Friday 31 October 2014

The King

No, I've nothing to say here about Elvis Presley, all I care about him has been covered elsewhere on The Blob.  Here we are giving tribute to a pretender to the throne of the United Kingdom who went by the name of Anthony Tudor, and claimed to be a direct male descendant of Henry VIII. In his mind, the fact that he could trace Fat Henry's Y chromosome in an unbroken line through 11 generations to his own testicles, trumped the credentials of the present royal family. They are descended in a jiggly line from Margaret Tudor [whoop whoop no-Y-chromsome alert], Henry VIII's older sister. Apparently, Henry was romping with Anne Boleyn before he married his deceased brother's fiancée Catherine of Aragon; and fathered a son called John Hall.  John's great^9 grandson Anthony William Hall was born in 1898 in Chiswick, West London and lived for a while (1911 census) in Chetnole: a village which has some small celebrity on The Blob.

Hall/Tudor was a tiresome eccentric who wrote pamphlets and held public meetings with himself setting out his claims, suggesting that he and the present incumbent of the throne should engage in single combat for the kingdom. Living in a republic, for which much thanks, is both more civilised . . . and more boring for Hello and the tabloids. Tudor O'Dynasty also attempted to sell his own bank-notes: redeemable when he ascended rightfully to the throne. The authorities took a dim view of this because it upset people and could be construed as fraud, and Mr Hall-Tudor had many and many of his days in court.  He used the audience provided by these proceedings as an opportunity to further grandstand his claims. George V was concerned for the chap's sanity far more than he was annoyed by his presumption but no doctor could be convinced that Mr Tudor-Hall was barking so he was repeatedly fined and bound over to keep the peace without actually being incarcerated or committed. By all accounts he was kind and generous so long as you didn't appear to intrude upon his perceived rights. He was in court again on wholly unrelated business conducting his own defense when his wife attempted to divorce him in 1939 and a couple of years later when his sister attempted to evict him from their mother's home.  "His defence in the matter was that the Probate Act of 1857, although signed by Queen Victoria, had never reached Royal Assent and was therefore invalid to be used in a court of law."   Tudor Hall the King died in 1947 mourned by journalists in need of column-filling copy.

People like this who are not mad but quite definitely maddening, might have something useful to say even if it is difficult to swallow.  HEN please note.

Thursday 30 October 2014


The Boy has a thing about submarines.  When he went overland to Japan in 2005, one of his must-go stops was the submarine base in Leningrad/Petersburg.  The capture of the U-505 is a big boys war story with only one fatality, so has quite a wide circulation - we all love a happy ending.  Although  I didn't hear about it at all until Zenon B Lukosius, one of the enlisted men involved, was tribbed in De Wiki's Did you know... compendium of weird facts.

The aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal and five destroyers USSs  Pillsbury, Pope, Flaherty, Chatelain, and Jenks were on patrol off West Africa in June 1944 when USS Chatelain identified a probable target.  After a depth-charge run zeroed in my two airplanes firing into the sea at the, to them, visible submarine, an oil-slick surfaced followed by the U-505 herself.  The defeated Captain followed Standard Operating Procedures, opening sea-cocks and setting demolition charges, before ordering "verlassen des Schiffes" and taking to the rescue dinghies. The crew bundled out so quickly that they neglected to kill the engines, so the submarine continued to run in a circle slowly filling with water. While Chatelain and Jenks picked up survivors - only one submariner was shot and killed in the hail of gun-fire immediately after the sub surfaced - a boat from Pillsbury was lowered alongside.  A salvage crew led by Lt JG Albert David boarded the sinking submarine, closed off the taps, disabled the charges and captured an intact German ship: see [R] flying an enormous 48-stars-and-stripes. With the can-do, make-do brilliance of engineers, the Americans took the submarine in tow allowing the sub's propeller to windmill and charge the batteries. The charged batteries enabled the pumps to work, the submarine took on a better trim and was slowly dragged across the Atlantic to Bermuda. She is now on display in a museum in Chicago. The captured crew were rigorously quarantined - completely against the Geneva Conventions - but the US Navy really didn't want the enemy to know how easy it was to locate their submarines.  The whole story of the first capture of an enemy ship by the US Navy since the War of 1812 can be seen in a US propaganda film.  Dozens of still photographs have been archived as well. A longish memoir about an earlier incident in the career of U-505 gives a flavour of the sort of excitement that submariners habitually endured.

Capturing all that hardware was all very well, but the flotilla led by USS was actively hunting for a submarine in the area when they found U-505. They were able to do that because of another feat of derring-do two years earlier, indeed 72 years ago today 30 October 1942. On that day, U-559 was attacked in the Eastern Mediterranean by five British destroyers HMSs Petard, Pakenham, Hero, Dulverton and Hurworth and a Sunderland flying boat.  The odds were against the submariners that day and the badly damaged ship surfaced.  The surviving crew opened the sea-cocks and abandoned ship.  But three volunteers from HMS Petard stripped off and swam to the sinking vessel. Fossicking about in the dark with the sound of deadly rushing water roaring in their ears, they managed to retrieve the submarine's code books which they threw into a whaler that had come alongside.  Two of these men were still aboard when the submarine "sank like a stone" carrying them to Davy Jones's Locker. Those code books provided an vital key to the Enigma code which was baffling the boffins, including Alan Turing, back at Bletchley Park. With the code cracked, the Allied navies were able eventually to win the war at sea by inflicting a 75% mortality rate on German submariners. The mathematics of war are killing!

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Selling the unexpected

Last year I wrote about finding reading-matter gold down the cellar of the library among uncategorised books. There, where the books were in stacks ordered by the day the came in, rather than by any aspect of the content, I'd regularly find something interesting.  The folks at QI reckon that you can find interesting in everything but it is hard work to abstract the gems from the dross. They are in the midst of the Lth series of their funny-smart telly-prog. Sometimes, though, you can get overwhelmed with choice as when we went with The Boy to The Bookbarn near Radstock in Somerset. There are, I dunno, 100,000 books, a quarter million books, in their warehouse and when we went there with five of us in the car - we came out with 4 books amongst us. There's a section where fiction is stacked alphabetically by author: there being 200 linear feet of Bs, I couldn't be bothered to beetle through them all to bag a cheap Bill Bryson.  With a quarter-million new books published every year in Britain you can't read them all and most of us get the list filtered through the book pages of our favorite Sunday newspaper. Accordingly we all get to read the same things as our friends and everyone gets cosy with their embedded certainties and life gets more boring as it gets more comfortable.

It was, therefore, delightful to read an article in Fortune magazine about a family that have bucked the trend in the book-selling world and have made a modest fortune selling books pile-'em high and sell-'em cheap.  In 1972 Pat Anderson and Ken Gjemere leased 2000 sq.ft of dilapidated ex-laundromat in Dallas and set out to buy and sell books.  They bought anything printed that came in through the doors that wasn't yesterday's newspaper and sold it on.  They reckoned that the crowd could decide what was marketable better than they could and it turned out to be a business model that worked.  Fifty years on, Half Price Books has a turn-over of $240 million through 120 outlets. The founders are dead now but Pat's daughter Sharon Anderson Wright is the CEO and still running the business on lines that are strangely Victorian in the ethics and economics. They don't borrow money to start a new venture, so their start-up costs are modest. And they've never had an exit-strategy because that would mean selling out to St. Mammon and leaving half their employees on the cutting room floor.  I liked the story of how SAW, when she was read-all teenager was given the task of sorting the books in the back room of the family store.  My Dau.I volunteered to sit in a sea of books doing the same thing at the Oxfam store in the town where she lives in England for similar reasons.  But I'll leave the last word to Ms Wright:
"There are still a lot of people who like to browse bookstores and be surprised by what they find."
Amen, sister.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Ebola kills, OK?

