Tuesday 31 January 2017

24 horas en Sevilla.

O for a draught of vintage! that hath been  
  Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,  
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,  
  Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!  
O for a beaker full of the warm South!
Keats was dreaming of the booze and was far too poetic to find oblivion is a feed of pints. Nothing would do but claret or some other beverage with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple-stainèd mouth. Silly boy, look what all that plonk [and a good dose of Mycobacterium tuberculosis] did for him, tragically dead at 25. Me, I'm more of an orange sort of bloke, especially if they are from Andalusia and too bitter to eat raw. I last made marmalade at the beginning of 2014, which my calculators tells me is three long years ago. Then, my pal Aoife bought a crate of Seville oranges from Sam Dennigan in the Dublin Fruit Market and brought them down for a marmalade meitheal. That post generated an unaccountable spike of interest in The Blob - as if my nerdnik readers had never heard of marmalade before.

In November, Aoife said that she was down to her last pot and was I planning making more marmalade this Winter . . . and, after a good bit of dropped batons and missed messages, it was so. We agree that Saturday 28th Jan 2017 would be Den Tag der Marmelade, and it was so. Aoife+1 arrived at noon and 10 minutes later the three largest pots in the house were full of oranges and water for a 3 hour simmer. Making a batch of marmalade consumes a lot of time but most of it is not working time. After 3 hours at 100°C, the poor oranges have lost a lot of weight, but have transmuted their pectin into something gloopy that will gel the solution if supplied with enough sugar and if the pH is sufficiently acid. My recipe calls for squeezing the pectic-rich soup through a muslin cheese cloth and I started doing that on Saturday: massaging a bolus of hot orange pulp with my hands.
Then I remembered that, since the last marmalade time, we had acquired a a stainless steel conical sieve, so I put the cheese-cloth aside and lurried the pulp into the sieve. A great improvement, and at the end of the day my hands were normal coloured instead of red and raw as an 18thC washer-woman's.  Having separated the gelly liquid from the internal fibre and pips, we added 3kg of sugar to 3 pints [the alchemy of jam doesn't require consistent SI units] of gloop and the skins ground in my old-fashioned Spong mincer. [for which see prev]. Two batches of gloop+sugar+peel came quickly to the stage where the confection would set at room temperature and by 5pm we had bottled 32 jars of marmalade; in the process using up about 60% of the crate of oranges.

The next morning, my support team having returned to Dublin with most of the previous day's production, I rose at 0600hrs to start another batch. It took a little longer because I was on my own but by the forenoon I had finished the 2017 season with another 2 dozen jars - some double-sized. That was more or less 24 hours after we started the day before. It's sort of mad. If my time is worth the minimum wage of €8.20, then 25 pots of jam costs €40 in labour and about €10 for materials. €2 / lb is about the middle range of shop-bought marmalade: Tesco Value = €0.49; Olde Time Irish 2 for €4.00; Bonne Maman €3.39.  This doesn't factor in the cost of transport from Dublin, so maybe marmalade making is, to paraphrase Dr Johnson's assessment of Antrim's Giant's Causeway, "Worth doing but not worth going to do".

I was so taken with the utility of the conical sieve, that I went round to lend it to a jam-making pal of mine. No good to me was her response. Her recipe calls for cooking the oranges and throwing  the whole mess skin-and-all into a food-processor. Clearly no washer-woman hands in that home either.

Monday 30 January 2017

the trumpets shall sound

Let's start off with some Handel, 9 minutes of the trumpets shall sound from the Messiah: play that in the background while you read this. Handel is the past, a deep past where there was no effective health care, huge disparity in wealth, fearsome childhood mortality . . . and sublime music. In The West we have addressed some of these horrors but largely at the price of despoiling the planet to create an illusion of wealth-in-stuff. Unbelievable stuff which I've been addressing on The Blob:
A couple of years before I was born Issac Azimov created the character of Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian with a walk-on part in his Foundation trilogy. Hari Seldon was able to analyse the collective personalities and actions of a mass of people and use these data to predict the future. The future is motoring along to become the present in the predicted manner until an outsider called The Mule, a mutant mentalic, appears who is so different that the algorithm no longer works and chaos threatens. It all works out for the Galaxy in the end but then it is fiction.

I mentioned the red toaster above and originally last July when it came crashing through my e-window trying to sell itself because I'd made an idle enquiry about it on Google.  It was a rather crude play, which served to convince me that Big Data wasn't so scary after all. If a ludicrous kitchen accessory was the worst that electronic capitalism was going to lob in my direction, then I could swat it away and move on with my integrity intact. I was naive because The Man knows more about me than I am comfortable knowing about myself. I heard about this because my pal Rissoles pointed me at an article by a couple of Swiss journalists, Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, about Big Data getting mobilised with a degree of sophistication. The psycho-number-crunchers are not responding to my poorly articulated desires with a flying toaster but with targeted, personalised messages [social media is so addictive and so real and so self-affirming] about what to do at the next election. Not so much "these aren't the droids you're looking for" as these are the candidates you're voting for.

