Tuesday 30 September 2014

Skool dinners

Those of us (N = 1) who have read all 400,000 words of The Blob from the beginning will know that we had two daughters who never went to school - and are now productive members of society, working hard in the catering trade, paying taxes. I hope they are saving enough money to support me in my old age because it looks like there won't be no pensions.
There's plenty of boys that will come hankering and gruvvelling around when you've got an apple, and beg the core off you; but when they've got one, and you beg for the core, and remind them how you give them a core one time, they make a mouth at you, and say thank you 'most to death, but there ain't a-going to be no core. Mark Twain
But we also had a son, born 18 years before his sisters, who had a wide experience of schools in four different countries.  When we returned from Boston to the North East of England, he was eight. We enrolled him in the local Roman Catholic primary school because it was nearest and also because Catholic schools had a reputation for being a bit more gung ho! for academics.  Paradoxically, in Ireland exactly the opposite conceit holds: there it's the Protestant schools that people try to edge their kids into [denying their belief in transubstantiation and the existence of any forebears up the road in the Catholic cemetery; and claiming to know the difference between a vicar and a rector]. Minority rules, OK.

ANNyway, The Belvoved and I were learning to be hands-off in the management of children at that early stage in our parenting career and we were both working. After a few attempts at making sure The Boy's lunch-box had a nutritious balanced meal in it and seeing it coming back uneaten, we stepped aside.  We knew he wasn't starving or suffering from vitamin deficiency, so we bought what we thought was suitable stuff for sandwiches every Saturday and left him to graze his own lunch from what was available in and behind the fridge. It turned out that he was pooling his exotica with the more conventional food that his pals brought to school and everyone seemed happy.

A few weeks later, The Beloved knocked off work early to meet the young feller at the school gate. The School Principal came across the play-ground and very discretely suggested that, if we couldn't afford the school dinners, there was a support fund to which we could apply for a subsidy. Sometimes in the rush out of the door, The Boy would put an apple in his lunchbox and set off for a day's education. Sometimes not even that, so when the lunch-box had come back empty and we thought that was good, it turned out the the same lunch-box had left home empty 7 hours earlier. Moderately red face for parents and on subsequent weekend shops we brought the boy along and got stuff, probably with more E-numbers, which was more likely either to be eaten or traded. My last rant on school-dinners landed a link in the comments which says that in some US States, The Man forbids food-trading by pupils in the canteen because of an irrational terror of a food-allergy suit.  That will just drive the trading into the toilets where, to the risks of allergy will be added the risks of coliform contamination.  Yes, yes, that form of toilet-trading is also discouraged in Protestant primary schools.

I think one of the reasons why we-the-parents were unwilling to micro-manage The Boy's lunch box was the innocent fun we derived from my HoD's. I was then working in the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and every Tuesday we had a lunch-time lunch-box seminar. I'd bring my cheese sandwich in a flour sack, but the HoD would open his orderly plastic lunch box when the visiting speaker had been introduced and started into his talk.  This lunch-box was carefully packed my HoD's wife and had a sandwich cut into quarters, some fruit and something for dessert.  Sometimes there would be, literally and locally audible, little moans of pleasure when he found that she had popped in a silver wrapped chocolate biscuit.

Monday 29 September 2014


We've met the cute-looking nerpa Pusa sibirica before when we had an excursion into the vastness of Lake Baikal.  Nerpas are the only living species of seal that is exclusively fresh-water in its habitat and are rudely successful there, gobbling up copepods by the ton in one of the most productive aquatic biomass factories on the planet. They do this with the help of teeth that can puncture straight through a human thumb, as my pal Russ the Fish showed me yesterday.  Seals: not cute to copepods, penguins etc. It seemed appropriate for the Russian Navy Военно-морской Флот Российской Федерации to name a nuclear hunter-killer submarine after such a creature and the keel was laid down for K-152 Nerpa in 1993. It was the tail end of a production line that had been building subs against armageddon all through the years of the Cold War.  But with the fall of communism, there was less need for such toys and K-152 almost didn't get built. Construction was put on hold until 2004, when the Indian Naval Service stumped up the money to complete the project.

I've written recently about the effectiveness for inert gases like sulphur hexafluoride and halons as fire-suppressants.  Halons are related to the CFCs which are depleting the ozone above our heads, but instead of being ChloroFluoroCarbons, they tend to be BromoFluoroCarbons in which the ozone-potent Chlorines are replaced by less destructive Bromines.  Halons are also chemically stable even under extremes of temperature and denser than air so they are really useful for displacing oxygen from around flaming objects and so stopping combustion.

Shortly after launching and before K-152 was turned over to the Indians, the ship was sent out into the Sea of Japan for sea-trials with more than 200 people aboard.  About 1/3 were military personnel and the rest were dock-yard mateys, technicians and bureaucrats monitoring progress as the trials continued.  Early on 8th November 2008 the fire-safety system was accidentally turned on without warning and two forward compartments of the vessel had their water-tight doors closed automatically and the area flooded with vaporized R-114B2 aka 1,2-dibromo-tetrafluoro-ethane or Halon 2402.  20 people died because they couldn't get on their oxygen-support-systems over their heads in time and nobody can breathe halon for more than a couple of minutes and live.  It is the kind of incident that brings home the fact that burning charcoal in a barbecue and the combustion of glucose in a cell are both exothermic reactions requiring oxygen. At least as many people were injured in the accident: many of them from frost-bite to the lungs - R-114B2 cools down (it's the latent heat of evaporation, stupid) as it vaporizes. The death rate among civilians was much higher 17/127 (13%) than among the naval personnel 3/81 (3%).  But it was ever thus in maritime disasters as we saw with the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. Naval and Merchant Marine discipline can be draconian but at least it trains the crew to do the right thing when it matters. The lung-freezing gave me a little frisson myself because something similar happened to my own grand-father when he was left up in an observation balloon over the North Sea in winter.

Nothing daunted by the deaths, Nerpa was renamed INS Chakra and commissioned into the Indian Naval Service in due course.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Neighbours so different

I have shown the sidebar clip from the periodic table in an earlier geeky post about the genetic code.  The point made was that the periodic table is full of information showing, among much else, that elements in the same column have similar chemical properties. Indeed it was these similaries that drove  Дми́трий Ива́нович Менделе́ев Dimitri Mendeleev to jigsaw the elements into the now familiar table. He used the consistencies of nature thus displayed to predict the existence and properties of elements that nobody had as yet discovered.  The one chemical formula that Joe Public can be guaranteed to recognise is H2O.  The next down in the series H2S is hydrogen "rotten-eggs" sulphide which is toxic and [so] smells rather rank. Chemists say the H2Se smells much worse and that H2Te is so foul that it causes even Marines on parade to ignore the staff sergeant and fan their noses in a demure fashion. Don't have anything to do with Po Polonium because you will die.  If you are normally curious you'll ask yourself why the first member of the series H2O doesn't smell at all.
These chemical trends and similarities are caused by the number of electrons available in the outer shell of each element. It is what makes chemistry an orderly and predictive science, so that methane with one carbon, has many similarities with ethane (2xC), propane (3xC) and butane (4xC) and . . . octane (8xC): they are all used as fuels for example.
Sulphur hexafluoride is inert in a rock solid way so that its residence time in the atmosphere is something like 2000 years.  But the equivalent compounds SeF6 and TeF6 are said to have a repulsive smell and an extremely unpleasant smell respectively.  And what about OF6 you may well ask.  And I may well answer that it doesn't exist because the Oxygen atom isn't big enough or have enough electrons to tolerate 6 Fluorines in close proximity.

