Sunday, 31 December 2017

Caravanserai is closed

A sad day, yesterday morning for the de-gathering of The Clan. Since the Night Before Christmas, our humble mountain home found room for the descendants: The Boy and his partner; Gdau.I [6], Gdau.II [2]; Dau.I, Dau.II & her feller in addition to The Beloved and Himself. They all came bearing gifts, which were exchanged, and have now loaded their camels and moved off in all directions.
As opposed to a real caravanserai [L empty after the last departure], with 100 sq.m. of floor space, we have a comfortable 9 sq.m. each. That's 3m x 3m each and the roof doesn't leak, which is a lot more than Syrian refugees are getting and they probably don't have a sound roof. It rains in Lebanon and Turkey but it must be wetter and colder in the Calais Jungle [prev] which is still inhabited after being 'razed' in 2016. Of course, we are all grateful to have all the family present and accounted for, the t'ilets working, and plenty of food. It would be churlish indeed to gripe about too much food. But, with a lot of enthusiastic cooks in the family, I'm going to work my way through a fridgeful of left-overs before they go too furry.  I really hate to throw food out and the chickens are long gone and Hoover Rashers the dog is sadly five years dead. So it's up to me! And the 9 sq.m. each is only pedantically true: our underfloor heating packed up a couple of years ago, so the only warm room downstairs is the one hosting the Waterford 101 wood-burning stove.  That room is 4.2m x 3.2m which gives everyone about enough space to sit down. But because Gdau.II is only two and Gdau.I is active, a fireguard is necessary which cuts off 1.5 sq.m. of floor-space.

The last several years has seen the development of a tradition of doing a massive jig-saw over the holidays. If anyone is feeling idle or looking feckless, they are requested and required to put pieces in the puzzle or, if that requires too much [sozzled] brain-power, they must sort the pieces by colour and/or shape to make it easier for the active assemblers. If we lived in our ancestral pile or even in Ye Olde Rectory, we'd put the gdamn puzzle on an occasional table in one of the spare reception rooms. As it is, the puzzle has to be brought out and put away as meals and other [in]activities dictate. I, for example, need somewhere I can take an afternoon nap after another mighty dish of rissoles and gravy. We do have a felt jigsaw roll-mat [£7.95 at amazon] but loose bits tend to fall out the ends. Accordingly, two years ago, I found a dryish piece of plywood 660 x 1035 mm and duct-taped the edges against splinters. That fit the Xmas jigsaw puzzle with a comfortable margin against being jigged by an active child. In the inflationary puzzleverse which we inhabit, puzzle 2017 was Celestial Planisphere by Frederick de Wit clementoni.com [and above]. This monster has 2000 pieces and extends 668 x 975 mm, which is bigger than the board in one dimension. But nobody appreciated that until a substantial chunk had been assembled.  I had to go out in the cold and cast about for a board prosthesis that was long enough, wide enough and the same thickness as the existing board. And it was so: even if it meant getting under the board like a car-mechanic to assemble the extension.

The small print on the bottom of the jigsaw box says in 15 languages: According to European Regulations on games, a puzzle with more than 500 pieces is not considered a 'toy'. Indeed not, such things are a penance!

You may imagine that the gdamn puzzle on its board also ate something wicked into the available floor-space. To get to the last available chair to read a book after another plongeur session at the dishes from the last meal, I had to <mind fingers alert> step into the middle of the puzzle. And mind the Lego <yaroo!> if you operate a shoe-free house. They never did finish the puzzle, there are still 119 unincorporated cluelessly dark-blue and black pieces in the box. Maybe I'll drag the board out from under the sofa and try a few random inserts. I hope y'll have a high old time tonight ringing in the New Year, I'm exhausted and will be d[e]ad to the world at midnight.

Last colour supplement 2017

Sunday, legs up all day, waiting for the next meal or a nice glass of wine.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Median strip

Peak Oil is an ever-receding horizon. Since I first started to pay attention to geopolitics - probably around the Oil Crisis of 1973 - the End of Oil has been 25 years in the future. In 1973, climate change was a strictly for palaeontologists. For Joe Public the oil crisis was just about getting enough to drive to-and-fro The Mall and heating the house so he could wear a t-shirt watching telly at mid-winter. As more and more countries ran out of their own supply, all eyes were turned to The Gulf where the oil-wells seemed to be bottomless.  That would be the Persian Gulf.  Persia would be Iran.
pic creds: Peter Jesella [bigger]
The oil producing states did think about a pipeline across the desert to the shores of the Mediterranean but a long long pipeline is effectively indefensible and political instability has been more or less continuous in the region since The West started to worry about the oil supply. Accordingly, oil from the Gulf is shipped out . . . through the Straits of Hormuz [map above] between Araby and Asia. In Geog 101, at school, we could identify the Straits of Hormuz and laughed at the lads who pointed at the Straits of Malacca on the other side of the Indian Ocean. These oil-tankers carry a LOT of inertia and are hard to stop in an emergency and need some notice even to alter direction.  We've seen a terrible accident happen when the Torrey Canyon, an early super-tanker couldn't be stopped in time and piled up on a reef SW of England.  To avoid that sort of thing, traffic is directed through the Straits so that ships pass Port-to-Port. Incommming ships keeping close to Iran, out-going ones heading nearer to centre-channel. It must be awkward at night in stormy weather not least because the entry requires a sharp turn from NNW to WSW.

Further west, the shipping is routed either side of a row of small islands: Farur Island, Lesser Tunb Island and Greater Tunb Island. which  would transliterate as Tonb-e Bozorg and Tonb-e Kuchak from the Farsi. Nobody is disputing the ownership of Farur, but the Tunbs, currently occupied by the Iranian army,  are claimed by the United Arab Emirates. Those conflicting claims are vested in alternative readings of history, because the islands have been affliated with / controlled by dynasties on both sides of the Persian Gulf. While Britain was occupied with the Napoleonic Wars, they were  throwing shapes in and around the Indian Ocean. In particular the East India Company [multiprev] wanted to ensure that traffic to and from Bombay [okay okay Mumbai] was unimpeded by pirates. At the least the term Pirate Coast got into general British official documents: anything that impacted the EIC's  monopoly of trade could be defined as piracy - which everyone, except the pirates, agreed was a Bad Thing. In 1809 they sent a squadron against the Qasami, whose power-base was on the Arabian mainland at Ras Al Khaimah. The Qasami fleet was destroyed but in the subsequent treaty the Qasami were reinstalled as the local rulers. The coast was rebranded as the Trucial Coast and the local sheikdoms and emirates became the Trucial States, under the 'protection' of the UK.

