Wednesday 31 December 2014

Happy 2014


The wild beast Henri Matisse was born on the last day of 1869.  His folks were comfortably middle-class and having qualified for the Law he was scheduled to work comfortably in the local courthouse right up against the Belgian Border. One of the ironies of life is that if you want to see some of Matisse's best work you'll have to trek into the boondocks of Northern France to visit the the  Musée Départemental Henri Matisse in his birthplace Le Cateau-Cambrésis. But Matisse kicked over his traces and went to be an artist, much to the chagrin not to say annoyance of his father.  He started his artistic career being comfortably middle class copying the masters in the Louvre, painting more of less representational still lives [R Still Life with Coffee-pot 1898] and landscapes and hanging out with other artists. In his mid-twenties he fell in with an Australian radical called Russell, who showed him that there was more to art than painting what a camera could do better and showed him works by van Gogh and other impressionists.  For Matisse it was his Road to Damascus and he started painting as if his subject matter spoke to him in the language of the gods. 

He left the earthly and lashed out wild coloured portraits which disconcerted pretty much everybody and really riled up the the middle-class conservative critics who had appointed themselves the arbiters of good taste. When the Woman with  a Hat was hung in the same room as a traditional sculpture, Louis Vauxcelles called the juxtaposition "Donatello parmi les fauves!" And like many other movements before and since, Matisse and his friends wore with pride the insult and have come down to us Les Fauves.  The painting on the right [L right 1905] is was catalogued as Portrait of Mme Matisse but has been long since known as The Green Line because of the weirdest feature of the picture.  The Woman with a Hat [L left 1905] also has a green nose but it's not just that which worried people.  Another critic Camille Mauclair called it a "pot de peinture jeté à la face du public". Which was not only rude but unoriginal because way back in 1877, Critic John Ruskin had  accused James Whistler of 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face'.  The Woman with a Hat was nevertheless bought by wild lesbian expatriate patron of the arts Gertrude Stein which was good for Matisse's morale as well as his pocket.

What I really like about Matisse is that he worked through a long life trying to capture the essence of what he saw or imagined, discarding mere details along the way.  In 1941, at the age of 72, he underwent abdominal surgery and spent a lot of the rest of his life in the bed wielding an enormous pair of scissors to cut out the basic shapes of his collages from coloured paper, a technique he called gouaches découpés.  He was looked after by one of his models Lydia Delektorskaya and developed a strong friendship with a nurse called Monique Bourgeois which continued after she metamorphosed into a nun Soeur Jacques-Marie.  Despite his atheism, in gratitude he undertook to design a chapel in Vence (5 min movie) including brilliantly optimistic stained glass windows as a counter-point to minimalist monochrome cartoons for the Stations of the Cross.  When asked if he believed in God, Matisse replied "Yes, when I work".  If we could all be as committed to what it is we do, there would be less unhappiness in the world. 

But I'll finish with two late works from his collage period.  [L L'escargot (snail) 1953; R Nu Bleu (blue nude) 1952].  The Beloved had a 1970s hippie poster of the Nu Bleu when we first met, which I didn't pretend to understand back then but it was always there in the background.  I've written before (I market women; II men and women; III screaming) about artists struggling to drill down to what really matters.  I think I chose the easier path when I went for a scientist.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

What it takes to win

Just before Christmas, I met Ronnie Delany, Irish Olympian.  Luckily, I'm not very fleet-of-thought because my l'esprit d'escalier question was "Was Zatopek really as big hearted and kind as we have been led to believe?" which would have implied that Delany was less interesting (and kind) than the great Czech runner.  Anyway watching youtube videos from when I was a child acquired its own momentum.  Delany beat local favorite John Landy for Gold in the 1500m in Melbourne 1956, so it was natural to go back a couple of years to the Summer of 1954, when I was struggling past my twin sister to be born first.

On 6th May 1954 Roger Bannister, after a fairly crap season running mile and 1500m races, turned up at Iffley Road in Oxford after a half day's work at his London day-job (medical doctor), with his pals Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway.  They paced him round the track until he set off for the tape on his own, clocking 3min 59.4sec (huzzah!).  It was (just) the first sub-4-minute mile and, by definition a new world record which stood for . . . six and a half weeks.  On the 21st June John Landy (him again) ran a 3:58 mile in Finland.  On the 7th August 1954, these two champions were head-to-head at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver and Landy looked back at the wrong moment and was passed out by the Bannister.  This "Miracle Mile" event was commemorated in a life-size bronze sculpture.  Landy shrugged off his loss with a quip "While Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back, I am probably the only one ever turned into bronze for looking back." If you watch the video (crap production values with cropped heads and poor panning) to the end you can hear Bannister's plummy accent complementing his antipodean rival and vice-versa. What really sticks in the mind, however, is Bannister's persistent cough.  I can find no evidence that Bannister was a smoker but it is well known that Chris Chataway was - he only lived to the age of 83!

Landy achieved immortal sporting fame in 1956, and another sculpture [L] for being sporting.  At the Australian National Championships, which preceded the Melbourne Olympic Games, Ron Clarke and John Landy and a handful of other great runners lined up to race in the 1500m. Just over halfway through the race, Ron Clarke had his heel clipped by another runner and sprawled to the ground immediately in front of Landy, who had to jump over the body or fall himself.  His spikes gashed Clarke's arm and Landy stopped to see if his rival was alright. He stopped for half a second, apologised and then hared off after the pack. Amazingly, despite the deficit and lost time, he went on to win the race! Or as an eyewitness put it "Landy then did the most incredible, stupid, beautiful, foolish, gentlemanly act I have ever seen. He stopped, ran back to the fallen Ron Clarke and helped him to his feet, brushed cinders from knees and, checking his injured shoulder, said 'Sorry'." That should remind you of a parallel Blob story from the NYC women's marathon when Derarta Tulu hung back to help an injured Paula Radcliffe and then cruised off to win the race.  If you watch the movie of Landy's act of courtesy, you'll see that he takes a short-cut off the track immediately after leaving Clarke.  Surely that would result in a disqualification in any world where the letter of the rules over-rides their spirit. Landy didn't have the killer instinct, but we like him all the more for it.

Delany, Bannister, Landy and Clarke are all still alive and kicking; although Bannister, a consultant neurologist, has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.
Another piece in the sport-from-the-sofa series.

Monday 29 December 2014

Eyes work!

My father was known as Cat's Eyes because of the sharpness of his night-vision as he tooled across the English Channel in his MTB playing real-life shoot-'em-up with his German opposite numbers. Sailors, known for their gross/graphic slang, saw his florid complexion and called him two-poached-eggs-in-a-bucket-of-blood. I was delighted to inherit his eyes, which gave supremely good service until I was in my late 40s. Then I found that, in order to keep what I was reading in focus, I needed prosthetic arm-extenders. Which didn't help much because at that distance the letters were too small to distinguish. At the time The Beloved fixed me up with an appointment at Eyeworks, the best optician in Waterford - possibly the best optician in the Sunny South East. I could knock off all the letters on the chart on the opposite wall and thought I could read the card I was handed - which I could if I squinted and girned. But when the optician made me wear the optical head-set and popped in a couple of lenses - KAching! - everything crisped up into focus. I was amazed!  Those lenses and some adjustment later suggested a) my optical deterioration was symmetrical and b) I could do with +1.50 in both eyes.  Because we are Protestants the optician nevertheless recommended a prescription of +1.00/+1.00 "to make your eyes work for their living".  The Beloved and I went off and bought a pair of prescription reading spectacles; I didn't give-a-damn what they looked like, so TB chose something middle of the road, after I stipulated the bottom end of the price-range.

