Friday 30 September 2016

Blood groups IV - a silver lining

It's been a grim week on The Blob talking about disease and dishonesty, lack of compassion and lack of leadership in the continuing saga of the anti-D/HCV Blood Tribunal story. But we can put this is perspective. Something like 1200 Irish women of child-bearing age were given a medical intervention / prophylaxis / treatment and finished up chronically sick as consequence. That's very sad for the women and their families. The therapy in and of itself, however, was a Good Thing. In the 1960s, 40 newborns a year would die from erythroblastosis fetalis as a consequence of  maternal/fetal Rheus incompatibility.  With anti-D for everyone for the last 45 years, we have stopped 40 x 45 = 1800 neonatal deaths. For a naive utilitarian that's a bargain. Of course, we'd prefer to win on all fronts and it is a shame that the women were assaulted by a system that, in hindsight, was not fit for purpose,

But HCV is a global problem: about 3% of people on the planet are infected. That's 200,000.000 mostly poor, tanned, tropical people whose liver is being eaten away by the virus until they develop jaundice, cirrhosis, hepatitis, liver cancer and an early death. There is no cure for those people and the drugs for reducing the symptoms cost €15,000/year: a number laughably beyond the capacity of folks or governments in the Third World. By contrast, the 600 anti-D/HCV infected Irish women comprise 0.01% of the population.

Wouldn't it be just bonzer if we could do the fundamental science necessary to understand how HCV evades the immune system and use that as the foundation of a scheme to by-pass or nullify the evasion and prevent HCV getting a reproductive toe-hold inside 200 million people who have enough troubles. Genetic epidemiological studies are complicated by the fact that both the host and the virus a variable. HCV is particularly variable, indeed, because as a single strand RNA virus its enzymes are particularly inaccurate when they make copies of the genome. Every HCV virus is different but they fall into 7 named and characterised serotypes. Callous as it may sound, the anti-D debacle has been a controlled experiment to record and try to understand different immune responses to the same insult. 1200 young white Irish women were infected with HCV from a single defined source. The Irish are less genetically homogeneous than, say, Icelanders or the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha, but still the anti-D demographic is pretty tight. Nevertheless they showed an interesting diversity of responses to unasked for infection by HCV:
This diagram, which I knocked up about 10 years ago, requires a certain amount of explanation. The top box asserts that, of 70,000 Rh-ve women who were given anti-D, about 1200 were, according to BTSB records, given anti-D from one of several vials that were contaminated with HCV. Now, we have seen in earlier posts that BTSB couldn't run a piss-up in a brewery, so we must be skeptical about their paper-trail. Nevertheless, it helps limit the number of women who can claim compensation for illness and distress caused by the anti-D scandal. Of those 1200, about 500 were called back to hospital to give a blood sample and were found to have antibodies against HCV. These Ab+ve women must have had HCV circulating in their systems long enough [3-5 days] for the adaptive immune system to make antibodies against it.

Of these Ab+ve women, about half are PCR negative and half PCR positive. PCR = polymerase chain reaction is a nifty molecular biological tool for making millions of copies of any DNA/RNA to which it is applied. PCR +ve implies that, although an antibody response was mounted, nevertheless, HCV is currently circulating in the blood stream and presumably multiplying in the liver. Ab+ve/PCR+ve have the worst prognosis because their immune system hasn't been able to get on top of the virus. Ab+ve/PCR-ve are in a better position because there is now no circulating virus which means that their adaptive immune system did clobber the virus. Although, like chicken pox / varicella bursting out decades later as shingles, the HCV could be lying dormant in liver cells and start its destructive action all over again much later.

The one therapy that seems to work towards making life more tolerable is interferon-alpha aka IFNa. It is 10x cheaper than some other modern medicine but nevertheless costs about €15,000 a year . . . every year . . . until death intervenes. But a pilot study, in which 60 women from the anti-D cohort were given IFNa, found that only half got any relief from the symptoms. The others had a clatter of wearing side-effects: pains, fevers, chills, nausea, drowsiness, lethargy, headache as well as the ills due to having a banjaxed liver. Work is afoot to identify markers strongly associated with being a responder or non-responder. If IFNa therapy is not likely to work, why not save the state €15K and the patient an extra dollop of unhappiness.

But the most interesting group of women are those indicated with a red arrow above. According to the records, they were exposed to the virus but are antibody-ve and PCR-ve. It's as if the virus had never been there! The presumption is that it got swept up and destroyed really efficiently by the innate immune system before the big guns of the adaptive/antibody immune system kicked in. The innate immune system is comprised of the first-responders in the fight against infection, these chemical and cellular entities react quickly and forcefully to damage or difference. And sometimes this rapid clean up is so effective that the specialists against dengue, malaria, 'flu, scarlatina, pertussis, and uncletomcobbleyitis are never called in from the golf course. Wouldn't it be great if we knew what these women had in them that mounted such an effect response against HCV? Wouldn't that be useful information to pass down the chain to the Third World? Knowing accurately in detail what went wrong is often the first step in developing a therapy. In this case, it will be knowing what went right; but the possibility of a therapy for the 200,000,000 is made more likely.

After 20 years of thinking about it, a group of immunologists in TCD have finally gotten approval and the money to make a start on this project. The first step is to identify and contact these super-innate women and persuade them to give 10ml of blood . . . again.  They gave already, 20 years ago, to get the all-clear, now the TCD immunologists want to see if, for example, they all carry a particular mutation in a key immune modulating gene.  If you are, or know of,
  • a woman, 
  • now in her 60s or 70s, 
  • who gave birth in Ireland in the late 70s
  • who was given a couple of injections at the same time
then you have the potential to do a lot of good for poor black people. More information, including contact details, on Facebook [of course] and at TCD: email: They'll give you a nice hot cup of tea after your blood donation.

Thursday 29 September 2016

Blood groups III - anti-D scandal

Having laid the scientific groundwork about blood groups and Rhesus incompatibility, we come to a sorry tale of a mistake; partly due to slack practice in the Irish BTSB - Blood Transfusion Service Board; and cover-up that left a number of women dead, and many more suffering from chronic liver failure. BTSB's head quarters, at the corner of Leeson Street and Adelaide Road, was called Pelican House, after the legend that the bird pricked its own breast to feed its chicks with fresh blood. The seeds of death were sown in 1977 when the BTSB accepted, against established protocols, a donation from someone who had jaundice due to an infection by Hepatitis C Virus HCV. By then the BTSB had moved on a long way from acting as a clearing house for whole blood: taking donations in 500ml bags, typing them for ABO and Rhesus+/- and then distributing them to operating theatres across the country. As I explained in an earlier post about haemophilia, the BTSB reduces almost all blood donations to its component parts: serum, platelets, packed red cells and minute quantities of several circulating proteins.
You need quite a jolt of anti-D to be sure that you sweep up all the Rhesus antigen from the fetus, and no one person can supply that amount. So they must isolate the anti-D from many donations, mix 'em up and then aliquot them into lots of doses for injection towards the end of pregnancy. That HCV contaminated donation was thrown into the anti-D processing vat at BTSB and a number of vials of anti-D turned from being a life-saver into a ticking time bomb reproducing in the liver cells of the recipients. Nobody knew that there was a problem because HCV wasn't isolated, named and characterised until 1989. A couple of years later, their British oppos alerted the BTSB to the fact that one of their anti-D vials had probably been contaminated. The BTSB did nothing. Over the next tuthree years, as new donations were routinely screened for HCV, Dr Joan Power, a worker at BTSB in Cork, twigged that too many of the donors who were HCV+ve were Rhesus-ve. You expect only 15% because that's the frequency of Rh-ve in Ireland but almost all of them were Rh-ve and they were also female, had been pregnant and were of an age that they must have been given anti-D. Power wanted to investigate further, so that women outside of her catchment area could get a diagnosis, an explanation and treatment. She was stalled at every turn by comfortable apparatchiks who didn't want any awkwardness to disturb their plans for golf at the weekend.. It wasn't until 21 Feb 1994, that the BTBS were backed into a corner enough to call a press conference which started with "Er Pelican House, we have a problem". None of the journalists, all Arts Block educated, understood what they were being told but they made it their business to find out and Ireland got an emergency education in immunology.

