Thursday 30 June 2016

Money for Forest

The invisible background against which we all live is that the economy is not succeeding unless it is growing. This is clearly bonkers on a finite planet as the human population reaches some sort of plateau or maybe not: maybe we'll continue bonking and breeding until there's no room to move. Since 1927 [in my mother's lifetime, less than 100 years] the world's population has grown from 2 billion to 7.x billion, and we all require a red plastic bucket, a cell-phone and a t-shirt with a multinational logo. That's a helluva a lot of plastic buckets and the executives of Bucketcorp Inc. need teak Tectona grandis dining tables to show that they've arrived. The carpenter needs foresters to go into the tropical hardwood forest and chop down the tree. The forester discards all the side branches as well as the lianas, vines, and epiphytes attached to the tree.  The shrubberies below get a blast of direct sunlight and die in a photosynthetic meltdown. The beetles, moths, bees and proboscis monkeys Nasalis larvatus don't do too well, either. We act like a pop star who only eats red M&Ms and flushes the rest down the toilet.

Since WWII it has been possible to make a career as an ethnobotanist: before that you needed to be independently wealthy, as well as intrepid. Aimé Bonpland [b.1773 prev] spent a lot of time recording and classifying plants in the tropics and drinking maté. One of the earliest ordinary blokes to be paid as an ethnobotanist was Harvard's Richard Evans Schultes [195-2001] - his father was a plumber, RES was a scholarship boy - who defined what he did as "investigating plants used by primitive societies in various parts of the world". One of his students was Wade Davis, who went up the amazon blowing his mind on bizarre mixtures of vegetation found in the forest. Of course, it wasn't up to Davis to decide what to toke up on, he just took advice from the local shamans. They and their ancestors had 8000 years of experimentation [some of it probably fatal] to draw upon. That's important: no amount of describing the leaves and counting the stamens is going to reveal a new prophylaxis against malaria.  A hint in an ethnobotanist's lab book will, otoh, goad the chemists into trying to characterise the active principals in a particular vine's seeds. It weeds out the dead ends and focuses on the more likely sources. Schultes' best-selling book The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers (1979), was tellingly co-authored with chemist Albert "LSD" Hofmann.

Paul Alan Cox is also an ethnobotanist, he's also a Mormon (if that matters), who did a MSc on a Fulbright scholarship in U. Wales at Bangor, before getting another fellowship towards his PhD in Harvard. There he won the highly prestigious Bowdoin Prize (twice!) and came within the orbit of Schultes. In contrast to Wade Davis up the Amazon, Cox drew a gig in Samoa talking to native healers in that tropical paradise.

These old chaps used an infusion from the mamala tree Homalanthus nutans to treat viral hepatitis. This tree is a member of the Euphorbiaciae, a family which includes rubber Hevea brasiliensis, the Christmas plant poinsettia Euphorbia pulcherrima and common-or-garden wood spurge Euphorbia amygdaloides, along with another 7,500 named species!  These plants are notorious for the richness and diversity of their plant secondary compounds, which often function to deter herbivores.  The castor oil plant Ricinus communis, for example, contains ricin, a protein which prevents ribosomes from making proteins from RNA. A tiny pellet of this stuff was used to assassinate Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.  Cox and his collaborators thought that, if mamala leaves could control one virus, it might work for others and the chemists in the crew started to run the extracts through their instruments.  The result was prostratin, a modulator of protein kinase C, which  is effective against HIV, pancreatic cancer and other deadly diseases. It was an early case-study of how that traditional knowledge might be leveraged to cure people in today's world. Notably, too, a chunk of the IP royalties for the drug were funnelled back to Samoa for gratitude and fairness.

Dr Cox went back the USA for more research and teaching jobs but he didn't forget his pals back in Samoa. When they were being bullied into selling logging rights to Megacorp for more fancy furniture, Cox leveraged the income disparity to fulfill some of the immediate economic needs of the indigenous people. He founded and shilled for Seacology, a non-profit foundation, which in the first instance built a school in the village where Cox had spent his field work years.  That was in 1988. Since 1991 Seacology has signed agreements to preserve 3000 of tropical reefs and 2500 of tropical forest in return for installing 'good things' in the locality.
  • kindergarten vs sea-turtle eggs
  • scholarships vs the habitat of a subspecies of black crested gibbon Nomascus nasutus
  • solar powered community centre vs planting mangroves
  • ecotourist centre with toilets vs dry spiny forest
  • re-roofing the health centre vs conservation area 
The point is that, by minimising human impact of the environment, we can preserve sections of it long enough to study them. A billion years of evolution have created the particular and peculiar interactions among species which has driven the spectacular diversity which, for example, sent Charles Darwin careering along the road to The Origin of Species. Countless species of beetle, lizard, flowering plant, not to mention bacteria and other microbes have been swept to oblivion in our rush for more stuff to float the growth economy. We never got to count their legs or petals, let alone analyse their constituent pharmacopoeia.

Wednesday 29 June 2016

Medicine Watcher

Dau.I sent me two books for my bday two weeks ago: I've already told you TMI about Feynman and Leonard's testicles. The other [super wonderful] book was The Youngest Science: notes of a medicine watcher by Lewis Thomas. Thomas was, according to The Wik, "an American physician, poet, etymologist, essayist, administrator, educator, policy advisor, and researcher".   I don't think that evidence of multiple skills makes him a polymath, let alone a genius, in the way that Murray Gell-Mann or Jean-Baptiste Biot or JBS Haldane, could be so classified. administrator, educator, policy advisor, makes him look a bit ploddy; poet, etymologist, essayist, a bit butterfly. Don't dismiss him until you've read his 1974 collection of essays The Lives of the Cell: notes of a biology watcher which is a best-of from his commissioned column for the New England Journal of Medicine NEJM. That book came out just as I started college and the sequel The Medusa and the Snail (1979) was published just as I started graduate school. Both collections won prizes for inspiring youngsters to go into science. This was years before the world wide web, let alone blogs, so there were few enough avenues for putting down some thoughts on a range of topics and getting them published. The essay is a form I like very much: short enough to read at a sitting and long enough to develop some arguments that make you think.

The Youngest Science TYS is billed as Thomas's autobiography but it's really too sketchy to qualify for that. It's a series of themes and anecdotes which are co-terminous with the author's life but leave a lot of detail on the cutting room floor. Discarding the boring makes his life a bit more exciting. The key theme is how the practice of medicine has changed, changed utterly, since Thomas's GP father was struggling to make ends meet at the end of each month in the years before WWI. Young Thomas was never going down the GP route and went through a  succession of academic, clinical and administrative positions all over the USA. One of the most striking differences between the work of medicine in 1933, when Thomas first started clumping the wards at dead of night, and 1983, when TYS was published, is the range of diseases were not but are now treatable. In the 1930s there were effective therapies for
  1. lobar pneumonia [type-specific anti-pneumococcus antibodies; first type your pneumococcus from a sputum sample as quickly and reliably as possible]
  2. diabetic coma [a dribble of insulin and intravenous fluids]
  3. acute heart failure [bleeding (!) to reduce blood-pressure; digitalis as in tincture of foxglove Digitalis purpurea leaves to ooomph the heart muscle; oxygen] 
  4. syphilis [bismuth, arsenic compounds and mercury  . . . and a lot of time]
and that's about it.  The first three required speedy and accurate diagnosis if the treatment was to be successful.

All the rest of hospitals' work was 'simply custodial' patients would only be rolled into hospital if they were really sick but there was nothing really to do except "waiting for the illness to finish itself off one way or the other".  My father developed pneumonia after being taken for a bracing winter swim in the Irish Sea while at boarding school in 1929. The school called his mother, who sat by his bedside for ten days mopping his brow and talking to him until the fever broke and he started smiling again.  His immune system had finally triumphed over the invasive Pneumococci. His mother probably made a difference because of the untapped and poorly understood power of PNI psycho-nearo-immunology [bloboprev]. According the Thomas "If being in hospital made a difference, it was mostly the difference produced by warmth, shelter, food and attentive, friendly care and the matchless skill of the nurses providing these things". Certainly in those days, the nurses saved as many lives as the doctors. And nobody was in it for the money.

