Monday 31 October 2016

Reuben James

Get ready, get the back-ground music playing, it will take as long as you do to read this blob.
Hmmm, it's a Bank Holiday here in Ireland. We set aside the last Monday in October, by having a day off work, to honour All Hallow's Eve, the day before All Saints Day.  As in America it is known here as Hallowe'en and it has become one of the great celebrations to recognise St Economia of Bankruptcy. The retail sector treats it as sort of prelude to the Feast of St Mammon at the end of December. Children are induced to buy tat [plastic scythes, pointy-horns masks, red capes, white sheets and pitch-forks] from the supermarkets and learn how to shake down their friends and neighbours for cash or candy.  It is tawdry, it promotes obesity and is super good fun for the kidders.

31st October is also the 75th anniversary of the sinking of DD-245 USS Reuben James which was torpedoed at dawn on this day in 1941; becoming the first US Navy sinking of WWII. See R for a post-hoc 1991 propaganda stamp. The perp was U-552 commanded by Erich Topp, who also sank the Lochkatrine containing my father-in-law Pat the Salt the following August.  Those of you with a sense of time-line will recognise that 31st October is a good bit before the date that will live in infamy 7th December 1941. Because the US was not at war with Germany at the time, the sinking generated a furious response from the US press and government. Which outrage was just the teensiest bit suspect because DD-245 was escorting a convoy loaded with munitions from the "Arsenal of Democracy" bound for Britain which was, for sure, at war with Germany.  On the small world front, you should note that U-552 was built in Blohm + Voss ship-yard where August Landmesser worked and famously refused to salute at a Nazi photo-shoot.  The U-552 was involved in a second, yet more controversial, incident in April 1942 (after war officially broke out) in which life-boats were strafed after the SS David H Atwater was sunk by gunfire. My own father was, at the same time, doing on the surface more or less what Topp was doing underwater.

I don't think there is much currency in demonising [appropriate metaphor for Hallowe'en?] The Other and by implication suggesting that Our Boys were or are squeaky clean. We might just, in a moment of silence [wait for Woodie Guthrie to finish?], remember the compassion in brutality of, say Wilfred Owen:
"None," said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; . . .
For by my glee might many men have laughed, 
And of my weeping something had been left, 
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, 
The pity of war, the pity war distilled. 
from Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen 

The secret beach

We were down on the Waterford Coast (again!) last weekend for a family knees-up. There is only so much dancing and eating cake that a family can pack in over a couple of days, so there was time for The Beach.  Several beaches, indeed. There was a big storm in the middle of October and I picked up two fish-boxes, a creel, and 37 medium sized orange and yellow fishing floats . . . as well as the buoy which I returned to Dunmore.  It was remarkable how, after  two weeks of mild weather, the beaches were [disappointingly] clean . . . and sandy. A storm will strip the beaches to bedrock but mild weather will restore the finer particles so that you can do some sand-art.  But walking the beach on an overcast afternoon at the tail end of October has its own intrinsic rewards, not least because normal people are safe and warm at home watching The Match on television.

The only thing worth saving on The Secret Beach [if I told you where it is, I'd have to kill you] was a 4 x 4 ft shipping pallet. I was a teeny bit embarrassed [please don't grass me up] to be discovered picking up a pallet, which I cannot claim to be a dignified way to pass time for an old chap with a proper job. It was heavy from immersion in salt-water, so I was dragging it along the strand to get it above the tide-line . . . when two women dropped off the path down the cliffs and started walking along the tide line looking for driftwood. They were gathering scoured wood to make mobiles for schoolkids. I confessed to being a buoy-man myself. From the tenor of our subsequent chat I knew I was talking to one of the Names along the coast. I thought for a while that it might be Marie "Algae" Power whom Dau.I met in August but then I twigged that I was talking with Grace Green O'Sullivan, candidate [previotrib] for the European Parliament and now "respeck, bros!" a Senator up in Dublin. I told her that her canvassing had secured the vote of Pat the Salt. Then, because I'm too often an in-mind-out-mouth blurter [why, only yesterday], I said that her election posters made her look a lot younger and how US Presidents looked haggard after 4 or 8 year in the job because politics is damned hard work. Senator O'Sullivan replied that there was so much to do [micro-plasticrefugees; climate change; freeing the gays] that it was hard to make time for the beach. But we agreed that making that time is the bedrock on which you can build a compassionate life.

I removed my hat to quote Edmund Burke "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little". Or did I mean Sydney Smith "It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little." ? I've used both attributions before [Burke] - [Smith]. But I got back a beautiful quotation [from Antonio Machado - English translation]:
Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar. 
How do we make our pilgrimage through life?
One step at a time, trying to do a little good, hoping not to hurt anyone.

Sunday 30 October 2016

Getting real

I don't see my job in The Institute as imparting information; we are awash with information and we don't have to leave the sofa to get at it. When I was 16, I was studying history, economics&politics and maths for A levels to leave school. That Summer we were each given a research project and I spent several days in the County Library ploughing through the Encyclopaedia Britannica because that yard o'books was quite good on 19thC British politicians. It was a schlep because we lived rural and about 10 miles from the library but I enjoyed those days inside watching the dust dance in the sunbeams. Now, all our students have EncBrit and Google on their smart phones and I've often asked the students if nitrous oxide is N2O or NO2 because I can never remember. My role is more about conveying a passion for science and encouraging a scientific way of approaching data and the world and hopefully decompartmentalising their minds.  This is where mature students are such an asset, they don't know everything - that's why they are in college - but they do know some things really well; they bring something to the table. Their contributions are always interesting and always welcome.

We've almost finished the base-line section of Human Physiology dealing with cells and tissues before we move up a notch and start integrating the various systems - nervous, skeletal, cardiovascular, immune, endocrine - of the body. Last week I was going on about connective tissue and wanted to give them a real-life example. Without much hope, I pointed out that after you kill a rabbit, you have to separate the skin from the under-lying muscle [educational movie], and you can see the white damp fibrous material that, in life, holds the two tissues together. I say "without much hope" because, to the nearest whole number, nobody in a class of 30 is going to have done this. But one of the students helpfully pointed out that it was the same when you skin a chicken and we agreed that was a handy way of reducing the intake of cholesterol and saturated animal fat. It makes the chicken less tasty because so many of the good things in food are induced by crisping up the saturated animal fat in adipose tissue.

Moving on, I was describing how peristaltic [movie! chekkitout] muscular contractions were responsible for the movement of chyme [new word? look it up as my father used to say] along the intestine. I needed an example from 'the real world' and said something like "If none of you have skinned a rabbit I don't suppose anyone has milked a cow, but it's like that". "I've milked a cow" piped up one of the grown-ups "and you're right". New respect from the youngsters for this new revelation. There are only two blokes in the Pharmacy Technician class, one of whom has washed up on our shores from Somalia. This bloke now raised his hand and said "I've milked a camel, it's bigger but essentially the same" Gasps! I'm afraid I couldn't stop myself from blurting out "That's a very boy thing, Mohammed, always having to have a bigger one". Much hilarity, not least from Mohammed.

