Friday 28 February 2014

There's a fly in my soup

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which I've mentioned recently, fields any questions we may have about food safety.  They have just issued a statistical summary of the complaints they received in 2013.  The executive summary is that they are up 12.5% from the previous year.  But complaints are only a small proportion (a tad over 20%) of the calls fielded by the FSAI telephone helpline.  The rest are seeking advice, many (20%) of them from workers in the food industry confused by the mountainous requirements for labelling material on their premises.  The complaints are probably predictable in their distribution:
  • 41% unfit food
  • 19% suspected food poisoning
  • 20% hygiene standards
  • 7% on incorrect information on food labelling
  • 11% other
These are surely a gross underestimate of the problem across the country. 15 years ago we were visiting Parnell's birthplace at Avondale and stopped by the cafe for some refreshment.  It was cold and sad with the cool-counter barely stocked, and the two yoghurts on sale were 2 days beyond their sell-by date.  We pointed this out to the young woman at the till and she whisked them away.  I would never have thought to telephone (on my nickel!) the FSAI to complain.

Of course the data are much less interesting than the anecdotes "meat inside chocolate yoghurt; a dirty finger nail in baby food; a chicken’s head in frozen chicken wings; a screw in a pasta dish; glass in a ready meal; live insects in a packet of dates; and a human tooth in a Chinese takeaway".   If that's the worst that we have experienced in the whole country over the whole year, I'm not in the least bit worried.  It's a bit like those lists of things turned into lost property from trains - wooden legs, glass eyes, hundreds of unbrellas and a disconcerting number of false teeth.

On Newstalk-FM on Thursday morning, the spokesperson from the FSAI welcomed the increase in numbers as showing that The Public were more interested and concerned about food-safety. But they would say that wouldn't they?  The help line 1890 336677 is manned 9-5 by trained advisors and food scientists  (so a minimum of two of each?) who are fielding 60% of the 13,269 calls.  The maths suggests about 4 calls per hour (one each) over the 1800 hour working year.  Plenty of time for coffee, so.  According to the spokesperson on the wireless , the FSAI don't actually deal with the complaints but rather relay them to Environmental Health Officers EHOs employed by the Health Service Executive HSE.  If you wish to make a complaint about this or the mouse you found last night in your curried chips try If you're unemployed and fancy getting paid for doing this interesting if intermittent line of work, I'm sorry that  says "There are currently no Vacancies".

Thursday 27 February 2014

Today - El Gordo

Before Christmas, two of my Yr3 lab sections were buoyed up by the presence of two pairs of 'French'.  These chaps (3F:1M) had a different and, in my opinion, intrinsically better way of writing up their lab books; they were always firing on all cylinders; they volunteered for things-to-do.  This is not to say that all my local students were the antithesis of these virtues but they were not 100% there for science.  But the best thing about having these visitors was that they were different and so made life more interesting for all of us.  They came to Ireland as part of the Erasmus scheme which aspires to stir the pot of our Europe by encouraging Brits to meet Italians and eSpanish to talk to Poles by embedding students for a year or part of year abroad.  Erasmus has sent my pal Lulu to Berlin for this academic year, which process she has been bloggin', and very interesting that has been too.  We had our Institutional celebration of multi-culturalism at the beginning of December, with a lot of weird-and-wonderful food on offer.

Well, I never twigged it before, but today is Schmotziger Donnerstag, Τσικνοπέμπτη, torkos csütörtök, Tłusty czwartek or as we might call it Fat(ten-up) Thursday: the Thursday before the start of Lent.  In Anglophoneland we are much more familiar with Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday) which happens next week in places like Louisiana.  As we know from our view of Mardi Gras on the TV, there is plenty of hoopla as well as glomming down donuts and gumbo.  In the WEA, we go with the French and celebrate Pancake Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday and the start of the austerities of Lent.

I'm sure Lulu will be picking delicately at a berliner which is what Europe calls the robust donuts the size of a cat's head and filled with jam which they fry up and chow down.  The no-nonsense-ness of Portuguese pastries - they have a bolo de berlim which is filled with a lurid yellow custard (mmmmm so good) - was one of the many aspects of that culture which made me feel at home there.  The Greeks with their Τσικνο-πέμπτη go more for barbecue - the first part of the word means something like charred-meat.  In Castilla-La Mancha, especially around Albacete, they call it a comforting Jueves Lardero. I am fully expecting our own La Manch' to telephone his grandmother for the recipe and make us some bizcochos.

But the principal is the same. The Blob has spoken - today you have licence to to go out and feed up.  Enjoy!

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Island of the Grace of God

This is part of an aerodrome.  It is place of rather rigid behaviour - the missing plane on the left must have been parked exactly there, +/- a couple of meters, dozens and dozens of times.  Where is it now?  Probably tooling around in the sky with a payload of explosives, because it is the turn of that plane and that crew. Where will it be when it lands?  On dry land but a very long way from any continental land-mass: Tanzania 3650km W; India 1800km NNE; Australia 4470km ESE.  It's one of several places that is rather sensitive to global-warming sea-level rises, as its highest point is a towering 9m above average low tide levels; and that's the top of a sand-dune - a feature not known for its permanence.  Actually it's not really very dry land because it gets a sopping 250cm of rainfall annually about 3 times more than we get in drizzly ould Ireland.  The island has been called a variety of names according to ancient maps, including "I. de Dio Gratia", from which the current name of Diego Garcia derives.

The abundant rainfall creates a rather interesting hydro-geological formation - a Ghyben-Herzberg lens of fresh water which, by being lighter that the surrounding salty sea-water and protected from excessive mixing by the local porous rock, floats near the surface and is available in shallow ponds, springs and by drilling wells.  Here's a diagram of Guam, which has a similar situation.
 Both Guam and Diego Garcia  are tropical atolls where a lagoon of sea water is surrounded by a coral reef which keeps growing up as the underlying mound on which the coral started growing sinks down.  This explanation for the existence and maintenance of coral reefs/atolls is yet another First for Charles Darwin. "It was Darwin’s genius to see that coral reefs, although plainly geological structures on a stupendous scale, were created by slow, gradual growth of countless billions of tiny creatures over vast periods of time."  That Darwin, what a guy!

You have to be a little delicate when abstracting fresh water so close to the sea, because if you deplete the fresh water, or there is a slackening of rainfall, there may be a catastrophic influx of sea water that will take life-times to push down and away again.  The water pressure and the relative densities mean that the lens extends below the tidemark 40x as much as it extends above into those ponds and springs.  You cannot, for example drill vertically down from the centre of the lagoon, where the lens is deepest, because that is likely to precipitate a mix-up.

When Diego Garcia was finally settled by fisherfolk and copra harvesters, the fresh water supply wasn't a problem because the people didn't have flush toilets and washed in the lagoon.  The government of the United Kingdom acquired Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos archipelago from their colony of Mauritius in late 1965 just before the latter achieved independence within the Commonwealth.  They paid £3million, which was a number they must have pulled out of the air and about which present day Mauritians call "No Fair" while claiming sovereignty over Diego Garcia and the neighboring Chagos Archipelago.  It was a good investment for the UK because they promptly leased Diego Garcia to Uncle Sam and got a $14million discount on the purchase of Polaris nukes from . . . Uncle Sam.  Not so good for the inhabitants, because the US required a green-field site to develop as a Middle Eastern oil over-watch fortress.  So the plain people of Diego Garcia were rounded up by their 'protectors' in 1971 and forcibly settled elsewhere.

They were replaced by up to 5000 US military personnel and hangers-on, who have an insatiable desire for fresh water to flush, to freshen-up regularly, and to wash their cars, jeeps and B52s.  A quick glance at the figures don't look too bad: each day, half a million litres of water shared among, say, 3500 personnel gives a rate of 160 lt per person per day which is about the same as Stateside. My figures show household water consumption in USA is 425lt/d which is about double that in UK and three times what they get through in Germany, France or Israel. This is a lot of abstraction of water but the average replenishment rate from tropical downpours is 10 million litres per day, of which an estimated 40% percolates through to the lens.  But as the abstraction occurs in a rather concentrated area of the atoll, sea-water infiltration is more likely than if bore-holes were spread more widely.

