Wednesday 30 November 2016

Shit in a bucket

The EPA the Irish Environmental Protection Agency has just released its report on Urban Waste-water treatment round the country for 2015.  It is a sorry tale of non-compliance years after the EU determined and agreed that no swimming person and no pearl mussel should be subject to a warm bath of human effluent. The pearl mussel Margaritifera margaritifera is "a critically endangered species of mollusc that requires clean, fast flowing, well oxygenated rivers with little nutrient or organic content and a clean river bed". Apart from its own merits and intrinsic rights to an existence it serves as a key indicator species for water quality. Appendix F.3 of the report has a list of 16 places where improvements in waste-treatment were required to give the local mussels a chance.

As the report deals with Urban waste-water, many of the tables, findings and reports look at various elements of [non]-compliance in a list of 171 'large urban areas'. We're not talking São Paulo or Mumbai here but even so, you'd be hard pressed to find 171 'large urban areas' in Ireland: Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, hmmm Drogheda, Athlone, Clonmel ?, Ennis??, is Cobh separate from Cork? . . . I suspect that there are 'large urban areas' of which I've never heard. I think the cut-off is 2,000 p.e = person equivalents which a fudge-factor to include the chipboard factory and Summer visitors.

Talking of Summer visitors, I note that Duncannon, where we spent our holidays every year between 1955 and 1970, has no facilities for treating its sewage. None. That's 300 people with a p.e of about 1,200 who continue to poop-and-flush without a thought about the consequences. They join the plain people of Ballyhack and Arthurstown 5km upriver in contributing to the nutrients in Waterford Harbour and indirectly keeping the oyster farm [prev] across the estuary at Woodstown in business. One of the successes of 2015 was the installation of a reasonable sewage treatment plant at Dunmore East. Duncannon is scheduled to be similarly serviced next year in 2017 if Irish Water is still solvent and there hasn't been a Cryptosporidium crisis elsewhere in the country.

Did someone mention Irish Water? the uber-quango that was set up to manage all of Ireland's water supply and treatment and replace a raggle-taggle mess of micro-authorities who went through the motions and whose duplicative efforts were so inefficient? These shovel-leaners failed to embrace numerous large essential infrastructural projects hanging over since Victorian times: lead-pipes, cracked pipes, absent treatment plants. At least Irish Water is a charge of National regime which can prioritise projects across the country. Arthurstown's [pop 135] issues and discharges are less important than that fact that Roscommon's [pop 1700] drinking water is filled with Cryptosporidium.

If we-the-people employ a group of qualified and trustworthy people to manage the water quality why-oh-why do we-the-people need another set of qualified and trustworthy people at the EPA to oversee them? With so many layers of control and all those comfy salaries, we're still not able to clean up our act. Surely we should give a tax-credit to people like me who are so far from even a small urban area that an going-off-site sewage pipe is out of the question. But even we have flush-toilets which foul the drinking water which comes from our own bore-hole. We should forget about tax-credit and give folding money to families like Mr and Mrs Rissole who just drink their drinking water and shit in a bucket.  And don't get me started on disposable diapers, After Armageddon and our children start to mine the land-fills for all the useful stuff we threw over our shoulders, they are not going to be happy having to shift through filled diapers and unfinished take-aways. I shall die happy if I never have cause to regret food I wasted in the extravagant times.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

STEM future

Last week saw the launch of another report about the future of teaching STEM [Science Technology Engineering Maths] in schools. As a country we've given up on de Valera's vision of dancing at the cross-roads and making butter; and have signed up to a business model where we whore ourselves out to multinational Pharma and InfoTech. It's sort of working: the Pharmaceutical Biotech industry has created a number of jobs in various peculiar locations around the country depending on which TD was minister of employment at the time when the IDA struck a deal to provide a shed and tax-breaks in return for jobs-for-voters. A lot of Viagra is being manufactured in Cork. The IT sector has seen a great many of the tech giants set up their European Hubs in Ireland; not usually in Ballygobackwards because the broadband is not there. AirBnB, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Oracle, PayPal, Twitter, Yahoo, Yelp in Dublin; Apple in Cork; Uber in Limerick; Cisco in Galway. And of course a rake of other billion $ companies so hip and trendy that I haven't heard of them.

The argument is that Irish school leavers are highly educated, fluent in English, reasonably docile and so this is a good place to recruit interns. If the education is so cracking good, it will also serve as a come-on to more senior executives who will have children and don't want, or can't afford, to ship them to Switzerland for the International Baccalaureate.  As my Boston boss explained to me when the U.S. Morrison Visa program allocated 16,000 work-visa to the Irish in the 1990s "If you ask an Irish kid to saw a baulk of timber into three equal lengths, they have the math; the average US high schooler wouldn't know where to begin". As the father of three successful working autodidacts, I have my doubts about whether Irish schools really deliver the goods. And when I see the extent of math knowledge among incoming students to The Institute, I get to be afraid for our ability to thrive as a technological nation.

If there's a problem, real or imagined, form a committee and have them write a report. That's the Irish Way. It keeps the optics polished. We wouldn't want to address the niggling idea that some teachers are scarcely competent drones who are 'teaching' to such a curriculum-crammed schedule that they can barely think straight, let alone have creative and inspiring ideas about how to convey the difficult concepts. We had a diktat from our Union last week that we workers at the coal-face of education should resist any move to allow our Heads of Department sit in the back of one of our classes. When I had a part-time contract at the place 10 years ago we were obliged to hand out and collect evaluation forms at the end of each module . . . but that these were to be treated as private to the lecturer. I asked my senior class for feedback in the last lecture-slot and was gobsmacked at the response.  The lazy, the out-of-depth, the out-of-date could thus carry on teaching the same-old same-old regardless of how useful / useless was the process for the students.

And the report? It says that STEM teachers should be formally qualified in the subjects they teach. Having the gym-guy teaching remedial biology will no longer be acceptable. That's an optics solution, if ever. You may have a brilliant, inspirational physics teacher who has been doing the biz for 20 years churning out top qual graduates who will now have to take evening classes to get a redundant slip of paper. The crap physics teacher may get better if he has to sit the Leaving Cert himself but then it might be better for everyone if he was let go entirely.

Then the report  has predictable gender-balance aspirations. As if when we have more girls signing  for physics we'll have sorted the fact that Google and LinkedIn will later pay them 79c on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. If you make physics interesting and relevant, girls are sharp enough to dump the gender stereotypes and embrace the madness of the inclined plane.

And now, according the the Minister of Educ., Richard Bruton, within a couple of years we'll have a Leaving Certificate in Computer Science, including coding. That last phrase must be important because it is used twice in the RTE report of the report launch.
Q. How can you teach computer science without coding !?!?
A1. The way you teach the calculus without ever giving an example of its use outside the classroom.
A2. The way they taught me french for ten years in school and I couldn't buy a loaf of bread in Paris.

Monday 28 November 2016

Missing the principal

Last week was busy with funerals.  On Monday, we buried the last of my father's generation. He had no brothers or sisters and I wrote about a couple of his cousins a couple of weeks ago. In that reminiscence, I neglected to mention another pair of cousins, a boy and a girl, and the last of these was being laid to rest in the family plot in Co Wicklow. I had to cancel a class instruct the students to "do independent self-directed learning", because we never cancel classes at The Institute. When I left home, I looked at the sky and listened to the weather forecast and decided to leave my father's funeral overcoat at home rather than have something else to keep tabs on. The bright Winter sun slipped behind a cloud 15 minutes later and a cold driving rain came along in its place.Only rain, not sleet or snow and it stopped after an hour shortly before I got to church. Things went fine until we had to go outside for the actual burial: there we were met by a whippy wind and light drizzle and before long my knees were shaking uncontrollably as they fought to maintain core-body temperature. When we were done, I remarked to a distant cousin that, cold as I was, it was a lot colder below ground and so we parted. I couldn't go to the Afters at the local hotel because I had more classes in the afternoon that really needed my care and attention.

