Monday 4 December 2023

Women are equal to everything.

Or, as I think she, and The Garter King of Arms, prefers it Omnia feminae aequissimae. That is the heraldic motto chosen by Brenda Hale, when she reached the top of the legal profession and was inducted as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary as Baroness Hale of Richmond [Yorks, near where she was born-and-raised]. On the Kermit theme: “It’s an inside joke between us. My husband was my frog prince. Now people give us frogs.”. She clearly has a sense of humour, as well as facility in Latin. The Blob has acknowledged her coded messaging before as part of The Arachnidati.

I've just read an emphatic denial that sporting a spider-brooch while putting a stop to Boris Johnson's proroguing gallop in September 2019 was entirely coincidental. That is from the Horse's Mouth, but the source is her 2021 autobiography . . . called Spider Woman: a life! I guess she comes from a class and background that you can put one over on whomever you're talking to in such a elliptical way that you can deny intending any sort of offense. She was at one time a barrister whose profession allows them to make outrageous suggestions about the integrity of opposing barristers and go off to lunch together as soon as the judge gets hungry.

Lady Hale is about ten years older than me and reached the Very Top of her profession by being appointed Chair of the UK Supreme Court in 2017. When she graduated 50 years earlier (literally top of the class) from Cambridge in 1966, The Law was almost exclusively the domain of comfortable white patriarchs and vacancies were filled by "a tap on the shoulder", it having been established that the appointee was the right sort of chap [right pedigree, right school, right club, right sports-and-pastimes, right wife]. This complacent, incestuous background led to groupthink and pretty shabby endemic treatment of poor people, black people, women, children, foreign-johnnies including the Irish.

As in so many parallel ♀AFAB♀ lives, Hale had to be twice as good to progress half as far as most of the young men who graduated below her in 1966. She had an interesting career, being an academic lecturer, writing definitive books on the law w.r.t. family, women and mental health, barrister, judge. She is convinced that the breadth of her experience secured her several promotions to, eventually, the Supreme Court. She had also managed to, if not exactly schmooze the patriarchy, assure the Effective Lawyers that she wouldn't frighten the horses with her feminism and care for the dispossessed.

Having someone with empathy and compassion, as well as lawlerly rigid attention to the text at the foundation of the Supreme Court ensured that this new independent institution started with a bright future. Slapping down the grifty pretensions of the actual Prime Minister, when the Court was still in diapers bodes well for the future.

  • of course the discourse at Court would be recorded and live-streamed
  • of course the location of the new Court building would give it parity of esteem with the House of Commons on the other side of Parliament Square
  • of course the public are welcome inside the building
  • of course gowns, wigs and maces have been left in the dustbin of history*
  • of course the offices are designed for efficiency and to be a pleasant place to work
  • of course there's a youtube channel
  • of course the judgements are delivered at three levels of detail
    • The official report / finding / verdict handed down in detail in lawyer-speak
    • The 2-page-max Press Release setting out the findings in a way that can be absorbed [lifted and pasted] by journalist. A bit like the Abstract of a scientific paper
    • A much shorter piece similar to the Lay Summary which science funders have recently required us to include in grant applications

I gotta say, though, that not all the legal cases included in Lady Hale's book are set out with absolute clarity for the audience of the book. I suspect some curse of knowledge here: Hale has lived and breathed these cases for so long and so intensely that it is impossible for her to imagine that we-the-reader weren't at her side along for the journey. It's like me learning about additive genetic variance in population genetic class as an undergraduate through agricultural examples like back-fat thickness in pigs. It was never explained whether thick or thin was the desirable quality!

I recommend this book. I think it is an inspiring tale of a smart girl who did well by hard work, collegiality, ambition, stubbornness and luck - and yes, like my mother, she made her own luck. But I don't expect y'all to, like, read all 250pp of it. So here are some links

* Business suits for normal biz. For some of the ceremonial - like swearing in of new Justices - gold trimmed robes are worn by all. In the old cheap labour days, the cost of these would be borne by each Justice as part of taxes of the high office. Nowadays, it is customary to pass down the robes on retirement, to minimize the conspicuous consumption of bling. My family scraped together the money to send my father to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth for Hood Term in 1931. As well as fees, their boy had to equip himself with various items uniform, a knife, a hussiff etc. On graduation, he was given a midshipman's dirk so he could board the enemy and stab the crew look the full shilling on parade. That small sword followed him around for the next 50 years. When it became clear that neither of his sons was going to follow him into the Service he went back to Dartmouth and gave his dirk to a [more-or-less random] young chap whose folks had neither 3,000 hectares of latifundia nor a seat on the board of Megacorp nor an enormous recent win on the Lotto.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Travel unravel

Wot a miscellany!