As with any complacent organisation where profits and poroductivity trump ethics, it was the implicit policy of the BTSB, the Health Board and the government to divide and bully their victims into silence. We seen this as the foundation of most of the public interest Tribunals which have hoovered up tax-dollars since the foundation of the state. As an illustration, the first woman to take an anti-D case against the BTSB and the government was a mother and farmer from Donegal called Brigid McCole. Like Joan Power she was stonewalled. Treated by The Man as at best a charity case but more often portrayed as a disruptive and selfish compo-claimant and hardly ever as the innocent victim of a culpably negligent, mismanaged organ of the state. She had been demonstrably sick with hepatitis for ten years but, for two years, she stuck to her guns and finally, finally secured £175,000 compensation in October 1996. She died next day. Her husband topped himself 4 years later. The ongoing publicity helped anti-D/HCV women find each other to found Positive Action, so that they could share information, support each other and collectively force an admission of liability. Some money to help with their health care costs wouldn't go amiss either. The Finlay Tribunal was convened in the same month that Mrs McCole died; it reported 6 months later and cost £4.5 million. The maths indicate that the lawyers invoiced for 25x the amount reluctantly given to Mrs McCole.
Why give money to a farming family from Donegal? They wouldn't know how to spend it.

As a result of the Finlay tribunal, the Health Service Executive shelled out £840 million in compensation to the victims of shoddy practice, error and cover-up. The lawyers, who experienced no adverse consequences, netted £135 million. One firm Malcomson Law founded 1858 is still touting for business. You might think that the BTSB would be especially vigilant about screening donors and their donations. But no, in 1994 as the balloon was going up, they contrived to accept another HCV-contaminated donation and distribute that widely through the population. It beggars belief. Eventually, 30 years after the precipitating donation was accepted, criminal proceedings were taken against Dr Terry Walsh, the Assistant National Director at BTSB. He died before the case came to trial. The Gardai then went after Cecily Cunningham, a BTSB biochemist, recently retired from her position. Her case was struck out in 2007, four years after she was charged and eight years after a file was sent to the DPP. That took a visit to the Supreme Court which castigated the DPP for "inordinate and inexcusable" delay which breached Ms Cunningham's rights to s speedy trial.

Positive Action has not faired well. At least 25 of their members have died from liver-failure, liver cancer and other sequelae of HCV infection. Many of the rest are feeling crook most days and many are taking daily and expensive drugs to ameliorate their symptoms - there is no cure. They were founded in 1994 and received 'blood money' from the tax-payer via the HSE for 20 years. This is separate from the compensation awarded to individual anti-D victims. In March 2014, the HSE closed off the tap that kept on giving because they could not sign off on the accounts as a legitimate way of spending tax-dollars. Between 2009 and 2013, PosAct got through €2.3 million. Could Positive Action justify €15,000 to send four members to a 2012 conference in Boston or a budget of €125,000 for away-days, meetings and events in 2013? They could not, to the satisfaction of the HSE auditors. The press had an unpretty spiteful field day cherry-picking other items under Outgoings on the budget: angel-healing, 'gifts', dog-kennels and dry-cleaning. Their web-site is no longer working. The last hurrah was a criminal prosecution against one of PosAct's directors Bernadette Warnock who, in March this year, plead guilty to 71 counts of cheque-kiting, theft and fraud totalling €115,000.
We live in a grossly unequal society, with a tier of upper management at every organ of the state, who are pulling in €100,000+ salaries for being in charge. They draw the paycheck, buy the Summer house, pay their kids through fancy schools & college while attending meetings and signing dockets. But when their management skills are called upon, it turns out that my 20 y.o unschooled daughters could manage the Board, the Quango, the School or the Department better than them. When there is a crisis, they are immediately out of their depth because their only qualification for the salary is time served and increments gained.
Q. What do you call an Irish manager/director/board-member with no arms and no legs in a sea of trouble?
A. Bob . . . except that a bob would float whereas these goons sink without trace clutching a golden handshake.

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Blood group II - Rhesus

As I mentioned recently rather less than half of adults know what is their blood group and only a tiny fraction of them really have a grasp of how blood groups work. It turns out that there is a lot more to the subject than ABO and +/-. For starters there are at least two varieties of A: A1 and A2. When I was last here with my teachers hat on [R - so you can imagine what it's like having me teach young people at The Institute], I explained that ABO hinges on the presence or absence of a couple of antigens [= proteins] stuck in the membrane of our red blood cells. In Human Physiology class last week, I said that a typical membrane bound protein is about 7 nm (billionths of a metre) across while each RBC is 1000x larger: 8-10 μm. About half the surface area of a cell membrane is a sea of water-repellent lipids and the rest is proteins. The maths says that there are 500,000 'seats' for proteins on this cell surface; surely they cannot all be either A or B?  And they're not: there are dozens of types of antigens [= membrane proteins] which were identified because they are variable among people. They are often named for the family or location where they first turned up: Kell, Duffy, Lewis, MNS, Lutheran, Kidd. Each has a normal function and many of them, like ABO, are associated with susceptibility to disease. the Duffy Fy antigen, for example is used as a dock by the malarial parasite Plasmodium vivax to gain entry to the RBC in which it propagates. That is not the function of the Duffy antigen; we'd much rather not have malarial parasites reproducing in our RBCs. The genetic variant Fy(a-b-), which is a null allele like the O of ABO, is very common in areas of tropical West Africa where malaria is endemic. It is another rather desperate response to malaria like sickle-cell anaemia and thalassaemia.

Kell, Duffy, Lewis, MNS, Lutheran, Kidd . . . but the greatest of them all, after ABO, is Rhesus, named after the Rhesus macaque Macaca mulatta [R looking surprised to be here]. This family of antigens is what people are talking about when they say O-positive. It's short for Rhesus+. Like A1 and A2 above, it's more complex than Rh+ vs Rh-: there are at least 50 known variants DCe/dce, DcE/DCE, Dce/DcE etc. etc. But the key element is whether you carry, and express on your RBC surface, the D antigen, which is a protein that looks like, and may even be, an ion-channel [shunts Na+, K+, Cl- or whatever in or out of the cell].

Most - 85% - European people are D aka Rhesus positive. If you are a woman and Rh -ve, the chances are, unless you're big into incest, that the bloke you hook up with is Rh+ve - it's the maths:  85% of potential partners are the opposite to your Rh-ve. Uncle Jim is more likely to be Rh-ve like yourself. That's no problem until you fall pregnant and you approach term 9 months later. Towards the end of pregnancy, the placenta gets restless and during delivery there can be nicks and tears down there and some fetal blood mixes into mother's circulation. The mother has an immune system, which recognises the incommming RBCs with Rh+ve antigens as foreign and makes anti-D antibodies against them. It's only a little blood and they are soon mopped up by these maternal antibodies. Fast forward a couple of years, the parents love each other very much and another child is on the way. The mother's immune system is primed against Rh+ve and reacts much quicker second time round.  This is related to the fact that children are beset with minor ailments and have the sniffles all the time but teenagers and adults much less so. Older people have been exposed to every common virus and bacteria and their primed antibodies put a swift cap on any attempted replay.

Furthermore these anti-D antibodies can cross the placental barrier - usually the placenta keeps maternal and fetal circulation separate and just exchanges nutrients, oxygen and waste-products - and start to wreak havoc on the baby's red blood cells, causing an anaemia, which can seriously deplete oxygen carrying capacity and can result in death. This is called haemolytic disease of the newborn HDN or erythroblastosis fetalis if you want to impress people with Latin. The reaction is even stronger with the third and any subsequent children who are incompatible with the Rh-ve mother. It's a European thing, though, the frequency of Rh-ve falls off to near zero in Africa, Asia and Oceania. Because Rh-ve is rare, HDN was rare and not all cases were equally severe; nevertheless some 40 babies a year would die from this sort of anaemia - from a total of about 60,000 live births.