While I was getting chilled to the knee-caps, The Beloved was on the high seas going to help repatriate Dau.I after her 5 year sojourn in Egypt England [let my people go etc.]. TB's ferry was the last to leave Ireland on that route because a huge storm was forecast and crossings were cancelled in advance. That was the Storm Angus that whacked Brittany on Sunday 20th November and caused a power outage in 70,000 homes.  But The Beloved made it across the Irish Seas into the shelter of Milford Haven and up against Pembroke Dock on time and in good shape. The parallel Stena ferry was not so fortunate: Fishguard is much more exposed than Pembroke and the captain was unable to dock safely. The passengers spent 23 hours heaving up and down at sea waiting for the wind to die down. Complimentary buckets for all passengers.

The following day, I represented The Institute at a careers fair down the road and got me a free lunch. I was reminded on return that the uncle of my oldest friend was coming home to rest that afternoon. He was as strangely eccentric chap - of horse-riding protestant stock from the Midlands like my own people and he was determined to be buried in the same County Wexford as my grandfather. The fact that he made only fleeting visits to the home place in Wexford and had actually died in Denmark made this desire only slightly awkward. Protestants don't mind being cremated and it's very easy to ship ashes - much easier than, for example, 100ml of shampoo. Indeed the uncle had died several weeks ago and Tuesday 22nd November had been picked a month previously to achieve maximum attendance by and convenience for his extended family. His devoted Danish friends had elected to drive themselves and the urn to the funeral obsequies and had booked tickets on the Fishguard ferry. They had to spend 23 hours in a B&B in Fishguard and missed the funeral! At least they could look out at the storm rather than slopping about in the middle of it. If this reminds you of the story of my father being late for his own funeral, it must be the way that I tell it.  After classes and careers fair I drove the length of two counties to spend time with the family and arrived at the hotel about 30 minutes before the Danes and the leading man. One of the nephews whipped the urn up to his bedroom to decant some of the remains into a separate container. It turned out that not everyone was agreed about where Uncle should be laid to rest and the compromise was a split decision.

And although I'd been fed to the gills at lunchtime, I could hardly refuse to dine with the family after the partitioning was complete. Like many funerals for people who have passed away after a long life, the sadness was mixed with a certain levity as we reflected on the many wonderful tales that had accrued about another Anglo-Irish eccentric.

Sunday 27 November 2016

QIermont Ferrand

Alors mes gars, j'ai promis de trouver quelque chose d'intéressant sur Clermont Ferrand. Mais c'est plus facile à dire qu'à faire.
When I was a guest of the School of Engineering for dinner the other day, the key-note speaker was introduced by the head of the college by telling a funny story about Le Grand Fromage. Later when I was fact-checking for my Blob, I found that same story was the 4th hit with Google. If The Provost was a journalist, I'd probably chid him with being too lazy-arsed to dig up something novel. But then as the head of a large corporation, his diary is full of similar events and he has to write his own speeches - in contrast to US Presidential candidates, for example.

I should be a little more sympathetic: in trotting out my 600 words a day, some Blobs turn out more timeless and insightful than others. If I didn't have a day job and a certain requirement for sleep, I'd find more time for reading and research and to polish the final draft. Sometimes you can throw in the towel and start making ironic comments. When I worked in England, long before the WWW and friendface, it was the custom to send a picture postcard back to the workhouse while on vacation.  It was a courtesy and mostly harmless "having a lovely time, wish you were here" gesture. But the accumulated pictures on the coffee-room notice board got to seem all too samey after a while - sunsets, white-sand beaches, La tour Eiffel - so that there was barely a twinge of envy that we the recipients were still choosing between a Kit-kat or a Twix at the Office. Some bright spark sent in a postcard of a campus office block with the message "this is an entry in the most boring postcard competition".  That appealed greatly to the well-developed English sense of irony and started off an spate of increasingly banal picture postcards.

Mais revenons nous a L'Auvergne! If only the task was to find something interesting about the Auvergne; why you could just listen to Canteloube's chants d'Auvergne for half an hour. That would set you up for the day.  Microbiologists could muse about the cheeses of the Auvergne - Cantal, Saint Nectaire, Gaperon until the cows came in for milking.  What can we say about Clermont-Ferrand? I asked the folks at QI but they came up almost empty. The WWW te1ls us that
  • Blaise Pascal had a religious sister, Jacqueline, and that both were born in C-F.
  • Pope Urban announced the 1st Crusade from Clermont before it was twinned in 1630 with Montferrand
  • There is a splendid statue of Vercingetorix in C-F's Place de Jaude
    • it was created by Frédéric Bartholdi, more famous for the Statue of Liberty in NYC
  • The cathedral is build of a local black lava which stands in striking contrast [see R] to the surrounding buildings.
You see, it's clear that we are scraping the barrel a bit here. Here's the lazy-arse GoToogle site for those who want 15 C-F soundbytes. I guess the most well-known picture to come out of C-F is Bibendum the Michelin Man [see L early avatar and top newer, cuddlier], the brain child of Édouard and André Michelin the tyre people. Their company Compagnie Générale des établissements Michelin SCA still has it's headquarters in C-F.

Here's a nice essay, from the advertising design perspective, on the evolution of the cartoon chappy that drinks up obstacles on the road. And here's another: apparently there is a whole book written about the icon and its development. There is museum to the company L'aventure Michelin which is ironically located in the old factory where Michelin used to make tyres. Making tyres in C-F is history because although head-office and The Suits remain, the manufacture has been shipped out to where the labour is cheaper. Santé!

Arts Block 271116

Today's not-science:

Saturday 26 November 2016

Careers Fair

The Central Statistics Office, here in Ireland, has just released the October unemployment statistics which fit the steady downward trend from a 15% peak in 2012. That's 1/7th of the available workforce being on the the dole. The October 2016 figures show that number of useless mouths and wasted talent has been halved over the last 4 years. Indeed comparing last month to October 2015, there are nearly 30,000 netto more people back in work and most of them are full time. I guess we can take it from this that the recession is over and if people want to work they will find a suitable billet soon enough. That's the gloss, the more brutal reality is that youth employment is at a much lower rate and you're 2x likely to be out of work if you are under 25 than if you're a full adult. I just had an e-mail from the smartest boy in the room saying that he couldn't find a job in science and was thinking to invest €7,500 in a taught MSc - at least it would engage his mind.

That is an argument for going to college after school (or post-grad after college nowadays); because unless your Daddy or Uncle Jim can sort out a job for you, you may have to look long and hard before you land a job in the hospitality sector (pulling pints and cleaning toilets) or retail (stacking shelves in Aldi). If you're going to college because there is no work you may as well either a) enjoy your 3-4 years marking time or b) use it as an opportunity to up-skill, so that you wear a tie to work tell other people which shelves to stack. But which of the thousands of available courses do you choose? One way is to go to a careers fair and pick up brochures from several colleges and employers and use the event to talk to someone who works in a college / institute that is logistically feasible. If it takes two long unconnected bus journeys to go from college to home, you're probably not going to sign up . . . why, you'd have to do your own laundry at the weekend.

The Institute asked for volunteers to man their stand at a careers fair last week in the Function Hotel down the road. There was a hint of a free lunch, so naturally I signed up to talk to school leavers for a couple of hours between classes. It turned out that a) we were the nearest to the venue b) we had by far the biggest and most elaborately lit back-drop c) we had by far the largest number of people [wo]manning the stand. Lots of us [free lunch alert!] were prepared to travel for 3.5 minutes and hang out for an hour. Apart from the Gardai and the Army, there were a couple of dozen institutes of higher education. I know because I got tired of chatting to my The Institute colleagues and went for a scout around the rest of the ballroom to see who was there and what they did different from us. That's why they call it a careers fair not a job fair - college is an opportunity to stave off for another four years being a net contributor towards paying off Ireland's €23 billion of bank debt.