Friday 1 December 2023

Holly by golly

Friends at the other end of the valley, both trained in science, are now quite cosy in The Arts Block. 25 years ago they came into a few acres of unmanaged woodland and had to decide a) where to build their home b) how to gain access from the county road. Case b) was decided by the meandering exploratory path their dog Holly took. They call their gaff Hollywood. 25 years ago we came into a few acres of under-managed pasture and ragged hedgerow. In one corner of our property a little grove of holly Ilex aquifolium had survived the assaults of live-stock long enough to start up, grow thick-as-me-leg, die standing up and be replaced by a dense stand of younger growth. Call me superstitious but I'm really reluctant to cut holly down - although I don't mind making Christmas wreaths.

When we planted our [1 acre = 0.4 ha.] wode at Crowe's, it was strictly 'native' trees and we must have included a few holly whips although I don't remember making a song and dance about including that species in the inventory. Nevertheless, in several places on the periphery of the wood, we now have (slow growing) holly trees getting on for being twice as tall as me. - tho' only half the height of nearby oak Quercus robur, Scot's Pinus sylvestris, and larch Larix europaeus. I guess I am still surprised by joy at witnessing the propagation of holly in places where no holly grew before. 

"witnessing the propagation" because I keep discovering micro holly, presumably deposited in birb-poop, whenever we start clearing back the undergrowth. I've taken to driving in a bamboo next-door [as L], so that galumphing me or trampling oblivious visitors don't crush the life out of these childer of the woods so that they e v e n t u a l l y grow into gods of the forest.

Last Winter Dau.II cleared out the first part of the mass-path aka The Glen Lane which defines the Northern boundary of Chateau Blob. There among the tangle of ground ivy, bramble and fern were a handful of fighty holly whips straggling through the top hamper like a drowning creature gasping for air. They are, of course, gasping for light rather than air and none of them - all hirpled and twisted - were ornaments to their species. I dug them all up - a feat in itself given the stoney root-matted nature of the surrounding soil - and popped them into plastic pots filled up with nourishing compost. Rough and ready that was, but they all survived.

Now that frosty nights are upon us, plants in pots are a royal pita because, if under shelter they need watering, and if not they risk root-freezing. Accordingly, last week, I planted them all out along the top of the ditch where our orchard abuts the access road - a feat in itself given the stoney root-matted nature of the surrounding soil! Believe it or not there are 8 holly plants between laurel Prunus laurocerasus on the left and the ash on the right:

I am confident that they will grow up to complement the hollies in the hedge on the other side of the road:

That's a[nother] crap photo for The Blob but the s mark the largest of the holly trees which self-seeded before our tenure. There is at least one female tree - holly is dioecious - as indicated by the, here invisible, berries in the . Fortunately, these berries do be out of reach of casual holly-rustlers - t'buggers will have to 'borrow' the ladder from our yard to reach.

I'm quite chuffed about this. This Winter, I'll make a few active passes to locate self seeded small holly and pot them out if they are in a really adverse position w.r.t. light and soil. In 12 months time, I'll give them a rough prune and plant them where a) they have a better chance and b) some utility for us. The | treelets | edging the orchard will serve us as a sight-screen from the many walkers who pass through our property on the way to recreate themselves in the uplands North of us.

Wednesday 29 November 2023


When I was, say, 9 y.o., I was able to pee twice as high as my head [prev]. I was reflecting on this because it was the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy last Wednesday 22 Nov 2023. My contribution to the MeFi debate about Conspiracy was "On 22 Nov 1963, 4700mi ENE of Dallas, 9½ y.o. me had just gone to bed but was re-woken with the news that President Kennedy had been shot. I started to internalize 3 letter acronyms TLA the next day JFK LBJ CIA FBI . . . RFK MLK." The reason we got the hot press news within an hour of the event at a country boarding school on a different continent is because one of the chaps went for a leak after lights-out and must have encountered a news-appraised teacher in the hallway.

We had more plumbing adventures a fortnight ago. There was a puddle on the floor beside the downstairs jacks - because the ballcock was not completely shutting off the inlet valve. I called Roy the Plumber and described the issue / discharge / problem. He took a quick look and then said "You need a new t'ilet; this one is 25 years old; we / I could replace the ball-cock and valve; but that cistern is too small to take the modern version; if I replace the cistern there is bound to be a leak between it and the toilet . . . it only works to my guarantee If we replace the whole caboodle". So I agreed and put a bucket under the leak; resolving to empty it every other day. But in the interim between nting the leak and buying the preferred toilet set things got A Lot worse. The ball-cock dislocated itself at the shoulder, floated free and we had a macro-leak. The washing-machine was in mid-cycle, so I preferred not to cut off the water at the mains. I flushed to reduce the water-level and rushed to the tool-shed for a replacement pin to reconnect the arm with the valve. After a predictable amount of splashy-splashy, I punched out the last fragment of [plastic!] pin and whanged in my replacement.