A couple of days ago, the WHO announced that the 10,000th case of Ebola had been logged in West Africa. The eipcentre is . . . geography 101 . . . Guinea-SierraLeone-Liberia [L]. The same week a recently returned American health volunteer returned to JFK, and took the subway to his New York apartment and hung out with his pals and then felt queasy and ran a fever and was diagnosed as case 10,001.  US authorities (NJ, NY) have now announced a 21 day quarantine for all such returning volunteers which may put a stop to the gallop of volunteerism among the competent health-care professionals. Hey lads, it could be worse: quarantine comes to us from medieval Italian quaranta giorni: the forty days that the Venetian authorities required incoming ships to wait in harbour before they were allowed intercourse (yer yer, not just that sort of intercourse) with the people ashore. Combatting epidemics is hard work and you/we have to put up with some inconvenience or risk losing half our Irish and Ukrainian children to Ebola.

On Newstalk-FM, here in Ireland, they give a regular slot to an American right-wing mouth called Michael Graham "he's a bit of an eejit but I enjoy listening to him".  Early last week he was commenting on the case of one of the Ebola-infected Texan nurses and expressing amazement that the nurse's dog was being kept in quarantine in her home while she was fighting for her life in intensive care.  With the insightful insensitivity that Graham is known for he asked "Why don't they just shoot the dog?".  The previous day, the Ebola-expert spokesperson for our own Health Service Executive HSE, was saying that current policy is to try to identify contacts of any Ebola victims that might turn up in Ireland - always ensuring the privacy of the already identified cases. Pardon? I would think that containing an epidemic of a virus that has a +50% mortality rate would trump niceties about telling the neighbours. Over the weekend, US nurse Kaci Hickok returned from working through Médecins Sans Frontières with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.  Instead of being greeted with open arms and a brass band, she was confined to her own home in New Jersey under the new quarantine regulations. Her lawyer is talking about constitutional rights and civil liberties. Me, I think that, until we get scientific consensus on the transmission profiles of this virus, we should act on the precautionary principle.  It's only 3 weeks. Actually, given that this is not the first Ebola outbreak (just the worst), I'm reasonably confident that Science knows how Ebola is transmitted (direct contact with bodily fluids). I'm less confident that medicos will reliably follow their own protocols: 3 bloops already in the US in as many weeks. That's an error rate about as great as the Space Shuttle program (113 flights; 600 'seats'; 14 deaths = 2%)

I was talking over some the issues with my three Nigerian students at the institute during a slack time in class. The Nigerian government is claiming that after six early cases, their country is now Ebola-free. I expressed some skepticism about this because, I suggested, there are a helluva lot of Nigerians, some of whom live hugger-mugger in dense marginal-quality housing, and people in suits will lose face if they cannot/do not control the out-break. The Irish BTSB Blood Transfusion Service Board is chronically short of blood donors but refuses contributions from people who lived in the UK in the 1980s. That is because a bunch of cases of variant-CJD (mad-cow disease) were diagnosed in beef-eating citizens of Britain during those years. We've met Kuru a variant of this disease before. The cause of the outbreak of the disease in cattle was the practice of  feeding ground cow-hooves and bone-meal to cows as protein supplement. The cause of the species jump is unknown and it was rare. But in France, say, the same feeding practice was carried out and/or British beef was imported and consumed, but the French have seen NO cases of vCJD and so blood donations are welcome from French people living now in Ireland. I put it to you that in both France and Nigeria absence of evidence may not be evidence of absence but absence of a willingness to look under the carpet. I've indicated that the decision-making process and standard operating procedures SOPs in the Irish BTSB have been a little suspect w.r.t., say, HIV.  It transpires that they don't want blood from anyone who hails from sub-Saharan Africa.

Ali Maow Maalin [R with pocks] died last Summer in Somalia still tirelessly working in the Somalian health-care system. He succumbed to malaria while pushing forward a polio vaccine programme in the district of South Somalia where he lived and worked. He might have died in 1977, when he became the last person to contract smallpox 'in the wild'. A huge effort was required to contain that one case in a comparatively delimited and isolated region on the coast of East Africa. It's going to be tougher now that the Ebola cat is well out of the bag. Last June Maalin got a fever and carried on working "I don't think he went for medical service early enough. He was so busy in the field, so focused on monitoring the campaign." By the time he was admitted to hospital it was too late for him.  Piffling about at the edges of the Ebola epidemic will be just a waste of time and money . . . and lives.

Monday 27 October 2014

De toleratio

I've written the title in Latin for the same reason that Sir Richard Burton [L looking louche] wrote the hotter (phew!) parts of his treatise on pederasty  and chunks of his 'translation' of Arabian Nights in Latin - so that those of delicate spirit won't be upset. But I'm not going further on the love that dares not speak, this is about tolerance and how bloody difficult that is. When The Boy was tiny, we smugly said we'd be fine however he turned out: gay would be okay, marrying a black girl would be grand, we could handle it even if he went to be a lawyer. But we were not sufficiently self-delusional as to avoid the possibility that he might grow up to be a mugger; and our airy tolerance was then challenged. I've written about tolerance and compassion on The Blob before but I've never been able to articulate the issues as well as "Scott Alexander", a doctor who blogs, has done in his recent essay about Tolerance and the Outgroup.  It's nearly 9.000 words long and it may be unsettling but you should plough through to the end because it will help you to a better place. That's a big ask for people trained on the 600 word sound-bytes here so I'll give two excerpts as an executive summary:

The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: “Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Tolerance Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?”
Bodhidharma answers: “None at all”.
The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why not.
Bodhidharma asks: “Well, what do you think of gay people?”
The Emperor answers: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”
And Bodhidharma answers: “Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”
But the best thing that could happen to this post is that it makes a lot of people, especially myself, figure out how to be more tolerant. Not in the “of course I’m tolerant, why shouldn’t I be?” sense of the Emperor in Part I. But in the sense of “being tolerant makes me see red, makes me sweat blood, but darn it I am going to be tolerant anyway.”

Free the Water

More to say about water! Since the 1st of October 2014, the plain people of Ireland are paying for the water that comes out of their taps. Unless they're not. Actually quite a sizable constituency is not a customer of Irish Water, the new semi-state body charged with distributing the wet stuff: people, like us, who get their own clean water and organise the disposal of the foul water themselves. When we moved up the mountain in 1996, one of our first actions was to ask our neighbours John and Mike Doran to sink us a bore-hole in the yard. Being tree-hugging people with a tendency to flakiness we asked them if we should dowse, or would they dowse, to identify the optimum place to start the hole. With commendable pragmatism and shy good manners, they asked where was the nearest source of electricity and suggested that the bore-hole should be as close to that shed as was conveniently possible . . . and it was so.  At 113 ft, they deemed the flow of water to be sufficient, and charged us £4.00 a foot for the drilling.  It cost that much again to install the submersible pump, the pipe-work and the pressure cylinder, so that we had cold running water in the house and in the yard.  Maybe the water would have come in shallower, or more copiously if we'd dowsed a different spot but the final position was almost made the words of Mercutio in R&J appropriate: " 'tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve."  We lashed out €1500 of hard-won money to get water in which to wash our children, boil spuds and make tea, so I'll be damned if I'm going to pay the government or Irish Water for the privilege. There are something like 750,000 other folk who are similarly self-sufficient. My position for pontificating on this is therefore about as stable as the enormous water-bed which we have in the stable so our thoroughbreds get a good night's sleep.