Now it seems that it is all about the money.  If you're a doctor prescribing a medicine which costs €160,000/yr, you'd be tempted to think "I'll have $ome of that"; you wouldn't be human or have a mortgage if that didn't cross your mind.  The Brother spent long years making quality TV commercials for a living.  The cost of 30 seconds of airtime in the evening was a king's ransom, just to play: so the companies tended to invest equally heavily in production values, and The Brother and his company (and the key-grip, the best boy, the continuity department and make-up) got a piece of the action.

In a life-time of science, I've had three good ideas and one of them turned out to be wrong and we got scooped on one of the others, so it was never published under my name.  It's been a bit like that for Dr Thomas and this book of essays written in retirement allows him to put down a marker on a couple of those unpublishable hunches: possibly to intrigue a youngster to take up the fading scent and keep up the hunt for a solution. One of these is the observation that a peculiar sort of arthritis in pigs is definitely triggered by mycoplasma bacteria [bloboprev] and that both mycoplasma infestation and the 'auto-immune' disease rheumatoid arthritis are both susceptible to treatment with gold salts. Nobody has ever been able to culture mycoplasmas, or indeed any potentially causative microbe, from RA inflamed joint tissue. But the list of bacteria that have never been grown on a Petri dish far far exceeds those that have.  I'm with, or at least behind, Thomas on this sort of idea. We will eventually find microbial infection - virus, bacteria or protozoan - acting as a trigger in all autoimmune diseases.

TYS is more than 30 years old, so parts of it are out of date and superseded, but as an inspiration for using science as a way of knowing & being open, curious, hard-working, stubborn and committed, it should be on the reading list for any favorite niece or nephew heading up to Med School.

I'll leave you with a final insight from Lewis Thomas “The future is too interesting and dangerous to be entrusted to any predictable, reliable agency.”  Which may remind you of JBS Haldane's: "I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Gaillimh húicéir

On Sunday I was down with Pat the Salt. clearing out the fridge for dinner. A week ago The Boy had shipped me a case of a selection of beers from The Beer Club, Ireland's on-line off-licence. These have been sitting in said case waiting for a special occasion.  As I left home on Sunday, I took a blind sample from the box to fortify me for an evening watching the telly.  It was a bottle of Galway Hooker Amber Lager and very nice too after a couple of hours in the fridge. It's interesting from a couple of aspects.

1) One is the paucity of ingredients: water, barley malt, wheat malt, hops, yeast. Although much less than sou'wester cake [N > 40] and sausages [N=16] it's rather extravagant compared to the German Reinheitsgebot [prev] of 1516 which allowed only Wasser Gerste Hopfen [Gerste is barley not yeast auf Deutsch]. Presumably the yeast fell from the ceiling of the old breweries or the hands of the brewers. The bold ingredients in the Galway Hooker listing are allergy triggers, of course; for the psychocoeliacs and the real ones.
2) The label breaks into European periodically / randomly: Sisältää ohramallasta-innehåller kornmalt = "contains barley malt" in two languages FI and SE. And then mindst holdbar til: se flaskenhals which is DK for 'best before: see bottle-neck'. Why those languages? and why not consistently one or all?

I was on a roll with Google translate so thought I'd put Galway Hooker into Irish for a title to this post. That delivered Gaillimh fraochún and I thought I'd better do a reciprocal best hit analysis which revealed that fraochún is a whore; hooker being slang for the same profession. I know that prostitutes used to hang out near Spanish Arch near the Galway docks but that's not the hooker meant by the independent brewery: as you can see from the top of the label [R above]. It is rather the robust class of red-sailed, gaff-rigged, single-masted shallow-draft fishing vessel [example L] that used to be the standard working sea-boat around and across Galway Bay.  And can someone tell in the comments what, if any, connexion there might be between fraochán [bilberries Vaccinium myrtillus prev] and fraochún ?  It turns out that fraoch is the Irish for common heather or ling Calluna vulgaris. Must be the same in Scot's Gaelic because Norrrth o' the borrrderr, you can but a bottle of Fraoch Heather Ale. But, be warned, it's a bit madey-uppy when it comes to the ingredients: Water, Malted Barley, Malted Wheat, Heather, Bogmyrtle, Hops, Ginger, Yeast. Ginger? Holy legless boozers, is it Enid Blyton's Five Get Drunk on Ginger Beer we have here?

Do you want a damn-fool band-width consumer to show you how beer is brewed? Try Galway Hooker's click and watch an amber bar move about a schematic pipeline.

Monday 27 June 2016

Eat with care

I wrote a few years ago about picking fungi in the woods in NE Poland. On that expedition, I got cocky, and snagged something that looked like what everyone else was picking and was told to wash my hands or die.  Apart from that it was a successful haul of free food and my companions went home happy.  In the car going back they talked about the respected local expert on edible fungi, who had passed away earlier in the year at the age of 87. That's a grand old age for Poland and I asked what had been the cause of death. Mushrooms, they chorused: even the most knowledgeable can make an error. Much as I like free food - I was a graduate student once - I'm not in a hurry to learn the subtleties of field diagnostics for fungi.

Nicholas "Horse Whisperer" Evans, his wife Charlotte Gordon Cumming and two others made a wrong call in 2008. While visiting Comyn / Cumming family estate in 2008. They went out looking for ceps Boletus edulis because, for fungi, British shops only sell Agaricus bisporus, field mushrooms or dried yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The Latin name B edulis tells you that it is edible but there are no labels or bar codes or sell-by dates out in the field. What they brought home for lunch was deadly webcap Cortinarius rubellus formerly C. speciosissimus. The genus Cortinarius includes a number of species which have in common the ability to product the toxin orellanin.

Orellanin [structure L] is a bipyridine: an aromatic compound with two pyridine rings.  A pyridine ring has a single N atom in the ring and not to be confused with pyrimidines, like the DNA bases cytosine and thymine, which have two Ns. The positively charged N residues in the pyridine ring were long known to be associated with redox toxicity before orellanin was characterised, both as to structure and killing power. Paraquat, the weed-killer and favorite among suicides [prevliyear], is also a bipyridine. Both paraquat and orellanin have an unfortunate latency between cause and effect.  By the time you are aware that something is amiss, your kidneys have suffered irreversible damage and you are looking at a [shortened] life-time of dialysis; that is if you survive the assault.

So don't do this at home, kids. Cortinarius are particularly difficult to identify because of the range of within species variability.

Sunday 26 June 2016

Race time 260616

It's race weekend at the Curragh, yesterday was the 151st Irish Derby - it hasn't always been sponsored by Dubai Duty Free! Harzand, a 3 year old colt, won at 4 to 6.

Time with Feynman

I've had a helluva a lot to say about Richard Feynman, Nobel Prizewinner, percussionist and general clever-clogs. This last aspect of his character makes a lot of people think they have had too much Feynman already.  But Dau.II sent me a couple of interesting books, neither of them recent, for my birthday. I sat down and read Some Time with Feynman by Leonard Mlodinow the very next day. You can pwn your own copy for $0.01/£0.01 plus p&p from Amazon. Leonard Mlodinow, that's a distinctive name, I've seen that before? Indeed yes: right here on the Blob in my rave review of his The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives [you have to cough up £0.68 min for that].

If you read the Feynman book you'll be subjected to FFTMI [far far too much info] about Dr Mlodinow's testicles: they are apparently [no photos included, sorry) weirdly shaped.  Indeed they have sufficient bumps and nodules that his GP was sure he had testicular cancer . . . but two testicologists called in for a consult concluded that as the testes were symmetrically blobby his condition must be congenital and probably hereditary rather than cancerous and possibly fatal. That brush with the big C, serves as a bit of a wake-up call for young Leonard: he really has to decide whether he should carry on an academic career in particle physics just because he is really good at it and has had a huge early success: solving a conundrum in theoretical physics by invoking at infinite number of dimensions.  The publication of that paper got him a, rare as hen's teeth, tenure-track appointment at CalTech immediately after his PhD at Berkeley.