I'm different from you, but I recognise myself in some people more than others and I often say things like: Jim is just like Ted (and I distrust them both). The Big Data psychometricians [key PNAS paper] can now simplify me to a highly predictable dot in 5 dimensional hyperspace using the OCEAN model. OCEAN is an acronym:
  • Openness (how open are you to new experiences?)
  • Conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?)
  • Extroversion (how sociable are you?)
  • Agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative are you?)
  • Neuroticism (how sensitive/vulnerable are you?)
You dear reader will be another dot, reasonably close to me because you are reading my guff instead of playing Grand Theft Auto, running in the dark, or polishing your Nazi memorabilia. To the extent that we have a life on-line, The Man knows what our coordinates are and knows how to shift our equilibrium to behave in ways that suit his agenda. Apparently, these goons were employed to good effect by a) Nigel Farrage b) Ted Cruz and c) Donald Trump. Some people have already made a lot of money out of this. "For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind" Hosea 8:7. That seems suitably apocalyptic.

Aw shucks, the future is so bleak let's go back and listen to Pachelbel while we may.

Sunday 29 January 2017

Sunday Misc 290117

A few years ago the Royal Irish Academy 'noticed' that, although their city centre building was chock full o' portraits, they were all of men. They set about redressing the balance with a wall of female researchers, some of whom, Teeling, McLysaght, have featured on The Blob. The rest are "B'godde RIA, I wish I'd done that" to which the women reply "You will Bob, you will".
Now here's a peculiar little insight into the dispossessed of Dublin. Teenage boys in some of the inner city ghettos of Dublin own horses which are more temperamental than clapped out cars. Both are capable of increasing self-respect and street-cred and giving the kids a bit of excitement. It's got to be cheaper in the medium to long term than alcohol or class A drugs which whacked off a young chap in Ireland's second city last week.  There is a madness in young men, presumably triggered by testosterone, but not helped by unrealistic expectations; gross disparity in wealth; shifting grounds in the relationship between men and women; bleak bleak economic future. If a young outsider, a woman, embraces your culture - because of the horses; but also from compassion and empathy - then some small shift occurs that may rip a hole the relentless press of deprivation. Ah Jaysus, if we can just keep these lads in one piece until they turn 25, they may have a chance to bring 'that one talent which is death to hide' out into the open to save us all. Sing along the song - No Plan. found on MeFi whereat some comments.
One of the things the deprived do is play the Lotto: called Idiot Tax by those who think they know better but probably are no better at maths. Here's a deconstruction of the iniquity of state sponsored lotteries. A few days ago, someone in Ireland won €88.5 million on the Euromillions lottery; it was all over the wireless all day and the next few days. Advice was given, speculation as the identity of the winner was everywhere, envy was expressed and the whole day was a bunch of free advertising for the company which runs the Lotto in Ireland. Why do we have to hear this? Why is another avenue for gross disparity in wealth given house-room let alone wall-to-wall coverage?
And now for something a bit different. Two years ago, I mentioned a plan by a group of generous Norwegians to give a sliver of territory to Finland on the occasion of the centenary of Suomen Tasavalta / Republiken Finland / the Finnish Republic. It's an act of neighborliness with an ironic edge that appeals to a certain strain of Scandinavian humour. Of course the apparatchiks of government have 101 reasons why this is impossible.  Here's the story in moving pictures.  Did I say moving? I meant it, I very much like the pitch and its tone. I hope it happens, poor Finland is very flat: all lakes and plains.

Saturday 28 January 2017

Gus Grissom Gone

I wrote a brief obit for Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon, a couple of weeks ago. I felt I could be brief because I'd given him a fulsome trib in December 2015. It cost a lot to get Cernan and the other eleven moon-walkers to the surface of the moon and back: so much that the Human Genome Project, which cost about $1billion, usually employed the US Space Program as the only comparable mega-science endeavour. There were costs along the way which are hard to dollarise and costs afterwards as two Space Shuttles came back to earth in small pieces.