Periodically, I have to dismantle the intake and the filter and the pressure gauge and clean it all out so that water continues to flow and because of this I don't take the system for granted and we are careful in our consumption. The toilet isn't flushed for every tinkle, the bath water is often used twice, showers don't last for 20 minutes. If you listen to the media over the last month, it seems that Sean O'Public is in a tizz at the outrage that he should have to pay for clean drinking water, so he can wash his car with it every Saturday morning.  Fine Gael senator Martin Conway addressed this truculent negative attitude to government plans with devastating rhetoric: " Well, water doesn't just fall out of the sky, y'know." Which riposte has caused much predictable hilarity among the chattering classes, but laughing doesn't really address the issue that water, as most people expect it out of the kitchen tap, isn't free. In August, I was privy (fnarrr, lavvy joke) to the water bill of the good people with whom we were staying in Massachusetts.  To remind you, over the pond they pay €11,36 per 100 cu.ft [HCF] for a reasonable amount (the rate is higher for bigger consumers) to take in clean water and have the waste disposed of.  That is, coincidentally, exactly €4.00/ton or /1000lt; and within spitting distance of the basic rate for a similar service in Ireland which =  €4.88/ton. One telling point is that those against paying for water claim that they've already paid for it through taxation to the general exchequer. This argument is hard to refute because there hasn't been a commensurate reduction in the VAT or income tax to offset the €1.2billion that local government will no longer pay for supplying water having handed the task over to Irish Water.

It would be far too easy to strike a rate and make people pay for what they use, so Irish Water has decided to make it more complex. The first issue is that despite a 2 years lag time they have only installed a tiny fraction of the necessary water-meters; so they have guesstimated what 'normal' or average consumption is and will be sticking that to their customers for the first 9 months of the scheme. The first person in any household is given 30,000 lt each year 'free' and pays for the additional 36,000 lt that normal people use at the basic rate of €4.88/ton. They must think that a lot of shared baths go down in Ireland (despite that being a mortal sin) because they have built in economies of scale: the second and subsequent adult are assumed to consume a third as much water as of the head of household.  I should point out that a sad 392,000 people in Ireland live alone [there are 1,650,000 households in the country], but at least they can flush the toilet as much as they want. I set out the following table for my Environmental Chemistry class at The Institute.
And what's this? Why are children somehow privileged to have 21,000 lt of unpaid-for water. It's not like anyone is washing diapers anymore and everybody knows that 8-11 year old boys don't take a bath at all unless forced in there with tongs by their mothers. Perhaps someone who still has children at home could explain the logic.

This is the supply-side reason why we should pay for water directly: so that we have the best hope of getting the best value for money. It costs, as I say above, €1.2 billion to deliver clear drinking water to more than 1.2 million households in Ireland.  Without meters nobody knows but informed guesses suggest that about half of the water, adjusted for pH, treated for human consumption and cleared of cryptosporidium, is lost between the treatment plant and the domestic tap.  This is largely from antique pipework but also because the last 20 years have seen every street in Ireland serially dug up to supply telephone, internet, electricity cables and the pipework keeps getting disturbed and settled down and disturbed again. Irish Water has an incentive to stop wasting water in this way because it will be good for their balance sheet and for each employee's Christmas bonus.

The other reason is on the demand-side.  If you pay for something you are less likely to waste it.  I can see entrepreneurs springing up all over the country making and installing rain-water catchers for flushing toilets; more people letting their goddamned lawn take its chances and getting stronger withall; more scruffy cars on the roads; more full dishwashers and laundry-machines; maybe even immunologically robust children with less eczema, asthma?  Less [bath] is more?

Sunday 26 October 2014

Leave TF the clocks alone

Hi Ukraine, what's the time in Kiev today?  Did your government dick about with the time as well as ours?  Rewrite: Did your government dick about with the time as badly as ours?  Every year on two Sundays a year in the wee hours, the governments of the WEA change the time by an hour.  There is a handy mnemonic to remember which way it goes: "Spring forward; Fall back". It happened today but I still sprang out of bed at the same bioclock time to bloggedy-blog for you. They make the switch on Sunday morning because this a traditional day of rest and the clear and present dangers associated with the change are minimised if most people don't work on the day the change occurs.  Of course, the Lord's Day Observance Society doesn't have the clout it did in 1943 and so many people worship St Mammon on Sundays that numerous workers in retail do now work on that day.

The clear and present dangers following from clock-change and the disruption of circadian rhythms include 10% increase in heart attacks; 20% decrease in work productivity; more workplace injuries; 17% increase in traffic accidents after the Spring forward; 2% lost on exams scores. Monetising these issues suggests that institutionalised clock-changes costs the US economy $433 million each year !  The costs to the global economy are not pro-rata but rather higher because the changes in different countries are a mad mix of arbitrary dates which  make scheduling International meetings in Megacorp tiresomely difficult for about two months every year.

The wonderful CPG Grey explains the whys and wherefores of DST in his usual colourful gallop.
Changing clocks is delusional, confusing, dangerous and costly. STOP IT.

I make no apology for a less-is-more post yesterday 
but got two complaints, so I'm making it a twofer 
Sunday to add to the 'extra' hour you had in bed 
this morning, ye lazy-arses.


I was out in the fresh air yesterday afternoon participating in a follow-up to a meeting which I attended in August.  That meeting was to ginger up support for protesting about an expensive scheme to change a beloved part of the local landscape.  It was held in the back room of one of the many pubs in Graignamanagh, presumably anticipating that a few handfuls of people would be interested. The seats were filled, the doorways were packed and people were spilling out into the street behind us. Yesterday we were invited to walk from Graig South along the Barrow Line past a couple of locks to Carraiglead and back to town for tea and medals. Talking of Blackdder, the other day, I was watching an episode of the new season of QI on youtube and heard Stephen Fry twitting the audience for claiming to have read George Orwell's 1984 when statistics show that a quarter of people who make such a claim have not actually read the book. I had some similar locus standi (locus ambulandi?) misgivings when 100 and some people turned up at the starting gates for the walk. You can't really have a position on whether the relevant authority should or should not change the surface of the tow-path, if you do not regularly walk that path yourself. Well of course you can, and people do, have a strongly held opinion on whether gay people should be able to marry when they haven't "been curious" themselves.  Ditto men who legislate about the status of women, installers of wheel-chair ramps, and right-to-lifers.  If but half of the 2400 people who have signed a petition protesting the desecration of the quiet grassy surface actually turned out to walk from Graig to St Mullins every weekend, then there would soon be no grassy surface.  I've walked sections of the Pennine Way in England where miles of piling and slatted walkways have been installed to combat the erosional damage of relentless footfall.
Here I am reluctantly holding one of the letters (someone had to hold up L for loafer) of a solidarity message which may cause sleep-loss and anxiety among the several elected representatives who were present on the walk or who will read about it later in the local paper. Those upside down Ls in BAΓΓOW are not Greek capital gammas but lower-case Rs: doubtless put there as a cunning plan to make people look twice at the picture. I had a lovely amble-time because a contingent from Cheekpoint turned up and we had a long and interesting chat walking along the riverside. I agreed to go back to Cheekpoint if their last two red squirrels Sciurus vulgaris needed CPR. No kingfishers Alcedo atthis yesterday but on the way back we saw a lone heron standing to attention on the top of the weir on the far side of the river. And, if not medals, there was indeed free tea and biks in the Abbey Hall afterwards - plus!!

We were obliged, out of politeness if no more, to stay there to listen to some speeches by/to the faithful. That's where I got my title: the resident people's poet urged us to refuse the label protester and wear instead a protector pin with pride. I was never a boy-scout - the tags in the socks were always the wrong colour - and I feel a little uneasy whenever the sense of solidarity and agreement gets too strong. One theme was encouraging lots of other people to walk the Barrow-line. Another was indignation that the local government wasn't doing enough, in promoting tourism for example, for Graignamanagh or Borris and the other villages abutting our humbly lovely river. When I am urged too strongly to follow a certain [grassy, silent] path, my stroppy-hackles can fluffed up, and I start to wish we could hear the other side's passionately held position. It was also disconcerting that all the speakers agreed to some extent with Waterways Ireland / Uiscebhealaí Éireann and the various county councils that "exploitation" of "the resource" was a good thing: the only thing that really separates the sides is what sort of surface to walk on. That does make a difference but could be seen as just different patterns in which to arrange the deck-chairs. What's the opposite of exploitation? Call me contrary, but that's what I want.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Dis Al

Dis die blond,
dis die blou:
dis die veld,
dis die lug;
en 'n voël draai bowe in eensame vlug -
dis al

Dis 'n balling gekom
oor die oseaan,
dis 'n graf in die gras,
dis 'n vallende traan -
dis al
There's the blonde, there's the blue: the veldt, the sky; and a bird wheeling over in lonely flight - that's all
There's an exile returned from over the ocean, there's a grave in the grass, there's a falling tear - that's all.
700th post tribbing Jan F.E. Celliers (1865-1940). That is all.

