Wednesday 31 July 2013

Primo Levi

Primo Levi would have been celebrating his 94th birthday today if he hadn't died in 1987.  The coroner's assessment was that he had committed suicide which was strangely counter-intuitive for one whose will to live had brought him through a year in Auschwitz.  His pal and fellow scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini dismissed the verdict with a call to reason "If Levi wanted to kill himself he, a chemical engineer by profession, would have known better ways than jumping into a narrow stairwell with the risk of remaining paralyzed."

I've mentioned Primo Levi before briefly along with his most scientific book The Periodic Table.  If you haven't read it and you think you're a scientist then you should get it out of the library this very weekend.  Even if you're from the Arts Block, I recommend it for the writing alone.  I'll be mining the Periodic Table extensively in the future (so skip the library and stay tuned to The Blob over the next 12 months) but I'll share one telling anecdote here.

Levi was working in a paint factory tasked with modifying the chemical protocols so that the quality of the product stayed the same even when the basic ingredients were sourced from different suppliers.  One day he looked at a card with a recipe and noted that it required him to add 23 drops of a particular reagent to the brew.  The instruction brought him up standing because 23 is precise (not 22 or 25) but a 'drop' is an imprecise amount.  Intrigued he went to the cupboard where previous protocols were stored.  When a protocol needed to be changed it was written out on a new index-card and the old one was relegated to this archive.  Riffling back through the deck of cards he saw that "2-3 drops" had morphed into "23 drops" in one of these transitions some months previously.

Knowing when to follow the protocol because we can't be always reinventing the wheel and when to question what everyone agrees on, is the difference between a scientist and a technician.  Salve Primo!

Drunken Sailors

There are plenty of old salts alive today who remember Black Tot Day 31 July 1970, when the rum ration was last served to Royal Naval ratings.  The rum ration was brought in after the capture of Jamaica in 1655 as a weigh-saving measure to replace a daily allowance of 8 pints of beer a day, which amounted to 1.6 tonnes per person per year at sea.  William Cobbett would have thought this level of alcohol consumption was normal, desirable even.  The amount of rum was steadily reduced until it was 1/8th pint or 70ml per sailor over the age of 20 per day.  The rum had to be consumed immediately upon issue (lest it be hoarded or traded) and was diluted 1:4 with water.  The ration was abolished for officers in 1881 and warrant officers in 1918.  The officers were, in any case, knocking back pink gins in the wardroom, so probably didn't miss their tot.  If you signed the ship's articles as Temperance you were given 3d a day in lieu.

A standard drink - half a pint of beer etc. -  contains 10g of alcohol = 12ml.  Rum, before dilution, is "proof" if gunpowder will still ignite if soaked in it.  That threshold is 57% ABV (alcohol by volume).  Accordingly, the ration contained close to 40ml of ethanol, equivalent to 3 standard drinks, and was well over the current limits for drunk driving (0.05% ABV in a blood sample for Ireland and most of the EU countries that don't impose a zero tolerance policy - UK is still up at 0.08%) which is even less than a standard drink.  It seems scarcely credible that the whole crew of a ship at sea was under the influence from "up-spirits" just before lunch until the effects wore off about tea-time.  No wonder they were Jolly Tars.

The arguments made in 1969 for the abolition of the ration was that, while it was all very well in the days when stokers shovelled coal into the furnaces all day, it was not safe or sensible when ratings were radar operators, gun-trackers and other skilled artisans.  The Kiwis kept the tradition going for a further 20 years until 1990.  The USN, on the other hand, had been dry since 1862 and I remember my father saying you had to like Coke (he didn't) if you went visiting American ships.

The Beloved and I made a designated-driver pact more than 20 years ago, at least partly because it was so undignified, and so uncertain, to be calculating if half a glass of home-brew would put you over the limit if we were breathalysed.  But it was a long time before we saw a similar change in attitude amongst our friends.  I guess part of the problem is that while it is demonstrable that alcohol increases the risk of accidents, mayhem and death, these events are comparatively rare and certainly rare in our direct experience.   The risk of you dying in a car accident in any one year is about 1:7000, so the risk of it happening during the 10km drive home from the party (average annual driving distance at 10,000km) is about 1:7million.  Even if we double that risk by driving after a couple of pints o' heavy it's still more likely that we'll win the Jackpot on the Lotto (not this Saturday, but if we played for a year). I'm ignoring, because everyone else does, the probability of finishing your collision quadriplegic, or with a punctured lung or whiplashed to buggery - never knew there were worse things than dyin'.

I've often thought that, rather than having a prim Gaye Byrne (Chairman of the Road Safety Authority) hectoring us about drunk driving, it would be more effective if it was reported on the news whether alcohol was involved in the latest road fatality. RTE News do, after all report every road fatality as if we're all tricoteuses. But that's not going to happen because of a squeamish sense of de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Sir Clive's Stamps

Hip-hip, it is Sir Clive Sinclair's 73rd birthday today. When I left for graduate school in Boston, I left The Beloved behind in Cambridge, England with The Boy then aged four-and-a-bit.  It wasn't my proudest or most honourable move but I was driven.  So while I was getting to grips with multivariate statistics and environmental physiology, TB and tb were getting to grips with real life.  After some milling around, TB got a job in a creaky little office right opposite King's College chapel.  She was hired as office help and gopher in a teeny start-up company operated by a serial inventor called Clive Sinclair. 

He was just about to launch the first personal computer costing less than £100 - £99.95 indeed or you could get all the components in a plastic bag and solder it up yourself for £79.95.  It was the ZX80, it had 1 kilobyte of memory on board and needed a TV screen to display anything, a cassette-recorder to store anything and was loaded with Sinclair BASIC as a programming language.  You could, if you were geek enough, also tiptoe directly on the firmware and program in machine code.  It was neat, it was a triumph of appropriate technology, it was catchy . . . and it caught on in a huge way.  Cheques and International Money Orders poured in from all over the world and one of TB's many jobs was to open the envelopes and bank armfuls of cheques. 

For some reason (Oxfam?), she tore all the stamps off the incoming envelopes and put them in a biscuit tin.  Meanwhile back in Boston I was taking a course called Mammalogy with the great bat-expert (would that be chiroptologist?) Tom Kunz.  So, from sitting at the feet of the master, I knew a bit about the taxonomy and characteristics of animals that suckle their young.  When I came back to Europe the following Summer, I went through the biscuit-tin, abstracted all the representations of mammals and stuck them onto sheets according to their evolutionary relationships.  When we tricked about with stamps as children, the standard album was arranged alphabetically by country, which is another way of looking at the world.
I think that picture is rather fine.  I have another copy of the Heimskatarefur stamp in my taxonomic collection.  You can see from the postmark that someone in Isafjordur, Iceland wanted a teeny amount of compute-power in July 1981 that would change their life forever.  Nobody sends letters anymore - on dit que the average person in Britain sends one and receives two personal letters each year - so it doesn't matter that all internal letters in Ireland are now post-marked "Port Laois" where the national sorting office is.  But really! Why bother specifying something wholly redundant?

So today I'll give Sir Clive a slightly off-centre tribute to say:
 "So long and thanks for all the stamps". 

Parkinson's Law

C Northcote Parkinson was born on this day in 1909.  He would like to have been remembered as a naval historian, having started his career as a historical researcher at a ridiculously young age.  His biography of the charismatic Admiral Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth was published when Parkinson was only 25.  He wrote a number of other nautical books: 8 naval histories, half a dozen novels and even a biography of a fictional naval character: The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower.

But he is more widely known for his Law "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion", which was born the same year as Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. The aphorism was expanded to a book of essays called Parkinson's Law: the pursuit of progress - a series of pre-Dilbert dissections of the follies of bureaucracies.  Anyone who has worked in an office, or like me, in an Institution, will hear the ring of truth as they read the book even though it was published nearly 60 years ago.

The two themes in Parkinson's life come together in this graph (which I've drawn from data in a table in his book) which shows that as the number of battleships fell from 60 to 20 between 1914 and 1928, the number of naval officers and ratings (Effectives) fell by only a third.  At the same time the number of people pushing models of ships about on tables in the Admiralty increased by nearly 80%.  The figures for dockyard 'maties' and dockyard indent-in-triplicaters followed a similar trend but not so extreme.

