Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Only (some of) her rivers run free

Let nobody doubt that free-flowing rivers are highly politicised. Reflecting on the big ticket items . . .
  • The Colorado River that carved the Grand Canyon now reduced to a dribble the fails to reach the Gulf of California
  • The Aswan Dam that drowned the Abu Simbel temple complex
  • All those Army Corps of Engineers levées on the Mississippi that have given back 500,000 hectares of Louisiana to the sea.
Or the Irish ecocrumps:
  • The Ard na Crusha hydroelectric dam that blocked the Shannon Ireland's longest river
    • and Bord na Mona stripping the adjacent bogs to allow millions of tonnes of sediment to clog the river
    • and Athlone to establish the town's landfill on the callows below the town
  • The Barrow Navigation that changed the river's natural tumble into a series of steps [Clashganny Lock R] to provide an additional energetic burden on spawning salmon
    • there are now no eels on the Barrow
. . . you'd think that humanity had changed, changed utterly the running of fresh water across the entire planet. Running is the appropriate word because rivers run, yes, but we run businesses also; and we have looked on rivers as things to be used and exploited to suit human convenience and profit. Let the chips for the {alder | bacteroides | caddis flies | damselflies | eel | figwort | gudgeon | heron . . .} fall where they may.

Now a multinational group led by geographers from McGill U, Montreal have carried out a global inventory of "free-flowing rivers" and published their work in Nature. It's paywalled but the abstract and pixellated figures are available to all. It's not just the goddamm dams that inhibit free-flow:

  1. dams, weirs and locks are just the longitudinal source-to-sea element. 
  2. There are also the levées, and berms and quays which constrain lateral flow - natural rivers spill out over the banks to inundate callows, flood-plains and riparian fields and forests. 
  3. Thirdly, there is a vital dynamic between groundwater, surface rivers and the atmosphere: oxygen maxes out at 14 ppm in cold water raise the temperature to 15°C downstream from a factory and there's a third less bio-available oxygen. 
  4. Finally, rivers are dynamic through time: thee Aughnabriskey at the bottom of our fields was rocks and puddles during the last hot summer but can become a raging torrent 2m deep after a significant spill of rain. Callows flood in the winter, depositing silt [good] but compressing the soil [ungood] with the weight of water. And there we go again: making a value judgement on a natural process to decide that it is [good] or indeed [bad] for us.

The McGilliQuanties have spent some time defining terms and applying weightings to their base metrics so they are comparable across very different rivers from 10km streamlets to the mighty rivers that feature in Sporcle quizzes: including Ob, Lena, Parana. Someone has to decide if a navigational lock is more or less inhibitory of free-flow than a mile of levée or a tonne of sediment retention. They have reduced the multivariate multidimensional statistics of free-flow status to a single value the connectivity status index CSI and then applied that to every reach of every river longer than 10km. A reach is stretch of river between two confluences (where a significant lateral inflow occurs). I guess its a feature of the granularity of the analysis to find that short (10-100km) rivers are mostly [97%] free-flowing, while half the long (500-1000km) rivers are constrained [56% free-flow] and very long rivers (>1000km) are mostly not free-flow [only 37% still free]. It takes just one Hoover [L] or Aswan or Three Gorges or Oroville to destroy the free-flow status and the longer the river the more places humanity can tromp in with steel and concrete. Dam removal prev.

Sounds better to me than I expected from prior ignorance. Then again, a lot of the remaining free-flowing rivers debouch into the Arctic and they are only being left alone because nobody lives there. But watch out for the Congo, when they can stop killing each other in rolling civil wars in Central Africa, then the human population will grow and it's only a matter of demographic time before some bright spark proposes a prestige dam for power. What's upstream from the Aswan Dam? Ethiopia is upstream and Ethiopia  wants its own dam. Tomorrow: The Water Wars

Monday, 20 May 2019


The EireVision Song contest came and went without me tuning in at all and all. It would help with the tuning if we had a television, of course.