But what I really wanted to draw you attention to is that the methane -> ethane equivalent disulfur decafluoride S2F10, far from being inert is a potent toxin and has been investigated as a potential chemical warfare agent being 4x more toxic than phosgene which was used to kill people in WWI. As I mentioned in my post about Sarin, we can be grateful that young Gefreiter A. Hitler was gassed in Flanders - it put the brakes on him authorizing the development more chemical warfare agents. Chemical Final Solution agents continued to be developed. The toxicity of disulfur decafluoride is thought to be caused by the separation of inert SF6 from SF4 which reacts with water in the lungs to form sulphurous acid and hydrofluoric acid. The latter is among the most active acids known and is capable of dissolving glass (it is used in etching), so can you imagine that it will make short and painful work on your lung epithelium.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Down With Cohorting

At The Institute we have just paired the 29 final year Biologists with 29 final year research projects. That divides them into two groups, for one of which I am to be Uncle Bob in overall avuncular control. That means that half the class are going to summit their career with us getting to grips with bioinformatics. Yesterday, I met with the B-Team (Go Bs Go) to explain to them what each project would likely entail.  I supervised 3 bioinformatics projects last year and it turned out that, to a close approximation, none (zero, nul, zonder, nix) of this year's cohort had had a sensible conversation with their predecessors or even really knew their names.  This is not like being at some megalopolis college with a year group of hundreds, it is a cosy family-sized sort of place.  I find it a little disconcerting that such a resource (last year's notes, hints about the pitfalls of particular courses, insights into the foibles of the lecturing staff) had remained untapped.  If our students were all monoglot Irish I'd be less shocked because our school system is rigidly hierarchical to a ridiculous and ultimately damaging extent. If you are in 3rd class of primary school, convention forbids you to talk to those short people in 2nd class or the über-mensch in 4th class.

When Dau.I and Dau.II were growing up in the Home Ed community (go HEN go), they were best-friends with another girl who was about their age and also educating herself at home.  When she turned 12, this young woman elected to enroll herself in the local secondary school to see how that worked - as an only child it could be a little lonely at home and she couldn't live with us ALL the time. Before coming to live near us, she had clocked a lot of miles - born in California, she'd lived in Mexico and Budapest, on a boat, in a bamboo beach hut and in a variety of other exotic places.  Her age cohort in her rural Irish secondary school seemed limited in their vision, infantile in their musical taste, obsessed with trivial differences in clothing and altogether not worth hanging out with. Accordingly she gravitated in the play-ground to a group of black&white gothettes 4-5 years older than her. HUGE FUSS among the staff at the school. But it died away when the incomer decided that a year of not very exciting rote-learning was enough and she dis-enrolled herself before the following September

When home educated children get together there is far less horizontal stratification - 12 y.os hang out with the teens and mind the toddlers and talk to everyone just like they would in a medieval village or a group of paleolithic hunter-gatherers. In ghetto schools in America, one of the best ways to combat illiteracy is to task a barely literate teenager to help a younger child to read - both kids improve their reading skills and the benefits seep out into other aspects of school-work.  Breakfast Clubs are extending their reach across Ireland to feed the children of the dispossessed before the school day.  If they work to improve educational outcomes, it may be nothing to do with calories. It could be that, by limiting the access to this resource to the numbers which can fit in a single extra-purposed class-room, the scheme encourages mixing among age-cohorts for half an hour before every school day. Maybe youngsters learn better from kids a couple of years older than from an adult who looks to be as old as a parent and behaves like one in authority.  And sadly, as my father found in his declining years, you cannot now have a meaningful and potentially educational relationship with an unrelated adult except at school - there are no pedophile in schools.

Listening to a teacher involved in a Breakfast Club on the wireless a couple of days ago, it turns out that you can feed more than 30 kids "because some come early and have finished before the late-comers arrive in their turn". Here's a scheme which is apparently working a huge improvement in educational progress but (fire?-)regulations limit the number of kids that can be in the room at the same time.  Tell me that this isn't true!!  But it is. My pal Russ has a pal Mick who runs a Breakfast (and Lunch and Dinner) Club at a day-care centre not 100 km from here.  He thought that nutritional vegetables and cheap cuts of meat could be cooked up to feed his youthful customers a solid, hot and filling meal for half nothing. And show that such a thing was possible back home as well. But the Environmental Health Authority forbade anything like that because the cooking facilities were not up to the standard that they required for hospitals, staff-canteens, school kitchens and other public feeding stations. Only with reluctance was an electric toaster allowed.  The tail is wagging the dog.

Friday 26 September 2014

Speak Like a Europ Day

We just had (19/Sep/14) Talk Like a Pirate Day with its own translator. Which is all good fun. Far too late in the day, I twigged that TODAY is European Day of Languages.  I'm going to get very little 'work' done with a raft of Lingo Triv to work through.  Playing Isn't Bob Clever is all good fun until they tell him he doesn't know where Aleut is spoke. Actually the site is running Dead Slow today, but will presumably be there tomorrow as will Magyar,  and Bob. You can experiment to see the whole thing in different-speak by tricking about with the URL:  /en-GB/ --> /fr-FR/ works for example.  I may report back tomorrow after I've mopped up the puddle under my seat. Please get out there and surprise a Ukrainian with хороший день. The future of a warless world depends upon communicating with The Other. And don't limit it to "European" languages, they are almost all imported overlays on Proto-original-Euskeri.  Europeans now speak Tagalog, Tamil and Turkish.

Talkin' deep about sulphur hexafluoride

We're at the end of week 2 of the teaching term at The Institute and remarkably, I've got 100% attendance record at my lecture courses.  Too few points on that plot to be considered data but it's a change from last year where I gave my first lecture in The Goldfish Bowl on the 1st floor in full view of three members of my final year chemistry class who were chatting in a corner of the floor below. But apart from turning up and sitting, down this year's cohorts are also contributing to the discourse. On Tuesday I was doing my schtick about James Lovelock and CFCs, which I use as a softening up exercise at the beginning of the course to show some examples where embedded certainties and unquestioned assumptions were exposed as wrong.  It takes people with moral courage and creativity to buck the trend and point out that there is another way of looking at the world. I am trying to inspire my students with those qualities because I so conspicuously lack them myself. My front-row prop-forward student piped up saying
 "don't CFCs make your voice go all deep if you inhale?"
"No that's helium" I said, before I'd started thinking.
"That makes your voice pitch higher" and he forbore to add "duh" because these students are scrupulously polite. And of course he was correct. Helium is much less dense that the components of air and CFCs like Freon are much more dense and the sounds we generate are altered by the physics of the local environment.
I tasked him to find a youtube video of the phenomenon in the 3 hour gap between the two lectures. But I couldn't contain my curiosity and went hunting on my own account to find this demonstration that sulphur hexafluoride is so much denser than air that you can float a tin-foil boat on a tank of the stuff.  It then shows a lot of grown-ups in suits falling about giggling as they talk funny having inhaled SF6. from the vat.  As I said in class, the clip is about twice as long as it needs to be, and you had to be there to find it hilarious.

Turns out the SF6 is really interesting. Like CFCs it is remarkably inert, very stable - which means it doesn't react with anything under normal terrestrial conditions. The breathe-in-and-talk-sexy exercise shows, for example, that it doesn't react with the wet epithelium of your lungs. As an inert fluid, it is used as a highly effective electrical insulator - it packs in round the smallest components on circuit boards and stops any wayward sparking. In a similar way halons (BrFCs) are potent fire-suppressants because they are heavier than air and so displace oxygen by surrounding the seat of flames and filling the area from the bottom with inert gas.

But SF6 acts quite differently to CFCs in the upper atmosphere.  CFCs react with UV light in the stratosphere to shed the fluorine and chlorine atoms which catalytically and catastrophically react with ozone. That depletes the ozone layer which protects us all from the DNA-damaging UV radiation that causes skin cancer. SF6 on the other hand is still stable up there and acts as a greenhouse gas nearly 25,000x more potent than CO2. We don't need to worry too much about it, though, because compared to carbon dioxide it is present in vanishingly small quantities so that its overall effect contributes only an estimated 0.2% to global warming.