See you at the coal-face!

Monday 29 July 2013

Big Brother Brin

Dau.II is getting her life together.  She left home for Dublin a couple of months ago and at the end of the Summer is going to seek her fortune in Cork.  With commendable forward planning, she went down there a week ago to sort out her accommodation before all the cheap dodgy places to live fill up with students.  She found a suitable place with a spare room rather quickly; before she'd sorted out a bank account indeed, so she called me to ask if I could  do a bank transfer for the holding deposit sharpish and she'd pay me back.  After a bit of a harrrumph about being an adult now, I asked her to send me the account details of the payee.

An hour later an e-mail came with naively explicit detail:
Name: Paddy Rackrent
Account number : 87654321
Sort Code: 90-87-56
IBAN: 9087 5687 6543 21
The first thing I noticed was that the first two identifications were wholly redundant to the third.  The second was that the Marginal Ads ,which Gmail so helpfully attaches to each message you open, were all about mortgages, loans, currency exchange rates and money transfer.  It's clear that they read your mail just like in wartime Britain.  But I didn't worry too much about it because I'd seen Sergei Brin give a "courageous, inspiring, funny" TED talk a few years ago and absorbed their mission statement "Do No Evil".  As a researcher, I have always felt a sense of empathy with/for a company that was started to find things out efficiently.  The next 'thought' was that I wouldn't feel so happy to have my comms read by a company that started out as a vehicle to demean and objectify women.

Yesterday I mentioned this anecdote to a friend who is also in the process of launching a daughter and she came back with "But what do you actually know about Zuckerberg, that you're calling him a total ass?"  The answer was that I'd seen the first part of the film The Social Network before I'd drifted off to read a book elsewhere in the house.  But that didn't stop me developing and sharing a damning character assassination of the accidental billionaire.   tsk tsk red face but we all do it all the time - especially on the interweb where lots of people launch off into an angry diatribe about something they're too lazy to find out the truth (or even sufficient information) about.

Which brings me to a project of Scott DiMarco at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. He's the head of their library and, as you do if you care about these things, he organised an event for Banned Book Week.  Americans can be pretty smug about censorship because they have the First Amendment to their Constitution and they know that censorship happens at other times and in other places.  Like Ireland in the 1970s, hmmmm?  I remember bringing JP Donleavy's (banned: "obscene") The Ginger Man into the country when I started college.  DiMarco's event was thinly attended so a couple of the librarians hatched a plan to bring censorship more up-front and personal for the students and faculty and their community.  They did this by issuing a terse official announcement (on their FaceBook wall!) that One Woman’s Vengeance by local author and MU staffer Dennis Miller was to be banned forthwith because "It has sex, violence and adult language".

There was a gratifyingly immediate response to the announcement.  A reporter on the local rag contacted the author within 20 minutes - plainly he'd been tricking about with FB on company time, - tsk! A protesting FB page was set up within the day and soon enough intemperate e-mails were flooding in from all over the country.  But the thing that saddened DiMarco, as he cheerfully weathered this storm of invective, was that out of a community of 3000 souls only eight people called him up for more information and to see what could be done to reverse the ban.  Just like me about Zuckerberg, it was easier to get angry than to get down to doing something useful.

The Mansfield librarians exposed their plot after a couple of days and everyone went back to the status quo ante, feeling more resolute that censorship was a Bad Thing. You might think that's a positive outcome and it is. But y'know, the contrarian in me wonders if for many people this can just cement the complacency - "look at how we, from the land of the free, do better than those primitives from 1970s Ireland and how we serve our citizens better than the benighted proles behind the Iron Curtain were served through two generations of Cold War".  Having ticked the No Censorship Here box, the Hounding Snowden Affair stops being really about censorship because it's national security.  There now, both Google and the Feds will read this and I've done for my chances of ever getting a visa again to visit my friends in Boston.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Mary Robinson

I wrote awhile back about The Brother getting a gong from The Head of State of our neighbours.  About a year later, he was invited to talk about his life on BBC radio's Desert Island Discs.  The Boy's comment was that, while an honour from the UK government was just grand, getting on DID was clear evidence that his uncle had arrived.  And numerically that has got to be true, as there are only about 40 Desertees in a year and a LOT more medals are awarded.

Today our own President Mary Robinson was washed up on her island and interviewed by Kirsty Young.  You can/should/must listen to the podcast here.  She, perhaps more than any other person, brought Ireland almost into the 20th Century while there was still some time on the clock when she was elected as Uachtarán na hÉireann in 1990.  One of her first stands when she arrived in Áras an Uachtaráin, was to brush aside a bloodless Mandarin of Protocol who was insisting that, because Irish has precedence over English in all constitutional matters, she sign in as Máire Mhic Róibín.  She replied tartly that nobody knew her as anything but Mary Robinson and signing in as Kathleen Ni Houlihan would be a gross hypocrisy and demean the office to which she had been elected.  Collapse of stout party

She was nominated by the Labour Party but was really elected in a passionate campaign by a raggle taggle army of lefties, feminists, radicals, tree-huggers, protestants and The Irish Times.  Fine Gael the second biggest political party insanely nominated a (ooo frisson) Northerner - admittedly as their third choice.  Fianna Fail, who had nominated every successful candidate since the foundation of the state and was the natural party of government put forward Brian Lenihan - embedded, funny, smart and competent.  At the last moment it was revealed that Lenihan, the shoo-in for the Áras, had applied pressure on a previous president to do a favour for The Old Party, denied it and been caught in the lie ("on mature reflection" etc.).  At this point a ghastly old Fianna Fail hack thought it would help their position by calling into question Robinson's qualities as a wife and mother.  Such outrageous invective caused a lot of wives and mothers to choke back their uneasiness about Robinson's stated positions of contraception and homosexuality, and row in behind one of their own.  Collapse of stout political party! 

It was anyway a close run thing in the election but Ireland elected its first female president and one who wasn't going to be a doormat either.  There wasn't a great deal she could do because the office is the Head of State and constitutionally circumscribed but she did a huge amount for morale; she used common sense and pushed at the political certainties of the day so that we were required to look at them a little more critically. One telling nod to the mythic past was that, while she was in the Áras, a candle burnt in the kitchen window which was visible to the dispossessed outside the gates and diaspora outside the country.  A woman's touch much needed in the bluff blokey world of politics. She has gone on to a wider stage in her subsequent work in the UN and shown the same clarity of vision and pragmatism of approach and has achieved some good in the world.  She would have us believe that she is showing, by her own example and by astute tilting of the political and economic process, moral leadership.  I think I concur in her assessment.


A couple of months ago, I put up my 100th post on this blog.  I thought that was an achievement - I was never able to keep my Letts Schoolboy Diary going even to the end of January.  So I trawled through the back-catalogue and abstracted all the people who had merited a mention.  I thought that several pairs of people in that list wouldn't appear in the googleverse, and it was so . . . then.  Because Google scrapes the very bottom of the barrel, my abstruse connexions have now become googlechapwhacks (rather than googlewhacks):
Your search - "Lynn Margulis" "Varro Raetinus" - did not match any documents.
now has two hits: both from The Blob.
I now find that I've written more than 100,000 words here since January, so thought I'd put up another summary list.  It's getting rather long (N > 300), so I won't be doing this ever again.  There are more saints than astronauts, more Jims than Bills, the sex ratio is shamefully (41F:267M) skewed and for a republican there are rather too many monarchs.