Friday 24 October 2014


I was writing recently about finding where you are on the sea-bed.  It's hard to breathe beneath the surface, so you can't stay long, but rocks and roughness are down there which you could recognise if you saw them again.  You might, however, be all at sea if you were on the surface, where there seems to be no stable thing - the whole view is either heaving and roiling or a featureless flat calm.  But it doesn't have to be like that, and for Polynesian wayfinders it wasn't.  They could abstract information from minute clues: a single bird of a particular species, the light reflected on the base of  a cloud, the very existence of clouds, tiny differences in the direction of wind and wave - these could all help put them in a known place.  MIT's Lily Bui has written recently about how these master navigators did the impossible: they went into the unknown and featureless ocean and came back.  A key issue was memory, if you knew all the reaches you had traversed and noted all the changes of direction, all you needed to do was run the program backwards. Which meant that the navigator had to stay awake to record and remember: he was the one with the red eyes. But the knowledge was not lost with the death of one Wayfinder - they could record the key features on stick-charts [R above: showing the essential navigational features of the Marshall Islands] and also they could identify an apprentice who would learn the skills and absorb some of the knowledge by sitting at the feet of the master. Metafilter pointed at a long-form article about the whole business in April 2013. Suck it all up, you'll be amazed!  And it's not a dead art, the Hokule'a has been tooling about the Pacific reliably using the old ways for the last several years.

Which brings me to Wade Davis, a Canadian ethnographer who has poured into himself a greater variety of psychotropic vegetable matter than probably any man still walking-and-lucid after these multiple challenges. Read his book One River for an account of the cocktails. Or a Guardian article for the quick version: one concoction requires Banisteriopsis caapi, which contains beta-carbolines  and Psychotria viridis, which is loaded with psychotropic dimethyltryptamine (DMT); and it needs them both - either alone is relatively harmless. How many "let's taste this and . . .um . . . that" experiments did it take to find that out?? Davis then wrote a brilliant book called Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World based on his 2009 CBC Massey Lectures. I've lost my copies of both books, so you know what to get me for Christmas . . . along with some humbugs. The Massey Lectures are the Canadian equivalent of the Reith Lectures: a sort of sustained long-form multi-chapter TED talk.  Davis uses the Polynesian navigators as a casting off point to recognise that each and every culture on our blue planet has a unique solution to the conundrum is what it means to be human and alive. He's a bit of a celeb is our Wade, not least because he is so articulate and passionate and relentlessly erudite: have a look: I could listen all day.  Or Wade interviewed. It is fatuous to say or think that we humans are in some sense 'higher' or better evolved than a dung-beetle or the millions of bacteria which we house in our intestinome.  Equally it is hubris and a delusion to think that your culture in Kiev or Glasgow is the smallest bit above that of a walker of songlines in the Australian outback. It is merely a step in another direction. Which is a loaded metaphor because of our embedded certainty that progress is good; there are cultures out there for whom the primary purpose of the practice, lifestyle and ritual is to maintain things exactly as they were at the moment of creation. If we all walk in different ways, and/or stand with Général "J'y suis, j'y reste" MacMahon, we'll cover more ground. Diversity rules, OK!?

Thursday 23 October 2014

Dem Bones

Last December I mentioned in passing that my Sporty students spent an afternoon looking at the gross and microscopic structure of a sheep's humerus . . . or possibly a femur: a long bone anyway. My comparative anatomy is a bit rusty. The neat thing is that the shaft of such bones has been engineered by evolution in the form of a hollow cylinder so that the limited amount of available calcium phosphate can be arranged to maximise the load-bearing capacity of the limbs. This frees up the "hollow" centre for other functions and this turns out to be primarily a factory for making red and white blood cells in the bone "marrow".

This week we're in humerus-land again with a different cohort of students. There are three parts of the analysis a) function as informed by the structure of a long-bone cut in half longitudinally to reveal the inside as well as the outside b) prepared slides to show how the hollow cylinder of the bone is made up, in its microscopic structure, of hollow cylinders 0.5 mm across c) finally . . . toilet roll mechanics.  In previous years I've asserted that a toilet-roll interior [R], as a hollow cylinder, is remarkably efficient at supporting weight.  Some at least of the students have nodded along with this reasonable seeming statement.  But agreeing with assertion is not the way science goes down, so this year I snagged a bunch of ex-toilet-rolls from the recycling and brought them into class. Yesterday we measured the load-bearing capacity of  a vertical roll [A]compared to one lying on its side [B] and came up with a rather surprising number.

First task was to find a suitable set of weights to carry out the destructive stress test.  We decided to use A4 hard-cover lab books of which there is a plentiful supply.  We also decided to create a model sheep (or model elephant) by putting a t-roll at each corner and started piling lab books on top.  Turns out that one lab-book (there are several different models and styles available) weighs 488g, so we called that 500g and piled up a stack of 42 books onto the "legs".  That's 21kg.  One of the students, more enterprising than the others, then removed one of the legs, so the average weight supportable by a single toilet roll without catastrophic deformation is at least 7kg!  Which if remarkably hefty considering that the roll itself weighs a mere 7g.

For those who a) don't have a set of gymnast's graded weights and b) want to be more precise, it turns out that a ream of photocopy paper weights precisely 2.5kg.  How do I know that? You can work it out from things that any office supply company employee knows.  Xerox paper is typically marketed as 80gsm (grams per square meter). Indeed this is the DIN 6730 [Deutsches Institut für Normung] Standard for Paper definition of  a ream.  A0 paper is defined as being 1sq,m. in size in the ratio 1 : 1.414 [numberphile youtube link] for the short and long sides, so a single sheet of A0 weights 80g.  A1 is half the size of A0 in the same proportions and weighs 40g . . . A2 = 20g; A3 = 10g; A4 = 5g.  A decimal ream is 500 sheets weighing in total 2500g.  Which means that you can use paper to weigh anything from 5g to 25kg (a stack of 10 reams or two xerox-boxfuls) or more.

And don't let me catch myself calling 480 sheets (at 20 quires of 24 sheets each) a ream.  That is a 'short' ream at best or a wholly outmoded quantity that should have been put aside with the quill pens that used to write on it . . . along with a printer's ream [516 sheets]; a mill ream [472]; and a stationer's ream [504]. Life in the stationery world used to be more interesting but also more complicated.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Back to Antikythera

All that stuff we have: hundreds of pencils, hool-a-hoops, two cars, a cordless drill, is mostly just clutter which makes it more difficult to find the things we need . . . now. There are, however, exceptions to William Morris's advice to "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful". Some things are more valuable that others, and I don't mean that your Lamborgini trumps my Toyota Yaris. Some artifacts, although useless and grungy, just boggle the mind at the scale and power of human ingenuity.  The most boggling of them all must be the Antikythera mechanism which was found at the bottom of the sea in 1900, having lain there decomposing and accumulating barnacles for the previous 2000 years. The mechanism is a precisely engineered set of gears and cogs designed to predict when the next Olympic Games was due . . . and a whole lot more. It's discovery and the interpretation of how it worked showed that the antient greeks had a level of technical, scientific and engineering competence that came as a huge surprise. But the Mechanism was just the cherry on the cake of the shipwreck, which was loaded with pots and statues, glassware, weaponry, all of superb quality.  The theory is that the ship was on its way to Rome carrying loot from a Greece that was ancient to the Romans. The consignees were not interested in wine or oil or slaves, they wanted things to grace their villas.