In March 2007, nearly 2 years after the 7/7 bombing spree in London, SF6 was used to flood a London underground station to track the progress of a volatile gas through the system in case the next terrorist outrage copied the Tokyo Sarin attack carried out by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995. The British government was a lot more pro-actively transparent in their handling of the emergency test than the US Navy was when it sowed the San Francisco sky with a "harmless" microbe in 1950.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Breakfast clubs

You might think that poverty was an absence of sufficient money, but not according to government departments and NGOs.  For several years in the 90s, The Beloved worked in the area of Fuel Poverty, but could never understand why Fuel should be privileged over other items of the budget.  If you live on the edge you have to make brutal hard choices every week. Should I buy a half sack of coal or woolly hats and gloves for my two toddlers? I stopped trying to grasp the subtlety (too stupid) and stopped asking. Here's a definition that sort of makes sense, which hinges on the definition of poverty. Part of me believed that Fuel Poverty was created by the Fuel Poverty Agency as a way of ensuring some salaries were available for people who knew about double-glazing, kilowatt-hours, condensation and gas-boilers . . . and cared about the dispossessed.  Some sort of explanation comes from the observation that by changing the definition you can stop 800,000 poor Brits from being "fuel poor".  I bet their children are still cold and miserable.

This week I heard another term: "Food Poverty" in the context of a new report from Better Food For All. This is not to be confused with the FSAI Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which I've had a skeptical look at in February. BFFA is well-enough funded to employ 3 healthy looking young women with Master's degrees who have presumably been processing and analysing the data from a study funded by Kellogg's to see if feeding poor kids before school improves the educational outcomes.  The website is heavy or assertion and light on statistics but their bottom line is that €1.8 million will go a long way if divided into 70c breakfasts every day to feed up children in DEIS schools.  The hope is that thereby they attend school more regularly and pay attention while there. Deis means 'opportunity' in Irish and the DEIS scheme encompasses 850 schools across the country which need extra attention because of the high proportion of disadvantaged kids.

€1.8m sounds like shirt-buttons in the scale of the annual budget and it seems to be a super-efficient and elegant plan for achieving a desirable outcome - giving kids who have nothing a chance to get full benefit from an education and perhaps escape the poverty trap in which their parents find themselves.  But, to put it in context, BFFA are asking for more money on top of €38 million already allocated for school meals. hmmmm?  Less clear that we should spend tax-payers money on such a paternalistic way of forcing the poor to do what we consider the correct thing?  And are Kellogg's "Funders" Cornflakes or Cheerios the best way of starting the day?  A vat of oatmeal porridge is cheaper, has a lower glycaemic index and isn't supplied by a multi-national for their own fell purposes.  If the ethical, social and economic issues were easy, I wouldn't have time for them on The Blob.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Mostly harmless

Serratia marcescens is one of the gamma-proteobacteria; a subgroup of bacteria which includes our own Escherichia coli as well as Yersinia pestis and Vibrio cholerae.  The last, as it says on the tin, causes cholera, Yersina is responsible for plague and and some varieties of Escherichia (O104:H4 for example, which killed 50 Germans in 2011) will make you run at both ends until you die.  Other "gammas" are less deadly but cause what we call opportunitistic infections: if the situation is right (overwhelming numbers, compromised immune system, peculiar genetic make-up) these boys move in and cause trouble.  Pseudomonas aeruginosa, for example is commonly associated with pneumonia in young people with Cystic Fibrosis,  It's not associated with old people who have CF, because until very recently, there were no such people: pneumonia would kill them off early.  Even so, the average life-expectancy for CF sufferers, even with the best, most interventionist, medical care, is about 40 years.

But we hear all about these man-killing microbes and much less about the many species and varieties that live in and around us in very much a live-and-let-live manner.  One of the latter is Serratia marcescens which a) grows in bright red colonies and b) was believed to be entirely innocent of causing disease.  So much so that, when I was very young, modern science experiments were designed around it for class-room settings.
A cotton-bud/Q-tip was dipped in one of the red colonies on a petri-dish and reamed up the nose of some of the students, who were then encouraged to sneeze in class and out in the corridors.  Later, the rest of the class would use another sterile cotton-bud to swab the bench-tops, door-handles, notice-boards, windows and stationery cupboards.  These potentially contaminated samples were then wooffled out [techical term L] on more clean petri-dishes and checked to see if they would grow red colonies.  So far, so instructive: it revealed that a sneeze would effectively transmit a fine aerosol of wet snot 6 or 7 meters.

All this was years after the fiasco of Operation Sea-Spray in which the US Navy used S.marcescens as a marker in an experiment to trace the environmental distribution of a potential bio-warfare agent that they imagined that Them Russkies might use to attack America. Is it possible that they chose Serratia because it also is red? The test involved bursting balloons full of the bacteria in the atmosphere over San Francisco in late September 1950.  Because they knew that S.marcescens was harmless, they didn't see any need to inform their own citizenry, let alone ask their permission. A few days after this assault, 11 people reported to hospital with rare and life-threatening urinary-tract infections, and one of them, Edward Nevin, subsequently died.  But the US Government and its agents managed to evade a conviction in the courts.

Serratia is able to survive for a comparatively long time outside the body in quite inhospitable conditions and has been implicated in a number of cases this century where it has been allowed to contaminate a) batches of influenza vaccine b) medicinal fluids and c) medical equipment d) generally in neonatal intensive care units.  Because it is everywhere, we have all been exposed to Serratia at some stage and out immune system mops it up whenever it is met. Newborns have not met the Red Peril yet and, if for other reasons they are in an ICU, they are in their weakened condition susceptible to attack.

If you see a reddish growth round the plug of your wash-hand-basin or in the grouting of your bathroom tiles, don't scrape it off and pop it up your nose.  We don't do that anymore.

Note: I find I'm accumulating a number of microbial tales on The Blob: Acetone -
Archaea - AugmentinCampylobacterC.diff - CryptosporidiumEscherichia - Flora - HelicobacterImpetigo - LactobacillusNot very NeisseriaSwimming water

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Go directly to jail ...

. . . do not collect €334 million.  Or rather do collect that amount of money and spend it on the prison service.  That's rather a little money for the government of our poor neo-third-world country compared with the expenditure on Education €8.5 billion, Health €13.5 billion and Social Protection €20 billion.  The total government spend on Ireland Inc. in the last 12 month has been, in round figures, €50 billion.  That's about €10,000 for every man woman and child in the state.  It is in the nature of the socialist paradise in which we live that the distribution of government largess is manifestly uneven. You're a winner if you earn little or nothing and have several children in school, for example. The amount which people contribute in taxation is also unequal but more or less in proportion to the ability to pay.

I did some calculations recently about the cost of maintaining children in school and it was a) suprisingly large and b) seemingly rather bloated/inefficient.  What would it take to ensure that people who were served custodial sentences actually spent the majority of that length of time actually in jail rather than being given a day trip to the capital?  That's rather a difficult conundrum because, by all accounts, the current prison system is heaving with incarcerated bodies. The occupancy rate is usually over 90% which would cause the share-holders of any commercial hotel group to break out champagne and start looking for building contractors. But we can look at how much it costs to keep one person in is the prison for a year.  Always bearing in mind that, with the large number of short sentences, the occupant of a serviced bunk is unlikely to be the same on consecutive Christmases.
lt 3mo
But you need less than 4,000 bunks to work all these people through their sentences. On the last 5 consecutive Thursdays, there have been 3802, 3819, 3868, 3897 and 3923 prisoners on the register so I'm taking that as the number of prisoners that need "the provision of safe, secure, humane and rehabilitative custody" each year  . . . at a cost of €334 million!  Or the bones of €90,000 each.