I was reflecting on the costs because yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo I disaster when three astronauts were incinerated on the launch pad during a practice run on 27th Jan 1967. Of the three dead men, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, Grissom's name struck the memory bell loudest. He was Indiana's most famous son and a fighter pilot in the Korean War before he was picked to be a NASA astronaut: one of the Mercury Seven. As with Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan there was a lot of Harry Potter 'Eclipse first the rest nowhere" in Project Mercury . The first man in space, John Glenn, became a household name and eventually a US Senator and Presidential candidate. You have to have been around as a small geeky boy to remember the names of the others. Gus Grissom was the second man in space; in those days, the pilot got to name the ship, and Grissom plunked for Liberty Bell 7 [the pair see R].  He almost lost his life, not in a dramatic fireball like the Challenger or Columbia space shuttles but in a botched landing /pick-up after a successful mission. After splashdown the pilot was meant to sit tight until a chopper from the nearby aircraft carrier hooked on and lifted the spaceship to the flight-deck. In somewhat murky circumstances, the capsule door blew off while LB7 was still bobbing about on the ocean, waves slopped in and a lot of expensive kit sank into the depths. Grissom slithered out and nearly followed his command down when his space-suit started to take on water. His buoyancy wasn't helped by having smuggled 2 rolls of dimes onboard to sell as souvenirs afterwards. He ever afterwards denied triggering the explosive bolts, but not everyone believed him. A fellow who could bring half a pound [almost exactly the weight of 100 dimes] of unaccounted weight aboard such a delicately balanced project could have done pretty much any dopey thing. It's similar to the Apollo 8 astronaut who pressed the Don't Press This Button button and unravelled Margaret Hamilton's computer program. There was a tension between the NASA management who wanted the astronauts to be quiet passengers while they controlled everything from Houston and the astronauts, almost all previous test-pilots who wanted to be doing. Doing some daft things like Alan Shepard bringing a 6-iron and two golf balls to the moon and whacking one of them into the distance. NASA believed Grissom had not been tricking about with the door, let alone panicking to get relief from claustrophobia, and that's all the counted. He went up in Gemini 3, becoming the first man to do space twice but was still eclipsed in the public mind and history by John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

Whatever you feel about the sinking of Liberty Bell 7, Apollo 1 was a good candidate for a Normal Accident: a cascade of small-small t'ings had to go wrong or go unnoticed. The inside of the capsule was pressurized a little above atmospheric with pure oxygen (!). A smoldering candle will burst into full flame in such an atmosphere. One of the ironies of the disaster was that the door was designed to open inwards - partly because of Grissom's earlier mishap with out-opening doorways. Another door shouldered some of the blame. An access port had, through repeated opening for inspection, stripped off the insulation of a silver-coated copper wire. The inspections were necessary because a tube transporting ethylene-glycol coolant was always leaking. With 20:20 hindsight it was revealed that silver had a positive electrolytic effect on ethylene-glycol and the ignition wouldn't have occurred with plain copper wire. One suspects that the silver coating was there to justify a fabulously inflated price for the material by NASA contractors North American and Grumman. They charged top dollar because they could, but their workmanship was often shoddy, the delivery time-keeping weak, and design-flaws manifold.  We remove our shoes in the run up to all air-flights now because on 22 Dec 2001 Richard "Bat-shit bonkers" Reid smuggled a bomb aboard an American Airlines flight in his shoes. Likewise, the NASA contractors stopped using silver coated wire anywhere rather than thinking about the next potential hazard. If ethylene-glycol started the fire, there was plenty of flammable material in the cockpit to keep it going. The walls had been almost carpetted with Velcro which had been recently invented by George de Mestral; this allowed the astronauts to park pretty much everything while weightless but burned very well in pure oxygen . . . likewise the space-suits.

If you read Richard Feynman's story of the Challenger disaster and investigation, and you should, you'll get the feeling that NASA's managers were culpably negligent in heeding the concerns of their astronauts and terrestrial engineers about redundancy, safety, testing, and analysis of complex systems. Mean with the routine but necessary checks and balances, they were spend-thrift with contracts and were always cranking up the ante to make NASA more sexy and pioneering. It was as if they knew Congress would only buy into the idea of space-travel if the projects became increasingly complex and hard to fully comprehend. Feynman concluded that NASA management were almost ideologically incapable of grasping probability and risk-assessment.

In 1999, three decades after it sank, Liberty Bell 7 was recovered from the ocean floor. 52 more dimes were found loose in the capsule. It seems that Grissom wasn't the only one sending souvenirs into space - but he was the only man with the bottle to ride with the illicit payload.

Friday 27 January 2017

What goes around comes around

The other day, in a piece about Amazon and UPS causing gridlock in suburbia, into I threw in some comments about the logistics of shifting widgets and gizmos round the country in the most efficient way. There are economies of scale if producers talk to each other and to prospective end-users. A vast freighter loaded with Stuff from China and bound for Rotterdam has consolidated the output of a thousand factories which is bound for 1,000 retail outlets: one ship = a million transactions. This works because of money, a universal medium of exchange. Try imagining what got traded for what to have two jade axes transported from Central Italy to Southern England 6,000 years ago.