At home we have a picture of my father, i/c the Royal Navy amphibious warfare squadron, in spotless naval whites shaking hands with Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan aka the Sheik of Abu Dhabi  in 1966. Even that late in the days of empire, the Brits were exercising gunboat diplomacy with a 'goodwill visit' by the RN. Sheik Zayed was the principle driver and architect of the United Arab Emirates which came together in the wake of British withdrawal from the region. UAE initially (1971) consisted of  Dubai [they've done well for themselves if you like smog R and Nobó], Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Al Quwain and Fujairah but Ras Al Khaimah joined the party the following year in 1972.

Two days before the handover from the British, The Shah of Iran ordered a preemptive strike against the Tunbs on 30 November 1971 and the Iranians have been in occupation ever since. Their position is that the Tunbs have a) always been part of Persia b) that the Qasami occupiers were Persian citizens and c) Ras Al Khaimah wasn't a state and only states could claim sovereignty over some other place. UEA says the opposite and international lawyers, instructed by both parties, are out on the golf course thinking up cunning arguments. [slightly incoherent summary].  It's all not a million miles from a similar spat between Qatar and Bahrain about a reef. Similar too the dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over the pimple called Pedra Blanca.

Friday, 29 December 2017

up to me oxters in shite

Christmastime generates a LOT of rubbish. The cases of champagne and cut-glass Waterford glass decanters have to be packed securely and unbreakably for transport; those shop-bought mince-pies have to be triple-wrapped.  All the packaging has to be disposed of somewhere.  We live really rural - you can't be further from a bus-stop and still be in Leinster. When we settled here 20+ years ago there was no bin collection in our townland.  In any case, we live 300m from the County road up a bumpy track with a1:10 slope: it would have been a schlep to have dumped all our trash into a wheelie-bin and lummock it down full and up (thankfully) empty. Accordingly, we were obsessively careful in sorting the rubbish into landfill, chicken-carcases, burning-bin and recycling. I single out chick carcases as more or less the only item of food waste because the kids were trained to polish their plates and we had (live) chooks to process all the off-cuts and peelings into fresh eggs,  Dau.II was still in diapers when we started rural life, so we had to be careful about them . . . and visit the grand-parents and their wheelie-bin regularly. About once every 15 months, our clean, sorted trash would be loaded into the back of the biggest car we could borrow and we'd tootle off to the landfill.  The price crept up and up but last time I went it cost €26.50 = half-a-dollar/week, which is about 10% of what folks in the system will be charged. But that's because we are super-careful and assiduous in dealing with our own ordures.

Between Xmas and NewYear we took our 3 generations down to visit Pat the Salt. Because Gdau.II is still a bit "Paris" [in continent, harharhar] we had accumulated a small bagful of teeny-tiny diapers for disposal: our rights-of-access to Pat's bin have been grandfathered in harharhar. The Beloved, being a little flustered, emptied the bag into the compost bin. Arrgh, the compost centre doesn't want to process a shovelful of baby-poo, so I [was] volunteered to fetch them out. The handiest thing would have been to empty it all out on the driveway, pick out the daiperlettes and shovel the rest back into the brown bin. L]. But inspection showed the pale blue parcels lying on a mish-mash of blue bread, banana-skins, and other furry stuff. Soooo, I did the leeeeean-in and hoiked the rogue rubbish out, one-by-one.

Later on I was driving along the Waterford Coast [a privilege and an enduring pleasure] and tuned the wireless to Newstalk FM.  Jonathan "Futureproof" McCrea was interviewing a recycling god and we-the-listeners were being hectored by proxy about the ever-changing rules and conventions about recycling. McCrea had been on extended visit to his dad with his children and had applied his own recycling habits on the old chap's system. That meant that a lot more went into composting than usual but the collection timetable remained the same. Accordingly, rather than cleaning out some twigs and grass-clippings, the old fellow had to deal with a bubbling soup of food-waste that was too thick to gloop out when the the bin had been briefly inverted over the truck. Dad asserted that it was the worst task he'd ever accomplished. This is problem is not unique old chaps like me and Mr. McCrea Snr. Compost-bins are the same height as regular bins because that's the way the trucks are built, which doesn't make them in any other way fit for purpose. Normal people generate so little waste that fits the stringent corset of fit-for-industrial-scale-compost that it takes a long time to fill the bin . . . by which time the bin is a fizzing, buzzing health hazard. Chicken-carcases, for example are not compostable.  Why not, suggested McCrea Jnr, make the goddam compost bin half as high?? That way it could be lifted more frequently and cleaned more easily.  Damn right.  There are other solutions [R above]

Thursday, 28 December 2017

A lot of old cobblers

You may have guessed that Bob T Scientist is Phnom de Penh and that I have a day job and a real name.  It's not super common, but it's not a rare combo of First and Last names. Accordingly, it is sometimes quite hard to get credit for my contributions to science.
  • Depending on what parameters you search with, I could be mistaken for having an expertise in lidocaine injections, evolutionary metapsychology and certifying fitness for corporal punishment. These would be Type I = false positive errors.
  • OTOH, some of my co-authors forget my middle initial on submission which means that paper gets a bit lost in the grass. These would be Type II = false negative errors.
Imagine if your name was John Smith or Jean Dupont, it would nice to have a mark that would distinguish you from your nominal clones. Every so often, maybe twice a year, someone asks me for an up to date list of my scientific publications and I check Pubmed with Scientist BT then I do Scientist BT [AU] because the first search is clearly over-egging the pudding, to see if anything new has appeared. With my two-week event horizon, I can't be expected to remember a paper on which I was 4th author out of 12, so it is as well to check. Unfortunately specifying the T sensibly excludes Scientist B [AU] and I've have been known to submit a list of pubs that is one or two short. And y'know what? the sky does not fall!

ANNyway about 5 years ago, someone had the idea, not for the first time to hang a unique author-ID on everyone who publishes in science. This project seized on a somewhat unfortunate Acronym ORCID for Open Researcher and Contributor ID. Before the Summer, all the active researchers were gathered into a [small] room at The Institute and more or less ordered to set up an ORCID account and capture our publications. For youngsters this was the work of moments, for an old stager like me if was a bit more work. It wasn't so much that my publishing career goes back through 7 working addresses in 3 countries it was more that ORCID uses a rather wide net for 'contribution'. For several years at the turn of the century I was the book review editor for a journal and would often enough keep the free book by writing the review myself. These were Blobs in all but name before The Blob had been thought of, and have at least one nugget of peculiarity in each one. But I cannot remember them all; not to save my wife.

This all came rushing back to me before Christmas when I was up in Dublin and picked up an old copy of Science while waiting for the next meeting.  John Bohannon a piece in there about mobilising The Data for ORCID to investigate migratory scientists. And why not? There are now 4 million people registered on ORCID which is about 1% of those using LinkedIn. If you have an identifiable researcher, with all their past publications and all their past addresses, then you can mashup the data and do some hypothesis driven sociological research.
= Do successful scientists move about a lot? [maybe]
= Which country exports the most PhDs ?[the UK by far]
= Can we generate some truly appalling graphics ?[yes R]
It is impossible to deduce from the picture which direction the migrants are travelling. The print version is much better.