During the 1970s, as we got to understand the genetics and immunology involved in this distressing condition, someone had a bright idea for a cure/therapy/intervention. What about if, at the end of that first pregnancy, we flood the mother's circulation with anti-D antibodies. They will mop up the invading fetal RBCs so quickly that the mother's immune system won't cotton on that an invasion has taken place. And it was so! Blood transfusion services across the Western World began to offer anti-D injections at 28 weeks and shortly after delivery and that was the end of haemolytic disease of the newborn. Win!

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Killer kittens

Whoa! No they don't. Even the Reactograph piece under the clickbait title acknowledges that the rate of  cat scratch fever is about 4 per 100,000 per year, maybe 150 cases across Ireland in 2016. That's about the same as the number of road deaths but the severity of the insult is waaaay different. As an antidote to the nonsense, last Friday Newstalk's Pat Kenny brought a vet onto his daily show to talk about whether we should worry. Said vet said that, after 30 years in the business sustaining scratches on an almost daily basis he's got Teeny's Disease (true dat: if we called CSF by it's alternative name, it might make the headlines less often] just once. It is caused by Bartonella henselae an alpha-proteobacteria some of whom we've met before.

Cat scratch fever is usually found in small children after being inoculated with B. henselae by a cat's claw eeeeuw! Cats don't wash their hands for 20 secs with anti-bacterial soap before or after meals which might be a small bird or a fresh rodent. Bartonella is one of the many species that make a home under their claws. It lives there completely asymptomatic but when introduced to a novel environment like the capillaries of a child, it starts to grow and multiply. In response, the immune system mobilises a swat team of cells and molecules to deal with the invasioners. That systemic mobilisation results in the symptoms: swollen lymph nodes, malaise, headaches, feeling crappy. The bad news is that these symptoms may appears weeks after the causative scratch and as it's the child's first and only experience of Bartonella, you may not make the association. It's her only experience because the next time her primed antibodies make short work of the attackers. Because it's rare, your GP may not recognise it but he'll probably prescribe a broad-spectrum antibiotic and that will  almost always sort everything out. The good news is that, in almost all cases the infection resolves itself in about a month, whether treated or not! It's what your immune system does best. If the infection spreads to the eye then Parinaud's oculoglandular syndrome may result and that's no fun. In a tiny Teeny fraction of cases endocarditis or encephalitis may result and these may be fatal. But for a rare disease, these rare sequelae [rare x rare = minuscule] are not something we need to lose sleep about. The comparative immunology aspects of it - same bug, different response according to host - are quite a lot like Campylobacter: wash your hands if you want, but don't wash the chicken!

When I worked on the population genetics of cats in the 70s and 80s, I'd often get asked to write a piece about my research because kittens are so cute. The publicity manager at U Newcastle upon Tyne asked me to do this for the internal newsletter shortly after I started working there in 1983. His wife had just come through a longish session in ICU after her case of CSF went very wrong. But that's the only serious case that's come at all close to me.

Pat Kenny and the vet went on to discuss another daft headline about drowning all kittens to save the tweety birds. The vet thought this was nonsense, too. Cats may be top-predators [they eat a lot of vertebrates, which eat a lot of invertebrates, which eat a lot of plants but nobody eats them] but they've been around for a long time in Europe and the song-birds have developed effective evasion strategies - they nest up trees and in small holes.  If you kill all the cats around your neighbourhood a) fresh cats will flood in from the surroundings like badgers after a cull and b) you'll get a lot more rodents.  Actually, Dr Vet, it's a bit more complicated than that as noted by Charles Darwin's ruminations on the relationship among the abundance of cats, mice, humble bees and clover. More cats = more clover = more fertile farms = more beef = stronger soldiers = larger empire = god save the queen. The case is altered when cats are introduced to pristine habitats, like Kerguelen Island.

We've had both cats and dogs as pets but they never sat on the sofa, walked over the kitchen table at night or slept in the children's beds. We operate an outdoor shoes off at the door policy and it gives me a small frisson when I see or hear people clunking around in their bedrooms with shoes that have been sampling pavements awash with dog-shit, spittle and the tracks of snails.

Monday 26 September 2016

Blood groups I

This year, as previous years, my first Human Physiology class featured the Induction Quiz, which exposes the students (anonymously!, this is not an exercise in class shaming) to their own ignorance about how the human body - including their own - is organised and how it functions.  Just as well we don't have to think our digestive system or pancreas into working.  As every year, everyone knew their zodiacal birth-sign, but less than half knew their blood group. Those who did know clapped down O+, or A negative as the case may be and went on to the next question. But precious few of those in the know could have parsed out what O+ meant and how it differed from O-. Chances are you don't know either, so I'll explain. As a teaser, let me say here that this information is the foundation/trailer for one of the most shocking and expensive medical negligence class-action suits in Irish history.

The first thing to note is that the O/B/A part is completely different from and independent of the +/-, but they both refer to immunological variability among the red blood cells.  All your red blood cells are the same of course, but they are very likely to be different from mine, and less likely to be different from those of your sister [it's the genetics!]. Why immunological? Because the immune system is tasked to recognise foreign entities in blood and tissues and knock 'em on the head before they start a riot. You are made up of about 100 trillion cells, all with 46 chromosomes and 'human', but you also tote around about 200 trillion cells of maybe 10,000 different species of bacteria. We can't function at all at all unless both of these cohorts are present: they are recognised as 'self' or tolerated as 'commensal'. The cells of the immune system, mostly various types of white blood cell, patrol the body looking for things, mainly proteins, that are non-self. These include nematode worms, malarial parasites, Vibrio cholerae, and HIV. But also, amazingly and effectively, they recognise the rogue males of the body - cancer cells - and almost always nobble them before the incipient tumor is detectable by the most sensitive equipment in the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Go immune system!

The way white cells approach the rest of the 100 trillion is to get up close and personal and frisk them for the proteins that are sticking out of the cell membrane. If these proteins are within the normal range, which the immune cells have been practicing on since birth, then they are left alone; if they feel a bit funny then that cell is immediately dismembered and the parts recycled. The sticky-out proteins are called antigens because they generate a response from the antibodies of the immune system.

Now here's a funny thing: there are two antigens that stick out of red blood cells RBCs which we call A and B. You, personally, may possess either, neither or both of these things and nobody really knew or cared about them until a bit more than 100 years ago, when doctors started to do blood-transfusions. Sometimes this would go fine but many times it would make the sick person very much less well because his immune system took agin the foreign influx. There seemed to be a reliable and reproducible pattern as to whose blood was compatible. As with kidney transplants today, siblings were more likely to have compatible blood but not always. And some people seems to be good donors regardless of the recipient. Since Jan Janssky worked it all out and Karl Landsteiner got the Nobel prize [Prev], we've called this system of antigens the ABO blood groups. A has one antigen; B has the other; AB have both; and O have neither. The frequency of these blood groups varies across the world [see above for the B group which is commonest in a belt across central Asia and completely absent among Native South Americans. In all populations, the gene frequency of the O variant is always above 50%, so is most common. We have theories but no certainty about why there is this pattern of variation. If Hercule Poirot addresses a multi-racial roomful of people and says that one person present matches the blood group B which was found on the bloody knife left in the bread-bin - put money on it being the lady from Pakistan.

The weird thing is that if you have A-antigens on your RBCs your immune system is hopped up with antibodies against B and vice versa. That's what caused the rapid downhill in certain transfusions: delivery of 500ml of fresh A blood elicited a firmly destructive immune response from people with blood group B or O; and the debris clogged the capillaries. AB people with both antigens A and B have neither antibody present [it would be a disaster if they had, if you think about it] , so they can take blood from anybody. Whereas O people, having both anti-A and anti-B circulating, need to be a lot more picky. If you can't get your head around it, the diagram [R] might help.