Despite the use of QALYs in medical care, not everything can be dollarised, there are other measures of value. Apart from anything else your value system is different from mine: you care a lot more about your aged mother than I do. Nevertheless the fungibility of money requires some vigilance that nobody sells their blood for beer . . . except in the US where plasma is a commodity like any other. Blood is handy, red blood cells have a turn-over of about 3 months, so it is not unknown to meet people who have donated 50 units of blood over a life-time. In Ireland such people get a little medal. Kidneys, lungs, hearts are a different matter, you con't make another one of those because the design blue-print gets discarded in utero. You probably have two kidneys; I definitely do; but for 1 in every 500 live births only one functional kidney is present. Those people trundle through life without any obvious deficit, so one kidney is redundant. Other people lose their kidneys [cancer, shot off in the war] or suffer progressive loss of kidney function, (diabetes or hypertension) although the empty cathedral is still there. But all is not lost because of kidney donation. 33,000 organ donations were carried out in the US last year, the majority of them kidneys.

If one of your family needs a kidney transplant, you might be tempted to donate one of yours. That might work out well because you have half your genes in common with your sibs, children and parents and the major histocompatability complex MHC genes are therefore more likely to match. You need some advice - there are risks associated with general anaesthetic and major surgery - and your surgeon needs to have informed consent forms signed by everyone. You can't have another baby to supply a kidney for your ailing beloved because the infant can't sign the form. The technical term is saviour sibling, if you wish to follow it up. If might read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go for a vision of the ethics of transplantation. Actually, it turns out that donors have a slightly longer life-expectancy than matched folk who keep their organ inventory intact. But that's probably because donors are less like to booze and pizza themselves to an early grave. But some assert that it is due to feeling happy about donating which has positive PNI benefits.

If your kidney is a poor match, the economies of scale kick in, you can profer your kideny to the Living Kidney Donor Network LKDN and they will find a match and a potential donor from the recipient's family. Or if that simple exchange doesn't work out, the LKDN may be able to slot you into a Domino Pair Exchange [R].  The United Network for Organ Sharing UNOS is the umbrella body that actually manages these exchanges. They have developed algorithms = allocation calculators to manage who gets what from whom. The Kidney Donor Risk Index (KDRI), for example asks about age, ethnicity, BMI, hypertension, diabetes, HCV status. Why hypertension? Because the kidney is essential to maintaining blood-pressure. But also because high blood-pressure is possibly what blew out the kidney in the first place and the causes of that need to be addressed before we pop in a new one.

Like the illegal drug trade there is an element of caveat emptor about selling your kidney - which is worth $80,000 on the black market - because there is no regulation or oversight. You're sorted if you live in Iran apparently where organ sales are legal. Is it conceivable that organ harvesting is happening in χινα from executed criminals? There was a report about it in the middle of last year.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Little bits extra

For me the interesting parts of science are often prefixed with 'comparative'. I worked through the noughties in a Comparative Immunology lab; Comparative Anatomy gives us the handle on endless forms most beautiful - why, and how, a whale's leg is so different from that of a hippopotamus. Comparative Development tracks through the biological miracle that, although all vertebrates start from a single celled zygote, they all grow up uniquely different from each other. You look more similar to your siblings than to your cousins, David Bowie or Koko the signing Gorilla. Further out we have a lot in common with monkeys, less with dogs and horses and less still with hawks and vultures. In evolutionary terms, some differences are 'trivial' and some profound. Habitat, for example, is not key to understanding where we came from: we have more in common with some flying [bats] and swimming [dolphins] creatures than we do with many terrestrial vertebrates [lizards, ostriches]. It's pretty clear that the ancestral vertebrates developed in the sea and millions of years later one of these creatures crawled ashore and went forth to multiply on dry land. But several times, some of these land-dwellers have reverted to the ancestral location and slipped back into the ocean: whales, seals, penguins, sea-snakes, marine iguanas, manatees. The mammals in the list represent three independent flips back to flipperhood.

I was reflecting on this because of a io9 report of a study investigating the presence of an appendix in a range of mammals. The human appendix is called 'vermiform' because it is a (fat) worm-like appendage to the gut where the small intestine (going down) morphs into the ascending loop of the colon.It is quite variable: effective absent in about 1/100,000 and ranging in size from 2-20cm in length. In some human populations, it tends to sit in front of the gut and in others it is generally tucked behind. For years, the appendix was regarded as a vestigial caecum with no obvious function and an annoying tendency to get inflamed. Appendectomies became routine as soon as minor surgery became safe. Later, larger, epidemiological studies found that an intact appendix conferred some immunological benefit and the rate of whipping the things out declined. Those without an appendix, for example, are more likely to get recurrent Clostridium difficile [prev] infections. About 10 years ago, researchers at Duke U came up with the theory that the appendix was a safe house for 'good' bacteria in the intestinome. After your finely adjusted intestinal flora gets flushed down the toilet with that dodgy curry or is given a good drubbing by a course of antibiotics, then the hold-outs in the appendix come out of the bunker and recolonise the intestine.

