Monday 29 February 2016

Democracy in action

As I warned you before the event I, II, III, we just [Friday 26 Feb 16] had an election in Ireland. The psephologists have been doing their thing extrapolating the results from exit-polls on the day. There is a peculiar breed of number-wonks called tallymen who hang over the railings as the ballot papers are emptied out on the counting table, unfolded and smoothed out for counting. These tallymen can keep running totals of 1st, 2nd and 3rd preferences and before the votes are ready for official counting can tell their party bosses what the result is likely to be. The single transferable vote STV method which we use in Ireland typically will last all day before a result is official declared, so it's nice for the candidates of the major political parties to know whether they will need to get back to their real job as a teacher, publican or lawyer.  The ballot paper [recently with added thumb-nail pics for the illiterate] is the size of a tea-towel, so just stacking them is a chore. Hilarious? spoiled ballots I - II. Three of the constituencies have candidates so close after 10 or 12 counts that they have decided to have a full re-count: the counters must be a bit punchy at this stage.  Early Monday morning after two full days of counting 148/158 seats have been filled.

Dau.II, since her politicisation over the Marriage Equality Referendum in May last year, has gone a bit psephological herself.  She decided that a) she wouldn't vote for either of the two [centre-right christian democrat] largest parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil b) she would vote for women unless they were so far to the Right that they couldn't be clearly seen - or believed.  I think she may have thrown a preference for the local Sinn Féin chap because she is under the age of 35. Anyone over that age has spent part of their adult lives in a world where Sinn Féin was synonymous with IRA and IRA was associated with Armalites - whether or not they agreed with the politics. So she has helped achieve a FF/FF/FG/SF result for Cork South Central.

My political pal Kevin is from Kildare South, two of whose candidates were Fiona O'Loughlin (FF) and Fiona McLoughlin (FG). One of them is going to have to change her name if they are going to the hustings head-to-head again. It helps a little that FGiona got married and became McLoughlin-Healy.  The fact that Healy met her when he was a medical student and she was a newly qualified nurse to make another doctor-meets-nurse story tells you that doctors and nurses don't get out enough; although this couple looks kind of radiant.

The name Healy rings down Irish politics for the last generation because of shenanigans in Kerry. For years the most effective fixer for Fianna Fáil in The Kingdom, as they call Kerry, was a farmer's son called Jackie Healy-Rae. He was born John Patrick Healy in Reacaisleach in 1931 and could as easily have become JP as Jackie. He added the -Rae to give himself distinction and consolidate his association with his natal soil. In 1997, he felt he'd served the party long enough (30+ years!) and wanted his seat in the Dáil. FF declined his application, because they felt they owed more to the son of their retiring TD. For a Republic we have a huge love of dynasties. Healy-Rae ran as an independent and topped the poll, getting almost double the votes of the favourite son. Who needs a party when you are The Machine??  But the party needed him because they had a a knife-edge coalition majority and Healy-Rae sold his support for a serious injection of capital into his deeply rural constituency. Over the next 10, Fianna Fáil Celtic Tiger, years, South Kerry got the best schools, the best roads with the smallest pot-holes, and a few multinational start-ups. Jackie Healy-Rae retired from politics in 2010 and his son Michael inherited his mantle and his seat in the 2011 election. One dynasty has been supplanted by another!  In the current election, Son of Healy-Rae put his ear to the ground and realised that the drums of Kerry were tom-tomming for the clan.  His brother was told to stand for election and the two of them swept up the first two seats between them.  I presume the brothers will continue to deliver for their neighbours: be damned to refugees, the national debt, the future of Europe and the future of the planet.

Last week, I pointed the finger of blame at Michael Lowry, another Irish poll-topper, who had been indicted for corruption and still got landslide votes. In 2011, just after his election, Michael Healy-Rae used €2000+ of tax-payers money to vote himself to win a "celebrity" nonsense TV game show. Seemingly he sat at his phone in the Dáil for 2 days doing nothing but make premium-rate calls to the game's voting line. I guess his constituents see this as commendable stamina and application. It seems pathetic really: if you're going to be corrupt can't you do it in grand style like Charles Haughey  or Hermann Göring or Jean-Bédel Bokassa of old?
I don't know about yours but my mind is boggled.

Sunday 28 February 2016

Sunday off-site 280216

Shannon scheming

In the 1920s, after WWI which killed nearly 50,000 Irishmen; the Spanish 'flu which killed half-as-much-again and a guerilla War of Independence and a devastating Civil War whose numbers there is no will to enumerate, Ireland was a bankrupt state: 3% of the able-bodied workforce was dead and many more were disabled by wounds or PTSD. A nation of small farmers with no ready money to pay the small shop-keepers in town was not in a position to pay taxes to boost the infrastucture to promote economic growth. The mighty Shannon has been in the news this Winter as a succession of Winter storms have dumped so much rain in the catchment area [17,000 sq,km = 20% of the land area of the island] that the river burst its banks at numerous places along the main channel. It was ever thus, the river can't drain quickly because it is flat: it falls only 15m from source to Parteen Weir - a distance of more than 200km.  The standard cycle is that the main channel spreads out on the riverine meadows - called callows in Ireland - and the excess drains away over the days after the spike in rainfall ends.  It's an equilibrium.

The equilibrium was shifted when the nascent Free State was persuaded to exploit the mass of water and the fact that for the last 30km of its length, the Shannon falls 30m. Hydro-electricity! The principle had been on the cards for the previous couple of generations but the project gained momentum in the early 1920s.  One of the early boosters was Sean Wall, the Chairman of Limerick Council, but he was also the local IRA commandant and was killed in an independence war shootout in May 1921. A couple of years later, the running was taken up by Thomas McLaughlin, an engineer who was working for German megacorp Siemens. He managed to by-pass British business and engineering interests and Siemens got the contract. It took the rest of the 1920s to bring the plan to fruition.  It was the biggest hydro-electric plant on Earth; although quickly surpassed by the Hoover Dam across the Colorado River in America. It was wildly expensive: sucking up 20% of the annual tax-take for several years. 9 million cu.m of spoil had to be shifted to construct the head-race between the afore-mentioned Parteen Weir (another part of the engineering infrastructure) and the dam and turbines at Ardnacrusha 15km downstream.

The initial installation in 1929 had three turbines that could generate a staggering 35MW at full power: that was more than the entire electricity usage for the country. Demand soon rose to meet supply . . . and over top it. After 3 years, another mega-turbine was installed to add another 30MW of power.  In the mid 1930s, Ardnacrusha provided 80% of the nation's electrical power and lines snaked out across the country. Initially to Dublin, Cork and other cities and centres. My father was living in Dunmore East at the time and this significant fishing port was ear-marked for early access to the grid.  The Emergency, as Irish government termed WWII, put a damper on propagation of the wires but Rural Electrification extended via 1.5 million poles into every farmhouse and cottage on the mainland by 1973.

Now, Ardnacrusha supplies rather less than 2% of the electricity in the country. It's still humming at full capacity but now everyone has a kettle, a microwave, electric carving knife, waffle pan; desktop laptop, tablet and smart-phone; every house is lit up like a Christmas tree and not just at Christmas; astronomy is no longer a spectator sport because of the street lights in every hamlet and cross-roads; cyclotrons, MRIs, CAT scans, centrifuges; ice-plants, assembly lines; oh yes, and the trains. We're all wired up and Siemens, Parteen and Ardnacrusha midwifed the country to a richer, and the planet to a poorer, place.