A lot of institutions had sent a single person and in many cases that person was slumped on a chair tricking about with a smart-phone. Presumably because they had no clients; but that demeanour is going to ensure no punter-interest so makes the whole exercise a waste of time and money. At least The Institutistas were all upright.  I stopped by the DCU stand briefly because they had free pens and it's a long time since I was at a medical conference to replenish the stationery. I said that our pens were crap which was a sorry indictment of / metaphor for the quality of the education / technology we offered. Ms DCU otoh swore that DCU pens were The Biz: why she'd written herself through the Leaving Certificate with one. If she was now in college, that must have been a marathon of writing, so was an excellent indicator of pen-quality; and by implication DCU-quality  The other person who was worked off her feet was a young post-graduate student representing my alma mammy TCD. She was working the crowd so hard and so on-her-own that I offered to shill for her and hand out some brochures.  But she demurred - having too much fun, she said, and the buzz is mighty.  The army and the police were also doing a land-office business - with both boys and girls.

Enrollments are directly linked to staffing numbers, so in a sense we are recruiting for our own jobs. But there's got to be more than bums-on-seats.  If we can get one smart but havering student to sign with us rather than Some Other Place, that's an investment in our own happiness and sanity. So, if my time-table permits it at all, I go down to these events with my happy face on. I'd do it even if there was no free lunch . . . honest. The free lunch was a piece of chicken the size of my clenched fist with spuds and veg followed by an extensive art-work of chocolate, cheesecake and ice-cream. Rather more than my usual two-breadcrusts-and-a-slice-of-cheese lunch. Frankly, I've no idea how desk-johnnies stay awake in the afternoon with all that food to process. I came away 2kg and one pen heavier than I had been at breakfast: no need for dinner in the evening.

Friday 25 November 2016

Gearing up the Gram stain

In my Yr3 Food and Fermentation Microbiology course aka F&F, the kids do a helluva lot of Gram stains. This chemical /microscopic test usefully divides the bacterial world into two enormously variable classes based on properties of the cell wall. That's important because the cell wall is a very common target for our 20thC anti-biotics some of which only operate against one class or the other. Penicillin, for example, used to work against 'Gram-positives' like Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Clostridium and Listeria and not-so-much against enterics like Salmonella. Of course penicillin does not work against anything anymore because of the rise and rise of anti-biotic resistance - MRSA anyone? Because resistance has been promoted by flaithulach use of anti-biotics, no medico wants to prescribe an anti-biotic which will be ineffective against the cause of the infection while promoting resistance among the microbial innocent bystanders. So one of the first tests in the Path Lab is a Gram stain.

Whom do we have to thank for this work-horse of bacterial diagnostics? Why, Dr Gram of course. Hans Christian Gram, a Danish citizen, was working  in the city morgue in Berlin and used much patience and ingenuity to develop a stain that would make bacteria more visible under the microscope when he was trying to establish cause of death (often TB at that place and pre-antibiotic time). The fact that half the bacteria he encountered stained blue-purple and half pink [see R, if you look carefully you can see that the blue ones are spherical and the pink are rod-shaped - if you can't look carefully under pixellating conditions you're not cut out for microscopy] was a by-product for him but super-useful for pathologists - and F&Fists - ever since.  Gram must have been patient and ingenious because we have finished up with a protocol that involves fixing, staining, washing, different staining, decolourising, washing, counter-staining, washing, drying, viewing.

Every year we get a leaven of French students in Yr3 under the Erasmus scheme. These étudiants formidables are really good for us because they are different. And formidable because les lourdauds et monoglots will have stayed at home in Nantes or Paris. In Ireland the protocol is carried out by flooding the glass microscope slides, the this then that, on racks above a sink or staining tray and letting the excess stains run off down the drain. In France otoh they keep the stains in special glass jars and transfer the slides from one to the next in order.  Every week or so, they dump the stain and make up fresh, I don't know which is more wasteful but the french method seems more efficient and less messy. One issue, I suppose, is whether you are doing one preparation or many-at-once.

Last Tuesday I was being adult-in-the-room for the Yr4 research project students. Students are not allowed in any lab unless supervised. Now, my level of expertise at the bench doesn't make me the most competent person in the room to give a tutorial on how to use a Spectrophotometer but after 40 years in science I'm not totally useless with my advice. One of the kids had a pile of Petri dishes and was fixing a sample to a slide prior to doing a Gram stain. This involved holding the slide with a pair of wooden tongs and passing it through the flame of a Bunsen burner to dry off the water and bake the bacteria unto the glass. You have to be a little slippy here, because a beginner's error is to crack the slide in too hot a flame - it's one of the reasons for wearing safety-glasses in the lab. Looking at the mountain of Petri dishes to be processed, I realised >!shazzammm!< a more efficient way of drying/fixing multiple samples. Why not, I suggested, spread the soup on several different slides and leave them on top of the hot-as-hell (well, a tad over 100oC aNNyway) autoclave to dry off. That way a) no cracking b) you can prep-up the next batch while waiting.  And surely 25x samples is the time to do the Gram stain à la mode français? More time for tea that way.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Among Engineers

Much as I respect my colleagues and love working in The Institute, the very expensive education part of me doesn't get much watering. For that, I have to go to Wexford Science Café or up to the ould alma mammy Trinity College Dublin. I was conflicted last Tuesday because it was Third Tuesday and so a SciCaff evening but I was also invited to dins at TCD: diary clash! SciCaff happens every month but free dinner at TCD occurs only once every tuthree years . . . so I went up to The Smoke.

Last time I attended such an event, I had a fascinating conversation about a re-birth of the subject of anatomy effected by the advent of 3-D printers. That also served as a vehicle for a rant about science policy and not trying to control the direction of funding / research / teaching toooo much. We none of us know whence the truly game-changing inventions and discoveries are going to pop up. Last Tuesday, I was invited to a celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the foundation of the TCD School of Engineering. The man who pushed that boat out in 1841 shares a surname with me and there is evidence a story that we are rellies. If someone can tie the 19thC engineer back to the Big House in King's County, then we'd be 8th cousins 4 times removed. He died about a decade after my grand-father was born in The Big House. The upshot, anyway, was that I was invited to attend the unveiling of a plaque commemorating my illustrious ?relative, hear a key-note address by Ireland's most famous living engineer, and get fed. All good fun.

The Great Man was reading his speech [tsk!] about rivetting [it's what engineers do: rivets] war-stories:
  • launching Sea Quest the first North Sea oil-rig at Harland & Wolf
  • the monster 500 tonne Airbus A380, the tail-plane of which is as wide as the wings of a Boeing 737
  • the super short drive shaft of SS Southern Cross and SS Canberra [the funnel's at the back!] 
  • the logistics of getting gas to almost every home in England from the Isle of Grain . . . assuming the SS Richard Montgomery doesn't blow it all up. 
That's a taste of the range of projects and companies where John Parker has been solving problems since he was an apprentice naval architech in the 1960s. Another chunk of his talk was about 'turning around' now moribund but previously successful engineering companies. In all cases, an element of the problem was inflexible, unimaginative and stodgy management whose competence was waaaay below their pay-grade.

Towards the end of his talk, the reading-light on the lectern failed. Without missing a beat, he shifted to the over-head projector on the desk nearby muttering "we have a solution", but the OHP wouldn't work either, so he drifted over to the emergency exit light; continuing his talk the while! But there were 100 other engineers in the room, many of them venerable, all by training problem-solvers and one came down the seat tiers with his smart-phone on 'torch'. It turned out later that the torch-bearer was the retired Chairman of the Commissioners of Irish Lights! Ya couldn't make it up, boys.

At drinkies before the Gala Dinner, I rocked up to the first group of chatting chaps [very few women in attendance] and introduced myself. We got to talking about the ethics of bribery when building bridges in the Third World.  I said it didn't only happen for engineers. In the early 90s, there was a project to look into the genetic diversity of African and Indian cattle that eventually became the dual domestication hypothesis. They needed to send their two very young Effectives out to India to take blood samples. That required shipping a few crates of equipment and supplies out to Mumbai and the paperwork had to be signed off by the Head of Finance of TCD. The HoF was nearing retirement and used to more leisurely and less expensive pursuits than international molecular biology. Indeed his formal job title was probably something suitably 18thC like "The Keeper of the Provost's War-Chest" His code of conduct baulked at a line item on paper work for the bills of lading "Bribes . . . £200". He was persuaded eventually that if he wouldn't sign then the £200,000 project would be "at nothing": the crates wouldn't get through Customs & Excise without the lubrication of dash.  It's long-and-long too late to ask my reasonably honest father how much loot he had to carry in his case when selling missile guidance systems to Greece & Turkey; Chile & Argentina in the 1970s.