The comparative anatomy study is neat because it is real old fashioned science, the researchers gathered truck-loads of data about appendix size and shape, other aspects of the intestine for each species and then information about habitats and feeding habits, food quality, weaning age, and even rates of precipitation. They then lashed all the data into a big digital hopper and shook it to see what correlated with the presence and absence of the appendix. What came out was the observation that the appendix is associated with the caecum! But also associated with the presence of caecal 'lymphoid' tissue. Lymphoid tissue is all about immunity and immune function; which in turn is all about finding an adaptive balance between good and bad microbes. When they dig further they report an inverse correlation between caecum length and habitat breadth . . . but no correlation between appendix length and habitat breadth. They do correct for multiple testing but nevertheless there is no obvious ecological correlate with appendix size which convinces me that we/they have found a 'cause' for the appendix.The paper is also nice because, being published in Comptes Rendus Palevol, all the figure legends are in both English and French. Thus:
contrasts taxa differing in the state of the independent character
un contraste entre taxons différant dans l’état de caractère indépendant
. . . reading scientific French is easy, it's the small words that cause all the problems.

I guess the bottom line is that an appendix can be handy to have in certain circumstances but you're not going to be totally banjaxed if you're missing one. That's what we know from 100 years of human appendectomies and the redundancy seems to be true across a wide range of mammals.

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Snarl up

I made a throw-way comment about the cost of transport in a rant about public housing. I could make it because the back of my mind was processing some info I had picked up in an NPR interview of Edward Humes. Humes has written a book Door to Door The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation which deconstructs the costs of the global economy. On a superficial analysis the global economy is great because it delivers stuff to our homes as cheap as cheap can be. But how does it work?

We sit on our bums ordering stuff rather than getting to walk downtown to buy a book. We shift the work to someone else. We do Amazon because it is way cheaper than buying a book downtown in a bookstore but there are anti-economies of scale here. Rather than HarperCollins delivering 20 boxes of the latest hot Hester Blumenthal door-to-door to five bookshops in Dublin, FedEx/UPS/Shippalola is sending trucks for miles and miles through suburbia delivering each book to its final destination. It's taking longer and longer to drive to work or drive the kids to school because the roads are full of logistics trucks. UPS routes their trucks to minimise the number of left turns [across the traffic] because each left turn adds seconds to the timeline and each second 'lost' costs money even if a R R R R route costs more fuel. The slightly tubby UPS drive[R] and his van have driven a million miles in rural Texas over the last 22 years.

Interesting insight on  the number of useless mouths in 20thC logistics. Logistics is the shipping industry, getting stuff from one place to another place. It can be done with more efficiency with economies of scale. If enough companies sign up it is more likely that a truck which delivered a load of spigots from Ohio to California, can find a load of widgets needing to go (more or less) in the opposite direction. Making the connexions used to be brokered by people on telephones, increasingly they are brokered by algorithms on computers. "Problem is, one man’s efficiency is another’s unemployment."

This is in contrast to the hours we spend on the phone typing in account numbers and security codes rather than talking to a person at the other end who is key-punching the data. If I have a complaint about  the efficiency or failure of whatever e-commerce outfit with whom I've last shared my credit card details, I have to spend 25 minutes on the phone: punching the air or punching in codes, numbers and account details and listening to voice synthesisers telling me what to do next.
But notice the common denominator: we the punter is sitting at home doing what used to be done by employees. And of course we are all getting incrementally tubbier as we eat the pizza which just got delivered. All that instant gratification being shipped is pounding the roads to the 4th power of the axel weight.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Spelinge matters

At The Institute, we're launching a new degree in B&D - brewing and distilling. Last week we had a meeting to decide what essential equipment had to be acquired before the first intake of students in September 2017. Someone had produced a list of kit - mills, mash baths, sieves, testers and analysers; and our new lecturer in the subject explained why such-a-thing was vital but such-another could be bodged up with existing equipment. My redoubtable Head of Department said something like "What about this (I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing this right) fiabilimeter? It costs €4,000". I was now wildly out of my depth; I can haggle about a mash-tun with the best of them and have brewed wine from old socks, but I'd managed my whole fermenting life without even knowing that a fiabilimeter existed. New Brewer elaborated on the pros and cons of the thing until one of our engineers asserted that a friabilimeter had some potential use in his Process Tech course. Oh <typo alert> fRiabilimeter? that probably measures how friable materials like malt are. Maybe French wrestlers use a faibilimeter to see how feeble their opponents are; but neither my HoD, nor me, nor La Belle France, nor you need to know what a fiabilimeter does, because it doesn't.