Saturday 27 February 2016

Small hands needed

Synchronicity alert: in the last week I've completed 2 separate questionnaires about the practice of home education HE.  Both were compiled by students who are completing an M.Ed with a report on that minority end of education business.  Must be in the air? Actually, if you take the long view, HE is always just over the horizon for most people and periodically a journalist (radio or print, rather rarely TV) will think that they can make s story out of the practice.  These stories often wheel out the usual suspects by contacting the families who were willing to let journos into their lives a few months ago.  They contact those families because they feature on the first page of Google hits with "home education family ireland" - try it? - that is rather lazy-arsed journalism and the interest lasts about 36 hours before sinking beneath the waves of next-trendy-things. What would be more interesting would be to hunt out a HE family that didn't want to be interviewed about their practice: millennials living in a cave surrounded by beans and ammo; couples in the throes of divorce; families who have a school bell and distinctive uniforms. We are qualified to do the questionnaires because our girls Dau.I and Dau.II never went to school and are now holding down jobs, paying taxes, voting in elections and contributing to society.We have taken the bell through.

Doing such a questionnaire is an excuse for reflection and it usually brings a warm glow. Our girls learned-by-doing a lot of the time because nobody at home had any patience with curriculum or lesson-plans. With my very expensive education, I know that you can have too much of a good thing; or if not that, I find that a small amount of knowledge puts me ahead of most other folks on the block . . . if I want to get ahead of my neighbours. No point in getting a hernia with heavy intellectual lifting when a small amount of focussed attention, judicious reading or watching some videos will be quite enough for everyday requirements. An awful lot of school work is marking time clocking off the days: neither conceptually challenging nor particularly interesting and so a HE life spares you from 5 hours a day of being bored.

If you're a child on a farrrrm, you can't sit on the sofa all day: the stove will run out of logs and there will be no eggs to make cakes. The Da will be off-site at money work, the Mammy will be busy at the kitchen table claiming subsidies from Brussels. And even if it's wet outside you know that the orphan lambs need feeding, so you shrug on a coat, make up some Lamlac formula and find shelter behind the shed for the 16 seconds it takes the lambs suck a 500ml bottle dry.  As the girls got older most of their age cohort signed up for school: either at the start of Secondary School or for the final push towards the High School Leaving Certificate, so eventually they were almost the only ones left outside the school-gates. As their cohort sailed or drifted into main-stream, another generation of HE kids appeared on the block. Some nights, the parents of these youngsters tossed and turned through the "3am tick-ticks" worrying whether they had failed to provide sensibly/adequately for the future by embracing the home-ed option. We've all been there, but it's just the anxiety spilling over: if it wasn't the Home Ed, it would be the gutters, or what colour to paint the kitchen, or getting the brakes on the car serviced.

Several of these parents told me that they could scotch the night-time worries if they looked to Dau.I and Dau.II. If they turned out alright, and plainly they had, then their young Jimmy and Anita would turn out alright as well. In growing without schooling they would acquire skills that are rare in this world because there isn't time to learn them in school: the days in school are filled brimful with conditional clauses, County Cork, calculus, Charles the Bald, Charles the Bold, catechism and climate change. Rare attributes assure employment even if that amounts only to coming in on time & working your shift, owning and solving problems, being kind, and not losing your temper (too often). “All you have to do to educate a child is leave him alone and teach him to read. The rest is brainwashing.” - Ellen Gilchrist.  Actually, Ellen, not even that: they teach themselves to read.

This is all really a set up for a delightful short vid-clip that's gone a bit viral. Our girls never did this particular procedure but they did similar stuff when the occasion demanded because each was recognised from an early age as an important cog in the works of a working farmlet and they grew into the responsibilities as they out-grew each pair of wellington boots. Three-year-old delivers lamb "Put your hand in . . . can you feel the feet . . . can you feet the nose . . . now pull . . . now pull the other foot . . ." Hey, it's a girl!

Friday 26 February 2016

Vote early and vote often

I'm assuming that only Irish IP addresses get a change in the Google Banner today, so I'm capturing it for Russia and Ukraine here. In the run up the European elections two years ago, I had a certain amount of harmless fun at the expense of the minority parties who were fielding unlikely candidates. Such parties as Fís Nua (a sort of Nutty Green Party) and the ominously named Catholic Democrats (who burn protestants after a vote?).
In the current Dáil, there are Eight parties represented: Fine Gael | Labour | Fianna Fáil | Sinn Féin | Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit | Renua Ireland | Social Democrats | WUAG | . . .and a lot of Independents. Their hopes and expectations and those of the mad-dog parties and lonely Independents are shown in a beautiful series of constituency maps.

WUAG? Never 'eard of them? WUA is Workers and Unemployed Action or as gaeilge: Grúpa Gníomhaíochta na n-Oibrithe is iad atá Dífhostaithe which is a mouthful of soda-bread and cabbage. They are a single person party who secured the election of their leader because there were enough unemployed people who lived in his South Tipperary town to make him top the poll with more than 11,000 votes. It seems likely that Séamus Healy will get in again despite changes - Tipp South and Tipp North have become Tipperary - in the constituency boundaries. The same larger constituency houses the poster-boy for Irish politics - Michael Lowry - a former Fine Gael minister who was found to be a tax-evader, and lost a suit of defamation against a journalist who named him as such - as well as being central in a scandalously corrupt award of mobile phone licences in the 1990s. Denounced by tribunals, drummed out of his political party, hounded by the Revenue Commissioners he is land-slided into the Dáil every election by grateful constituents whose troubles have been 'fixed'. Two cheers for the democratic process.

But it's a long way to Tipperary and we have our own interesting candidate in Carlow-Kilkenny; an Independent who has more money for posters than most of the political parties: either that or he's blizzarding our liberal-left valley with plastic. It's Paddy Milo Manning, whom I've put decisively on the Right [R in pink shirt]. Those outside the county of the liberal persuasion call him "prick", "foghorn", "horrible, vile, bigoted excuse for a human" etc.  The Kilkenny People OTOH shows him in an old folks home and paints him as a populist teddy-bear.  He's interesting: the most articulate gay person who stood [called, worked] for a No vote in the Marriage Equality Referendum; he's Catholic and pro-life and conservative and, as I say, articulate. He has no time for the idea, put forward by Panti, that Ireland is systemically homophobic: his position is that some people are against gays but most couldn't care less. And he doesn't think that the ?4%? BLT minority, of which he is part, should have such a strident voice in Irish politics and media. Here he's putting the case for No.  All of us who voted Yes, should listen carefully.  His election flyer says inter alia: "Every single conviction must carry a sentence. Electronic tagging will monitor location: alcohol and drug use and make a cheap prison of a criminal's home". That's very Republican and rather incoherent: are there tags which have a blood alcohol canula which send the info back to the parole officer's computer?  Is he proposing that every speeding and parking conviction should result in custodial sentence . . . at home . . . with one of those blood-alcohol radio-tags? That will put a stop to the economy.

The AAA/PBP currently field four TDs who have come together on a 'leftist' down-with-everything platform. They are floating on a river of free water which they claim comes from the skies and/or is 'already paid for'.  It's a populist ploy which does not add up.  Literally doesn't add up because the government caved in on water charges to the extent of costing ad lib chlorinated drinking water at less than €0.50 a day; plus half as much again to deal with the stuff you flush down the toilet.  For folks on the dole or in negative equity, €240/yr sounds like a crippling amount but they get shafted far more by increasing the rate of VAT to 23%. But that's too complicated to address, so AAA/PBP demonise the rapacious government and promise primroses. One of the genuine objections to Water charges and to property taxes, both of which were implemented by the centre-right Christian-Democrat-ish Fine Gael party while in government is that they are neither of them progressive taxations. They are equally applied to the CEO and the tea-boy.  Anatole France said it more eloquently than me, partly because he said it in French:
"La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au 
riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, 
de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain."
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.