Nobody has given me a convincing explanation of what these little proteins do in the normal body; or the even greater mystery about why we are all charged up to deal adversely with certain blood-transfusions. Twenty years, a charlatan called Peter D'Adamo, Grand Naturopathic Wizard of Woowah College, published a book called Eat Right For Your Type which topped out the NYT best-sellers list for several week. The credulous clearly bought into the idea that your diet might be incompatible with the antigens on your RBCs. One of the arguments against this is that the human diet is very different from that of other primates, but they show the same polymorphism in the ABO system. I've crossed it out because I'm cross about arrant nonsense which has a) made a fortune for D'Adamo and b) been comprehensively disproved by large scientific studies,

But here's a further peculiarity about ABO blood groups, which might give us clues about why we're all different, Group O is more likely to develop squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma but less likely to get pancreatic cancer. So it's like the CCR5 mutation which resistance to HIV but makes the carriers more susceptible to West Nile Virus. There is some evidence that gastric cancer is more prevalent in Group A. These conditions are comparatively rare and were much rarer when we all died young of hyena, spear or pneumonia. There is a hint of evidence that Group O are more susceptible to cholera, which was a serious scythesman among any static conglomeration of people where the water supply could get contaminated with the runs.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Reasonably honest

I wrote recently about a group of students who returned $41,000 to an old lady whose stash had been 'mislaid' by her children. I guess I would have done as much if, as in that case, it had been easy to locate the owner.  And I don't rob old ladies as they leave the Post Office on pension day. But I'm really not too exercised about finding the rightful owner if something valuable 'falls into my lap'.  As a small example I found a fish-box on the beach last weekend. It is marked Property of Mulloy & Co, Dublin. I have no intention of returning it to the rightful owners, although I might do so if it was a Dunmore East company that is more conveniently close to where I found the thing. But Mulloy knows where I live if they want to collect.

I've had occasion to express a loathing for the priggish thinking of Immanuel Kant who imagined that there were certain absolute rights and obligations and any transgression against these is to be avoided. There is a famous Kantian Dilemma scenario set in a police state. You can find it in Michael Sandel's Harvard Justice Course. You are getting ready for bed and open the front door to let the cat out. As you stand there admiring the moon, you hear footsteps slapping down the darkened street, the hall light illuminates a slice of the roadway, in which the owner of the footsteps suddenly appears. He cries "They are after me" and barrels past you to hide in an upstairs room of your home. You close the front door and follow your uninvited guest to find out whaaaat's happenin'. Before you're half way up the stairs, there is a knocking at the street door. It is the Staatssicherheitpolizei asking if you have seen an escaped prisoner. Kant's position is that, as lying is wrong, you may not answer this question in the negative. Some other sinless moral solution may occur to you but for me, with a relative Utilitarian [multiprev] moral compass, a straight denial is here the lesser of two evils. It's just easier.

In 1967, when my father was retired [without the option] from the Navy at the age of 50, he didn't have enough of a pension to support a wife and three teenage children getting an expensive education [multimultiprev - story of my life] and so he started sending out CVs and job applications. Most of these jobs traded on the fact that, as a naval officer, he was he was the cliché of righteously honest and having a sense of honour . . . he even owned a ceremonial sword. Accordingly he applied for many positions such as the Bursar of a college attached to Durham University. Eventually, he landed a much more lucrative post - at a princely £3,000 pa - trading on his knowledge of the military politics of South America: in one of his last naval postings he'd led a good-will RN flotilla round that continent and knew all the naval attachés at all the embassies.

He was honest, and honourable, my Da; but he was also flexible and reasonable and somewhat forgiving of trasgression. He had after all been in charge of the welfare and discipline of 700 men at sea and on shore leave and realised that flogging, clap-him-in-irons and keel-hauling were just ineffective. I hope I've taken on some of that sort of belief system. Anyway, a good few years earlier in 1951, shortly after they'd got married, my parents went skiing in Switzerland. It was only a handful of years after a crippling if victorious war and the UK was in hock to the eyeballs to international bankers and the USA for all the equipment they'd purchased and lease-lended from Uncle Sam. Certain items [rashers!] of food were still rationed until 4th July 1954 as a belt-tightening exercise and there were strict controls on the export of currency. Nobody was allowed to take more than £25 out of the country. Money went further in those days but you couldn't have much of a holiday in Switzerland on £5 a day. My father told his newly wife that it would be a career disaster if he, a serving naval officer, was caught bilking the exchequer when they passed through Customs at Dover. So my mother was given the stash in two bundles - the legal and the rest secreted in the lining of a packet of biscuits. They missed their connexion in Interlaken and had to find a hotel room and some dinner and those unexpected requirements needed to be paid for

"Where's the money" he asked.
"It's in a packet of biscuits in my attaché case" she replied.
"Where's the case, then?"
"It's in transit, I checked it through to Wengen with the other cases"
"Well, dammit, I'll have to find a Gents, and take out the £20 I have stuffed in my sock"

I doubt if the phrase "victimless crime" had been invented in 1951, but that is what my esteemed father was perpetrating against the state which he served. After a long and troublesome war - both my parents had been in uniform and seen their friends shot and blown to smithereens and drowned - they deserved a holiday. If a bit of finagling with the folding money meant an extra grenadine or another Swiss pastry then who was to deny them? Kant would not have approved but he was a) dead and b) German.

Sunday catch-up 250916

IgNobel Prizes this year 2016. Nothing really to see here IMO.

Saturday 24 September 2016


I'm not really down with popular culture because we don't have the telly in the house. This means that I've been left out of a lot of lunchtime chit-chat at work. When Big Brother came out, I was working in St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin and I was amazed at how a dozen, educated and intelligent people with multiple degrees could get so engaged in such an introspective, self-indulgent and fundamentally cruel show. Competitive socialisation, it might be called. I do get to listen to the wireless when I'm driving to and from work, so I do keep up with what's going down to a certain extent. Three media events have popped their heads above my limited horizon.

First was the news that The Great British Bake-off has been sold to the highest bidder at the end of its current contract with the BBC and the highest bidder is UK's Channel 4. This is a key element of the week's entertainment for Dau.II and her bloke in Cork. They sit on the sofa and watch each episode on Netfix at a certain time each week. I've caught fragments of episodes when I've been staying with Pat the Salt on Sunday nights and it's okay if you like food and baking. Before she left home, Dau.II watched 168 hours (a week) of Masterchef with Gordon "This chicken is RAW" Ramsey and I'd often sit it out with her. It's quite shouty. The GBB otoh seems to be, and I'm not the first to remark on this, kind. It is a competition, there are losers but folk help each other out if they drop their petit fours on the deck at the last money. Nobody, as happens once an episode on Masterchef, has their attempts dumped, plate, cutlery and all, in the bin. Their loyal following is worried lest everyone now starts to wear Magimix tee-shirts and Betty Crocker hats.

Gogglebox is moving to Ireland!! This has been an enormously successful and likeable review of the last week on the television carried out as reality TV. Snippets of the week's programming are intercut with comments from a dozen 'normal' families who have been persuaded to have cameras in their living-rooms. Reviews of TV before 2013 were common but given by media people. The Irish programme is going to cover such key elements of Irish culture as The Angelus and Jaffa Cakes. I thought I'd check out the British programme on youtube to see what I was missing. And near the top was a 10 minute clip called Educating Yorkshire, which you should watch. It's about an awkward and lumpy young chap, in a school uniform perhaps suitable for someone 5 years younger, who has to do an oral English exam but is going to struggle because he has a crippling stammer. The story hinges on the resourcefulness of his English teacher who won't have his boy bett by the system. One of the telling snippets is when a loutish teenager loses patience with the protagonist trying to introduce himself, but then mumbles a shamefaced apology when he realises the other chap has a stammer. If you're a working-class teenager, brutalised by your peers, failed by your school and dispossessed by society then showing compassion is enormously difficult; perhaps more difficult than coping with a stammer. It all works out in the end and a lot of tissues are passed across a lot a sofas. If you're used to the culture of TV, the restless jumping of viewpoint, the editing to sound-byte and the quietly insistent commentary, you probably don't get the feeling that we are all being manipulated to feel good about ourselves and about each other. You simply feel good about yourself without all the qualifications.