IF you're into fishnet hosiery, stilettos and very tall fit young women crawling about on the floor THEN you'll be sorry Ukraine and their song pick by Maruv couldn't sign a licencing agreement, so had to withdraw from the competition in February. If you prefer spikes, leather and fake blood then Iceland's Hatari is yer only man. At least he's singing in his native tongue rather than joining +70% of the entries to sing in English. And of course there was a background kerfuffle about whether TV can recognise North Macedonia as the country that used to be FYRoM - they entered Proud.

That cleared some competition out of the way for Ireland's Own Sarah McTernan . . . but she still came last in the semi-final. I guess that will put a damper on sales. It's Frankly Scarlett for me on that, but I was curious about conformity between the two equally weighted components to the marking process. Would the opinion of a jury composed of media people and celebs agree with a jury composed of people who had 60c to rub together to send the appropriate SMS? Turns out, from the graphs [L] that these two parameters are correlated but not very well, when the votes received are compared [L upper]. As to the votes given, I've filleted out the Irish numbers to show [L below] that there is a bit more cohesion between the Celebrity Influencers and The Plain People of Ireland.

Thank you cards

On Saturday morning 18th May a goodly company of wayfarers streamed along our lane on one of the downhill stretches of The Blackstairs Challenge an up-hill and down-dale walk of about 30km. I'm told that next year will be the 20th Anniversary of the first such event, for almost as long we have been making water available for the trekkers: initially with a 25 lt drum and since 2007 from the tap plumbed up in the yard near the front gate. One year, anticipating a phew wot a sorcher of a day, the organisers phoned me up to make sure of supply;  but usually I remember the date and often I make a slab or two of flapjacks. These seem to be appreciated - in any case they are all gone long before the last of the walkers has passed through. But the water, which costs nothing because it falls from the sky, is definitely valued. Unless it is raining in a serious fashion, I usually put out a few wooden benches, and plenty of people use them to change socks, doctor blisters or just take the weight off their abuséd knees.

This year I found a card in an envelope tucked under the empty box of flapjacks. Sincere Thanks, it said Whoever has a heartful of love always has something to give Pope John XXIII. The pedant in me noted the absence of . between give and Pope and suggest that His Holiness has quite enough already. But, heck, let's not carp, someone came prepared a) for flapjacks and b) for the wherewithal to say thanks for them. Puts a tiny bit of pressure on me to remember the date and the recipe next year.  When I picked up the empty box, it rattled and revealed inside €2.50, which is more or less what it takes to make a swiss-roll tinsworth of cookies, so that was appreciated also. I long ago stopped expected people to formally say thanks for services undertaken for the community: all my years editting newsletters and serving on committees and washing mountains of dishes. The revelation was realising that I did those things because I enjoyed doing it; not because I was taking one for the team.

Four years ago, my project students clubbed together and bought me a mug, a packet of biscuits and some tea-bags in acknowledgement that I had been present for/with them for 6 hours a week for 30 weeks. I still have the mug, although its handle and the tea and biks are long gone. Doesn't happen every year, but a couple of weeks ago I had a knock at the door of my office from one of this year's crop of about-to-graduates. S/he presented me with a bar of chocolate and a card by way of saying thanks for her 30 weeks of care&attention. I can do no better than to quote verbatim:
Thank you for the unending support that powered me through my proudest work from these stressful college years. Without your knowledge and help, I wouldn't have been able to find my way through the jungle of bioinformatics. I wouldn't have been able to annotate two previously unannotated genes from little brown bats. The witty e-mails and conversations in D426 are aspects of these years that will be missed. Thank you for re-igniting my passion to 'push the frontiers of science' as it had been dulled from the stress of previous years. I hope you look back on those synteny maps of fantastic design (if I do say it myself) with fondness and know how inspired I feel since rediscovering I have the ability to create something great.
That is exactly on the button. That's one student who had a self-affirming "hey, I can leap tall buildings" experience in room D426 this year: who was given space, and pushed a little, and teased a bit, and worked damned hard to achieve the very best. <Milton alertThat one talent, which is death to hide, is no longer lodged in me useless. It is not about me: the truth is a pathless land - occasionally for a few people (maybe one, occasionally two a year) I can be a finger-post.