There is a rich and diverse wildlife on 170 of the atoll, which is rebounding after the eradication of destructive feral dogs (Canis familiaris) donkeys (Equus asinus), horses (Equus caballus), and house cats (Felis catus).  But you're unlikely to get to see any of these recovering tropical species unless you're US military or you've been picked up in a Black Op for some waterboarding on territory that isn't sovereign USA (which disapproves) but isn't under the effective control of the UK (which also disapproves) either.  So not a million miles from Shannon Airport: only 10,000km; and a long long way from the Grace of God.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Clara Immerwahr PhD

One of my students gave me a copy of The Ultimate Quotable Einstein edited by Alice Calaprice.  It was, of course, nice to get a present but a little weird to get one for such a small service: I am currently lending out my small store of science-light books to any student who expresses an interest in material beyond the immediate experiment.  Einstein is often good for a quip although, in the winner-takes-all Harry-Potter world we live in, he gets a far greater share of attention than he deserves; as does Stephen Hawking.  I was struck by Einstein's assessment of Werner "Uncertainty" Heisenberg:
"Professor Heisenberg was here, a German.  He was an important Nazi (ein grosser Nazi). 
He is a great physicist but not a very pleasant man.
I've mentioned some deeply creepy people who are nevertheless successful scientists.  The tag I used for that post "Nobody died, but . . ." suggested that it could have been worse. For Clara Immerwahr it was.

She was an extra-ordinary woman, she was born in 1870 just outside of Breslau/Wrocław in Central Europe the daughter of a dabbler in chemistry and successful farmer who had married his cousin.  Young Clara was exposed to chemistry by one of her high-school teachers and she pushed to get the chance to progress her scientific career beyond some lady-like book-learning.  She was finally allowed to audit classes at the University of Breslau when she was 25.  She was the first woman in Germany to pass the fiendishly hard Verbandsexamen to progress to the PhD program, and went on to get her doctorate with a study of metal salt solubilities: Beiträge zur Löslichkeitsbestimmung schwerlöslicher Salze des Quecksilbers, Kupfers, Bleis, Cadmiums und Zinks. Extra euro-points if you can translate all five elements into their Spanish, Greek or Russian equivalents.

It wasn't until she had beaten the system in this way that she felt able to get married, which she did the following year in 1901. The intervening period pursuing a desultory career giving lectures on "Physics and Chemistry in the Household", which people assumed were written by her husband, didn't help her self-esteem either, I suspect.   Her new husband was Fritz Haber, who like her was a converso; cristão-novo; cristiano nuevo; cristià nou, or would have been if they'd been born in Iberia as Muslims rather than as Central European Jews who converted to Lutheranism. That wouldn't have saved them from boarding the cattle-waggons if they had survived into WWII, or probably made much difference to their neighbours' casually anti-semitic assessment of them.

Her hsuband's career really took off, not least because she was there as an invisible extra cylinder to his engine, proofing and criticising his manuscripts and translating his books into English. In the rigid, Prussian, institutionally anti-semitic world he lived in, Haber felt that if he out-Germanned the Germans they'd finally accept him.  He was an enthusiastic advocate of chemical warfare who saw great potential in chlorine as a weapon.  Clara contrariwise saw it as a travesty of science and a barbarity and was not shy of saying so in public.  Haber was present taking notes at the Front when the first gas-shells were lobbed across into the British trenches near Ypres on 22 April 1915.  He returned home to the swanky Berlin suburb of Dahlem for a bit of a celebratory party en route for the Eastern Front where he planned to mete out the same treatment on the Russians.  After an argument, Clara lifted his service revolver and, in the small hours of 2nd May, went out into the garden and shot herself in the chest.  Her son, then aged 13, was the only one in the household to heard the shot and responded, but he was much too late.  Haber left for the Front on schedule the next day leaving the boy and the servants to clean up and bury his wife.

It's easy to write this story in Black and White with Fritz as a barely human species of monster and Clara as a totally modern anti-war protester. When he was awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1918 (for his invention of an economic method for making ammonia) fellow-Nobel Ernest Rutherford took the high moral ground and refused to shake Haber's hand. But if Haber had done the chlorine attack as a solo run, even his contemporaries would have called him a mad-man and a terrorist. There was a whole military-political infrastructure that was condoning, facilitating and implementing these new weapons. There were arguments at the time about whether such weapons were more humane than those which ripped men's limbs asunder and dropped the still struggling remains in a muddy, bloody soup of Clostridium perfringens and worse.  Nazi Germany, which we are still taught to believe was the epitome of evil, had a much cleaner record on weapons of mass-destruction than either the Germany of Kaiser Bill or the British in WWI or the Roosevelt/Truman administration of the USA in WWII.

I feel more confident about the outstanding intellectual ability of Clara Immerwahr/Haber, her competence as a chemist and her determination not to be dismissed a cipher because she had two X chromosomes. She was a pioneer who made it easier for women to contribute to, and progress in, science.  It must have been ghastly for her to have been compromised and betrayed by the man she once loved.  I hope and expect that she was as effective with a pistol as she was with retorts and test-tubes and that exited her made-wretched life with determination and dispatch.

Monday 24 February 2014

Now wash your hands

As I mentioned Dau.II came home for the week-end.  For the last several weeks she has been working (very hard) in a new restaurant in Cork called Burritos and Blues. You should check it out - the food on the menu is Mexican and tasty and doesn't seem outrageously expensive given that you get a balanced meal wrapped up in a tortilla the size of a baby's leg.  If the staff is especially charming and helpful by all means leave a big tip.  The hierarchy is very flat in this business: everyone wades in and does what's necessary - prep, cook, serve, clean, or cash.  The gaffer clearly has a good business head but it seems that paperwork and bureaucracy wrecks his head.  So when the Food Safety Authority (FSAI) offered a day-long seminar on hygiene and good practice, he sent two of his recent hires to represent the business and take notes. I had some informative chat this w/e about the issues of Food Safety in the retail sector.

The first thing I found interesting was the observation that servers in Sandwich Bars and similar outlets all wearing ludicrous, often outsized, polythene gloves while they pile up your sambo.  It didn't use to be like that.  A couple of decades ago when I was working in Dublin there was a shop on Fenian St, D2 that sold a sandwich the size of a sailor's leg (forget your delicate baby's leg sized burritos of nowadays) for £1.25.  The staff there were quick and sassy and efficient and piled handfuls of lettuce, tomatoes and coleslaw in on top of whatever you'd paid for (ham & swiss for me, please).  No gloves, no worries. Dau.II was saying that the gloves are so big and klutzy on her delicate hands that she's likely to cut off the plastic finger tips and leave them in the burrito along with the meat. No folks: it hasn't happened yet! The FSAI which knows whereof it speaks (science, microbiology, epidemiology data etc.) and The Public which knows bugger-all about microbial biology are in disagreement on gloves.  Sean Public wants the chaps behind the counter to wear them from an ill-informed and rather insulting fastidiousness about whether the serving hands have been washed.  FSAI prefers that servers don't wear gloves because doing so discourages the washing of hands that is key to avoiding cross-contamination.  Their take on gloves is nicely non-proscriptive but clearly against gloves. 

I'm much more confident about the efficacy of the FSAI after reading this.  A lot of food hygiene is a series of shibboleths whose reason is not properly articulated. If people knew why they should wash their hands then they'd scrub under the nails rather than rinse under a tap and dry on a probably contaminated towel.  About the same time I was eating a sailor's leg, The Beloved was commuting back and forth to Birmingham for work.  The Bean an B&B she stayed with mentioned one morning that the UK health&safety people were about to issue a diktat forbidding the drying of dishes with tea-towels; they recommended rinsing and air-drying on a dish-rack. All that has been replace by dish-washing machines now, but you take my point.

I learned one thing (perhaps the only reasonably certain thing?) from nearly ten years researching the relationships between the microbe Campylobacter jejuni and the immune system of its alternative hosts: chicken (Gallus gallus) and us (Homo sapiens):
Don't wash your chicken before you cook it!
Chickens - all chickens even/especially? the free-range, organic chaps - carry Campylobacter up their wazzoo.  It is part, maybe an essential part, of the intestinal flora of those birds and causes no symptoms of illness.  Au contraire, when we ingest a few of these bacteria the result is very likely to be a giving at both ends before the night is out.  The best practice therefore is to take your chicken carefully out of any packaging and get it into the oven directly and then now wash you hands please.  If you do the 'natural thing' and give the ould bird a rinse under the kitchen tap then you create a fine aerosol of air-borne Campy quite apart from splashing the lettuce you've left on the counter-top next to the sink.