The pundits predict that more than 50% of the next Dáil will never have been a parliamentary representative before, many of them will be Independents or from teeny-tiny parties that are effectively independent. The first Dáil was born in the midst of a revolution but over the nearly hundred years since the foundation of the [Free] State, the Dáil has become hidebound with convention and privilege. The political inner circle have decided that efficiency is better than democracy and our representatives vote in blocks stuck together like Lego bricks.  Fine Gael and the other large parties whip their boys [it's still mostly boys by a wide margin] into voting as the government decides is best. The boys take their whipping like smaller chaps from the school bully in the hope of preferment after a few years of pain and humiliation. Conscience, diversity, nuance have to take second place to ambition and a political programme.  Even if that ambition starts as a sincere wish to serve the people, any idealism is soon corrupted by compromise.  If a majority of the incoming TDs have never been whipped then maybe they will stand up and stand together and give privilege and certainty, convention and habitual thinking, a damned good shaking.

Finally we should reflect on Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall's view on elections: "It's not the voter who counts, but he who counts the votes."  It's nearly 7 AM, I'm off the the polling station.

Thursday 25 February 2016


Bill Bryson famously said he once secured a job on an English broadsheet  by claiming to be the only person in the room who could reliably spell Cincinnati. [I'm not saying whether I've got the spelinge correct]. The city in Ohio is named for the Society of the Cincinnati, a strange hereditary patriotic society that was founded at the end of the US Revolutionary War in 1783.  One of the founders of the city 5 years later was a member of the SotC and got the name to stick. The Society was itself named after Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus [L in a striking pose realised by Denis Foyatier in 1834; you can see it now in the Jardin des Tuileries in Central Paris].
Q. Who he?
A. Well Really! As Bill Bryson would exclaim in exasperation when crossed. Cincinnatus was one of the iconic Great Men of ancient times a paragon. He is more usually depicted in a chiton (a shortie skirt for ancient farrrrmers) with one hand still on the plough and the other receiving the fasces of supreme power in the Roman Republic. This montage is often accompanied by the motto "Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam" - he left everything to serve the republic. Which is indeed, the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati. The fasces was an axe, bound in a bundle of sticks, which recalls a Roman fairy story about how squabbling brothers united to resist oppression; it was adopted by Benito Mussolini when he formed his Partito Nazionale Fascista in 1922. So the fasces don't have such positive vibes now as they did in 1783.

Cincinnatus was an aristocratic politician whose every action and inaction had only the good of the state in mind: nothing in it for him but service. The story goes that in 458 BC [= 295 A.U.C.], when the Roman Republic was fighting a war on two fronts against the Sabines and the Aequi, their main military force got into a serious pickle and the Senate back in Rome went all wet and had a fit of the vapours. Someone had the idea to get Cincinnatus out of  retirement on his farm across the Tiber and offer him dictatorial powers for 6 months. A delegation found the old chap doing a bit of light ploughing; on hearing the bad news he took off his shift and donned a senatorial toga to receive the symbols of office. He then hot-footed into the city; gave some backbone to the magistrates and senators; issued a general call to arms; appointed a leader for cavalry; led the infantry against the enemy and won a famous victory at Mons Algidus. The crisis was averted, the enemy beaten and order restored . . . all in 15 days. He then relinquished his office, rowed back across the Tiber and resumed ploughing. Modest, effective, resolute, incorruptible - Roman virtues. George Washington was often favourably compared to Cincinnatus when he won the war and promptly went home to Mount Vernon to watch his slaves keep the estate ticking over.

Why Cincinnatus now? Because I was listening to a lot of pundits and soothsayers talking about the Irish election on the wireless this last weekend. One chap said something rather cogent to the effect that solving the inefficiencies of the Irish health service is surely possible. What is impossible is to create a slim, trim and fit-for-purpose health service AND get elected again in 5 years time. The same applies to all the other issues which are on the agenda this month: social housing, free water, high taxes, child-care expenses. IF a modern Cincinnatus would materialise to take the hard decisions, make savage cuts, require everyone on the pay-roll to justify their existence, inspire and support the remaining Effectives THEN we could create a health service which is the envy of the world. Such a Roman Revenant would be especially heeded if he carried out his investigations striking a pose such as we see at the head of this post.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Election Special

As I mentioned in passing a comment about the Marriage Equality Referendum, we are suffering an Election in Ireland on Friday 26th February. It has so far been a sad example of pork-barrel promises, where the Pols are offering us the sun moon and stars if we elect them.  How is it that our society is so bankrupt that it requires elected representatives to achieve basic rights for people in need? If you are poor or homeless; or have an intellectual disability or use a wheelchair; or have a widening pot-hole outside your gate; you cannot get what the constitution and the law (not to mention compassion or common courtesy) says you are owed . . . unless your TD (MP to Brits) puts in a word for you. It suits the politicians to claim credit when good things happen even if they would have happened in the normal course of events. And so the cycle continues. We live on the edge of one of the most stable constituencies in the country: with unchanged boundaries, Carlow-Kilkenny has been returning TDs to the Dáil since 1921. But people in Carlow would rather not vote for representatives whose bailiwick is in Kilkenny and vice-versa. Heck, most people would rather vote local than vote along strict party lines.  And in Waterford, the city-sophisticates are unwilling to vote for a rural hick and vice versa.
Q. Why vote for someone whose mother knows your mother from the Legion of Mary?
A. Because you never know when you may need to call in some leverage.

On the last weekend before the Election, the radio was wall-to-wall political commentary and  as I was driving down to the Waterford Coast, I got to hear a chunk of this opinion and prediction.  One of the most ominous factors of modern elections is that we are barraged by opinion polls. I think they subvert the democratic process because they enhance the sheep-like tendencies in the electorate. If you hear that your party of choice has slumped another 3% points in the polls, you will be more inclined to vote tactically: to give your vote to someone who has a chance . . .  even if they come from two villages over.  I suggest that is bad for diversity.

From the foundation of the states in 1922 until the end of that century, candidates were required to front up a deposit (then £300) in order to get on the ballot paper. This was designed to prevent frivolous candidates making a mockery of the whole democracy thing. You got your deposit back if you secured 5% of the vote.  In 2002, this tilting of the process towards those with spare cash or a political party to bankroll them was deemed 'repugnant to the Constitution'. Now all candidates of registered political parties - which might include the People's Front of Ireland as well as the Irish People's Front - are deposit free.  Independents have to find 30 people in their constituency who will sign a nomination paper. If you haven't got 30 adult pals, you need €500 for the deposit which you get back if you secure 1/4 of a quota which is something North of 4,000 votes if there's a 60% turnout. In our constituency, that wiped out the Green Party, the Socialists, and all 7 Independents in 2011, the last election. These independents polled only 820, 471, 345, 277, 207, 119, and 70 votes. As the ballot boxes from each parish are tallied up separately, with numbers this small some of the Independents will have realised that none of their neighbours voted for them - despite prior assurances of support.  We do have the facade of a secret ballot but it's sort of see-through.

If you have a vote in Ireland you should stop by which has brought dating agency techniques to the process of picking candidates.  They've asked a series of questions of all the candidates in all the constituencies - which is a massive logistical exercise - and recorded their answers.  You answer the same questions and they use multivariate statitistical analysis to find the person who is most nearly a clone of yourself. The Beloved's niece pushed it at the family and Dau.II discovered that it identified 3 of her top 4 prior-picked choices.  Me, I was surprised: it delivered the Green Party top, which is fair enough, but the next three of 'my' choices were off-planet whoowahs from the left. For starters I can't vote for Noonan the GP chap because he comes from the other county.  It just can't be me - I'm a pillar, I've worn a tie, I didn't express any strong prefs on 29/30 of the questions . . .

"Dear Abby, I did the smartvote quiz, does the outcome mean I am a pinko flake from the Planet Zorg . . .?"