Since 1901, the only officially sanctioned dive was carried out by Jacques Cousteau, Dr Lazaros Kolonas and others in 1976. It you are prospecting for gold you go to places which you believe to be rich in the stuff and start to gather evidence that your hypothesis is correct. Now they are going at the Antikythera lode again in collaboration with the Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute. Last month they started mapping the sea bed at the site with extreme precision, using an underwater drone with GPS and cameras. They've already shown that there is more to come.  I'm just so excited.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Boiling Water

We are 90% water, so you'll excuse me if I bang on about the stuff on The Blob.  It comprises nowhere near 90% of the written material here, however, and most of my meanderings are about water in large quantities: lakes, exploding dams, exploding lakes but the molecular structure of water has important implications for the existence of life on earth and, equally important, the best way to make a perfect cup of tea.  It's all in the hydrogen bonds, innit?  Like 1066 is the only historical date that any fule kno in England, so H2O is the only chemical formula that the girl on the Clapham omnibus is likely to remember from skool chem lessons. Each oxygen in water is attached to two hydrogens which leaves two pairs of electrons on the opposite side. The electrostatic forces from these electrons complement a residual charge in the hydrogens and so adjacent molecules tend to stick together. Similar "hydrogen bonds" are what holds together the two strands of the double helix of DNA, so they can be pretty strong. The asymmetry of the water molecule makes for rather strong hydrogen bonding - much stronger than equivalent "hydrides": methane CH4, ammonia NH3, water OH2, hydrofluoric acid HF(1) as you go along the top row of the periodic table. You can work this out from theoretical physical chemistry but you can also see it in a table of boiling and freezing points.
The hydrogen bonds hold the water molecules together so that they are unwilling to change "phases" from solid to liquid to gas. These changes are driven by increasing the energy input - usually by an external heat source.  But also by the force of gravity as a weighted cheese-wire cuts through a block of ice by liquefying itself down; the ice-block freezes again behind the travelling wire so is still in one piece after the wire has passed through.

When water freezes it forms an open crystalline structure as the hydrogen-bonds are calmed down by the lowering temperature.  When the ice starts to melt and the boomerang-shaped molecules start to shuffle sluggishly about, they settle into  a more compact (and hence denser) structure.  It's a bit like when corn-flakes settle under mild shaking in transit from Battle Creek Michigan to Omsk or Omagh. As further heat is applied, the molecules start to move about more vigorously and require more elbow room - the material becomes less dense and normal kinetics apply . . . warm water floats to the top, colder denser water sinks. The transition point between these two opposite effects occurs at 3.98oC at sea-level at which temperature water has its maximum density. But the key thing and what makes water unique is that the solid form floats.  When it gets cold in Winter, ice forms, but when the sun comes up in the Spring its warmth gets direct access to the solid material and melts it.  Another factor is that ice is a remarkably good insulator, so the propagation of cold down into lakes and oceans is inhibited buy the ice-blanket on top. If ice was denser than the liquid form, as all other solid phases are, then the Spring thaw would never happen because the heat could not penetrate to the bottom of the lake where the ice was. Without this neat happenstance, there would be no life on Earth and a helluva a lot of ice.

And what about the tea? Well, the stickiness of hydrogen-bonds means that a lot of energy is required to make the phase transitions.  The data (a unit of electricity = kWh = (Ireland) €0.16c:
  • ice - liq requires 320 J/g
  • 0oC - 100oC requires 420 J/g or 0.06kWh per half litre  or about €0.01c
  • liq - gas requires 2260 J/g or 0.3 kWh per half litre €0.05c
Shifting a gram of water from solid at 0oC to liquid at 0oC takes almost as much energy as getting it from there to boiling point.  But the next transition to water vapour is enormously more 'expensive'. As I explained in my investigation of alternative hot beverages, the optimal temperature for brewing tea is so close to boiling point that you may as well boil the kettle.  But if you are making coffee or a fortiori maté, you're being extravagant in your consumption of electricity: every gram of steam is costing you a mort o' money in electricity and threatening your domestic comfort with condensation, tuberculosis and an early death. But forswearing all hot beverages and drinking nothing but cheap red wine is not the answer either.

Monday 20 October 2014

Tintin Tutu

Q. What do Tutu and Tintin have in common?
A. Tibet.
Which makes it seem like a tennis-elbow-foot game that is heavy on alliteration. I'm referring to a weird connexion between the cartoon character and the South African bishop in the mind of the Dalai Lama and/or his government in exile.  Twenty years ago, they shared a Light of Truth Award which is given personally by the Dalai Lama to the recipient.  It's not like a Nobel prize which comes with a gold medal and a stonking amount of folding money.  Rather, as it says on the tin, the prize is a humble butter-lamp, such as you might have guttering in front of a statue of the Buddha in a darkened shrine in the Himalayas: it is purely symbolic. And it is given to someone whose actions have illuminated the plight of the Tibetans with respect to democratic freedoms and human rights. Other winners have been Heinrich Harrar, Lewis Thomas, Richard Gere and Václav Havel. The connecting theme seems to be any writer or celebrity who has mentioned Tibet in a favorable light. The Hergé Foundation got its lamp because of Tintin in Tibet:
Now I'm a fan of the Dalai Lama, I think he has a sense of humor [and he knows when material is not original] and a definite and distinctive presence which he's used to promote a vision of happiness and spiritual meaning far beyond the borders of his inaccessible country. And he's made an effort to bridge the gap between the non-overlapping magisteria of religion and science.  He was, for example, invited to address the 2005 meeting of the (US) Society for Neuroscience.

But it needs a pinch of salt to hear the once upon a leader of a medieval theocracy, which maintained its inequable power into the middle of the 20th century, take the high ground on discussion of human rights and democracy.  I'm not saying that Red China has dealt the Tibetan people a better hand of cards, but I can also see why young native Tibetans might have been tempted to take a revolutionary path given the political situation immediately before the invasion of the Red Army and the mass immigration of Han Chinese into Tibet.  It's also fashionable. with 20/20 hindsight to give Tintin's creator Hergé a good drubbing for being racist and anti-semitic; as well as condemning him for surviving and working in Nazi occupied Belgium.  But casual anti-semitism and thinking in racial stereotypes was completely part of the furniture in the 1930s and 1940s: it was effectively invisible and unheard at the time. The anti-semitic jibe has a damned if you do damned if you don't air to me. Rastapopolous, despite the Greek name and Hergé's insistence that his stage villain was Italian, is clearly Jewish because of his nose. If you expect your team to be slighted, then it's as easy to take offense as the dueling hidalgos of the Spanish tercios who felt their honour to be constantly impugned. It's much easier to point the finger at the sins of others than to identify your own unconsidrred certainties. Alan Moore has a defense in a parallel attack about his cartoon depictions. If you think you would have behaved and thought any differently in Brussels in 1942, you are a liar or a fool or a saint and there are very few of the latter walking this earth.

Sunday 19 October 2014

At the peak

At the end of the film Unbreakable, Simone does a short piece to camera after Mark's first post-accident attempt at adventuring comes to a demoralising slumpy end.  She suggests that her bloke's next leap forward might not be in some frozen waste of the Earth but up against the frozen heart of the mega-rich corporate world. It's a metaphor for Azimov's mysterious Second Foundation, set up "at Star's end", which turns out to be right in the commercial and political hub of The Empire. Like Louis Agassiz, who found a Summer's worth of study in his own back yard, the thrill of adventure and pushing your self to its limit can be achieved by taking taxis to Megacorp as well as sledges to the South Pole.