New Rule: you're much safer if the girls behind the counter don't wear gloves when handling your lunch.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Always for others

We live, as its says on the sidebar, halfway up a mountain in the Sunny South East.  Our lane is an important access point for the Blackstairs massif, rising from the county road at a 10% incline and pointing more or less straight at the telecoms masts on the top of Mt Leinster.  10% of a slope is good, it gets you the height without having to scramble using your hands and you can talk as you walk.  We know this is possible because every weekend if we're in the yard we hear snippets and fragments of conversation as hill-walkers go past.  Some fifteen years ago, when the girls were small they spent much of their lives out in the yard and in the trees on either side of the lane.  It was through them that we met Paddy Looney who was coming down from the hills in which he loved to ramble.  As a trained soldier he always took emergency rations when he was out on the hill - you never know when you're going to fall and you know that if such a thing happens you're not going to be found immediately.  But coming down from the hill and a few hundred meters from the car, his emergency rations were surplus to requirements.  So he asked if he could give his brace of chocolate bars to our gannets.  Whatever nonsense about not taking sweets from strange men, Paddy was instantly no longer a stranger.  Over the years my girls grew fat on his leavings!  When they weren't there, he'd ask after them and on the few occasions when his passing coincided with my presence outside he'd stop and chat.  I always felt happier for having met him again.

Now a straight-enough slope of 10% is great for walkers but it gives water a tremendous acceleration if enough of it gets into the road-bed.  Twice in 12 years the whole surface of the lane was torn up and delivered to the county road in a heap: data and calculations here.  I've re-engineered our lane over the years by scratching up little transverse berms so that any falling rain gets diverted off the lane before it starts to travel.  And many years ago I persuaded one of our farming neighbours to deliver a couple of tractor-buckets of roadstone up the mountain in a couple of key places to divert the mountain-water (of which there can be a helluva lot) off the roadway and into drains. A little of this maintenance keeps the lane car-accessible to us and the postman. It also makes a difference to the surface under foot and means that hill-walkers can do the first part of their trek without twisting an ankle.  Every year I take an azada (see right) and repair and rebuild these berms and shovel out the accumulated debris.  It has made sense to go further and further up the lane to turn off running-water problems before they start.

A couple of years ago, I met Paddy as he came down off the mountain. Instead of carrying a Mars-bar or a compass, he was toting a shovel.  He had spent the previous few weekends on his own up the mountain tricking about with the drains so that the water didn't destroy the lane. You can still benefit from the results of his care today.  I can see why I might do that, partly for my own good and partly from a sense of proprietorship.  But it's not so clear why Paddy who lived 40km away should make a special trip to make life easier and more enjoyable for other people.  Except if you knew Paddy!: because his open heart and generous hand were clear to all when you were in his presence.  I say "if you knew Paddy" because he died last Sunday - by all accounts of a heart-attack while clearing drains after the Darwinday storms.  I hardly knew the man but I still feel that a light has gone out in our lives.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Rolling home

It’s been more than a week without the car since she lost an argument with a wall.  One car is plenty for any family unless, like us, you have two people working at least occasionally at the same time in different directions.  It seemed logistically too difficult to try to juggle wheels, so I debunked to Tramore which has a) a free gaff at the Out-laws b) a direct connexion by bus with The Institute.  That’s how I planned it anyway, but it turned out that the direct connexion by bus didn’t start until 0800hrs and so it wasn’t going to work for any working day that started at 9am.  That's worked out okay through Rag Week when the timetable tolerates a fair amount of slack. 

The plan last night was to do a day’s, and end the week's, work and then take a bus to Waterford to rendezvous with Dau.II who was coming back from Cork for a few days.  The timing seemed rather good as our respective were scheduled to arrive on the Quay in Waterford within 20 minutes of each other. But my bus broke down in Dublin and the replacement was delayed and by the time I boarded the bus I was a whole hour adrift from my idealised (fantasy) timetable and chilled to the marrow.  So, rather than delay everybody else in Waterford waiting for me to appear, I bailed out of the bus as near as I could get to home and walked into the metropolis of Bagenalstown.  That’s 22km from home, so I thought I’d give it 5 minutes hitch-hiking to see if I couldn’t make it nearer before the darkness brought down its shutters on the day. The 6th car stopped and inevitably it was a chap who, same as me, back in the day had thumbed every which way across the length of Ireland.  Such people have promised themselves that, now they have a car, they’ll pay back the credit they got on their travels back in the 1970s.  Several times I hitched out of Holyhead in Wales at midnight to go to London rather than take the boat-train and The Beloved and I hitched from Dublin to Provence to celebrate our 21st birthday with my twin sister.  At the time it seemed normal to be walking along the wide median strip of a French autoroute at 0200hrs.

But there are very few opportunities to give anybody a lift nowadays.  It is just not done. On Friday afternoons back in the 1970s you’d take a bus out to Newland’s cross on the Naas Road (Waterford, Kilkenny, Cork, Limerick) or to the Spa Hotel in Lucan (Galway, Mayo, Sligo) and try your luck in a Mill of people all trying to get home for the weekend. Chancers would just thrust out their thumb. The organised would have made a destination sign with a felt-tip on a bit of cardboard.  It was believed that lower-case letters were more legible that capitals at 40-30-20-10m distance and 50km/h.  We had debates about what classes of people travelled fastest: two girls, especially if looking reasonably fit, were considered sprinters, a boy&girl were also likely to make progress.  Two fellers did not travel so fast.  A rucksack labelled you as a genuine student traveller or an interesting foreign tourist, while a couple of plastic bags made you look indigent or likely to smell bad.

I can’t figure out when that culture stopped, because we left the country in 1979 and didn’t come back for a decade, so we missed the 1980s.  In the interim the rural bus service had improved immeasurably and the point-to-point express buses could whisk you between Dublin and the big towns faster than any train for about 5p/km.  As the Celtic tiger woke up and started to roar even students had money in their pockets and less time to dawdle across the country to wherever they were going.  Fewer people were thumbin' so the few that engaged in the practice looked less normal. The media also put the frighteners on everyone by suggesting that every rucksack had a special pocket for a bayonet and every driver kept a razor-sharp axe concealed under his seat.  Indeed one middle-aged driver from the North told me that he was once on his way back from target practice with his pistol in a cardboard box under the seat of his van when he picked up a hitcher.  After a few miles this young feller started to make some dodgy suggestions about how unsafe hitchers could make it for drivers.  My chap stopped at the next wide part of the road, pulled this huge gun out from under him, pointed it at his passenger and asked the wannabe thug to get out.  It maybe true, it maybe a story: exchanging tales was the currency that lubricated the hitching network.  I told some whoppers myself.

Meanwhile back in the present, last night I was dropped outside the warm and inviting door of O'Shea's of Borris, made a phone call to the rest of my family and plunged into the warmth for pint.  It was almost like being back in the 1970s except that the pint cost about half of my first weekly wage-packet.  And it was wonderful to see the warm and inviting door of home - when I left we had been four days without power.

Friday 21 February 2014

Relaxing the pancreas

It's Rag Week at The Institute  . . . except it's not.  Other colleges are getting a mid-term break but we have a policy that classes will go ahead regardless of the fact that 80-100% of the students are off-site.  Some of them are doing traditional Rag Week things - pushing bedsteads about the country or washing car-windscreens for some Good Cause.  Others are just going down to the offy, buying a slab of tinnies and getting hammered.  Having very short classes means that I've had time to prep a bit of teaching material for the medium-term future, so that when things return to normal I'll have something sensible to say about, say, ductless glands.  A key difference in classifying the wobbly bits of human physiology is whether a gland has a duct (tube) through which it delivers its product: these are called exocrine glands.  The bits that seep their stuff directly into the bloodstream (and thus ductless) are called endocrine glands.