As it panned out, he got an office on the same corridor as Richard Feynman  [L, R]and polymathically erudite know-it-all (and Nobel Prize winner) Murray Gell-Mann [L, L] with the expectation that his early triumph would develop into prizes and fame on CalTech's watch. No pressure Len! Poor chap, he suffered a huge creative block, which probably wouldn't have happened if his first job had been at a less prestigious institution. As a brilliant fellow, he allowed his creativity to spill out into starting to write a screenplay: it's in the air - Hollywood is only 25km West of Pasadena. ANNyway, while he was struggling with the writing and agonising about coming up empty for physics, one of his old professors came to visit. They go out to lunch at the staff dining hall and Prof asks ex-student what he's working on just now (as y' do). Mlodinow mentions the screenplay and the professor has a shit-fit. For him - narrow, established, cerebral, tenured, snobbish and judgemental - a screenplay [think Lady Bracknell " a haaandbag?"] was an utter betrayal of the work, the talent, the education, of his former student. Pathetic really: as if there was nothing in the world that mattered except the arcane and ultimately unprovable mind-games of theoretical physics.

Not me. I worked at an English University just after I landed the PhD for six years. Each of those years we graduated a cohort of 12-15 honours students.  In all those years we dribbled out the 1st Class Honours: one or two a year.  But there was only one student who really deserved such a degree. Educated over the borrrder in Scotland, where they take such things seriously, this woman was super-smart and widely read.  She quoted a Greek tag, entirely appropriately, in one paper of her Finals!  At the end of year party, I asked one of my colleagues if anyone knew what what plans Stargirl had for the future. The answer was "[Harrrumph] running a climbing and hiking shop in the Lake District". Me, I thought that was delightful: you'd better use your knees in your 20s because they'll be off-their-game in your 40s, and totally buggered in your 60s [am there, know that]. Same goes for your mind, of course, but "mens sana in corpore sano" [can't do Greek - too thick] you need both mind and body preferably propping each other up in equilibrium

Mlodinow becomes a bit of a Feynman groupie - hence the title of his book. Even, coyly, asking the great man if he can record their conversations together. As well as physics and chit-chat they compare the nature of creativity in the Arts and Sciences.  Feynman puts his finger on the difference by saying that a scientist's brilliant idea is - has to be - approved by god: in other words, the hypothesis / theory has to be validated against the reality of Nature in an experiment.  In the Arts, otoh, anything goes: whatever comes into your creative noddle can be put into the public domain and the only arbiter of its value is current taste,  Not my taste or your taste but the taste of critics, insiders and other artists. In both fields, originality is key: you get no credit for coming up with the same stuff as someone else and little credit for being derivative or imitative or in-the-style-of. Creativity thus spirals outwards away from current normality into realms unknown. With science it has to work; with the Arts there is nothing to hold you back . . . from the brink of Humpty-Dumpty "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.".  If there is no reality check, bollix is just round the corner.  And the bollix, in contrast to Dr Mlodinow's, are too often neither normal nor interesting.

Saturday 25 June 2016

Brexit future

Summary of a video by Owen Jones card-carrying leftist, published on 21st June. So far his predictions are correct. Betting is Britain is going to take a shift to the right.

Armbands at Xmas

After I wrote my piece to camera about the Brexit Follies, I dropped into the Post Office in Leighlinbridge [a village: bloboprev]. I go there for stamps because the two post offices in Carlow, where I work, always  have lines out the door with people cashing their welfare cheques. I'm middle class, I have a car. I can leave work a little early and buy stamps on my way home. I don't need a welfare cheque.  The PO in Leighlinbridge doubles as a TV repair shop and the post-master is under-employed because the dispossessed can't afford to live in a pretty riverside village. When he's not serving the odd tourist "5 stamps for postcards to Canada, please", he's watching the banks of televisions and so is very well informed about news, the soaps, cooking and antiques. Hearing my accent [it happens all the time], he asked me for my opinion about Brexit. I told him. He reassured me that it would all be alright because The Markets had had rebounded that day, the day before the referendum.  Metaphorically tapping his nose, he said that financial traders and economists knew what was really going on.

As the world knows, the postmaster in Leighlinbridge and all those optimistic finance whizzes were wrong. Ireland [in]famously has a weather-predicting postman from Donegal called Michael Gallagher. On slow news days, editors will send someone up to ask his opinion on snow next Christmas. He even has his own website; so lazy-arsed editors can just scrape the column-filling opinion without the expense of a round trip to Glenfin. I'm not alone being annoyed at this: sometimes Mr Gallagher is right, sometimes he's wrong; sometimes you roll a six, sometimes you don't. There's another wrong postman in Leighlinbridge.  It also indicates that economists have no better way of predicting the future than Madame Silverpalm and her horoscopes. Actually, economists do have some algorithms for the effects of mass action on goods & services and supply & demand. What annoys me is that commentators will give a reason for events in their post hoc analysis: "profit taking" "market jitters" "fears about the Chinese economy" which have the ring of truthiness.  Nobody lost money by underestimating the intelligence of people during referendums.

One fall-out of the debacle is that the British Prime Minister has fallen on his sword. Resigning is an occupational disease in British politics; in Ireland Pols just tough it out when found in bed with their secretary or to have been culpably negligent in the execution of their duties. Cameron's cunning plan to give a sop to the right wing of his party by making the referendum a plank of his re-election platform has gone spectacularly awry. As the vote-by-age graph [above] shows, younger people have been deprived of their rights to travel to another EU country to look for work by their parents who have a nice job thank you. The age stratification was the same in the Scottish referendum two years ago and in the Marriage Equality gig here last year. My generation has dicked about with the housing supply for ideological and self-interested reasons in such a way as to deprive our children of affordable places to live.

Another obvious inequality is the regional distribution of Innies and Outies. Having been bullied and bamboozled by the full weight of the British [= English] establishment to remain in the UK in 2014, the Scots have now been sledged out of the EU by those same self-interested, backward-looking delusionists. I think we can expect a re-run of the Scots Independence Referendum before Clause 50 of the EU Lisbon Treaty [about leaving the party] is fully implemented. The Brexiteers have escaped from the 'tyranny of Brussels' only to lose all their grouse-moors.  The other thing to note is the occasional island of blue in England and Wales: that's where the universities are located. Educated people see that, on balance, the European Union is A Good Thing: good for the dispossessed, good for justice, good for trade, good for inclusion. The Brexit camp was driven by ignorance “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” [Michael Gove Conservative MP] “There is only one expert that matters and that’s you, the voter.” [Labour MP Gisela Stuart] There is an worrying undertone of racism dressed up as patriotism in the rhetoric of the Leavers.  If the Donegal postman were to predict pogroms at Christmas, it would at least be credible.

Very slow handclap Cameron.

Friday 24 June 2016

A bucket economy

There is a truly inspirational book about alternative ways of living in Ireland called Lives Less Ordinary. There is plenty of choice as well as ordinary old tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor: artists, writers, map-makers, weavers, water-diviners, teachers, environmentalists, farmers, wood-cutters, gardeners, travellers and monks. The green list is lifted from the publisher's blurb, which shows <tsk> poor editting - only one map-maker and one water-diviner is featured.  It's still in print and is the ideal present for either mad Aunt May or your drifty nephew who is unfortunately being shepherded into banking by his ambitious parents.

The chapter on Judith Hoad, herbalist, radical and philosopher, is called A Bucket Economy, because the authors chose to concentrate on the fact that Judith lived by choice in a house without indoor plumbing.  Every drop of water brought into the house - to drink or wash the dishes or cook the gruel - had to be schlepped up the hill in a bucket. You may bet your sweet bippy that they were mindful about their consumption, and they weren't flushing no toilets . . . because didn't have one indoors. My pal Rissoles has come to a similar mindful engagement with clean water and without a flush toilet.

20 years ago The Sister lived in a community on an island [Erraid] off an island [Mull] off the coast of Scotland. We went to visit her when Dau.I and Dau.II were tiny almost exactly 19 years ago. I know the dates because a) we celebrated our <twins!> birthday during the week and b) Dau.II got sick and she was old enough to walk but not old enough to articulate her distress except in howls. That community lived in a little row of lighthouse keepers cottages up a short hill from the quayside. Pedantically, the cottages started life as lighthouse builders cottages; because the first tasks of the stone-masons was to build the quay and then build their living quarters and then sail out in shifts to the Torran Rocks to build the lighthouse. Very efficient and vernacular: the granite for all this building was quarried on Erraid which, at 25km Nor'-Nor'-East of the Torrans, was the nearest source of suitable material. Because the project started in 1866, and those involved were working class, indoor plumbing was not considered necessary. As an aside, Erraid featured, unnamed, as a significant  chapter in the story Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stephenson: the Stephenson clansman who escaped from the thrall of engineering.