Sunday October the last 301016

Colour supplement miscellanea:

Very late night last night, but got up at 7 am as normal to serve My Reading Public aka Mon public à lire [lot of traffic from France this past month] only to find that it is 0600hrs. The arbitrary diktat of government had shifted the clocks by an hour.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Fomenting a riot

Twice a week, with two different groups of second year sporty young people, I have a two [2] hour classes in Research Methods. This is what we call basic statistics. Last year it was called Quantitative Methods QM, but the content is exactly the same . . . as it has been for 20 years. Two hours is a long time to be fighting with Excel spreadsheets and listening to me rant, so I call a tea&pee break for ten minutes half-way through. Tuesday fortnight a couple of the students had their fluid balance sorted and so stayed in the class room chatting about this and that.  It transpired that two of the class were mitching off college the following day to protest about the transmutation from student grants to student loans.

I said that we had done exactly the same thing 40 years ago, to try to extend student grants so that all youngsters had the chance to go to college even if they didn't have a lawyer, strong farmer or business magnate for a parent. My informant last week said that in his school, all the middle class kids were off in Trinity and UCD and the only way he could make his way through college was by working a nearly full-time job in the interstices between sleep and college. We agreed that college should be about what you love and not just a stepping stone to a better [as in more loot] job. For him, as for us in the 1970s, it was a no-brainer that he should lend his weight to helping the dispossessed to secure an education that would make their lives richer and more rewarding in ways that were not limited to money. I was delighted. Back then, the Students Union was run by a bunch of wannabe Trots and a group of activists broke way from the official march and easily out-sprinted the Garda escort to occupy the Department of Education. They sat it out for half a week.  I skeptically use the adjective wannabe because one of the reddest of the revolutionary student leaders soon became a lecturer in DCU. I wished the new generation the best of luck in fomenting a riot the following day

When we were students in the 70s of the last century, everything was possible. You could live in the centre of town for an affordable rent even if it meant sharing a bathroom with other people. Going to college was about finding stuff out - about yourself and other people and politics as much about whatever went down in class. A degree was seen as a qualification in thinking, writing and explaining as well as learning a bunch of stuff about some aspect of the world and its inhabitants. If you didn't fancy college or couldn't afford it, then you could probably get a job on the basis of a reasonable school Leaving Certificate. If times seemed rosy back then it must be me glasses, but we left the country in 1979 and spent the the 80s abroad, along with the whole of our generation: that recession was biting.

When we returned to Ireland there was still the whiff of the free-wheeling, can-do, 'tis grand altogether Dublin that we remembered but the change in the succeeding 25 years has been crippling on the health and happiness of the Irish people - and all the others who have washed up here. One of the most insidious corruptions is that College is no longer an island where you can find yourself, your life-partner and your place in the world. It is a mill for obtaining a monetisable qualification. In the boom-times of the Celtic Tiger courses in quantity-surveying, construction, architecture, law and business were full to brimming because these were seen as an investment; no matter how hateful, boring and badly taught these were seen as a ticket to the merri-go-round. In RsMeths class, I was so happy to hear a student articulating the idea that he was, and by extension everyone should be, in college because he loved sport and wants to get the most out of it. So he was prepared to work [paid and academic] 60 or 80 hours a week to make that happen. This same chap, the previous week had spend a chunk of class time checking out flights to Praha, Barcelona and Warsawa on company time. Why wouldn't you go for a weekend in foreign, he said, it only costs €40 and you can sleep in the train station. With that take on work-life balance, there is hope for the world.

Friday 28 October 2016

Getting better and better

Every day and in every way
I'm getting better and better
Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie
Week 2 of the F&F microbiology course and we've been making up media and pouring plates to characterise environmental isolates a) from the air with fall-out plates b) from the nasal epithelium.  We have 7 pairs of students but needed only 6 sorts of media, so one pair was looking a bit idle so I appointed them autoclave liaison officer ALO and quality control manager QCM respectively. As ALOs they learned by doing how to safely and efficiently use the fearsome pressure cooker that sterilises the gloop that goes into Petri dishes. As QCMs, I asked them to inspect the previous week's plates and count how many were contaminated.

They found 2 plates with colonies in a stack of 32 'sterile' plates. French for Petri dish is boite de Petri; there, not a lot of anglophones know that.  I broadcast that information to the whole class and suggested that they incorporate the statistic, written as a proportion or percentage, in their write-up. I spent an hour the following afternoon reading and marking the lab books and correcting every report of 6.25% - which was all the books that had made the calculation. It is wrong, despite what the calculator tells you because, with a sample of 30 you have no confidence in the accuracy of the final .25 and so you are wrong to report it. 6% is more reliable I wrote multiple times. One intuitive way to grasp this is to ask what is the percentage if we had one more, or one less, contaminated plate?  3/32 = 9%; 1/32 = 3%. So abut 6% is plenty accurate.

While I was in the lab stacking up and storing away the solidified plates, I decided to get some more illustrative data and weighed two stacks of Petri dishes:
Chapman Agar, 50.0, 47.9, 51.2, 46.1, 50.9, 59.4, 45.2, 43.9, 47.6, 55.1, 49.6, 52.5, 52.5, 44.7, 51.8, Blood Agar, 42.9, 41.8, 50.5, 48.3, 46, 53.1, 44.2, 47.6, 47.8, 47.5, 51.4, 48.4, 51.2, 
I calculated the descriptive statistics on each dataset and shared that with the class. It is desirable that all the Petri dishes have the same volume because this a variable. It's not crucial. Another way of saying it is that it is more efficient: if you can get in the zone and pour 15 plates precisely the same then you can carry out this infrastructural task a bit quicker and with less stress. The range and standard deviation are measures of departure from the central tendency; and it is clear that the Chapman chaps were more erratic in their pouring [ 4.3; range 15.5] than the Blood boys [ 3.4; range 11.3]. I sent these data to the class as an MS-Excel attachment. I'm waiting to get some feedback that it is damn-fool stupid to report the weight of a Petri dish as 47.9g because the balance isn't that accurate and a tenth of a gram is only 6 grains of rice.  This cross-disciplinification is regrettably a rare event in most science, the mean and is Quantititative Methods QM we can't be having that in F&F. But actually it is part of an essential training in Mathsemantics [prevs] making maths work for your crap-detector in real life.

For the math-enabled it is useful to note that as the diameter of a Petri dish is 8.4 cm and the area is πr2 then you need to pour 6mm of agar into each plate to use up 500 ml of agar. Our students, at the end of a year, should be possible to pour 15 plates so that the weight is +/- 2g. I could do that back in the 70s.  Of course it's a dying art. First world researchers nowadays buy their Petri dishes ready poured - in batches of 1000; by a sterile robot; in a factory far far way. No variation, no contamination, no time consumed on the infrastructure - more efficient altogether and wholly disempowering.

Thursday 27 October 2016


On Saturday last, I was chatting to my mother in England and she mentioned, with a sniff of disapproval, that the UK government had swept imperiously through some foreign refugee camp and cherry picked a few handfuls of children to come and live under the soon to be independent monarchy. You can never be sure with my Mum which side of the fence she is on: is 16 children too many, or too few? She stoutly asserted, for example, two days before Brexit, that she was voting Leave to protest about David Cameron's sense of easy privilege.