. . . and it worked! Not only to stem the current gush but also to stop the previous drip-drip leak. Seems that the crappy plastic pin which had held the system together for +25 years had fractured so that the ball-cock pressed on the shut-off button at an oblique angle and therefore could . not . get . it . completely . SHUT. Things had to get worse to get better in this case. I can afford to buy a new toilet if I need to but I'd rather keep the existing one out of land-fill if possible.

Back to meeeee! I am not always 100% on top of the plumbing sphincters but I can, for example, reliably wake up at night and get to the bathroom. Yes there are two - internal IUS and external EUS - urethral sphincters [L]: one up one down of the prostate. [much more information on the anatomy than you need] The external lad is skeletal = voluntary muscle, while the internal one is standard smooth muscle under the unconscious autonomic nervous system. Occasionally, acting on internal signals, my conscious self get the "need to pee" message and head out through the drizzle for the compost heap. On arrival, the goddam internal sphincter, which has been holding on manfully, will announce "arrived at destination!" let go before the rest of the apparatus is out of the fly ready to fly. It's where Free Will meets free willy! Emergency clench by the external sphincter is often not quick enough: so tinkle leakage. 

I guess it's why they let lecturers retire in their 60s. It's all very well for Leopold Bloom "Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine" to have a whiff of pee about him. But no fair on 20-somethings having to get up close and personal with a leaky lecturer during a physics lab? In a 9 y.o. that detrusor muscle is a powerful thing hence the pee to a great height Olympics in school bathrooms . . . in an old chap, no so much.

Monday 27 November 2023

Stuff and Allen

Did I mention that we were all up in Dublin recently? I did! I surely did! As well as being requested and required to make enough K'roti to feed a family of refugees for a month, we were also asked to come by car in order to repatriate some surplus bulk goods from the melded households of Dau.I and Dau.II: an ironing board w/o a cover, another cheese-grater etc.

One thing that came back was a small box full of miscellaneous stationery / houseware. The pritt-stick turned out to be a desiccated fossil but the box of misc nails, hooks and screws will get used eventually about the home-place. The dozen [Ikea] Allen keys not so much? Except as Art [R]! Because, like every household in the Western world, I already have an extensive collection of Allen keys.

Remember that famous story about the new airline executive who saved the company his salary by removing one olive from each First Class in-flight salad. Some Ikea exec is going to have a similar epiphany on including an Allen key with each and every flat-pack. They do not, for example, include any spare screws for the klutzy customer who opens the packet and has one screw skitter across the floor and disappear down the heating register. The Allen argument will be that a) everyone will be able to find a suitable Allen key in the MiscStuff drawer in their kitchen b) the company is saving $40,000 adjusted for inflation since 1987.

Remember the 1990s, when every big-assed desktop home computer came with a package of floppy-disks CDs holding the operating system including a spell-checker for Bulgarian. And a chunky manual to explain how to get work out of your new toy after you switched it on. I learned and internalized a lot of keyboard shortcuts from carefully reading the Manual which came with early installs of MS-Word. CDs and manuals cost a single olive money to ship, so suppliers long ago started to lay-off the cost on the internet.  Allen keys are still breeding and propagating though! Hat Tip to William G Allen of Hartford CT who invented the hex-key of which we all have too many.

Sunday 26 November 2023

Nolink November


Friday 24 November 2023

Triumph of the Free Will

I'm not stupid, but I've definitely worked in places where I was not the smartest person in the room. In the early 90s, I was contributing to the birth of bioinformatics in Trinity College Dublin. Our lab acquired a final year project student who, on the side, used to devise crossword puzzles for the magazine his aunt edited and played contract bridge for Ireland. In contrast to me, in the same department 15 years earlier, he secured a First.  He went to America for his PhD and was peer-reviewed top-listed for one of the five first multi-million Big Biotech grants after the 2000AD foundation of Science Foundation Ireland SFI. That quango cravenly refused to cough up and start his proposal because he was too young. The country is lucky he's not now making waves at Stanford or Yale but is indeed back in TCD cutting edges at the interface of neuro and genetics.

Who dat? It's Kevin Mitchell, assoc prof of [neuro]genetics at TCD. We've met him before. In addition to teaching and research and raising a family, Kevin has also made time [like Luther he can do no other] to write books for Princeton UP. Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are (2018) and this year Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will (2023). I was at the launch of the most recent book [what's not to like when free canapés meet with free travel?] and shelled out a pony to bring a copy home. Pony? That's Buridan's Ass [L] unable to choose between two equally delectable choices.