Nevertheless it was a chunk of money: £60 or something close. A while later, I was up in Dublin when I realised that my glasses were on the top of the piano at home 120km away. So I trekked across the River Liffey to the Pound-shop District and bought a pair of +1.00/+1.00 off-the-shelf reading glasses for £5.  That Summer I was in Kilkenny and bought a bin-end pair of glasses from another Pound-shop marked down to half-price at £2.50.  I used to lay all three pairs out on a table and invite people to deduce which were the "quality" glasses and which were El Cheapo. The sample of opinions was no better than random. I concluded that Eye Business is big business.  Being told that if I bought one pair for +£75, I could get another pair for "free" also made me suspect that there was a lot of fat in the pricing structure. Over the intervening 11 or 12 years, I must have gotten through 20+ pairs of spectacles, and I used to buy them in batches whenever they were on offer in Lidl or Aldi.

The Monday before Christmas, I was sitting in the chair in Eyeworks again, having had another appointment made for me.  Opticianology has acquired a lot of electronic this and that in the last decade, and I was told the my distance-vision prescription could have been made without recourse to my opinion: simply by measuring the distance from lens to retina.  We went through the 18thC lens swapping protocol anyway, because opticians find that the customer is then less likely to find fault with the new glasses after they have been worn for a while. The ritual of changing the lenses and asking if that is better, worse or the same is really rather exciting. There is a little lollipop lens that the optician flipped back and forth [better, worse or the same], which I image is a half-unit.  The first thing established was that I could no longer read the letters on the far side of the room: I could see two or three of each letter and with trouble I could take a punt at what they were by squinting.  The optician told me that I was actually at the threshold for safe driving, especially at night, so I now need +1.00/+1.00 distance glasses as well as my collection of reading glasses.  I've self-diagnosed my readers over the years, creeping up from +1.00 to +1.50 and most recently to +2.00, although I still use the lower power if I can't find, or have sat on, my Number Ones.  The optician recommended I try +2.50 next time or if I was going to get all Protestant about it, make t'buggers work with +2.00.  I was relieved to hear that, although the degeneration of my eyes has been uneven, the difference between left and right is not enough to merit having asymmetrical spectacles made up (@€50+ a pop!!).

One of the handy pieces of modern optical kit is a retinal scanner, which is hitched up to a camera for a permanent record of the back of the eyeball. It is partly diagnostic - to see if I have diabetes or macular degeneration - but also as a bench-mark, so that when I go back in two years time (make note in diary) we'll be able to see if it is better, worse or the same - it is very unlikely to be better, not least because it is remarkably unblemished and capable of looking over tall buildings.  Which is good because my 94 y.o. mother, who had very good sight in her early years has been keeping macular degeneration at bay with zinc supplements for the last 10 years.

Sunday 28 December 2014

Spreadsheet grunts

On Saturday last I drove down to Cork to pick up Dau.II and her Christmas clobber and deliver a 20kg Belfast sink (which is another story); all of which was hard to handle by public transport.  We also gave a lift home to another Co.Carlow girl and her Christmas clobber which included a cello in a hard case. The Toyota Yaris was brim full.

Dau.II is in the process of extending her skill-set from being a plongeur, burrito-piler and health&safety liaison officer at her cafe in Cork into more of a management role.  It will require her to learn the rudiments of ExCel, the Microsoft spreadsheet programme.  This is one of the many things that is more or less beyond my competence which I am nevertheless required to teach at The Institute. I make no bones about this ignorance, and believe that having me "in charge" is probably a better learning experience for the students than having an 'expert' rambling off with the fairies into the subtleties of the software, while assuming that everyone knows the basics.  ANNyway, I am in a position to give the daughter some pointers about how to best use ExCel to produce: accounts for the accountant; product lists for the suppliers; rosters for the workers and optimistic graphs for the financial backers. As we motored out of Cork towards Waterford, I was telling my two young passengers about what ExCel can do because I couldn't open a laptop to show them.  And I realised that my experience with spreadsheets goes back a long, long way to before spreadsheet programmes existed and it was all done on large sheets of paper spread out over a desk.

Back in 1980, I was making steady progress through graduate school but perennially short of cash.  My sister was working in London for Time-Life Books on their Good Cook series.  She blagged me a job in Time-Life European Head Office in Amsterdam as a Summer intern helping formulate the budget for the next financial year. And yes, in those days interns were paid, even by Megacorp. We would generate tables like this:
Jan Feb Mar . . . Nov Dec
Africa $10m $10m $12 . . . $12 $20
MidEast $25m $20m $20m . . . $20 $35m
N.Amer $100 $120m $140m . . . $180 $240m
Etc. $ $ $ . . . $ $
. . . then make photocopies and send faxes, so that the management could have an informed discussion.  They would come back with changes: "Reduce the spend in Africa over the Summer by 10%, but keep the row and column totals the same by allocating to surplus equally between the Middle East and South America."  The geographical spreadsheet would have to be reconciled with the product spreadsheet so eventually the Vice-President of Sales in Singapore would know how much she had available to promote the Great Generals series across AsiaPac. Large sums of money would be bandied about the boardroom and four of us quants would have to recalculate everything from the broad-brush scribbles, changes and counter-changes that the big knobs were thrashing out. It was quite good fun with stressful bursts of activity interspersed with cubicle-world idleness and chatter.  Our line-manager, a very nice woman called Bonnie answered to a fearsome buzz-cut Texan who had been to Business School - you could tell because he could operate a desk-calculator with three fingers. But to do this he had to take a deep breath . . . tense his jaw . . . position his hand just so . . . and . . . key-punch! We could beat him one-fingered if there were fewer than 5 numbers to sum.

Round about the same time, Dan Bricklin was a student in Harvard Business School taking "Three-Finger-Calculator 101" and watching one of his professors generating the numbers for a table that grew to fill the blackboard. When the Prof had to make a change, it required a flush of interrelated changes spreading out across the board. Bricklin's insight was to realise that this could be done far better by the computers like the Apple II which were coming into homes and offices across the Western World in the last years of the 1970s.  He created the first brilliantly intuitive and idiot-proof spreadsheet program called Visicalc, which was launched in June 1979. The reason why ExCel columns are labelled A B C, while the rows are 1 2 3 is because Bricklin thought it would be a good idea for Visicalc. First-comer Visicalc dominated the market, seeing off several knock-offs and alternatives and over the next 4 years sold 1 million copies. Then it was abruptly knocked off its perch byLotus 1-2-3, whose developers had learned from the mistakes made by Visicalc and its competitors. When Bricklin's company was consumed by Lotus in April 1985 he got a job there as a developer. In the 1980s the market was far from saturated and there was lots of market to share, so it was a field day for competent and creative programmers.