Five weeks ago Frances Fitzgerald, the Tanaiste and Minister of Justice addressed the UN in New York about  refugees. She was only prepared to do as much as any other EU government and only if they also acted. Which means is that, if the EU can ever get their act together and decide on a policy or a quantum of refugee solace, then Ireland will take 1% because that is our share of the EU population. In July she had asserted that, like the Brits, her people were looking out of the windows of their 4x4s in camps in Lebanon hoping to find presentable refugee children [L the acceptable faces of refugees: not too many sores, or snot, preferably of a sunny disposition and Christian?] to fill this quota. That picture is taken from a piece in WLR about a new refugee holding and enculturation centre in Clonea Strand Hotel outside Dungarvan, Co. Waterford. There is some local opposition because the hotel was a sink of Summer jobs for the young people of Dungarvan and that option is now closed.

The previous government, which included Fitzgerald, was talking large about taking in 4,000 refugees as recently as last year. Speaking on the fringes of the first UN summit on refugees and migrants in New York, an initiative co-chaired by Ireland, Fitzgerald said our Government will have resettled 870 >!huzzah!< migrants by the end of the year. That is well short of 4,000 although far in excess of the 96 [count them] resettled in 2014 and 176 in 2015. There are currently 4,000 people living under 'direct provision' in hotels in wholly unsuitable places in Ireland while bureaucrats shuffle the paperwork from desk to desk in Dublin; due process means that some people have been in direct provision for more than 10 years.

There is a tangle of different bodies with an interest in refugeeism. For example, the Irish Refugee Council IRC which has eight people and four lawyers on the payroll. And NASC The Irish Immigrant Support Centre in Cork, an NGO employing 11. The Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP) was set up in September 2015 with a budget for 2016 of €25 million but I can find nothing extra for refugees in the recently announce 2017 budget. That's because we are at the start of what the media have been lazily calling a "winter of discontent" but which I prefer to call the Winter of I'll have some of that. The original winter of discontent was 1978-1979 in the UK when the Labour government attempted to keep pay increases in the public sector below 5% in an effort to control inflation. Call me judgmental but, if you/we have a salary and associated pension rights in the Irish civil service, you/we are in global terms fantastically well off: 2.8 billion people live on less than $2 a day. You don't have to go as far as a cardboard shack in Somalia: I was recently speaking to Dau.II whose latest minuscule pay-hike gets her tuppence-ha'penny above the minimum wage. She is now luxuriating in the result that, from four, there are now five sorts of cheese in her fridge of her rented flat. As one of the teaching unions ASTI and both those of the Gardai GRA and AGSI prepare to go on strike for 'restoration' of a previous state of bounty, the government is saying that there is no money in the pot. But in the 2017 Budget two weeks ago, an additional €1.3 billion of tax-payers money was dispersed by the Finance Minister like a medieval potentate showering doles to the crowd as his carriage drove into Leinster House.

I took the position a couple of days ago, that Irish science funding would be at nothing if it followed the same old same old criteria adopted by other Western democracies. Taking a lead by taking a risk might yield extraordinary results; while same old same old would, at best, yield good results. Ditto with refugees. What if the Irish Government allocated half of their discretionary budget: say €650 million, towards the refugee crisis? That would put it to The Men like Uncle Sam and John Bull as an approach in the tradition of King Christian X of Denmark threatening to wear a yellow star if Danish Jews were so compelled.

Frances Fitzgerald and the striking public servants need an inspiring story. The Calais Jungle was a shanty town outside the French port where uncountable numbers of refugees [3000? 6000?] paused in limbo waiting for an opportunity to get to an imagined promised land across the English Channel. I say was because, on Monday 24 Oct 2016, L'Homme started to close it down  and ship the inhabitants shipped elsewhere in France. Yesterday, several fires broke out and now the place is blazing but 'empty' according to the police. Of 1,500 unaccompanied minors, several have managed to disappear. We know a young chap from Scotland, about Dau.II's age, who has been working as a volunteer in a soup kitchen in The Jungle over the Summer. Let us, to preserve his anonymity and modesty, call him Clancy-boy. As commitment, it trumps my paltry contribution to the dispossessed in 1972 making tea and toting bales at Stansted Airport for the 27,000 Ugandan Asians recently expelled from their homes by Idi Amin. After several weeks of making sure that folks in the Jungle got at least one square meal a day, Clancy-boy had to go home for some event. On the train North, he heard that the French authorities were planning to finally close and bulldoze the whole camp. He got off the train, said hello to his mother, completed the immediate business and turned on his heel to return to France where he felt he would be needed in the dark days ahead. With his feet he was agreeing with Sydney Smith "It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little."

Wednesday 26 October 2016

dead simple intervention

Between the ages of 8 and 11, we lived on a naval housing estate near Plymouth in SW England. About half the fathers were absent at sea at any one time and the mothers had to cope with everything. Like the small boy who pitched over his handlebars [me] and who was bandaged up in the nearest house rather than being sent home. Those naval wives had a lot in common and looked after, and out for, each other. But there was only so much support that they could offer to Mrs van Sommeren, who lived two doors down from us, when her toddler died in the cot. The poor woman dissolved into floods of tears every time she saw a pot of Marmite, because that was her daughter's favourite snack on toast. I still carry a tiny residue of survivor's guilt at the memory of the desperate looks she gave us when we got out of her way on the pavement.

This was all brought back to me after 50 years of forgetting when, in between chores on Sunday morning, I caught a snippet of interview with Anne Diamond and Dr Ciara Kelly on Newstalk FM. It is sufficiently important and interesting that they've made a podcast of it. It's all about SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome or cot death [same thing] and Anne Diamond has a place to stand because her boy Sebastian woke up dead 25 years ago; but she's given a platform to stand on because she's a mega-famous British TV presenter.

At least Mrs van Sommeren didn't get prosecuted for murder as happened to Sally Clark in 1999 when two children died on her in succession. She was eventually exonerated but drank herself to death in 2007 - there is only so much trouble the soul can bear. When Sebastian died in 1991, between 5 and 6 children were SIDSed every week in Britain, and about 130 a year in Ireland. Nobody knew what caused each tragedy and Sally Clark's conviction was, at least in part, a desperate attempt by everyone to make sense of an event that is impossible to reconcile with a belief in a beneficent god. See also the case of Lucia de Berk where statistics went up against emotion in a baby death case.