In May 2012, Nadav Ben Yehuda found himself in a quandary. He's a young chap, now 36 then 34, he's from Israel and he climbs mountains.Whatever its supply of kibbutzim, oranges or prayer-shawls, Israel is a little short on mountains. Or it has mountains but they are a little short. The highest point is Mt Meron near the border with Lebanon at a tad over 1200m. Heck, the country is about as craggy as Ireland (Carrauntohill is 1040m) which is not craggy at all. In 2012, Ben Yehud got the chance of a climber's lifetime at Mt Everest.  It was not the best season for climbing to the top of the world because the weather closed out the number of possible summit days from an average of 11 down to four.  There were a couple of hundred people on the mountain during those few days and many of them got to the top and back down safely despite a log-jam of other climbers to compete with.  When Ben Yehuda approached the summit, it was late, indeed it was already dark; he was dog-tired; the wind was shrieking horizontal ice-needles but his goal was within reach only 300 m further on. That's about the distance from our front gate to the county road. Then by the light of his head-torch the climber saw another man lying down in a crack in the ice: gloveless, unconscious, without oxygen and certain to die if left in that exposed position. Like Mark Pollock giving up his dreams of wheel-chair yomps across Siberia, the young Israeli instantly dumped his chance to climb Everest. With dogged perseverance, indomitable courage and ludicrous amounts of good fortune, he spent the next 8 hours carrying and dragging the injured man down to the nearest camp and safety, expecting most of the time that they would both die up there.
Somewhere among the clouds above . . .
Shimon Peres the Israeli President later gave Ben Yehuda an award saying "You searched for a geographical peak and found a humanitarian peak".  I'm sure it sounds more poetic in Hebrew but the point stands: pushing the frontiers need not be in the outback.

There is a nice touch in the fact that the man rescued was a Turk called Aydin Imrak. Turkey and Israel have been less at logger-heads than other countries and factions in the Middle East but they have had their differences, both diplomatic and political, not least in 2010 when Israeli commandos assaulted the Turkish registered ship MV Mavi Marmara on its way to Gaza with humanitarian aid and killed 9 Turkish citizens.  The friendship between Ben Yehuda and Imrak, like that between Indian and Pakistani students at The Institute, transcends politics and religion to demonstrate a common humanity. büyük bir kucaklama, חיבוק גדול, 

Saturday 18 October 2014

More productive crops

There are 7-billion-and-rising of us on the planet and 800 million of them go to bed hungry almost every night. Each year more than 2 million children die because they didn't have enough to eat. Ouch! What to do? The remaining wilderness is wild because it is never going to be sustainably productive for growing food for people, so we may as well give refuge to pandas Ailuropoda melanoleuca and Indian lions Panthera leo persica; sorry, it's too late for the quagga Equus quagga quagga. Believe me, if an honest third world politician has to choose between feeding elephants Loxodonta africana or L. cyclotis or feeding constituents, the voters will win every time. The King of Brobdingnag offered another solution to Gulliver during his travels "And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

Niall Carson - AP
Three young women from Kinsale in County Cork have, like Othello (and Charles Haughey) "done the state some service" in this regard. Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow [L - going a little weak at the knees] have just been named as three of the 25 most influential teenagers by Time magazine for their work. This (cost-neutral) tribute can be added to the [50] Grand prize at the Google Science Fair last month, the biology  EU Young Scientist Prize (€7k) a year before that and the launch of their science-celeb career winning the BT Young Scientist Competition back in January 2013, with their project "A statistical investigation of the effects of diazotroph bacteria on plant germination".  Diazotroph?  What it says on the tin - they metabolise (trophein Gk: to nourish) di-Nitrogen (Gk: azote). Most of the press coverage has treated Diazotroph as a species but it's rather a chemical toolkit shared by a variety of different microbes. The atmosphere is 78% full of di-Nitrogen N2 but the triple bond between the two Ns is so remarkably strong that this reserve is of no use for the living world. All living things need nitrogen to make the amino (NH2) acids that are the building blocks for proteins. No proteins, no life as we know it. Diazotrophs are classes of bacteria which can "fix" nitrogen with a nifty enzyme called nitrogenase.  I've had occasion to criticise the idea that following the advice of the King of B is an unqualified good. I've also complained about the poor quality of statistical analysis in most of the teen science projects that come across my sights at The Institute. Things are clearly fixed better down in the Kinsale Community School because you can't pull the wool over the eyes of National, European and World judges of science.

It's also interesting that the girls have looked a little sideways at the effects of N-fixers on plants. The usual take is to measure the productivity of plants in the presence of diazotrophs because nitrogen-fixing allows more amino-acids to be manufactured; which means that more protein can be made; which means that plants can grow more and/or grow more protein. One interesting sideline is that the enzyme nitrogenase requires minority elements molybdenum or vanadium to function properly, in the same way as haemoglobin requires an iron atom at its active site. Some soils are grossly deficient in either or both of these elements and so have very low productivity. The brute force approach is to lash on more nitrogen fertiliser . . . which will run off into water-courses and  The elegant solution is to sprinkle a tiny quantity of molybdenum on the earth and let the diazotrophs do the heavy-lifting. What the Kinsale Three have shown is that another important property - germination - is also enhanced by the action of these bacteria.

I hope they enjoy their ten day trip to the Galapagos and make good use of their $50,000 Google scholarship fund. We need such smart and creative young people in science, who will stay the course and become Women in Science rather than drift off into a life of affluence and foreign travel.

Friday 17 October 2014

Water hammer

If you got yourself here by mistake, let me assure you that this Blob is not a typo but a short piece to camera about hydraulic shock. Anyone who has lived in an old house with plumbing has experienced this.  If you turn off the tap in the bath sufficiently sharp, you'll hear and probably feel a kaCHUNK, as the flowing water comes to a sudden stop. The sound is effectively the same as if you let fall a sledge-hammer on a concrete wall: as the kinetic energy of the system comes to an abrupt halt, part of it is transformed into sound waves. The shock-wave can travel can travel back and forth in the pipework for a while going dugga-dugga-dugga. I'm shocking bad at physics, so if the rest of this piece is opaque to you, it's because it is opaque to me.  We can all live with a bit of odd bonking in the plumbing, so long as it doesn't startle us awake in the middle of the night.  But the principle can scale up frighteningly in industrial situations. An example from The Wiki, imagines a hydro-electric power-station needing to quickly turn off the power by shutting a sluice. If there are, say,14 km of 7.7m diameter tunnel, full of water travelling at 3.75 m/s, that represents approximately 8000 Megajoules of kinetic energy. It's about the same explosive power as 2 tons of TNT going off with a bang.  That will happily shatter the concrete source pipe, so dam-builders incorporate surge-towers in the infra-structure to dissipate the kinetic energy against gravity rather than against the pipe-wall. Hats off to engineers. It works at the other end as well: if you shut the pipe at the top end, the moving water will attempt to create a vacuum behind it which can implode the pipework.

The Boy is an engineer, and since before he worked for a tiny start-up called Ryanair, he's been a plane geek.  I sent him the link to a Blob about metal fatigue and his grand-father's NDE and he told me to check out Aloha Airlines Flight 243.
The annotated picture above is about another father's NDE that is much more likely to be true than mine. Aloha was an inter island shuttle between the islands of Hawaii and the planes, Boeing 737s, clocked up a lot of take-offs, landings and air-miles in the salty air of the paradise islands.  on 28 April 1988, Flight 243 en route from Hilo to Honolulu just after lunch, suffered an explosive decompression which ripped 5.6m off the roof of the fuselage just in front of the wing.  There was only one fatality, an unfortunate hostie called CB Lansing who disappeared into thin air and was never seen again. Neither was the roof, despite extensive searching of the ocean in the following days. Hats off to engineers here as well because it boggles the mind that the plane still holds together when the front and back halves are joined by a thread.  As with the Comet accident in 1954, the damage was put down to metal fatigue made worse by the corrosive action of the salt on the rivets and joints of the aluminium air-frame.

Apparently, since it was realised that cracks in fatigued metal propagate over time, aircraft engineers design air-frame like rip-stop nylon. They make it so that the damage stays local and doesn't cause a catastrophic failure. When even a small section of the skin fails at 7,000m there is an immediate decompression as the comfortably sea-level pressurised cabin voids to the equivalent air pressure at the top of Mt Everest. A minority report into the accident hypothesises that Ms Lansing was walking right underneath when a Lansing-sized hole blew out. The rushing air was abruptly stopped by the head and shoulders of the poor hostie and the fluid hammer effect blasted out the adjacent panels like falling dominos.  The leader of the NTSB investigation conceded later that this exotic theory could bear further investigation. If, like Aloha-243 passenger Gayle Yamamoto, you see cracks in the fuselage as you take your seat, be sure to tell the nearest hostie - that person is most likely to be the plug that kills everyone.