That's just the running costs, it would cost a mort o' money to double the number of prison spaces because you'd need to build new prisons.  But here's another thought.  There were 470,000 people of pensionable age in Ireland in 2006 which is larger now because we're all living forever and is likely to increase 3x over the next 30 years.  The basic rate of pension is €230 per week, there are 52 weeks in the year, so the government is laying out 470K x 230 x 52 = €5.6 billion on pension provision.  A 10% cut in the old age pension would go a long way to sorting out the problem of insufficient prison space. If that's what we-the-people want to do.  Me, I'd rather keep the pensioners in the style to which they have become accustomed because they are remarkably generous with the chocolate biscuits whenever I call round.

But seriously, we could, with advantage, throw everything into the air and rethink how we want to divvy up the €50 billion rather than letting the Finance Minister piffle about at the edges of block grants that are written in stone by the special interest groups that benefit.

Monday 22 September 2014

Ireland's 100 Greatest Women

Hmmmmm, maybe not? This last weekend the Irish Independent published a list of Ireland's 100 Greatest Women which ten of their staffers cobbled together from their contacts list, the paper's archives and what they could remember from the Leaving Certificate history course.  The Indo has not chosen to follow the Irish Times into hiring someone like Dick Ahlstrom as a full time Science Correspondent, so they are not ideally placed to include STEM women in their list of 100. In the 32 page supplement, they have chosen to include a half page on The Scientists: how Ireland paved the way. But they hired Anita Guidera, a freelance journalist from Co Donegal, to fill this space, rather than, say, a freelance Science journalist like Mary Mulvihill to do it properly. Guidera ran out of steam early and the editors have filled half her space with a portrait of Kathleen Lonsdale by Jennifer Mondfrans.  Who has also done one of Barbara McClintock. I've ranted before about the invisibility of science and scientists in The Media, because The Media is almost exclusively peopled by folks from the Arts Block. Some of the STEMistas remembered in the Indo's 'science' subsection of the supplement even make it to the top 100 list which includes
77. Margaret Lindsay Huggins, astrophysicist
65. Mary Heath, aviator
49. Kathleen Lonsdale, chemist
28. Kay McNulty, computer programmer
11. Orla Hardiman, neurologist
09. Dorothy Stopford Price, doctor
It's a bit of a push to claim Kay McNulty Antonelli as an Irishwoman, seeing as she left Donegal in 1924 at the age of three and emigrated with her family to Philadelphia where she got a degree in Mathematics in 1942.  But that's like people in London being happy to call successful Scots "British" and the rest "Scotch". I didn't claim that Nellie Bly was Irish, simply because she was the daughter of Irish immigrants, but the Indo has no such sense of shame, including her in their list of 10 Ireland's Greatest Original Trailblazers.

These lists are fine if you treat them as mildly amusing chatter because, unless you spend far more time than such a trite exercise is worth, you finish up with a biased compendium. Biased towards people whom people can recall - the most recent women in the news for example. And if you throw Jane Public into the decision-making process the bias and silliness gets exaggerated.  #1 in this weekend's list is the worthy and engaging Sister Stan Kennedy, who founded Focus Point for the homeless of Dublin and later The Sanctuary, an ecumenical mindfulness centre. The Sanctuary gamed the system by spamming their mailing list to vote their founder up the list of 100. At least Sr Stan #1 can do something for her supporters in this life; St Brigid #7 is going to be handier in the next.  Full List Top Twelve is Sr Stan; Mary Raftery; Countess Markievicz; Mary Robinson; Christina Noble; Granuaile O'Malley the pirate queen; St. Brigid; Lady Gregory; Dorothy Price; Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington; Orla Hardiman; Christine Buckley.

Back to science! On The Blobside, I acknowledge that writing about Maude Delap is a bit of a boffin's Isn't Bob Clever coup, although she features in the aforementioned Mary Mulvihill's book Ingenious Ireland. But how can you forget Jocelyn Bell Burnell , discoverer of pulsars, in any list, however short, of Irishwomen who require our acknowledgment and respect.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Oppau goes West

As far as I knew about BASF [Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik], its core business was cassette tapes, because that was one of the brands you'd buy in the 1970s if you could afford them.  It turns out that they are the biggest chemical company in the world with sales of €70 billion, 100,000 employees in 80 different countries.  That's big - by comparison Ireland Inc. has a GDP of about €200 billion but shared among 4.5 million 'employees'.  They were also (ir)responsible for an enormous explosion in Oppau on 21st September 1921.  With hindsight, the tale is a bit like sitting on a tree branch to be comfortable while sawing it off.

The BASF factory in Oppau had been built to manufacture ammonium sulphate, but had to switch some of its process lines when the supplies of sulphur dried up for Germany during WWI. The spare capacity was taken up using the Haber process to make ammonium nitrate.  This was a brute force physical-chemical process invented by Fritz Haber to make ammonium nitrate for the German war machine.  Not only is the nitrate salt more explosive than its sulphate cousin it is much more hygoscopic - it will suck the least trace of water from the atmosphere.  4500 tons of the two chemicals had been mixed in an enormous silo 20m high and, under the pressure of its own weight and in the presence of moisture, had solidified into a material a bit like plaster of Paris.  The management needed to clear the silo and recover the material and the only practicable way to achieve this was by man-power - men with pick-axes and barrows.  Experiments had been done after the war which suggested that the mixture of the two chemicals was stable so long as the proportion of nitrate did not exceed 40%. The line-management consulted their logs and deemed the mix to be below the threshold. Accordingly small charges of explosive were set in the mass to loosen the caked-solid heap, so that it could be more efficiently picked away.  Just like you might judiciously blast through a limestone ridge to flatten the path of a new roadway.

This seemingly dodgy procedure had indeed been carried out in the Oppau plant and elsewhere hundreds if not thousands of times without incident.  ANNyway, on 21st September 1921, a normal blasting charge was set and ignited in the normal way which initiated a chain reaction that vaporised the contents of the silo and killed 600 people in the surrounding area. The BOOM was heard 300 km away and post-hoc analysis suggests the blast was 1-2 kilotons in size. Ooops!  You can see the crater in the foreground of this early aerial photograph. Nobody told the workers or their trade union that this was a likely outcome, although it's impossible now to discover who said what to whom because everyone involved was dead. It has been suggested (we scientists like a rational explanation if at all possible) that the nitrate sulphate mix was not uniform and the fatal charge was placed in a pocket that was notably nitrate rich. But the official report could find no evidence about what had actually happened.  Nevertheless they recommended using only mechanical means to break up such masses in future.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Star Boks

Priscilla Fairfield grew up in Littleton, Massachusetts and went to college at my Alma Mater, Boston University.  She was mad about telescopes and stars and did some important early work with Harlow Shapley on RR Lyrae variable stars.  These had been discovered by Mina Fleming and were and are important "standard candles" for determining astronomical distance.  The hypothesis is that certain classes of stars will have the same actual luminosity, so their observed brightness will tell you how far away they are - dimmer = distant.  Damned clever, if you ask me; and hard work.  In 1928 at the age of 32, Priscilla went to the meeting of the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) Third General Assembly in Leiden, Nederland. By ship - 5 days there and 5 days back! The foreign guests were assigned a local minder, in Priscilla's case a Dutch graduate student called Bart Bok. Young Bart fell for this 'older woman' [by ten years] big time and pursued her across the Atlantic, abandonning his own PhD work to secure her hand in marriage.  He also managed to wangle a job with Shapley, which paid money.  Shapley was happy enough to have women work for him but not so willing to pay them a salary.