Lotus 1-2-3 was in its turn annihilated by ExCel: developed by Microsoft  and compatible with the standards - MS-Word and Powerpoint - that we still recognise 20+ years later as being the essential tools for academia and business. I'm not stupid but I still can't reliably persuade ExCel to draw a 2-dimensional scatterplot - so I'm inclined to label that software poorly designed and counter-intuitive.  Visicalc and the spreadsheet concept could have gone any direction in 1985 and it went to hell in a bucket.  But it still beats tricking about with a pencil and a desk-calculator.

Saturday 27 December 2014

Leaving your mark

Inscribing the Landscape, the Rock Art of South Leinster by Christiaan Corlett. Wordwell. 2014
Executive Summary: Buy, it's worth every penny.

Q. Why do we write?
A. Because we can do no other?
People who don't write tend not to understand what the drivers are:  "Another damned fat book, Mr. Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?" as either the Duke of Gloucester (or his brother King George III) quipped when presented with another volume of Gibbons' monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The whole +1.5million words of Gibbons' history is still in the public domain (with multiple backup copies against Armageddon), but the majority of Sophocles' plays have been crumbled in the dust of history. 

Bob the Builder pic: C.Corlett
The written word is therefore, notwithstanding warehouses full of servers storing every tweet and e-mail, and almost independent of quality, ephemeral.  But the landscape of the Sunny South East is littered with works of art which have been around, more or less unchanged, for 5000 years or more.  A short while after we discovered the parts of The Ringstone, the neolithic rock-art between two of our fields, we grassed ourselves up to the Department of the Environment and when we assembled the pieces [L] into something approaching its original canvas we called on Chris Corlett of the DoE to supervise our jig-saw puzzling.  We asked him to do this because he is The Expert on the decorated stones of Leinster and has been threatening to write it all up in a book.  At last, this Summer he was able to scratch a line in the creeping mass of new lithographic data and get the thing into print.  When ‘Inscribing the Landscape, the Rock Art of South Leinster’ was launched at the end of August in the local Big House, we were in America so I was less miffed about missing free canapes than I might have been if I'd been here.  Launched, you can now buy the book for less than €20 direct from the publisher, and I recommend that you do so because it's just great.  128 profusely illustrated pages (with maps!) documenting the location and relationships of all the decorated stones of the Sunny South East between Dublin and Kilkenny. The Beloved gave me a copy for Christmas (so I'm delirah!) and I sat down and read it through between the mince-pies and the cold chicken sandwiches.

Our Ringstone is in there, and I am now less inclined to knock our neolithic craftsman as the Knockroe Apprentice by comparison with the work of the Rathgeran Master, which "is probably the best in Ireland" and less that 4km away. Some of the entries in the book look quite sketchy with only a few cup-marks and no rings. Harrumph, I said, if those can make the cut and into the book, I'll go out and have another look at the earthbound boulder that is barely surfacing in the field next to our house. This huge buried boulder carries a single circular indentation, maybe 3cm across and 2cm deep in the middle of its grassy tonsure.  I've always assumed that the dent was made in the last 100 years with a club hammer and a cold-chisel as the start of a hole to hold a stick of dynamite; now I'm not so sure.  We definitely have a field-wall made up predominantly of shattered granite, so dynamiting was part of local field-clearing practice.  And the fact that the hole was unfinished merely adds it to a long catalogue of abandonned rock-splitting attempts that litter the hillsides hereabouts.

Corlett's book is full of interesting material, suppositions, ideas and analysis, and well-executed photographs. He reflects on the fact that several known and documented pieces of rock-art are now no longer in place, having been moved in recent times as more and more fields are cleared to qualify for subsidies from the EU. One archaeologist was active in the 1880s and a bunch of his identifications are no long to the found. Even Corlett himself noted a few cup marks on a rock in the region less than 20 years ago and found it had disappeared when he went back to photograph it a few years later. The reason why so much rock-art hugs the unproductive edges of the local hills might be because everything nearer the flat-lands has been shifted out of the way to make room for unobstructed pasture or fields for wheat and barley. The landscape, under this hypothesis, must have been positively embroidered with art-work in times past. This heedlessly destructive clearance has become much easier in the last 40 years since the arrival of JCB back-hoes and bulldozers.There are numerous cases too of conscious shifting and destruction of such pre-historical artifacts because their existence curtails the use to which the landowner can put to his land: there might be other artifact in the vicinity and their value is almost entirely in their archaeological context.

On the other hand, several of my neighbours say that they have found rock-art further up on the hillside while searching for fraochán [bilberries Vaccinium myrtillus R] when they were children . . . and haven't been able to re-locate the spot now that they realise it's of interest. We should host a massive meitheal to walk our hill lifting the heather to scrutinise the surface of each rock . . . and don't forget the GPS-phones!

Friday 26 December 2014

Flannan Isles

Eeee, I do love an archipelago. No better and more remote that the Seven Hunters 30km off the Coast of Lewis; and 100km NE of St.Kilda. The islands are also known as the Flannan Isles [R] and were uninhabited for more than 1000 years between the contraction of the Celtic Church in face of the the onslaught of Northmen out of Scandinavia and the opening of the lighthouse on the plateau of Eilean Mòr [L] at the NE corner of the group. The lighthouse was designed by David Alan Stevenson grandson of Robert Stevenson the engineer. Just to the South of Eilean Mòr is Eilean Taighe the island of the house - a slab-built structure that probably dates from monastic times.  St.Stephen's is the best day to write about Flannan Isles and its lighthouse keepers because that's the day in 1900 when:
Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer'd under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night!
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds--
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag--
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near'd, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.
by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
The light had been out since 15th December and the weather was so brutal that the relief vessel the SS Hesperus was unable to go investigate immediately and didn't arrive at the landing-place until the day after Christmas. The three keepers had disappeared!  It was the greatest mystery of the time, the land-based equivalent of the more well-known Marie-Celeste.  With so little data there has been plenty of scope for explanations that lurch off-planet, and a lot of people are happy to believe that the three men went off to father a clutch of little green lighthouse-keepers on the planet Zarrx.

Into the drizzle

This week we have knotted the circle with the sheep.  The second batch of ram-lambs came back from the butcher in neat chunks, so that's all that we're going to get out of the flock for this season.  At more or less the same time, we have borrowed a grown-up ram from Paddy the Shear and he has been doling out teaspoonfuls to start the cycle again. If he's any good, he should have spread his largesse round 15 adult ewes with delivery of the product five months hence. In February we'll ask the ultrasound man to come round with his contraption to give us an interim count.  On Saturday we asked Paddy to take his chap home and we'd just finished loading the big feller into a trailer when Mick, the talkiest walker of our hills. appeared at the gate, just too late to distract the work. Hillmen all, we fell to talking about poor Paddy Looney who died in February: characteristically while cleaning out a drain that probably needed cleaning although it could have been left alone just as well.

I made an observation that the traffic of walkers trudging up our lane seemed to be heaviest on marginal dull drizzly Saturdays when I would be more inclined to be working in the dry - possibly seeing to things in the poly-tunnel but probably sitting at the kitchen table bloggin' for Ireland. The map [L] is the current state of rainfall across Ireland at 0800hrs St Stephen's Day, so we may expect a regiment of hill-lopers in gore-tex gaiters up the lane today. Mick explained, from some paternal experience, that the drizzly days were more definitely free for walking the hills because on fine dry days there were likely to be calls to mow the lawn, wash the car, take the girl to ballet, help the chap make a kite from newspaper and sticks, do the shopping, take the dog to be wormed, clean out the garage, paint the gate, fix the dripping tap upstairs before sinking back exhausted for lunch. He didn't say any of that, he's far too nice to gripe and moan. But it had the ring of truth, and I feel I've learned something about how the world ticks.  Not everyone hears the call of the wild, but for those that do, their psychic and physical health requires a regular session with wet boots and windburn.  Listen up families, the old man will do all the chores in due course but you keep him off the hills at your, and his, peril.