Abraham Lincoln; Ada Lovelace; Adi Roche; Aeschylus; Al Bean ; Alan Shepard ; Alexander Bell; Alexander Friedmann; Alexis St.Martin; Allen Gardner; Amedeo Avogadro; Andre Lwoff; Andreas Ioannides; Andrew Harrington; Anne Boleyn; Anne-Marie Pétrequin; Aoife McLysaght; Aristotle; Arjumand Banu; Aurangzeb; Barbara McClintock; Barry Dalby; Beatrice Gardner; Benjamin Disraeli; Bert Vaux; Bibb Latané; Bill Bryson; Bill Clinton; Bill Liao; Bill Watterson; Brian Owens; Leopold I Belgians; Buzz Aldrin ; Calvin Klein; Carole Lartigue; Cathal Daly; Catherine Aragon; Richard Rich; Charles Babbage; Charles Burnham; Charles Darwin; Charles Dickens; Charles Duke ; Charles Weingartner; Charles-I Stuart; Charlton Heston; Chris Burnett; Chris Corlett; Chris Hayes; Christian Goldbach; Christophe Irmscher ; Christopher H. Calvey; Chuck Merryman; Clyde A. Hutchison III; Craig Venter; Cuchulainn; Cynthia Andrews-Pfannkoch; Dalai Lama; Dan White; Daniel Day-Lewis; Daniel G. Gibson; Dave Brubek; Dave Bruno; Dave Scott ; David Attenborough; David Fahey; David Haussler; David Hockney; David Lean; Debarghya Das; Dermott MacMorrough; DH Lawrence; Dionysius Exiguus; Dorian Pritchard; Edgar Mitchell ; Edmund Burke; Edsger Dijkstra; Edward MacNeil; Elizabeth Marshall Thomas; Elizabeth Windsor; Emil Zatopek; Enda Keane; Enver Hoxha; Ernest Walton; Ernst Röhm; Esmond Harmsworth; Eugene Cernan; Euripides; Evelyn Fox Keller; Evgeniya A. Denisova; Ewan Birney; Francis Coppola; Francois Jacob; Frank Ramsey; Garret Mullooly; Gene Wilder; Georg Wittig; George Beadle; George Dawson; George Gaylord Simpson; George III Hanover; George McClellan; Gerd Gigerenzer; Gordon Ramsey; Gregor Mendel; Gregor Strasser; Gretchen Rubin; Gustav Ritter von Kahr; Gwynedd A. Benders; Hamilton O. Smith; Harold Macmillan; Harold McGee; Harold Wilson; Harvey Milk; HDF Kitto; Heinrich Matthaei; Herbert Terrace; Iain M Banks; Iizuka Sh?kansai; Jack Hawkins; Jack Schmitt ; Jacob Bronowski; Jacob Lewis Bourjaily; Jacques Monod; James Gleick; James Irwin ; James Joyce; James Lovelock; James Murray; James Ussher; James VI/I Stuart; James Watson; James Whelton; Jan Jansky; Jane Goodall; JBS Haldane; JD Salinger; JD Salinger; Jean Anouilh; Jean Danjou; Jim Jones; Jim Kent; Jim Peters; Jocelyn Bell-Burnell; Johan Kjeldahl; Johann Charpentier; Johann Goethe; John Charles McQuaid; John Darley; John Glenn; John Henry; John Hinde; John I. Glass; John Keats; John Lonergan; John McCarthy; John Napier; John Seymour; John Tukey; John W. Drape; John Young ; Jonathan McCrea; Joseph Conrad; Joseph Stalin; Joshua Foer; Joshua Katz; Joshua Slocum; JS Haldane; Julie Christie; Julie Powell; JW Nijman; Karl Landsteiner; Karl Schimper; Karsten Hokamp; Ken Wolfe; Kevin Byrne; Kevin Mitchell; Kitty Genovese; Lambros Lambrou; Laurens van der Post; Lei Young; Leonard Mlodnick; Leslie Liebermann; Li Ma; Louis Agassiz; Lucy Ferris; Lynn Margulis; Malcolm Gladwell; Marcus Rhoades; Marius L. Jøhnda; Marjorie Shostak; Mark Boyle; Marshall Nirenberg; Martin Luther; Martin Ryle; Mary Mulvihill; Matt Groening; Matthew Broderick; Maximillian I of Mexico; MC Escher; Melvin Konner; Michael G. Montague; Michael Pollan; Michael Ramsey; Michael Young; Michel Thomas; Michelangelo Buonarotti; Mikkel A. Algire; Monzia M. Moodie; Nacyra Assad-Garcia; Nan Doyle; Neil Armstrong; Neil Gaiman; Neil MacGregor; Neil Postman; Nigel Slater; Nils Bohr; Nisa !Xun; Oscar Wilde; Paddy Lydon; Padraig Pearse; Patricia Arquette; Paul Crutzen; Paul McCartney; Percy Shelley; Pete Conrad ; Peter Donnelly; Peter Medawar; Philippe II Belgians; Phineas Gage; Pierre Pétrequin; Pope PiusX; Prashanth P. Parmar; Primo Levi; RAB Butler; Rachel Hewitt; Radha Krishnakumar; Raj Padam; Ralph Leighton; Rami Ismail; Ray-Yuan Chuang; Richard Chamberlain; Richard Doll; Richard Feynman; Richard Haldane; Rollins Emerson; Ronald Graham; Ruggero Boscovich; Saddam Hussein; St Agatha; St Aidan; St Barbara; St Cunigunde; St Cyr; St Edan; St Francis; St George; St James the Great; St Lucy; St Martin de Porres; St Martin de Tours; St Mary ; St Patrick; St Thomas Apostle; St Thomas More; Sally Clark; Sally Hemmings; Samuel Wilberforce; Sanjay Vashee; Shah Jahan; Sian Croose; Siddhartha Gautama ; Simon Perry; Sinead O’Brien; Skip Lovelady; Sophocles; Stanislav Jungwirth; Stanley Adrianus; Stephen Fry; Stephen Jay Gould; Steven Brams; Sukiyabashi Jiro; Suzanne Leenhoff; Sydney Brenner ; Terentius Afer; Thomas H. Segall-Shapiro; Thomas Hunt Morgan; Thomas Huxley; Thomas Jefferson; Thomas More; Tony Blair; Tony Hewish; Varro Raetinus; Victorine Meurent; Vladimir N. Noskov; Walter Bagehot; Widukind Lenz; Wilkinson, Mr; Willam Cobbett; William Beaumont; William Hurt; William Marshall; William McBride; William Rowan Hamilton; William Shakespeare; William Wordsworth; Zeve Sanderson; Zhi-Qing Qi

Saturday 27 July 2013


Yesterday we were worrying about Lake Baikal. Today, we're off the West coast of Scotland, on the sat-pic above NE is the (barely) island of Seil and SW is the island of Easdale. Here for context: The oblique fat straight line on Seil is the main street of the picturesque village of Ellenabeich. Seil is separated from the mainland by a narrow fissure about 4km long but only 20m wide, so is not what you usually associate with an Atlantic Island.  Easdale, Seil and a handful of other bits of dry(ish) land in the area are known as the Slate Islands.  For more than 400 years they have been known for a very high quality outcrop of Dalradian slate and since before the time of James I/VI, this resource has been exploited to 'roof the world'.  You can see the results in the sat-pic above as a number of water filled holes in the ground.

The one marked with a fetching pink cross is particularly interesting.  Before the local industry started it was known as Eilean-a-beithich, the Isle of Birches.  The lake/island is 100m across or just about 1 hectare in size.  As demand stepped up in the 19th century, the little quarry on the island followed the seams of slate down and down until the working face was 70m below sea level.  Naturally, the company wanted to abstract as much slate from the vertical faces as possible, so the island was effectively disembowelled piecemeal.  Not everything came out as whole slates and the waste was dumped over the the edge of the quarry into the sea until it entirely filled up the gut between EaB and Seil; and the village of Ellenabeich could be built on the old cliff top protected by this slate-shard beach.

During the night of 21-22 November 1882 following a severe SW gale and a high tide, the now paper-thin edge gave way and the whole quarry flooded.  Anyone who left his treasured splitting wedge at his work bench the night before had a red face when he went to work the next morning.  Of course, it was worse than losing your tools, because everyone (240 families depended on the quarry for work) was out of a job with immediate effect.  Although nobody lost their lives, it was at least as devastating to the community as Hurricane Sandy was on New York City last year, and from a very similar cause.

So that's the history, geology and geography.  Where's the science?  We can surely do some guesstimating?!  How many slates were drawn from EaB during its working life?

Friday 26 July 2013

Bigging up Baikal

We live in a rural community along way from a bus-stop in SE Ireland.  Our house is 300m from the County Road up a dirt track with a 1:10 slope. When we bought the property, we couldn't afford the whole farm and the top 10 hectares were bought by a local farmer.  He spent as much on the hire of diggers and dumper-trucks as he had actually buying the land.  The machinery was employed to make farming the land an economically viable proposition by grubbing up all the boundaries of a rattle of small, gorse covered, rocky fields and converting the whole 10 ha into 3 large green pastures for raising sheep.  The year after we moved in, the civil engineering works above us had finished; I'd put in a neighbourly day as part of a meitheal picking stones out of the incipient grassy field; a few tonnes of lime had been spread to sweeten the acid soil and a lot of pelleted fertiliser had been bought and spread to boost productivity.