The pancreas, a body about the size and shape of a parsnip and found tucked in under the stomach, is both exocrine and endocrine.  The pancreatic ducts empty into the gut and push digestive enzymes like trypsin into the top of the duodenum to make a start breaking down the proteins in the food.  The rest of the organ is taken up with little clusters of cells, evocatively called the Islets of Langerhans, which make a number of hormones.  The most well-know of these is insulin which, with its complement glucagon, regulates the amount of glucose circulating in the bloodstream.  Lack of insulin is the basic cause of diabetes which is getting ever more prevalent in our society.

In the early 1920s insulin was discovered and purified as an alcoholic extract with demonstrable efficacy against diabetes in humans by two young Canadian biochemists Banting and Best.  Fred Banting was born in 1891, qualified as a doctor and joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps where he won a medal for tirelessly helping wounded soldiers at the Battle of Cambrai despite being shot himself.  So he had that in common with Francois Jacob.  After WWI, he returned to medical research, intrigued by what he'd read about a protein supposedly secreted from the pancreas that regulated the levels of blood sugar.  The problem was that all efforts to purify this active principal mobilised the trypsin which digested the protein before it's effectiveness could be measured.  In the Summer of 1921, Banting borrowed some lab space and a research assistant from University of Toronto's Professor of Physiology J.J.R. MacLeod.  MacLeod promptly left for an extended European vacation. The 22 year-old research assistant turned out to be Charles Best, who despite his youth had also done a wartime stint in the Canadian Army.  Between the two of them, they cracked the problem, obtained an alcoholic extract of the insulin, tested it with success on diabetic dogs and later on a diabetic boy.

This was a revolutionary break-through and the Nobel Prize was awarded about as quickly as it was possible to do so in 1923, to . . .  Banting and MacLeod.  Despite the frequent assertions of lazy-arsed 'researchers' in the history of science, it is not true to say that MacLeod's contribution to the project was that of an absentee landlord of the rooms where the experiments were carried out.  On his return from vacation, he was instrumental in improving the quality of the insulin with better extraction and purification procedures, getting Biochemistry Professor James Collip to oversee this aspect of the work.  But the exclusion of young Best from the winners (three is the maximum number of ways a single Prize can be split) struck many people then and since as unfair. It was probably just ageism: Banting, at 32, is still the youngest winner of a Nobel in Physiology & Medicine: maybe it was inconceivable to a committee of Swedish silverbacks that 'a mere boy' of 22 (who could drive a tank!) could have contributed substantively to the discovery. It's quite a neat antidote to the story of non-Nobellist Jocelyn Bell Burnell - exclusion from credit due is not the prerogative only of young women in science.  Like Burnell (N = 21), Best later got a rash (N = 18) of honorary degrees as consolation prizes.  Banting was sufficiently annoyed with the slight to his Effective that he shared his own prize money with him.  That induced a similar gesture from Professor MacLeod who shared his loot with fellow Professor Collip, keeping the money at the correct level in the hierarchy.  The list of exclusions might include Clark Nobel the other potential lab-assistant to Banting - he lost a coin-toss with Best for first dibs in the Banting laboratory.  Other people feel that B&B were pretty well scooped by Romanian physiologist Nicolae Paulescu who had treated diabetic dogs with his pancreatic extracts as early 1916.  But Banting's team were the first to successfully treat human diabetes with insulin.  Everyone seems to like and respect Banting.  He died on 21st February 1941 in a plane-crash en route to war-torn Europe (again!) to test another life-saving invention.

The discovery and purification of insulin started an industry removing the pancreas from every pig that went to slaughter and purifying porcine insulin to medical-grade injectible material.  The pig protein is 88% identical to the human product which was not enough to trigger a "this is foreign" immune response but was sufficiently different that diabetics on that treatment felt a little off when they needed an insulin boost.  Later this abbatoir-based biochemical solution to insulin availability was replaced with genetically modified microbes that grew human insulin in vats.  With the new product diabetics didn't get the tell-tale pre-crisis indications which made management of the disease a little more difficult.

Some years ago, The Beloved persuaded me and the girls to spend a week in the South of France on a Buddhist Retreat for Scientists. It was a little out of my comfort zone (except for the getting up before first light to not-think) but was a pretty wonderful experience.  There were 1000 people on the Retreat but the actual Scientists were very thin on the ground. In that world iridologists, chakra-boffins and crystal-therapists identify their whoo-wah as a branch of science. One of the techniques employed at such events is whole-body relaxation where everyone lies down warm-and-comfy on the floor and listens to somebody quietly, relentlessly, urging you to relax each part of your body in turn starting with the toes.  It's a bit "your toe bone's connected to your foot bone; your foot bone connected to your ankle bone . . ." but before we'd reached the hip there were wholly-relaxed snores in the room.  I was feeling a little dozy myself when I heard " . . . relax your pancreas . . .".  "WTF," I thought, "I'm sure I'm the only person here who could point to his pancreas, let alone relax it".

Thursday 20 February 2014


Infanta Cristina Federica Victoria Antonia de la Santísima Trinidad de Borbón y de Grecia Duquesa de Palma de Mallorca came up in conversation at dinner with the out-laws last night.   I am absolutely certain that I've never cited Hello Magazine on the The Blob before, but you can find out there why we, republicans all, were talking about this spriglet of the Spanish Royal Family when we should have been scarfing down more chips.  Somebody made the point that royalty are 'just folk' in the sense that they are not more (or less) dishonest, adulterous, greedy or unkind than other people. It's just that, if they slip, their sins are brought sharply into focus and are reported widely in the press with a barely disguised glee.

I think it is important to emphasise this - that no group has a monopoly on "things of which the rest of us disapprove" a.k.a evil.  A few months ago I pointed at the irony that a Hasidic Jew (and galloping WWI militarist) played an important part in the creation of Zyklon-B which offed so many of his co-religionists in WWII.  As an antidote to this I have written about "our own" Chaim Herzog, who grew up in Dublin and became President of Israel. Because things, including famous Jews, always go in threes, we can now reflect on another Chaim, who was also President of Israel. C Herzog was a barrister and soldier.  C. Weizmann was a scientist.

One of the several classes I look forward to teaching each week at The Institute, is the Yr3 Food Microbiology practical where we investigate the biochemical properties of various groups of bacteria which play a role of food production or food spoilage.  We're winding up the course now with Clostridium spp. which can grow in the absence of air, survive boiling water and make the most toxic substance known.   Dr Weizmann was a fermentation chemist before the term was invented.  Indeed some people call him the father of industrial fermentation.  He is famous for having developed an efficient and cheap process for making acetone - an essential precursor of the explosive and propellant cordite.  To do this he used a pure culture of Clostridium acetobutylicum which enzymatically converts starch into a mixture of acetone / butanol / ethanol in a 3:6:1 ratio.  These different products cane be separated and purified by distillation. Acetone is known to normal people as the distinctively smelling solvent marketed as paint-thinner or nail-polish remover.  You get a whiff of acetone when talking to some diabetics - and also people on starvation diets -  because it is a breakdown product of fat-metabolism.  Usually our medium-term energy reserves are held as the complex polysaccharide glycogen, but when that is all depleted we start to burn fat.  Ketones in the blood is one of the conditions that can be diagnosed by your doctor from a dipstick in a urine sample.

So important was the production of cordite in WWI, that several gin factories were commandeered by the British Government and repurposed for distilling the excretions of C.acetobutylicum to make more artillery shells to sow into the mud of Flanders.  To feed the maw of these factories after supplies of maize dried up or were diverted to feeding people, a scheme was hatched whereby thousands of bushels of horse-chestnuts Aesculus hippocastanum were gathered from English woodlots, milled and shovelled into fermenation vats. That's a another reason why it's important to preserve trees.  Horse-chestnuts are mildly toxic to us but their carbohydrates are relished by many sorts of bacteria.