Thursday 16 October 2014

The Reluctant Pilgrim

I've written rather a lot about Santiago and the Camino that bustles its loads of travellers up to the door of the Cathedral in the centre of Santiago de Compostella. The Way is not a single road in the physical world because Latvians and Londoners all finish up in Santiago, or flake out in the attempt, and they can't all leave from the same front door. It's not a single route into the soul either because it takes each person in a different way. I use 'takes' here in the sense of leaves you gasping even if, and perhaps particularly if, you had no intention of being taken (in) by anybody or anything.  From what I saw in my own long walk through Spain, some, maybe many, people go there, do that and take the plane home and and ask themselves what the fuss is all about.  It's like the few occasions when I've tried a little meditation in the Buddhist tradition - I know that I was, despite the external zazen appearance, a long long way from Nirvana.

Last night I went to the monthly meeting of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society to hear Damien Mclellan talk about "A Sense of Place and the routes to Santiago de Compostella". My pal Russ, who turned out to be the projectionist for the perf, had alerted me. Mclellan lives in the middle of the Barony of Gaultier which was the civil division of East County Waterford until folks started tricking about with the old boundaries. If you have a tourney of history buffs who live in that area, what better name? Mclellan is a long-distance walker who had knocked off all the interesting paths in the WEA, and still had the use of his legs. About 15 years ago he decided for a change to try a Grande Randonnée GR route through La Belle France. For reasons not clear, he plunked for GR65 which ambles from Le Puy in the middle of France WSW towards Galicia via the Pyrenees. He was a Long Distance Hiker who looked with great suspicion at the conspicuous piety of Les Pèlerins Français who were sharing the track. Then one night he found himself, out of sorts with himself and in some desperation, at the door of a pilgrims' hostel long after he'd normally have been in bed. He was greeted by two total strangers with such bluff good humour and unassuming kindness that he was almost convinced by their assurances that he too was a pilgrim.  "You are walking, you are on the way to Santiago, therefore you are a pilgrim, hein?".  It took a little longer than that, a couple more extraordinary openings in the curtain, a few strange, deep, anonymous conversations and he began to believe that, if he was still a skeptic, on at least one occasion the warm hand of the Apostle had helped him through a brutal and frightening section of the lonely road.

Being a local boy, Mclellan has convinced himself that the village of Ballyhack, at the top of Waterford Harbour where the car ferry shuttles back and forth, was the premier jumping off point for Irish pilgrims heading for Spain in the middle ages. He's now padding about the byways of SE Ireland looking at maps and overgrown pathways, standing stones and ruined chapels, trying to piece together a route that hasn't seen mass transport of more than 400 years. Too many chapels along the road north to Dublin and the Irish midlands are named after Naomh Seamus for it to be a coincidence, he reckons.  And if his theories bear fruit? Would there be a call for re-opening such routes in these troubled and restless times. And would the development turn out to be grossly insensitive and commercialised like much of the metalled Camino Frances between the Pyrenees and Galicia? We took a walk along a section of McClennan's proposed route in June - it was indeed mystic. wonderful, and the damselflies were positively gaudy.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Letter from America

When we lived in #37 on a street in Newcastle Upon Tyne in the 80s, the chap across the road in #36 became a good friend. Roy worked in Tyne Tees Televison, the local commercial broadcasting station in the days when there was no local radio and only a handful of TV channels.  He'd never been to university - romantically leaving school to live up a green lane in Devon and work as a dairy-man. His original gig at TTTV was as a researcher and producer on farrrming programmes but he branched out into a lot of other things as well. One day at work, he heard with a sort of jaw-sagging shock that the management was clearing space for some new venture and was going to ditch a few floor-to-ceiling cabinets full of still photographs of the Geordie streetscape of the 1950s and 1960s.  Of particular interest were boxes containing an archive of the the mean streets of Byker before they were demolished in the early 1970s and replaced by the Byker Wall [L looking well in the sun] a modernist block of social housing to replace a clatter of Victorian red-brick row houses (aka slums). I know Roy spent some frantic hours on the telephone (on company time) trying to find a home for this irreplaceable archive of where we had come from, but I don't think he was successful: his own Victorian terraced was modestly full with beds, chairs, tables and a wife and two children.

The BBC had also dropped the ball on a lot of their broadcast material. Someone had to decide what to keep apart from broadcasts of Coronations because there was finite space in Broadcasting House. There was finite space in the Library on the TCD campus back in the 1970s so the University built an archive for all the little-used material out towards the Airport in Santry but, for whatever reasons, that didn't happen soon enough or big enough for the BBC and a lot of ephemeral material was taped over or discarded. There was nothing more ephemeral, nor so rich in its sense of time and place as Alistair Cooke's Letter from America, which went out once a week with whatever was uppermost in Mr Cooke's mind when he wrote his script. It could be the end of the Vietnam War or an inconsequential piece about lox and bagels.  It was like a blog before the interweb and it continued every week for sixty YEARS. Like Stephen Jay Gould's column in Natural History, in which he delivered 3000 words every month for 25 years.  Gould, who was a busy professor and researcher in his day job, could only afford to do the Natural History gig if he allocated a single sitting and wrote without edits.  It's a bit like Woodrow Wilson's:
That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.
You can see that Cooke hand-editted his typescripts which amounted to about 7000 words a month. But it was only a master like Cooke who could start some intriguing hare rollicking off through connected hill and counter-intuitive dale and always, always rein the story back to reflect on the starting point.  You can listen yourself and see if you agree.

ANNyway, by the time the BBC realised that they had an irreplaceably rich and diverse vertical slice through the second half of the 20th Century they'd lost or erased much of the archive of  2500+ recordings of Letter From America. Being a broadcaster, in 2012 the Beeb put out a calling-all-cars request to see if anyone had recorded and retained some long ago episodes at home. Bingo! Two chaps looked in attic and shed and between them found tapes of some 600 episodes from 30-40 years previously which increased the archive by about 65%. After these whiffly, crackly and whooshy recordings had been de-scratched by BBC sound engineers - surely the best project any headphone boffin could imagine - they were editted for re-broadcasting. In March of this year, one of the old buffers found another 50 episodes wrapped up in an old fertiliser-spreader in his barn.  You can see why we only have 5% of the plays of Sophocles.

To put this in context, I have religiously written a post on every one of the last 500 days at about 20,000 words a month. But as with Oscar Wilde's "B'god Whistler, I wish I'd said that", when I listen back to Alistair Cooke, I can only wish that I had his felicity of phrase or breadth of interest . . . and a contract with the BBC.

Tuesday 14 October 2014


I don't think  he's a sorcerer but J Craig Venter (Happy Birthday 1946 boy) has been involved in so many shape-shifting projects that normal people might be a little envious. Last night my roomie at The Institute gave me a New Scientist article (How to be a Genius by David Dobbs 18 Sep 2006) which holds with Edison that genius is 99% perspiration. If I haven't seen as far as Craig Venter it's probably because I've been too lazy and/or complacent.  I've been both of those and am reasonably
smug content with myself so my main feeling about Venter is admiration. At least two of his game-changing projects might have won him a Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology, if he hadn't pissed off so many people along the way.   I've never met him but I don't get the sense that he's obtusely boorish, he just tends to tell it like it is.  Having served in a front line triage centre in Vietnam as a very young man, he's seen things and done things that the rest of us have not been challenged by.