This talk about honesty and getting the job done edged into teaching Ethics to students.  One of the chaps had a pot of ethically edgy thought-experiments that he put to his students to get them to reflect on where they could cut-corners. Engineering is a lot about cutting corners: finding solutions to physical problems that are cost-effective. So that the steel ordered is enough to hold the building up but not so much as to occlude all the windows. I was well-impressed by this one "Would it be a good idea to develop a bio-degradable land-mine?"

That is a shocking timely and timeless question. It resonates with Jonathan Pie's contemptuous dismissal of The Left now that Trump has been elected. His position is that the liberal establishment took the no-brainer position in dealing with the Trump issues. They didn't see the need to debate with Trump's supporters because Trump was a buffoon, a net-exporter of US jobs, a sexist, a racist and generally a Bad Egg. You are not going to persuade people of the correctness of your political, social and economic analysis by locking yourself up in Castle Certainty or Chateau Moral Rectitude. Previous US Presidents have been serial shaggers out of wedlock, drunks, gamblers, and living on money which was of dubious provenance. Matter a damn, so long as they did the job?

The easy way out of the land-mine question is allll wet: war is evil so we should have nothing to do with it, sweep our cloak of goodness about us and leave the stage. I seem to remember that our Student's Union got all hot-and-bothered in the 1970s because the TCD School of Engineering had secured a contract from the US Defense Department to develop better ball-bearings for tank turrets. War is a Bad Thing and always has been but we still have war and land-mines are super efficient at interdicting territory between armies: easy and safe to distribute, cheap, devastatingly effective at maiming young men of a different colour / religion / uniform. Cleaning them up afterwards, especially if you have lost the war, is much less easy - not so very different from decommissioning nuclear power stations. Land mines with a half-life of 2 years? Maybe that is a worthy aim for an engineer's PhD project? Is it less moral than cycling round Kampuchea dealing post hoc with civilian leg-loss? If you find that an easy question with a black and white answer, you're a better person than me altogether.  When I say The Boy is an engineer, I am prouder than the cliché Jewish Mamma with her "My son the Doctor . . ."

Wednesday 23 November 2016


I was writing the other day about the new Brewing and Distilling degree, and my Food Fermentation module within it. As this is the first such course and first such module in the country I had to dream up a couple of Text-books. The first (of course) was The Art of Fermenation by Sandor Katz which I came across on our visit to Sherkin last year. The second was Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan [Guardian review]. We've met him before on The Blob with his aphorism "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much" Hey Cooked is on Netflix, so you don't need to struggle through the book. Or just get it straight from the horse's mouth talking to foodie Googlers.

ANNyway, Cooked. Pollan (four visits to Google; TED talk; at the RSA; Mondavi Center UC Davis) has Harry Pottered himself to the top of the heap of trendy food philosophers. Poor Bill "Heat Braise Shanks" Buford is probably chewing his beard with frustration. Both these books / authors have been successful partly because they are already successful but also because each book has a clearly thought out structure. Buford lays it out explicitly in a far too wordy subtitle ": An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher". Poor Buford, trained on the job as a journalist and editor on the New Yorker and Granta thought he could do without a ruthless copy-editor on the title. Pollan otoh affects to shoe-horn his extensive musings and experiences in and around the food industry into four parts called Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Those are the four classical 'elements' of Greek cosmogony.

Phew, there is room for my Cook Book which, with devastating clever-clogs-ness, nods towards the Wu Xing with sections called Fire, Water, Earth, Metal and Wood. In it I will cover the essentials of a happy life: rashers, soups, pizza-oven, sharp knives and dull spatulas.  Into the section Earth / pizza-oven, I will lurry all the stuff that doesn't fit into the wholly artificial structure suggested by my rather unimaginative publisher.

Now, now Bob enough of your sad-sack sniping at Mr Pollan because people listen to him and ignore you and your thoughts on food engineering and the intestinome. What The Blobbies want to know is if there anything of value in Cooked, because it's coming up for the Xmas book-buy season and they have daughters in the catering trade. Verdict: it's okay, the fact that it's taken me 4 weeks to get through half [Fire, Water] is more to do with falling asleep after dinner and a hard day anticking about while teaching at The Institute.

The book has value if only because it looks in some detail at umami, the fifth chemical class for which we have embedded taste-receptors on our tongues. When I was being educated there were only four: sweet, salt, bitter and sour. Up till this month, I have thought that umami = savouriness = glutamate = MSG which is really far too simplistic analysis. The glutamate angle was revealed by a Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda more that 100 years ago. He noted [1908] that the taste from kombu was distinct from the original four and discovered that it could be purified as the salts of glutamic acid, one of the 20 amino acid building blocks of all proteins. MSG is, of course, mono-sodium glutamate one of those glutamic salts. Ikeda's student and successor Shintaro Kodama isolated [1913] a different chemical from dried bonito flakes, another key ingredient in Japanese cooking, called inosine monophosphate IMP that had umami characteristics. The third element in the troika of taste, guanosine mono-phosphate GMP, had to wait until 1957 to be discovered in shiitake mushrooms by Akira Kuninaka. If guanosine tinkles a bell, it's because it is the G in the ATCG of DNA and the AUCG in RNA, the nucleic acids that carry the genetic information.

It had to wait the bones of another 50 years before we in the West heard about umami to start a raft of trendy eating fads and launch a hundred new restaurants.  Of course, like M. Jourdain in Molière's le bourgeois gentilhomme who is surprised and delighted to have been speaking prose for the last 40 years, we have been seeking out and sucking up umami foods since long before the Romans made a batch of fish-sauce or parmesan.

Pollan makes the case that three key ingredients in stock: carrots, onions and celery are the western equivalent of seaweed, fish and mushrooms which perform the complex synergy between three different chemicals to have a positive effect on other dishes. Quoi? I don't believe it, there is no evidence put forward to suggest that carrots are rich in glutamate or inosine.  You just have to think parmesan or soy sauce to realise that they don't cut the mustard. There's slightly more evidence to explain the omnipresence of chicken stock [which includes carrot, onion and celery] in french cookery. The result is not really that everything tastes like every night the goddam chicken, no it's more like everything tastes better from being jazzed up by the glutamate in chicken stock.

A large chunk of the Water section of Pollan's book follows him as it masters the art of slow cooking - the braises, the shin of beef, the lamb-shanks. His position is that long slow cooking will not only transform the unchewable fibres of collagen into succulent enriching gelatin but also will reduce the proteins in meat into its component amino acids . . . including glutamate.  This means that the ropier cuts of hawg and beef can be rendered into a valuable food source and we don't have to satisfy our desire for meat with expensive chops and steaks.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

From behind the tin cup

Whoop whoop polemic warning. Where to start? there are a number of threads. When we were young and in college my sister's BF was enterprising enough to secure a summer job as a chamber maid in a Swedish hotel. Her reasoning must have been similar to mine when I went off to the Netherlands to grub my stake to go to graduate school in America. For me, without obvious skills, a place with a respectable minimum wage was better than home with no minimum wage at all at all. I spent 5 months working all the hours that were available and forcing the family to eat leaves to save enough money to pay a semester's fees. The English Chambermaid was working for the hotel because Summer was their busiest season and they needed extra staff who would fade away with the tourists at the end of September.  It worked well for both parties, it was a contract.  The hotel was under no illusions that cleaning hair clots from wash-hand basins and changing the sheets was a fulfilling and life-long career. They paid well enough to persuade an educated young woman to drudge for a higher purpose, like paying the rent and/or buying her round in college.

Fast forward a generation, Dau.I's BF was interviewing for a chamber-maid position in a fancy Dublin hotel and was asked if she was applying for work elsewhere. This was a few years ago when the recession was still biting, so she replied "Of course. I know that work is scarce, it takes time to set up an interview and I need to secure a job somewhere and soon."  "I'm sorry", replied the HR goon, "that's the end of the interview; we only hire people who are committed to this company and its ethos and work practice".  wtf? This is a company that expects total lifetime commitment from its employees but is still only prepared to pay the minimum wage and will weep crocodile tears when it has to let swathes of staff go at the next squeeze or restructuring. That strikes me as less a contract than the practice of a bully.