A week later, there was the most tremendous Summer downpour, we had half-a-month's rain in a matter of hours and our lane was turned briefly into a raging torrent.  We have a picture somewhere of our two little girls standing in the lane with the flood not quite topping their gumboots. The lane finished up in a heap on the County Road.  My neighbour was rueful at the loss of all the bought stuff he'd put on the field and we resolved to sort out the drainage.  I told him that the capacity of reservoirs is measured in acre-feet and pointed out to him that 3cm of rain falling on a 3 ha field was 900 tons of water that, under the prevailing drainage arrangements, had nowhere to go but to rip the heart out of the lane that we shared.  It was a lesson for us all.

Lake Baikal is HUGE.  To us with euro-centric atlases, if it is shown at all, it looks like a small slash in the middle of Asia just north of Mongolia.  If it's a 19th century atlas, it will show as the reason for a jink in the Trans-Siberian Railway near Irkutsk.  But it contains so much water that if it leaked it would cover the whole 17m of Russia to the depth of one meter.  That's an enormous number of acre-feet.  It is the largest reservoir of unfrozen fresh water in the world, perhaps 20% of the accessible supply in the world.  Strangely enough, it has aboit a third surface area as Lake Superior, but that is a mere puddle compared to Baikal which is on average 700m deep.  Below the bottom of the water is 7000m of sediment, so Lake Baikal has been around for a long time.

So long indeed, that its unique ecological position has had time to generate nearly a 1000 "endemic" plant species growing in and around the Lake.  To put this is context, Ireland has a surface area nearly 4 times bigger than Lake Baikal but has only two endemic plant species: Fringed Rockcress Arabis brownii and Hart’s Saxifrage Saxifraga hartii, both of which are probably best considered sub-species of more widely distributed European species.  
There are also perhaps 1000 species of animal that are found nowhere else but the Lake, the most charismatic being the Lake Baikal Seal Pusa sibirica. How did it get there?  It's such a long way from the sea. But the health of the Lake depends much more on a far humbler creature, the copepod Epischura baikalensis which was only discovered/described 25 years ago but makes up at least 80% of the biomass in the water column making it the key element in the food-chain.

If our lane, indeed our whole farm got washed to oblivion by an even bigger flood, it wouldn't matter a damn to anyone but ourselves.  If Ireland was, like Atlantis or Lyonesse,  to sink beneath the waves tomorrow if would be bad for us (especially if we didn't have a boat at the bottom of the garden) but the planet would shrug and get on without a pause.  If Lake Baikal gets messed over it will be a serious loss for us all and for the planet. So we'd better start paying attention to what's happening there - both naturally and by human intervention. I've urged the Irish rather facetiously to know more about Ukraine and Belarus, but this call about Baikal is much more important. The Aral Sea, about 2000km further West, used to have a surface area of 68,000 - between 2 and 3 times broader than Lake Baikal, it has since shrunk to 17,000 of saline and polluted sludge.  That happened in the blink of a geological eye through 50 years of cunning economic and social-engineering plans by the Soviet government.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Rosalind Franklin Day

Rosalind Franklin was born on St James's Day (today) in 1920.  Although I doubt if she paid any attention to her tenuous connexion with the Son of Zebedee.  She was born into a prosperous and well-connected family of London Jews and grew up an agnostic.  I daresay any sense of attachment to Christian saints would have fallen on St Paul because she went to St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith.  In the context of Jocelyn Bell Burnell's birthday earlier in the month, I reviewed some of the hoo-har about women who should have got a Nobel Prize but didn't.

As is well known, Franklin, didn't get a share of the Nobel Prize that was divvied three ways between Crick and Watson from Cambridge and Maurice Wilkins, who thought he was her boss at King's College London.  She was under the impression that she was an independent researcher and the pair of them were too British to actually have a conversation to straighten things out.  Nevertheless she produced beautiful, crisp and reliable X-ray defraction pictures of DNA which showed Jim Watson that the structure of the molecule-of-life was helical and allowed him to abstract some key dimensional measurements.  It took a while - 9 years - before the revelations about the structure of DNA made The Boys a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1962.

Franklin had meanwhile left King's College where her XX chromosomes made her too dangerous to eat lunch with in the Senior Common Room, and started other projects in neighbouring Birkbeck where she was recruited by JD Bernal.  Bernal, far from despising women, was one who loved them all too well and at the same time; although there is no suggestion he made a pass at Franklin.

Franklin got sick with cancer at the beginning of 1956, had two tumours removed by surgery at the end of the year, got sick again in 1957, was in and out of hospital and finally died in April 1958.  There is circumstantial evidence that, like Pierre Curie, long association with mutagenic X-ray radiation may have triggered her cancer.  What I most admire about her was that she continued doing first rate science all through her long time a-dying. Mentoring her students and colleagues by example to fulfill their best potential and strive for excellence.  Chutzpah has far too many negative connotations, so let's just say she had immense courage and remove our hats

The Blob's women in science: Florence Nightingale - Barbara McClintock - Maude Delap - Cliona O'Farrelly - Lynn Margulis - Rosalind Franklin - Jocelyn Bell Burnell


I wrote earlier about decluttering my life into a rucksack in 2004 and perambulating through Spain. The implication was that I had engaged in a trek like Eric Newby's insouciantly stiff-upper-lipped "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush".  
"I found that the blood filling my boots from the many blisters and leaking from the lace-holes was rather a good thing because it kept the flies from my face
It wasn't all like that, although there were blisters. Through a combination of accident and constraint, we (The Boy and I walked the 120km from Valenca/Tui on the Rio Minho together) arrived in Santiago de Compostella on this very day 9 years ago.  I know and remember because it was/is the Feast of St James the Great, Dia de Santiago. Although I was emphatically not full of Chaucerian
 "Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes"
it would be disingenuous to maintain that we knew nothing of such matters when we set out from England immediately after my sister's wedding.  There was the most almighty party in the square next to the Cathedral on 25/Jul/04 not least because 2004 was a Jubilee Year when The Day falls on a Sunday.  Those things clearly make a difference to people because
you can can see that those years find especially favour for travelling to Santiago. (The Compostella is the certificate you get from The Church for walking at least 100km to arrive in Santiago.)  Otherwise it looks like a classic exponential curve with a doubling time of about 6 years.  At this rate, by 2063, the entire 80m population of Germany (the second most common country of origin after Spain) will be turning up in Galicia looking for god, a good time or themselves.  In most examples of (quasi-)religious practice in the West - Mass, Singing Workshops, Meditation Circles, Yoga - women outnumber men by a considerable margin but on the Camino  the sex-ratio is consistently 55M:45F.

The next day, 26/Jul/04, we set off for Fisterra/Finisterre/the End of the World and had the immensely satisfying experience of watching the sun setting into the Western sea while downing a cold beer and imagining what watching the sunset must have been like for pilgrims in 1300 CE when there was no New York, no Barbados and no Samba.  Heck, the Azores weren't there either, not being officially discovered by Cabral until 1431.

A couple of days after that The Boy continued up the coast looking for places to surf and I resolutely turned East for France.  If I was expecting a quiet and contemplative walk such as I had experienced walking alone up the coast of Portugal 15 years earlier, I was quickly disabused.  I was travelling back along the Camino Frances, the pilgrim motorway and I was met by, and had to weave and jink my way through, a tide of humanity.
70% of the pilgrims who arrive at Santiago have come along the Camino Frances, and as I reached the Pyrennes in the beginning of September, I met and saluted pretty much everyone who arrived in Santiago in August (N=46000) and September (N=23000).  That's (23000+46000)*70% = 50,000 times  bom dia, buen camino, bonjour, G'day, Gruß, Que tal?, dia duit.   The last greeting reminds me that St. James's Gate, Dublin, where Guinness and StJs Hospital are, is where Irish pilgrims gathered to set off together before Ryanair made it all too easy to goon on pilgrimages.