When children die in hospital, the parents often go to considerable trouble to find out what went wrong and they articulate this as "so that this will never happen to another family". Anne Diamond had the same kind of response to loss and was a co-founder of a campaign called Back To Sleep which advised parents to put their small children to sleep on their backs. In 1985 DP Davis, a paedeatrician in Hong Kong, noted that SIDS was vanishingly rare in his catchment area and that the Chinese custom was to sleep children supine (face up). A study in New Zealand, where both orientations were common, found that supine sleeping was highly protective.
This was quickly rolled out across the country with nightly TV public service announcements and the rate of SIDS plummeted. Too late for Sebastian, the idea was adopted and then pushed across the UK, the US, Ireland and elsewhere. And the rate of SIDS was cut by 2/3rds within 7 or 8 years [R for CDC data from the USA: yellow the base line; blue = small change on recommendation of American Association of Pediatricians; red = big change as the message of Back to Sleep resulted in adoption of the safer position (the green line creeping upwards)] But note that only 75% of parents have gotten the message.  The effect has been stronger in the UK where the rate is down from 2000 pa to 300; and in Ireland where 130 pa has fallen to just 30. We still haven't a clue about why this works but it seems a no brainer to put some money towards this, so that everyone gets the message. Dau.I was born in 1993 and Dau.II in 1995; I don't remember any public service announcements or leaflets in the doctor's surgery about this. Luckily 998/1000 children get through their first two years without dying regardless of how they are put to sleep. SIDS is very rare but it seems smart to embrace this small change in practice to avoid a really serious consequence. It is not a million miles, therefore, from embracing vaccination against HPV to avoid a similarly rare but very negative consequence.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Here come the widders

Friday was just amazing - I got a free lunch! One of my colleagues at The Institute had arranged to bring a visiting speaker to address our students at noon, which was great good timing for me because I now have maths and stats classes all Friday morning. Noon on Friday also works well because there are parallel classes for 1st Year Biology [to make up the numbers and enthusiasm] and 4th Year Molecular Biology and Immunology [who might know something]. Last week's guest speaker was Michel Dugon from NUIG who is mad about the spiders.  I have asserted before that Des Higgins knows more than anybody else about the taxonomy of Irish spiders but I might have to qualify that now.

Dugon is one of those classical evolutionary biologists who is happiest out in the field. I'm an evolutionary biologist too, but I function better in my head than on my knees in the grass like Louis Agassiz. How do you put order on your fascination by the living world so that, just maybe, you can earn a living doing what you love? One avenue is to focus on a small area of the biosphere until you know more about it than anyone else and then convince a highly critical group pf competing professionals that your research proposals are a) interesting and b) possible in a specified time-frame and for a specified amount of money. For maybe 50 years before 2000, that was all that was required because nobody was confident that they knew where the neatest ideas, the niftiest techniques, the very future were going to spring from. Since about 1990 [yes there is some overlap] small minded nobodies have decided that research will only be funded if it has 'utility'.  If, in other words, there was a third criterion c) likely to pay back on the tax-payers' investment. This wrecks my head with its stupidity because x) nobody knows where the truly original work will spring from y) if it's very likely to give pay-back in 5 years it's not science, it's development and multi-national Megacorp will be happy to pay for it.  The Future of Ireland as a technological nation FITNa depends on the politicians taking a risk; we cannot compete with the long pockets in the US, UK and BRD if we just do same-old same-old.

Dr Dugon is taking a plunge that a recently introduced, and so convenient for sampling, species of poisonous spider may hold the key to innovative treatments for cancer and infectious disease. Same thing really if you buy into the all cancers and many autoimmune diseases are triggered by viruses idea.  The interesting interloper is Steatoda nobilis [R about 2x life-size with characteristic 'skull-like' marks on its addomen], aka the false widow. Its common name hinges on its superficial similarity to its relative the black widow Latrodectus spp. spiders which are considerably more toxic than Steatoda. Nevertheless, the false widow will give you a painful bite if you annoy it. S. nobilis is probably native to Madeira and/or the Canaries and was first recorded in England in 1879 where it retained a toehold in places where it was warm enough year-round; i.e. mostly in towns and cities. In the last few years of the last century, perhaps triggered by a succession of mild winters [arrrgh: Global Warming brings on the Killer Spiders . . . not], this small [about 1 cm from leg to opposite leg] arachnid hitched a ride across the Irish Sea and was identified 1997 in Dublin and its suburbs. Since then it has spread to pretty much every county where it has been carefully looked for.

Like the spread of Lyme disease, that makes it kind of interesting as a case study of an expanding ecological niche but that's not going to butter the bread. On the other hand, as basic research is carried out on the mode of action of false widow toxins, there is increasing evidence that this cocktail of compounds can be re-purposed to target cancer cells. The basic research is on the nano-scale because the spiders are so small that they can only produce and store 0.3μl [that's less than a] of venom and that takes them 2 weeks of intense biochemical effort. You need minimum 10μl of the stuff to run through the instruments which tell you what's in it. But I can't tell you any more of the details because Dr Dugon, like everyone else in [Irish] science is under pressure from the people who manage the overheads at his university.  They want him to row back on the pro bono; and the outreach talks on the radio; and inspiring students with a genuine fascination with the living world . . . and start monetising his ideas. Spilling the intellectual property in public means that it is not patentable. It's really expensive to run a university nowadays: so many technology-transfer managers, so many people in HR, so many reports to file, so many forms to fill in, and innumerable meetings about 5 year plans and the new corporate logo to attend.

But I'll tell ya this. After his talk our lunch was delayed for 20 minutes because he was surrounded by 20+ students who wanted to pet his scorpion, hold his spider and talk to him about his time in Malaysia. That sort of enthusiasm is The Future of Irish science and it needs to be nurtured. If, as current policy seems to desire, every scientist is making money rather than earning it, there will be No Future.

Monday 24 October 2016


I have a terror of autoclaves which is only surpassed by my fear of chain-saws. Autoclaves are big lumpy pressure-cookers about 50cm tall and 30cm in diameter. They are full of extremely hot water under pressure which is sterilising 500ml bottles of molten agar for pouring into Petri dishes. The hot water is dangerous, the live steam is worse and molten agar, because it is sticky, is worst of all. We've had 2 incidents involving hot agar under pressure in the last 18 months and that's two too many. The splatter from the first event is still decorating the ceiling in one of the labs. In the other case, the student took one for the team and absorbed most of the boiling gloop on his safety-glass, face and lab coat. In both cases, these were students who had been on campus for several years and had been taught 'autoclave safety' at least once a year. That must have been a case of "I taught them but they didn't learn" which is the antithesis of teaching. This is the sort of thing that cannot be taught in theory, you need to get down and dirty with the beast [under supervision, of course] and go through the protocol many times until it becomes embedded.

I've resolved to make this sort of practical training an explicit part of my teaching in Food and Fermentation Microbiology aka F&F this year. I have one lab section and we're going to learn a bunch of microbiology but good practice is going to be what sticks. Each week, I appoint two pairs of students as Autoclave Liaison Officers ALOs, who have to check each cooker over, make sure the seals are fitted, make sure there is sufficient water, switch it on, load it up, lock it down, read the pressure gauge and keep track of the time. 4 out of 17 students over 20 weeks will mean that everyone will be safe, competent and confident by next April.

Last Thursday, we were in the middle of setting up and loading the autoclaves when the alarm went off on the fridge round the corner. It also seemed as if the autoclaves were less hissy and it quickly transpired that the whole circuit had tripped its switch. Apparently [nobody told us] if you switch on more than 2 of the 4 available autoclaves, then the load is too much for the circuit. ANNyway, I went off and located a technician to tell me all this, switch off one of the autoclaves and push the trip-switch home. Except that the trip-switch is in the corner diametrically opposite the autoclave banks: 3.5 metres up in a corner above a fume hood. Techie went to fetch a ladder and was able just to reach the door of the fuse-board but was unable to open it because it was hinged the wrong way. Because he's a can-do sort of bloke, Techie hopped of the teeter-top rung of the ladder, sat on the fume-hood and flipped the switch.  The fridge-alarm ceased, the autoclaves started to heat up again and education could continue.

