a car and drove asap to the spot. Between them, they soon turned up another torc (broken into six parts) and they returned with trowels, sieves and tooth-brushes to stake out and deep clean the area. Nothing beside remains.

There has been a lot of forehead slapping amazement that the discovery and its investigation was a text-book example of how things should proceed: according to law, according to good practice but not, woefully, according to precedent. Far too many people think that found heritage becomes their personal property but such people are usually too ignorant, too selfish, too avaricious to benefit. According to Spanish law treasure trove is the property of the state but the finder gets 25% of it's value. By doing the right thing, Sergio looks to be in line for a windfall of maybe €50,000. The Museo Arqueológico de Asturias is going to do all the leg work and they'll deliver a much better return than the local fence in Covadonga.