The best thing I discovered in finding out about ORCID is that they have a nominal place-holder to run trials for up-grading the software. This is an old science hand called Joe Carberry who has been investigating psychoceramics at Brown U since 1930.  At that time he was billed to give a lecture on "Archaic Greek Architectural Revetments in Connection with Ionian Philology" and the bugger never turned up. Ever since on Friday the 13th and February 29th, cracked pots [psychoceramics, geddit] appear all over campus and students fill them with small change to promote the Life and Works of Professor Carberry. In reality the Brown library uses the money to purchase books for their collection. All good fun and these additional books are given a special bookplate with the slogan  "Dulce et decorum est desipere in loco" [It's okay to be silly once in a while]. For example, the psychoceramics lab has investigated whether you need to wash your tea-cup at the office.

I suggested above that ORCID was an unfortunate coinage but only because όρχις = orchis is the Greek for testicle. Men of a certain age will know the word orchidectomy as a solution (hopefully unilateral) to testicular cancer.  And you'll now be curious about the family of exotic plants are called Orchids. It is so called because the type species sports two peculiar tubers [R] from the base of the plant. To Aristotle and other ancient naturalists, these looked enough like testes to name the family. And while we are down there, you might be amused by this joke.
Note for inglês segunda língua folks: a lot of old cobblers = harmless nonsense from rhyming slang [prev] cobblers awls = balls.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Xmas antidotes

Hmmmm. Christmas - 'tis the season to be jolly. But being jolly for a day, let alone a whole season is, like, work. But I've been having some ideas on some of the problems. In any case, the Jollity eventually comes to The End [R going home after the last Ho Ho Ho].
  • Coliforms. Satan bought the Gdaus each a stuffed toy. These things are almost certainly made in the Far East in a factory with dodgy lavatories and sketchy regs about hand-washing. It's like shirts, which The Beloved will insist on washing before I'm allowed to wear them. You can't throw a teddy bear or a snuffed okapi into the washing machine and expect it to retain any of its cuddliness. What's needed is a germicidal powder and a cardboard box. Put soft-toy into box, add aliquot of powder and shake gently for two minutes, leave for five minutes and then vacuum off the excess. Safe for your tots!
  • Anti-presents. Anti-gifts are a thing: mugs, buttons and t-shirts with slogans to indicate that, although you're paying up to $20, the gift is ironic. Rather than your friends&relations giving you a book that you probably won't read, why not invite them to take one of your books away with them? You won't read that book [again] either; they will enjoy it because they can choose and you'll eventually de-clutter all the bookshelves in the house. Win!
  • Fat and food. In the West, Christmas is synonymous with over-indulgence. Even in the 1920s, my mother's grown-up relatives were all getting smashed on booze and making children eat pink blancmange as the only dessert that didn't have added alcohol. You don't have to eat food until your cheeks distend and your eye bulge. Two solutions possible: just say no or tomorrow is another day.: you can imagine that you'll go for a vigorous wood-chopping session later.  
  • Magnets as 'food'. We have had Geomag in the house for a long time, without appreciating the hazards. These are super-strong neodymium magnetic bars with which you can build Platonic solids and much much more. If you swallow a glass marble, as I did, it will eventually work its way through. If you swallow a single geomag then ditto. If your kid ingests two they can stick two sections of bowel together: pressure necrosis, perforation and/or fistula are possible. Since the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a warning in 2012,  parents have been more vigilant.
  • Christmas Eve is better. Bittersweet story about being a father.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Boudin blanc d'Irlande

St. Stephen's Day, when we have a second go at the food.
This story needs some background music, so you might open Le Boudin in another tab for the five minutes it will take you to read about John Paul O'Connor [above] who makes white pudding within sight of Carrauntoohill [above] in Co Kerry.  I met him the other day in Tramore. I was looking after Pat the Salt and nipped up to Supervalu to buy some bread and milk . . . and came away with 250g of white pudding. Hard to refuse a man who has driven 200km to sell something that he believes in. Very nice it was too: it even got a 'like' from The Beloved and she's a vegetarian. O'Connor is about my age, but he missed out on the very expensive education bit; indeed he left school and left the country when he was 13 to go and work in England. One of his jobs was in a sausage factory in London, before he got his start in construction. He has erected steel all over the British Isles and also across the pond in America. The boom was good to him and in 2007 he was employing not only himself but 20 others besides. We treat our entrepreneurs shockin' poor in this country, expecting them to take all the risks, take people off the live register, and put money aside for retirement or disaster.

Everyone was washed up and laid off in the Crash.  In 2012, when the last sliver of construction had worked itself through, O'Connor looked across the kitchen table at his wife Kathleen and they agreed they were too old to emigrate again. They decided that they could make a better sausage than the dreadful concoction they had a hand in when they were young - turns out that she had also worked in the sausage trade in London.
They'd been in business for less than a year when they entered their products in a competition organised by the Harry Potter School of Food Wizardry Commanderie des Goustiers du Duché  d'Alençon in Normandy and came away with a Best in British Isles cup and certificate. [L with M.Dupont et M.Dumbledore].  The O'Connors have decided to take Sásta Sausages and Puddings up-market rather than competing with the Big Boys on price. That way they'll be able to keep the quality of their ingredients high. Unless you're starvin' you wouldn't want to go down-market with sausage. I had a choking revelation in Boston  when I read the ToC for hot-dogs after I had eaten half a packet: what in heck are chicken non-meat byproducts? apart from being pink? Sásta puddings retail at €12/kg compared to Tesco Finest at €3.34/kg. If you treat meat as a condiment to the calories, like Thomas Jefferson, then you'll be able to justify paying for something that is genuine. Quite apart from supporting a company (and all its employees) that wouldn't exist but for a couple with conviction, courage and a good product.

The puff on the packet claims that the recipe is inspired by JP's grand-mother who used to lash in gorse flowers Ulex europaeus and wild garlic Allium ursinum. That would be interesting, gorse smells of coconut with a hint of vanilla, and ramsons A. ursinum would make your eyes water at ten paces. So I've left pictures of those Summer flowers up [R] so that their whiff will beguile you while you read the modern ingredients:
Pork (80%), onion, pinhead oatmeal, water, rusk (wheat flour, water, salt), spice mix (wheat flour, rusk (wheat), salt, soya flour, preservative sodium metabisulphite, emulsifier: sodium tripolyphosphate, spice and spice extracts, antioxidant E301, rapeseed oil, herbs and herb extracts, flavour enhancer E621).
Notes:
  • The emboldened words are, as usual, flagged as potential allergens
  • E301 is ascorbic acid - vitamin C
  • E621 is MSG monosodium glutamate the Queen of Umami.
  • sodium tripolyphosphate [ahem that's E452], the emulsifier, we've met before as a 'builder' in the chemistry of detergents. Here it helps keep things damp.
The most striking element of this recipe is the fact that the main ingredient by far is pork. You might compare the list with that of spice burgers [9% meat] or Irish sausages [70% meat]. But unless you're a fan of Frank Herbert's Dune, you'll be less impressed with spice and spice extracts and herbs and herb extracts. If you're going up-market you don't have to rely on generic catering-pack herbs and spices. You could try simplify simplify and make a truly rustique gastronomique food like my much loved caldo verde. Use cracked black pepper not spice and gorse flower and allium not herbs. That would be distinctive and a bit brave.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Christmas day in the workhouse

Christmas Day? Someone will have to put a crib together. In Oaxaca, Mexico, the 23rd in La Noche de los Rábanos = Radishes Eve.  Years ago they had a glut or radishes, some of which had grown into hilarious anthropomorphic shapes and ever since the plain people of Oaxaca have been 'improving' the unnatural shapes as sculpture: as this nativity scene.