While we're on the hotel trade, I'll share an observation of a palomino who is an accomplished jazz musician. This woman makes a modest living doing gigs around the country and has worked and will work in numerous venues in Dublin and down the country. She finds that working in some hotels, like the Hibernian in Kilkenny [R looking continentally sophisticated on the one night in the year when it's comfortable to sit outside in the dark], is fun because the staff are happy, so service is better. But for her, sensitive soul that she is, it's more important that the vibe is better; then she plays better and everyone is happier. Other places are a penance, everyone is glum, the floor manager is barky and the toilets aren't clean.  I bet that's the sort of place Dau.I's BF was rejected from.

Last year, I had a tuthree smart, interesting and interested students working on my watch for their final year research projects. I had a bunch of sleepers as well, so the contrast was noticeable.  One of these lads came to me at the beginning of the year with the germ of an idea that he was interested in pursuing and, with a directional nudge or two from me, rattled through a chunk of independent and original research developing a protocol that has the potential to shave weeks of time and thousands of €€€s from the budget of certain key biotechnology projects. Ace! He's currently looking for work and in the course of an e-mail setting out a game plan for the task wrote "see what's going on and see if anything interests me and more importantly if they have any interest in me."  I'm afraid my shoulders slumped a little when I read this.  If we'd been in the same room I would have seized him by the lapels and given him a damned good shake shouting with each jolt "you . . . are . . . the . . . smartest . . . boy . . . in  . . . the . . . room: of course they will have an interest in you. They will be lucky to get someone who is so creative, determined and almost fatally modest". If you think of yourself as a beggar looking for change, employers will take you at your own estimation and consider you worthless.

My BF in graduate school was one of several people I've met who made me realise that I have a second-rate intellect;  not a sixth rate one, I know I'm not stupid but I know enough to recognise minds manifestly sharper, quicker and more committed than mine [my ambition genes were shot off in the war]. I graduated before her and went back to Europe and a modest career in science whose details are remorselessly getting filled in on The Blob. She took a long time to follow me out the door with her PhD [insecure supervisor, poor mentoring, poor health, bad luck]. She then started to apply for jobs and spent a few years being flown back and forth across the country for interview in places like Bismark, ND; UC Davis; FSU Tallahassee; New York NY. She never got the job and became convinced that a) the advertisement was required HR facade for a known internal candidate b) she was the token female interviewee to fulfill HR's equality requirements.  Eventually she stopped applying and went into avenues of science that weren't tenure-track. But along the way she got a lot of experience in interviews.

She got tired of being required to shill for herself to persuade a committee of slightly bored academics and the ferrety creature from HR (all complacent in the fact that their knees were firmly under the table of secure salary) that she really wanted to work in the Ecology School of Bogsville State. So she started turning the process on its head by announcing that this was the second interview she'd had that month, she was anxious to get her research going and could they please explain to her why she should come to Bogsville. This new approach didn't land her any job offers but it forced everyone in the room to re-evaluate what they stood for and what they had achieved. Throwing away the beggar's tin cup levelled the interview process so that there was a possibility of a mutually beneficial contract which would be good for science, good for the students, good for everybody's self-respect.  If you're deeply attached to the goddam cup, why not rap it sharply with a pencil so make sure the interview board is paying attention to the key points of your argument.

Monday 21 November 2016

Gone viral

Could be titled Been&Gorn Viral or Once and Future Viral because . . .
I've been doing The Blob gig nearly 4 years since I started working at The Institute - a sinister corporation for altering the minds of youngsters in the Irish Midlands - and since May 2013 have put up 500 words of sense and nonsense every day for you Dear Reader. I should rather say chère lectrice nowadays because my french readers far outnumber the Anglophones (.ie  + .uk + .us).  Who knows how long les mecs de Grenoble will hang around before they get bored with the narrow parochialism. There was a time a couple of years ago when the page-view counter reported an unaccountable interest from Ukraine. I tried to communicate directly with them by writing things in Google-translate 'Ukrainian' and making snickering comments about Мать Россия; but it was no use and they've all gone elsewhere.

About three weeks ago, there was an unaccountable surge of interest in what I had to say which included, but wasn't limited to, la francophonie. At least in the recent blip-up it has been obvious what attracted the interest. It was all due to a piece I wrote this last June called Stilt-walking Nonsense.  In that post, I applied my crap-detector to an short video clip that purported to be the cartoon of an endorphin being dragged somewhere. Because I bang on at my students about the relative size of things [glucose is smaller than the pancreas etc.] the scale seemed off and I said so. The meme of seeing happiness being moved from one place to another continued to circulate but any interest in my take on the story died away to the echo. Then a month ago, someone posted a link on Facebook and page-views of my analysis exploded like a balloon with Harry Potter's face on it and soon out-shadowed everything else on The Blob: about 7x more interest than the next most viewed posts II - III - IV. And only the II of those has any intrinsic 'merit' because the other two are included in the list in the next paragraph.

I thought we were getting a lot of traffic from people who had some sense of critical thinking and an interest in crap-detecting. Accordingly, I editted the original post so that it was preceded by a number of other pieces I've written in that vein. That had no effect! Folks were just interested in the one thing that they been sent for and then they went back to restlessly checking The Latest on Facebook. There was a certain amount of through-clickery to links at the top of the sidebar on the days when folks were sent to the Blob by Facebook: 30/10 PV=914 - 31/10 PV=952 - 01/11 PV=957 - 02/11 PV=926 but [no | zero | nul | nix | zonders]  response to my recommendations.  I clearly hadn't scoped the demographic correctly.
Now that minor fad on Friendface has died away and the only people who are reading about stilt-walking and dragging endorphins are those who have been in a cave since the end of October and are only now emerging, pale and unshaven, from an internet-free zone. But we aren't quite at the status quo ante, readers of The Blob are Up from ~100/day to ~1,000/day, and most of those hanging on, as the tide ebbs, are from France. Bienvenue copains, to retain your interest, I'll have to find something interesting to say about Clermont-Ferrand . . . could be difficult.

Sunday 20 November 2016


Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan [R with one of his iconic abstract paintings] was born in Amersfoort near Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1872 and died as Piet Mondrian, having shed a good few letters from his name, in Manhattan in 1944.  I have a bit of a grá for the Painter for the Austere.  In the 1980s (was I on the dole?) I went through a phase of making cubical lamp-shades out of A3 xerox paper glued to a frame-work of 5mm balsa laths. It was interesting how something so lightweight could be quite structurally stable . . . but boring. I decorated the four vertical faces with cartridge paper in black lines with blue, yellow and red rectangles in De Stijl of Mondrian.  It is interesting to hunt for Golden Rectangles in his paintings: there are many.

He featured on Mental Floss a while ago which had drug up a number of quite interesting tidbits and the man and his times. I think his position / practice puts its finger on an element of the debate about the meaning of modern art. Once upon a time, painting and sculpture were the best thing we had to capture the way the world looked. As this work-a-day function was taken over and done more accurately by cameras and 3-D printers, traditional art was left a bit high and dry.  Creative people began to explore the world of sense and sensibility, no longer to portray the gestalt but to try to capture the essence.  This idea has been Blobbed before with Matisse and Viv O'Kelly. So don't run away with the idea that Mondrian couldn't draw or that a child of five - or an unemployed scientist - could do as well or better. The Nazis labelled Mondrian's art as degenerate: they preferred their art as sort of Nordic master-race cartoon characters that left nothing to the imagination.
I've also Blobbed Numberphile before; it's the youtube channel for quants and wonks. They've just posted an interesting puzzle which will keep you mildly diverted when sitting through long boring strategy meetings at work. All you need is some squaredy paper. It's a bit like Gabriele Cirulli's 2048 puzzle that swept through interwebland in 2014, except that the Mondrian puzzle is super low tech.  The idea is that you start with a square (of squares) and undertake to fill it with rectangles (can be square) so that no two fillers have the same dimensions. For the purpose of the game the squares are commutative: 2 x 3 = 3 x 2. This shouldn't be difficult and I've clipped one solution, for a 6 x 6 square [L] from the Numberphile vid. The conceit is that each possible filling can be given a score = [the area of the largest rectangle] - [the area of the smallest rectangle].  In the example shown here that score is [3x4 = 12] - [2x2 = 4] = 8. A lower score is better. Can you achieve a lower score? The lowest possible for a 6 x 6 square is 5.  Is there more than one way to get this? What is the minimum score possible for larger or smaller squares? If you play for a while you'll realise that although the minimum score creeps up as the square to fill gets bigger nevertheless the increase is quite non-linear.  As I say, hours, or seconds if you're of the Twitter generation, of fun.