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Zika in context

Skip all this if you want the 4 minute video answer from Hank Green.
Zika is a Flavivirus related to those that cause yellow fever, West Nile Fever, and hepatitis C and very closely related to Dengue Fever Virus. [L: fuller picture on web]The family is named for Yellow Fever Virus, which in turn is named for the bright yellow colour you turn if you catch a dose of YFV.  I was doing Yellow Fever earlier in the year mainly in order to set the scene for the emergent Zika health scare which is making the news on a regular basis in 2016.  I've also mentioned West Nile Virus because of its peculiar relationship with the immune system and HIV: a delta-32 mutation in CCR5 confers substantial resistance to HIV but lays you more open to attack by WNV.  That's really interesting because it hints at the multiple assaults which have shaped our immune system to work effectively most of the time. We shout and complain when we catch something dreadful but don't give credit for the innumerable times incoming viruses and emergent tumours are knobbled before they get a toe-hold. Zika is nothing like Ebola EBOV [bloboprev]; which is an a totally different family and will kill not only you and your fetus but is likely to wipe out your entire village. With Ebola, your liver and kidneys shut down and you bleed from all orifices until you die; which takes a couple of weeks.  Nasty.

One of the peculiar observations that tells us that evolution is shaping the system is that when you align the sequences of Flaviviruses to determine which varieties are closer to each other and which more distant, they fall out into family lineages. That's not so surprising because the analysis inherently works towards that outcome - it's circular. What is unexpected/independent is that the vectors (Aedes mosquito, Ixodes tick, Culux midge, shared needle) that transmit the viruses very closely track the relationships based on sequence similarity. [picture]  In the picture shown at the top of this Blob, Yokose virus [at the bottom] is flagged as "no known vector". You may bet €5, but not €5,000, that it, like its cousin YFV is carried by mosquitos rather than ticks and midges.  This onservation doesn't cut both ways, Culicoides midges can transmit a variety of other blood-borne viruses including Schmallenberg which distressed sheep-farmers in Ireland a couple of years ago.

Schmallenberg is interesting because it is mild in its symptoms, unless the ewe happens to be at a certain stage in her pregnancy, then you can see a number of non-fatal fetal abnormalities most disturbingly associated with the central nervous system. Remind you of German Measles / Rubella? . . . Remind you of Zika?  Because that's the whole story really with Zika. If  you have a Y chromosome or you're not preg, then Zika means sniffles, perhaps a rash and you get over it.  In your first trimester and Zika may be doing a job on your fetus.  Some doctors are certain-sure that is the story: Zika is like Rubella or Schmallenberg in giving a hard knock to the fetal brain to prevent its development and causing microcephaly - which is unaccountably difficult to commentators to pronounce. I think most people, if they don't give up entirely, would say Micro Seph Ally - soft C because it precedes i or e, because that's the rule in Latin; although it really should be Keph because it's from the Greek κεφάλι. Some epidemiologists are not-so-sure because, although there are 4000 extra cases of microcephaly in Aedes-infested regions of Brazil, there has been no such spike in cases across the border in Colombia.  Others have noted that there were more unreported microcephaly cases before the appearance of Zika. It's difficult to conclusively establish the connexion between Zika and microcephaly at least partly because the symptoms are so mild in the mothers:
"Have you had the Zika?"
"No, no not me, I've always been in the prime of health"
and of course, conspiracy theorists are muddying the water with the suggestion that Monsanto is to blame for this along with everything else that is wrong with our world. Pyriproxyfen, an anti-mosquite spray which is being blamed for causing the birth defects, does kill insects by inferring with their development but it's far too simplistic an explanation given the current data.  And whatever explanation of microcepaly you listen to make sure that it is data-driven and not mere correlation based on a small sample size.  A cure requires us to nail the cause, not describe the sequelae or symptoms or associations.  If you look at TV ownership and suicide rate in countries across Europe you can find a significant correlation but no sane person suggests either that TV drives people over the edge or that suicidal people buy more televisions to brighten up their lives. Rather, both of these phenomena are well known symptoms of higher standard of living.

Monday 22 February 2016


I haven't always been the sunny, committed, engaged teacher and researcher that stalks the corridors of The Institute each day. In the first job after my PhD, I ran out of steam after about three years as an independent researcher and nobody noticed or cared.  My HoD never once, in six years working under him, asked me how it was going or enquired about my teaching. The only bit of helpful information I got from him was his estimate that it took him a week of elapsed time to develop a new 1 hr lecture sufficient to give it a first run-through with students. This emerged when I mentioned, with a sort of incredulous despair, that I had spent the whole Summer researching, writing and preparing a new 10 contact hour lecture course which I called Evolution from [primeval] Soup to [hominid] Nuts. In my run-out-of-steam days I could spend the whole morning answering the mail. This was in 1985 when e-mail was barely invented and most communications came in envelopes.  It got a little bit more exciting later when I was recruited to beef up my bench skills and had a near-death experience. My point is that I was for many months a 'useless mouth' who was not earning his salt and nobody seemed to notice or care.

At least I didn't die at my desk, like the Finnish tax-inspector, and make all my colleagues feel guilty about not noticing. That story is from the BBC, so it must be true, but other tales of dead-at-desk-and-nobody-cared have become the stuff of urban legend in eg Snopes. The Finnish story has, for me, the ring of truthiness because of my scythe.  For a few years in the late 20thC I taught short courses in a couple of Finnish Universities. Over lunch one day, my minder said that twice every Summer he went North to the family farm to mow the 4 ha. hay meadow - with a scythe.  I was impressed and confessed that I long-long-time desired to be as capable as him in this respect. That perked him up because I became a solution to a problem which had hung over his Institute for some time:

Several years early one of his colleagues decided to switch jobs and, like in Ireland, the tradition is that the remaining work-mates have a whip-round and buy a token gift as a memento.  The chap in question was very shy and retiring and hadn't found it easy to make friends. Someone owned the process, gathered the money and went to the hardware store to buy . . . a scythe. The message being that the soon to be ex-colleague was so hopeless at the social aspects of life that he would be best put alone in the middle of a large meadow to cut grass by himself.  The last Friday came around, with the presentation scheduled for the afternoon coffee break. The coffee was poured, the cakes passed round, the HoD made a brief boring speech and presented the scythe.  The recipient received the gift, but quickly understood the intent; he put the scythe down on the coffee table and left the room and their lives without a further word. What to do with the scythe? It couldn't go back to the shop and the cash couldn't easily be returned, so the scythe was taken down to a basement store room and left there . . . until I turned up. Everyone in the building agreed I should take it away. Before 9/11 you could turn up at the airport with a scythe as part of your baggage!

I was reminded of all this because of a piece-to-Grauniad about a chap in Spain who was on the pay-roll in the municipal water board, Agua de Cadiz, but rarely-to-never actually turned up to work. Clearly a water-treatment plant runs itself: the effectives know when to pump and when to filter and when to add the flocculants without being managed. I bet that's true of some of the 83 EirGrid managers who are pulling in €100K/yr. The film Office Space, as ever, nailed waste-of-space managers. One of the issues exposed by the Agua de Cadiz enquiry was that the Water Board thought he was employed by the Council -- and the Council knew he was employed by the Water Board. You are exhorted to take this tale with a pinch of salt - the Guardian is not the BBC. A similar much repeated story about the car-park attendant at Bristol Zoo being employed neither by the Zoo nor the City turns out to have its origins in an April Fool's piece in the local paper.

Sunday 21 February 2016

Sunday men dancing 210216

What it says on the tin, blokes dancing:

Mother Tongue

When the Brits pulled abruptly out of India in 1947, they drew a couple of wiggly lines across the sub-continent to ring-fence the regions where Islam was dominant. That left about 2x7 million people, including Benares silk sari weavers, on the wrong side and up to 1 million dead.  Eeee, but they do love a good riot to resolve their differences. The silliness of partitioning the country by the single dimension of Faith, was exposed by delivering the Muslims two lumps of territory separated by 1500km of foreign territory. It was a logistical nightmare; inevitably the state capital was established in West Pakistan because that chunk was larger and Urdu was made the official language in an effort to weld the country into a unitary whole. Although, in terms of population, Bangla speakers in the East slightly out-numbered their co-religionists in the West. The drive to integrate and centralise the country led to East Pakistan being treated increasingly like a bride being dragged unwillingly to the altar of union [note the religious metaphor].  As you know, Bangladesh fought for and obtained independence, with the help of India, in 1971. But the 25 years between 1947 and 1971 were punctuated with numerous incidents and atrocities which only in hindsight look like an independence movement.