ANNyway, 150 years later, the toilet arrangements were a long-drop, protected from the elements by a wooden outhouse out back and a chamber pot for those night-time emergencies. I was in a sort of heaven, each morning walking across the street and down through the vegetable gardens with a brimming chamber-pot for the compost. Because it was June, and we were lucky, the weather was mostly sunny. The Sister lived there for several years until the brutal Winters finally got to her: there is only so much horizontal sleet sweeping in from the sea that you can tolerate if you have a choice. The next community West of Erraid is Natuashish, [Newfoundland and] Labrador, so nothing protects you from the incommming rolling roiling howlin' Westerlies.

I was delighted to be entrusted with one of the twice-weekly bread runs. For the last 30+ years, I've been making the bread at home but there isn't really a huge appetite for the stuff among the people with whom I live; and there aren't many bodies left in our empty nest. I make a loaf and/or buns and/or chapattis when the last lot runs out which is not really efficient of my time or the oven.  On Erraid, I was instructed to make a dozen large loaves - by hand, naturally -  eeee it were great to get my fists into enough dough to fill a baby's bath and bake my dozen in an industrial-sized catering oven.

This water thing is a bit like washing the dishes. If you wash up the saucepans after your cooking - rather than delegate all that lowly stuff to le plongeur (or the bleedin' dishwasher) - then you're a little bit more careful of how many you use. Also the direct connexion between preparing food, cooking it and eating it is morally far better if the clean up is part of the process. Dishwashing machines (and here I don't mean me) are the very divil for waste. Take a clean cup from the shelf; fill it with water; drink half; throw half; insert 'used' cup in dish-washer: there something about that protocol which seems wrong to me. One advantage of rarely and inadequately washing your tea-cup is that you can be sure nobody else will use it.  Every Sunday, I spend the night with my antient father-in-law, because, at 91, he feels unsafe sleeping alone at night. I spend part of each evening going <tsk> <tsk> round the kitchen trying to find saucepans and cutlery that are actually clean rather than passed through the dishwasher clean. And I know that a silly amount of lard / fat / butter goes down the foul water system to cause atherosclerotic problems later on.  When I've had a particularly lardy wash-up, it gives me great pleasure to fire the contents of the washing-up bowl out the front door crying "campesino!". You can't / don't do that with your energy-guzzling white goods.

Thursday 23 June 2016


The hilarity of naming a film Meet the Fokkers, hinges on a sort of music-hall double entendre which caused hypocritical smirks in Hollywood. A certain section of US society is terrible prim about sex but realise that a bit of bonking sells films.  And if you can get away with using the F word in a 'totally innocent' way, then !ka-ching! someone will be making money.  While I can't use that word in such a polite medium as blogspot, its Dutch homologue is quite innocent: a fokker is a breeder and a paardfokker is a horse-breeder. Thoroughbred horse breeders seem to be wholly innocent of common sense about the reproductive biology of the principal in their way of making a living. It's like the Cat Fancy Association of America: they don't even know what colour their cats are.

For reasons of convenience, and historical inertia, a horse becomes a '1 year old' on the First of January following the foal's birthday. A lot hinges on this, in the same way as it affects a child's experience in school if s/he is the oldest or youngest in 3rd Class - ignoring puberty etc. in 6th Class.  A horse born in mid-January will have had 350 days of growth and training before it becomes a 1 year old; a horse born in July will have less than half that advantage.  There are at least 190 races for Two Year Olds, including the Maribynong Plate [$A151,000], Critérium de Maisons-Laffitte [€190,000], and the Colin Stakes [Can$125,000], which are, for these developmental biology reasons, not run on a level playing field.

For optimum success in the Prix des Chênes [first past the post = €40,000] this September, breeders will have had to take their pedigree mare to 'service' 340 days before 1st January 2014. But you have to pay attention to the mare because her estrous cycle is about 3 weeks in length, so you want to pick the time when she is fertile which is nearest to the 340 day cut-off.  If you/she/he 'misses' then you've lost 3 weeks of growth and development at the other end of the pregnancy. And if you cut it too fine and the foal was born at Christmas 2013, then it was a 1 year old a week later and you haven't got a race winner. A horse pregnancy is 340 +/- 20 days and I don't think the precise length of the next pregnancy is accurately predictable, so breeders must allow some lee-way.  So far so maths.

The biology of it adds an additional complication which we have experienced with our sheep: mares don't cycle in the Winter because their evolutionary history has found that foals born in Winter 11 months later don't do as well as foal born in Summer - when there is more grass and so more milk. A mare's fertile period is from 'early Spring until Autumn'. I'll bet that the fertility within these limits in Gaussian / normally distributed / bell curved. Mares served in June and July are much more likely to 'take' than those at the edges of the estrous cycle distribution. Deciding to use 1st January as the arbitrary cut-off between year cohorts has disastrous consequences for fertility in the bloodstock industry.

In the UK, for similar medieval history reasons, the personal tax year runs between successive 5th of Aprils. This strikes outsiders as peculiar-to-bonkers but that's a very modernist prejudice. The year used to start at/on the Spring equinox 21st of March . . . and why not?  Then the British calendar had to catch up with the rest of Europe in 1752 but the tax year had to be 365 days and so the start-of-year shifted forward to 5th April. The Irish government gave up on that medieval quaintness in 2002 when, in parallel with adopting the Euro, they switched the tax year to start on 1st January.  The sky did not fall!  Revenue didn't get richer; people and corporations didn't over-pay their tax that year. Surely (with one leap they were free) the paardfokkin' blood-stock 'industry' could shift the year cut-off to later in the year and save everyone a lot of headache and heartache.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

No Brexit, please we're British

Apart from being a Citizen of the World, I think of myself as a European.  When strangers hear my British 'middle-class-southern' accent in Ireland, they ask where do you come from . . . and then, pushing, no no where do you really come from? Depending on how tired I am, I'll give them the 'horse-riding protestant from King's County' answer or a terser "Well, I was born in Dover, because my Mum was born in Dover and she went home to deliver the sprogs. But I think we lived in Dover for about 3 months before my naval father was given a new posting elsewhere".  So my passport is owned by Mrs Windsor but I'm more of a republican than many Shinners and have been since before many of them were born. I've rowed in behind Europe and the EU, which has been really good to/for me - getting me teaching gigs in Finland and Norway and indeed in Turkey; and a lot of trips to Brussels.  Without the EU, I'd never have shared an office with a Polack or a Greek, nor made friends with Austrians, Magyars, Swedes and Spaniards. There is the wider issue of the good which the EU has achieved in a) 'equilibrating upwards' the dispossessed across the continent and b) encouraging travel to, and work in, 'foreign' countries to stir things up and drive synergies

And tomorrow, there is referendum about EU membership across the water, arguably even more important than the Marriage Equality Referendum that engaged and finally delighted us <phew!> last year. Where will a Brexit leave me? Washed up in an alien land, is where.  If the Brexit people want to avoid taking their share of the refugees, and they do, then surely the civilised rump of Europe might be tempted to ship all the Brits back home to their blimpy backward-looking monarchy to make way for deserving Syrian paediatricians.

Three points / anecdotes.

1. Richard Dawkins, god-the-father-hating atheist for hire, can get tediously ranty about the idiocy of a belief in the afterlife or any sort of deity. But he said something rather on the button reflecting about him voting on whether the UK should stay in or leave from the EU. "What do I know about the consequences of either outcome?", he asked, with unaccustomed modesty. He liked the idea of voting for an MP to sort out those political issues which he had neither the time, nor the inclination, nor the training, to research.  He presumably preferred to concentrate his remaining years marshalling arguments against homeopathy, the literal interpretation of the bible, jihadism of any and all sects . . . it's been years since he did any original science. This argument is really doubtful [and might therefore make you take his anti-religious arguments with a large pinch of salt?]. Why should an ex- barrister, -farmer, -army-officer, -dentist or -trade union shop steward be better qualified to see into the future than an ex-scientist?  Nevertheless, his point is that making such decisions 'democratically' in a referendum is hardly the best way to get everyone to review the economic and social consequences of leaving the EU.  It's about informed consent, folks.