Song&dance 201116

Women who can run, sing and sing&dance:
And now for something completely different. In WEA there are some ironic surnames. Ox Dic Surnames reviewed in Guardian

Saturday 19 November 2016


I'm more than halfway through Michael Pollan's book Cooked. I've thanked him for his analysis of the virtues of slow cooking and agree that the tastiest meals are those that have been a long time a-coming.  In past times, when he anticipated the arrival of a passel of people, we have been known to order a whole shoulder of pork, which might weigh 8 or 9 kilos of meat. We used to ignore the injunction never eat anything bigger than your head and sear this potlatch lump of meat to start a Maillard reaction then pop it in a slow oven for 18 or 20 hours: more or less cooking it over the pilot light. Dang! but it was good.

Pollan, in the interest of journalistic culinary research, gets himself mentored by an Iranian student of his and they spend several hours of a weekend cooking slowly and discovering new frontiers of tastiness by mixing and matching some quite unlikely ingredients. It is a wrench, and an education, for cash-rich but time poor Mr Pollan to spend so much time chopping onions and peeling spuds when he could be tricking about with his smart-phone or sacked out watching the match on TV. Eventually he come close[r] to that state of grace "When chopping onions, just chop onions". Only wimps cry when chopping onions, if you ask me. He comes to realise that preparing food, especially if done together, has its own rewards. It is not just a means to a meal. His family have to suffer through this intense devotion to The Art of the Stock-Pot . . . that, or roll up their sleeves and help cut stuff up. Another point is that, by investing some time in the kitchen over the weekend, you can get ahead of yourself later in the week - everyone knows that a stew or a curry tastes better second or third time round.  Like in the days of our [great-]grannies, when the Sunday chicken would be cold on Monday, pie on Tuesday, rissoles on Wednesday and soup on Thursday; the Pollans can get four family meals from the weekend's 'work'.

At one point, after weeks of tagines and marmites and lamb-shanks à la greque and duck thighs in hoisin sauce, the Pollan family commendably carry out what we scientists would call a negative control.
Q. If this all this home cooking is so damned good what are we comparing it to?
A. Convenience food, is what.
They agree that one day in the coming week will be Microwave Night and Pollan and his chap will go to the supermarket and get their food ready-prepared. It will be a change, it will be normal, and how bad can it be?  Food engineers get paid the big bucks because they can persuade folks to come back for more of that.

On Der Tag der Mikrowelle after school, the two boys [Mum refuses to participate but orders lasagna] push a trolley into the microwave-dinners aisle at the local Safeway. Well, they are overwhelmed; like when we first went to Boston in 1979 and found a whole aisle devoted solely to pet-food. Salivating there it took them 20 minutes just to decide what amazing constructions to try. Indeed the chap dithered so long that his father said they'd buy both desirable options, which helped the bill up to $27 (!) My first pay-packet was £6.50, so those sort of prices for a single meal make me feel a bit weak at the knees - but that's my baggage, it doesn't have to be yours. So, by my analysis they are already deeply in the hole before they're even home.

But they still have two shovelfuls to excavate into the pit of dystopia.
  1. Everything tastes [that's a Good Thing and a tribute to the food engineers], but tastes vaguely the same [not so good] which Pollan puts down to hydrolyzed vegetable protein HVP appearing in every table-of-contents. That is engineer's code for MSG and is quite possibly achieved by filling a vat full of roots and stalks and boiling it up with 1M NaOH to break all the bonds between the amino acids of any residual protein as quickly and efficiently as possible. What's left after the abstraction of HVP can be fed to pigs or used loft-insulation.The alkaline protein slurry can be neutralised with 1M HCl which contributes the added side-product of NaCl and water. NaOH + HCl --> NaCL + HOH Wait, that's no by-product: that's an asset because salty food tastes so good . . . and is so bad for blood-pressure. 
  2. This sack full of convenience food takes 37 minutes of juggling stuff in and out of an over-worked microwave; and family are so busy jumping up and down to service the instrument that they can't all sit down at table together. One of their choices, french onion soup, can be prepared in the microwave but the engineers suggest that better results come from 40 minutes in a hot [regular] oven. As Pollan cries "I could make french onion soup from scratch in that amount of time". 
  3. And I won't address, because it is invisible to Pollan as the omnipresent background to American life, the bag full of packaging that is left at the end of the night.
Convenience food? My eye! Pollan notes elsewhere in the book that many of the products of the food industry have the look and feel of field rations for the Marines. It doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to twig that convenience food took off after WWII when General Foods had tooled up factories across the US to services its armed forces. All that plant and nowhere to go? Not if they could persuade the returned vets and their wives to continue buying ready meals in tins and just-add-water packets. This might remind you of the the re-purposing of the nitrate industry from making munitions to making 'indispensible' fertiliser to be sold to and ultimately beggar farmers across the Western world. We can curse Fritz "Der Teufel inkarniert" Haber for the nitrates. We can only blame ourselves for convenience food.

We don't have a microwave anymore: it was second hand when we got it, lasted for 20 years and then died. In Ireland, it is impossible to get such household kit fixed for less than the cost of a new one. Microwaves are really handy for two things: 1) Heating 200 ml of milk in a cup for, say, hot chocolate 2) making scrambled eggs. Both of these, particularly the latter, make a devilish cleaning chore when made on the stove-top with a saucepan. <whoop whoop safety alert> I was supervising [acting as the adult in the room] the 4th year research projects yesterday and was chatting to one of that cohort, who works in the catering trade to support his science habit. He demurred about cooking scrambled eggs in the industrial microwave in his works-kitchen. "Have you ever seen a scrambled eggs burn? It's not a pretty sight", he said. Apparently the mess of scramblers can sometimes include a super-heated vapour bubble that blows up in your face.

Friday 18 November 2016

Tally the bone yard

It's that time of year when the 1st Year Sporty People try to work out how many bones they have about their person.  I've done this before in 2014 and 2015 and it's an exercise that keeps on giving. One of the pervasive anti-science elements of teaching practice is to say or imply that there is a correct answer.  If we know the answer already then we're not doing science. I've heard all the arguments about giving students tasks to do which improve their dexterity and practice at the bench so that they become, eventually, a good pair of hands. For example, talking to my Yr 3 Microbiologists on Thursday, I told them that the 60 hours of lab time we have together is An Opportunity . . . to learn their craft through repeated practice.  It wasn't about the results, which are quite unlikely to be either new or unexpected. It was about doing Gram stains until you no longer have to follow the protocol from a book but have internalised it. It was about pouring Petri dishes in a zen like state so that each is the same thickness and in a neat stack. It's about using the autoclave so often that you never forget to label the media bottles; you know the task list so well you dream about it; you know the tricks for expediting the process to win a tea-break in the middle of the afternoon.