This week also saw the Irish launch of a Netflix original full length movie called the Siege of Jadotville [See poster L]. It's the story of a heroic episode in the débacle of the UN mission to Congo in the wake of that sorry country's independence from Belgium. It had started as the private fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium in 1885. The grotesque exploitation of of the indigenous people by a rapacious soldiery working for the monarch were exposed by Irish diplomat Roger Casement in 1904. Almost immediately after independence in 1961 Katanga, the mineral-richest of the four provinces, seceded from the union and civil war broke out. Ireland was one of 30 countries that sent a peace-keeping force. In September 1961, 'A' Company, 35th Battalion under Commandant Patrick Quinlan was sent up-country to protect the citizens of Jadotville. They were hung out to dry by the UN, who had bigger fish to fry, and Cmd Quinlan ordered his men to dig in on a tight perimeter to defend themselves. Over the next six days 'A' Company fought off a horde of Katangese mercenaries that out-numbered them by 20:1 until, out of ammunition, food and water, they surrendered. They were understandably reluctant to do so because it was less than a year since an Irish patrol had been massacred by Baluba tribemen in another part of the Congo. Lt Gleeson, the patrol's commander, is commemorated by a stone plaque near the bus-station in Carlow. All of 'A' Company survived the siege and their subsequent incarceration and were swept under the carpet of history. Until now. Podcast about the Siege. Recalled in song.

Friday 23 September 2016

Project EDWARD - not so good

On Wednesday, I was driving to work and was reminded that it was the day designated for Project EDWARD European Day Without A Road Death. This was part of a hullabaloo across the continent to reduce the unnecessary and almost all avoidable deaths that occur wherever there are roads and cars. Project EDWARD is aspirational and entirely laudable but wouldn't it be useful to have some follow-up? We all agree that road-deaths are a bad thing, so surely we'd like to see evidence that such costly and engaged ideas actually work. Did Project EDWARD have any impact on the statistics? Because, if not, the whole thing was a waste of effort and air-time.  I've checked the RSA Road Safety Authority for a post-mortem on the event and there is nothing to see here.

I had to turn to the Daily Mail to give us the dope that Der Tag results in 2 deaths on Irish roads, ironically in Donegal where Dr Gerry Lane, one of the most speaky spokemen against idiocy on the roads, works in Letterkenny Hospital. Indeed the survivor of the double-fatal crash was taken to Dr Lane's department in an ambulance. Up until 21st September, we'd had a road-death every other day, so the tally for the day is 4x the average and brings the total to 136. I don't suppose it's been a better result in Croatia or Denmark.

Some necks

A few previously separate blobbo-threads com together here. I've just started teaching my Human Physiology course for the ?fourth? time. As before I've set the students a pre-quiz [prev with the questions] to serve as a bench mark for how little they know about the inner workings of their body. Then at exam time next year, they'll feel that they've learned something. One of the questions asks how many cervical vertebrae are possessed by mice, men and giraffes. The answer, usually surprising, is that all three species have 7 cervical vertebrae, along with all but three of the 5,000+ species of mammal. It's surprising because giraffes have such exceptionally long necks. Their cervical vertebrae [see N=5 R above] must each be about a foot long! And, while we're on about necks, you might want to review Churchill's bravado "Some chicken . . . some neck" reponse to Pétain's assessment of Britain's predicament in 1940.

The problem is that. by concentrating on the tree-trunk-like most obvious feature, we've been missing a forest of evolutionary detail. It turns out that, like rhinos and elephants, not all parti-coloured long-necked African ungulates (giraffes are artiodactyls like sheep, cattle, whales, pigs, llamas and hippos) are the same species. A study in 2009 suggested that there were 6 good species and one published this year shows DNA evidence that there are at least 4.  What is a species? Ernst Mayr usefully defined them thus "species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups." which is known as the biological species concept. Successful breeding requires that the other party looks right, behaves 'normally', smells right and is of the opposite sex. Mating isn't enough, no matter how much the vicar's dog humps your leg, no viable offspring will result. It also requires that the chromosomes from the two parents match as to number and shape and the information contained therein. If the developmental instructions are toooo disparate (are we going to have claws or hooves at the end of each leg?) that the fetus won't make it to term.  The exceptions prove the rule: famously, horses Equus caballus and donkeys Equus africanus asinus can produce viable, and useful, offspring called mules, but these creatures are almost invariably sterile. The two species have a slightly different chromosome count and these have difficulty lining up during meiotic cell division to produce egg and sperm.

It's not always easy, convenient or convincing to determine if two individuals are in the same species or not by seeing if they produce fertile offspring as a result of their coupling.  If they don't, it might be because they don't like being watched or they need to peculiar herb to come into estrus. In any case it takes a long time. Large mammals have long pregnancies: African elephant 22 months, Giraffe 14 months and it will be several to many years before the offspring can prove it has The Goods. Sequencing the DNA is, by contrast quick and cheap . . . and serves as a good proxy for compatability of the gametes - sperm and egg.

What the group from Goethe U and the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre both in Frankfurt am Main and several other institutions did was sequence chunks of DNA from nearly 200 different giraffes representing all the known, named, populations of the species. Taxonomers - the namers of parts of the natural world fall broadly into two classes - lumpers and splitters. The former are conservatives and prefer to deal with and name larger groupings of similar things; splitters like to recognise small-small variants as essentially different.  In the 19thC and much of the 20thC this was largely a matter of custom, training and predilection - opinion, really. With sequencing you can get data which is largely objective and come up with quite surprising conclusions - notably that whales are really close to cows and sheep - and hippos!! - despite having no hooves.

The giraffe sequencers have taken a position at a half-way house: convinced that there is more than a single species but not going as far as elevating at least eight named sub-species to full species (and therefore by definition not inter-fertile with other giraffes). On the basis of a shed-load of sequence data, a fast computer and focussed multi-variate statistical analysis they have identified four 'clades' which are probably descendants of a single population and which have diverged sufficiently to fail the mutually inter-fertile test:
  • Northern giraffe (G. antiquorumG. camelopardalisG. peraltaG. rothschildi)
  • Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi)
  • reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata)
  • Southern giraffe (G. giraffaG. angolensis)
You can see how they have fanned out across the continent. You can also see that the authors have gone mad with the colour scheme, so that I cannot read the yellow label attached to the yellow blobs in the NW of the range. It is G. antiquorum and G. peralta is off -map further NW wings where Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria meet.

One of the reasons why we can't wait to see if large wild animals can actually breed in the wild, is that large wild animals are threatened by poaching and habitat destruction and may be extinct before the first generation is ready to make a second. It would be an error if one of these subtly distinct organisms was allowed to fall of the brink because it was considered essentially the same as other giraffes in a different part of the continent. Extinction is forever!

Thursday 22 September 2016

Getting out there

Time was when science was done by scientists for scientists. A mind-game for intellectuals to solve the puzzles of the Universe and boast to each other about their discoveries. When Galileo discovered two moons of Saturn in 1610, he famously sent Kepler a teaser "smaismrmilmepoetaleumibunenugttauiras" go on google it!
to tell him. They were both wrong: Galileo in his observation and Kepler in his hard-won solution. Putting one over on the opposition is still a major driver for scientific conferences. That was all very well when science was carried out by amateurs [lovers!] on their own money. After WWII, the first real techies war - Enigma [Turing et al.]; radar; flammenwerfer; Zyklon B - governments realised that science could deliver fabulous levels of wealth and political power and started to invest in it. You had it made if you were a rocket scientist in the 1950s and 1960s.

A generation later, certain politicians came to believe that the tail was now wagging the dog. Science had acquired a life of its own and was often only tenuously connected with making discoveries about the real world. Science was rather building up a parallel universe which was less and less useful - or indeed understandable - by tax-payers and their elected representatives. This has been memorably termed Funding Fondling: picking at the scabs of the literature rather than to boldly go where no man has swept the floor. Senator William Proxmire [D, Wisconsin] made much political hay from cutting some of the more fantastic stalks to the ground. There were plenty: from 1975 to 1988, Proxmire's office published a Golden Fleece Award drawing attention to the nuttier scientific proposals that had been funded. He particularly turned an accountant's eye on the US space program attacking one far-fetched ambitious proposal  "It's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone . . . I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy". Science pushed back, of course, claiming that Proxmire and his hacks were scientific illiterates and/or had taken their soundbytes out of context and largely out of spite.  It was a bit like the Ig Nobel awards which are being awarded/celebrated today in the  famous Sanders Theatre of Harvard. Ig Nobel for urination timing previously.