When I started teaching in The Institute, they loaded me with such a mad diversity of courses that I would often get caught with new words whose meaning I found to be completely opaque. I was worried because I thought the students expected omniscience from me and I would trying Google up the definitions in the 8 minutes available before class. Sometimes these words gave me a sense of wrong-wrong-nearly-right as I tried to recall my undergraduate general biology lessons. Almost always, they were spelinge errurs, and I spent several subsequent days chewing my beard with frustration that these things were wrong and might, accordingly, give students the wrong word.
Then I relaxed, the students' spelling was far more patchy than any manual. I was not there to show them that I knew everything - which might be bad for their morale - my role was rather to facilitate their finding out about the natural world.

One of the peculiar areas in which I had to acquire competence was teaching human physiology to pharmacy technicians. I inherited a mess of notes which over the years I have cast in mine own image. At the end of most sections, I have a list of drugs which are relevant to the system just discussed. I talk briefly about each drug, what's it for and how it works physiologically. A couple of weeks ago, I asked the class, rather petulantly, if they ever made a mistake when sent into the store room to retrieve a packet of an unpronounceable medicine because they're spelinge is not grate. There was a frisson of recognition through the room: seems that almost everyone had been scolded by The Pharmacist for getting the wrong drug at some stage. I mentioned this to my colleague, who is The Pharmacist in one of the shops in town, and she said everyone in the trade has done this and that the required extra attention to detail is what pays pharmacists the big bucks <not>. When some bright spark in marketing at MegaPharm decides that all the packing needs to be redesigned it is a huge pain behind the community phamacy counter because everyone has to read the labels carefully rather than relying on the familiar gestalt. In the pharmacy trade homophony,  exacerbated by crap hand-writing on prescriptions, rushed reading etc. has real potential for problems. So here is some advice to minimise error:
  • Write clearly
  • Never use a trailing zero: 1mg, not 1.0mg because easily misread as 10mg [prev similar]
  • Specify the drug strength, e.g. 100mg
Promazine v Promethazine; a dopamine blocker and sedative v an anti-histamine
Tamoxifen v Tenoxicam; the breast cancer therapy v a handy NSAID
Vinblastine v Vincristine; well at least these two are both for cancer chemotherapy
Some drugs are just hopeless tongue-twisters: I always stumble over adalimumab [you try saying it] the anti-inflammatory anti-TNF biologic. It might just as well be wuggawuggamamamamamab. Why this matters is obvious. There are enough errors made in the world of drugs without adding avoidable spelling mistakes.

Monday 23 January 2017

blowing your mind

Part of the benefits of having a very expensive education is that I am thoroughly institutionalised - and not just because I currently work in The Institute. I was quite risk-averse and so didn't do mad things too often. Also in the 1970s, we weren't awash with money/credit the way we seem to be today. Nevertheless, I did push the envelope in my mother's ancient Vauxhall Viva insofar as that old bus was capable of any turn of speed. It couldn't Do The Ton but even at 70 mph = 110km/h, it was fast enough for me to kill myself if anything went wrong. I slowed down after I had a very close encounter with a petrol tanker coming over a hump-backed bridge in the dark on an icy road. But being 17 with the memory of a gnat, I was soon up to 70mph again. When I went to college, an essential part of my kit was a fur coat made of muskrat Ondatra zibethicus skins; I thought it was cool to make an ironic gender-ambiguous statement in my clothes. ANNyway, at the Christmas party in the middle of 1st year at college, I was approached by a young chap who had acquired some cannabis and wanted advice about how to make it work. I told him I hadn't a clue. 40 years on, I am still [clearly] mulling this over as it struck me as foolish to spend money on something that didn't have any obvious utility.

I don't think about that ratty coat [name of Sohrab if that's not TMI] or the Cannabis Protocols every day but it did surface last week because of 16 y.o Michael Cornacchia's death in Cork on the 17th January. They are calling it a drug-overdose but a mg of U-4 would have been too much, not so much because of it's psycho-active potential but from skepticism about QC quality control. It's only called U-4 by those on first name terms with it. Proper name is U-47700 [structure shown R] and it's a selective µ-opioid receptor agonist. The opioid receptors' [there are a few different ones] natural function is to sit in the membrane of certain neurons in the brain ready to bind endorphins. Endophins are naturally occurring neuropeptides which when bound to the receptors make you feel grrrreat. So you do again whatever you were doing before. If you run like the wind you can trigger the release of endophins and feel better about yourself and the world. That is, if you have the wind to do that sort of thing, asthmatics - meeeee! - need to seek different avenues to activate the pleasure centres of their brain.