That would could have been the end of the story, but there is a sequel. As I was leaving, I bumped into one of the other technicians and gave a brief report of events: just so everyone knew not to run three autoclaves at once. Well, it turned out the no technician is qualified to use a ladder on the premises, and nor am I. Indeed there is only one ladder that is approved for use in The Institute and only a handful of people have been trained to use it and so are covered by the berluddy insurance. If you can't locate the ladder and one of the ladder-effectives to 'operate' it, you may sit on your thumbs with 18 students and imagine what it's like to be a scientist. At least that is a rosier prospect than imagining what it's like having the wilfully obstructive mind of a health & safety manager. And while we are in harrrumph mode, let's ask who designed, installed and approved [that's three separate 'qualified' people] a grossly under-powered electricity circuit . . . and who found the least accessible place imaginable for the fuse-box?

Sunday 23 October 2016

They that go down to the sea in ships

Sunday Colour Supplement. A few days ago, Wikipedia featured the first of these images as their picture of the day. I thought it might be interesting to rustle up some similar and see who can identify a) the painter b) the species. A sort of tribute to those who worked on the ocean. There aren't many left, because we taken all the fish and converted them to cat-food and fertiliser. Very slow hand-clap.
Multiple choice among the species: Clupea harengusHippoglossus hippoglossus; Physeter macrocephalus; Homarus gammarus; Pleuronectes platessa; Spongia officinalis


6. You can never have enough buoys,
Clues: You can use TinEye to find similar images (i.e. wth annotation) on the interweb.

The Arts et al 231016

Today, Art, building . . . and booze

Saturday 22 October 2016


This is about the naming of living things. It is a theme on The Blob. If you haven't read Henry Reed's 1942 anti-war poem Naming of Parts "The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers: They call it easing the Spring." You urged to do so NOW, it will take 2 minutes and set you up for the day.

'Periwinkle' is rather a loaded word for me. My father had no siblings and very few cousins because he came from a family of shy breeders.  He had two female cousins, one of whom lived in a magical house on the shores of Lough Derg - right opposite where Dau.II and I had our Swallows and Amazons adventures two years ago - and where, as children, we were trusted to row out into the middle of the lake before the cows were milked.  The other cousin was Periwinkle, a lesbian who lived half-way up a cliff in Glengariff, Co Kerry. We never met this redoubtable lady, not even when we passed through the town on a disastrous caravan holiday in 1970. My father had her in the East Wing of his mind, firmly kept at a distance and not invited to tea.

After repatriating a buoy to Dunmore East a couple of weeks ago, I dropped into Cheekpoint in the hope of a cup of tea; and I wasn't disappointed. Here's the goss: an mac an tí has gotten his old job back at the oyster farm [prev] down the coast. I think his parents and I agreed that the brutal hard work, the salt-water boils, the chilblains, the scratches, the boots full of water, would do him no harm. At least he wasn't getting hazed and humiliated and treated like an imbecile: the kind of fate that might fall to him working in easier conditions in a factory or office. It's like my girls working in the catering trade with the burns, the heavy-lifting and the smell of cabbage. When you're 20 you have resilience. I don't think we relish the though of our children still doing hard physical labour when they're 40.

Apart from the welcome tea, I landed a great story and some information. Oysters Ostrea edulis are farmed in sacks made of heavy duty plastic netting: with small holes for the seed oysters and larger mesh for those ready for market. These bags are secured on benches out in the tideway so that, when the tide is in, the water freely circulates through the bags and the oysters can feast on the plankton. With increasing frequency - probably because of nitrate run-off for farmer's fields up river - the bags get covered with a green fur of algae, inducing a failure of the vital freely circulates parameter of the business. I was told <punchline alert> that some bright spark in the oyster trade had the idea to insert a handful of whelks into each bag so that these would graze on the algae and that would keep the holes clear . . . and diversify the product line, because there is a market [mostly among them foreign johnnies on the continent, of course, but they still pay in €uros] for whelks. That is going the way of Bren Smith and his mixed sea-food farm in Long Island Sound. Down with mono-culture!

Because The Blob is read by foreign johnnies, I am at pains to include the Latin Linnaean binomers for any identified species which appear in the text. There are after all 50 words used in England for Taraxacum officinale, I can't expect folk in neighbouring counties to know what I'm talking about with devil's milk plant or dandelion let alone some poor woman in Ukraine who is struggling with English as a second language. But T. officinale is incontrovertibly what it is in the universal language of science.

Accordingly, I looked up 'whelk' to discover its Latin name - if the core diversification idea has any merit, then my French and Portuguese oyster-farming readers [they would ostréiculteurs and ostreicultores and would be a Venny select group of people] will want to follow suit. Well it turns out that what I know as 'whelk' Buccinum undatum is a voracious carnivore making its living by eating the contents of bivalve molluscs like oysters - they can rasp through the shell with a sand-paper radula - so introducing that species would be a disaster in the oyster farm. I think the novel remedy must be Littorina littorea, a smaller herbivorous sea-snail which grazes on algae in shallow water and salt-marshes. Now, insofar as I know anything about the naming of molluscs, I know that as the periwinkle, an edible mollusc smaller than whelks. I don't think that my father's cousin was named for a snail, however; periwinkle is also the common name for Vinca major, a creeping perennial herb with a striking blue-purple flower.

Friday 21 October 2016

Multiple causosis

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease. Indeed it is the most common such disease of the nervous system and affects more than 2 million people world-wide, killing 20,000 of them each year. It is characterised by failures of the myelin-sheath - the fatty 'insulating' layer of Schwann cells that surrounds each neuron. Schwann cells start attached to one side of the neuron [R for fuzzy diagram - better quality] and then grow so that they curl round and round until each neuron looks like a train of croissants. We have 100 billion of these neurons, 90% of them inside our heads and they do a lot for us: seeing, hearing, feeling pain, writing a blog and going for a walk all require functional neurons and when the myelin gets eaten away, these tasks, sensations and pleasures don't work so good. The dreadful irony is that with MS, as with other autoimmune diseases, the myelin is stripped off by sufferer's own immune system.

Nobody really knows what makes somebody's immune system turn cannibal but I've suggested that, like Guillain-Barré sysndrome, MS is triggered by a virus. This idea is not original to me, but nobody has identified the virus yet. The immune system gets all jazzed up by a novel virus and then won't get back in its kennel when the invasion is cleared up. If something internal looks sufficiently similar to the hopped-up antibodies, then they continue in their destructive work.  Not everyone reacts in this way to the virus, if they did, we'd have 20 million people with MS. As with HCV and those apparently immune to its assault [prevlimonth], we'd like to know what a) what is the virus [if any!] and b) who is most susceptible c) what environmental conditions precipitate the initial attack. IITS - it's the interaction terms, stupid.  As with Zika and Rubella, the virus in and of itself may be trifling in its symptoms; you may not even know that you've taken it on board.

When I ask 'who is susceptible', I'm really asking if there are peculiarities in the genetic make-up or hormonal milieu of folks who start on the rocky road to MS.  Why is it 2x more common in women? why does it have such a late [20 - 50 years] onset? We get exposed to, and get over, dozens of viral insults when we are chuldren. And as with HCV there are many peculiarities and quirks in the pattern of progression: MS is notorious for its remission-relapse cycles, for example.