If you want to play Isn't Bob [insert name here] Clever, try:
Christmas day in the workhouse a long angry polemic about haves and have-nots maybe more relevant now than when written - summary excerpt:
"Yes, there, in a land of plenty, 
Lay a loving woman dead, 
Cruelly starved and murdered 
for a loaf of the parish bread; 
At yonder gate, last Christmas, 
I craved for a human life, 
You, who would feed us paupers, 
What of my murdered wife!"
So, if you have two rissoles to rub together on this day be sure to give thanks. All the rest is icing on the cake. Cake? why didn't I get any cake?
Happy Hols

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

Twas the Sunday before Christmas; you can check out The Blob briefly but really you should be peeling the chestnuts for tomorrow's stuffing. Getting quietly blotto is acceptable as well. I'm in the bosom of my family, me: three generations of descendants fighting each other to get access to the stove. I don't ask for much: roast potatoes tomorrow; rissoles for St Stephen's Day;
a nice
hang 
sangwich 
or two along the way.
That's all, Folks. Bingle Jells.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Roll model

The Thursday before Christmas I drove up to Dublin for a twofer: a) to attend a multiple class reunion at my Alma Mater b) hammer-time with Dau.I. Part of the arrangement was so I could drive m'daughter and her Chrimbo-kit home to the mountain. Presents; books; the contents of her fridge; things you can only buy in Dublin; things you can only buy in Ikea. The (a) deal was to have mince-pies and drinks with the graduates of the place where I obtained my marginal first degree: kick-off 1630hrs. I reckoned that none of the organisers would imagine that name-badges would be necessary (we all have our marbles and are just one big happy family): so I made my own My name in letters big enough to read at 1 metre distance and 1977 in enormous letters. 1977 is the year I graduated and so almost all the alumni were waaaaay younger. Blimey, that's 40 years ago.

I was running a little late because I dawdled through the front of Trinity College but I was in no hurry. Which meant I missed the first half of a short talk by one of the department's more successful graduates. They couldn't do name-badges maybe, but they had arranged for two (2) chaps half my age to give career advice in the guise of outlining an autobiography. Fairy 'nuff, even I was just yesterday suggesting that a young woman-of-science was a better mouth-piece for advice that an old silverback who has never snapped a chat of insted a gram. Nevertheless, on the principal that it's not over till it's over, I thought I could give an overview of a careers in science which wasn't still wet behind the ears. For starters, it might be disheartening to have both barrels of career propaganda loaded with the super-successful young buck-shot: there are more, and necessary, careers in science than just the Winners. The prima ballerinas need people to do the heavy lifting: technically competent and tolerant of boredom.

The second guy to talk went a bit outside his brief to harangue us about the fact that something is rotten in the state of science. First off he pointed the fickle finger of scorn at the peculiar messianic portrait of James "Double Helix" Watson by Robert Ballagh which looks over the atrium of the Genetics Department [R] like The Lord offering his works to communicants. "That man is a racist" intoned our young speaker.  Yes yes, we know that: Dr Watson in his declining years has become less and less able to button his lip about the deficiencies of people other than straight white males who have won a Nobel Prize aka SWMNPWs. Young feller next had a go at sexism in science, citing the scandal in Rochester U with alleged serial sexual predator Florian Jaegar and asserting that nothing like that was going to happen in his new ERC- and SFI-funded lab. These two broadsides caused a certain amount of discomfort in the room: racism  and sexism happens elsewhere. We don't like having them shoved down our throats when we are parched to get access to the drinks table and shove down a mince-pie or two. But I don't fault him for bring up an edgy subject in Christmas week - you would have a heart of stone to walk past a homeless person as you do your Christmas stuff-shopping. And we know that a lot of sexual predation is going on in the stationery closet during year-end office parties across the world.

aNNyway, after the speeches, the mince-pies and gargle, the catching up and the networking and the chit-chat, I met up with Dau.I and we drifted off to skull a few pints. I tried to give her the gist of the polemic on cleaning up science that I had just heard. I also noted that we-of-the-atrium didn't have to travel as far as Rochester NY to encounter an egregious example of continually tolerated misogynistic bullying. I wrote that last link 4 years ago and the perp is still in place, still treating people, especially young women, with contempt. Harrumph, Dau.I snorted, if that young feller wanted to make a stand against sexism in science, then, rather than sounding off as a SWMERCSFI, he could recuse himself and ask a female colleague to give the career-advice holiday pep-talk.  Errrm, true dat

After a couple of pints we decided to order some pub food of which there was a copious choice. One of the interesting items on the bar menu was a Full Irish Chicken Baguette. What the hecken can that be? Sounds like 75cm of french bread filled with the meat, white and dark, from a 1.6 kg chicken, with two fried eggs, three sausages, one grilled tomato and a generous ladle of baked beans. That sounds like mother of all sandwiches, a LDL-cholesteroll for the end of times. But I went for roast loin of pork with stuffing; roast, mashed and boiled potatoes; red and green cabbage; a side of carrots; and, because there was no more room on the enormous plate, a gravy-boat full of apple sauce. Let the Christmas over-eating begin!

Friday, 22 December 2017

End of Work

15th Dec 2017 was the last Friday of the teaching term, a time for wrapping things up for the calendar year. By tradition, The Institute puts on a Christmas Dinner [that couldn't be beat] and invites present and past staff to eat it together. Those who have passed the portals of retirement are individually recognised by their line-manager and given a clock by the President. The retiree is then encouraged to say a few words, which sometimes extends to rather too many words. The best speeches are something like "So long, thanks for all the fish; retirement is great, hope to see you next year".  On Friday one of the retirees, who has spent the last year in a maelstrom of chemotherapy, got a little chokey in her 3rd or 4th sentence but bravely perked up with "I'm sorry, I didn't intend that, it must be the morphine . . . if anyone wants morphine tablets, I have loads".