The following day, being the solstice and not raining, we all put on hats and coats and headed up the lane in the late afternoon. The clouds were low over the hills and it looked overcast as far as the sea 40km to the East, but god's spotlight lit up some patches of field in the middle distance. In the fading light the wet ground in front was still glinting patchily and the broad bright sky above had a hint of pink; this pastel composition was sawn in half by the black edge of spruce forest running down into the valley.  You could see why some people would prefer to be out even if it meant missing the big match on the telly.

Thursday 25 December 2014

The Blob's Christmas story

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Wednesday 24 December 2014

Man & Buoy

It's been a good year for buoys. The Blob Buoy Collection (BBC) is growing with every low tide when I can get away and round the headland at Annestown or another of the flotsam-scooping coves of the Waterford coast. This time last year, I had been teetering about on top of a ladder decorating one of our ancient apple trees with recycled fruits de mer.  For the wonderful 2014 that it has been, I invited a celebratory buoy-man to look out for us and over us . . . and by extension, you.

Happy Chrimbo!

The Blob's Christmas Geoguesser

Nobody should have their head wrecked at Christmas - so stay off the vodka, Kiev!  But it's also nice to have a gentle brain challenge for the holiday.  The average consumption of food in Ireland on Der Tag is 6000kcal from the rashers and fried eggs at 0900hrs to the last rissole and pick-of-cold-turkey for sandwiches at 2330hrs. That's apparently enough energy to throw a pound of butter into orbit round the Earth - or indeed a pound of feathers. If you think harder, you'll burn off this extra energy before it goes to your hips.

We've been following the QI Advent calendar quiz for the last week or so, and we're stuck on a couple of the clues. Here's a message in the same style for you, Dear Reader, for the holiday that's in it.
If you haven't been to Geoguessr yet, you have been living under a stone and need to do some vicarious travel.  As for me, I have a box of chocolates to finish.

Still up for more puzzle-puzzle?  Try some literary clues for book tokens.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Blob's Heartwarming

Here's some songs for the season that's in it.
Chinese Halleluia Minchin
Home Morning Pints
there, and I hope that makes you happy.


I spent a whole year of my expensive education studying 19th Century British history and politics. One of the great themes of Victorian politics was the rise and education of the working class and their more and more vociferous calls for a wider franchise, parliamentary constituencies that were at least approximately equal in size and voting by secret ballot. The real radicals even (shock) wanted to let women vote.  There were fortunes to be made by making stuff (cotton shirts, railway engines, steel spoons, shoes) in enormous quantities.  Nowadays the real fortunes are made producing nonsense (X-Factor, soccer, Dumber and Dumberer).

Samuel Smiles was born in Haddington, Scotland on 23 December 1812 >!today!< into a family of Calvinist religious fundamentalists.  His father died when Samuel Jr was just 20, leaving his widowed mother to look after 8 or 9 minor children. She was able to keep them all clean and fed as well as supporting the whole circus by running a general store. Her faith, thrift and make-do made a life-long impression on Smiles and he came to believe that anyone could do likewise if they worked hard, saved money and spent any spare pennies on applied education.  Smiles qualified as a medical doctor but worked initially as editor of a newspaper in Leeds and later as an administrator for the railways. He met all the great 19th Century engineers who built the roads, railways, bridges and lighthouses that still provide the infrastructure of these islands.  He worked these encounters up into a multi-volume series of biographical sketches The Lives of the Engineers.  I read several of these when I was a teenager and they may have started my feeling of awe in presence of (even dead) engineers.

But Smiles is most famous for starting the genre of self-help books with a volume called Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859) which became known/notorious as the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism. It outsold Charles Darwin's Origin of Species which was published late in the same year and also (annus mirabilis!) On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. It's a book that brought out very strongly expressed opinions both positive and negative. Self-help cites a string of cases where chaps from humble beginnings had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to the top of their profession - indeed, in case the case of George Stephenson and other engineers and industrialists, inventing a new profession to succeed in. The problem with this focus on success is that it makes readers feel double crappy if they don't succeed themselves: for having their aspirations dashed and for it all being their fault [tsk! not enough application]. But it made sense to me when I read it the year after John Seymour's Self-Sufficiency was published in the 1970s. I didn't come from the straitened circumstances out of which Smiles and his exemplars struggled 100+ years before: I was launched from much further up the ladder and indeed the ladder itself was far higher from the bottom in 1970 than in 1870.  I wanted to make my own way and I knew from Self-help that this was a possible aspiration.

Regular socialists get really riled up by this aspirational liberalism, which doesn't address the real iniquities of Western capitalism or really acknowledge the fact that the fortunes of the barons of the industrial revolution were built on the backs of laborers working long hours for little money in brutal, noisy, dirty, unsafe conditions. But I suspect that part of this is because the ideas in the book jangled the socialist chain, if individual workers could improve themselves off the shop-floor, then solidarity with less thrifty, less competent or less lucky brother workers might evaporate. On the other hand, full-on socialism has a tendency to encourage people to sit in their nest with their gobs open singing the Internationale and waiting to be fed by The Gum'ment. In his 1875 book Thrift, Smiles recognised that poverty wasn't black and white: he loathed the complacency of inherited wealth and laissez-faire capitalism which denied all responsibility for disease, adulterated food, slums, foul water and dead children. But . . . it doesn't help if you drink half your wages and gamble the rest.

Samuel Smiles wrote a final book, "Conduct", in his declining years [he lived to the age of 91 after more-or-less recovering from a debilitating strike at the age of 60].  He submitted it twice to John Murray for publication but it was twice refused.  When the manuscript was found on Smiles' desk after he died in 1904, Murray advised that it be destroyed - and it was so.  That makes a rather grim antidote to the discovery and preservation of Ramanujan's last notebook on another post-mortem desk.  On the other hand, we might invite comparison to the far great tragedy of the loss of 116/123 of the plays of Sophocles.

One of Smiles' key ideas was that education was a virtue in itself even if it didn't lead vocationally to better prospects at work. Education furnished the inner resources to make life more interesting, more challenging and more supportive in adversity. He believed that you could get an education if you worked harder, lived thriftier and with less dissipation. I wish this belief on so many of my students, who seem to believe that putting in 2, 3, 4 years at The Institute will/should/must secure them a job, a car, foreign holidays and a smart-phone. Education should at least partly be about asking why and whether all these things are desirable. As Smiles had it: "I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at. That would be a great fallacy. Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments."