Mais, revenons nous a nos squelettes! This year, each group of 2 or 3 people was tasked to inventory a typical skeleton so that it came to N=206. We all agreed that 206 was the Correct Answer. But it transpired that nobody had the same idea about where these 206 bones were located. I put a blank table up on the board and invited the 6 different teams to enter their numbers.  This was a little more constraining than perhaps fair because the rules of engagement didn't, for example, require that the foot and leg should be treated separately. The headings also didn't clarify where the pelvis, clavicle and scapular should be binned.
What's striking, and depressing, about these data is that half the class got the correct answer but achieved this is different ways. Group six didn't even both to make sure that tally in each of the 7 category bins [=207] summed to the 206 Total! I think, formally, they'd be guilt of plagiarism because the numbers - of bones in the skull for starters - are suspiciously close to correct.  But there are 7 extra bones rattling around inside the skull but not attached to it: 2 each of incus malleus and stapes in the ears and one hyoid in the neck. 206land counts two bones in the pelvis L & R innominate rather than 6: two each of ileum, ischium & pubis.
So here is the list, it's normal /definitive, and 206 is just plain wrong:
Axial = 87 (8+14+7+33+25)
  • Cranium N=8: occipital bone, 2 temporal bones, 2 parietal bones, sphenoid bone, ethmoid bone, frontal bone
  • Face N=14: vomer, 2 conchae, 2 nasal bones, 2 maxilla, mandible, 2 palatine bones, 2 zygomatic bones, 2 lacrimal bones
  • Extras N=7: hyoid, ears: 2 stapes, 2 malleus, 2 incus
  • Vertebrae N=33, 7 cervical,12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 5 sacral, 4 coccyx
  • Ribs+sternum N=25
Appendicular = 126 (10+10+54+52)
  • Shoulder and arms N=10: 2 each scapula, clavicle, humerus, ulna, radius
  • Pelvis and legs N=10: 2 each innominate, femur, patella, femur, tibia
  • Hands N=54: 16 carpals, 38 metacarpals and phalanges (thumb only 2 phalanges)
  • Feet N=52: 14 tarsals, 38 metacarpals and phalanges (great toe ditto)
"206" must be ignoring the ear-bone's connected to the ear-bone.And the whole exercise is ignoring the polymorphism, and sesamoid bones and riding rough-shod over issues of definition which I elaborated upon this time last year.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Not even close

Last year, I showed how the level of math-anxiety is so great in certain sections of The Institute that students will put down crazy answers in tests, quizzes and exams just to get it over with. In that case the majority of my students stoutly asserted that 44 concrete blocks occupied half a billion cubic metres.  Now it's another year, another batch of students sitting a midterm in Quantitative Methods = remedial maths. I wasn't about to ask the concrete block question again but I wasn't going to shy away from casting the "math" questions in contexts approximating real life.

Q13. The volume of a sphere is given by the formula 4/3πr3. If a soccer ball is 22cm in diameter, what is its volume in litres?  Everyone in the room has handled a 1 lt carton of milk or orange juice and a soccer ball or seen one on TV.
A. It is just bonkers to assert that the volume is 44,000lt. That's about the size of the largest road tanker we have on the roads in Ireland. Nevertheless 2 students offered this as an answer. Actually they offered 44,602.2 lt.  Which showed that they didn't know the difference between a diameter and a radius and that one had probably copied the other's answer.

Q16. Given that the period (tick . . tock) T of a pendulum is given by T = 2π*√(L/g), that g the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8ms-2 and the length L of the pendulum is 50cm, how long does it take for the pendulum to swing one complete cycle?
A. I can't claim that everyone will have seen a pendulum up close: only a minority of a homes have a grandfather clock. But we have all been in a children's play ground with swings. The almost universal answer to this question was 14 seconds; because they treated the length as 50 rather than 0.5m. You can run 100m in 14 seconds; how could a pendulum half a metre long take that long to swing forward and then back?? In the post-mortem I whipped out my car-keys and swung them from their lanyard - which is about 50cm long - to show that it takes a tad under 1.5 seconds.

Somehow, I/we have to get kids to realise that the units count! Merely plugging numbers into a formula is the easy part, evaluating the answer for sense is another level of competence altogether. We should have a class in guesstimation, like in Mathsemantics Home Ed class.  It might include numbers like counting the spaces for receptor proteins in a typical mammalian cell. More:
  • The full moon was super big on Monday, how far from your eye do you have to hold a dime to eclipse it?
  • Is it possible for all 7.5 billion people to stand comfortably in Co Carlow = 900
    • in the Republic of Ireland 70,000
    • many of them all small
  • If a cell is mostly water and so are you, how many cells are there in a bloke weighing 70kg is the average diameter is 30μm?
  • How thick is a sheet of 80gsm A4 xerox paper if a 500 sheet ream weighs 2.5kg?
  • How many blades of grass did Louis Agassiz inspect during his Summer beetle collecting?
These are all 'first order' problems not requiring anyone to integrate data from several different domains. More complex puzzles are often called Fermi Problems and are much beloved by interviewers at Google, Apple and Megacorp. How many piano tuners in Chicago? etc. Here's a clearing-house site for lots of links on the subject. And here's a list from U.Maryland.  Finally a question turned into a judgement by Dorothy Parker "If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised." [More]

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Maria Island

I was chatting to Dau.I the other day about the 'fact' that she, and I, and the rest of the family are descended from James I & VI [previously ranting about smoking]. It depends on who was the father of Mary Croft, the daughter of Lucy Walter, one of Charles II's many paramours. Charles Stuart is not the most likely paternity candidate. ANNyway. Dau.I mentioned that one of her pals is definitely a descendant of William Smith O'Brien a patriot of the 1848 Young Irelander's Rebellion.  Because WSO'B was born 170 years later than Charles.II, that family can be a lot more certain about who was who's gt gt gt grandfather . . . always discounting the likelihood of bastardy. Non-paternity numbers explained.

The abortive 1848 rebellion in Ireland is seen as being caused by the potato famine on 1845-1849 which in turn was caused by the late-blight fungus Phytophthora infestans. But that's a very parochial view of the Springtime of the Peoples which saw political upheaval across Europe:
  • Cinque giornate di Milano turned the Austrians out of the city.
  • The overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the 2nd French Republic
  • The defeat of the Sonderbund established Switzerland as a federal state
  • Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto and was expelled from Brussels
  • There was a huge Chartist rally on Kennington Common in South London.
  • The Marsoroligheterna riots made March noisy in Stockholm
  • The core of Ukraine was wrenched from direct control by Vienna
  • There was an armed insurrection against Prussia in the Polish city of Poznan.
  • Serfs were liberated in Hungary
  • Denmark became a constitutional monarchy
William Smith O'Brien was, like so many of the Irish revolutionaries (Parnell, Erskine Childers, Wolfe Tone, Edward Fitzgerald), a protestant which might [but won't] make some present day but historical ignorant patriots adopt a less monochrome view of who is Irish. He was sentenced to death but, possibly because His People played cards with The Man's People, his sentence was commuted to transportation to van Diemen's Land.  When he arrived there, refused to sign a parole undertaking not to escape so he spent a couple of years on Maria Island [R]. He went on to other things but we're going to bide awhile on Maria Island.

Maria Island is interesting for a couple of reasons. Bernacchi House tribs the 19thC Italian entrepreneur who set up a silk farm, a vineyard and a cement factory (despoiling the fossiliferous limetsone cliffs) which grew to employ some hundreds of people until the whole house of cards was swept away by the Great Depression. The town of Darlington was briefly named San Diego and rebuilt to house the workers, their families and a steady stream of wondering visitors. All in all, it's charming story but Bernacchi exemplifies the advice that easiest way to finish up with a million dollars is start with two million dollars. Darlington reverted to its original name but is now a ghost-town because there is no work to be had. It's a bit like the sleepy village of Bunmahon on the Waterford Coast back home. In the 19thC, the copper mines there employed 1200 people directly; and numerous other grocers, publicans and pastors live on their backs until the price of copper bottomed out and mines were all closed down.

Locally famous is/was the Robey house on the South part of the Island. Robey was a farmer, originally from South Africa, who scrabbled a living for many years until he too left. His house still stands; for many years it was left as a time-warp filled with furniture and fittings. Friendface link with LOADSA maps and pictures.