2. I then talked to my mother, 96 and still lucid, mobile and looking after herself in her own home. She summed up her position as [I paraphrase!] "That Tony Blair [ex-Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party] is a) insufferably vain and b)  a right shifty git always out for some personal benefit. And that [current PM], David Cameron, is a privileged toff who's never held down a proper job".  If these creatures were advocating white, my mother was a definite black and she was going to vote for Brexit. I'm pretty sure that level of political insight is what will direct most people's vote. It seems that the Leavers, ever and always looking to a fantasy past when Britain-was-Great, have gotten a shot in the arm over anxieties about the capacity for, and consequences of, accepting [tanned] refugees. None of them pause to reflect that the foreign policy of successive Great British governments has destabilised so many other countries and supplied arms to both sides in so many conflicts, that they are effectively responsible for many of the refugees. So they should therefore, like, be responsible for them. "I meant take care of him not take care of him".

3. I was down last weekend with access to the TV and heard a debate in which David Cameron and other interested parties were grilled by a studio audience  about the desirability of leaving or staying in the EU.  One rhetorical question hinged on whether someone like my mother [96] really has locus standi to decide the future for Dau.I [22]. In the Scottish Independence referendum last year, there was a clear and statistically significant discrepancy between the preferences of the young [Independence] and the old [Union] and the tottering ranks of silverbacks carried the day.  They locked the youngsters into a situation that a majority of them didn't want.  Poor young Scots, having been committed "for a generation" to being a poor relation of London and the Home Counties, now face the prospect of being cast adrift from Europe in the same boat with angry fuckwits, parasitic bankers and flag-waving Sassenachs.

The Brits have  a moral obligation to accept refugees from the results of their interventions [that's the whole of the world, pretty much].  They have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate, beyond sending £50 to Oxfam when an earthquake is in the news. But there's carrot as well. Diversity is a good thing!  It makes life more interesting. Economic migrants are going to work hard for their living and make us all richer. Victorian England was full of political and economic refugees - "Between 1823 and 1906 no foreign refugee was expelled from Britain.": Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for starters but hundreds of musicians, scientists and industrialists.

I beseech both my British readers to vote Stay tomorrow.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Make music today

Today, as for the last 35 years in France, is nominated by MinCulture as Fête de la Musique and you are urged to <homophonie alert> faites de la musique ! Preferably in public: singing in the shower as normal is not discouraged but today you are asked to step outside your comfort zone and share. The idea was cooked up in 1981 by muso Maurice Fleuret and MinCulture of the time Jack Lang and the next Summer Solstice was designated Der Tag for bringing out the tin-whistle or some bongos.  The idea spread to other countries but in rather a desultory way. I don't remember the years 2010-2013, when it was official here, as being notably more musical in Ireland. Then again, casual music is commonplace in Ireland - and not just in showers. And yes, I know the Solstice was yesterday, this year, but it's usually on 21st, so 21st has been chosen for every year

The current french MinCulture Audrey Azoulay is making the day a defiance of the forces that threaten the cultural integrity of France, Cette année tout particulièrement, la Fête de la Musique est un manifeste pour le dépassement de nos peurs, la lutte contre la division, parce que la « musique est plus forte » que ceux qui voudraient la faire taire. It is not clear if this patriotic stand against "those who would enforce silence" is about the Bataclan war on terror or Irish football fans exhorting their Swedish oppos to "go home to your sexy wives".

Go on, do: places where things will happen today include
Maputo Ucayali Sangerhausen Ischia Cali.
<homophonie alert> Ucayali Ukulele! blinki blinki pling plong . . . cue George Formby.

Monday 20 June 2016

pee standing up

For an old chap who is still reasonably continent, I think a lot, and have rather fixed ideas, about urination.  I don't know about yours, but my precious bodily fluid is valuable in the garden and I'm not about to waste the nitrogen flushing it down the t'ilet. No sir, not when the compost heap is only 45m away up some uneven steps in the dark.  I guess, given the fact that we get an occasional vagrant rat burrowing through the compost, that squatting down, even in full daylight, to contribute is not for everyone.  The other problem is that urine is rich in salt as well as essential nitrogen and salty brine is a rather good preservative because it inhibits the growth of many microbes including those which enrich the soil. So you may, with advantage, dilute it.

I'm a bit of a groupie for IFLS, so when this popped up [Why You Should Pee As You Shower, According To Mathematics] I was interested.  But here's a sentence in the 3rd paragraph "That means that each day of weeing takes 42 liters (11.1 gallons) of toilet water to flush away" No it doesn't! unless you flush the toilet every time you tinkle. We don't and none of us have died from failing to do so. Therefore, because the argument is based on a false premise, we can throw out most of the subsequent analysis which concludes that if everyone peed on their feet in their daily shower, then the US would save 700 million tons of clean drinkable water. But actually, the point is well taken even if expressed with more pith by the Duke of Edinburgh: "Biggest waste of water in the world: pee half a pint and flush two gallons" Water is precious! If they didn't shower every freaking day, they'd save a lot more. And anyone is welcome to come urinate on our compost heap.

Sunday 19 June 2016

Catch up 190616

  • Cédric Villani reflects on winning the Field Medal in 2010.
  • Remember the Antikythera mechanism?  They've now revealed more than 3000 characters of antient greek decorating the outside of the gear-case to show that it was a sort of daft fortune-teller.
  • Here's something rather sweet.  Matt Hopwood walked from Avebury [antient Neolithic stone circle] to Lindifarne [antient Christian monastery] talking to ordinary folks along ley-lines, gathering love stories along the way.  The variety of accents is part of its charm. Here's a documentary / interview about/with Matt.

Old Salt Route

Earlier in the week, I was visiting palomino Rene in St Mullins at the very start of the River Barrow Navigation. We've been there before. St Mullins is desperately romantic with a medieval motte-and-bailey on the village green, an holy well, a little medieval chapel and one of the earliest examples of hydro-power in Ireland. As we visited, the tide came in and the rocks in the broad reach of river threw off a hunting heron Ardea cinerea as the water covered them.  St Mullins is 30km from the sea but still tidal.  I expressed amazement about how the town of New Ross which is still 15 river-winding km from the sea grew to be a port at all at all. Why didn't ships just unload their cargoes at some convenient place on the coast and quickly turn around for more? Rene glanced at me pityingly and asked "And just how would people have transported those goods to their homes in the interior?" Red face, me and point taken.  On the way home from that visit, Young Bolivar and I were discussing how, even 100 years ago, labour was cheap but transport was expensive and that now the equation is neatly reversed. This has consequences on how things are built: 100, or even 50, years ago, houses hereabout were built as rubble-in-courses from the local granite rocks.  It takes time to patch together a 3-D jig-saw of random stone into a 500mm thick wall with two vertical faces. Nowadays, you can, for half nothing, get bales of "4 inch solid" concrete blocks delivered to your door and build walls faster, straighter and possibly stronger.

All that made me think about bulk transport in the days before motorways, so I was primed when a piece about the Stecknitzkanal popped up in Wikipedia. The canal was for a few hundred years an important part of the Alte Salzstraße which brought salt from the interior of Germany near Lüneburg to the great Hanseatic port of Lübeck on the Ostsee / Baltic coast. The trade in white gold served many aspects of food production but was vital for the preservation of herring Clupea harengus which in turn was vital for normal life in Catholic Europe when Fridays were deemed to be meat-free. Before the Stecknitzkanal was built to connect the North Sea, Hamburg and the Elbe with the Trave, Lübeck and the Baltic, the salt had to be carted over the intervening distance. Transport through the sandy heathlands was bad enough in High Summer but became frustratingly difficult when the road 'surface' dissolved into sludge in Winter.