Running like the wind on a regular basis has obvious utility: it builds stamina and muscle mass and allows you to run down antelope for food and run like buggery when a lion comes to share the meal. Writing The Blob from my sofa is my equivalent but it's not clear how this is going to save my life or feed my family.

Now we have a headline about a boy in Cork who died because he couldn't get much out of running but had cash enough to buy a squidgeon of white powder from a chap who had bought it from a chap who had bought it from a lab in the Third World. But there is no audit trail, no table of contents, no guarantees as to safety or efficacy. Money made it easy to do something stupid and irresponsible. When I was a tiny bit older than him, I did stupid and irresponsible things in my mother's car but I only had enough money for 5 or 10 litres of petrol. €13.40 [current price for 10 lt petrol] wouldn't buy much cocaine [what Cornacchia thought he was purchasing] at €100/g.

Sunday 22 January 2017

Saturday 21 January 2017

Ends with a birth issues

I am over 60 years old, so I am nearer the end than the beginning, so you'd expect me to be more focused on end-of-life issues than the other end. And you'd be correct: The Blob is very much more focused on death [the word used 100 times] than birth [used only 22 times]. This is partly because of the math alluded to in the first sentence but it has aspects of parity-of-esteem between the book-ends of life. We congratulate the parents and welcome the young shaver when a birth pops up/out in our circle. We do not congratulate the grown up children on the good death of their parents; this is because death is quite taboo, even in a country like Ireland where the business [wake, tea, ham sandwiches & fairy-cakes, removal, mass, burial, knees-up at the pub] is embedded in the culture.

For us, the children just appeared [nothing to do with me?]: one near the beginning of the normal range for procreation, technically a teenage pregnancy although not a teenage birth; and two towards its end. That was a blessing, especially as other friends and family had a harder, and more expensive, time of it. For one good friend, the 'threat' of IVF was enough to frighten her uterus into action, and others in our circle went round their IVF cycles, round the houses and indeed round the world in the hope of getting with child. Because it's a saga, costs a lot of money, and is an emotional roller-coaster which doesn't always end well, you'd want to go to the best fertility clinic you can find. But which is best? 'What is best?' is an easier question, whose answer is: after much or little tweaking you have a full term pregnancy which delivers one healthy child with the requisite number of limbs and no extra chromosomes.

Jack Wilkinson, a PhD student and medical statistician from Manchester was on the wireless the other day because of his report in British Medical Journal Open Access BMJO. Wilkinson and his co-authors/supervisors, all men, have carried out a statistical analysis of the claims of various medically assisted reproduction MAR centres around Britain. On the radio, Wilkinson was well informed about the Irish MAR territory which has some significant differences from what pertains in our larger neighbour. One aspect is that the UK has a Health Service Ombudsman and a central  Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority HEFA (which licenses and vets fertility clinics for the whole country) with its own Complaints Inspector. In Ireland it's more of a free-for-all and indeed at least two clinics advertise direct to consumers here on the wireless on a regular basis.

What the BMJO paper reveals is that it is really hard to compare different clinics; so that sub-fertile couples can make an evidence-informed choice about where to start their journey. This is mainly because of the blizzard of slightly different or poorly defined outcomes. What is required is a rate, which needs both a numerator (how many good whatevers] divided by a denominator [total whatevers]. Works also for bad whatevers - ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome; gestational diabetes; maternal death; multiple birth.  Clinics tend to prefer reporting successful pregnancy because the numbers are higher than successful birth which, as indicated about, is the only outcome worth paying for. The excess [pregnancy - birth] is a good case of the medical hubris in the phrase the procedure was successful but the patient died.

The obfuscation results in finding 51 different outcomes being reported by the 53 clinics which have any such data available. This includes 31 different ways of reporting pregnancy rates and 9 different ways to reporting live birth rates. You could calculate the latter by having as a denominator [anyone who has paid us money] but is more likely to be [per cycle started] or [per transfer procedure] which will discount the early failures. If per transfer procedure is used as the headline criterion then you'll get more multiple births - which occur with 25% of UK IVF outcomes -, while per embryo transferred will tend to limit this probably undesirable outcome. In the few cases where a clear comparison was carried out, it looked like competing clinics were using the same data so that their gaff looked better than the other crowd's. That will be familiar to car buyers where almost identical models are both portrayed as being better than the rival brand: this because of alloy wheels, that for the reversing camera. And as with cancer treatment or liver-transplants, you get better "success" rates if you only start with the most promising cases; and regretfully turn away the very old and those with a history of endometriosis.