What's definitely true is that we don't formally say Thanks half enough.

Sunday, 19 May 2019


World Bee Day - that would be today, since 2017 when the UN, at the insistence of Slovenia, designated 20th May to raise awareness of bees and bee keeping; colony collapse disorder and our inter-dependence with Apis mellifera and other bees. Rathanna is having a session this afternoon. I'll be there, but hopefully not covered in beeees.

Saturday, 18 May 2019


Spot price Au when written €37 / gram.
Sometimes, the youtube recommendation algorithm comes up with gold instead of something similar to what you clicked upon by accident while drunk at Christmas. What I would prefer is short videos, with good production values and a bit of back story, which show an expert going about their craft. A bit of jargon doesn't go amiss. Could be rock-climberspotters - axe-makers - mathematicians - philologists - biologists - book-binders. But I'm done with people who make long videos about picking detritus from the bottom of rivers: it's just too easy to game that sort of stuff. Oh look I've found that slightly weedy GoPro again on a different stretch of river. Even if it's a civil war Springfield.

But forget about discarded man-made, where's the gold? It is . . .
  • Near Tyndrum in Scotland: up an upland valley not far from the village. Jaysus, if only I'd known during thje cumulative hours I spent in my youth trying to hitch-hike out of Tyndrum on my way North from Glasgow or South from Glencoe on the A85. The trouble being that half the traffic was cutting across country from Perth to Oban on the A85; the two roads shared the valley between Crianlarich [another place desperate to hitch out of] and Tyndrum. But back to the Tyndrum Gold. I really like this little film - lovely drone footage of the moors with mighty sound-track until MrDazP1 gets down and wetty in the stream. He looked nigglingly familiar until I slept on it and realised he was eerily like the eary one of the rowers of Skib
    • You'd want to be dedicated, though, and know what you're at, because the returns are almost too small to see. Then again gold weighs heavy: about 20x the density of water & 1 cu. mm weighs 20mg and is worth 75c - you don't want to sneeze.
  • Somewhere in Arizona. USMiner is along way from water so relies on his metal detector to find chunks "absolute screamer sitting right on bed-rock" big enough to see [R above estimated to be a 1 grammer - who said USA couldn't manage metric?]. He's bought a tract of 80ac [30+ ha] in AZ and another 40ac  [16 ha.] in N. Nevada, which was not a million miles from existing gold-prospecting operations, in case he got bored. Again I like this chap's style - he's got a goal and clearly has some money behind him and doesn't want to go bust but he's not in it just for the money. For example he's happy to give some youtube laggards in the business a bit of a leg up, now that he's passed 6 million views.
  • West of St. Louis. Kyle Thiemann is doing alright [300K views] but goes do go on a bit and there's no back-story. All very well if you're in the present moment of gold-panning but 30 minutes is about 20 minutes too long - here's a leg-up from me: be ruthless with the edits!
  • Northern California. TwoToes [2m views] goes sniping for gold. A bit didactic but clear: snipe the inside of the bend - that's where the gold gets dropped. Point is that gold is the heaviest thing in the gravel and so it sinks; it also moves slowest when you're fanning the gravel away.
  • Pilbara W.A. with a GPZ-7000 metal detector. Glenn Baker: "nice little sun-baker there, complete with cow-shit; won't be putting that one in my mouth" 500g = €18,500 for a few days work. These guys are also a helluva a long way from water except for the occasional flash-flood and are fetching stuff up along a little run-off dell. An Anglo-Irish pal of my parents, Charles Chenevix-Trench, was a D.O. in Kenya during Mau-Mau and before independence. He used to tease visitors by pinching off a bit of elephant dung popping it in his mouth to pronounce, after a bit of meditative chewing "Three days old!" Probably coliform safe enough after 3 days in the sun, and it would not take The Amazing Randi to pretend to pop elephant dung in your mouth either.
Obviously the itemised bill principle applies. Hitting payola is not about digging so much as knowing where to dig / pan / snipe.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Chicken wars