As a charming and educated person Weizmann got to be personal friends with senior politicians including Prime Ministers David Lloyd-George and Arthur Balfour.  They recognised the extra-ordinary contribution that Weizmann had made to the war effort and are said to have asked him, like fairy-tale potentates, what he desired as a reward.  Weizmann had little use for money and asked instead for a homeland for his people. Some of the powers-that-be at that time fantasised about having the central African colony of Uganda (almost entirely empty - except for rather a lot of invisible black people) fulfill this role.  I think it was the absurdity of imagining their dinner-jacketted pal's starched wing-collar wilting in the jungle humidity that made them issue the momentous Balfour Declaration and encourage Jews to start the greening of Palestine.  Israel and its neighbours have woven a large part of the carpet of the History of The West over the last 65 years.  If it hadn't been for Dr Weizmann's careful attention to his petri-dishes and test-tubes we'd live in a very different world.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

A sheep's tale

Proto-Indo-European PIE is the mother of almost all the languages of Europe.  The exceptions being Basque (Euskara) which comes from Mars and Finnish (Suomi), Estonian (Eesti) and Hungarian (Magyar) which come from somewhere in North-Central Asia and are members of the Finno-Ugric family of Uralic languages.  That's Uralic as in Ural Mountains.  Such diversity make life infinitely more interesting for those who travel in Europe.  But the rest of us speak dialects of the same language which spread from Central Central Asia 5000 years ago.

How do we know this?  Largely because of the work of August Schleicher a German linguist &word-lover who was born on this day in 1821.  His magisterial, obsessive Compendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen (1861) a Comparative Grammar of Indo-European Languages was das Buch on the subject for the rest of the century at least.  Comparative linguistics is an interesting science, especially helpful when you're living with someone who speaks a different language - you can, with a little imagination and a large vocabulary, try synonyms and archaisms to get to a mutual understanding.  We don't, for example, use the word porte for a door but the fellow who minds the door is still a porter.

Schleicher's theory of language was explicitly evolutionary, and thought out (according to Schleicher) before he ever read Darwin's contemporary theory of biological evolution.  Languages are born by fragmentation from a common ancestor in the way we believe that many biological species arise by becoming separated from the main population and changing to suit their novel situation.  But a lot of biological change is driven, not so much by natural selection, but by more-or-less random could-go-either-way changes.  This is especially true when the breakaway group is small.  Every native Central South American (Olmecs, Aztecs, Maya, Inca, Yanamami, Zapotec, Guarani) is blood-group O for example - presumably because the small group of hunters who schlepped across the Bering land-bridge to Alaska were all related and all group O.  Their descendants walked all the 15,000km way to Tierra del Fuego over the next 10,000 years.  Schleicher was the first person to think of representing relationships among languages as a family tree - a technique we use all the time to compare the sequence of genes and proteins.

Schleicher and subsequent PIE researchers have deduced the location of the original PIEs from the words that all the descendant languages have in common.  Many of these were gathered together into what has become known as Schleicher's Fable:
Are you sitting comfortably?

Avis akvāsas ka
Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam. Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.

Which being translated goes:

The Sheep and the Horses (Oves Equos-que in Latin)
[On a hill,] a sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses." The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool." Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

The frontiers are shoved

Of my 20 odd hours in contact with students each week, 5 are assigned to 'project supervision'.  This is partly so that there are a few hours a week when both you and any final-year project students you own are available for consultation, and partly so that a group of them have an adult in the room as they work.  The adult is there for Health and Safety, but I also find myself fielding questions about weird results and giving unsolicited advice about what to do next and where to find the aliquotter, more pipette-tips or the back-up pot of nutrient agar.  Many of my colleagues turn those hours into productive marking of student submissions or getting some quiet time to read the scientific literature.  We are half way through the second batch of projects, so results are starting to come in.

In the middle of last week, after the storm, there were only a few students in and I was earwigging on a conversation between one of them and her supervisor.  He was clearly very pleased at the fact that some of her test-tubes had changed colour.  This is no mad-scientist metaphor but what actually happens in a lot of microbiology: things are set up so that if some particular metabolic process occurs then the test-tube or petri-dish goes pink or black or metallic green.  It's often rather pretty when the kids break open their stack of plates from the previous week's experiments.  Mais revenons nous a nos microbes.  As the impact of what he was seeing sunk in, my colleague said "I've been in this game for 30 years and this is only the second time I've discovered something useful".  That makes me one ahead of him: I've been at it for a bit longer and have had three original thoughts in my work as a scientist that proved to be a) true and b) interesting.  Two of them got published and we were scooped by another group in the most recent one. Qualified dang!, because for me it's not really about getting furthest first fastest.

I got a teensy bit frantic, and asked the five people in the room if any of them had a  camera to record The Moment.  But they all looked at me like I was a teensy bit raving. Maybe so, but I know how infrequently the creative thought is captured.  Like a well constructed play another of my colleagues bumbled in at that moment and he had a camera "of course". He was easily persuaded to snap a couple of shots of the perps looking happy and holding their parti-coloured test-tubes.  I can't tell you more about the nature of the result because I'd have to kill you and I don't know where half of you live.  This is partly because I didn't follow the full details of what the colour changed showed but mainly because it has the potential to generate significant intellectual property as well as improving the health and happiness of millions of large white people.

I was there.  Stoked!

Monday 17 February 2014

Not clearing up - yet

After the labours of the day before we spent Sunday down on the Waterford coast assessing the damage from the Darwinday Storm.  With our odd bits of tree fallen out of ditches and field boundaries at home, it was clear that we were in the ha'penny place when it came to storm damage.  As we travelled South, there were dozens of fresh-cut wide-diameter log-ends looming out of fields and woodlots where they had been cut off to clear the road.  On the way down between New Ross and Waterford City, we passed the usual sign advertising a trailerful of logs for burning at €100.  This trailer, so that there shall be no mistake, is parked groaning with wood under the advertisement.

When we got to The Beloved's home place on the Waterford coast we found four enormous trees down and one more tree, bigger than any we had handled, but looking by comparison to its neighbours a mere twig.  These monsters had been rocked out of the earth as the wind veered from West to South-West bringing up a hemispherical root ball between 3 and 5 meters in diameter.  Two of them were lying parallel to each other and filling half the garden so you could walk from end to end and side to side without touching the ground.  The other three had somehow contrived to fall due South, so that most of their length was lying out in the neighboring farmer's field.  We were down to arrange which of the neighbours was to help clear the debris for the firewood.

A couple of days previously the Bean an Tí (as we call the chatelaine / господиня будинку here) had been surveying the damage when a man with a van pulled up and said that, for €1000 he would clear it all up for firewood.  Knowing the price of a trailer of wood, she was confused enough by this offer to believe that the Van-man was offering her €1000 for the privilege of reducing her property to a marketable commodity.  But no, in post-tiger Ireland, he was expecting to profit at each end of the transaction.  I'm glad to report that the neighbour across, seeing a strange van parked opposite came over in time to assure the entrepreneur that the neighbours would sort the problem out in a neighbourly way and there was no question that €1000 was going to change hands. 

As I've suggested it was hard to fit the whole mass of timber on the property when horizontal, yet the sum total of the damage was one broken clothes-line.  Even the empty dog-kennel, usually parked beside the biggest of all the fallen trees, was perched at the edge of the hole that the roots had vacated.  This was a considerable source of relief to me because I'd been trying for the last year and more to get that tree felled out because it was so close to the house. Much easier to deal with when it's on the ground.  We have to take a little stock before we actually start this tidy up. It's going to take time whichever way you cut it.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Clearing up

We were all three out at 0800 hrs yest-morning.  Not quite First Light, but we had another tree down in our lane over the last 24 hours, so we had to clear that out of the way of our neighbours and any mountain-walkers that need to go up the hill.  It took us the bulk of 2 hours, with me on the chain-saw and TB and La Manch' hauling away the brash.  But there is now a clearway.  Not quite the same as clearing the county roads that was going on across the country on Wednesday but satisfying to get done.  After that we walked down through the fields to fetch up the sheep for ultra-sound scanning in the evening.  There are a lot more trees down out of our field boundaries: an elder Sambucus nigra, the East half of rowan Sorbus aucuparia and the top of an elderly multi-branched ash Fraxinus excelsior in a part of the ditch called The Fairy Village when the girls were growing up here, and at least huge gnarly old hawthorn Crataegus monogyna.  Our efforts to deplete our many wood-piles up the chimney have received a bit of a set-back.  What's quite interesting is that all these trees survived Storm Darwin but were clearly 'a bit shook' by that and succumbed to a lesser blow a tuthree days later.  Indeed that's what we have been warned about by the Sages of Met Eireann and AA Roadwatch: it's not all over when the wind stops singing.