Nobody met as many different people that summer as I did unless they too were walking contrario, and I met two of them as well.  That's a lot of data and when I finally arrived in France I wrote the whole thing down as "An analysis of the process of pilgrimage".  Nahh, I wasn't such a pretentious git as to call my essay that, but I did write it all down.

I've written before about the Open University (OU), the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and the Jack and Jill Foundation (J&JF); extolling them for nurturing heroism.  We need heroes.  The Camino de Santiago is many things to many people.  The pilgrims can't all be binned as "sincere catholics" or "woo-wah tree-huggers", and atheists are welcome.  But one thing the Camino engenders is kindness.   In a month, I had 50,000 opportunities to share (and it cut both ways) blackberries and water; a smile and a song; a solicitous word; a helping hand on a steep path; a safety pin; a shoulder to weep on; a bowl of pasta and a glass of tinto.  We need heroes, sure, but we can't have enough of kindness.

Wednesday 24 July 2013


A while ago I was reflecting on the toxic effects of tea and tobacco.  Eight years ago today, there was an obituary in the Grauniad for Sir Richard Doll, who probably did more than anyone else to expose the damage that smoking did to the lungs and other soft parts of the anatomy exposed to the complex volatiles of burning vegetation. Doll lived to the age of 92, not least because he paid attention to his own epidemiological results and gave up the fags in 1950. The chaps who record cause of death in London had noticed a recent spike in deaths from lung cancer and Doll set off to find the cause - expecting it to be known carcinogens like soot or tarmac.  The data (and Doll's statistical analysis) showed that these were innocent but that cigarette smoking was strongly associated with lung cancer.

He later led a huge study investigating the longevity and causes of death among 40,000 (!) doctors.  This was large enough to quantify the effect, summarised as the number of years you clip off your life for the pleasure of a few gaspers.  Give up early (before 30) and you'll live as long as anyone else, smoke till you're 60 and your life-expectancy will on average be 7 years less.  He also brought his statistical guns to bear on nickel, asbestos and radiation and showed that these also are carcinogenic. He was also keenly aware of the dilemma faced by governments in relation to tobacco - taxes on tobacco are huge revenue earners and cigarettes kill people early so you don't have to pay out so much for pensions.  So much, so heroic. He was doctoring on the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940 too.

I wrote in January about William McBride another mathematically competent statistical epidemiologist.  He revealed the connexion between the drug thalidomide and birth defects from a sample that was much smaller than Doll's doctor-death study.  So props to him.  Later, however, McBride was so sure that another drug Debendox was similarly dangerous that he doctored his data to prove his idea.

So I note that the Cancer Prevention Coalition has long essay dissing Doll for being a pawn of the Multinationals and obsessed about smoking and cancer to the exclusion of all other possible causes.  Read that and make your own mind up - it will require more than a couple of tweets worth of reading and research.  CPC's Board of Directors. A list of the publications. Their parting shot at Doll:
"Faced with growing evidence of the scientific untenability of his virtual dismissal of causes of cancer other than smoking and lifestyle, coupled with damaging revelations of conflicts of interest, Doll has suddenly retracted his long-standing dismissal of environmental causes of cancer."
I interpret this as - confronted with new data, Doll has changed his mind.  Not a lot of people are capable of changing their mind about things that matter under any circumstances.  Being able to do so is a key attribute of intellectual honesty and scientific ability.


A couple of days ago, I was on about Troy and Avoirdupois and Metric units in the context of gold prices.  It's hard to drag people into the uniform and mathematically simple world of the Metric system.  When we lived in the Netherlands it was normal to hear people in the market asking for een pond van kaas when they wanted 500g.  It was six or eight generations since NL had officially adopted the Système International (SI) created by French revolutionaries nearly 200 years before.  It's nearly twenty years since they changed all the roadsigns in Ireland to km, and more than that since they started selling petrol in litres, but you still hear car-buffs talking of how many miles per gallon their wheels do for them.  All my students at The Institute are happy to give their weight in stones and their height in feet and inches.  They've never learned anything but SI in school, but 80% of them couldn't tell their weight in kilos without a calculator.  And, of course, the births of babies are reported in pounds and ounces.

Troy measures may be derived from the city of Troyes in France. A Troy ounce is 480 grains 31.1g, whereas an Avoirdupois ounce is 437.5 grains 28.3g.  The grain, nominally the weight of one wheat-seed, in both cases is the same at 15.43 to the gram. To (over)compensate, there are 16 AvdP oz in a pound (lb) - 7000 grains, but only 12 Troy ounces in that pound 5760 grains.  As I said in the last post, Troy measures are only used for gold, silver and gems.

Matter a damn, you say?  It can matter to the tune of $125million if you mix your measures and don't pay attention and don't communicate properly with your partners and traders.  The most famous case was NASA's cunning plan to measure the weather on Mars.  It seemed a bit premature to add a bunch of Martian data to the stream when we were/are so long from knowing how Earth weather works.  But they made their case to Congress and launched the Mars Climate Orbiter MCO in late 1998.  The spacecraft never achieved stable orbit round the red planet when it arrived there 10 months later but rather took a figgairy to plunge straight at the surface and burn up in the atmosphere.  Whooomph!

The physics and engineering required to drop a man to a precise spot on the moon is so complex you need rocket-scientists to make it happen. NASA missions are extra complex because they have to share out the contents of the pork barrel among the clients of their paymasters in the US Congress.  As I blogged about before, they also have to be relentlessly optimistic and play down the risks or they'd never get any support.  In the case of the MCO, one set of directional control software was programmed to deal with measures in the US-friendly pound-force while an interacting piece of code written by another company assumed (we're all scientists and engineers here) that the data would be in newtons - the SI units.  Even before the destination was reached, the MCO appeared to be behaving a bit lively:  weaving left and right like a drunk trying to walk a straight line for the cops.  Even with that information nobody back in Houston realised what the problem was.  If they had they might have been able to modify the code to read:
would probably have saved the day.  They didn't make that mistake again.  But several other missions went wrong before NASA finally (Jan 2004) landed a vehicle on the Martian surface that worked.  Indeed the Spirit Rover was so well engineered that it lasted 6 years longer than its expected 90 day shelf life.  It wasn't NASA's fault that Spirit drove into a patch of soft sand and couldn't get out again. Three weeks later, a sister vehicle Opportunity landed on the other side of Mars and she's still going; as is Curiosty which started work in August 2012.  For most of us, including pretty much everyone in RTE except their canny and redoubtable new science correspondent Will Goodbody, its as if these marvels of engineering chutzpah didn't exist.  But they show us what science can achieve - we're not just primates any more.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Gold in them thar mobiles

I'm continuing to mine the rich lode of information from my hoard of back-issues of Nature.  In the 14 Mar 2013 issue there is a mini-feature on Gold, including another article by the redoubtable Brian Owens.  He had one in the following issue as well that I mentioned yesterday.  Something is wrong with the system if they haven't taken this guy onto the permanent payroll by now.  The subtitle of his article is "High gold prices are making it worthwhile to look for gold in some unusual places".  In teaching Environmental Chemistry at The Institute earlier in the year, I turned up some interesting stuff about the economics of the element lithium which was really close to home and I'll catch you-all up with this later in the year.

I liked the piece by Owens because it had some data that I could get my molars round.  I remember when I was a nipper watching a film about the gold rush in Klondike (or was it Ballarat, or Sutter's Mill?).  Some whiskery and whiskey-whiffey Old Timer bursts into the Saloon crying "Thar's ounces to the ton".  It struck me then as a poor return and a helluva lot of dirt that had to be processed for a thimbleful of gold.  Gold is dense (19.3 g/ so a couple of  ounces would fill 3 ml.  But ounces to the ton is HUGE, because the average sort of yield from open cast gold mines like the horrendous Serra Pelada is 1g per tonne - 1 part per million. Owens points out that mobile phones in contrast contain as much as 350g/tonne and you don't have to go to some yellow-fever infested jungle to get it.  Other circuit-boards might have as much as 250 ppm.