Monday 22 December 2014

Hardy's Taxi

Srinivasa Ramanujan was born 22 December 1887 to a pair ordinary people in India and the combination of their genes generated a flaming genius of mathematics. Providentially the same random selection from the available genetic variants conferred resistance to smallpox. Without that, he would have succumbed with hundreds of others to a smallpox epidemic that swept through the region just as the boy turned two in December 1889.  Three of his brothers were scythed out of the gene-pool by the diseases which routinely kill small children in the Third World.  It was clear before he had reached double digits in age that Ramanujan had an extraordinary intuitive feel for numbers and their relationships.  Note also that Ramanujan is his given name, his father being Srinivasa Iyengar; this name ordering is common in India and shared my sub-continental friend who is treated every day with casual racism in Ireland. It is due to him that we have Ramanujan Primes, Ramanujan's Conjecture, Ramanujan's Sum, the Ramanujan-Soldner Constant and at least a dozen other substantive bricks in the wall of mathematics. It is weirdly patronising that we use his given name in giving him credit: we don't after all refer to Isaac's Laws of Universal Gravitation or Albert's e = mc2 formula; but they were white.

A lot of time Ramanujan's head was swirling with numbers and from an early age he took to writing down the results of his deliberations in notebooks and on the rare scraps of paper that he was able to lay his hands on.  Paper was sufficiently precious that the boy only wrote down the results and not the derivations. When his genius started to be noticed and then noised abroad, the lack of explicit proofs led to his work being dismissed by some established mathematicians. These professors must have thought that the mathematical insights were not due to a humble self-taught clerk called Srinivasa Ramanujan but to wholly other chap with the same name. Having established his credentials locally, his sponsors tried to alert the wider mathematics world to the genius on the fringes of their world. Ramanujan summarised some of his niftiest results and sent them off to three mathematicians at Cambridge University.  H.E. Baker and E.W. Hobson couldn't be bothered to deal with unsolicited letters from the colonies and returned their copies of the treasure trove unopened, but G.H. Hardy, although initially skeptical, became intrigued and eventually arranged for Ramanujan to be brought to Cambridge to be mined of his insights.

The diagram at the head of this piece is copied from Ramanujan's 1st note-book and shows how he could visualize rather complex geometrical theorems in his head.  A lot of his conjectures, infinite series and functions involve π and the trigonomical functions cos, sin and it seems that, like the Greeks before him, Ramanujan preferred to think in pictures although the results were written in algebra:
how do you start thinking up those sorts of relationships??  For Ramanujan, numbers were his pals, and for each he knew their names and antecedents, and their position in a  hierarchical criss-cross of series and relationships.

This is nowhere better illustrated than the famous story of Hardy going to visit Ramanujan in SW London, when the latter was coughing up tubercular blood again, and so couldn't come in to work. In Hardy's words "I remember once going to see him when he was ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavorable omen. "No", he replied, "it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways."  And begob, it's true:
1729 = 13 + 123 = 93 + 103
The tuberculosis caught up with Ramanujan and he died in 1920 absurdly young at 32. His widow donated his note-books and papers to Madras University.  A couple of years later, like the Elgin Marbles getting looted from Athens for "safe-keeping" in the British Museum, most of the notebooks were sent to Hardy in Cambridge who passed them on to another colleague who stored them in one of many tottering heaps of papers in his office. The "lost notebook" was saved from incineration when these papers were sorted in 1976 and caused a sensation in the mathematical world of the time.  In contrast to the Elgin Marbles, the value of the note-books lies not in the artifacts themselves but in the information and that can be transcribed and shared. Nearly 100 years after his death, quants are still working through the work and finding that another of Ramanujan'as bald statements is indeed provably true.  Brilliant!

Sunday 21 December 2014

The Curse of Knowledge

I've been plugging away at The Blob for nearly two years now and it's clear I haven't explored all the crannies of my mind, let alone the nooks of the known Universe. I'm surprised, for example, that I haven't had cause to write about Steven Pinker before, because I've learned more from him in the last decade than from any other person. It may seem to you Dear Reader that a succession of random thoughts gets developed here and then fades away into the archives, never to be read or even thought about again.  I just corrected the previous sentence so that "fades" agrees with succession rather than the interloping "random thoughts" which would fade [no final s].  I'm tuned up to thus try to be grammatical and therefore intelligible because I'm reading Steven Pinker's new book A Sense of Style.  Which is billed as "The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century" but could equally be called "you may throw away your Strunk and White - the Engish language has moved on these last 100 years."  Strunk and White's Elements of Style is still in print and still useful but Pinker's book has thrown a lot of its baggage into a heap on some waste-ground and set fire to it.

A week ago I was looking back on my woeful attempts to understand English grammar as a child. One of Pinker's assertions is that unless you were in school before the 1960s or were privately educated after that decade, you won't have been taught formal grammar at all.  This won't stop you from speaking perfectly grammatical sentences (even 5 year old children can do this because their minds have been taken over by Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar Fairies), but it may hinder you in developing complex ideas on paper. Pinker's new style-manual has been a revelation. When I was learning grammar, I got the idea of subject - verb - object and, as at the same time I was learning German, I understood that not everyone made sense the way anglophones did: Germans typically order their sentences subject - object - verb-at-the-end. That was all well and interesting but I came away from 12 years in school thinking that "the predicate" was a fancy word for "the object" of a sentence.  Well now I know that the predicate is what's left when you've parsed out the subject.

I was also bamboozled at school about what was a conjunction and it turns out that so was everyone else but they just didn't realise it.  Pinker explains that "conjunctions" include two incommensurate classes of word: coordinators like and & or and subordinators like then & if.  The only thing these two categories have in common is that they link two parts of a sentence but the same could be said of English verbs!  Conjunctions are therefore no longer recognised by grammarians: that bin is history.  I wish they'd told us 50 years ago, I wouldn't have struggled so much.

The most powerful concept developed in aSoS is The Curse of Knowledge: the inability to unlearn what you know to better appreciate what it's like not knowing that stuff.  For writers, especially of undisciplined meanderings like most blogs, this needs to be constantly watched for. Much of what is clear in the writer's head doesn't go down on paper because it is 'obvious to all thinking people', but in most cases it's not. Indeed, a moment's thought will suggest that if it really was obvious to all thinking people we wouldn't bother to write or read it.  The effect of this is for the writer to launch into his subject with so much taken for granted that his meaning is cryptic and obscure.  I don't dare go back to read the stuff I was lashing out last year and I hereby resolve to be clearer, make fewer assumptions and spell out my acronyms in future.

Another thing which Pinker is quite clear about is the inconsistency of our use of apostrophes. We write Bob's nose to indicate that Bob has a facial appendage; but for the dog we refer to its nose (no apostrophe because it's is conventionally used to contract it is). This news appears in an earlier list of blobadvice which will help you tell apostrophe-nazis to piss off and do something useful.

Saturday 20 December 2014

Real men

It's Billy Bragg's birfday today! For those of us with XY chromsosomes who find it difficult to fill the space of a stereotypical male [slab o' tinnies, the big match, carburettors, with a touch of casual racism] , I offer Bragg's anthem to an alternative way of being a bloke: Handyman Blues.  If that sets you off on a meander through the further works of this great leftie protester, then so much the better.