On 21st February 1952, students at three of the Third Level Colleges in Dhaka organised a march to protest having to learn Anatomy or Chemical Engineering through Urdu. As college-going people they were smart enough to realise that they'd be better off using English as the medium of instruction if they couldn't have lectures in Bangla. The police reckoned that the march was a riot and fired tear-gas then bullets into the crowd killing a handful of the front-liners and wounding many more. It took two years for the Pakistani parliament to recognise Bangla as an official language of the State. But as with Gladstone and the Home Rule movement in Ireland, it was "too little, too late" and the dead students were transfigured into martyrs.

Starting in year 2000, UNESCO was prevailed upon to a) institute International Mother Language Day and b) pick the debacle of 21/02/52 to celebrate it. Which might not be the most appropriate date to pick to "promote peace and multilingualism", hmmmm? Whatever; I'm all for multi-lingual as an attribute of diversity.  We live in interesting times with unprecedented numbers of people migrating unwillingly from their place of birth, many of them heading West towards Ireland, so we'd better start learning some phrases of other languages to understand better these Guests of the Nation.  I do wonder about UNESCO, though; it must be really nice to have a job there, shuffling papers and having meetings about Education and Culture from an office in Paris. The relevant sub-committee has decided that the theme for Mother Language Day 2016 is “Quality education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes.” WTF! What does that mean? Why "This underlines the importance of mother languages for quality education and linguistic diversity, to take forward the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development", of course. Going forward to clearer communication? I don't think so.

Saturday 20 February 2016

The Norman Conquizt

Dau.I has gone back to England <snif!> after a flying visit to visit her ancestors. The Beloved has shipped off to bunk in with Pat the Salt for the weekend.  I've been left to defend the farm from apocalyptic zombies for the weekend. But last night was the unmissable annual Killedmond Table Quiz fund-raiser, so I dodged the zombies and drove into the Step House Hotel to make one leg of a table to support the local, and slightly beleaguered, protestant parish. The team we field could be called the Normanly Conquest because of the polymathic and compendious memory of the team captain. Eeeee, I do love a Pub-quiz, but only come into my own with questions about 19thC railways "LNER, GWR, West Clare, Orient Express . . . " and South & Central American capital cities "La Paz, Asunción, Tegucigalpa . . ." I am an acknowledged dunce on the picture round [no telly, no interest] and am hopeless at sporting statistics - although I did know that a cricket pitch is 1 chain = 22 yards long. Here's a flavour of what you need to know in rural Ireland on a Friday night in Winter:
Name the geographical features identified on the map of Ireland. The county and provincial borrrders are put in to make it easier.
Q1. County
Q2. "Mountain" [hill really]
Q3. Island
Q4. Sea
Q5. Lake
Q6. "Mountains"
Q7. Big two-parted river
Q8. Point, headland
Q9. Largest town in that county
Q10. Largest town in that county
You can also use the map to answer another question: "Is Cork further from Limerick or Waterford?".  Here's another: "What did we call Q10 100 years ago?" And another "In which county is the geographical centre of Ireland?". I've agonised about where the geographical centre of Britain lies. Another geography question from foreign "How many countries share a borrrder with the People's republic of China?" We did rather badly on the last one, not least because we dissipated our time wondering a) whether Tibet was part of the PRC and b) whether the quiz-master thought so. It makes a difference, because Nepal and Bhutan N=2 only connect with Tibet N=1.  And I had a total blank about the break-up of the USSR. ANNyway we plonked for Borders=10 and the answer is Borders=14, the largest number for any state. Russia also borders 14 countries.  I know you need to know what those 14 countries are alphabetically. Afghanistan 76 km; Bhutan 470 km; India 3,380 km; Kazakhstan 1,533 km; North Korea 1,416 km; Kyrgyzstan 858 km; Laos 423 km; Mongolia 4,673 km; Myanmar (Burma) 2,185 km; Nepal 1,236 km; Pakistan 523 km; Russia 3,645 km; Tajikistan 414 km; and Vietnam 1,281 km. I've written about how Afghanistan came to share an absurdly short border with China.

And how did we do?  After a muddled start with less than perfect scores in the initial rounds, we found our balance and surged into the lead, which we held despite dropping 4 points tsk! on the last one of the 10 rounds. >!huzzah!< and like Go Team!!  It's not about the prize money, of course, which gave back to the cause. We were nowhere on the raffle and the spot-prizes, so didn't come away with a sack of coal, a bag of dog-nuts or a tin of chocolate biscuits.

Living small

When we were young and foolish, The Beloved and I shared a home in the very centre of Dublin which was just under 6 sq.m in size. It was fine, very convenient for work and had no room for clutter. A couple of years ago in Ireland, it was made illegal to rent such 'bed-sitting rooms' as they had been deemed unfit for human habitation. Everyone must have their own personal flush-toilet; so that Irish Water the controversial water treatment quango has a reason for its existence. Irish agencies define "poverty" as having an income smaller than 60% of the median income of people at work in the country.  The median is that income of which half the people earn less and half earn more. This is much less than the average/mean income which is dragged upwards by the 1% of pop stars, CEOs and financial traders who are 'earning' more than €500,000. It was reported in the Irish Times 19Dec15 that EirGrid, the network rump of the old Electricity Supply Board, is paying 83 of its staffers more that €100K: "very highly qualified and need specialist skills and years of experience" they are. Poverty in Ireland means, according to Combat Poverty doing the math, living on less than €208/wk.  The World Bank notes that about 900 million people are living on less than $1.90 a day which is about 1/15th of Poverty, Irish Style. Housing minima are similarly defined in 1st World terms: you've got to have room for a flat screen TV, a separate bed for everyone in the household, a separate bathroom and kitchen, it must also be wheelchair accessible. Even the poorest are expected to contribute to the economy by acquiring stuff.

Here's a solution for the student accommodation crisis in Lund, Sweden: living in a well-appointed garden shed.  It's got a loft -bedroom: rather better fitted than the one I created in a corner of a rather larger bed-sit [15 sq.m!] we three lived in after The Boy was born. Our bedroom was exactly the size (2.4m x 1.2m) of a sheet of plastic laminated chipboard which was donated by the brother of one of our friends: the rest of the timber I sourced out of dumpsters. I can't imagine why I thought re-appointing the property in this way would meet with the approval of the landlord. Because Sweden is an inclusive (no child left behind etc.) society they don't want any of their people living in rat-infested shanties and to ensure this laudable aim they have written building codes and zoning laws. Confronted with the reality of not enough housing or students, De Man is seriously conflicted about lowering standards.  I'd love to live Lund-student style again, we have six 6! frying pans in our kitchen now.

Here's another piece to camera comparing the restrictive zoning laws of Washington DC with the free and easy libertarian "you rights end where my nose begins" planning in Houston and Victoria, Texas. In DC you can own a micro-house but you can't live in it and it really should be on wheels for a quick getaway if the zoning officer decides to leave his comfy office and hunt out people who eschew the stuff-laden lifestyle of their neighbours.

"People are living in poverty if their income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally. As a result of inadequate income and other resources people may be excluded and marginalised from participating in activities which are considered the norm for other people in society."  If Irish society generally is bamboozled by advertising and envy into filling their homes with tawdry tat and trivia - computers and smart-phones; microwaves and electric carving knives, plastic cutlery and card-board plates because the dishwasher is broken again - then the definition of poverty clambers higher on the bones of a destroyed planet.