Twenty years after that, I was applying for grants [= tax dollars] to prosecute my own ventures at the frontiers of science and a new section started to appear on the application forms. As well as an Abstract - 300 words summarising the research proposal so it could be sent to the correct review panel, we were now being required to write a Lay Summary that made the ideas intelligible to ordinary people and politicians. That's great: if we are sucking at the government teat we should be required to justify our existence to our paymasters - which is you, dear tax-paying reader. I think that really is an N = 1: the Venn Diagram intersection between a) people who have 10 minutes a day to read The Blob and b) have a proper job is a very small set. I have read a lot of Lay Summaries since then, including my own attenpts, and they are almost always dreadful. They are often mere paraphrases of the Scientific Abstract with the technical terms replaced by clumsy circumlocutions. To do it well is hard - because Science is Hard - but mainly because of The Curse of Knowledge: it is impossible to imagine what it's like not knowing what is now, after years of immersion, obvious to us.

The funders have cranked up the ante even more in recent years, requiring the recipients of ca$h to indicate Outreach tasks as well as Pushing the Frontier tasks. Essentially asking How do you intend to make your science accessible to Joe and Joan Public over the next 3 years? Focussed scientists, who are often not People Persons, view this with considerable skepticism as it will dissipate their work at the bench and in the field. Me, I think it is an excellent tool for the focus that is required for successful modern science. Heck, if you can't explain the utility of your endeavours to a class of eight year olds, then maybe your thinking on the subject is too woolly to be yield a successful outcome.  Another aspect is that by talking to children and teens about science, preferably with passion, you are paying your taxes to the Future of Ireland as a Technological Nation [on which I've rabbitted previously].

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Project Edward - today!

That is the TISPOL mission statement. Who they? The European Traffic Police Bund.  Like Interpol, I guess, with an emphasis on hi-viz jackets and breathalysers.  They have designated 21 Sep 2016 as European Day Without A Road Death. When I heard the name, I thought it must have been named for an unfortunate child named Edward who was swiped to oblivion on a road somewhere in Europe and was being commemorated in this way; like the Jimmy Fund raising money at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.  But it's not; it is an acronym E.D.W.A.R.D.  I've had a bit to say, over the years about road traffic accidents RTAs I - II - III - IV - V. So I'm interested in the aspiration to have NO deaths on the roads this day and I believe that traffic cops are putting in some extra hours enforcing correct practice,

For the day that's in it, RTE wheeled our Dr Gerry Lane, consultant in emergency medicine in Letterkenny hospital in remote Donegal. He gave Ireland credit for reducing the number of road deaths significantly over the last 10ish year. 280 people died on Irish roads in 2008 but only 162 in 2012 - it's crept up since then, regretably. This has been achieved a bit by effective enforcement; a bit by Presence and a bit by better engineering of cars and roads and intersections.  But it has ultimately been achieved by changes in people's behaviour. If you've been stopped once, with drink taken, and not been booked then you may embrace the designated driver idea. If you keep seeing the dreaded camera-vans, then you'll think twice about doing the ton on an 80km/h trunk road.  You'll get there 3 minutes later but you won't ever get a €80 fine and 3 penalty points which will affect your insurance.

Dr Lane commented on the fact that his patch, Co. Donegal, consistently leads the pack in the road death league table and was at a loss to explain it. It's partly because there is very little public transport in this remote and sparsely populated county, but it's partly cultural. For starters, he objects to road events being called accidents as if they are beyond people's control: the act of a malevolent deity. He witnesses insane behaviour on the roads every day: tail-gaters in his rear-view mirror; txters overtaking; no visible seat-belts; driving just too fast. So education which effects a change in behavious has had a role in significantly reducing the carnage. If you look at the European league table for fatal RTAs, Ireland is mid-range with 41 deaths per million each year.  This is the same as Germany at 43/million and much less than Poland at 103/million. But let's not get smug about it because we're median.  We're still 50% more effective at killing each other than the Brits 28/million next door.  This is surely one case where we'd like to participate in a race to the bottom.

Go Nobó

I do so have friends. I do have social life. There is life beyond The Blob and The Institute. An old friend from London had Irish business to transact in Kinsale and took a lay-over in the Sunny South East for the weekend. We got invited to dinner, which we ate outside watching the Sun set over Bannow Bay. As you might expect when wrinklies get together, the talk was about retirement, pensions and grandchildren but also about the diminishing store of aged parents. Like the boys night in, which I've been passing with 91 y.o Pat the Salt each Sunday evening since February, one of my pals goes up to Dublin every week to spend the night with his widowed mother and sleep in the bedroom that he ceased to occupy more than 40 years ago. He fixes dinner, fixes the gutters, and they might go shopping together while he's there with the car.

A few weeks ago, knowing her fondness for ice-cream, he saw a tub of Nobó ice cream in the freezer section and popped that in the basket. A week later, he was back home and asked his Mum how she enjoyed the Nobó "Oh, I didn't like it at all, dear, I threw it away". Ho hum, I guess the older generation [I soon won't be able to use that phrase, as our parents shuffle off and my generation steps up to the plate for the final play of the game] is quite conservative in their tastes. Isn't it also true that as we age, our taste-buds fall off, and we're reduced to requiring a snow of salt and/or lashings of sugar to taste anything at all at all.

On cue  last weekend, along with fruit crumble dessert, a little tub of  Fresh Lemon Nobó made its appearance, along with Créme Fraiche and plain yoghurt. When we were all growing up in the 60s, none of that would be available, except the fruit crumble, which would have been served with either
  • a ferociously yellow [prev yellow confection] gloop made from milk, sugar and Bird's Custard Powder [cornflour + colouring]
  • fresh cream, possibly whipped
  • plain vanilla ice-cream which would have been flat white in Ireland or pale yellow in England
We've come a long way in 50 years: milk treated with many different species of lactic acid bacteria has raised the variety of dairy products available in Ireland from milk, butter, cheese [two sorts only: red and white], cream and buttermilk. All the extra LABs makes life more interesting and possibly, just possibly, improve the make-up of our intestinal flora [actimel etc.].  But with the increased choice, there has been an epidemic of neuroses about food. It seems that more than half our tree-hugging friends are lactose or gluten intolerant or both and must have more expensive alternatives to ordinary bread and cheese.

There is no doubt that gluten intolerance exists. It is an auto-immune pathology called coeliac disease and can cause distressing feelings of bloating and abdominal discomfort because the intestinal flora cannot handle certain of the wheat storage proteins. I've never heard of anyone dying of coeliac disease although the symptoms are persistent and no fun. There may even be a coeliac "epidemic", in that the incidence seems to have increased up to 5-fold over the last 50 years. But that's from a very low base: was 0.2% in the USA, now scraping 1%; and up to 3% in some Scandinavian countries. This could be more diagnoses as parents and GPs get to recognise the symptoms and/or it could be a 'real' increase driven by changes in the weaning pattern in The West. Or from the wholesale turn-over destruction of the gut flora with repeated doses of oral antibiotics for sniffles and ears ache?