Can't afford €25? Free Agents is in many Libraries. Can't make the time? Nigel Warburton hosts another debate about free will. 'Is Free Will An Illusion?', joined by psychologist Susan Blackmore and Kevin Mitchell -only 40 mins. Blackmore has acquired interesting baggage on the nature of reality by practicing Zen for 40 years as well as being a skeptic and free-thinker.

Free Agents reads easy, although the middle chapters have a lot of '$10 words' [like salient, instantiate, reify] not always with an appropriate gloss for those who missed out on a very expensive education. Each chapter is split into bite-sized chunks with a helpful contents label. Chapter 4 Life Gets Complicated, for example: The Energy Barrier - E pluribus unum - Big Hungry Beasts - La Familia - Coordinating Movement with Electricity - Neurons - Hail Hydra! - As the Worm Turns - Summary. As you see, a mix of informative with whimsical and assuming that everyone clocks the cultural references . . . and knows the rudiments of Latin. Thus p.75: "Like the Borg in Star Trek, these individuals get assimilated into a collective. It's not just that resistance is futile: it's pointless".  I've only a sketchy idea of what/who/where/when are the Borg [Χ]; resistance is futile is lifted from h2g2 [✓] but I doubt if pointless is referencing Richard Osman's gameshow [Χ]. Comms Fail w.r.t. to me = 2/3, so!

I hope it's a conscious, freely-chosen hat-tip to Robert Heinlein when Mitchell outlines the huge range of things a primate could do after breakfast. It could climb a tree, search for grubs, scratch itself, groom another monkey, look for a mate, go to sleep, bang some rocks together, jump up and down, poke itself in the eye, urinate, start a fight, wave its arms around, stick a pebbles up its nose, eat some dirt, screech . . . and not a lot different from a Man from the West as imagined by O'Grady and Pyke.

I have a lot of respeck for Kevin Mitchell. His book is an attempt to defuse the hot button topic of Free Will by dissing the  black and white  thinking and entrenchments which are normal in the field. Robert Sapolsky [bloboprev] is the latest big hitter to book-bat for No Free Will. Harris Hegel Hobbes and Hume have all had a go, and that's just the Hs! It takes confidence to go public in such august company.

Of course we all have baggage:

  • they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad
  • all of us have taken a tonk to the head at some stage
  • we were [not] bullied in school
  • we've had a couple of pints
  • or an argument at work.

Whatever life throws up [bloooargh!] we still get out of bed most mornings and make decisions. Some of those decisions are on autopilot: involving only a tad of conscious thought; but others are life changing for us or those around us. For Mitchell [and for me as I fire my fan-boy knickers on stage] choice, agency, decisions, Will are on a continuum of constraint: some lock-and-loaded by our autonomic nervous system; some almost a dice-throw; some the product of deep thought and rationalization. That this accords with our humble not-an-intellectual lived experience doesn't make it less true . . . whatever nifty neuro-psychological experiments may tell us.

It doesn't help that there has been A Lot of recent side-eye towards iconic experiments which purported to expose how the human mind thinks. Too many:

  • studies with fatuously small samples;
  • W.E.I.R.D. volunteer participants;
  • crappy stats;
  • shameful nod-through referees (this comes from Harvard: must be sound) of papers;
  • wishful thinking;
  • outright fudged data-sets

Mitchell and Sapolsky have their stalls compared on the pages of "Yes, We Have Free Will. No, We Absolutely Do Not". Here they biff it out toe-to-toe split-screen on Philosophical Trials.  I've bought Sapolsky's book - it seemed to demand parity of esteem with Mitchell's - which comes to the opposite conclusion about Free Will. I really don't think I have the energy to read it anytime soon. Although I got a lot out of his last book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Here's the thing, we all feel that we have free-will, we behave as if we do, our legal system and society itself are predicated on it. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and doesn't sink in water . . . then it's a duck we have free will. Clever Free Will is Bunk people are retreating from this common sense, common knowledge; redefining free-will, separating it from agency, and dickering about several incommensurate versions of determinism as they circle their waggons of certainty. Me, I'm 300 pages down on Free Will and right now frankly Scarlett about the whole debate. I'm outside that intellectual waggon corral, dancing with bison and freeeeeee.

For all you biological determinists out there, remember there is, even at this moment, a butterfly in Haiti stamping its foot saying "I refute it thus"!

Q? why oh why do we need to know that John "Inequalities"  Bell [no relation!] was born in Belfast and not be given parity of birth insight to John Nash, John von Neumann, Jean "Ass" Buridan or Hans Jonas?
A! because none of the other Johns wear the green jersey. By flag-wagging the sole Irish contributor to the book's bibliography, Ireland's collective deep thinking capacity is rather diminished than bigged up.

Lynn "Endosymbiosis" Sagan shd not be "née Margulis", she was née Alexander. Carl Sagan was her first husband, Thomas Margulis her second. Ask me how I know.