My phone weighs 3.25oz which is close to 100g.  The price of gold was $56/g at its insane peak in October last year and has tanked to $42/g and some folks have lost their shirts.  Note: when converting gold from price per ounce to price per gram, be sure to use the troy ounce of 31g, not the avoirdupois ounce of 28g unless you don't care about a 10% difference.  Current price of gold is $1300/oz.  So if my phone was pure gold (rather than a tedious pain in the neck), I'd be taking a foreign holiday.  As it's only 350ppm gold, there's about $1.50 worth of gold in it.  But it scales up even though you have to get it out.  The recipe is:
  • shred a 40ft shipping-containerful of old phones
  • melt it down and boil it up at 1250oC
  • the valuable metals (mainly copper) sink to the bottom while a noxious slag floats
  • cool and grind metals to powder
  • add sulphuric acid to dissolve the copper
  • do some cleverer chemistry to separate the Au, Ag, Pt, Pd
  • form into ingots
  • process lead, cadmium and other byproducts from the slag
  • buy yacht
The maths:  my humble not-very-smart phone is about 50cc. A 40 ft container (2.4m x 2.4m x 12m) is 70cu.m,  enough to hold a million phones at $1.50 a go.   It is the owner of the processing plant by the Hwang-Ho who buys the yacht, of course, not the poor jokers who do all the work in a miasma of heavy metal fumes.  Nevertheless, the working conditions are much better getting gold from ground phones than getting it from the ground itself.  There cyanide (HCN, Prussic acid, smells of bitter almonds) and/or Mercury is used to separate the gold from the ore.  Both of these are considerable poisons (although nothing like Polonium or botulinum toxin) both to the workers and to the fish down-stream.  There is, and always has been, an insatiable desire for gold; would it were otherwise.

You can't do better than send your old phone to The Jack and Jill Foundation who will recycle it efficiently.  Like OU and RNLI, the  J&JF is great because it helps people find the heroic in themselves.

Monday 22 July 2013

The race is not to the swift

Round about Xmas 2011, I got an unsolicited mail from Nature - the premier European science journal.  If you publish in Nature, as Irish evolutionary geneticists Ken Wolfe, Aoife McLysaght and Karsten Hokamp did to deliver the Human Genome Sequence in 2001, you have arrived.  Even if you share your epic paper with 252 other authors (yes, I counted: must_have_data).  For a micro-second I imagined that they wanted me to write up my discovery of (well, strictly speaking my unconfirmed prediction of) a novel human gene on chromosome 19.  But they were actually making me a rather good offer: for £50 they would ship me a copy of Nature every week for a year.  It took a while to get the subscription delivered to the correct address (one of their keypunchers had riffle-shuffled my home and work address into a postal conundrum) but I got to look forward to its arrival every week.  And as I was working part-time through 2012, I got to read it, and then pass it on to a palomino who is/was a retired hydro-geologist.  Excellent value.

Then I got the job at The Institute in January and I didn't have time to read my pay-slip let alone a fascinating gallimaufry of science and commentary.  Nature tried to persuade me to continue my sub for €138 pa but I despise bait-and-switch marketing and won't accede to it on principle  . . . and I knew I'd not have time to read it.  Nevertheless the issues came in for another couple of months and I sat down today to open them up and read through the backlog from what was going down in science in the early Spring.

So I've just read a nice feature in the 21Mar13 issue by Brian Owens, a freelance writer from Canada, called Slow Science.  Owens extols the value of gathering data over a very long time.  So much of science, as so much of everything nowadays, is conceived, executed, analysed and written up (or tweeted) in an eye-blink. Funders want their reports back before the next general election at latest. So it takes bottle to carry on plotting data year after year, knowing it won't be analysable, let alone meaningful, for a generation. One of the cases cited by Owens has been running for 85 years in a cupboard at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. The researchers there have been monitoring the viscosity of pitch by watching for ing the drops to fall from a funnel full of the black near-solid goo.  Since 1928 they have accumulated just 8 data-points.  Well just last week, this Slow Science hotted up when a parallel experiment, set up in the TCD School of Physics in 1944, recorded on video the fall of a n o t h e r  S L O W d a t a  p o i n t.  It was big news in Trinity College and it too was written up in Nature.  Props for Irish science, cue Amhrán na bhFiann.

Sunday 21 July 2013


On this day in 1831, King Leopold I was installed as King of The Belgians, since when 21st July has been celebrated as their National Day.  I'll leave that in English because Belgians speak Vlaams (60%) and/or Français (40%) and German (0.7%) and if I write the Flemish form first I may offend the Francophones and v.v.  Presumably, today there is a holiday in all Belgium not just in the bit South of the Netherlands.  (Belgium shed its colonial empire in 1960, when the Belgian Congo became the Republic of the Congo, now called Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

I say all Belgium because part of the country is an exclave surrounded by the Netherlands municipality of Baarle-Nassau.  Actually there is a mess of 22 exclaves which form the Belgian municipality of Baarle-Hertog (aka Baarle-Duc although it is a long long way from Francophone Wallonia):
You can see from the map that there are 7 NL exclaves within the BE exclaves.  The smallest fragments of each country are about a quarter hectare in extent - say 50m x 50m if they were square, which of course they are not.  So you might well get confused about where you are.  When I visited in 1979, the intercalated towns had mandated such subtle way-finders as having house numbers on authorised plaques in the tricolor colours of the correct country.  The convention being that the front door of the house would dictate where the owners should pay their taxes.  For the handful of cases where the border bisected the door, the occupants could choose.  From Google images, it is clear that the authorities have since decided to deface their streetscape with huge white crosses in the roadways marking the border and large tiles marked NL or B at intervals. Bureaucrats must feel they have to make such things obvious because they can't spell nuance, even though it is the same word in English, French and Flemish.

There are advantages.  Belgians are more secular than their Calvinist Northern neighbours and so allowed shops to open on Sundays.  It would be invidious to prevent NL shops in Baarle-Nassau trading when their rivals along the street could do so; so they obtained a dispensation.  I also understand that there is a brisk trade in fireworks which are much more tightly regulated in NL than in Belgium.  Otherwise, with the Euro having replaced Francs and Guilders, and the EU homogenising all our lives, I guess there aren't many remaining differences.

Not to be outdone, there is a single Dutch exclave South of the border: just under 3 hectares of farmland called Vossenberg (Fox mountain).  I've marked it in a foxy brown below because I don't trust you to figure it out for yourself (and I'm applying for a job with the Gemeente Baarle-Nassau):
Stop Press.  The Belgian King Albert II has just abdicated in favour of his son King Philippe.  All together now, let's sing the  Brabançonne.

Eagle first - the rest nowhere

On this day 44 years ago, Neil Armstrong famously fluffed his lines when he bobbed down from the Eagle landing-module and became the first man on the Moon.  "The Eagle has landed" the day before on 20 July 1969. Men (there are no women) who have walked on the Moon are a rather exclusive club: only a dozen were made of The Right Stuff.  So it may be a teensy bit galling for the rest of them that nobody can remember their names.  Heck, Senator John Glenn has been a contender for POTUS and he was strictly round-the-Earth-bound.  Admittedly he was the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest to do so, when he took a ride on the Shuttle STS-95 at the age of 77.  He shot down 3 MIGs in the Korean War as well so is a poster-boy US hero.  In 1962, he testified that women were not suitable for any space program and people listened.