In 1971, Maria Island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary and is currently under the care of Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Department. Of particular interest, because they have featured on The Blob, is the introduction of Sarcophilus harrisii, the Tasmanian devil. As I indicated in January, Sarcophilus is being ravaged by a horrendous cancer-inducing and disfiguring virus. The individuals brought to Maria Island are a) believed to be clear b) serving as a germ-free reservoir for the species.  Despite the name, S. harrisii looks kind of cute and so is conservation-bait for tree-huggers. There is some evidence that the introduced devils are doing a number on the native bird-life.
More Islands? We have a list.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Food Ferm 2017

The Friday before last we gave out a couple of hundred certs, diplomas and degrees. Some of us even dressed up in medieval costumes with floppy hats and pointy shoes. In her address to The Faithful (parents, students and teaching staff who must believe that a fine "parchment" and a quality education has been exchanged for several thousand €€€s), the President alluded to the fact that we have students from 90 different countries.  But we don't seem to make a dent in the education of the plain young people of counties Limerick, Dublin, Clare or Louth. It's like we know more about the far side of the moon than we know about the biological make up of the ocean or our own guts.

There are 12 Institutes of Technology ITs in the country and they all aspire to have a global or at least National reach. But that is hardly true if every one of them is offering generic and indistinguishable courses in accounting, biology, and chemistry. Why would you go to the other end of the country when you can get the same deal and live at home?  After the success of CSI on the telly, a number of ITs cynically inserted "Forensic" into the title of their degree courses without troubling the staff to change their delivery to include Blood-splatter 101, Introductory Remains in a Bin-bag, or Semen Stains in the Merchant Marine.  Most years I have a straw pool among our students as to how many a) admit to washing up in The Institute because of the "F" word and b) regret their decision. The answers are a) a lot b) none. We have many virtues at The Institute, it seems, despite the hypocrisy of The Management.

At the beginning of the Summer, The Institute launched its new BSc in Brewing & Distilling. It is an idea whose time has come, we are the first out of the traps, and it may be the saving of the college in the internecine InstTech wars. As this band-waggon started to lumber forward, I leaped aboard crying "Avanti Food Fermentation" and spent a couple of days designing a module on that topic with Learning Outcomes; Deliverables; Assessment Methods; Recommended Text-books and all the other nonsense that bean-counters and brochure-writers require of us. But the substantive content will be:
  • Role of chemical preservation in the food industry: cheap soy sauce, pickled onions, Chorleywood process.
  • Carcinogens as possible downside of food transformation.  
  • Lactic Acid Bacteria LABs and fungi used to transform grains and milk into digestible food such as sourdough. yoghurt, quark, koumiss, kefir, cheese.  
  • Foreign: 
    • fermented vegetable products (sauerkraut and kimchi)
    • dry fermented meat products (chorizo, pepperoni)
    • filamentous fungi fermented beans (tofu, tempeh, soy sauce, miso).
    • I didn't then know about Faeroese ferments like skerpikjøt or turrur fiskur
    • marketing these exotica in Ireland   
  • Production of acetic acid, ethanol, citrate, lactate and glutamate as industrial fermented food products.  
  • Create a delicious fermented food product and eat it.
A few days later, we had the annual Open Day, when prospective students and occasionally their parents come and mooch around the campus to see if it might suit them for the next two, three or four years.  Mostly the kids come in a bus from one or other of the local secondary schools to get a day out of class to stare at their smart-phones in a different place.

Last year, I was in my authentico white lab coat manning the science stand handing out brochures and enthusiasm when a girl and her Dad came by wondering whether to sign up to The Institute or Another Institute. Basically I was given an opening for an elevator pitch. With Food Ferm on my mind, I said that signing with us would open the girl's mind to a world of food that was different from anything she'd experienced. I fantasised that she'd do a research project on making soy sauce and become so intrigued with the process that she'd continue doing it after college. With luck, a garage and some venture capital she'd start Killeshin Soy at a secret location in the Irish Midlands with quirky proprietal Irish! strains of Aspergillus oryzae. Five years later she'd be selling soy sauce to the Japanese. 15 years after that she'd be retired on her money.  Irish soy sauce becoming as hip and sexy as Manga is to us.  It's the 2016 Open Day this week, I'll see what fantasy I can lay on the unsuspecting teen-public this year.

Monday 14 November 2016

She was my teacher

Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry; what do those names tell us? Not much except that that they are both women.  In these transgender times, I would qualify that as 'probably' women. If I tell you that they met on 14th November 1960, you'll know they were definitely female. But apart from that fact, the only thing they had in common was that they both lived in New Orleans. Ruby had always lived there: for all of her six years walking this blue planet. Barbara was an outsider, born in Boston in 1932, who went to the Girl's Latin School in Roxbury / Dorchester a short walk from the Franklin Park Zoo. In school and in the street she rubbed shoulders with other girls some of whom weren't white and all of whom were treated with respect if they could cut the academic mustard. It's not fair to paint too rosy a picture of integration in the Boston of the 1930s and 1940s because I've read Death at an Early Age, Jonathan Kozol's scorching account of teaching grossly disenfranchised black and white kids in Roxbury in the 1960s.

Harvard educated [and let's not forget Rhodes Scholar at Oxford] Kozol spent some time in Paris learning his craft as a writer but came back to his native land to work with children who hadn't had his opportunities. If you're in the education biz - and that's all of us in the University of Life - you could, with advantage, read his book: only $0.01 on Amazon. Kozol was sacked for exposing himself his kids to the works of Langston Hughes a black poet and activist. The "himself " in the previous sentence is by no means a cheap shot: nowadays teachers exposing themselves to small children is one of the seepier leitmotifs of our times and would even in the 1960s have gotten a teacher fired. But I also mean to imply that by reading that poem aloud in class, Kozol was exposing his very soul . . . and that was part of the undertow that sucked him into deep water. Teachers are meant to keep a certain distance from their pupils; to compartmentalise the working day from their other passions. Nobody has explained why this is a good idea. Here is one stanza from Hughes's The Ballad of  the Landlord:
Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that's Ten Bucks more'n I'l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.
Which will resonate with anyone who is living in a shit-hole in Cork, Kilkenny or Dublin and dare not complain to the landlord in case s/he remembers to put up the rent. The rest of the poem here.

Barbara Henry also did a stint in Paris because her education had created a ferment in her mind and she wanted to see the world. Accordingly she signed up to teach Air Force Brats [I was a Navy Brat] at a USAF base in France where she met and married a dashing young Lieutenant from Louisiana and returned home with him to New Orleans. She got a job teaching in William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans which was chosen by the Feds to be one of the first to be desegregated in The South. When little Ruby Bridges rocked up with her ruler pencil and lunchbox she was accompanied by four Federal Marshalls and greeted by a hootin' and hollerin' mill of white folks who were trying to dam the tide of history by keeping small black girls from being in the same classrooms as small white girls. Here she is, captured by Norman Rockwell:
You can see that girl has back-bone. It might help to deconstruct the picture [spot the golden rectangles!] as a picture. It might also help to deconstruct the situation by noting that, when little Ruby turned up all but two of the white teachers stood down and almost all of the white kids were withdrawn from school. Ms Henry was the only person in the city who was prepared to actually teach the girl. That's nothing, or very little, to do with the Girl's Latin School or Paris. It is rather to do with the moral and physical courage that gave Barbara Henry the back-bone to defy the mob and get on with the job. Oh yes, and she loves the poetry of Langston Hughes as well:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly
You can read Barbara Henry's recollections of the time and place in the Boston Globe from two years ago. As Ruby Bridges acknowledges, you learn more from your teachers than ABC and where Paris is; you learn how to carry yourself. This is her story about knowing one white woman who cared for and pushed her: thereafter she was going to judge people not by the colour of their skin but the content of their character [Martin Luther King, he said that]. But that clip also reveals that her father lost his job and her grandparents lost their share-cropping holding in Mississippi . In 1996, these two game-changers, were re-united [R looking right happy to be in each other's company again].

56 years! What's changed? Well, the following year William Frantz ES was open and fully peopled including a handful of other black kids. But before you get all complacent and dismiss the events of November 1960 as so last century m'dear, you may care to remember Holy Cross School in the Ardoyne area of Belfast and the mob which tried to prevent Catholic children going to a Catholic School in 2001[no integration here].

Now here's where there really has been a big change. Check out the footage from 1960s Louisiana and try to spot the fat people . . . there aren't any.