Those 2 million suffering from MS are not distributed evenly across the world and that gives us clues about what the ultimate causes may be. A study in 2012 found that the incidence in the Orkney archipelago was even higher than previously thought going from 200- per 100,000 in 1983 to 400+ per 100,000 30 years later.  That made the headlines because it's the highest incidence ever recorded. The press had a field day trying to reduce the complexities of medicine to something that could be parcelled up in 500 words and tied with a bow. Another red zone for MS incidence is in Nova Scotia which had the highest rate until the 2012 Orcadian results came in. Scotland? Scotia? could there be a genetic thing going down? This is often couched in the fact that Orkney was, for 500 years, a Viking stronghold. Then there is the fact that Orkney is way up there, as regards latitude, which is translated as lack of sunlight and consequent reduced amounts of vitamin-D.  That's pretty estúpido, because in the far North they have 22 hour days in High Summer which is enough to give you hypervitaminosis-D. Yes yes, I know it's different in the Winter but that's point, the natural world is full of ups and downs; it's multi-variate and it is often the interaction terms.

Thus inheriting a particular mutation in a key gene of your immune system, along with red hair and pale skin, from Brunnhilda Thorsdottir, your Nordic ancestor, is only part of the story. Having red hair and freckles is grand, so it is, when you live in Ireland but plays the divil-and-all with your melanoma when you move to Australia. It is likely that a combination of genetic lesions and marginal environment lays you open to assault by the MS virus. When the disease is so rare, it is hard to get a good signal as to the causative factors amidst the noise of normal natural variability. The therapies, such as we have, are quite dreadful: loadsa side-effects, unreliable efficacy, horrendous cost; so we're better off trying to stop folks catching MS in the first place. Bring on the vaccination horses! . . . but first catch your virus.

Thursday 20 October 2016

What differ?

There's all sorts of things I don't care about in my teaching practice at The Institute.  I don't care how the students spell, so long as there in no confusion about what is meant. You wouldn't want to confuse Fabry's disease with Farber's disease, the causes and treatment are radically different. I'm not pushed about putting the date on the left or right side of a lab write-up. I don't expect complete attention and deathly silence when I lecture. otoh, I'm here on the planet and at The Institute to convey a certain passion for science and to encourage younger people to polish their crap-detectors. If it says X in The Book, then let's at least see what happens if we try Y. Then we'll have a much more direct appreciation of how important X is [not?].

On The Blob and in many of my classes, I'll have a rant about spurious accuracy, as when students report a result for the estimated diameter of cell as 28.56 micrometers because that's what it says on their calculator. By writing the trailing 6, you are asserting that a cell is not 28.4 or 29.1 microns across because you can measure it with more accuracy . . . and that's just nonsense because when you apply the micrometer screw gauge, you'll squidge in the cell membrane. Heisenberg, of course, had a lot to say about this with his Uncertainty Principle.

We had an interesting [but potentially mind-numbingly boring] practical last week in Yr1 Cell Biology, where we were comparing a typical plant cell [the slippy epidermis between the layers of an onion is one cell thick] with a typical animal cell [a swab of the inside of a cheek yields a good gobbet of human epidermal cells and occasionally some rasher and toast from breakfast]. No, it's not original to us; generations of biologists have been raised on this practical [see image R]. Yes, it's the same practical which provided a lever for a sermon on plagiarism 3 years ago.  But we've made progress this year: it is no longer a requirement to print out and sign a Plagiarism Document with every shaggin' piece of submitted work. This policy change will save many trees and get students to think about what constitutes plagiarism.  Anyway, the protocol in the Cell Biology Manual says that human cheek cells must be stained with methylene blue, while the onion cells should be stained with iodine. Why? IF there was starch present in the onion epidermis, THEN iodine stains the grains blue BUT there isn't. I am re-writing the manual today so that everyone makes three preps of the 2 materials one stained with methylene blue, one with iodine and one left unstained. THEN we'll know which stain works best, and we may be able to stream-line the protocol.

Last week was also momentous because the 20 week module on Food and Fermentation Microbiology aka F&F kicked in. I've had one lab section for this course for 3-4 years now and after the first year of teaching from ancient handouts, I typed the whole thing up as a F&F Manual in Six Chapters. It can now be amended and editted and extended without looking tacky with hand-written changes and additions. But I slavishly copied most of the words from the original handouts. This year I requested and required the students to follow the Manual when making up media to pour into Petri dishes BUT to note any differences between what I'd written and what was written on the side of the plastic bottle of ingredients. With some theatre, I then picked up a bottle of media and asked why it instructed to weight out 28g of powder for each litre of water. Blank looks, to which I triumphantly announced that 28g is an [old-fashioned, imperial] ounce and that suggested that it was equivalent to a table-spoon. It didn't matter-a-damn whether they put in 30g and 25g might even work. In other words they were not to piffle about weighing out 28.0000g of powder while there was a queue waiting for the access to the balance. Note: 25g might not be enough to make the agar set, so it's a trade-off between saving 10% on the media bills versus having something that you can streak bacteria on.

I was delighted to see in the write-ups that my [robotically copied tsk!] ingredient list for "Baird-Parker Agar" differed from what the kids actually used.
Peptone 10g
Lab Lemco
Beef Extr 7.5g
Meat Extr 5g
Yeast Extr
Na pyruvate
Egg yolk emuls
K tellurite 3.5%
That will give me something to rant about at the next class [b'golly, that would be at 1400hrs today, how time flies]: Tryptone? Peptone? Schmeptone? what does it matter, so long as a boy loves his mother there is some generic protein in there. This comparison also tells us that 25g of media is probably enough to pour a solid plate, because Merck's recipe has only 75% as much agar as the other two sources.
Q. How long is a piece of string?
A. As long as it takes to tie a knot.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

cherish your lysosomes

William Bateson, a geneticist from 100 years ago said "treasure your exceptions" as a reminder that there would be no genetics, and no evolution, if there was no diversity. Cherish your lysosomes is the other side of the coin: that some things are so ubiquitous and essential that we just can't manage without them. Things which are ubiquitous and essential are often invisible because we're not good about focusing on the background. Lysosomes are also effectively invisible because they are well tiny: typically about half a micron in diameter.  But as we saw with Prochlorococcus, the minute photosynthetic microbe on which the future of the atmosphere depends, being but little doesn't make lysosomes unimportant. Despite the fact that they were only discovered by Christian de Duve in 1955, they are centrally important in the health of each cell in our bodies.

I know much more about lysosomes and their normal function because of a task I set my first year human physiology students a couple of weeks ago. I've been teaching that class for nearly 4 years now and have had many occasions to report about how difficult it can be to get the workings of the human body to sing to them.  Try as I might, I can't get them to appreciate that glucose is smaller than insulin; heck-and-jimminy, I can't even get them to grasp that glucose is smaller than the pancreas. ANNyway, I do talk about lysosomes as 'the cell's stomach' and assert that these little membrane-bound sacs are full of various digestive enzymes. Here on The Blob, I've mentioned a couple of diseases - Tay-Sachs and Morquio Syndrome - which are caused by dysfunctional enzymes whose site of action is in the lysosome.