The previous day, I was inveigled up to Dublin for a meeting at 1530 and drinks afterwards. I was a bit early, so dropped I to say hello to my pal Tony, whose crap-detector I tribbed in 2013. We see each other rarely and predictably spent some time giving updates on where are the kids on life's journey. Then, looking at his grey head, I asked if he was still planning to retire at 65. The government have recently opened the gates to allow public servants to work up until the age of 70. Better to have them working than drawing the pension and contributing nothing but unasked-for advice from the wings. Tony, now 61, was still up for downing tools at 65. He explained that early retirement had punitive effect on your pension entitlements: if you jack it in at 60, you'll be 30% down. Then he said a peculiar thing "Of course, if I got sick, I'd go sooner so I can enjoy my health". "Whoa", I said, "if you're thinking that you should retire now before you get sick." I just don't get it. If your work is not a chore, if it seems productive, then why not keep at it? If it is a chore and you don't like Mondays then you're doing nobody any favours by continuing. You're just providing the wherewithal to procure more stuff. Me, I'm awash with stuff, lucky I love my work. Our mutual friend Mario Fares was working away correcting manuscripts from his hospital bed the day before he died.

Of course there are very good community reasons to retire at 65 or sooner. If I continue to occupy my desk at The Institute until I'm 70, I'll deprive some young woman of science of the chance to get a job, earn some cash, buy a house, start a family. She'll be a much more credible role-model for the students than me. No matter how enthusiastic and bouncy I am, I know the kids look at me and think "Gramps".

Thursday, 21 December 2017

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fulfillment?

In any other week in the year, the answer to that conundrum might be - job satisfaction - meaningful work - successful completion - winning match - matching accessories. But in the week running up to the Feast of St Mammon it's all about Fulfillment Associates FAs: the minimum wage workers who do the Bezos bidding in Amazon hives. Those guys are working all the hours that Bezos sends, subject to the limits imposed by labor law. Here's Greg Zielinski, general manager of an Amazon warehouse in Dupont WA, an hour south of Seattle, talking about the process on Cyber Monday last year. Between Black Friday and 2359hrs on Christmas Eve is the busiest time of the year for retail. You can hunt up lots of criticism of the way Amazon treats its workers, and several members of my family won't use Amazon for that reason. But they have changed the way we shop: ruthless efficiencies and brutal negotiation supply-side, gives buyers goods 'n' stuff, and delivers them real cheap, real fast. Lots of sellers ask Amazon to do the final packing and shipping because they can apply economies of scale. Economies of scale means boredom, stress and repetitive strain injury in Amazon Fulfillment centers. But that deal saves smaller retailers from paper cuts, hernias and storage costs. But you have to pack your shit up properly or the ever smiling, secretly exasperated, Amazon Problem Solvers will come down the aisle and take your box to the sin-bin. So no peanuts!: keep the dunnage [packing material] large. Only one visible bar-code . . . not covering the box-opening. If you've sold your soul to Amazon Prime you can get your Instant Gratification Needs IGNs delivered to your door less than 2 hours after you make the last tap on your smart-phone. You can now chain-eat Ben&Jerry's ice-cream from your sofa.

Zielinski's warehouse in Dupont is a million sq.ft. in size: that's 10 hectares or 50% more that our farm. We warehouse 30 sheep . . . seems like a waste of space. We pay our workers less than the minimum wage, indeed they are like homeless people "will work for food" especially the sheep muesli mmmm good! which we are eking into them during the cold, and grassless, winter. The Amazon workers may be on the min.wage but at least they aren't kneeling on a concrete floor stacking shelves in Lidalditesci. In the more modern fulfillment centres the people are packers: the fetchers are robots. Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2012, quickly making it a wholly-owned subsidiary. Kiva makes the little heft-robots that bring shelf-stacks from the far corners of the warehouse so that the FAs can pick product and pop the whole order into the box. FAs need tea-breaks, smoko, t'ilet-breaks, a sandwich occasionally; Kivabot only need to be battery charged for 5 minutes every hour. Amazon time&motion geeks must have decided that it is inefficient to have people getting lost in the rectilinear jungle looking for Fad-tastik shockin' pink head-phones, Barbie the Tank-driver, and a gallon of strawberry ice-cream . . . and that's just the pink stuff.  Amazon does random stow with their inventory: everything is bar-coded but the dozen available Amazon Echos [wha' dat?] are shelved all over the shop. This means that consolidating an order requires fewer footsteps (or Kiva seconds) than if all the Echos were in one location. Engineers again!

All those Kiva bots whizzing around the floor would seem to be a recipe for a collision or a trip-and-fall as ankle-height bot meets FA carrying large box. But all the units are chipped up with WiFi collision avoidance software.  Regrettably no such software was present for the inaugural run of a new rail route through Dupont WA earlier this week. For reasons which will come out in the investigation, PTCS Prevention of Train Collision System software wasn't installed. PTCS is what it says on the tin: each train is wirelessed and GPSed up, as are all the hazards along the track. If the 'engineer' is doing something foolish or having a heart-attack, or there is an earthquake, then the train is brought to a halt on the tracks. Rather than coming round a 30mph corner at 80mph and leaving the tracks. I may have more to say on this later, but I'll leave it to Juan "Oroville" Brown for now, It is a weird coincidence that The Boy is a railway engineer and named for Hapag-Lloyd because that's the first thing I saw after hearing about his birth. The Dupont train derailment met the Interstate right in front of a Hapag-Lloyd truck [evidencial pic R]. An omen for the End of Days, maybe?

The Post-title is un hommage to Raymond Carver's book of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which has been blobmaged before about John Lanchester and the London Tube. You can buy a used copy on Amazon for £853.31 !

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Sildenafil

It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I cite the terrible story of Thalidomide in my Human Physiology course as an example of paying attention to epidemiological evidence and making connexions. After it was shown that this morning sickness drug could cause grievous damage to the child within, the drug was taken off the market. Almost as soon as it was withdrawn as a treatment for nausea, it was found to be singularly effective against Erythema nodosum leprosum ENL one of the more obvious effects of an infection by Mycobacterium leprae. There aren't as many people affected by leprosy (who can afford any sort of drugs) as pregnant women but Thalidomide has been earning its keep by damping down TNFα, a pro-inflammatory cytokine. If costs $1billion to bring a novel drug to market and, if you've invested enough money in development, there is a certain pressure to find some sort of therapeutic use even if not the one that first launched the project.