There is far better evidence that lactose intolerance exists, indeed it is the norm in human adults. From an evolutionary mammalian perspective, milk is a super food for infants: every dietary requirement from 0 to 6 months supplied in a one-stop stop. After about six months - as the teeth start to erupt! - the poor old breasts are no long sufficient to supply the growing monster, and extra food needs to be supplied. Lactose, milk sugar, is a disaccharide, as is sucrose, cane sugar, but it consists of glucose and galactose rather than glucose and fructose. Lactose is sweet and delicious but requires an enzyme called lactase to break the bond between the two mono-saccharides as the first step in converting everything to glucose which is the basic internal sugar currency for mammals. In the normal development of most humans, the genes that go to make lactase are switched off when they are no longer required shortly after weaning. In a few human cultures, 10 or 20,000 years ago, some bright spark had the idea of domesticating certain artiodactyl species - cows, sheep and goats mainly - and feeding on their nutritious mammary exudates.
This cunning plan would have come to nothing without a co-incident mutation in the upstream control region of the lactase genes. Instead of turning off in childhood, this mutation allowed the persistence of lactase into adulthood. Lactase is only 'expressed' in certain cells along the lining of the small intestine which leak the material into the lumen of the gut. But only in these cells in some individuals. The map [R from UCL] shows that there are 3 foci where this mutation is at all common: Northern Europe, West Africa and the Middle East. In Ireland pretty much everyone - code red on the map is >90% - can convert milk sugar, and Chicago policemen with lactose intolerance are exceedingly rare.  If you're Chinese, say, or Ashkenazi Jewish or a !ung bushman from the Kalahari, you really shouldn't try ice-cream as you'll find it is 'too runny'.

I know one case of milk allergy, which is different from lactose intolerance, this chap's lips puff up at the least touch of dairy like people who are peanut allergic. Allergic reactions can be fatal and should be taken very seriously. In Ireland, the genetic epidemiology suggests that almost all of the half of my Irish friends who are faddy and demanding in their diet are really suffering from a First World problem. They should try spending a few months in an Ethiopian refugee camp where the EU is unloading its powdered milk lake and wheat mountain. It will be like a medieval witch trial, the true coeliacs and Jews will die, and the neurotic will come back to eat buttermilk scones like the rest of us.

Mais revenons nous a nos Nobós. Nobó, like Deliveroo, was gestated in NYC where everything is available !instantly! but born in Ireland: the brain child of Rachel and Brian Nolan. They are young and hip and media-savvy - nowhere on the Nobó website, for example, does it mention their last name: surnames are for old people. As we've seen above, old people are not the demographic for Nobó. Like Deliveroo, the website is slick and band-width heavy: movie clips, big graphics, luscious pictures and engaging style. If you're accessing the web from a dial-up in Bangalore - if you work in the call-centre for an Irish insurance company, say - then you'll get a lot hungrier before you download the information about a local stockist. But $2-a-day men are not the demographic either.

It will be really frustrating for the fellow in Bangalore because after the long wait, there will be no local stockist because as of this week, Nobó is only available in Ireland, and a handful of outlets in the UK including, conveniently close to Dau.I in Stroud, one in Cheltenham: Wholefoods, Gallagher Retail Park, Tewkesbury Road, Gloucestershire, GL51 9RR  . . . and a rash of them in the United Arab Emirates [all located on the zoomable stockists map so you can pick up the nearest Nobó-shop from your smartphone]. Four in the vicinity of the Dubai Marina for example [L].  I guess either Brian or Rachel has an enterprising cousin out in the Middle East.

I make something of a blood-sport reviewing craziness in the food industry but I will say for Nobó is that the ingredients are pared down to the essentials. Ice-cream usually has a quite frightening table of contents: E-numbers, emulsifiers, guar-gum, stabilisers, colours. But this isn't ice-cream, 'tis a long way from cream it was r'ared, it's a new confection based on the saturated fats in coconut milk and avocado rather than on saturated animal fat and lactose. The product list is, currently, trim as well. Six varieties:
  • Choc and toasted almonds
    • Coconut Milk, Honey, Avocado, Cocoa Powder, Water, Toasted Almonds, Irish Sea Salt
  • Fresh lemon
    • Coconut milk, honey, avocado, fresh lemon juice 6%, vanilla extract, pure lemon oil
  • Passion fruit and mango
    • Coconut milk, honey, passionfruit 11%, mango 8%, avocado, vanilla extract
  • Irish salted caramel
    • Coconut milk, coconut sugar 13%, brown rice syrup, avocado, vanilla extract, Irish sea salt 1%
  • Mint humbug
    • Coconut milk, coconut sugar, brown rice syrup, avocado, vanilla extract, peppermint oil 1%
  • Vanilla coconut
    • Coconut-milk (71%), honey, avocado, vanilla extract (2%)
So they are quite within their rights to claim No Dairy, No Gluten, No Eggs, No Soya, No Refined sugar, No Colourings, No Stabilisers, No Nasties. Just a note of clarification. Coconut milk is not the thin grey stuff than slops about inside the un-cracked nut - that is coconut water. Coconut milk is made in a very similar way to butter. The white flesh is grated and heated up with water to release the saturated plant fat which floats to the top. It is viscous, white with a creamy mouth-feel.
I was persuaded to try a sliver of Nobó on my crumble on Saturday - I'm not an ice-cream fan any more, I ate too much as a graduate student. The Nobó was fine, a bit more like a sorbet than regular ice-cream but that's okay and probably healthier. The brand has won prizes, positive reviews and accolades but I cannot web-easily find out how much the stuff costs. It will probably turn out like when my sister-in-law complained about the price for getting the family's Land Rover Discovery serviced. The manager of the dealership responded "If you have to ask how much a Land Rover costs to run, Madam, maybe you should choose a different marque".

Tuesday 20 September 2016

On the beach

I survived the first full week of teaching at The Institute. Early last week I remarked how a new timetable has scuppered my chance of hanging out with the ancients of Tramore each Monday afternoon. Monday looks to be busy but Wednesday is bonkers: wall-to-wall classes with no gap for lunch. That's okay with me, food at lunchtime tends to put me to sleep in the afternoon. But the maths of 18 contact hours in a 40 hour/9-5/M-F week means that if things are frantic on two days, there must be slack water elsewhere. Turns out that I have only one class on Fridays: 0900hrs Year 1 quantitative methods = QM1A = remedial maths. Now, a glass half empty sort of guy might crib about that and lament the fact that it scuppers a 3 day weekend but Dr Positive thinks it's fine. The weekend before last, I was down in Cork, and so missed the window for mowing our scrap of lawn down on the Waterford coast but did get a chance for a quick tramp along the beach at Benvoy to break the journey between Cork and Tramore. Win! I found a serviceable plastic fish-box at the tide line after a day of fresh on-shore winds.

Time and tide and growing grass wait for no man; and if you let things slide for more than two weeks, then mowing the lawn gets to be a real chore rather than a bit of light whole body exercise that leaves things tidier than before. Checking the weather forecast [sunny spells, no rain] and the tide-times [Low tide Dunmore East 1210hrs] the night before practically forced me to mitch off after class and head South. Accordingly, I loaded the lawn-mower into the Little Red Yaris before I left for work.

The timing was perfick, I unloaded the mower as the tide turned and was 8km along the coast at Annestown 12 minutes later. At Annestown, as for a lot of the much indented and heart-stoppingly beautiful Waterford coast, low tide is the key. For a couple of hours, twice a day, you can scramble round the headland at the East end of the beach-with-car-park and have a great sweep of strand all to yourself. As I came round the headland, a watery autumnal sun started to warm my shoulders and my spirits soared. With a job; the full use of my legs; free; warm; a cheese sandwich in my pocket for lunch; boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretching far away; who wouldn't be happy?  I tried to recall the lines:
But to be young was very heaven!
But Willie Wordsworth was wrong, dawn is greatly over-rated on the bliss-side which is often cold and dewy-damp and I can no longer pass for young. But who'd be young again? When I was young I was ignorant, unappreciative, in a hormonal turmoil, and my hair was far too long - eeeuuuw.

On the beach, I felt like all of the kids in e.e.cummings poem rolled into one:
went down to the beach(to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing 
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
may came home with a smooth round stone 
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) 
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

It wasn't On The Beach by Nevil Shute, or anything like it. I read that book when I was 12 or 13 with almost as much care and attention as I devoured The Day of the Triffids [prev]. Triffids is a book that forces a consideration of what is essential in life and which of the planet-wasting things in the shops can be done without. Beach, set in a doomed Australia after a universally fatal Northern Nuclear war, is about having no regrets about a previously wasted life. In one scene towards The End, as the fallout sweeps remorselessly South to engulf them, they hold a final Grand Prix motor race.  The competitors have each managed to save a 25 lt drum of petrol to fuel their last race on earth. With nothing to lose, there are several fatalities. When/if we arrive in a bleak future full of privation, and short on food, I don't want to think about the half-eaten pizza that got thrown in the bin because we'd over-catered again. I don't want to regret buying tawdry knickknacks, plastic bottles and single-use kitchen gadgets. To avoid this future regret, I now make a point of eating food that is edible if not pretty; I don't mind sharing a lettuce leaf with caterpillars. I don't eat caterpillars . . . yet . . . but I don't bin a leaf because it's got a ragged hole in it.