The couple had a couple of children and Priscilla was a stay-at-home-mom for the next 20 years but that didn't mean that her brain turned off or was subsumed by diapers and lemon cheesecake and making sure Bart's slippers were ready when he came home from work.  They were a single-salary two-minds team all through this time, described as "it is difficult and pointless to separate his achievements from hers". This is not dissimilar to the much more famous sibling astronomers William and Caroline Herschel Apart from numerous papers at the cutting edge, they also published a popular astronomy book called The Milky Way which ran through five sell-out editions. Collaborating on the book was a bit of a ding-dong process, with Priscilla holding the line for ordinary folk who didn't speak the arcane language of astronomers. Every author benefits from having a different head ruthlessly read and re-write their words.

Bart was appointed Director of the Mt Stromlo Observatory outside Canberra, Australia in 1957 and they spent ten years in this outback community of astronomers.  The whole complex was destroyed in January 2003 when the local forests went up in smoke in the Canberra Fire-Storm which swept through 70% of landscape, the region including 500 homes in suburban Canberra.  But that was long after the Boks had left Australia - indeed long after the Boks had left the planet.

After Priscilla and then Bart died, the Priscilla and Bart Bok Awards were instituted by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific ASP and the American Astronomical Society AAS at an annual science fair.  These prizes are really important for recognising, rewarding and encouraging young scientists.  Like our SciFest at The Institute. As we tentatively move out of the recession, smart young people will be seduced by other careers which are better rewarded financially but will never be as exciting scientifically.  In 2013, one of the Bok Prizes went to a high-school student from Bratislava called Michaela Brchnelova for her work on periodic fluctuations of distant X-ray emitters. It looks like Slovak names are as parsimonious with vowels as Irish names (Aoife etc.) are generous.  Michaela may be young but she is clever and sassy and works hard to make her science (and the most exciting scientific event this century) better understood although "my first language is R, C++ and Python". That attempt to broach the ivory tower is strongly in the tradition of the Boks and what all scientists should devote more time to: Joe Public pays our salaries and funds the equipment and consumables on which big science depends. Michaela is also gutsy and has a sense of humor: this year she applied for a prestigious internship at CERN for the second time around.  She composed her personal statement in rhyming couplets and found that the hard bitten scientists appreciated poetry. You are going to hear more of this woman and not just on The Blob.

Friday 19 September 2014

The White Coat

The White Lab Coat is iconic for representing The Scientist. The young wan on the left brewing up sapphire gin over a bunsen burner is not a scientist, however, because she hasn't buttoned her white coat up.  This is the first week of the teaching term in The Institute, and I've had a couple of introductory lab classes. This is where I get a chance to harangue the students about how to write their their lab-books, where to put them for assessment, where to dispose of the various sorts of rubbish - sharps (broken glass etc.); bio-hazard; and the rest - and how they should read the protocol before they come to class (fat hope of that with real students).  My yesterday cell biology class was with a group from first year Sport Science (not to be confused with Sports Rehab or Health Science or indeed plain Science).

I explained why it was necessary to wear a lab coat and held up a real ratty specimen (my own lab coat from the dim and distant days when I was their age). I put two fingers through one of a tuthree large holes that have worn through the fabric in its long and checkered career, and held it up.  I said that nobody, after today, would be allowed into the lab unless they had a white coat but that I had this thing and two others for spare if someone forgot their coat.  The hole and the picture above left indicates that the white lab coat is largely symbolic.  If that gin explodes, 1 mm of white cotton is not going to save herself from getting a burn. But, I went on, the symbolism is important because it sets  you into a state of correct practice.  I then put on my coat as I rose up on tippi-toes and said "When  you put on your white coat regularly, you get taller, so that eventually you can leap tall buildings; in my science labs you will be thinking more critically, your powers of observation will be called into finer focus and you will apply attention to detail, you will record what you see carefully and you will act carefully and safely . . . and you will be wearing a white lab coat. Eventually, the mere act of putting on a lab coat will put you into a state of mind like that of a scientist, and then you are one" I've given dozens of variations on this theme over the years, but as I faced that class of Sporty people, I realised that they would understand because that's what they did every time they went out for footie practice: they put on special boots, shorts even in winter, probably a shirt of a peculiar colour and they are transformed into wannabe Eusebios, Peles or Messis who because of applied practice will get to be better sportistas.  I didn't need to compare them to Pavlov's dogs, which is good for their self-esteem - every good thing gets a boost in my classes.

When you've used a spectrophotometer or a centrifuge a dozen or so times, you don't need to read the manual: it has become second nature.  This is not to say that you treat these instruments casually or carelessly, rather you get to be a Good Pair of Hands.  Shrugging on the white coat is the first symbolic step on a long path.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Supermajority independence

Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains.”  Winston Churchill.
Is it inevitable that, as we get older, we get more conservative, even if we don't all start voting Conservative? I hope not, but do think that certain things should be kept the same unless there is a very good reason for change. It would wreck international discourse in Science if the names of species were changed every year: that's part of the reason why we all agree to use a couple dead languages to do the naming. It would make a mess of economic planning and the fair distribution of resources if the parties in government change every year.  Post-war Italy is an example of deep uncertainty caused by the instability of their multi-multi-party system of democracy.  Then again, when Belgium had no government at all for 20 months in 2010-2011, things seemed to tick along okay.

In the USA, they cherish their Constitution and keep it more or less in a band-box surrounded by cotton-wool, not to be changed unless a lot of people agree that change is necessary. US Constitutional Amendments can only be put to the people if a 2/3 "Supermajority" of the Federal Legislature agrees on the wording.  The amendment does not come into force until 3/4 of the States have approved the change.  With these rules it is rather difficult to make woo-wah changes to such a fundamental instrument of democracy, although this has happened.

In the Home Education Network (HEN) we have a constitution, the template of which we lifted from the Home Birth Association in a bit of  a rush 15 years ago, when we needed to have such a thing to apply for tax-exempt status. It has been modified a few times along the way but we could carry along with the vast majority of our, primarily social, activities if there was no constitution at all. But it is ever thus, you only need a constitution to help you through the difficult times when Normal Business goes off the rails.  Most people aren't interested in such infrastructural essentials, any more than they are interested in contributing to the newsletter or organising the Annual Gathering or even turning up once a year to the Annual General Meeting (AGM) to help determine the democratic future of the organisation that provides so much from which they benefit. When changes in the constitution seem to be required, the public spirited 5%, who do 85% of the work in any organisation, roll up their sleeves and meet and draft and discuss and re-draft as a Constitutional Committee.  Eventually, after many&many person-hours of committee work, they have to present their new Draft Constitution to the full membership.  There is no better place to do this than at the AGM of the full membership.  I missed the AGM this year, I was in America. As usual and expected, the AGM was poorly attended by perhaps 10% of the full membership. But reports have come back that amendments were made to the Draft Constitution in an ad hoc fashion by people who had turned up to the AGM without having previously read the circulated draft. If this happened, it strikes me as A Bad Thing if only because any change made at that stage is by definition unconsidered and you/we should think long and hard before we/you change the fundamentals of the governance of your/our organisation. Apart from anything else, this dogged process took a full two and a half hours of back and forth which is likely to wear ordinary people out and ensure they won't come to any AGM of any organisation ever again. There I have spoken! You surely can't expect me to shut my gob just because I wasn't there.