The most famous example of this is Sildenafil [structure L],which was being developed, in the late 1980s, by a team in Pfizer to combat hypertension. Theory and evidence had shown that the compound inhibited an enzyme  cGMP-specific phosphodiesterase type 5 PDE5 which broke down a chemical messenger called cGMP. This left more cGMP in circulation and it was known that this would cause peripheral vasodilation, at least in rats. Relaxing the smooth muscles of the arteries should help lower blood pressure. But when it came to human trials, no such effect could be convincingly demonstrated - damn those inconvenient statistics, the marketing people must have thought. After a couple of no significant difference trials, the money people called in the development team and gave them an ultimatum: the plug would be pulled and the costs written off if nothing convincing turns up. There was one trial still lurching along: a Phase I case-control clinical trial involving Welsh coal miners - then an endangered species after a decade of Thatcher economics. That also had shown no demonstrable effect on hypertension. But in the follow-up interviews, the researchers threw out a generic "anything else we should know about?" and one of the miners mentioned that he'd been experiencing some night-time stiffness. The other miners chirped up with a chorus of "Me toos" and Viagra was born, first as a concept and then as a product. It was patented by Pfizer in 1996, approved by the FDA two years later and has been making money hand-over fist for Pfizer ever since.
Several years afterwards, GlaxoSmith Kline and others launched a me-too drug called Vardenafil [structure L], which is also an effective inhibitor of PDE5. No surprises there because it's hard enough to find the chemical differences between the two compounds. If the whole drug market wasn't driven forward by money, we might have required GSK to look for other drugs rather than adding nothing to a problem that was already essentially solved.
Viagra has also been remarkably kind to the people of Ringaskiddy, Co Cork because that has been a major production facility for the drug since 1998. The wages and salaries from the Pfizer payroll have supported a rake of other businesses in the area: sandwich shops, petrol stations, hair-salons, convenience stores. We can dismiss as nonsense the story which gets rechurned whenever Viagra is in the news: there are no Sildenafil fumes wafting about in the air, and none was leaked into the water-supply. Any priapic effect is entirely down to the power of suggestion.  And yes, Viagra is in the news this week because it has come off patent and two, slightly cheaper, yellow-pack drugs are coming on the marketSNL's advice is to threaten your doctor until he prescribes for you.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Sorosgeld Sorosgate

In 1930 György Schwartz was born in Budapest. In 1936 the family shed the obviously Jewish sounding Schwartz and changed their name to Soros which means next-in-line or heir apparent in Magyar. They survived the war, not without trials, and in 1947 the boy enrolled in the London School of Economics as George Soros. After a depressing stint as a travelling salesman in seaside trinkets, he started at the bottom of a London merchant bank and really hasn't looked back. HE started the very first Hedge Fund in the 1960s. He has become rich by being lucky ruthless, insightful  and well-funded in his investments. He is now in the Top 20 Rich List, although I'm not sure if that's before or after he offloaded 2/3rds of his wealth to a philanthropic fund called Open Societies Foundation in the management of which he is still active. OSF likes to make a lavish bonfire of its money to shine a light in the darkness of poverty and ignorance:
  • women's rights, LGBQRST rights, sex-workers, Roma
  • Education and democracy especially in Hungary and Eastern Europe
  • criminal justice, palliative care, drugs policy and migration in the USA
  • health esp for the dispossessed - TB & HIV
A while back the OSF donated €137,000 [$150K] to Amnesty Ireland for its My Body My Rights campaign. That could be phrased Your rights end where my uterus begins. Now, I'm all for Down with the Eighth; not least because my daughters tell me that is the correct position. They are the only people close to me who are potentially adversely affected by the currently Constitutional "Eighth Amendment" position. As an old bloke with funds, I have no locus standi on the matter; although I will have a vote in next year's referendum. There are plenty of old white men, starting the the Pope in Rome, who are happy to impose their views of rights and wrongs on young women. But you can bet they won't be in the delivery room when an unwanted pregnancy comes to term because that's what their righteousness insists upon.  Amnesty is on the Repeal side and solicited the OSF grant to push their agenda out in the campaign when it starts to roll in the New Year.
One logo is OSF's the other SIPO's
Trouble is that the Soros intervention is, well, illegal; which makes Amnesty's position, well, ironic. It's all very well taking an illegal donation if you're a hedge-fund millionaire, or a college lecturer [send 'em in, I have low standards] but Amnesty has been standing on the letter of the law since it was new-born. It is illegal because of the Standards in Public Office Act of 2001, as vindicated by Coimisiún um Chaighdeáin in Oifigí Poiblí Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO). This was set up in the aftermath of the planning tribunals, brown envelopes, and other financial dodginess of our leaders all through the 80s and 90s - remember GUBU? that might be a starting point. The Act applies primarily to elected members of parliaments, both Irish and European, but also necessarily applies to candidates for election. If you sail into a seat in the Dáil on €1million worth of election posters bought by your Saudi cousin O'Sama Bin Liner , then you can afford to be squeaky clean afterwards. The Abortion Rights Campaign returned $25,000 from OSF in April of this year after being fingered by SIPO.

The 2001 Act requests-and-requires that politicians disclose their [financial] interests. It also puts limits on the amount of money you can shake from other people to promote your campaign:
  • Anonymous donations < €100
  • Known sources; individual or corporate <€200
    • Unless Body Corporate is registered with SIPO
  • Total annual contribution from one source <€2,500
  • Furriners = nil
    • A political party or any of its sub-units may not accept a donation, of any value, from an individual (other than an Irish citizen) who resides outside the island of Ireland.
    • Errrrm, that would be Mr Schwartz-Soros  even if he changed his name to ui Sraitheach
Well last week Colm O'Gorman, the Chair of Amnesty was digging in his heels and refusing to return the money on a point of political principal. I think he may be claiming the money is for education not politics. This strikes me as a) wrong and b) foolish. It will cost a lot more than €137,000 to fight the case up to the Supreme Court, so there will be fewer leaflets and posters and radio ads put out to sway the electorate about the rights of women. But if the case is not thrown out and foriegn money is deemed acceotable in political debate, then the rising tide will float all boats. Colm O'Gorman must be delusional if he thinks that his side can mobilise more foreign capital than the combined forces of the Iona "Panti Wacker" Institute, the Vatican, sundry Ayatollahs, and Chuck Tubthumper from Baptism, Tennessee. Indeed, David Quinn, the eminence gris of the Iona Institute is all behind Amnesty in taking the case up the legal ladder. Me, I'd wonder what I'd been on last night, if I woke up in bed with David Quinn.

Do we want  the finances of politics to spiral out of control? In the USA, the longest pockets almost always wins elections:
94 percent of biggest House race spenders won
82 percent of biggest Senate race spenders won
Thus the US government is effectively sold to the highest bidder. The US Supreme Court decision in Buckley v Valeo (1976) & Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (2010) held that blurfing money in campaigns is an example of  [Constitutionally protected] Free Speech. The recent revocation of Title II Net Neutrality Rules by the  Federal Communications Commission  is selling access to the US internet to the highest bidder.