The task I set my HumPhys students was to write out a list of 20ish lysosome storage disorders and ask everyone to own one of these exotic sounding conditions and find out something about it: a mini-research project. Here are some to conjure with: Gaucher, Pompe (infantile), Salla, Sandhoff, Schindler, Niemann-Pick, Farber, not to be confused with Fabry, Hunter, Hurler and Pseudo-Hurler, Kufs, Sly and Danon and, of course, Tay-Sachs and Morquio. For each syndrome, I asked them to report
  • mode of inheritance
  • age of onset
  • prognosis from diagnosis
  • frequency in Ireland and other populations
  • the enzyme involved
  • the symptoms
  • any chance of a cure?
The results came back at various levels of literacy, but everyone - that's everyone - in the class submitted their essay on time and comprehensively answering the questions. I was surprised and dead chuffed. I've spent the last four years setting them quizzes and exam questions which reveal quite well what they don't know. The sense on The Corridor [that's a synecdoche for the teaching staff] is that 1st year students are not able to do research but this exercise shows that up as nonsense and pernicious nonsense at that. Pernicious because is lowers expectations both among the teaching staff but also, tragically, among the students as well.

There are a few themes that run through the dataset of broken enzymes.
  • Like Morquio, many of them have enzyme replacement therapies ERTs launched or ready to launch. This is the idea that you can inject the missing enzyme on a regular basis and it will course through the circulatory system and percolate to the lysosomes of every cell where it is required. Seems to work in some cases, and MegaPharm is scrambling for a seat on the band-wagon. ERT is a very blunt instrument, as we saw for treating haemophilia with artificial Factor VIII: instead of dribbling out a steady stream of enzyme, such as you and I do every second without a thought, ERT delivers a jolt of the stuff once a week and the body makes what it can from the buffet.
  • Many of these diseases are vanishingly rare, frequently on the order of 1:million or 1:100,000 live births. Compare this with Down Syndrome or Cystic Fibrosis where the rate is about 1:1000 births.  That makes me think of Dr Johnson's oafish quip about "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." [prev]. The lysosome, and the 50 or 60 clean-up tools which it wields, is so crucial to day-to-day function that any substantive change in the tool-kit is fatal. Many of the poor wee scraps who come to term have a very short painful life ahead of them fighting against neuro-degeneration, digestive disorders, seizures, developmental anomalies and, recently, coping with diverse surgical and medical interventions.
  • Some tribes and ethnic groups - Ashkenazim, Berbers, Cajuns -  seem to have a much higher frequency of some peculiar and particular defect. This has helped with the genetics of tracking down which enzyme is involved and where it is located on the human genome.
  • Because each syndrome is rare and each is caused by a very specific lesion, the drug people have to develop a different therapeutic agent for each disease. With only a tiny patient base, the costs of development are amortised over a small number of customers, so the cost per dose is fabulously frighteningly expensive.
As it says, at the top of the page, we should, every day, give thanks that our lysosomes work just fine.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

la heroína de la piscina

We were the second blow-ins to The Valley. The first was a musician and handyman who bought a 2 acre field on a 25% slope and built a wooden house at the top of the plot and an enormous wooden boat at the bottom near the road . . . 40 km from the sea. At least our eccentricities were confined to home-education, Birkenstocks and tree-hugging.  Après nous, la deluge d'artistes: visual, conceptual and mental. Without them there would be no Blackstairs Film Society and we'd have to watch films without subtitles. But the only one we're on borrow-a-cup-of-sugar terms is La Torbellina de Tenerife TdT a multi-tasking, multi-talented woman from Spain who married into one of the local families. She was a rock for O'Manch' and Young Bolivar, our long-term visitors and English language students: bringing them eSpanish food and translating when mutual understanding was vital.

After a life-time lifting tureens in the catering trade her back is crook and she has regular therapeutic sessions in the 25m swimming pool of one of the local hotels. Last week her attention was drawn to a family: mother, father and two excited children: a boy and girl probably twins. TdT noted that the mother was focusing 85% of her attention on her smartphone. Something [precognition is quite possibly one of her many talents] made her think ' keep an eye on those kids' and she was thereby distracted from her normal length-swimming regime. Sure enough, a few minutes later the girl ran whooping straight out of the ladies changing room and disappeared beneath the surface of the pool. TdT swam furiously to the spot, dived down, grabbed the child's arm and heaved her like a drowned kitten onto the poolside tiles. She was no longer pink but a terrible blue. But small children have an imperative to live and the girl coughed up some water and sat up. Her father came quickly on hearing the hullabaloo but the mother was still changing . . . apps on her phone. TdT told the father that he might mark the day as his daughter's [re]birthday and he replied that the twins were indeed 4 and the swim was a birthday treat.  And the life-guard? Out behind the desk in the lobby sharing his attention between the CCTV view of the pool and his laptop. These goddamned devices will be the death of someone one of these days, why, I was almost killed by device-driven inattention.

The St Adjudor's Saving-from-Drowning club in The Valley is fairly select and the only other member I know about is me. When the girls were small, going swimming was part of the relentless round of off-site edutainment that gave them 12 hours a week in the car listening to audio-books and having roiling discussions about life, the universe, and the Eiffel Tower. Those trips, reading books, and the roiling discussion in the car and at the kitchen table was what constituted their education. Despite hating to get wet socks, sometimes I had to be the adult-in-charge at the pool. I loved being with the girls but I didn't like swimming because it was another of the things I was crap at when I was young. My brother and sister were like fish and passed successively their bronze, silver and gold swimming and life-saving exams and have the medals to prove it. I have a certificate for Swimming One Length of the Drake Baths in Plymouth. I could manage two lengths but my bottle gave out beyond that: it was like my anti-prowess at running. ANNyway, about ten years ago, I was standing up to my neck in the water watching the girls coursing up and down when my reveries were distracted by a commotion down at the deep end. A large woman was splashing about unable to make any progress to the edge of the pool. Without thinking, I swam towards her and by holding my breath and standing underneath her I was able to push the woman by her capacious bottom towards the pool side. And the life-guard? That spotty youth was running up and down the poolside shouting . . . and had also been off-site chatting to the girls at the check-in desk. Apparently, not getting into the water is part of the standard operating procedure. We still had 20 minutes left on the clock, so I went back to standing up to my neck in the water until the girls had finished their antics. The woman's husband cruised up at some point to say thank you, but the woman herself was quite oblivious to the drama she had caused. There is, of course, a certain irony that the only one of our sibship who is not qualified to save anyone is the one who has actually saved someone.

Because, in fairy-stories, things often come in threes, I have another life-saving tale. Maybe 20 years ago, shortly after we had left for Ireland, my late lamented pal Roy was walking along one of lone and level beaches that stretch from the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne to the Scottish borrrder. In the distance he could see two boys digging a cave into the face of the sand-dunes. As he got a little closer he realised that only boy was visible and he was jumping about in a peculiar manner. Quick as thought, Roy ran to the scene and saw two sneakers poking out of a heap of freshly fallen sand. With a super-human desperate heave, he hauled the other chap from the embrace of death and helped clean the sand from his nose and mouth. Within a couple of minutes, the boys were running off down the beach joshing and shouting towards the distant and invisible parents. Roy wondered afterwards, but didn't lose sleep about it, if the parents ever realised how close they came to a funeral.