What's this got to do with Scotland? Because it is Their Day today, when they get a chance to create a new nation after a 300 year long union with England. The Smart Money at the wire is that the Noes have it:  A majority will reject the option of sailing off into a blue-flagged yonder.  But the polls have been fluctuating very close to 50:50 for the last several weeks with an error of estimate of 2-3% and as much as 25% of those polled coming down as Undecided. This begs the question of what to do if it's a hanging-chad knife-edge election such as that between Gore and Bush in USA in 2000.  What if the referendum today comes down to
For Independence 1,819,450
For Status Quo 1,819,449
or anywhere close to that?  They haven't sorted all kinds of details about how things will tick in independent Scotland, and they wouldn't need to if Wee Gillis or McTintin had voted the other way. Surely the very country should be more stable than its constitution.  Yes I know they don't have a written constitution across the water, but my numerical and small-c-conservative point stands.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

A couple more jail tales

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the virtues of home education on the back of news reports about the token incarceration of Monica O'Connor for failing to send her children to school. Formally, of course, she was imprisoned for failing to pay a fine (€1000 for her and €1000 for her husband Eddie O'Neill) for that crime.  In the Spring of 2013, I expressed surprise at the dramatic ten-fold increase in the number of custodial sentences given out in the working lifetime of John Lonergan, former governor of Mountjoy Prison.  I'll have to do some more research on that data because there is an interesting counter-intuitive disconnect between the daily and the annual numbers of people in prison. This wonkiness is driven largely by a huge increase in short prison sentences given out by the Irish Justice system from 2,200 in 2007 to 8,800 in 2012. Monica was, for example, sentenced to 5 days in jail for each (N=2) of her school age children.

Later that day, I scabbed a lift of a friend to go to a Home Education meeting at a secret location in the Midlands. We're getting a little twitchy-and-paranoid because of the Tullow case and the news that another Home Ed family is having its day in court in early October.  If you're a citizen of a small town in central Ireland and noticed a dozen people arriving in separate cars sporting impenetrable sun-glasses and looking hunted and shifty as they entered a hotel on Saturday afternoon, you may have seen me.  I was the one with the orange tam-wig, multi-colored hoop-pants and enormous shoes with pom-poms.  Over the day I heard a couple of interesting stories.

A cousin of a friend of a neighbour of the chap who fixes my friend's car was fined €1,000 for a serious traffic offense.  He could not or would not pay the fine, so he was incarcerated in lieu. Accordingly a couple of Gardai picked him up at his home in Wexford and delivered him to Mountjoy 120 km away in Dublin.  On the way, they all had an expenses paid lunch courtesy of the state.  When he arrived in Mountjoy, there were no cells available, and it was easier and cheaper not to admit him so he was processed through a revolving door and sent home again.  The Gardai had time to do some shopping before they drove the perp home.  So it's not necessarily because she was a mother that our Monica was given the same treatment last week.

There is a strong overlap in membership between the La Leche League, the Home Birth Association and the Home Education Network. At the meeting on Saturday, one of the group briefly put on her LLL hat and talked about their consultancy in a case where a breast-feeding mother was due to be incarcerated. The legal position hinged on the rights of the infant in the suckling relationship. These rights should only in the most urgent and necessary circumstances be denied.  I didn't hear the full story because I was too busy eating rice-cakes (so noisy).  But that's interesting, hein?  It makes you question the whole purpose, value and necessity of prisons.  Rethinking our unconsidered certainties is always a good thing.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Salve Arian

I've mentioned the über-talented singer-song writer Feibhár B-W before in passing.  She's just 20 now and I'm happy to report that she is not pregnant . . . any more, because on her own birthday this last Sunday she delivered herself (with a bit of help from the stout-hearted and persistently kind midwives of St Luke's, Kilkenny) of a small human boy-child 7lb 3oz on the scales. That's 2.84kg is modern weight  but I don't imagine they are going to recalibrate the scales in Irish hospitals any time soon.  I dropped by the maternity ward on my way home after the first day's teaching at The Institute.

Perfect timing!  I arrived just after the delivery of a rather sad "tea" consisting of a pot of tea (which Feibhár never drinks) two slices of bread, five small slices of cheese in two artificial colours, a small quartered tomato and a wilting lettuce leaf. So I saved a refreshing cuppa, the slice of brown bread and what remained of the butter from landfill. Shortly afterwards the wean half stirred from his sleep and I was allowed to pick him up and put him back in the Land of Nod with his ear checking out a chap's heartbeat. Brilliant - they're never so sweet as when they are really fresh.  It helps of course that as soon as babies get distressingly noisy, men can hand them back and go down the pub.

Feibhár was waggishly so named because immediately after her birth in London 20 years ago, the father and the favorite auntie nipped across the road to buy more cigarettes. When they arrived at the shop they realised that neither of them had any money, so they reluctantly turned round.  As they crossed the car-park they saw a £5 note on the tarmac, which in those long-gone days was enough to buy a pack of cigs. They irishified the word Fiver to Feibhár ,which people who read but have no Irish (that's most of the 7 billion of us) pronounce "fibre".  "Arian" was arrived at through several interwoven threads but it transpires that it means silver or money in Welsh, the same as argent works for both in French. I imagine we'll hear about him on youtube or in the National Concert Hall in due course.

Knowing from her own experience what hospital tea was likely to be, The Granny arrived shortly after me with a meat and potatoes dinner for the exhausted new mother.  All the new mother wanted to do was sleep, so I got to take her dinner home with me.  It really was a most satisfactory visit.

A parcel o' rogues

Part II of Border History in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum (Part I).

In 1984, just after we returned to Europe from America, the British telecommunications monopoly was filleted out of the Post Office and launched onto the stock market in the biggest share flotation the world had ever seen.  The privatisation was orchestrated by the government of Margaret Thatcher as an early example of selling the family silver to family so that they could blow it on a holiday or a better car, feel much better and vote for more Thatcher. The flotation price was pegged so that everyone who took a plunge was generously rewarded when and if they sold their windfall on to a Pension Fund or an Investment Bank.

In 1999, the Irish state telecoms agency was privatised (me too me too): Ireland is often 10-15 years behind the UK in whatever you care to measure.  The Minister of Enterprise Mary O'Rourke exhorted us on the wireless with a mixture of guile and unfounded optimism to invest in the new entity. That message was received by the Irish public (bleh bleh) including me and The Beloved with a mix of cupidity and public spiritedness.  In any case, 500,000 of the plain people of Ireland obeyed the Minister and took out a "sure-fire" bet on the future, that would double their spare cash in quick-time. The share price was set so that, after a very brief spike upwards, ordinary people saw the value of the investment fall steadily and allowed Pension Funds and Investment Banks to pick up blocks of shares cheaply.  The family silver was thus sold to float a new company called Eircom which was then dismantled in a way that showed culpable negligence by the management team and/or a hopelessly inaccurate and backward-looking vision of what was going to happen in the the future of telecommunications.  They held onto the fixed line copper and fibre-optic infra-structure and sold the nascent mobile phone division off to Vodafone for one txt.  Bad call, lads!

Bad as it was for us in modern Ireland, it was far worse for Scotland exactly 300 years previously. From 1603 until 1707, Great Britain was (in) a peculiar political state, sharing a monarch but Scotland and England/Wales having their own separate parliaments and formally politically independent.  But you'd have to shout conflict of interest in a very loud voice at just about everything that happened on these islands during that century.  The major modern economies of Western Europe formed joint-stock companies to trade with the rest of the world and make shareholders and directors unimaginably rich. The English had floated the East India Company which received its Charter from QE.I in 1600.  Two years later across the North Sea, the Dutch States General chartered the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie VOC, usually called the Dutch East India Company to distinguish it from the parallel British EIC monopoly.  In 1698, a set of magnates and wannabe millionaires in Edinburgh, led by a financier called William Paterson, founded the "Company of Scotland" with me-too ambitions of fantastic profits in spices, gold, slaves and ivory.  Through a combination of chicanery, bullying and bluster, London prevented CoS from raising capital on the markets abroad. Paterson and his cronies were, accordingly, reduced to selling their aspirations of a modern and fabulously wealthy nation to anyone who would listen, so long as they had property North o' the Borrrrder.  And listen they did: everyone who had two shillings to rub together invested in the new venture which set its sights on forming a new colony "Caledonia" in Central America where the isthmus had its narrowest point between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is estimated that >25% of the total capital worth of Scotland was invested in those few sq.km. of mangrove swamp and insect-infested jungle. The cunning plan was called the Darien Scheme initially but within two years had been renamed the Darien Disaster after all the colonists (including Paterson's wife and child) had succumbed to dysentery, yellow fever or Spanish sword  . . . and the investors lost everything.