So here's your Moon-walking trivia training.  We'll get you winning prizes at pub quizzes even though you possibly weren't born when the last Apollo mission wrapped up humankind's expansionist dreams in 1972.
  1. Who was the last man on the Moon?
  2. Who was the last man off the Moon?
  3. Who blew up the colour TV camera by pointing it at the Sun? Ooops
  4. Who made the most precise landing (and retrieved parts from a previous unmanned probe)
  5. Who was the youngest Moon-walker?
  6. Who used a 6-iron?
  7. Who died first and youngest?
  8. Who believes in faith-healing and UFOs?
  9. Who was the first person to drive on the Moon?
  10. Who brought back the largest lump of Moon-rock?
  11. Who took communion and brought the chalice back ?
Then a bit of light guesstimation to discourage you from peeking at the answers without playing.
The Apollo Program had a number of scientific and sciencey "deliverables", but if the tax-payer dismisses these with a tetchy "but what have we got to show for it?", then NASA is probably going to have to point at the 382kg of Moon-rocks that were brought down from Up There.  The final bill for the Program submitted to Congress in 1973 came to $25.6 billion, maybe $175 billion in today's money.  Let's assign half the costs to the more nebulous deliverables and half to the show-me Moon-rocks, which are accordingly worth about $30,000/g.  That's a lot more than Gold ($40/g) but less than Californium-252 ($60,000/g); about the same as radioactive tritium.
In exchange, Apollo left about 80 tons of space junk on the Moon's surface, including 4 Lunar Rovers (500kg, max speed 18km/h, sun-roof).  The Russians, (and the Japanese, Chinese, Indians and Europeans - ESA) have also contributed to a total of 180 tons of crap, including three golf balls

Saturday 20 July 2013

Gregor Mendel 191 today

Gregor Mendel was the first person to properly crack the puzzle of inheritance and write it down in a formal scientific paper.  He was born 191 years ago today in Hynčice, Czecho.
He always thought he was born in Heinzendorf bei Odrau (A marks the spot on the map) which is what they called the village when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He came from a family of strong farmers, spoke German as his first language, and was smart enough to go to college at the University of Olomuoc where he read philosophy and physics.  Heinzendorf is in Silesia where most of the people speak a Slavic language "Silesian" which is either a dialect of Polish or a tongue in its own right depending on whether you are a linguistic lumper or a splitter.  But a substantial minority,  then and now, speak German although two world wars, forcible "repatriations" and various plebiscites have tidied up the boundaries a bit and made Central Europe a less interesting, because less heterogeneous, place.

You can see that Heinzendorf/Hynčice is only a couple of miles from the border, but the border of what?  The big city 80km NE of H/H, marked as Wroclaw is in Poland but for hundreds of years we in the West knew it as Breslau.  In 1900 it was the sixth largest city of the Deutsches Kaiserreich and only 1% of the population spoke Polish. In 1945, Joe Stalin annexed Eastern Poland while The Polish Government were given a smaller but richer chunk of Germany as compo, including Freie Stadt Danzig/Gdansk, Breslau/Wroclaw and Stettin/Szczecin.  I've no idea how a Pole, like the grandfather of a one-time office-mate of mine, expelled from L'viv/Lvov/Lwów/Lemberg in the East was assigned housing in Wroclaw in the West. Maybe something like my transpositional maps of of Belarus and Ukraine would have helped?

Mais revenons nous a nos Mendels.  Gregor Mendel took holy orders and joined the Augustinian Abbey of St Thomas in Brünn after college.  That's now Brno in the middle of the Czech Republic and his long time  association with the town generates some tourist revenue.  After a few years, his Abbot sent him to the University of Vienna for two years further study in science and he returned to teach physics in Brünn, do his experiments on the genetics of peas and bees and make scientific contributions in meteorology, astronomy and botany.  Mendel is now, like Jan Jansky, claimed as a Czech scientist, but the merest slip of the pen at Versailles (Jun 1919), Yalta (Feb 1945), or Potsdam (Jul 1945) could have 'given' the poor fellow to Poland or Germany instead.  Nonsense isn't it, this nationalism?

My stuff and clutter

I was out in the back-shed looking for more flour (it's where we keep the shot-gun and baked beans in anticipation of Armageddon), and noticed that we have 100 used egg-boxes (I counted, must _ have _ data), and I'm sure we have at least 100 empty jam-jars waiting for the raspberry harvest..  That's any aspirations I might have towards 100thingchallenge blown!  So I don't really have a stable platform from which to be barracking people who have tried to get closer to a simpler lifestyle even if their 100thing list reads like the contents of a Louis Vuitton over-night bag. 

There have, however, been two periods in my life when I lived with much less than 100 things.
 In 1989, I retired from working-in-science-for-money and took a 700km stroll along the Atlantic coast of Portugal.  15 years later, in 2004, I retired again, took up almost where I left off and walked from the Rio Minho to Santiago de Compostella, turned sharp right and headed for France.  That was about 800km.  Clearly the key idea here is retire early and retire often.
Inventory July August September 2004 
1 hat -- 1 pr boots -- 1 35lt rucksack --1 pr flipflops --1 300g towel --1 pr trousers --1 pr shorts --2 pr underpants --1 T shirt --3 pr socks --2 shirts --1 waterproof coat -- 1 sleeping bag --1 tin whistle --1 pencil -- 1 journal --1 spoon --1 knife --3 pens --1 glasses --1 shades --1 Spanish dictionary --1 Portuguese ditto --1 tin mug --1 sliver of soap --2 packs Compeed plasters --50ml alcohol --Sunblock --1 toothbrush --1 toothpaste --1 razor --1 alarm clock --1 hussif (needle&thread, 6 safety-pins, 5m of parachute-cord) -- 1 12g mini-torch -- passport -- driving licence -- wallet.

Compeed plasters are meant to prevent the development of blisters, but I never used mine after I was told that they were as likely to lift the whole area off as stick it down.  I lanced my blisters with a needle and swabbed 'em in alcohol, me hearties.  My 50ml bottle of alcohol leaked over my journal early on (dang-and-blast!) and I never re-filled it.  I threw away the razor and grew a beard.  I stopped using sun-block and rolled down my sleeves in the middle of the day.  I didn't have a cell-phone and I left my camera at home thinking it was better to live the experience rather than record it.

I've rarely felt more alive than at those times. On the second 2004 leg, I shed 12 of my then 85kg in six weeks.  Which was great because dicen que, for a sustained and sustainable trek, your rucksack should not weigh more than 10% of your body-weight.

When I was about half-way between Santiago and France, I met a young Dutchman; he was dressed in lycra and had only a small bum-bag containing a purse, a shower-proof poncho and a spare pair of knickers. Apart from that he was toting a kilo of muesli, a bottle of water and a cow's pelvis, which he'd picked up the a Pyrenean  meadow and brought along for the ride. Now that's travelling light!

Less stuff

There is a pretty broad consensus among palaeo-anthropologists that human beings have been around for about two million years and for 95% of the intervening time they were "hunter-gatherers".  The average life time for recognised species of mammal in the fossil record is about one million years, so we've perhaps already exceeded our sell-by date.  Two million years, 75,000 generations, is certainly time enough to have evolved genetic adaptations to the ecosystem and life-style that humans pursued for so long.  So current anthropologists are very interested in studying the few remaining societies that practice a hunter-gathering lifestyle, because that may give us clues about the details of what (if anything) we are genetically adapted for or psychologically predisposed towards.  Just maybe this will help us answer the great imponderable "what makes us happy".

The !Xun san (previously know as Kung Bushmen) of the Kalahari desert are perhaps the most intensively studied group of hunter-gatherers both academically and in pop.sci books including Nisa by Marjorie Shostak, The Harmless People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and The Lost World of the Kalahari, A Story Like the Wind, and A Far-Off Place by guru-to-royalty St Laurens van der Post.  I've written before about biologists changing the objects of their study by their very presence, as Heisenberg's observations of electrons altered their busy trajectories.  This is clearly to be watched for by anthropologists studying other human beings who are, in general, very quick on the uptake and willing to seize the main chance.

Nevertheless, it is well documented that !Xun families can (or used to be able to before their culture was corrupted and then destroyed by contact with 'civilisation'). survive indefinitely in a desperately unforgiving world on the very edge of the Kalahari with a very small set of artifacts.
  • a loin-cloth
  • another hank of leather fashioned as a baby-sling
  • another hank of leather sewn into a bag for mongongo nuts, witchety-grubs or roots
  • two or three emptied ostrich-shells for carrying water
  • a favorite digging stick
  • a bow and 5 or 6 arrows
  • a stone hand-axe for cutting
  • another stone hand-axe for pounding bones open for marrow or pulping roots
  • some tinder for making a cooking fire
  • a couple of really gorgeous feathers
  • a flute, a drum or a dried gourd shaker 
you may add a couple of things which I've forgotten and still be less than 20 objects (and that's for a family of four). Objects 2 and 3 in Neil MacGregor's History of the World in 100 Objects, are two different stone hand axes separated in age by about half a million years.  The first is a lump of rock with a convenient heft, the later one is more obviously an artifact fashioned by the human hand for use by that same hand.  From that miracle of recursion all human development has sprung. Those chapters in that book seem to imply that this is the only tool/artifact/object required for a man to be a man but a moment's reflection will show rather that a stone axe is the only tool that will survive for 2 million years to finish up in the collection of the British Museum while the other items on my bulleted list, no less essential, are all organic and have long long ago been recycled into witchety-grubs.