It was a lovely day in any case.  The sun was up, if a bit watery through light clouds and the temperature felt mild in the light breeze.  I wish that I could have just sat on the bench outside the front of the house and looked at the mountain across the valley.

But there were places (Crowe's, the Home Field) to go to and trees to dismember.  In the evening, and conveniently half an hour early, the ultrasound man came with his kit in a nifty little custom-engineered trailer: half of which unfolds as a chute for catching each ewe in turn and half is the VDU unit which displays the contents of her uterus.  As ever, I got to be catcher trying to wrastle the yellow-eyed monsters into submission - preferably near the entry to the trailer.  As ever, I took at least one tumble into the sheep-shit and smacked a fence-post with my knee.  A different set of muscles was in play compared to chain-sawing, so I got the full body work-out.  It was almost too late, but I did finally get to sit on the bench watching the last of the evening light as I reflected on how much we have to be grateful for.  Not least the lambing forecast:
Empty Single Twins Trips
5 6 5 1

Saturday 15 February 2014

A little tip

When the radio feller from AA Roadwatch says "slow down and allow extra time for your journey", do it!  I left for work in dry, almost balmy  (for February) weather on the morning after the DarwinDay storm had lashed the country and felled numerous trees and man-made structures.  As I came over the shoulder of Tomduff Hill there was an abrupt change in the look-and-feel of the weather.  You often see this in the Blackstairs: clouds roiling up to the ridge on one side and evaporating there.  It must be the updrafts.  The Blackstairs run North to South (more of less) so they cast a clear rain-shadow in the East away from the prevailing, wet, Atlantic, weather.

ANNyway, as I came to the top it started to flurry snow, which didn't get blizzardy or notably thick but it was enough to distract me.  Down towards the flat-lands of the Midlands I motored along with a little more caution.  On the last hillock before the road definitely flattens out approaching Bagnelstown and the River Barrow, there is a sharpish left turn which I always take slowly because you never know what mad lead-foot is going to be coming the other way.  That morning, I was that mad lead-foot because the drain had been weeping water across the road surface all night and the snap down in temperature had frozen it to a rink.  Accordingly I skated, still parallel to the direction of travel, right across the road, lost a wing and the right side of the mud-guard on the rough grass verge and then continued onwards and upward to mount a much more solid stone wall.  I perched there, dazed, at a 45 degree angle for two or three seconds, and then lurched out through the door which at that angle was rather like the escape-hatch on a submarine.  I started calling the usual suspects: not The Beloved because I had her phone for charging on company time but our Garagiste, and the AA, and a neighbour on whom I could count to relay the essential facts to home.  I also called into work to say I'd be missing the 9am class (at least).  Then I sat down to wait.  It was sunny, not too cold, I was okay,  Then I saw a lady walking along the road towards me.  She lived in the nearest house and asked a) was I okay? and b) would I like a cup of tea?  Only in Ireland.  As I waited I got two more offers or tea and about a dozen enquiries about my well-being and one chap stopped looking for directions to the NCT station.

But the Grand Prize for Community Solidarity has to go to the young chap in his school uniform, who got out of a car and suggested that the AA were never going to pull me off the ditch with their underpowered overladen van and would it help if he went back to get the family tractor.  I said "sure"; he trotted off to the "over there - first house on the left beyond the cross". and returned with said tractor and a strap which we threaded round the axel.  Two-six heave, and I was down on the road again; the engine was working and so was the steering so I parked in neat enough close to the verge and he went away.  Ten minutes later he reappeared still driving the tractor - clearly he was going to drive it to school as he was already late and had missed his lift.  Hat's Off.  That chap is going to go far, and everyone around him will be better off for his presence.

Friday 14 February 2014


I've written about Icelanders before because many of them have yet to adopt fixed surnames.  It is now an almost unique peculiarity in Europe.  In Ireland by contrast we've had surnames for a very long time and they seem to predict something about our politics and possibly other stuff as well.

A lot of old jokes about Wales, Welsh and the Welsh hinges on the paucity of surnames in the Principality:
Agent is parachuted into a remote part of Wales during the war, having been told that his contact lives in Ffynnoncapelgwyrdd next to the Post Office.  He finds his way to the village as dusk falls, identifies the house, and rings the bell.  When the door is opened he says "The daffodils are early this year". Which elicits the reply "Oh no, I'm Jones the Bread, you want Jones the Spy at number 33".
Evans, Jones, Davies are all clearly derived from first names. Such names are common in England but occupational surnames like Smith, Baker, Cooper, Thatcher are too.

A couple of night ago, Hidalgo La Manch' (our man from La Mancha) was telling us that, back home, he is known by several Apodos (nicknames) which he has unwillingly inherited because of the various pecularities of his forebears.  They come down from both his mother's and father's family and are essential for anyone who wants to 'place' him in a "where are his people buried?" sense.   I won't write them down all in the same sentence because someone back home may be able to googlidentify him. His town includes dynasties known as sartén-puerco, cabezon, chimenea, liebre-pie; which might be translated as skillet-pig, big-head, hearth and hare's-foot but which are in some cases loaded with baggage: in Spain you eat cerdo because puerco verges on the obscene, as cochon is said to in French.  I found this all irresistibly quaint and delightful, and I wished we had that sort of thing here.

Then yesterday I was off collecting water samples for The Great Lithium Project, and was trying to establish if one of my contributers knew another by the name of Kavanagh.  Kavanagh is a very common name hereabouts - the local king when there were several kings to each province was called MacMorrough Kavanagh - so we tried to establish whether my water-donor was a Butt (as in 'kind of short') Kavanagh or a Bone-setter Kavanagh. And then I remembered that across the valley we have Red Nevilles and Black Nevilles who don't all have the requisite hair-colour but have inherited the name from ancestors who did.

I've written about the strange names that sailors use for particular dishes.  They also have highly ritualised nicknames for people based on their surnames.  The derivation of some of these are quite clear: all Millers are 'Dusty'; Murphys tend to be 'Spud'.  Some of them are straight out of musical-hall or more recently from television: 'Dolly' Parton or 'Perry' Mason.  'Aggie' Weston pays tribute to the redoubtable Anges Weston founder of the Royal Naval Sailors' Rests in Portsmouth and Devonport.  But why 'Pincher' Martin?  'Scrumpy' Marshall?  'Nobby' Clarke?  'Buster' Crabb?  You can't get anywhere trying to chase down the derivation of the first because the WWW is swamped with the book of the same name by William Golding.

Thursday 13 February 2014

The Darwinday Storm

I wrote just over a month ago about The Night of the Big Wind which ripped across Ireland on the night of 6th Jamuary 1839.  I'm told that the storm which made landfall in the WEA yesterday afternoon is being dubbed the Darwinday Storm in England, that's fine with me.  It was all forecast by the boffins at Met Eireann, so there was time to prepare for the worst that Mother Nature can deliver.  Probably not enough time, because there are still drains blocked and infrastructure damaged from the last storms which have been tooling in from the Atlantic these last two months.

At 1400hrs, I was settling in to reach a lab on introductory microbiology with my first year cell biologists.  My office mate reported that her class (mostly mature students with their own cars) had fled for home before they were benighted in The Institute.  This was probably a foolish move because in the space of about 20 minutes before our eyes, the weather got really wild out there.  Sheets of horizontal rain licked across the car-park below us and people were seen tottering about barely under control.  The trees were 'lively'.  As the storm raged, I got a series of txts from The Beloved reporting which roads were (im)passable nearer home.  Then she announced that power was down in the mountains.  After class at about 1730 when I was settling in to makey-uppy another exam, she phoned to urge me home while there was still light in the Western sky; so I left.

It wasn't 'mayhem out there' because the storm (gusts 170km/h recorded at Shannon Airport) had travelled through and was now duffing up the Scots, but there was a lot of loose stuff on the road and I had to stop three times and divert once because of crews clearing the roads of gurt big lumps of fallen timber.  I was pulled up short 60m from home because a medium sized sciach (Crataegus monogyna) had come down like a toll-barrier across our lane.  I was then glad that I'd sharpened the chain-saw on Sunday and chidding myself for not filling it with gas.  Our stalwart poly-tunnel is still there, but TB and MFLM had had a busy afternoon preventing it from being frapped into oblivion and disappearing into the next county.   I've just been out for a walk in the moonlight and found a large branch of Scots' Pinus sylvestris has descended into our lane beyond our entrance but beside the garden.  I'll have to get the chain-saw out as soon as it's light enough to see and reduce that to manageable chunks before work.