The fact that the country and many of its most notable and influential citizens were by 1700 bankrupt, very much strengthened the hand of those, primarily in London, who sought to merge the two countries into a political union under a decisively protestant monarch that we have since called the United Kingdom.  This was years before our current ideas of universal suffrage  and plebiscites or referendums to determine how things should be in the future.  The Union was agreed by a simple majority in the respective Parliaments. In the Scots case there were but 227 members of parliament, who followed their personal interest, or were suborned or bribed by an influx of English money allocated to indemnify those who had lost their shirts in Panama. It was the cheapest and most blood-free coup of early modern history.  Robbie Burns slagged off those magnates with sticky fingers as a Parcel o' Rogues who sold their country and its birthright for current currency.
O would or I had seen the day 
That Treason thus could sell us, 
My auld grey head had lien in clay, 
Wi' Bruce and loyal Wallace! 
But pith and power, till my last hour, 
I'll mak this declaration; 
We're bought and sold for English gold- 
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Monday 15 September 2014

Bakc to skool

G'day g'day g'day.  The teaching term starts today at 0900hrs with my last class finishing at 1700.  So I am now formally back into the 9-5 mill which defined the difference between working in an Institute of Technology and my previous life . . . and induced me to start The Blob in January last year. I'm really stoked about it all, even a little bit mad starey eyed.  I've got me an MSc student who needs to accumulate 2hrs a week teaching as a requirement for his education, so I can legitimately lay off one of my classes on him and/or have a back-up if I'm running late or need to visit the dentist on company time.

In a bid for freedom I made a circular tour to Cork and Waterford over the weekend to see Dau.II's new gaff and fill up with tea-and-cakes at The Outlaws on the way home to feed the lambs and water the plants in the polytunnel ('tis desperate dry they are). On the way down West, I dropped in to a couple of old friends in the Home Ed circuit neither of whom has registered with the government and one of whom is going to have his day in court in 3 weeks time.  Let's hope he doesn't have his day in jail like Monica O'Connor.

It was really nice to hang out with Dau.II for 24 hours, sleep on her living-room floor and meet a bunch of her pals, many of who are now putting in an honest day's work and paying taxes, which will help keep their parents in jail for failing to provide them with a certain minimum education.  Three of these young people are working in the catering trade, two earn money playing music, one is a professional painter and the rest are in college. The new flat is hanging over the South branch of the River Lee looking North. If you half close your eyes and crane out of the window it's a bit like what we saw from the window when we spent a Summer living on Prinsengracht in Amsterdam in the 1970s.  I could sleep on the living room floor because the new gaff is comfortably de-cluttered, in contrast to the home-places, including our own, that I had visited in the previous 48 hours.  I don't think there are many groups on barely 20s yoof with whom you could have an intelligent and enriching conversation about Steve Reich, John Singer Sargent, sustainable windfarms and pyromania all around the same table.

On the penultimate day of our visit to Boston last month, I dropped into BU, my Alma Mater, to secure an alumni card so I could get a 10% discount at the University bookstore.  It was the week before Labor Day and the students of this private college were unloading MPVs at the entries to the dorms.  It was massive: a couple of steamer-trunks the size of wheelie-bins for clothes; large cardboard boxes containing TVs, microwaves, popcorn-makers and kettles; maybe even some books.  My pal Russ's oldest boy, in contrast and just about 17, left home to start college (in Cork natch) with "his bike and a change of clothes and not a care in the world".  Look out Laurie Lee, and Paddy Fermor, you'll have to make room on the narrow road to the deep troubadour.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Newsletter rules, okay!

I've done "Newsletter" three times to service three of the braided threads that make the cord that ties the zygote to the scythe of my life.  Firstly during my time as a roving population geneticist; then while I was pushing the frontiers of molecular evolution and most recently for the Irish Home Education community.  I was never a very good research scientist - I lacked finish and would drift off onto another exciting project when my summarising papers didn't get accepted first time.  So my career is littered with unpublished material - I found at least one unprocessed rejected ms <shame, red face> in a file in my mentor's cellar in August.  All too often the next exciting project was another edition of the newsletter, which my European co-editors were sensibly regarding as peripheral to their work, but got rather too much front and centre for me. At sometime in maybe 1997, it seemed to me that I was the only active editor (there were six under the mast-head), the only contributor (a book review, an interview, a handy computer tip, the catalogue of upcoming events, the editorial) and the only reader.  The last because, after all my work for the community, nobody ever said thanks: so for all the feedback I got, my carefully constructed prose was being whisked to oblivion by a burning desert wind - harrrumph!

Later the editor of the Home Education Network (HEN) Newsletter resigned or retired, and I volunteered my family to take the task on.  For the next 3+ years I chivvied our friends&relations for copy and when they failed to deliver wrote it myself - more book reviews, shared experience, advice, inconsequential essays, the Editorial.  Because of who I am we were quite religious about copy deadline and close to every equinox and solstice we sat around the kitchen table stuffing envelopes to mail out a print run of about 120 copies. One year, with the encouragement of my friend the treasurer, I got light-headed and pushed out a bonus 5th number immediately after our annual conference. We live in a remote corner of Ireland but just round the mountain is a print-shop who cut us what seemed to be a very good deal - certainly cheaper page-for-page than the bill before and after our time.  I'd print out the newsletter so that it filled a multiple-of-four pages, pair off the pages 1+8, 2+7, 3+6, 4+5 and take it down to Noel-the-Print and he'd print it out A3 back to back, fold and staple it into an A4 booklet.  The turn-around took a couple of days.  It was black&white with grey-scale illustrations, but I used to choose a different coloured paper for the cover, so it didn't look too drab.

I invested a lot of time and emotional energy in this production. Our pal Lulu used to live close by and often came visiting, so one issue we saved postage and handed her the newletter when she next dropped in for a cup of tea.  As we chatted away she folded the newsletter in half and oooff half again and stuffed it into the back pocket of her jeans.  Or she started to do so until she saw my face aghast at how casually she was abusing my baby.  I knew then that not everyone looked forward to reading the newsletter as much as I did.  And that helped me to the realisation that the newsletter didn't need to be read from cover to cover by everyone, or at all by anyone, for it to be a source of pride and joy for me.  In the doing was the satisfaction.  A bit like The Blob, eh?  Another source of pride was the tuthree instances when I'd be chatting with someone about home education or children and say: that's really interesting; would you write it up for the newsletter?  And it was so: someone's self esteem had crossed a threshold to be heard.

The other brilliant outcome from those years was that Dau.I, then aged about 12, launched her career in journalism by announcing that the HEN Newsletter was too boring and adult-centred and there should be a kid's supplement. And it was so, eventually coming out as Chick Lit (H.E.N. chick, geddit?).  Eventually we the editors retired in our turn and other members of our community took up the baton and ran with it in their own distinctive way.  I must admit to being just a little harrumphy when the first copy of the new look newsletter came through the door in full colour on glossy paper. But I came to realise that if the new style wasn't necessarily better then it was different and that, in itself, was good.  On mature reflection (it's taken many years to get off my high horse), I accept that the glossy illustrated version was probably better for most of the readership - less wordy, less pompous and much more colourful for wrapping birthday presents.

I undertook a promise to subsequent editors to write a page for every edition of the newsletter because my experience was that getting copy from people is like pulling teeth.  I gave that up more or less when I started The Blob - which contributes far too much "TMI! TMI!" to public discourse as it is.  Newsletter rule: everyone has 500 words in themselves which will be read with interest and attention by people who share some of their values: so contribute. I can't really think of a valid excuse for not doing so.