He certainly annoyed me (so much for "Dr Equanimity") more than 20 years ago when I was just starting to motor in the world of bioinformatics. I was tasked to work out how synonymous codon usage worked for humans.  The database was tiny in those days, although we thought it was huge and gathering a robust dataset that wasn't padded out with duplicates or fragments was a lot of hard work. Book-keeping and keeping track of all the data - just to big to be processed one-a-time - needed coding and attention to detail.  in 1991, there were a little over 1000 human genes (now >130,000) to play with. We were scooped by our rivals in Paris because they were less pedantic, a little more slap-dash and that bit quicker than we were.  Their paper said what ours would have said despite their data being noisier.  This was true because the available data was broad enough that a few errors didn't affect the overall picture. Dang! Very shortly afterwards a paper was published by a team from Venter's lab that reported fragmentary sequences from 600 novel genes expressed in the human brain. In one swoop they had increased the available data by 60%!  Because each of these genes was only partly sequenced, I didn't have the tools or the mindset to incorporate the data into my analyses. I therefore thought the whole submission was an annoying barrage of noise that would just get in everybody's way.  I was completely wrong, locked into past processes and incapable of seeing that this approach was an immensely powerful tool for understanding a) the scope of human genetic diversity and b) the locations where, and activity with which, each gene was 'expressed'. I caught up about 10 years later and published an analysis of these quick-and-dirty "expressed sequence tags" (ESTs). Mobilising ESTs to study human health could have snagged a Nobel, except that Venter tried to patent his newly discovered information to win time to generate gene-based therapeutics for megapharma. Not the sort of thing a gentleman would do.

He could also have secured a prize for geeing up the Human Genome Project from outside, so that it raised its corduroy trousers off the comfy chair in the Senior Common Room, took off its tweed jacket and started to race to deliver under the threat that Venter's team would raise capital and hire bodies and buy equipment and deliver the human genome within 18 months. Venter was gracious enough to suggest that the huge, methodical and slightly unwieldy international consortium could have the mouse genome to play with after his efficient capitalist machine had knocked off The Big One. You can see how that sort of play would annoy The Suits and their tweed-jacket boffins - do you hear a grinding of pipe-stems? It didn't turn out like that though: the Wellcome Trust (whose senior people went to the same school as the genome chappies) freed up a barrel of cash for the 'public' venture and the two projects finished neck and neck in 2003. That was at least 2 years ahead of schedule.  That's a lot of time if you're dying from a genetic disease.

I wrote in May 2013 about Venter's announcement of the creation of "the first bacterial genome whose parent was a computer". That was clever and I got a kick out of solving the puzzle that Venter's chaps had embedded in the genetic code of their artificial life-form.  But that project was a mix of technology and bravado rather than being a game-changer. I'm probably wrong in that assessment also. Sequencing the genome of his poodle Shadow showed a hubris not calculated to please the rank-and-file.

Another insight that deserves enormous credit was Venter's project to sample the microbial flora of the whole ocean. Human genome not big enough? He kitted out his private yacht Sorcerer II as a floating laboratory and sent it off on a round the world cruise sampling the sea-water at intervals and purifying the DNA out of the soup that came up in their nets. The DNA enabled his people to say how many bacteria of what types were present in each different part of the wet globe. That was a Great Leap Forward for microbial ecology and I think it has been widely under-appreciated for both its vision and its achievements. The big surprise was that the ocean is a very poorly stirred soup.  The microbial community in the Caribbean is significantly different from the bugs you find off the coast of Ireland despite the fact that the Gulf Stream (aka North Atlantic Drift) connects them in a warm bath that moves relentlessly East by North-East at nearly 10km/h (it takes about a month to arrive here). The bacteria seemingly don't go with the flow. That's really surprising.

Time for old fashioned joke:
Q. Are you a sorcerer?
A. No, I drink out of a cup like everyone else.
But Craig Venter drinks different harder stuff than me, that's why he has the yacht and I have a

Monday 13 October 2014


Budget-day coming up at the end of this week in Ireland. More thoughts for the Finance Minister to consider. I was after driving to Waterford the other day and found myself tuning in half-way through a magazine programme in which a tax-expert was enumerating some of the anomalies in the system of Value Added Tax. VAT is where the Irish Government, like others in the European Union, claws some cash out of the economy as it bumbles along past the Revenue Commissioners (as we quaintly call our Tax-men in neo-19th Century Ireland).  Governments see two benefits from taxing the people 1) to raise revenue for the numerous tasks and services that governments carry out for the rest of us and a distant second 2) attempt to modify our behaviour into more desirable avenues; however and by whomever that might be defined: hence the punitive tax levied on alcohol and tobacco.

From the 19th Century, if not before, the inheritors of The Enlightenment in Britain did away with the taxation of books and newspapers with the laudably Victorian ideal that there should be no tax on knowledge. Ireland inherited the principle at independence. When VAT was introduced in 1972, this sentiment was supported by making printed material zero rated. That has continued through inertia and fear that change will lose somebody's vote ever since. Somewhere along the line newspapers were recognised to have no knowledge content and are now VATed at 9%. e-Books are new and have been deemed to be a different product entirely and taxable at the top rate, which in Ireland is a frightening 23%.

In 1972 the church had considerable clout in Ireland so candles, white, tapered, wax were and are zero rated.  Food is zero rated but luxury food is 23%. "Luxury" has been defined by the weasily mind of lawyers and, as always with lawyers, the richest client secures the best judgement. Famously, in a decision fought up through the British court system, the repellently artificial Jaffa Cake [R] was defined as a cake (luxury 23%) rather than a biscuit (staple 0%) on the grounds that it went hard as it got stale.  Biscuits, as any fule kno, go soft.  And it is easy for The Press to wheel out risible examples to compare: bottled water, tooth-paste, toilet paper are all 23% luxuries presumably because our 1972 ancestors used tap-water (and proper order too, that's why we make it "potable"), baking-soda and old newspaper (zero rated as above!).  Potato waffles, steak & kidney pudding, caviar and sugar are all food at 0%.  The tax-boffin on the wireless explained the difference in rate between a cheesecake mix including and excluding the crumb-base but my brain melted and I can't remember which is taxed at the higher rate.

Just as the church secured the ear of The Man, and special treatment for their business, so did stock-brokers: their services are zero-rated. Oral medicines are all zero rated, including the contraceptive pill, but condoms are rated 23% - which maybe a social manipulation tax, condoms being less reliable than The Pill.  But it's probable that the anomaly just is.  Medical devices - catheters, wheel-chairs, commodes, incontinence pads - are taxed at top rate but a stretch limo (public transport) is zero rated. Hiring a back-hoe or a bulldozer is 23% but if hired with a driver it is a service and only costs you 13.5% extra.

The Campaign for VAT Reform, points out that when VAT in the Hospitality "Industry" was lowered to 9% a couple of budgets ago, it is estimated to have created more than 20,000 jobs. This shows that tricking about with the tax-base can have socially and economically desirable effects.  I don't know if the net tax take of the change is better but that's 20,000 families who are better off and needing €50 million less from social welfare. SIPTU, the main union in the industry are now campaigning to remove this support because research suggests that hoteliers are not actually passing the reduction on to customers. Therefore SIPTU believes the greater good is served by getting more VAT from people who eat out to help those on social welfare who barely have enough to eat in. Suggestions where a change in the rate of VAT could act for The Common Good include:
  • Melanoma: lower rate on sunscreen (23%) and raise it on sunbeds (0%)
  • Obesity, dental caries: raise rate on sugar (0%) and sugar-rich foods (0%)
  • Heart disease: raise rate on salty food (0%)
  • Diabetes: eliminate VAT on (injectable) insulin
  • Revolution: raise rate on race horses (4.8%)
  • Eutrophication of rivers: raise rate on bulk pelleted fertiliser (0%)
  • Safety: lower rate on kit - safety helmets, life-jackets, safety-belts, smoke-detectors, fire extinguishers all 23%
  • Culture: equilibrate ballet lessons (0%) and Irish trad dance lessons (23%)
  • Energy: explain solar panels (23%) vs coal (13.5%), I can't
Hear an interview with Reformist Brian Collins.  And you, dear EU reader, will like to start investigating the rates and oddities in your own country. I've advocated before the desirability of  a root and branch re-think of how we, as a nation,  raise and spend money.