The crews who clear the roads in Ireland are 'just folk': our neighbour was off about his business at 2pm when he found a pile of branches and debris across the road.  He promptly went home for his saw and spent the next 4 hours clearing the way to the next village.  He said that there were 20 saws working through all the obstructions from both ends - when things need doing we don't sit on our thumbs waiting for The County Council to arrive.  But we're still waiting for power - thankfully my laptop works on steam.  As there are 260,000 customers without electricity across the country, this may be some time.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Darwinday 2014

Wake up me hearties and hear the clarion call.
Today is Darwin's birthday, a science-geek festival
This time last year, I wrote an essay about Darwin's careful science and attention to detail, only through which he was able to construct the bigger picture.  In 1982, almost a whole career ago, it was the centenary of Darwin's death.  I was  graduate student in Boston University coming to the end of my PhD program.  Boston is filled with colleges - Boston College, BU, Brandeis, Harvard, MIT, Tufts, U.Mass, and so on to 50 less well known places.  But IIRC, the only place that chose to celebrate this event was Salem State College.  So me and some pals from the Ecology basement went North and spent the day taking part in a symposium in honour of the Great Man.  It was pretty good - worth the 50km round trip - but I could not remember whom I'd heard.  The line-up apparently included my mentor Lynn Margulis, Ernst Mayr who wrote The Book, and Don Johanson who discovered Lucy who walked the Earth upright 3.5mya.  Good indeed!

Things were much bigger in 2009 at the bicentennial of Darwin's birth but his cult is sinking a little below the horizon again.  It is only the few, like me, who have kept the faith and remember The Great Man's Birthday every year.  For about a decade, when I was i/c a slush fund at work, I'd buy 6 dozen Dunkin' Donuts (the large gaudy ones in a pink and orange box - mine's a maple-frosted) and stagger into coffee-break with them on Der Tag.  When the slush-fund dried up, I paid with me own money.  Everyone was duly appreciative - free food was still important to graduate students in the early 1990s - but a little bemused.  You could see them thinking "Oh, it's that time of year again . . . glom!" rather than knowing already.  Eventually, I got tired of pushing this tradition single-handedly up-hill and stopped doing the donuts,

You can try and find a Darwinday event near you, but don't hold your breath, the site is only as good as what it is told, and knows nothing about the talk in Dublin this evening. My российские читатели will have to go to Новосибирск where events start at 4pm local time, which if the surreal promotional video is anything to go be, should be exciting and weird.

I think its salutary in this era of ultra-specialisation to remember that Charles Darwin was a bit of a polymath.  He wrote full-length books on (ABC) Annelid earthworms, Barnacles, Coral Reefs, Coleoptyles and plant hormones, Climbing plants, Descent of Man, Expression of the emotions, Fertilisation in Orchids (wild and wonderful), Insectivorous plants.  These tend to be written in a ponderous Victorian style but are probably more worth reading than racier stuff published last year.

Here's a quiz. Darwin spent 20 years of his life working on barnacles, so they must be important. But which Phylum (major division of the living world) are they part of?
Phylum Description No. Species
Annelida segm. worms 17,000
Arthropoda beetles/spiders 1.1 million
Bryozoa Moss animals 5000
Chordata us 100,000
Cnidaria jellyfish 11,000
Echinodermata starfish/urchins 7000
Mollusca snails/oysters 112,000
Nematoda roundworms 1 million
Nemertea ribbonworms 1200
Platyhelminthes flatworms 25,000
Porifera sponges 5000
Tardigrada waterbears 1000
Not a clue? You're in good company. When I gave this quiz a couple of years ago to 50 of the brightest people in the country in one of the premier biological science departments in Ireland, nobody knew the correct answer.  Narrower and more specialised puts the bigger picture out of focus - a salutary lesson for the day that's in it!

Tuesday 11 February 2014

A Time of Gifts

Nobody would call me sporty.  When people ask me "do you play tennis?", I reply "I have played tennis" and squash, soccer, rugger, field hockey, water polo, shot-putt, golf, badminton, boxing. It was part and parcel of my very expensive education. I could wish that Irish radio didn't devote the whole of Saturday and Sunday afternoon to the coverage of, or commentary on, sporting events.  There's more to life than that.  But I recognise sport's value: it gets people off the sofa which will keep them thinner and fitter and less of a burden on the health-care system.  It also provides a forum where a person can achieve a personal best regardless of the result of whatever competition is involved.

My only achievement that didn't involve a sofa or some aspect of deep thought happened in two stages.  In 1989, I walked 700km from Sagres in the bottom left corner of Portugal up the coast to the border with Spain at Caminha. After six weeks of solitary trudge, I came round a bend in the road North of Viana do Castelo and realised that the distinctively mountainy mountain ahead of me was in Spain - I had traversed a country on foot!  Not a lot of people can say that, unless you count the Vatican as a country. Fifteen years later in 2004, I took up where I had left off and walked for another 800km across Spain to France. This trek was my Triumph of the Will although less spectacular than the exploits of Emil Zatopek or Jesse Owen. By the time I pulled into St Jean Pied de Porte in France, a full rucksack (12kg) lighter about the waist, I thought I had discovered something significant about humanity - both my own and the nature of my conspecifics.  So, over two or three intense days in and around Bidarray in the French Basque country, I conjured it all up again and wrote it all down before it faded like last night's dream.  Despite some effort hawking the manuscript around over several months, nobody seemed interested in publishing it. Maybe it needs to mature for 44 years before being exposed to daylight.

44 years is the length of time that elapsed between Patrick Leigh Fermor setting out from the Hoek van Holland and walking to Constantinople and getting the first volume of his account of the journey published as A Time of Gifts in 1977.  Paddy Fermor was born on 11th Feb 1915. In 1933, there were no motorways, the program for building the autobahn system in Germany didn't start until the NSDP came to power that same year. There was far less motorised traffic so it was easier to walk for hundreds of miles without getting whacked into oblivion by some rogue driver.  But don't come away with the idea that a long walk across Europe is nowadays not possible.  Like any other, it starts with one step.  Nevertheless A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and Water are wonderful books: a tale of insouciant courage and openness to the possible and a salutary lesson is how little you need to survive. Fermor set off on his long walk East in the middle of Winter wearing a greatcoat and hob-nail boots.  Carrying little more than a spare shirt and a book of poetry, he was 18 years old and ready to walk out into his own life - the records indicate that he was not really cut out for the life his parents imagined for him by paying for a very expensive education remarkably similar to my own - not least because it happened in the same school.  He chose instead a quite absurdly romantic alternative life, walking to Constantinople, loafing around Greece afterwards learning δημοτική γλώσσα demotic Greek and all the folk-songs and history that his capacious memory could accommodate, and living in sin with a Roumanian Countess until the out-break of WWII.  He spent much of the war behind enemy lines working with partisans in Albania and Crete.

When I talk to my more interesting students, I often wonder if they wouldn't be better off in UL the university of life rather than tricking about writing up experiments that aren't science because the answer is already known and trying to recall other men's thoughts come exam time.  Other, possibly equally interesting, students I barely know because they have spend the first 2/3rds of the year mitching off most of their classes. They'd be a lot better off if they had spent the last 20 weeks walking across Europe.  Six days a week, a modest 20km a day, and they could have walked the 2550km from Cherbourg to Istanbul. And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium. If you like WB Yeats.

Monday 10 February 2014

Soon to be unacceptable

Boxing is called by the Greeks πυγμαχία and translated by aficionados as the 'Sweet Science' and aka The Noble Art.  I started boxing, in a ring, with ropes and a blue and red corner when I was seven or eight years old in primary school. The boys in my class used to do it for half an hour after lunch one day a week - with the full support and approval of the school and supervised by one of the teachers.  I was rather good at it despite being small, at least partly because I have a bit of a blunted affect.  Not the sort caused by schizophrenia, depression, PTSD or brain damage and within the normal range but enough so that I had no sense of empathy with the other small child whose face I was thumping.  For the same reason I was rather good as a soccer full-back because I wasn't afraid of wading into an opposing forward and cutting the legs out from under him.  I modelled myself on 'Nobby' Stiles who effectively closed out the Portuguese star Eusébio during the 1966 World Cup.