These effin' qualifications are now the tail wagging the dog of all aspects of our lives. Train drivers who are 'qualified' without ever going out on their routes. I stopped using the chain-saw for about 5 years after I'd taken a chain-saw handling course which can hardly have been the intention. An elderly neighbour told us a few days ago that he'd been compelled to take a farm-spraying course after 20 years of spraying farms on contract. "Did you learn anything?", I asked. "A little bit about safety,", he replied, "but the paper-work and the exam were a struggle - I was never any good in school". He passed despite the exam, nobody has any interest in failing sprayers; The Man just need to get the optics right.

Monday 17 October 2016

Road pounding

I'll share some info about wheels pounding on road-beds.  It is in all the text-books of civil engineering [aka, I can't be bothered to look it up] that the amount of damage sustained by roads by traffic is proportional to the 4th power of the axle weight [pdf: see eqn 3.1 on p.17). That is an example of allometry, which I was last on about on the context of the enormous size of boys' feet. My Red Toyota Yaris has a curb weight of about 1 tonne = 500 kg per axle. When John Joyce delivers 20 tonnes of 804 gravel, his rig weighs 32 tonnes fully-laden = 8 tonnes per axle; or 16x the weight of my Yaris. 16^4 = 65,563. Heavy good vehicles - and there are much bigger ones on the road - deform and strip the surface, make potholes, and compact the subsurface so it doesn't drain water properly 60,000 times more or worse than my humble red commute wagon. So they should pay road tax of €11 million a year. It's not going to happen though.

The corollary of this is that a bicycle and rider at, say, 100kg is only a tenth the weight of me in my Yaris. So when I tool into work listening to Newstalk FM, I'm committing 10,000x more damage to the road than the one time when I cycled into work. It's more or less 40 km to work and 40 km back and it was ten years ago when I made that epic journey. I am considerably more crocked up now than I was then, so I don't think cycling to work would be a sustainable project for me. But it's certainly possible for the numerous students and faculty who are less than 40 and live less than, say, 12 km from college. I made a such journey each and every working day for about 6 years between 1990 and 1996. As it is, the workers at The Institute drive to work, occupy one of a limited number of parking spaces and then, get this, pay an annual sub to use the Institute's gym. Is there some way in which the tread-mill and the rowing machine could be connected to the grid to run a few lights?

Sunday 16 October 2016


For as long as I can remember, I've gone down to the sea-shore to scavenge. The idea of sitting on the beach soaking up the rays is a) only possible to achieve twice a year in Ireland b) causes melanoma so I don't do that.  In England, when we lived there, it was wooden fish-boxes and rope.  In Ireland, because things have moved on, it's plastic fish-boxes and rope . . . and buoys. We live a long way from the sea, so I tend re-purpose the buoys as Art. The Beloved and I spent pretty much the whole of last weekend down on the incomparable Waterford Coast. The weather was a blessing: dry enough to mow the lawn, warm enough to leave a coat behind and sunny enough to need a hat. Over a couple of days, I scoured the beaches between Stadbally and Annestown: Ballyvolane, Ballydwan, Templeverick, Knockmahon, Kilmurrin, Benvoy and Woodstown / Whitefield. No not the Woodstown, famous for its oyster farm and for having hosted Jacqueline Kennedy while her husband was on his Presidential visit to Ireland in 1963. There are four townlands called Woodstown in Co. Waterford.

It's been pretty calm at sea the last month, so there wasn't a lot to be found. But it was super-wonderful to be out in the fresh air, in the sun and have all day to spend loafing.  For many of these beaches you don't ever get all day because they are only accessible at low-tide . . . unless you have a canoe.

We are currently collecting sea-scoured drift-wood for another Art project which doesn't involve buoys but I can't leave buoys all lonely on the beach when they can meet lots of new buoy-friends in our orchard. Eeee, I were delighted to see a pink blob in the distance when I came round the headland from Annestown to Woodstown. It turned out to be a large buoy, such as used by lobstermen to tag the end of a string of pots. It also had JUEAST W245 printed in big letters on the side. When we got home to a nice cup of tea, I googled up the information that Jueast is:11 m long; 11.5 t gross tonnage; and her home port is Dunmore East. There are even pictures of the ship [R].  After talking large last month about how I would return a fish-box if the owner was nearby, I could hardly keep this buoy. Before we packed up to head home on Sunday afternoon, I snt a txt to the Harbourmaster at Dunmore East asking if the Jueast was in port because I had something to return to them.

Being a Sunday, I didn't expect a reply and headed in towards Dunmore aNNyway.  It's more than 20 years since I was in Dunmore which is still one of Ireland's most attractive villages. My grandfather was harbour-master there from 1922-1947 and my father learned to sail out of that little port. Neatly, the Jueast was indeed in port, tied up to the quayside and unloading boxes of crabs. They were expecting me, because the ever-wakeful harbour-master had forw my txt-msg. They knew exactly where and when they'd lost their buoy, were delighted to have it back and curious to know where I'd found it.  Then they went back to work and I went to find another cup of tea in the locality. Good day's work.

A romp then songs 161016

IN the news this last week and in other times

Saturday 15 October 2016

Up in the dark for access

Water is a terrible thing. Yes, yes, it is the flood and fundament of all life and that's just grand; but only if it is reasonably stable inching around in discrete bags. When it is travelling, however, it has frightening power, as you will find if you search youtube for 'flash flood'. It's been dry enough for the last week and we had a frabjous weekend down on the coast 5-6 days ago, beach-combing and wood-chopping. But Met Eireann has been forecasting a front coming in from the West [R moving up and off-stage, the yellow circle is more or less where we are] this Friday. Is it the tail end of Hurricane Matthew or is that too soon?  We've been on our 'umble farmlet for 20 years now and have lost the lane twice in floods, so I am more aware than most people of the need to keep the drains clear [prev, prevlier]. We are 30m up and 300m along from the county road believe me that water can travel down this 10% slope. The key is to keep the water in the drain and off the road surface. When we first came my neighbour-below and I went halfsies on the cost of concreting the base of the drain for the first 70 m between the road and his gate. Curiously, he showed no interest in going halfsies or anything at all on the 230 m above him. Because if there is a failure higher up, his roadway will [and did] go as well. The drain is clearly on his property and therefore clearly his responsibility but it's not in his character to go all protestant on keeping it cleaned.

With Winter approaching, it's been in my mind to spend the 30 minutes it takes to shovel out the clods and cut back the brambles so that the water can run free and not leap from its bounds. The predicted front arrived [a little late] after dark yesterday announcing itself with a long rolling clob! of thunder and hosed steadily down all night. I knew that the drain would be running this morning which would help scour the drain as I cleared the lumpier stuff. But the front moved off and the rain turned to drizzle at 0500 hrs and I couldn't wait for dawn. So I drove the little red Yaris, me and a long-handled shovel down the hill and spent a fruitful half hour clearing crud in full beam of the headlights. The rain was over but the water was running, so we made a good team and I didn't get soaked. And when I'd finished, I pootled back home and had a nice cup of tea.  I won't get any thanks for taking one for the team in this way: that neighbour stopped speaking to us years ago; sad really . . . but not really sad.