In 1390 the merchants of Lübeck agreed to go halfsies with Erich IV Herzog von Saxe-Lauenburg to build a canal across the ridge between their two territories and make them both rich by taxing the traffic. The first shipment of salt - 30 barges containing 5-10 tonnes each - arrived in Lubeck in 1398. The trade peaked the following century at 30,000 tonnes/year but declined steadily thereafter.  And it wasn't only salt that used the canal: lots of bulk non-perishable cargo made the journey in the reverse direction: herring for starters, but also furs, timber and grain. Peat, coal, and bulk building materials like bricks, gravel and limestone were later added to the taxable traffic.

The length of the journey was considerably more than the crow-fly distance because the two navigable rivers didn't quite flow in the 'right' direction and were quite wiggly. Indeed, only 12 of the 97 km of the route were in a totally new channel.  The summit was only 17m above sea-level and a key element of the navigation was to install weirs to hold back the water into long horizontal reaches along which horses could tow the barges. These reaches were initially linked by 'flash-locks' incorporated into the weirs which were opened when a barge had to go through and closed as quickly as possible before all the stocked water rushed away down-stream.  This was fantastically inefficient and wasteful of water and was the cause of perennial dispute between bank-side millers who needed the water high to serve their mill-race. Eventually the flash-locks were replaced with single chamber locks which were technologically more sophisticated and much more conservative with the water. By the end of the 19thC, the 8m wide trench of the Stecknitzkanal had been replaced /upgraded to the mighty Elbe-Lübeck canal [R above] which is still used for commerce and leisure.

Saturday 18 June 2016

Serving another people

My oldest friend with a Y chromosome has done well for himself as a transplant surgeon in Canada. We sat in the same region of a vast lecture hall to learn Chemistry in our first year in college. He qualified a real doctor and took his family off to a godforsaken mining town on the Arctic circle to make a living and a life. After serving his time in the outback, he got a job as a surgeon in Halifax and rose through the ranks as his experience grew and he didn't kill too many of his patients. One day in theatre, he met a young registrar who had returned from a tour of duty with the Canadian Army in Afgho. My pal Mac reflected that, if a much younger chap with a family of small children could serve his country in this direct way, then so could Mac. So he took the Queen's shilling, did basic training, was given some combats and a cap and qualified as an army surgeon. I don't know if they cut him some slack in boot-camp because he was older, wheezier and more valuable than the other squaddies.  I think his tours in Asia were a headache in the rostering for the administrative staff at his hospital back home; but they were unable to do much more than splutter about it. Being conspicuously patriotic and pro bono gives you a rather good leg to stand on when facing down The Suits.

I was reminded of this when David Nott [R: second from left; between operations in Gaza] surfaced recently on BBC's Desert Island Discs. Nott is another surgeon, Welsh, who has a touch of wanderlust about him. He is holding down several jobs in hospitals in London but regularly goes off the war with Médecins Sans Frontières MSF or the Red Cross.  That's real war, with incoming artillery and theatres with no windows. In January, he was given the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award. He maintains that doctors are particular targets in these local wars because loss of a doctor can cause a lot more knock-on death among the opposition. There must be a peculiar sense of resilience in such people.  Surgeons are known for being decision makers - you can't do nothing when an artery ruptures under you fingers - and they need the people around them to do their bidding instanter.  So I think they get a reputation for being hard-chaws and a bit barky.  It's clear from the DID interview that Mr Nott [never refer to a surgeon as Dr!] is a softie with a big heart and more compassion than he can easily use.  There were a couple of times when he was unable to continue his story because the memory of the grief and waste overcame him. And his choice of music is interesting. You could do worse than listen to his story.

You might even be inspired to contribute to his humanitarian foundation.

Friday 17 June 2016

Eye deficit

It's my birthday today, I was born in 1954, so I'll be . . . 62. Two years ago I was 60 and my body was holding up pretty well.  We had Exam Boards last week when we decide on a final grade for each student for their year's work: taking into account any sick-notes, bereavements, compensation and plain transcriptional errors. Three years ago, when this was all new to me I wrote about several obvious problems / inefficiencies in the way the process works.  Desperately small fonts of marks on a screen at one side of the room having to be reconciled with marks on a sheet of paper in front of you. Three years ago, I might complain about how hard it was to read small letters at a distance; but I could read them. Since that time, I've been delivered to the optician for a sight-check-up and told that I now need glasses for driving because I almost cannot read a number-plate at the required distance. Those 'driving glasses' are dead handy for viewing power-point presentations and I try to remember to bring the out of the car when I know I'm going to need them for this ancillary purpose.

What I find is that I now have effectively zero accommodation in the focus muscles of my eyes. I can squint up like I used to, but it really doesn't do much good. With the long-sight deficit to complement the increasing myopia I've been suffering since my late 40s there are some circumstances when I need two pairs of glasses at the same time. The Exam Boards was such a case and I found that I could do pretty well if I had installed my reading-glasses down my nose and overlapped them with the driving glasses above. I got some strange looks from my colleagues but I explained why I needed both pairs of glasses.  I have invented a moderately inconvenient set of bifocals.  I hope it will see me through to retirement from Exam Boards and All That in 3 years time.  I have no desire to buy an actual pair of bifocals for the one day a year when I need them because the optician will charge fashion-accessory, rather than Lidl, prices.  As it happens, Dau.I sent me a spectacle repair kit with some mini screw-drivers and a magnifying glass. Now I might get round to repairing and bricolaging the huge collection of broken glasses lying around the house. Cannibalising things so that a pair with a broken left arm can fix a pair with a missing right arm, that sort of thing.

The Boy, who is currently in foreign, sent me a case of Beer from The Beer Club.  No warning.  I got a call from Fastway Couriers to say that they had "a parcel" to deliver. I was off-site on my way to work, and we live impossibly remote up a bohereen, off a lane, off a rural road, so I asked the driver to deliver it to O'Shea's of Borris, the pub hub around which the parish circles.  I picked it up the following day.  Case of beer is a rather good blokey to bloke present, no? ANNyway, it was easy to carry it across the road to the boot of my car.  A few years ago ?when I was 50?, a palomino sent us a case of wine.  I was at home when the courier called, so I arranged to pick up "a parcel" from The Cross - the T-junction which sports a 1798 monument between Borris CW and Kiltealy WX.  To save Ye Planett, I put on some shoes and trotted down our lane [300m] and along the county road [550m] to await delivery.  I signed the docket while the driver heaved out "a parcel". A case of wine weighs heavier than 18kg and is a lot more awkward to carry than a sack of sheep-feed of the same weight. The journey back, and my arms, were a lot longer than the joyful anticipatory trot down the hill.  I deserved a dhrink!

Thursday 16 June 2016

Der Tag

Quick reminder that it is Bloomsday! If you haven't got the mutton kidneys already "Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine." you're probably going to have cornflakes as usual for breakfast.  And let me tell you that, without the correct breakfast, you have missed the Ulysses train for today - but if you're in Dublin you can still make it to Lincoln Place, round the back of Trinity College, and buy some lemon scented soap from Sweny's.

Shipping Olds

Title is waggish reference to Annie Proulx's book Shipping News as well as a reprise to my use of 'Olds' to cover things that didn't happen last night but are nevertheless interesting. Since talking Alaska a tuthree days ago, I've mentioned the exciting news from chemistry which is about the naming of parts 113-118 in the periodic table.  In that short, derivative essay, I went off topic to rant about Glenn Seaborg and his despair at everyone else's ignorance. So I'm back on track to talk briefly about Uus, ununseptium, eka-astatine, or tennessine. For an element for which only 15 atoms have been clearly identified that's a helluva lot of names!

Those atoms were made by bombarding Berkelium [Bk, element 97] with Calcium [Ca, element 20] nuclei until a handful of the atoms fused together long enough to be detected as having a atomic charge of 117. The atomic number is the number of protons in the nucleus, so the math is simple 97 + 20 = 117 but the nuclear chemistry is damnably more complicated than I can explain here. Uus is the last element to be so created / discovered, because it turned out that oganesson Og element 118 was lower hanging fruit and had been created first.  The methodology for making oganesson was the same as for Uus with a different starting point: bombarding Californium [Cf, element 98] with calcium as before. Californium was more widely available because it was used in certain industrial processes. Berkelium, on the other hand, was only produced in ORNL, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and then only as a by-product of the production of Californium. When Yuri Oganessian from Dubna in Russia wanted to try for creating Uus, he had to wait for the next commercial order of Californium.