I am a great promoter of diversity: variety is one of the spices of life while homogeneity is soooo boring. For my money, fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is the other spice which really gives life a lift.  A while ago I mentioned that I'd travelled from Paris to Lisboa by train in 1989 via Hendaye & Irún.  Why did I choose to single out this pair of border way-stations rather than the great cities of Poitiers, Bordeaux, Vallodolid, Salamanca through which I rattled on my 24 hr transcontinental journey?  The answer is in the word 'border'. There are a lot changes when you cross the River Bidasoa from Pyrénées-Atlantiques to Gipuzkoa. The majority of the people on both sides of the border are ethnically Basques, or Euskaldunak as they would call themselves. But the language of administration changes at the border, as does the width of the railway lines. In 1989, that still required the lifting of each carriage from its French (standard gauge 1435mm) bogies to slightly wider "ancho / trocha / botola ibérico" at 1668mm.  The latter is a compromise between 5 pés portugueses 1664mm ~= 6 pies españoles 1672mm. You could insist on a narrower tolerance if it wasn't for the fact that railways go round curves and bogies typically have 4 wheels on two axles.  It was decided early on that it was more efficient to transfer the whole carriage than tranship the passengers and their baskets of chickens, hat-boxes, umbrellas and small children. And this has to be true for freight which would not only take time to unpack and reload (this is 100 years before the shipping container was thought of) but would also suffer 'shrinkage' - the euphemism for breakage and pilfering by the stevedores.

Accordingly, the passengers were all asked to leave the train which was stopped carriage by carriage in a special shed for exchanging axels.  Things have moved on since then with the express-rail TGV in direct competition with medium-haul planes, you cannot have a leisurely piffling about in the Basquelands.  This video will make crystal clear the high-tech system for cambiador de talgo especially if (maybe only if) you understand Spanish.  I tell ya: hats off to engineers!

A destructive test of the allowable tolerance between gauges occurred on 18th December 1867 to a moving train just outside Angola, New York.  The rail system of North America had not yet entirely rowed in behind Stephenson's standard gauge of 4ft8.5in / 1435mm and in that part of the North-Eastern US, the railway companies would run 'compromise cars' which could travel on both standard and 'Ohio Gauge' 4ft10in / 1473mm track. The gap is significantly wider than between Portugal and Spain. That was okay but there was a little lateral 'play' in the wheels particularly when travelling on the wider gauge and at certain speeds this would build up resonance so that each lurch would be a tiny bit more.  This is a well-known problem in engineering; requiring soldiers to break-step when crossing bridges. The last carriage of the Angola train rattled right off the track and plunged down an icy embankment. The passengers were unceremoniously dumped onto a red-hot solid-fuel stove at the lower end of the car, the other stove unseated itself from the far end and showered its load of smoking coals down on the heap of humanity. The wooden carriage was soon a furnace.  It took five minutes for the screaming to stop and probably 50 people died. The Angola Horror gave great impetus to standardisation of rail-gauge across the United States.

Friday 19 December 2014

Running for gold

Sometimes Olympians live up to their name. According to Wikipedia, Ronald Michael Delany was born 6th  March 1935 into a wealthy family in Arklow, County Wicklow.  It depends, as so often, on what you understand by "wealthy" because in my days as a commuter to Dublin, I'd be on the bus going past his natal gaff a tuthree times every week; and it didn't look like the kind of mansion my grandfather was born into. It looks, if not an artisan's cottage, like a modest 3-up, 3-down terraced house [L with black oval famous-person plaque], sited about 150m N of the bridge over the River Avoca which bisects Arklow.  Arklow was a small (N=4,200 people) market town and fishing port when Delany was born there.  When the Celtic Tiger started roaring, it more than tripled its population with an influx of commuters.

Mais revenons a nos gazelles. Delany went to college in 1954 at Villanova University in Pennsylvania on an athletic scholarship where he was coached by Jumbo Elliot, a man who was associated with a quite embarrassing string of top athletes. In his middle distance element, particularly on indoor tracks, Delany was practically unassailable in collegiate athletic meets. Then he upped his game by securing a place in the final of the 1500m at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. A scorching pace was set early on but John Landy, the Ozzie home favorite hung well back and Delany hung on to Landy.  In the last 300m Delany just ate up the 7 or 8 fellows in front of him: loping wide on the last turn, he became a running god: effortless, calm, relentless he breezed across the line at least 5m ahead of everyone else. Landy struggled to snatch a bronze. I watch it all again and again, it still brings a lump to my throat.  Not the fury and contortions of Zatopek, just a man in a zone which most of us don't even dream about.

Here's another great finish (Finnish, geddit), as Lasse Viren [FI] holds off Emiel Puttemans [BE] in the last lap of the 10,000m in Munich 1972. Viren is clear in the lead but Puttemans is reeling him in at the last corner until he looks behind him for competition rather than being focused entirely on the guy in front: that's the end - no steam left.  Viren broke the world record that day and also took gold for 5000m in the same competition.  When I watched that race from the sofa as an eighteen year old, I was Puttemans - not quite enough bottle - which is unfair to Puttemans who broke the world 3000m record that same summer of 1972.

When Ireland did tolerably well in the Soccer World Cup in 1990, the event is credited with starting the first whimpers of the Celtic Tiger a couple of years later.  Irish people at home and abroad felt that things were possible, everyone pushed a little more, kept going a little longer and started to feel better in themselves and in their pocket.  It was like that in 1956: Delany's surprising win made folks back home believe.  For a while Ireland became The Little Country That Could.

One of my colleagues at The Institute has a 50th birthday coming up next week and yesterday an office pal baked a big chocolate cake and invited us all to a modest celebration. There were two strangers at the party and I sort of assumed that the older fellow was birthday boy's father.  But when we sat down, I was almost opposite and I was introduced to "Ronnie Delany" . . . brief pause to assimilate unexpected information . . . "The Ronnie Delany?" I gasped as I shook his hand.  I went all coy and fluttery: for a confirmed couch-potato I am the most terrible groupie for athletes. Delany will turn 80 next March, I hope he gets the most enormous cake.  I stopped paying attention to sport very shortly after the 1972 Olympics; I knew I could neither compete nor contribute so I gave up. The other stranger at yesterday's birthday party was Marcus O'Sulllivan, another Irish graduate of Villanova U and gold-winning middle distance athlete: the next generation's Ronnie Delany, but I'd never heard of him.  I should pay more attention because he's an interesting guy who has ideas about giving back.  They are doing this in a direct way for The Institute by sponsoring one of our Sports Science students to intern at Villanova: the current generation's Gold Medalist maybe?

Thursday 18 December 2014


In 1989, fed up and plot-lost after six years working in an English University, I left academia and went for a long walk. I was tolerably fluent in Portuguese having taken lessons in order to push forward some field work in the Portuguese Atlantic Islands: Açores, Madeira and Cabo Verde. That decided where to walk (the mainland; not round and round a dot in the middle of the ocean; and Brazil was too far and too big) and my hopelessness with maps suggested that walking up the coast would take care of the navigation: if I veered left I would get wet feet. Accordingly, I took an overnight train London Newhaven Dieppe Paris and another to Lisboa via and Irú While in the Portuguese capital, I went to the Instituto Geographico e Cadastral, the equivalent of our Ordnance Survey, and bought a set of 1:100,000 maps to cover the coast from Sagres in the bottom left-hand corner to where the Rio Minho marks the Spanish border 700km further North. The maps were 16 in number, weighed 750g, and when folded were the size of two fattish paperback books. That was about 10% of my pack-load, so must have seemed important. The next day I caught another train to Lagos in the Algarve, then a bus to Sagres and set off North on foot. Sometime in the middle of the morning on that first day, I realised that I had left my roll of maps on the train the evening before and debated briefly about whether I would plough on regardless on the left = wet-foot protocol.  But as I had already gotten lost twice in the chaparral trying to find the Atlantic coast, I stopped at the next village and caught the bus back to Lagos, retrieved my maps (phew!) from the station-master, and set off again.