We had the whole family sitting down to dinner on Easter Sunday Pater [that would be Bob the Patriarch], Mater, the F1 generation and their partners, the F2 = Gdau.I and Gdau.II. It was lovely to see their shining faces but the table was barely big enough to give everyone elbow room . . . and to hold the mountain of thanksgiven food. Mr Dunne the Butcher in Btown supplied one of his monstrous organic chickens, but there was much more beside; not least because there are several veggies in the family. That chicken was r'ared a long way from those battery farms where it takes 41 days to get a chicken from hatchling to marketable weight. Two days later, everyone had dispersed to their own homes and I was left with a hape of chicken to finish off. There is only so much chicken curry that a fellow can eat and I had to freeze two tasty aliquots of chicken stock for later. This probably colours my verdict but really I wouldn't care if I never ate chicken again.  But I do realise that I'm in a minority here: there is a rolling total of 19 billion chucks on the planet and about 25 million of them are killed in the USA every day for people to eat. And Herbert Hoover did not define prosperity and progress as "A chicken in every pot" in 1928. That was Henri IV of France: “Je veux qu'il n'y ait si pauvre paysan en mon royaume qu'il n'ait tous les dimanches sa poule au pot.”

But for several years in the 00s, I had the option of a chicken for Sunday dinner because I was on the payroll of a massive study to look at Campylobacter jejuni in chicken. Campy is a natural commensal of chicken guts and present in all commercial and homestead chickens as a wholly benign presence. If any of these microbes transfer to your gut unkilled then you are going to be talking to the porcelain telephone for a couple of days and hoping that the transitory infection isn't going to develop into Guillain-Barré syndrome which will give you months of pain and paralysis. With the best of intentions, our studies were probably under-powered and used technology and analysis that could never give a definitive answer to explain why Campy was treated so differently by people and by chickens. I have been know to say "They gave us €1 million of tax-payers money to find the the best solutions for avoiding infection by Campylobacter jejuni and the answer is . . . don't wash your chicken". It's the aerosol, stupid, like with hot-air hand-driers, chickens all have Campy about their person; it is easily killed by cooking; you don't want to spray in over the kitchen counter, the salad or you hands.

That bold advice is echoed "Do not wash raw chicken. During washing, chicken juices can spread in the kitchen and contaminate other foods, utensils, and countertops" by the US Center for Disease Control CDC in Atlanta Georgia. Even though they are more concerned with Salmonella than the much more prevalent cause of giving at both ends Campylobacter. Well the shit hit the fan <frrrppppttt> across many communities across America! Huge and engaged comment [read the comments to poll middle America] on both sides of the wash/unwash divide. Marriages have collapsed over the matter and, being America, probably several spouses have been offed in gunfire for [not] washing the Sunday chicken. The story was rechurned by Metafilter where it garnered a whole lot more commentary, some droll, some informative. It's probably marginally more important than whether you put the milk in first but the passion with which people hold and articulate their beliefs on chicken-washing suggests that the position is not data-driven.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

T for Texas T for Transessee

The other evening, my son the engineer was asking his father the geneticist about Caster Semenya's chromosomes. I hadn't been following the story, and I gave him some incorrect information [she probably has XY chromosomes . . . but I'll have a go at this later] and we moved on to talk about people being born in the wrong body. I boasted that The Institute now had >!ta RAAA!< gender-neutral bathrooms . . . because it had put different signage [as L] on the wheel-chair access bathrooms. The Boy gave us a very slow hand-clap for making people who cannot walk wait in line while a variety of other people use a bathroom they feel comfortabe using. It's a bit like using  ♿ disabled parking spot ♿  because you're really crap at reversing your car and you need a wider approach. As such, the  spiked wheel is an unintentionally appropriate symbol. I met the president of The Institute at the Open Day on Saturday and mentioned this labelling solution to the bathroom problem.