Now me, I am a trained researcher with  a very expensive education, so I would prefer / expect all voters to fully inform themselves about the financial interests, voting record, likelihood of campaign promises being fulfilled, of all candidates. That would require a degree of awareness, patience, research and literacy which might qualify for a bachelor's degree but which is vanishingly rare among the Irish electorate. Most people simplify their choices to a narrow tribalism or the last name they read on an election poster outside the polling station. It is therefore illegal to put up a poster within 100m of a place for voting. But I'd much rather have dullards and reactionaries voting according to their conscience than turn the whole thing over to a money-wins-let's-burn-more-money dystopia. Let's save the planet from 100,000 plastic posters for a start.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Time Waster

I went to college, I stuck out the full four years, I landed a marginal degree that wouldn't norrmally qualify me for further study. A happy accident [you make your own luck] hoiked me out of an all wet job mopping floors and building aquariums in Rotterdam and having a NDE which landed me in Graduate School in Boston. I'd like to say that . . . the rest is history because I'm currently holding down an academic job as I approach retirement. But that would create entirely the wrong impression. My PhD didn't secure me a job-for-life, it opened the door to a succession of short-term contracts in two different countries and five different Institutions. The longest contract I've had is 3 years and the shortest [happened twice] was six weeks.  On top of that, I've retired early and retired often; taking gap years and suffering several years of part-time short-term contracts: the last in 2012 when I was working one day a week. Meneer Donker, the old guy who was sergeant at Blijdorp in Rotterdam, begged me to stay in Afdeling Vissen: I would be a shoo-in for his job when he retired in 5 or 6 years time. That's a, two roads in the yellow wood, might-have-been.I'm  not making the case that having a degree has made my life happy, or happier; my life has been what it is and I'm not complaining.

Here's a bloke [Prof Bryan Caplan L] whose educational attainments did land him a dream job - tenure as a Professor in a smart US University. And here he is dissing universal college as a concept for separating sheep from goats and/or giving the recipients any useful life skills. tl;dr here is the executive summary in his own words

"The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz—all Nobel laureates in economics—made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling. Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory. But signaling plays almost no role in public discourse or policy making. As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race."

It's a bit like burglar alarms. You dare not omit this illusion of defense, so everyone buys one but the rate of house-breaking continues the same . . . but we're all €x00 in the hole to sport a coloured box above the front door; or €x000 poorer for system that works. There is data to show that if you have a degree your lifetime earnings will be 75% higher SO families scrimp and save to get to college. But the beneficiaries are those who are house-trained / institutionalised aNNyway. College doesn't make them better prospects, it just acts as a winnowing floor to exclude the youngsters without stamina, with a low threshold for boredom; while including the biddable and docile with a reasonably well developed sense of time-keeping. These are desirable character traits in the modern work-place too.  It is vanishingly unlikely that anything you learn in college will be useful at work. Your employer will want to train you in their way of doing things in any case. Anyone who successful does college later, while holding down a job, in something like Open University is A God and employers should always interview such candidates.

The benefits of college are little to do with the curriculum or content; it's more the intangibles - meeting your spouse, getting hammered with your mates, getting in some sports time and, hopefully seeing some films with sub-titles.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Saint Sturm's Day Misc 171217

A peculiar set of links

Usedom on the edge

There was a time when the Baltic was the centre of the world criss-crossed with trade routes bringing salt, herrings, furs, turpentine, masts, grain from one place to another. Last year I wrote about the Hanseatic port of Lübeck on the Ostsee / Baltic coast as a way station on the Alte Salzstraße. But the Baltic barely featured in my very expensive education, I guess we pitied the people of North Central Europe who had to take holidays on the Baltic Coast, which seemed pretty bracing if not positively bleak. As if an April day on the beach at Tramore or Duncannon was in some sense more easy on the chillblains. But the details of the geography were entire outside the curriculum. I read a rather intellectual (but short!) piece of about Borders as a reflection on the politics of hard/soft borders after Brexit. via MeFi where extra links. Until then I'd never heard of the island of Usedom which is a)  part of the Baltic coast and b) interestingly, divided between Germany and Poland. Don't forget that the whole of Poland was shifted West in the wake of WWII to please the Russians and discommode and displace the Germans. Honestly you wouldn't know where what who you were if you lived anywhere close to where Gregor Mendel was born.

So here's Usedom/Wollin as an Olde Mappe which rather exaggerates the islandness of it all. The real current island is much more embedded and connected with the coast, so that it is hard to see where the Mainland ends and Island begins until you zoom in to the places where roads appear to join the two. The explanatory cartoon below shows the tortuous coastline of today; albeit totally detaching the island from the continent for clarity. The pinkish slash about midway indicates the border between German & Polish Pomerania that would be Mecklenburg-Vorpommern \\ Województwo zachodniopomorskie.
I've taken the liberty of indicating Stettin = Szczecin on the upper map. Why? Because it boggles my mind how a town so far from actual Baltic could have become such a major player in the Hanseatic League. An indication of its importance / desirability is the fact that, after being founded by Wends in the late 700s, it was successive part of  Poland, Saxony, the Holy Roman Empire, Greater Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, Germany and most recently Poland.

For reasons of geopolitical importance at the 1945 time, the border between Germany and Poland was not set along the Swine/Świna the middle of three drains between The Stettin Lagoon to the South but through the countryside West of the metropolis of Świnoujście. Thus giving control of both banks of the thoroughfare to Poland. German traffic had to winkle 20km through the Peenestrom between Usedom and the mainland. Polish ships had the choice of wending along the Świna OR the Dziwna to the East of Wollin. This years-ago economic decision makes for a rather less defensible border between the two countries which meanders through the dunes and salt-marsh [R] until it gets its feet wet in the Baltic. Unless we're going to suffer Plexit after Brexit, I guess we don't need to worry about the defensibility of the DE-PL border here or further South.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Saint Bob

I have an understandable interest in Bobs: Bob the Island - Bob the Point - Bob the Province - Bob the Builder - Bob the Asteroid - Bob the Socratic - Bob the Gypsy - Bob the Thunderer - Bob the Farrrrmer - and I see that Bob the Blob [R] is a thing. Now we are getting Bob the pain-in-the-arse aka Sir Bob or, here ironically, Saint Bob.  I'm all for excellence and salute the outstanding, and take my hat off to experts. Personally, I'm more for celebrating the ordinary. But too often celebrity gives a rush of blood to the head, and a loss of humility. In science there are Nobel laureates: by the prize they are acknowledged expert in something. Logic, utility and respect allows journalists to phone them up for a soundbyte when something notable happens in their field. They may well have other things they care about: their grandchilder; match-box cars; Manchester City; the local library; the planet [Sulston prev]; but they don't have locus standi to pontificate about those. Being a celebrity in one field doesn't give you bragging rights across the board.

Once upon a time in Dublin, there was a band called The Boomtown Rats, who started as The Night-time Thugs until one of their number refused to play under that banner. They were very successful, in Ireland and abroad, in the early 1980s. You may remember I don't like Mondays - Banana Republic - She's so modern. You don't have to look very hard in those clips to recognise a youthful Bob Geldof before he went Global. In 1984, at the peak of his pop-stardom, he saw footage of a famine in Ethiopia and, with Midge "Ultravox" Ure put together a mammoth charity fund-raiser called Band Aid, "Do they know it's Christmas?" raised $8million. The following year they went, if not Global, at least trans-Atlantic with Live Aid, a media circus which shook $150 million "give us your fuckin' money" out of white-folk's pockets for people without pockets at all at all. No matter how tired you may be of hearing "Do they know its Christmas" again in December, I think we have to give the man credit for doing something about inequality rather than just sighing about it.