They had to run the purification process for 250 days to get together a mere 22mg of berkelium.  It's a balanced tradeoff, the half-life of berkelium is 330 days, so as the stash is being accumulated in one teeny-tiny bucket, it is effectively leaking out the bottom. Once it is made, therefore, time is of the essence if anyone is to do any experiments with the sample, before all the atoms decay into something else. So the boys at ORNL wrapped the precious fragment in a Russian doll contraption of lead boxes containing lead boxes and shipped it to Moscow, with an Urgent - useless if delayed sticker on it. Russian customs, who weren't going to be brow-beaten by imperialist Yankee-dogs, read through the paperwork with a nit-comb and decided they could not accept it. So the parcel went back to the USA - and back to Russia; and back to the USA - until after nearly 40,000km of air miles it was on it's way in a van to Dubna.  That first experiment yielded 6 atoms of Uus and everyone was ecstatic.

Next time DHL or FedEx or the customs agent at your local airport pisses you off with some bureaucratic and costly requirement over the goods you ordered over the interweb, reflect that it's been worse and more expensive for some other people.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Wasted in Orlando

The whole world knows about The Orlando Shooting.  In terms of body-count, it was the biggest mass-murder in the USA since 9/11.  On the same night, in the same city, a young singer was shot by an anti-fan from St Petersburg, FL who tooled up with a couple of handguns and a hunting knife, shot the singer and then himself. The End. She was a youtube phenomenon on her channel zeldaxlove64. Here she is singing covers:
Christina Grimmie, she was just a kid and now she's dead. While the NRA and Mr Trump were making political hay over The Orlando Shooting and demonising Muslims, Ms Grimmie was fighting for her life and now she's dead.

The Canting Crew

Unless you're a professional lexicographer yourself, you might be excused from thinking that Samuel Johnson's  A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, [bloboprev] was the first example of such books.  But you'd be wrong.  "A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c. with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c. Ufeful for all forts of People (efpecially Foreigners) to fecure their Money and preferve their Lives; befides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New" had been compiled by "B.E." and published two generations previously in 1698. Nobody knows who B.E. be anymore that we know who was Shaxper's friend WH / HW a hundred years before that. The thing about cant, jargon and slang is that it dates quickly.  A phrase will be down with the hood one year and seem quaintly old-fashioned before an adult  can feel quite comfortable using it. I experience this every year with our 3rd year french students, with whom I share some comments in 'french'.  The problem is that all my colloquial french comes from the time my sister lived with a bearded Québécois 40 years ago. Referring to something good as c'est le pied provokes indulgent smirks from la jeunesse française. But I persist in a conscious effort to show the monoglot Irish, who make up the majority of the class, that there are languages other than English out there . . . and even educated people who don't spik Ingles verr gud.  

ANNyway back to the language of the canting crew of 300 years ago. Some of these phrases might, with utility, be given another airing in today's world? You can get the whole text in a variety of formats (plain text is more puzzle than useful; PDF is readable).
  • Arsworm - a diminutive fellow
  • Baste - to beat as, I'll baste your sides Sirrah, I'll bang you lustily.
  • Clunch - a clumsy clown an awkward or unhandy fellow.
  • Doxies - she-beggars, trulls, wenches, whores . . .
  • Ebb-water - when there's but little money in the pocket
  • Flapdragon - a clap or pox 
  • Gape-feed - whatever the gazing crowd stares and gapes after; as puppet-shows, rope-dancers, monsters, and mountebanks.
  • Hector - a vaporing, swaggering coward
  • Yarmouth capon - a red herring
  • Zany - a mountebank's Merry-Andrew, or Jester
Losing examples of old slang cuts both ways: some of them have lost all utility / currency and been replaced with other terms for the same thing. But others have become part of standard English.

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Nihonium + 3 = 118

Big news on the Periodic Table. on 8th June, IUPAC - the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry - announced 4 proposed names for recently discovered trans-Uranium elements.  In my days at school we had got as far as element 103 Lawrencium.  That was discovered independently and simultaneously and fairly controversially in 1965 by a team at Объединённый институт ядерных исследований in Дубна́  = Dubna just outside Moscow and one at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California. From about 1975, I stopped paying much attention to chemistry and so I'm a little surprised to hear that the naming ceremony applies to elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. That means that fully 15 new elements have been created (all the elements larger than 95 have to be created in laboratories) and characterised since left school. The names of the four elements are explained by Professor Martyn Poliakoff of Periodic Table of Videos

  • 113 Nihonium Nh - named for 日本 the Land of the Rising Sun Nihon because it was created in 2004 by a team at RIKEN the Japanese research institute.
  • 115 Muscovium Mc - the Russians and Americans had buried the hatchet in 2003 and a joint team created this element in 2003 at the JINR in Dubna.
  • 117 Tennessine Ts - was named for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The ending to to acknowledge it's column place in the table at the bottom of the halogens Fluorine chlorine, bromine, iodine, astatine. Indeed Ts was known as eka-astatine before it got it's current tribute name.  Before that it was prosaically called ununseptium.
  • 118 Oganesson Og - is named after Armenian nuclear physicist Յուրի Հովհաննիսյան or Юрий Цолакович Оганесян aka Yuri Oganessian. This is only the second time that an element has been named after a living person. Glenn Seaborg being the first to hold that honour. As with Tennessine, the ending shows that Og is a Nobel/inert Gas last of the series Neon Argon [prev] Krypton Xenon Radon [prev]; although there are now doubt as to whether it is a gas at room temperature like its lighter cousins.
Seaborg has probably done more than anyone to make headway into the wholly artificial world of trans-Uranium elements. Before he died, it was pointed out that you could send a letter to him by making a list of elements on the envelope.
Sb [106]
Lr [103] Lv [116]
Bk [97]
Cf [98]
Am [95]
But that would depend on the Post Office being scientifically literate, which Seaborg grew to believe was increasingly unlikely. In the Reagan years, he chaired the committee which released A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform which started with an overview of falling achievement, and widespread ignorance among American students; but also slated falling standards, grade-inflation and widespread ignorance among teachers. You cannot teach or learn science by being all vague on the details while hugging trees.

Monday 13 June 2016

Alaska - the hot place to be

Be very afraid? I had Alaska in the Olds a week ago while I was going on about a truly massive volcanic eruption that occurred just over 100 years ago.  That was HOT, although there were very few people about to witness it or bake potatoes in the lava. Alaska is in the News now and it's about unseasonably high temperatures again.
This is a relative heat map, mind; the temperature this Spring has barely risen above freezing but the 75 year average has been 5-10oF lower than what has been experienced in 2016. All the cities of the state - Juneau, Fairbanks, Anchorage - report the warmest Spring temperatures since records began. This echoes the warm spike in Greenland that I reported in April. Refer also to the anomalous cold spot in the Atlantic last year. They are clearly straws in the same wind. You might think that the Greenland angle is more serious because if the ice-dome melts the mean sea-level will rise 6m but a permafrost melt in Alaska is going to release a methane vortex that will accelerate global warming far more effectively than an equivalent amount of carbon-dioxide produced when you [it's all your fault] pootle off to the shop in your car to buy the newspaper and some croissants.

One little considered aspects of changes in the climate is that it upsets some of the delicately woven webs of connection in ecosystems. Plants may use temperature as the cue to set flowers but their insect pollinators may rely on day-length to trigger hatching.  In normal years these two things go together and everyone wins.  If the flowers come too early, and there are no insects to pollinate them then the next year that species of plant is absent. Filling the vacant ecological niche is subject to random processes which may have knock-on knock-on knock-on consequences that are as easy to predict as the outcome of a chess-game between two grand-masters . . . that's a metaphor: out there we have thousands of players all with set ways of doing things, some less flexible than others.