Not for the first time, I asked myself whether gender dysphoria [no longer called gender identity disorder GID in these inclusive times - because it's not a disorder] is a national problem or just a headache with which individuals have to deal. For quanti-me national vs individual hinges on frequency [R f =~ 0.004]. They say that some men wish they had a 12 inch pianist and many people would be delighted if the tax-payer would stump up €1 million to pay off the mortgage but it ain't gonna happen. Contrariwise, if it turns out that none of our black students can secure a 12 week work-placement while all the Old Irish can, then we might do something about it. Because that seems less about the student and more about the injustice of prejudice. The graph [R] from a 2017 study by Meerwijk and Sevelius gives some sort of an answer about the frequency of Transgender people: 0.4% or 1/250 people on the planet don't feel right about the gender they were assigned at birth. That's a lot: 1 million US citizens or about 20,000 in Ireland. Perspective: that's about 4x as many as the 5,000 capital D deaf people; but less than the 50,000 registered blind. For parity of esteem, I should add that 100,000 people report having impaired hearing - these are mostly people my age [wha'? wha? speak up young man] and older and we really don't have the same burden as those who never heard. My macular degeneration Mum is registered blind, with a disabled parking ticket for whoever is giving her a shopping lift, but she can with effort read the newspaper. So none of these conditions {gender | deaf | blind | leg-disabled} are monochrome but all on a sliding grey scale.

There's another term - gender non-conformity - which seems to be more of a life-style choice - maybe like  Eddie Izzard's taste in eye-liner and sequins? then again Izzard is a well 'ard multi-marathonner who'll take the fight to anyone who disses him, so in that sense he's still part of the Patriarchy. Then again, then again: we want to be careful about treating mental troubles as less serious than physical troubles: depression kills 10x more people in Ireland than infectious diseases and 2x more than vehicular homicide.

Gender dysphoria is less of a laughing matter than Eddie Izzard (who is funny) which really adversely affects the quality of life.
4x more likely to live in poverty;
2x more likely unemployed
2x more likely homeless
4x more likely HIV positive
40% attempted suicide ['normal' range 1-2% whc is worrying enough]
Anyway, on the basis of these [admittedly arm-wavy] figures, we might find it in our hearts to help people as they Transition from the gender they grew up with. At the very least by getting the freaking pronouns correct; keeping bathrooms inclusive; not caring whether someone is bloke or belle - especially if you don't fancy them. When we've got that far along the road to common decency, we could think about paying for the hormones and the gender reassignment surgery. That answer betrays me as currently thinking that gender dysphoria is a personal thing not a public burden. But Patriarch SWM me would say that, wouldn't I? Then again I'm with the NCPE in denying €300K/yr Orkambi drugs to youngsters with CF.

There's an interesting and informative piece-to-camera in Nature by Sara Reardon their Wash DC correspondent. In Science in Transition she investigates the health impacts on people as they make the burdensome changes necessary to become happy in their own skins. And if you haven't heard about TERF wars, then you haven't been listening. And lest you think that there are limits to what capitalism will do to exploit a marketing opportunity, I suggest you try the new BLT [R for right-on] from Marks & Sparks - anything to abstract money from the smashed-avocado-for-breakfast generation.

Not directly related but today is GAAD Global Accessibility Awareness Day designated as such by Joe Devon & Jennison Asuncion Who dat? Check out the Global for an event near you? Here's some advice about Powerpoint from the UCD event run by my old pal Grace Mulcahy. San Serif font: big; clear contrast; use Alt.Text for vis-impaired.