Friday 19 February 2016

The Queen of Ireland

I was off-site yesterday.  Leaving before dawn and teetering along icy roads to catch the bus to Dublin: meeting-meeting-meeting inching outwards the frontiers of science with one-two-three young Women in Science; one finishing her primary degree, one halfway through an MSc and one whose successful defence of her PhD we celebrated last month.  Any of them could, in time, become a leader in her field: quite possibly none of them will find themselves spending their lives doing scientific research. But they have been trained in one of the best labs on the planet for getting to fulfil ones potential - given a little more confidence, allowed to make mistakes, made to acknowledge them, learn and move on.  None of them, however, will be Queen of Ireland - because we're a democratic republic!

When I arrived home after 5 hours travel and 6 hours sitting round tables, I was looking forward to my dinner [skipped lunch except for an apple] and an evening at the fireside with The Beloved and Dau.I who is over from England for a short week.  But no; I was told to wolf my scoff and get back into the car to go North to Tinahely, two counties and 45 minutes away, to watch a film. No amount of "I'm a baby, it's cold out there" could withstand two strong women doing what was good for me, them, us.  Well I'm right glad I buttoned my lip, buttoned my reefer-jacket and coughed up €6 to watch the new film by Conor Horgan [L, L], about Panti Bliss aka Rory O'Neill [L, R], called The Queen of Ireland. Conor Horgan is the friend of a friend of ours and has made short films about Happiness [throughout the Blob] and Dorothy Cross [bloboprev]; here's he's directed a brilliant documentary about a hugely significant transition in the way Ireland conducts herself. I've written about how Panti shook The Man to the core and forced us all to look into the hatred and fear in our hearts.  It's ludicrous how a statuesque, cartoony, caricature of a 'woman' whom Rory O'Neill plays on stage and on the street can have had a pivotal role in making us become a more inclusive society allowing full equality to a section of citizens about whom many people feel uncomfortable.

The film records how a casual statement of truth-as-he-saw-it ("almost all of us, including some named people, are homophobic") on television caused a shit-storm of denial and a craven retraction and €85,000 (!!) apology by the state broadcaster RTE. The conflicting assessment of the event, the offence and the pay-out served to polarise the position of the principals: Breda O'Brien, John Waters and the Iona Institute got more self-righteously priggish and Panti got more out-there about the need for free speech. Although you wouldn't have believed it possible for Panti to be more out-there! Almost exactly one year after Pantigate, a handful of indignant islamists took their own action about free speech in the office of Charlie Hebdo. At least nobody died in vindicating rights in Ireland. But the polarisation and the coverage and perhaps particularly the monumental rhetoric of Panti's Nobel Call at the Abbey Theatre [Feb 2014] help shift enough middle ground people to vote Yes in the Marriage Equality Referendum in May 2015 [Blobefore] [Blobafter].  That's something we should all feel proud about. Even those who voted No will, in the opinion of Rory in the film, come to realise that we are better off looking forward - even to an uncertain future - than looking back at the bad old days of smug certainty and fear of difference that some call homophobia. The picture [L] shows Panti/Rory with his folks going back where he came from to bring his peculiar and perhaps necessary form of entertainment to Ballinrobe Co Mayo.

But get this, we are having a general parliamentary election exactly a week from today and the government parties are looking staunchly backwards at their record and comparing it to the even further back record of Fianna Fáil in the previous administration. But nobody is claiming credit for the Yes Vote. That's peculiar and it suggests that the major parties are still ashamed of that decision or at least believe that a fulsome embrace of a still controversial issue will lose them votes. One person from The Establishment who took a decisive stand about the half-measure, slinking 'support' for Equality is Senator Averil Power who resigned from Fianna Fáil over the craven unwillingness of its apparatchiks to actively canvass for a change.  A woman with backbone?  She is running for parliament as an Independent in the Dublin Bay North Dáil Éireann constituency.  It will be a dog-fight there and she'll need all the votes she can scrabble up: tell your friends in Clontarf, Raheny and Howth.

Thursday 18 February 2016

Einstein vindicated

Someone, ?Richard Feynman? claimed that there were only 12 people in the world who understood Quantum Electrodynamics QED.  He wrote the book QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter about it aNNyway.  I failed my Physics 'O' Level, so don't expect me to explain QED, or why, or indeed if, Einstein didn't believe it.  It's been like that with the News From LIGO which spilled briefly onto BBC/Sky/Fox/RTE news last week: gravitational waves had been discovered in a replicated experimental design that would have really gratified Albert Einstein.  I looked at the headlines and reckoned that a bear-of-little-brain like me wouldn't be able to really understand what had happened.  But, because of informed reading [original PDF in science-speak] and patient explanation by The Pharmacist, the 7 attendees at this week's Wexford Science Café [prév, prev] came away with a much better grasp of what had happened; and why it mattered.

Einstein predicted gravitational waves 100ish years ago but added that their force would be so staggeringly feeble that it would be impossible for any imaginable instrument to detect them.  There are four fundamental forces at play in our Universe and it has been the aspiration of GUT [Grand Unified Theory] and ToE [Theory of Everything] to integrate and reconcile them, so that we can understand their impact on the quarks-to-quasars universe of which we occupy the middle [nanometer to Astronomical Unit AU] ground.  Those forces are:
Relative strength
GUT appears to have sorted the relationships among weak+EM+strong forces to an extent that satisfies most normal physicsists.  The next [ToE] challenge is to show how gravity, the most feeble small-small tweaker of space-time, fits into the picture.  As gravity is what brings apples to earth, so we don't need ladders, it will clearly be advantageous to discover how it works. Einstein incorporated gravity into his theory of relativity and thought of the force being propagated as waves, at least partly because this is how electromagnetic stuff appeared to exist.  The whole story of whether light is particles (photons) or waves or both at the same time is a story for another blog and another time.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) was the parity of esteem project that Physics required of the US government when 100$ of million$ were allocated to the Human Genome Project.  It was led by  Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever of Caltech and Rainer Weiss of MIT who herded 900 working scientists [269 collaborators bloboprev] in dozens of institutions into a huge collaborative effort.  44,000 crowd-sourced 'civilian' gophers also gave up CPU cycles on their computers to process the incoming data in the Einstein@Home project. Because gravitational waves are so tiny, you need a huge scaled-up instrument to detect the changes. Nothing that will fit on a lab-bench will do. It's not as big as the 27km circumference Large Hadron Collider LHC at CERN which discovered the Higgs Boson a tuthree years ago; LIGO is 'only' 4km in length.  Actually, it consists of two 4km tubes with mirrors at the end set at right-angles to each other sending out laser pulses on a regular basis and detecting changes in the wavelength when they come back.  Einstein and everyone else holds that the speed of light in a vacuum is the one universal constant at 300,000,000 m/s.  So if the laser pulse goes out along both arms at the same time and comes back down one arm with a delay andif the changes precisely matches certain theoretical predictions then the length of one arm has changed, and we might have witnessed a pulse of gravitational waves. The pulse would have to be either very massive or very close or both to get above the threshold for detection in the instrument.

That was the plan in 1992 and eventually 2 LIGOs were built in different parts of the country [L]. That duplication was a key element of the success because if the same event was detected at a distance of  3000km, then it's nothing to do with a truck delivering milk to the canteen or an earthquake or the temperature difference. The hunt began, patiently, in 2002 and nothing was picked up.  Improvements in technology led to the implementation of a $620 million upgrade which was completed in mid-September 2015. That's about 2x the cost of restoring a single small river in the same state as the Hanford site. About 1.3 billion years ago, in another galaxy far away,  two black holes, which had been waltzing/whizzing round each other for some time, finally took the plunge and disappeared up each other's darkness. These super-dense, super-massive gravitational sinks had a combined mass 65x that of our cosy Sun, and their coming together resulted in the most humongous >!bang!<. The explosion converted 3 solar masses from mass into pure energy at the rate of E = mc2 and the loss of mass resulted in a change of the local gravity. That sent a pulse - a gravity wave - out across the Universe which was detected at both Hanford and Livingston with a delay between them of a few milliseconds . . . just two days after the refurb-and-upgrade was completed at LIGO.  Phew! Imagine if they'd finished a few days later, missed that pulse and waited another 12 years to see nothing-at-all. Then again, with the universe is so big maybe these events happen every few days, but I doubt it.