It was lonely but it was lovely to have the world opening wide before me as I ploughed deeper into the dusty countryside. It didn't rain at all for the first week although it was late September, but on the seventh day the heavens opened and I slopped into Porto Covo de Bandeira with everything soaked except my precious maps. I had to decide that night whether to hug strictly to the coast and plod through the town of Sines - famous for its oil-refinery and the largest artificial container port in Portugal - or cut inland heading for Santiago do Cacém - which had a castle famous from the days of the Reconquista. It was a gorgeous morning next day and I headed inland trying to make out which of the maze of dotted lines on the map represented the upland track I was pacing along. Mid-morning, like a character in a folk-song, I met with a shepherd and asked if I was on the right road for Santiago and pointed at my map.  He said that I shouldn't try that road because that road had been flooded when they built the dam:
Albufeira da Baragem de Morgavel intended route = red dots
The most recent available map for this section of the route had been printed in 1970 and presumably surveyed at least 20 years ago. There had been a bit of development in the interim. The shepherd advised me to walk along the top of the dam rather than trying to negotiate the upper reaches of the albufeira (reservoir) to the East.  I took his advice and puttered across the dam and then through forests of cork oaks Quercus suber and past little farmsteads. I was completely lost, the map was on too small a scale to be useful, but I asked my way when I saw anyone and meandered along in a vaguely Northerly direction. Eventually I was spat out of a woodland onto the main road about 5km short of Santiago and after being buffeted by speeding container trucks for a while, stuck out my thumb and hitched into town. I spent three days in Santiago, nursing my blisters, and was more or less adopted by the patrão of Cafe Ribatejano who rented me a room for 700$oo a night which was about £3 in old money.  I've been meaning to go back for the last 25 years, but I know I'll be disappointed.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

nor cruell and unusuall Punishments

To paraphrase the Gettysburg Address: Sixteen score and five years ago our Protestant fathers brought forth on this continent a new law to cement a coup d'etat in the United Kingdom to ensure that their friends-and-relations got their nose in any pork-barrel which the government might roll out of Westminster. The winners, who wrote the history of the troubles times of the 1680s, call the transfer of power The Glorious Revolution and its legal framework was the Bill of Rights, signed into law 16th December 1689.  The Act is obviously partisan:
  • That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law. 
and freedom of speech is explicitly limited to Parliament (i.e. the framers of the document)
  • That the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament.
but they did coin the resounding phrase
  • That excessive Baile ought not to be required nor excessive Fines imposed nor cruell and unusuall Punishments inflicted
The same wording became the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.  Simple enough you might say, and it certainly trips off the tongue, but it all depends on what you mean by Cruel and Unusual.  Like the Talmud's commentaries on the word of God (the Torah), the original score of words has become the foundation of a teetering cliff of interpretations in the years that have followed.  Because it is a constitutional issue, matters invoking the Eighth Amendment eventually claw their way upwards to the US Supreme Court. There, we have seen a useful tension between modernists who want the Eighth to " . . . draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." against the 'originalist' position "the proposed Eighth Amendment would have been laughed to scorn if it had read 'no criminal penalty shall be imposed which the Supreme Court deems unacceptable.'"  I know where my sympathies lie.

One theme in the interpretations of cruel-and-unusual has been "A severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion." which is fair enough, but lots of cases arise where because predictable, the punishment cannot be considered arbitrary. Young black men know that they will get a different sort of justice to young white chaps with a nice suit and short hair; and the Supreme Court tends to uphold the constitutionality of such cases on the rare occasions when there is money enough to fight the case up through the courts.  So the tendentious nature of the original document continues to barrack, bully and degrade "the other" although that frightening entity (read bugaboo) has shucked off its belief in the supremacy of the pope and acquired a much better tan over the last 325 years and a day.

Tuesday 16 December 2014


Last week The Beloved went to an end-of-life workshop with Stephen Jenkinson.  This being so far ahead of the curve that wikipedia reports The page "Stephen Jenkinson" does not exist.  Because you can be sure that wikipedia and the rest of the world will hear about this man soon.  Why? Because we in The West are ignoring the one thing which all life shares - that it ends.  Jenkinson uses the phrase death-phobic which is clunky and awkward - much as we all are in approaching the subject: either as Principal or in a supporting role.  Before the workshop, there was a showing of Griefwalker, a documentary about Jenkinson's work which doesn't feature on IMDB [cue Twilight Zone theme], although you can watch the whole 70 minutes of at the Canadian National Film Board.

Jenkinson looks like a Native North American, but that's mostly the braids and the buckskin shirts and a predilection for canoes; he spent many more years than was good for him at the helm of Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital palliative care unit.  There he saw hundreds and hundreds of people over The Threshold and learned from the multiplicity of these experiences that pretty much everyone has the same fears; although they articulate a rather different set of anxieties.  One of the triumphs of late 20th century medicine was to do away with pain-in-death; if the agony gets too much then you ask the palliative care people to crank up the opiates.  This, with one leap, frees most people from their spoken fears.  But when we come to the abyss, present but not hurtin', another terror is in our eyes. Fear of the unknown and a huge anxiety that we will be forgotten by those we hold closest to our hearts. If you want a more direct view of Jenkinson's message you can hear his address to the American Palliative Care Association The Skill of Brokenheartedness: Euthanasia, Palliative Care and Power.  He left Toronto and his day job several years ago and now lives on a small-holding on the edge of the wilderness running workshops and consulting in the business and process of dying. His Home Page.

St Augustine of Hippo famously wrote "da mihi castitatem et continentiam sed noli modo" - O God give me chastity . . . but not yet! Now, intellectual-me has sorted the end-of-life issues with my advanced health care directive. When the time comes, the hard-headed by kindly Dau.II will have the pillow ready. This is tosh because of the purple passage: when the time comes . . . we'll all be asking to extend the contract a little more. Fit young people often say that when they can't wipe their own bottom that's when it will be time to go.  But when that comes to pass we realise that there's much much more to life than obsessing about incontinence and not smelling of anything except after-shave. Leaky people can still kiss their grand-children.

The film Griefwalker was made in 2008 by Tim Wilson, a long-time friend of Stephen Jenkinson's.  He made the film because both he and later his infant son had spent critical time in ICU fluttering between worlds and Jenkinson had been present for him. Wilson has been there . . . and back but still he finds it hard to understand what his friend "the angel of death" is saying.  It's a foreign language and you need to listen really carefully as the words are spoken really slowly and  the meaning will still run through your grasping fingers like water. "if you have to get the news of your death from somebody else, how firmly in your life are you?" and "you don't look like someone who's been given his life back". Maybe you have to sit at a thousand death-beds to begin to understand?  For most of us the first time we do this we will be the star but the audience will be effectively absent.