Last year, in the London Olympics, Ireland was raving about a young boxer called Katie Taylor who pummelled her way to the top and won a gold medal in her class.  In exactly the same way as we cannot, should not, try to prevent black people from becoming President of the United States or homosexuals from having a shot at wedded bliss, it is desperately unPC to think that girls really shouldn't be boxing. But I bet a lot of people, with rather sharper affect than me, were thinking it. I'm sure that, before Katie Taylor surfaced a tuthree years ago, most people didn't even know that women's boxing was a fully organised sport with rankings, training, bouts, champs and trainers.

Today is the 81st anniversary of Primo Carnera's 'victory' in the ring over Ernie Schaaf.  It is only memorable at this distance of time because Carnera's KO blow put young Schaaf into a coma from which he never recovered, he died on Valentine's day at the age of 24.  What a waste, he looks like such a nice boy.  But Schaaf's death was by no means out of the ordinary, he was exactly on the button for average age of death in a study of 334 fatalities in the boxing ring over just over half a century.  The Department of Neurosurgery team at UCSD carried that analysis from an extraordinary database called the Velasquez Fatality Collection.  These data were compiled by a humble trolley-driver from NYC called Manuel Velasquez who knew a lot of boxers and didn't like the way his friends were being injured and killed so that so that some hundreds of people could park their humanity outside of Madison Square Gardens for a couple of hours and bet money on the outcome of a bloody encounter in the ring between two fellow men.

In my list of things currently seen as unexceptionable or even desirable I forgot boxing.  So I'm happy to use the memory of poor Ernie Schaaf's death as the lever to rectify the omission. You possibly think that boxing is just another sport or that we've come a long way from encounters between retiarius and secutor in the Roman arena or the description of bare-knuckle bruising described by Hazlitt in 1822.  We haven't. Noble Art, my arse.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Hattie Carroll

"She was 51 years old and gave birth to ten children"
It's hard to believe that it's 51 years since the sordid events of 9th Feb 1963.  HL Mencken "The Sage of Baltimore" was several years dead in 1963 so he wasn't available to write one of his scathing polemics against injustice; so it was left to Bob Dylan to write his hauntingly moving tribute in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll".  Hattie Carrol was a barmaid and general dogsbody in the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore.  That night local rich-boy Billy Zantzinger was on the tear in town getting steadily tanked up.  Which was unfortunate because he was an ugly drunk, prone to thuggery and bullying.  He'd already assaulted a number of employees in restaurants and bars when he lurched into the Emerson in the wee hours of the 9th of February. When Ms Carroll didn't bring more booze quick enough he hit her at the base of the neck with a toy cane that he'd been toting around all evening.  It wasn't a gun or an iron bar but he was enough to loosen a lump from one of Ms Carroll's morbidly hardened arteries and send the clot up into her brain.  She collapsed within minutes and died 8 hours later in hospital. While she was being taken away, young Billy laid into his wife, punching her out and hitting her with his shoe.  So his assault on Ms Carroll wasn't personal, but part of a generalised spoiled-child rage.

Zantzinger could afford to hire good lawyers and so he did. They weaseled their client out of a murder-rap and got him convicted of manslaughter blaming Ms Carroll for being stressed by his verbal abuse rather than killed directly by the piffling blow.  We've come along way from then: being drunk is much less credible as an excuse for doing evil.  Time reported "For the assault on the hotel employees: a fine of $125. For the death of Hattie Carroll: six months in jail and a fine of $500. The judges considerately deferred the start of the jail sentence until September 15, to give Zantzinger time to harvest his tobacco crop".   Oh, did I forget to mention that Hattie Carroll was black?  Her death and Dylan's song was another nail in the coffin of US apartheid but it took the whole of the rest of the 1960s to chip away at that ludicrous and anachronistic cancer in American society. As I elaborated two days ago, here in Ireland we're trying to dismantle the legal foundation for another gross inequality based on something that is surely not the fault of those who are oppressed by its unfairness.  Martin Luther King's famous ""I have a dream" speech was uttered 6 months after Hattie Carroll's death and that made a difference.  In 51 years time our children will look back through youtube archives and trib Rory O'Neill's passionate articulation of how prejudice comes from within as a similarly powerful catalyst.

Nearly 40 years afterwards on 18 December 2000, folk singer Kirsty McColl was killed while swimming in Mexico: run down and killed instantly by a power boat that was being driven too fast too near inshore.  The boat was owned by another rich man, supermarket millionaire Guillermo González Nova, but the culpable homicide rap was taken by one of the crew who claimed to be at the wheel.  This fellow's prison sentence was replaced by a fine and he was required to pay punitive damages to McColl's family.  In all, apart from the cost of lawyers, McColl's death was done and dusted by paying out $2,200.

WolframAlpha says that $500 in 1963 adjusted for inflation is equal to $2360 in 2000.  So we haven't really come that far have we?  Except to say that Kirsty McColl was white and was brushed aside as casually as Hattie Carroll.  Above all The Law doesn't want to stop rich men making money.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Polpo in the Park

Our Man From La Mancha was telling us the other day about the ermita (hermitage) beside the river a few km to the South of his town. The chapel was founded there because a stone head of "The Virgin" (Venus? Juno?) was found in the river. On certain days in the late Spring, the faithful of the town (and a lot of hangers-on) carry a statue of La Virgen del Buen Parto from the parish church to this peripheral holy place. Buen Parto - safe delivery - has echoes of St Brigid in her guise as guardian of fertility and childbirth.  Having arrived they have an enormous picnic and a lot of drink, and the young people party into the wee hours.  In the old days they used to sleep out there in the fields and I daresay some of them practiced a little fertility testing.  That story transported me back to the Summer of 2004 when I was trudging through Spain.  I stopped in a small and ordinary town in La Rioja, where the refugio de peregrinos was situated in the attic of the parish church.  

In the early afternoon, I was sacked out on a mattress on the floor writing up my journal when the parish priest heaved himself up the stairs and announced in Spanish and French (which I translated into English), invited all present who were willing to come out into the country and share in the annual picnic at a shrine about 2km out of town.  Who could say No to such an open-handed offer? Charity was embodied in that priest who, speaking for and representing the entire village, invited a handful indigent strangers to share in their annual celebration of community and good fortune.  There, under abundant shade trees, we put together and put down an unforgettable meal of simple things: a mixed salad, hot potatoes and chorizo, bread, olives, wine.  Octopus was boiled over an open fire, cut up and sent down the table on a board and out to neighbouring tables.  At the end of the afternoon, having been unable to refuse any of the food that was urged on me, I was barely able to move but the same priest was happy to drive us back to our temporary home.
That evening, happily acting the part of El Gordo de la Concha, I was sitting at a table in the refugio talking intensely about The Way with someone who looked suspiciously like JC himself. Up the stairs staggered a disheveled young Italian, looking like a quattrocento condottiere lucky to have escaped with his life from a sudden ambush.  He shrugged his rucksack to the floor, and slumped into a chair at our table, so drained he was barely able to speak.  I asked if I could make him a coffee and he croaked that he’d prefer water.  So I got up and fetched a glass from the kitchen and pushed my half full (never half empty on the Camino) bottle of water across to him.  Between sentences elaborating the tribulations of the long day in the broiling heat walking too far, too fast, “my” litre of water disappeared.  Someone else showed him where to sleep and carried his rucksack to an available mattress.  Much later that evening, after rest and food, he sought me out and shyly apologised for what might have seemed like a gross breach of quattrocento good manners.  “When you are exhausted, all you can think of is yourself”.  And my reply was “Gabriele, being exhausted is a common enough condition hereabouts; if we cannot share water, then that is the end of camaraderie, conscience and the Camino, all”.   But I was only able to utter such a sententious phrase, only able to Do The Right Thing for him because earlier in the day the plain people of La Rioja had done the same for me.