Appropriate quotes:
From Feynman's book "What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school... It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see my physics students don't understand it... That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does.
From Niels Bohr: "Hvis man kan sætte sig ind i kvantemekanik uden at blive svimmel, har man ikke forstået noget af det." If you can fathom quantum mechanics without getting dizzy, you don't get it.
From Feynman's Messenger Lecture MIT 1964 "There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did, because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper a lot of people understood the theory of relativity in some way or other, certainly more than twelve. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."

Wednesday 17 February 2016

A river re-runs through it

A little over two years ago I reported on some small but highly dramatic progress in dismantling the dam infrastructure of the United States. The Army Corps of Engineers, The Tennessee Valley Authority,The Department of Forestry, local electricity entrepreneurs and many others had thrown rock and concrete across the wilder rivers of the country often without adhering to existing laws and regulations to protect wild-life. A pulse-stopping 75,000 such projects have been carried out.  On the Blob we've had a few examples of where man's hubris and/or chicanery in material quality have bought a disastrous bargain  for people who were sleeping down-river of these engineering projects: Lynn Eigiau - Vajont - not to mention inconveniencing my Portuguese perambulations. At he end of that Dec 2014 piece, I urged you to check out the videos on "Elwha"; but I doubt if anyone obeyed orders so I'll give you a summary here because the river has spilled into Metafilter in the last tuthree days.

The Olympic Pensinsula is a squarish chunk of land about 100km x 100km across Puget Sound from Seattle, WA.  It is a sparsely populated wilderness region that was once covered in temperate forest with a light sprinkling of Native North Americans. A little over 100 years ago in 1913, one of several salmon-spawning rivers called the Elwha was damned to provide hydro-electricity for a small town called Port Angeles, paper-pulp mills and a Navy Yard. The competing interests of the fish were 'sorted' by a promise to create a hatchery upriver, so that entrepreneurs didn't have to incorporate a fish-ladder into the dam design.  By the time the hatchery conclusively failed to produce any fish, the dam was built and that battle was lost. The demand for electricity is insatiable once the stuff is available and tupenny-ha'penny hydro-plants rapidly get to look small and quaint and wholly inadequate to meet requirements.  In 1978, after 65 years of diminishing effective returns, the aging Elwha dam failed a safety inspection. Failing a safety inspection implies the possibility of a catastrophic failure at some thoroughly inconvenient time - Teton Dam - Lynn Eigiau - Vajont anyone?. So something had to be done.   Local interests wrestled with the problem all through the 1980s but in 1992 it was decided that the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam on the same river should be removed. It took 20 further years to actually start the process ! and a further couple to complete it.

The transition is the most worrying time. The rocks and soil across the river catchment had endured 100 years of rainfall - it rains a lot in the Pacific North-West - frost-heave, glacier-grind, snow-melt and the occasional earthquake.  The displaced matter used to wash out to sea, building coastal sand-bars and shoals which supported a particular set of marine wildlife - algae, plants, molluscs, worms and fish. With the fall of the river curtailed, this material had built up into 20 million cu.m. of sediment locked up behind the two dams. The nature of that sediment - % rocks, gravel, sand, mud % organic/inorganic - dictates the method and timescale for the removal of the artificial obstruction. Time-lapse of Glines Canyon piecemeal removal by back-hoe working from topside on a pontoon floating over the abyss <don't look down!>. A rather different more elaborate back-and-forth was deemed to be necessary for the Elwha Dam.

The Elwha restoration project cost a staggering $325million but now it's done and ecologists and fisheries people are  documenting the change: counting spawning fish in the head-waters and the build up of beaches at the mouth are only the biggest and most obvious data. I hope humbler scientists are checking on the aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, the nitrogen fixers and the phosphate solublisers: the foundation on which the whole living ecosystem teeters upwards.  There's a very nice colour supplement view of the current state of the river by Lynda V Mapes of the Seattle Times. One elegant bit of leverage was to shift the logs that had washed up along the reservoir shores and were now high and drying. Judiciously moving these into the middle of the old lake bed helped to re-create a diverse braided river ecosystem: limiting erosion, sheltering willows and other pioneer plants, shading the fish in the shallows.  Tilting the conditions means that you never have to plant anything: create the habitat and the seeds will sprout.  For me, it reads like a story of redemption, and I feel a little less ashamed to be a gallumphing human tromping through the world in enormous toxic wellington boots

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Pretty good day

We've had a miserable wet winter here in Ireland. The rainiest December since records began caused floods all around the country. Storm Desmond came at the beginning of December and was followed by Eva Frank Gertrude Henry Imogen.  We live in the sunny south-east and Desmond-to-Henry veered left as they approached Europe and made Northern Ireland, Scotland and North England very wet and windy. Imogen took a more Southerly route and she brought down some more branches from our big cypress trees down on the Waterford Coast. These trees had been more or less intact since the DarwinDay storm of 2014. Annoyingly, these recent branches broke off 10m above the lawn but were long enough to reach the ground and so were held by twisted ligaments to the trees. I didn't feel confident to trim away at the wispy part of half a ton of timber while the lumpier bits hung by a thread above me. Wearing a hard hat is only part of the solution if something that big falls on your head. Accordingly, I called up "Rissoles" Hayes the tree-surgeon and got him to promise me a day's work bringing these monsters down safely. Der Tag was set for Monday 15th February when I had very light classes at The Institute. 

I spent the previous night with my ancient, recently widowed, father-in-law Pat the Salt. That's become a regular fixture in our lives; pretty much every Sunday now we have a boy's night in.  We're allowed to eat a tasty scratch supper made from what I find in, or indeed behind, the fridge: often green vegetables don't feature. I got up in the dark, had tea and toast, did a little light bloggin' then brought Pat his cup of coffee and sat on the side of his bed,  watching the green-and-pink dawn creep across the bay and chatting about blackbirds, frost and the day ahead. I hung out some laundry and headed along the coast road to work.  It was just gorgeous; crisp with a Winter sun over my shoulder; still icy in the sheltered corners; with the long familiar views of calm sea and receding headlands appearing in succession round each bend in the road. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

Well before I would normally be parking my car in The Institute, we had shattered the quiet morning with the shriek of chain-saws as the working day began. Lumps of tree rained down from above, I trimmed and hauled and stacked: sorting the wood into long dead, green brash and clean logs. On several occasions I was glad of my visored helmet as small branches whipped back at my face with a thwack. The sun shone all day for the first time since October, the work was hard, I'm glad I was there.

Monday 15 February 2016

bug out bag

At the beginning of January we voyaged across the sea to England to visit the rellies.  I made a quick trip down to visit my mother, who is living in her own home in Dorset with all her marbles present and correct. She's 95. Her mother was still living at home up to her 107th birthday, so I'm guessing my Mum will be still be in place when I get the pension in a few years time. Under the stairs, she has a small bag packed and ready which she calls her hospital bag.  If an accident or emergency happens, she doesn't want to be looking for a toothbrush, clean knicks and a nightie.  Note to self: must remember to do something similar  . . . especially the underwear . . . better make it a ruck-sack my boxers are capacious from years of sofa-pilotting..  But I can't be bothered to put in a tube of water-purifying tablets . . . that would make me a prepper.