If this is the baseline, you can see how far from being a real challenge the 100thingchallenge really is.  You see arguments worthy of the Talmud about whether a pair of shoes is one object or two and whether the laces are part of or separate from; incredibly some lists exclude underwear (or treat 8 pr of Calvin Klein boxers as a single thing) to get their inventory under the mystical 100.  Life gets a little less difficult if you list your car and your iPhone as two of your owned objects.  Go on: Google up  "100 thing(s) list" and see what you make of it all.  It would be invidious of me to single out any particular list for derision.  But I suggest that a list of .le.100 objects that includes "my cerise Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt" hasn't quite stepped down from the consumerism plate to embrace a life nearer the grass in the outfield, let alone one entirely outside the effing stadium.

Friday 19 July 2013

Flapjacks - the recipe

I've written before about bright yellow food-like products which taste mmmm so good, because food-engineers are highly qualified and really good at their job. But in order to achieve their magic they need a complex cocktail of ingredients.  I've extolled the virtue (aretê) of making your own bread at least partly because it has minimal ingredients, but as Jesus said "man shall not live by bread alone" (Matt 4:4).  Indeed not, for occasionally he shall be allowed Flapjacks.  These are my party piece when food is required.  When music is called for, I can play Suo Gân not very well on the tin-whistle.  My recipe comes from my mother who had it from hers.  I cut the sugar ('tis white p'ison) by half.  There's been too much chat on the blob about 100 this and 100 that.  This will make 44 flapjacks bigger than a petit four but not a gurt greedy slab.

[Note for SI cooks (that's everyone except Americans and Brits over the age of 50) 1oz = 1 ounce = 28g.  Call it 25g for convenience]
Cast into a small saucepan and melt together:
  • 2 tbs Golden Syrup
  • 8oz Butter
Meanwhile measure:
  • 12oz Oat flakes
  • 6oz Sugar
  • 6oz Plain flour
  • Option for a shake of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice to taste.
Mix in a bowl and then add the hot butter/syrup mix.
Spread in a swissroll tin (shallow, about A4 in size) and bake in a moderate oven (Gas Mark 4; 180oC; 350oF) until golden brown - you'll never get it to bright yellow, sorry.
You can add a handful of raisins or chopped glacé cherries or chopped nuts or even chocolate chips or little cubes of marzipan to gild the lily.  Or sunflower seeds?

Now don't be bothering me (or my granny) for the recipe again; it's here.

Less of that stuff

A couple of days ago, I reviewed A History of the World in 100 Objects. English is wonderful because, having accumulated a monstrous vocabulary, it can express subtle differences with different words.  In that last post, I expressed annoyance at Nanny-Google for assuming that, by enquiring for "100 Objects", I would surely be most interested in 100 Objects from Ireland.  In the Land of Google "beware lest you get what you ask for", becomes "beware lest you get what We think you ask for".  And, because of the nuance of English "100 Objects" .ne. "100 possessions" .ne. "100 things" .ne. "100 thing". [1]

The last delivers you to a site 100thingchallenge set up by Dave Bruno an internet entrepreneur (whatever that is) in 2007.  Time Magazine wrote him up in 2008 making the arch comment "Apparently, Bruno is so averse to excess he can't refer to 100 things in the plural."  Myself, having listened to his superficial TEDx talk, I suspect it's merely because he is grammatically challenged.  Bruno had an "internet entrepreneur idea", set up his website, and a couple of years later wrote a book The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul.  You give it a go, I won't bother.  It sounds like stunt journalism in the style of:
  • Mark Boyle's Moneyless man, a year of freeconomic living
  • Julie Powell's Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously
  • Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
. . . let's think up a wizard wheeze that will top 100 million views on youtube and foster a book-deal with this pal of mine who works in publishing.  Then I'll be a minor celeb and get invited to a tropical island where we'll all eat maggots for a dare proposed by a pair of other minor celebs. Nirvana  . . . not!
Notwithstanding my gripe about formula-journalism. I've actually read the first two books on the bullet-list above and found them well-written, interesting and amusing.  Julie and Julia started as blog, so if either of my regular readers knows anyone in publishing, I've written 170 sample chapters since January.  As Gretchen Rubin's book is far higher up the pecking order of the Amazon best-seller list and mentions Aristotle, I'm hoping someone will lend me a copy.

I've written about simplicity before, so I'm clearly up for a project that will de-clutter my life down to 100 possessions, but I don't think I need the help of an internet entrepreneur. I note that Dave Bruno's website put up a final post a month ago, seven years after the first.  My skeptic eyebrows lifted a tad at several places in his valediction. "Never in all my life did I dream or could I have dreamed that a small personal simple living project would turn into a worldwide simple living movement." and "Through much thought, prayer, and consultation with family and friends, a clear next step has not developed. Increasingly I have been under the conviction it is time for me to move on. And so it is time to move on."  Good luck Dave!

[1] ".ne." is FORTRAN for "does not equal to", as opposed to ".eq." while ".gt." is greater than ".le." is less than or equal to. Why not learn some syntax for dead language?  Those Arts Block chaps do it all the time

Thursday 18 July 2013

Just Say Noe

In my rant yesterday about a certain History of the World, I noted in passing that tea came to be a key consumer-item in these islands about 200 years ago.  Its popularity was enhanced by a gross reduction in the Customs and Excise duty payable to King George in 1785 - too late to save most of the North American colonies.  Tea was also given a fillip by the temperance movement: mostly middle-class know-betters who didn't want to see the urban proletariat sozzled on gin and pushed tea as the "cup that cheers but does not inebriate".   Very worthy, but we need a contrarian view, or we'll drown in smugness.

There is a long history of polemics against tobacco, starting with King James VI/I about a generation after Nicotiana tabacum leaves were brought to England (and indeed Ireland) by Walter Raleigh.  The King's A Covnterblaste to Tobacco (1604) is worth reading in its entirety - it's only 3 pages (this is the feller who commissioned the KJV of the Bible and he wrote well himself) but most editors (trained to a tweention-span [1] long before Twitter) clip it down to the last sentence: "A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse."

But it took 400 years before it was banned.  2004 is now fadó, fadó, fadó a bhí ann and not many people remember that Ireland was then the first country to ban smoking in the workplace, including pubs; and props to the Fianna Fail govt of the day for protecting the lungs of bar-staff from the evils of passive smoking.  At the time, I was wholeheartedly in favour. In the course of a post respecting the right to eat a Twinkie, I also expressed a mild contrarian regret for too much legislation that protects us from ourselves: "But when they drove smokers out of pubs and you'd see them flirting and chatting with each other in the drizzle outside the doors of pubs, my indignation sagged and then took up cudgels a bit for the other side.  Jakers, I thought, if you're an adult you should be able to make an informed choice about how and when you're likely to die."

William Cobbett (1763-1835) is one of my favorite writers.  He lived in interesting times, wrote a lot, was capable of changing his mind and was able to see right on both sides of an argument.  For a self-sufficiency wannabe like me, his minority interest booklet A Cottage Economy is the Old Testament to John Seymour's Self-sufficiency as the New Testament (buy here cheaper than Amazon). In A Cottage Economy (1822) Cobbett sought to restore an ideal England with a prosperous and contented population of yeoman farmers.  He was particularly agin tea Camillia sinensis which he felt was supplanting jolly good ale and old as the beverage of choice in rural England.
"23. It is notorious that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves. It is, in fact, a weaker kind of laudanum, which enlivens for the moment and deadens afterwards. At any rate it communicates no strength to the body; it does not, in any degree, assist in affording what labour demands. It is, then, of no use.
29. But, I look upon the thing in a still more serious light. I view the tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age.

D'ye think he read A Covnterblaste to Tobacco?  In these democratic times the voice of a citizen is equal to the voice of a king, so I calculate that the Irish Government will over-ride the all powerful lobby of Barry, Bewley and Lyons and drive tea-drinking underground or at least out into the rain in the year 2222.  And the rest of the world will follow over the next decade.

[1] you first saw it here
"Your search - tweention-span - did not match any documents."