Finally and more positively, I'll add that my couple of hours on the beach  - after Annestown, I trotted along Benvoy and then Knockmahon looking for a smooth round stone or two - were more richly appreciated because, by one accounting, I should have been by my desk at work in The Institute. It had, in Yevgeny Yevtushenko's evocative phrase, the taste of not bought but stolen apples. After the beach, the lawn; which looked much tidier after I'd given it an hour-long short-back-and-sides. The crab-apples are as red as plums, they'll be ready to pick in a week. Life is good.

Monday 19 September 2016

hmmm, not written in stone

About a week ago, The Boy sent out a link to a page about the ordering of English adjectives by native anglophones.  It's pitched as one of those unspoken rules that native speakers pick up in that miraculous Chomskian Universal Grammar way. Then a couple of days ago, I find another link to the ordering of English adjectives, which is different. Via Metafilter which quotes another source "this is a meticulously taught rule for non-native English speakers". The deal is that this ordering is a shibboleth that enables natives to smoke out the Danes and Dutch people who appear to speak perfect unaccented English with far fewer grammatical errors than I might make. In other words its like Nederlanders catching moffen and other foreigners because they don't clear their throat convincingly when saying schild or Scheveningen. Here are the two options:
opinion - size - age - shape - colour - origin - material - purpose
tweeted by Matthew Anderson from the book Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth
opinion - size - physical quality - shape - age - colour - origin - material - type - purpose
lifted from the Cambridge Dictionary.

Just so you can appreciate that this is an issue, note that French has a totally different set of conventions. Some, mostly descriptive, adjective are placed after the noun: just last week I lent ma blouse blanche to a french Erasmus student; feeling good about myself, I had une tasse du thé sucré. But descriptive adjective considered to be 'inherent qualities' - they go before the noun. Teachers of french as a foreign language use the mnemonic BAGS - Beauty Age Good/bad Size to help their students avoid pitfalls: un petit problème [size] etc. it's more complicated than that: un grand homme has an allowable but different meaning to un homme grand.

The key difference in the two sets of English rules, apart from having more categories in the second list, is that age and shape are transposed in the two lists. Science is driven forward by evidence. When you have two competing statements and you wish to determine which, if any, hold the truth, you can refer to authority or you can work it out from your own experience. If you're reading this in Novosibirsk or Madrid, you're snookered for the latter option and have to decide whether Cambridge Dictionary trumps Mark Forsyth. Forsyth has a wikipedia entry but so does the Cambridge Advance Learners Dictionary. So that isn't going to help much.  The Cambridge page offers two sentences to indicate correct usage:
It was made of a strange [1] green [6] metallic [8] material
It's a long [4] narrow [8] plastic [10] brush
This is clearly internally inconsistent: category [8] is used for both 'narrow' and 'metallic'. In the second sentence it looks like there are three [3!] categorisation typos and it should read:
It's a long [2] narrow [4] plastic [8] brush
(That is assuming that long is more about size [2] than shape [4] which isn't obvious to all thinking people. My much loved Chambers 20thC Dictionary after all has this waggish [previously blobbed] definition: ECLAIR A cake, long in shape but short in duration.)
With this careless error, the Cambridge site is rapidly losing credibility and authority. I tell my students (and anyone else who will  listen) to apply the Fodor's Guide test of credibility.  Suppose you're going on holiday for the first time to Greece. Ryanair limits your baggage and you'd rather pack another pair of dancing shoes than more paper, so you can only afford one guide book. Which is it to be? Frommer? Fodor? Lonely Planet? Rough Guide? You know nothing about Greece so cannot verify any statements in the books. But you do live somewhere and there will be a guide to that place from each of those publishers. If Fodor's Dublin claims, erroneously, that O'Connell Street is South of the Liffey then you can assume that their attention to detail about Thessaloniki is also weak and go buy one of the other options.

And on the substantive issue: should the adj-order be: age - shape or shape - age?
Is it
he found an old square trunk in the attic 
he found a square old trunk in the attic
I think the former so one point to Forsyth.  But then
The old chap fancied young fat tottie
sounds not right (and they both sound a little seepy) and prefer
The old chap fancied fat young tottie
which gives a point to Cambridge.  And The Beloved agrees with my assessment. So maybe this is another Rule that we (whether from Coventry or Copenhagen) can take with a generous pinch of salt.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Flagging energy

It could happen to anyone. When Young Bolivar and I pulled into the centre of Cork last Saturday, the car in front of us sported a green and red flag with a central crest. I nudged YB and asked him to sing his national anthem [he can live in Ireland because he has a Portuguese = EU passport]. But he demurred a) because he didn't know the words and b) it wasn't the Portuguese flag.  And indeed it wasn't: when the traffic sped up, the flag de-limped and exposed itself as belonging to a proud family from Mayo. But you can see how a mistake might be made.

Today is An Event on the Irish sporting calendar: 'tis the All-Ireland GAA Football final.  As ot happens between Mayo [see above] and Dublin the favorites. Almost all the Irish counties North and South of the borrrrder have two colour flags, which makes it dead easy to run-up a few flags cheap if you have two bolts of correct colour cloth and a sewing-machine. That stems from the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Hayes Hotel, Thurles on 1st of November 1884. The early members of this sport and chauvinism bund were small farmers, laborers, and small town workers who didn't have a lot of money; so cheap flags mattered.

The exceptions to the two-colour convention are but three:
  1. Co. Kildare has a plain white flag and are thence nicknamed the Lillywhites. Having a pure white flag is not original to Co. Kildare. It was used by the Ancien Régime of France until it was replaced by the tricolour with the revolution. The pure white flag has subsequently been used by the Taliban and for the first year in power in The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
  2. Co. Offaly, which is really King's County, where my people are buried, has a tricolour, which is green white and gold: effectively the same as the National flag making it, quite frankly, a weird choice.
  3. Co Carlow, where I now reside, also sports a tricolour. I have floated the hypothesis that Carlow is so crap at the GAA because nobody can relate to their over-complex flag.
Okay quiz time:
Q1. which of the two tricolors [L]is the county flag of Carlow and which is the national flag of Mali? Do you know the national anthem of Mali. Dang! or is either Guinea, or Guinea Bissau, or Senegal or Ghana, or  Benin. All of them run through green yellow and red variations.
Q2. And while we're about it, is the flag represented [L] the county flag of Offaly or Flag of the Republic of Ireland or neither or both . . . or the flag of La République de Côte d'Ivoire? Would the national anthem help?

You could wonder at a certain lack of imagination is choosing the county colours in the 1880s and 1890s. More than half of the counties are represented by just four colour combos
  1. Blue & Gold: Roscommon, Longford [which even share a border], Wicklow, Clare and Tipp. Some pretend to be different by saying it's Saffron or Primrose and Blue, but that's just pedantry.
  2. Blue & White: Waterford Up the Déise! Cavan, Laois and Monaghan.
  3. Yellow & Green: Leitrim, Meath, Kerry, Donegal. Yes, yes everyone calls it Green and Gold, but that's just gilding the lillow.
  4. Red & White: Derry, Tyrone, Cork, Louth.
The flag I like, on its own merits, is that of Co Down which is a bold red and black. There is a lot of flexibility in how these GAA flags are displayed: horizontal or checkerboard are often seen at matches as well as appropriately coloured hats, scarves, ribbons and face-paint. Red and Black have, since at least the Spanish Civil War of 80 years ago, been strongly associated with Anarchism but I've heard no rumours that the plain good people of Down are about to occupy Tesco in Newry and give all the food to the poor people or eject the county councillors from wherever they meet. If any GAA board votes to change the county colours to cerise and magenta, I shall sell up and move there.