Preppers are those who like to imagine that they can imagine what Armageddon will look like and can take appropriate steps to survive with their families.  Naaah:  I'm with English 20thC boffins Sir Arthur Eddington "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine" and  JBS Haldane [prev] "The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose". Preppers talk about Katrina and tsunami and zombies and electromagnetic pulses EMP without really doing the math to decide which of these is most/more likely and pack their bug-out bags [technical  term] accordingly.  The civilisation melting EMP could be triggered by the atmospheric detonation of a thermonuclear "device"  but also by an exceptional solar flare that happened to be pointing in out direction.  The last one of these was the Carrington Event of 1st September 1859.  Unusually active sunspot activity was followed by a flare that took 18 hours to reach us: that's not a fast as light (which takes 8 minutes to make the 150,000,000km journey) but definitely faster than a jet-plane.  When the storm whacked the stratosphere it generated a spectacular show of the Aurora Borealis which was visible as far South as the Caribbean.  More to the point, it blew out the telegraph network.

I've been reading - so you don't have to - a rather woolly piece about how to prepare for The Collapse.  I call it woolly because it doesn't include a bullet-point check-list of things to put in your evacuation bag or how to build sufficiently robust shelving in your bunker. You'll have to do your own research for that. If you have enough food in that bunker to support your family for several years, then that food is either going to be sacks of wheat or proprietary freeze-dried nonsense: Thrive freeze-dried cranberries etc.  And you'll need a mill for the wheat if you want chapattis.  My [Thrive freeze-dried] beef with the whole freeze-dried supplies idea is that you must rotate your stock; which means you have commit to eating this crap on a regular basis until Armageddon actually comes.  Expensive as well: a #10 can /22 servings of beef chunks is $65, while #10 can / 48 servings of navy beans is only $15.

What else: paracord done up as a friendship bracelet: shoe-lace, rabbit-snare, garotte for zombies . . .

Sunday 14 February 2016

Sunday Surf 140216

I've no idea what's really going on in this kitchen-eye view of an Indian Indian restaurant, because there's no commentary or subtitles.  But it's mesmerizing: what is the yellow glop filling the bowl at min 3:21?  What will the owner of the bare foot [L top right] do with it . . . either the glop, the foot or both together?

Hats off - and away

I have been in the habit of handing out Blobby tributes with the phrases: Hats off! <generic> Bonnets off! <facetious in the case of accolades for women [in science]> Chapeau bas! <when it seems appropriate to salute a French>.  English is easy for English speakers because it has neither accents nor gender to trip up the unwary.  It's the divil-itself for non-natives because of the idiosyncratic spelling and/or pronunciation. I don't think it has more than its fair share of irregular plurals or verb conjugations although these regularly trip up small children when their apprehension the rules of grammar collides with what they hear about them: "I wented to the sweet-shop".  In Latin it is customary to conjugate [ie rote-learn] verbs as a string like amo amare amavi amatum each word of which informs the user about the wide variety of endings that will be employed to express various states and tenses of loving.  If amo is I love, the rest of the present tense rattles off: amas = you love; amat = he she or it loves; amamus = we love; amatis = youall love; amant = they love. Amo is a regular verb:
  • amo 1st person singular present indicative: I love
  • amare present indicative: to love
  • amavi 1st person singular perfect [past] indicative: I loved
  • amatum past participle: having been loved
That's all regular and . . . regular. All the verbs in esperanto are regular which makes it too boring for most people to learn. Latin being a natural language there are wacko irregular verbs, like Fero (I carry or bear):
  • fero 1st person singular present indicative: I carry
  • ferre present indicative: to tote
  • tuli 1st person singular perfect [past] indicative: I schlepped
  • latum past participle: having been borne (irregular in English too!)
It's not really true to say that we have no accents in Inglés because we do have the dreaded apostrophe which is inconsistent in its usage when it tries to satisfy two conflicting demands: to indicate an absent letter: it's a contraction of it is; John's eye is a contraction of olde English Johnes eye using the genitive case as a synonym of the eye of John. That's another user-winning simplification of the English tongue: we've dumped almost all the case endings.  Apostrophes are also used to differentiate two letter identical strings that mean different things.  By convention it's (it is) gets the apostrophe and its (genitive case = of it) doesn't: as Steven Pinker and I have said before which won and which lost the apostrophe war has no logic or pattern: it's a convention.

The maddening spelling in English often retains etymological clues: know and gnat used to start off with a stop: k-now, g-nat which we've lazily left behind. Some of the wonk-spells are probably misconstrued faux-intellectual: the Latin for salmon is Salmo, the Latin for debt is debitum and so the l and the b were added in Shagsper's [dude couldn't even spell his own name] time to supplant OE dett and saumon or samon.  English is a living language and there is no Academy to hold us back from changing it to suit our needs - there are just a bunch of sad-sack apostrophe Nazis and we'll soon see them off.

L'Académie française, OTOH has been throwing its weight about in its latest diktats about spelling and orthography. The Beeb reports that the sky has fallen in France, which is going to be an enormous exaggeration.  There are some new spellings to fit with how received french is pronounced: oignon is now ognon, for example. A cogent essay on the topic via 3quarksdaily. The other two classes of change are
a) the loss, as in English over the last decades, of a lot of hyphens: le week-end becomes le weekend; une porte-monnaie become portemonnaie  and 
b) the loss of most examples of the circumflex; l'accent circonflexe.  As kids, we used to call this diacritic 'hat' for obvious reasons.
Like the apostrophe and the tilde ~ in eSpanish, the ^ circonflex accent is used to indicate loss, usually of a now silent 's': what used to be maître, from Latin magister via medieval maistre is now plain unhatted maitre. We've discussed before how French tête and Italian testa [=head] come from soldier's slang meaning box. But it is also used to differentiate homonyms "le dû du travailleur" = the duty of the worker. I guess that L'Académie has realised that there are only a tiny number of cases where the context fails to make clear which meaning is meant. Not au revoir to the the circumflex then, but definitely adieu.

Saturday 13 February 2016


It's a sort of anniversary today - the discovery, on Feb 13th 1961, by three professional rock-hunters of the Coso Artifact in a range of hills outside Olancha California where they owned the enterprise "LM & V Rockhounds Gem and Gift Shop". They were out trying to augment their stock and threw a number of lumps into their rock-bag for processing back in their workshop. They were particularly interested in geodes [nice examples L] which are hollow geological concretions often crappy on the outside but with nice bright colourful crystal interiors: they make pretty, useless, ornaments and formed the backbone of LM&V's business.  When this potential geode was cut in half with a diamond saw it turned out not to be hollow and "dang near busted the diamond saw" [I paraphrase]. In the middle of the concretion, which included sea-shells estimated to be half-a-million years old, was something that looked like a spark-plug. It had a magnetic core surrounded by white ceramic and bits of copper, was roughly hexagonal in shape and was the size of a spark-plug. It caused a bit of stir when the Coso Three wrote up a report in the local Outdoors magazine. I can't show you a picture, however, because the Coso Artifact has disappeared in the intervening 55 years.  I could show you pictures, including X-rays, that were supposed to be taken in the 60s, but I decline to do so. The Antikythera Mechanism is still there for our investigation.

If you take an assertion by an unnamed geologist that the exterior is 500,000 years old and believe that the object inside is a spark-plug then we have a problem. It implies that someone was dropping spark-plugs in the wilderness at a time when all the other surviving man-made artefacts are chipped stone tools. That seems unlikely, so that leaves Christopher Lloyd doing some repairs in Back To The Future XV or gasoline-powered space-ships driven by Little Green Men. Both of these explanations have been proposed and supported by people who have difficulty integrating and evaluating evidence. I think we can take a cue from Tony Kavanagh's considered dismissal of a nonsense story published in Nature: "Extraordinary findings require extraordinary levels of proof". Here we don't even have the primary evidence any more.  But that hasn't stopped the The Spark Plug Collectors of America asserting the age and brand (Champion) of the said spark-plug.  Only in America: who would consume their leisure hours collecting spark-plugs when they could be buying a nice geode to put in the middle of their coffee table?  But don't take my assessment: 400,000 people have watched this youtube clip.