Saturday 13 September 2014

Eat! enough of the washing already

When I was small, trailing after my naval father, we spent a year in Malta.  It was wonderful and I wish I'd been a little older, so I could remember more. One thing my mother did which was exotically foreign was rinsing the vegetables in dilute potassium permanganate. KMnO4 is a powerful oxidising agent and the argument was that it would kill the fecal coliforms that were likely to contaminate the poor third world vegetables.  We all got impetigo [R] anyway and spent a couple of weeks using each his own towel and soap to prevent repeated reinfection.  Impetigo is highly contagious and usually caused by Staphylococcus aureus.  By careful management and topical treatment with gentian violet we all rather quickly threw off the scabs and got well.  Nowadays, 50 years later, it is usual to treat the disease with oral antibiotics which will screw up your intestinal flora as well as killing off the S. aureus. Not, in my 'umble opinion, an improvement.  This sentence no verb either.

We are obsessed with washing things which don't need to be washed.  Our hands for starters, unless you are a surgeon or a worker in the food industry there is really no need to wash your hands so often, but the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (and doubtless equivalent bodies elsewhere), would be a lot happier if food-workers didn't glove up to make a sandwich - it makes it less likely that proper hand-washing will occur. And frankly, I don't see the need to wash your hands after using a urinal - I don't see the need to wash my hands either. Not everyone agrees! I suppose pageviews for The Blob (eeeuuuuuww) will now go through the floor, even though I use rubber gloves whenever I touch the keyboard of my laptop.  JBS Haldane notably thought it was more important for scientists (who knows where their hands have been) to wash hands before the process than after.

I was surfing through www.quora.com a couple of weeks ago reading about an American making a fortune in the Soviet black economy.  Right at the end of his piece he noted that in 1980s USA if you wanted a drink from a water-fountain you used a waxed paper cup and threw it away afterwards - after a single use! In 1980s USSR the water fountains had a small glass on top which was used and replaced.  Nobody seemed to mind and Russian commuters didn't seem to have more (or less) impetigo, or TB than Americans.  Actually they probably did have a little more TB, but not from sharing a glass in a train-station. My tree-hugging colleagues, including me, at The Institute are fit to be tied by the policy of putting out an inexhaustible supply of plastic cups beside the water coolers in the canteen.  These are supplied in a compact sleeve, used once and then fill a huge rubbish sack.

Which is all just an introduction to a dead cool video about how to eat Sushi. Naomichi Yasuda, proprietor of the Yasuda Sushi Bar in Tokyo says that you must never shake off the soy-sauce before putting the dipped sushi morsel into your mouth. You must watch the video to hear the shaking-off joke that will embed this rule in your head. For someone so fussy about the nuance of taste that two drops less soy will appreciably change your eating experience, it is impossible to imagine him making each perfectly formed deliciousness in blue rubber gloves. They go straight from his hand to a wooden board to your mouth.  Proper order too.

Friday 12 September 2014

Not driven by statistics

It's Richard D Gill's birthday today.   I've never met him; never heard of him before Tuesday this week; but I like his style; and I love his hat. Anyone with an academic address in The West, gets regular e-mails from the Subcontinent starting "Dear Professor, I am an elite student at the University of Nevaheardapur and have been interested for a solid time in the cutting-edge research of your esteemed laboratory . . ." and asking for employment. Dr Gill's response combines irony and a certain kindness which may help to protect his inbox from overload.  Unless you speak Dutch or read De Telegraaf on a regular basis, you probably won't have heard of Lucia de Berk.  She was found guilty of multiple infanticide in March 2003 and Gill's crap-detector thought the whole case had the ring of nonsense. This was because he was numerate (he is a Professor of Statistical Mathematics at Leiden) and the principals in the witch-hunt against de Berk were woefully, willfully, weak about numbers.  And then he did something about it, pursuing, with siblings Metta de Noo and Ton Derksen, a retrial and exoneration of de Berk. He tells his story at TEDx, and if his delivery is a little all-over-the-place, he's put the slides up in the public domain. I've touched on a comparable English case (with a link to another more coherent TED talk) in which a mother having had her very heart wrenched out by the death of her two children was then convicted of their murder.  The two cases are comparable because a key part of each prosecution case was an estimate of the probability of two or more similar but independent events occurring. In Sally Clark's case, the prosecution decided to call a consultant paediatrician to do the stats, in Lucia de Berk they called a legal psychologist.  In Sally Clark's case it was bonkers to treat the two events (same parents, same locations, half their genes in common) as independent.

To begin near the beginning, in 2001 Lucia de Berk was a paediatric nurse in the Juliana Kinderziekenhuis (JKZ) a children's hospital in Den Haag.  Children are admitted to such a place because they are sick, sometimes very sick indeed and, despite the best efforts of the medical staff and state of the art facilities, sometimes the poor weans don't make it.  After the death of one child, de Berk's manager became convinced that a) the death was unexpected and b) that de Berk was somehow responsible. Nobody denied that she was on the ward when the child pegged out. I said witch-hunt earlier because this man fanned his suspicions into a flaming certainty in the same way that the puritans of Salem found evidence of their convictions wherever they looked.
You can follow the whole de Berk story written with gusto and irony by Richard Gill's statistical colleague Piet Groeneboom [R] in a blog about Amateur Statisticans.  If you're competent in stats and want the details of the appropriate tests and sight of the actual data, albeit not so readable as Groeneboom's account, you should check out Thomas Colignatus's paper in Arxiv.  As the case worked its way up to the Netherlands Supreme Court, nobody thought to ask one of a handful of extremely competent statisticians, including Gill and Groeneboom, employed by the Dutch government to work in their Universities.  At one stage, a judge maintained that the case had not been driven by mere statistics, with the implication that stats was just the icing on a cake of other evidence.  Groeneboom is happy to agree with this statement because as far as he's concerned no sensible or valid statistics had been used.  And the other evidence,was, on any sort of critical scrutiny, a tissue of wet tissues which should never have been asked to, and could not, stand up in court.

But for The Blob, I'll just point out that the amateur statisticians came up with a figure of 1 chance in 342 million that the deaths would occur during or near a shift on which de Berk had served.  This came from multiplying a set of statistically unexciting probabilities to arrive at this monstrously unlikely (and so spuriously convincing when splashed across the news) total. There is an element of ascertainment bias in this, in that the manager pursued evidence of guilt rather than just data.  Anyone with any feeling for numbers would have been suspicious about such an enormously unlikely probability.  But the real issue is that there is no case. From the original suspicious death, the suspicious manager tracked back and identified 6 deaths over the previous three years and then sniffed off like a data-bloodhound to other hospitals where de Berk had previously worked, accumulating more damning evidence along the way.  But if he had just tracked back through his own hospital's records he would have discovered seven deaths in the previous 3 years. So de Berk's arrival was associated with a drop, albeit not significant, in the death rate.  That would surely get her struck off the rolls of the Serial Killers Guild (SKG).

Here's the Hattie Carroll now is the time for your tears insult.  In turning Lucia de Berk's life upside down, the police turned her home over and found a couple of overdue books from the hospital library.  After ten years in court or in jail, de Berk was cleared and compensated by the Dutch government.  But the hospital was still looking for the library fines, partly because they are still convinced that she was guilty. It's like Lindbergh's multiple families yesterday - if you look hard enough at anybody's life, you'll find something murky especially if you look in the dark corners. Richard Gill's most important statement is the fact that there are 2,000 preventable deaths every year in the Dutch health system.  Someone makes a mistake and someone else dies.  But these deaths are, to a close approximation never prosecuted and rarely even investigated.  You may be sure those statistics are true of Ireland, of Ukraine and wherever else readers of The Blob hang out.  We've spent millions of money and person-years of time to halve the number road traffic deaths in Ireland over the last decade.  Should we not now turn our lights on the hospitals to see if we can make similar reductions?
Birthday cake for Professor Gill! to share with Groeneboom, Derksen, de Noo and the other unbelievers.