Monday 15 December 2014

72 QIts better

Like last year and the year before, the team at have put together a compendium of interesting facts for the Christmas market.  The first book contained 1227 snippets and last year it was 1339 and I wrote about what an absurd bargain it was.  This year 1,411 QI Facts to knock you sideways is 72 paragraphs or 18 pages longer [in addition to 1339 totally new facts of course]. If we are going to quantify these things, we need units: I propose qit by analogy with information technology's bit. I secured copies of 1411 from Amazon for £3 delivered to Ireland. I don't know how this works economically, but if I buy a shirt for £3 I reckon I should probably wash any coliforms off before I start wearing it. I'm not picking on cheap retailers because more expensive brands are quite happy to use sweated labour in Bangladesh where the bathroom facilities may not be as nice as they are in Dublin, Berlin or Montpellier. In any case, it must mean that the elves in QI are making next to nothing-at-all on their intellectual property in this globalised transaction.  Update: the price (it must be like fluctuating odds in a bookmakers at bookseller Amazon) is now up to £4.50, still cheap enough but 1411 is #20 on the Amazon bestseller list after The Narrow Road to the Deep North but before the Official Minecraft 2015 Wall Calendar.  Maybe there is a fortune to be made on a pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap business model.

I've had a dip or six into 1,411 before parcelling copies up for the deserving poor. This is what I find:
  • When Canada's Northwest Territory was divided in two in 1999, people voted to keep the old name.  The runner up was "Bob".
    • It became Northwest Territories and . . . Nunavut
    • I shall stop boasting about Bob the Island, now we have Bob the Province
  • Over the last 10,000 years Niagara Falls has moved 7 miles up stream 
    • about 1m/yr!
  • Every year Iceland gets wider by 2cm. 
    • rock creation is slower than rock erosion
  • British fishermen work 17 times harder than they did in the 1880s to catch the same number of fish. 
  • There are 1,411 tigers in India 
  • Sigmund Freud treated Gustav Mahler for impotence
    • Mahler married 20 years younger Alma Schindler, who having worn out Gustav, wed Walter Gropius the architect and then author Franz Werfel and outlived them all by 20 years. A goer was Alma as recognised by Tom Lehrer.
    • [Additional commentary exclusive to The Blob]
Thank me for sharing, but you have to buy the book to find out more: it won't be in your local library yet.  It's all grist for the curiosity mill and a good idea for Christmas presents.
As a bonus here's a set of QI pub-quiz style picture puzzles that you can access for free and have a chance at winning a prize. Why, I've knocked off #13 already, so it can't be that hard. 

Sunday 14 December 2014

The devil dam thee black.

I do love a dam.  When I was a child, we used to dam the stream that split Duncannon strand, once to triumph effect.  If I'd known even one engineer when I was growing up, I might have something concrete to show for 40 years in the work-place. It wasn't really until I started teaching environmental chemistry a couple of years ago, that I started to appreciate of just how devastating dams can be.  Holding back the water on a river in some wilderness can have a huge effect on the dissolved oxygen, on the accumulation of sediment, and on the number and sorts of species that inhabit the valley.  Dams are created to generate hydro-electric power, to allow the abstraction of water for irrigation and/or to 'tame' the river, so that its flow can be controlled and wild fluctuations in flow-rate damped.  If you're not careful, artificially raising the water-level can create a greater catastrophe than any imaginable natural fluctuations. And if the dam fails you can kill people and destroy millions of €€ worth of property: the Baldwin Hills Dam failed on this day 14th December 1963. On a vastly greater scale, work damming the Yangtze River in China started exactly 20 years ago today but some are asking Is the Three Gorges Dam a Ticking Time Bomb?

Today it's dam movie time in the Pacific North West!

Over the last 200 years, dammers have been active along hundreds of rivers across the USA. There are as many as 75,000 dams in the country - about one for every day since 4th July 1776. A lot of these structures were built before the concept of environmental impact had been articulated, and the older structures are either coming to the end of their insurable life-span or have been superseded by other structures or more efficient modern methodologies. The last 10 years have seen a number of dam-removal projects that have been not without interest to environmental scientists . . . like myself.  Richard Lovett, a freelancer from Oregon, has written a nicely explanatory and discursive piece in Nature, Rivers on the Run, about the issues and practicalities of returning rivers in his neighbourhood to their wild selves.  The problem is that, while the construction of the dam had an enormous effect on the local ecology (drowning millions of trees and their attendant flora and fauna is only the most obvious part of this), the deconstruction is also bound to change things utterly and probably not to the status quo ante because extinction is forever and ecosystems move on.

Lovett contrasts three undammings to illustrate how differences in size scale up, but differences in sediment quality turn out to be a more significant variable.  In all cases, Salmonid fish, like steelhead trout Oncorhynchus mykiss, of the rivers were endangered by decades of inhibited access to upstream spawning grounds. Installing a fish-ladder to by-pass the dams was very much a hit and miss affair, with the fish preferring to nose up the spillways rather than taking a detour in the wrong direction up the artificial ladders.  They looked good on paper and satisfied the lads from the Environmental Protection Agency, but just had the wrong smell.

First down was the 18m high Marmot Dam on Oregon's Sandy River in 2007. Its chief purpose of early rural electrification which could be replaced by a helluva lot of wind-turbines and so the dam was seen as superfluous. They blew a hole in the bottom of the dam and the river ran through it leaving much of the sediment behind.  That sand and grit eroded gradually over the next 8 months and steelhead was soon seen nosing directly upstream past the dam site. The film of the changes is kind of hokey and complacent, and it grated to hear the whole project being monetised in a profit and loss way: each adult steelhead is worth $500 to the local economy; no dam means that some guy's kayaking business can expand.  If Oregon tree-huggers are like Irish tree-huggers, you may be sure that wind-turbines don't get a 10/10 score in the local community.

In 2009, the Forest Service targetted the elderly 8m tall Hemlock Dam on the Trout River. Here it was deemed expedient to build a huge sluice pipe to drain the lake and then cart away 42,000 cu.m for sediment in 20 ton loads and then dismantle the dam.  The film claims that 2000 truck-loads were required and that they loaded every six minutes for 40 consecutive days which suggests that it was a 5 hour working day.  A lot of aerobic bacteria presumably got trucked away; and nobody says where the stuff [which would cover a soccer pitch to a depth of 4m] was dumped.  This all cost somewhere North of $1million, and didn't seem to be manifestly a better solution ecologically when compared to the blow-and-go that had been implemented on the Sandy River two years earlier.

Soooo, in 2011 on the White Salmon River in neighbouring Washington state, the Forest Service went back to the Marmot Protocol. The Condit Dam on that river was 38m tall and had pro-rata accumulated about 1.5 million cu.m of sediment - about 40x more than Hemlock.  Crucially the quality of the sediment was very different from that that behind the Marmot Dam: instead of it being half-n-half sand and gravel, Condit was bunkering about a third mud, and half sand and a mere leaven of gravel.  When the klaxon went and a hole was blown in the bottom of the Condit Dam, an explosive black cloud of aerosolled sludge burst out and travelled downsteam in an emulsion with up to 28% particulate matter. You can see the waterlogged mud slump down in 1000 ton gouts as the sedimented lake drains away through the plug-hole.  It was all over in 3 hours!  I'm not in a position to say which of these three protocols is 'better' for the environment but clearly blow-and-go is cheaper for the tax-payer. 

If you don't spend the next half hour surfing youtube for further "dam removal" videos, then I don't think you are a normal boy - try Elwha or Glines for different protocols again.

Footnotes: "The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!" is part of a great endgame rant from Macbeth.