Sunday 12 June 2016

Miscellany 120616

  • Catchy-up time. As part of my Women-in-science series [N=50],I was sweeping my hat off to Danica McKellar, child prodigy actor who reinvented herself as a hot-shot mathematician. Here's the woman herself in a short reflective piece to camera.
  • Got Pascal's Wager sorted in your head but still not sure about the existence of god? This short vid may help you get your thoughts together.
  • Dave Swabrick formerly of Fairport Convention died this last week despite a lung-transplant a few years ago. Here he is sawing away on the fiddle for A Sailor's life: check out the still pics throughout.
  • Frank Zappa talking [for an hour] about "a world of sexual incompetents, encountering each other under disco circumstances" and much else.
  • Punk passed me by so I missed Always the Sun by the Stranglers when it first came out: pity.
  • If you've ever reflected on "the gulf widens between what we envision in our minds and what we can do with our feet" a) you're over 40 b) you'll empathise with this nice essay about soccer for crumblies.

après nous le déluge

There I was tripping down the primrose path with the late lamented Frank Zappa when I came across his testimony to the United States Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation Committee in 1985.  The hearings were to gather information and opinions about the PMRC - the Parents Music Resource Centre - a self-appointed scourge of evil in the music industry.  It was founded by the Washington Wives - an ironic reference to the under-employed appendages of powerful men depicted in Stepford Wives - including Tipper Gore the wife of Senator, later VP, Al Gore.

Thee PMRC didn't want to have government impose standards, that would infringe the 1st Amendment and create 'more government'.  As white women married to The Man, they had quite enough government to assure them a life of shoppin' and taking tea with each other on Washington lawns.  They wanted instead to bully the music industry into putting 'parental guidance' stickers on any record that they (who they? PMRC? the industry? a mid-ranking executive in EMI, a spotty youth in the dispatch departmemt at Island Records?) deemed to deserve it.  What is extraordinary in the senate hearings is that Al Gore is there asking questions from the Senate bench when it's his wife's Bund that is under scrutiny.  If my cousin or my graduate student turns up to interview for a job and I'm on the hiring committee; then normal practice is for me to recuse myself and leave the room. Lots of people recused themselves from Jury Service because they came from the same village as the accused or went to school with his brother. Not Senator Gore. Then again, if all Senators on the CTTC left the room because their wives were members of PMRC, the committee would barely be quorate.

The argument from the Senate (who all seemed to think the PMRC was a good idea!?) was that such labelling was a) wholly voluntary and b) helpful to parents who wanted to protect their children from sex, satan and rock'n'roll.  I was never a fan of Zappa, whose music I found to be difficult, discordant and deafening, but I love his ironic demolition of the idea of labels, voluntary or otherwise. He has a reputation for having a lot of sexually explicit lyrics, but in another interview suggests that in a play-list of 1200 songs, you'd be pushed to find anything sexual in more than 100.  So finding sex in Zappa is a good example of prejudgement and ascertainment bias: if ye seek it, ye shall find.  One senator, with a TaDa rhetorical flourish [jaysus, there's a lot of rhetoric about in the Senate hearings], asks Zappa whether it's okay to label a child's toy as 'suitable for 3-5 y.o'.  Surely that's okay?  Nope, replies Zappa, it's not okay for some bloke in an office in DC or Tulsa OK to decide the intellectual or cognitive abilities of my children.  And, because it's the 80s, nobody extends the argument to ask if "suitable for girls" or "suitable for boys" is suitable for toys. Zappa also points out that the terrible examples of Naughty Lyrics which had been cited, were for the most part a) obscure b) old and therefore c) irrelevant as a mass comms problem.

Zappa rhetoric: "It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation. ... The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow "J" on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?"

The other argument Zappa makes is that a rock album is the artistic creation of the singer / songwriter and that's different from the [""voluntary""] rating of films which is now and wasat the time part of the cultural landscape.  For Zappa, the actors in a film are mere guns-for-hire, and don't have their reputation impugned by an X-rating on a film in which they had a part, even a bonking part.  I don't imagine that this dismissal of the actoring profession would get plaudits in Equity, the actors union. Zappa wants parents to take responsibility for the education, or enforced ignorance, of their own children; because he wants a wide diversity in parenting styles to be tolerated by an open society.

It's all 30 years ago and so might seem like mere history but what and how and when children find stuff out that matters to them, is a matter as current now as it was in 1816. And of course, in 1985 there were a few hundred films made each year and a few thousand albums that got printed in vinyl. Now we have the interweb, with new content being poured out of garages and teen-bedrooms across the planet [youtube alone takes 300 hours of upload per minute!] in a tsunami of choice which is completely beyond the scope of parents to regulate.

More Zappa?  You could do worse than watch the BBC2 documentary on his life, times and ideas.  As he died slowly from metastasising prostate cancer he continued working on old stuff and new including and extraordinary jammin' session with Tuva throat singers from Mongolia, our own Chieftains and Johnny Guitar Watson.  Not all the content loaded onto the interweb is Satanic.

Saturday 11 June 2016

Lethal implement

On the wireless last night, in the quirky regional news QRN section, mention was made of the recent conviction for drunk-driving of John O'Shea a farmer of Derrinadin, Mastergeeha, Co Kerry. Over the years, I've had a quite a lot to say about being drunk and driving. We live remote: you can't get further from a bus-stop and still be in the province of Leinster, so we know how convenient it is to own a car. But we also know how expensive it is to service that convenience. Grocers (Mr Tesco etc.) are now happy to deliver food to your door for a lot less than the minimum €60 pw it costs to run a car. We just had two 2.4m I-beams and a bunch of timber delivered 'for free' by the local steelyard, I'm sure we could cut a good deal with Red Mills to have 20 bags of sheep-feed and a bucket of mineral lick delivered to the gate; rather than stress-testing the springs of the poor ould Yaris. So the argument that farmers like us [note: there are no farmers on the planet quite like us] need a car to prosecute their business is a bit wobbly.

We know all about Mr O'Shea and his case because the conviction entailed him being put off the road for three years to stop him from being a danger to himself and others.  But his lawyer pointed out that this would cause his client great hardship if implemented immediately: how would he dispose of the cows, how would he have any social life without his wheels?  The judge beamed down in an avuncular way and made a quip about Mr O'Shea going to the local match-making festival to find "a good woman" who would drive him about the country while he was banned. This caused a predictable twituproar from, inter alia, an organisation called the Irish Road Victim's Association IRVA: "what planet is this judge living on?" . . . "sends the wrong signals".  I suspect that the banter between judge and lawyer was possible because in this case "nobody died", Mr O'Shea piled himself up on the ditch with 4x the legal limit of alcohol on-board and dinged his motor but not himself and, fortunately, not some neighbour out jogging or pushing a pram.

There is, of course, another level at which the blokey legal banter was utterly repellent. Mr O'Shea was effectively being encouraged to trade in his herd of cows, which he would no longer be able to effectively manage, for a fine heifer that could drive. And if we're on political correct tracks, we might ask if Mr O'Shea, by all accounts a 'confirmed batchelor', might not prefer a young chap who could drive , . . and talk knowledgeably about Kerry hurling.

But let's keep some perspective on this.  The average motorist in Ireland drives 10-12,000km every year, there are 2.5 million cars on the road so that's something like 25 billion person-kilometers / year. And this results in 150 road deaths [and a lot more disabling injuries]. So you can drive a helluva lot of miles before you kill yourself or somebody else.  Driving while drunk will decrease the odds that you'll have a fatal encounter but even making a 10x or 100x change in the likelihood still makes that unfortunate event unlikely on this trip home from the wedding.  Something in excess of 500 people kills themselves each year in ways that don't involve a car.  That's a minimum, suicide has negative connotations and doctors will seize straws and bend the truth to avoid calling an unexpected death a suicide. Suicide can spring from depression, depression from loneliness and social exclusion. No car, no pub, no social life, no point, no ose?

And now a road safety message from Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert about getting drunk.  Don't do this at home, they advise: do it in a bar.  I find it quite like the Ignobel Awards in the sense that first they make you laugh, then they make you think. As one who has been designated driver plenty of times while my pals get playful, most drunken people are only endearing to themselves. And while we're on driving too fast under the influence, let's hear Frank Zappa taking a stand a stand a stand against speed.