Shortly after that The Rats split up and Geldof launched into another career as ambassador against poverty, oppression and inequality, He recognised that, if left to their own devices, most people will spend their money on food, t-shirts and a Summer holiday rather than tithing [bloboprev] their income for the poor in Africa. A month after The Rats' last concert in 1986 Geldof accepted an honorary knighthood from the [Tory] British government for his services to fund-raising.  It was a peculiar arrangement: the Tory government were bullied into a cynical act of populist appeal because the Great British Public and the Great British Media seemed to demand that Geldof be recognised. Geldof, a citizen of a Republic, saw no inconsistency in accepting such an award from the Queen of the country next door. No inconsistency for the average Brit who thinks that Ireland is part of the Commonwealth because we speak English. And they could be forgiven for that belief given how much attention the Irish pay to British soaps, British soccer, Royal weddings and Britain's Got Talent.  For a while, in this century, Geldof was half of a mutual admiration society with British PM Tony "WMD" Blair. If he hadn't already gotten his knechthood, Tony "People's Princess" Blair would have sincerely secured one for him [can't find a picture of Blair looking convincingly sincere, so you'll have to imagine it].

In 2006, Dublin City Council got in on the process of canonizing the Blessed Bob by making him a Freeman of the City (whatever that means beyond a fancy scroll). My Alma Mater TCD was a bit slower off the mark: this Summer, Dau.I and I saw him a) looking scruffy and b) going in to get an honorary degree. The Freedom of the City is not showered out like confetti: they have been awarded quite a bit less than one every year over the last 140 years.
  • Freedomistas:
    • Initially to statesmen: Gladstone, Parnell, Ulysses S. Grant, Redmond; 
    • then to the Arts: Douglas Hyde, John McCormack and Hugh Lane;
    • then to the Church: Archbishop This, Nuncio That and Pope JP II; 
    • then all populist: Gay Byrne, Maureen Potter, and  U2; 
    • along the way they've been sporty: Jack Charlton, Ronnie Delany, Johnny Giles, Brian O'Driscoll.
In 1999, while she was still under house-arrest in Burma/Myanmar, they offered the honour to Aung San Sui Kyi, and she flew to Dublin in 2012 to finally accept it. At the time, ASSK was revered, only second to Nelson Mandela,  as the silenced, oppressed but dignified symbol of freedom. Things have turned pear-shaped for her since she was released, especially her recent failure to condemn ethnic cleansing among the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar. From the outside looking in, it's either black or white. People who were falling over themselves to shower ASSK with prizes and honours were now fighting to throw the first stone.
Notable among the latter have been U2 and Geldof requesting and requiring the City to rescind the Freedom they gave to ASSK in her shiny-white phase. Geldof has been unhappy about the pace at which the City Fathers were acceding to his righteous indignation. In the middle of November Geldof [R with worshippers] brought himself, his scroll, his publicist, and plenty photographers back to Dublin to return the honour earlier accorded to him. The City Council, led by the Lord Mayor Mícheál Mac Donncha didn't like being chivvied by a publicity hound and this week overwhelmingly voted to accept Geldof's resignation  . . .  at the same meeting where they stripped the epaulettes off ASSK. Now Geldof is all upset and wants them to put the scroll back in his pram.

The day after that stormy Council meeting, Joe Duffy, RTE's self-regarding talk-show host, in one of his periodical fits of righteous indignation, "interviewed" the Lord Mayor. Which amounted to him hectoring that Civic Dignitary for being a Sinn Fein Republican and for daring to express his contempt for an Irish citizen who accepted a gong from a foreign power . . . especially that foreign power. Clearly there has been a bit of needle round the Council table and Geldof is not everyone's cup of tea. Simple people want life to be simple: Saint Bob is, or was, Good; Sir Bob is definitely Bad; Unscrolled Bob is . . . heck I neither know nor care. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

I haven't a clue

Somehow along the way, my teaching portfolio at The Institute has acquired a bunch of maths & stats classes. You can't call a first year class Remedial Maths - it really wouldn't look good on the prospectus. But heck'n'jiminy, many of the students require it. Every year I have a pre-quiz which inter alia asks for their grade in Leaving Certificate maths. The median (most common grade) is a D at Pass level. This is the bare minimum and an absolute requirement for entering 3rd Level Education. The optics being important we call this one hour a week practice in mathemactice Quantitative Methods or QM. A tuthree years ago, the Sporty side of my department renamed the euphemism QM as a more aspirational Research Methods aka ResMet; neither curriculum nor content changed underneath the rubric.

Whatever foundation we lay in Yr1 ResMet, someone else has to construct the edifice of ResMet2 in second year. I don't know if it's a mix&match policy (to spare any one group of students from really disaffected teaching?) but I've never landed the same people as they progress to Yr2. That's why I have to learn 100+ new names and faces every year. ANNyway, I've just finished marking the Exam for my ResMet2 class, which finishes at Xmas. Everyone passed (+40%) Yay! and the range was 46-88% [alphanonymised results R]

Early in the year, I was in a 1to1 with a student and asked him to guesstimate the size of something (area of Ireland, population of Poland, number of cornflake packets in a shipping container, I forget). I could see the shutters come down as he said:
"I'm sorry I haven't a clue"
"Yes you have William" I cried, "is it 10?"
"Nope"
"Is it 1,000,000?"
"Nope"
"There! You do have a clue: it's somewhere between ten and a million"
I think I might have been getting a little shouty towards the end, because my triumphant final shout raised a muffled titter in William's corner of the room. Relief, probably, that they were not being subject to a Socratic grilling. The same initial response came out a fortnight later, but William attended every class and knuckled down to learning what was required. He got 86% in the Final Exam.

Across the room on another week, I was expanding on the attributes and prevalence of the Normal, Gaussian, Bell-curve, Distribution to try to make the business of calculating the area under the curve more relevant . . . and  therefore more accessible. After listening to as much of this as he could bear, with scrupulous politeness, the student, let's call him Rob because that's his name, put up his hand - "Bob, just tell me what we have to do here". With much chagrin, I apologised for being off with the fairies again and told him the steps for completing the task and pointed out the relevant paragraph (with added screen-shots) in the manual. For the rest of term, even when Rob was absent, I'd pause in my explanatory gallop if I saw the over-load shutters trembling "I'm sorry Rob,  I'll stop now. You don't need to know all that, you just need to know how to do this task - both the mechanics and hopefully a suitable interpretation of the P-value that the mechanics generate." And, as everyone passed, to a certain extent, it was so.