But do you want to decide on such generic stats as "all births assisted" by this clinic. It might be that each clinic has a particular expertise or experience and one might better suit your particular case:
- are you really old: pushing menopause old ?
- or still young but not conceiving?
- are you obese?
- are there known fertility issues in your family?
- would twins or trips be a disaster?
- is it him?
- is the clinic in Scotland?
According to what I heard on the wireless, it is a sellers market in IVF. Clients come when they are at the end of their tether. They do their research; they find their best clinic is not round the corner from where they live; they take a week off work and stay in a hotel. The very nice woman from the clinic offers them the standard treatment model but also offers 'extras': more tests, screens, procedures and checks which can be added to the bill but maybe don't have demonstrable added value. If your basic IVF package costs £3950, would you begrudge an extra £500 for a year of embryo freezing [backup] or an extra £1000 for ICSI [for lazy sperm that can't get inside the egg and have to be injected]?

Ho hum, the biological imperatives of bearing your own children.
Feel free to get all judgmental about Annegret Raunigk scoring quads in extra time.

Friday 20 January 2017


I was down at the Wexford Science Café last Tuesday because it was the third Tuesday of the month and WxSciCaff happens there then every third Tuesday . . . except when it doesn't. I couldn't get anyone to play in the week before Christmas, so we cancelled. ANNyway, we had a couple of hours batting sciency ideas about which started with a catchy-up about President Trump and whether the election was the end of the world or just the end of global warming. We were 'meant' to be talking about medicines, generic medicines and the length of time it takes to bring either sort to market, and eventually we got on topic.

Regular megapharm medicine takes time in the development for quite straight-forward reasons: you need an idea; you need some chemical or biochemical leads; you need to test out your best ideas against The Evidence; until you can convince the money-people in your company to fund a big study . . . in mice; and two blinks later two years have passed and $10,000,000 has been 'burnt' and your not even on human trials. At each stage in this development process promising leads will crash and burn and you have to start again. Or at least retreat several steps and try a different direction. The deeper everyone gets in, the more temptation there is to massage the data into a more positive state

At some stage, the Feds get involved in a quite confrontational way: you have to prove that your new meds are a) safe and b) efficacious. By the time the new therapy is ready for the big launch, and all your drug reps are primed with brochures, the company has spent $1.2 billion [average cost of pipeline] and more than half of the patent window has expired. No wonder drugs cost so much. Statins, which give some slight benefits against heart attack can be sold to millions of fat white Westerners . . . for the rest of their lives; so the $1.2bn is spread over a fat arse wide base and the cost for each pill is almost affordable from the punters housekeeping. otoh, orphan drugs like Orkambi and Vimizim have so few potential beneficiaries that the price to each is more than a house - every year. Drugs would be cheaper if the FDA didn't insist on all the safety checks, in the same way that cars would cheaper if they didn't have seat-belts.

With generic medicines, the challenges are different and, according to what I heard in Wexford, peculiar. When you apply for a licence to sell a generic drug you have to show that your yellow-pack product has precisely the same effect as the just off-patent original. There's a whole other palaver if your reverse engineered medication is better than the original.  That led to a whole discussion about how hard it is to follow the instructions to make a rip-off. The thing about patents is that they are 'open':  patent ductus arteriosus is a congenital disease which manifest as an open hole between two blood-vessels that should be closed. Patents are a deal struck between creators of intellectual property and the community. The patent owners set out in detail what they have discovered and in return get exclusive access to the new idea for a set period of time.

It's devilish difficult to follow the protocol and make a copy-cat drug. It's the same as the Materials & Methods section of a scientific paper: this should contain just enough detail that a rival who is skeptical about your results can precisely follow your process to replicate the experiment and see if s/he gets the same result. Many's the time in my days in a real immunology lab when the Effectives couldn't get the some new protocol to work, no matter how closely they followed the M&M. A visit to the lab which wrote the original paper often cleared the log-jam: a key nugget of information - too 'obvious' to state explicitly - never made it to the printed page.

And everyone, except the Feds, is in it for profit. MegaPharm and YellowPack both want a return on their investment, so they pay their employees as little as possible and charge whatever the market will bear. The first generic to market tends to charge 3/4 of the price of the original although their costs are lower [no original ideas to have, test and cull for starters]. Eventually The Market will force down the price as more competitors pass through the FDA. Apparently, the production facilities don't easily get shipped to India because there is that magic, barely quantifiable, know-how that makes one factory able to produce the goods reliably. And the inside advice is do not buy drugs over the internet. There are coliform bacteria on those cheap shirts you buy in the local store, because the hand-washing facilities are not-so-good in Bangladesh, but you don't pop them in your mouth

Thursday 19 January 2017

Last Man on the Moon

Gene Cernan died on 16th Jan 2017 at the age of 82. He was  a Slovak on this father's side and a Czech on his mother's and was honoured in 1994 with the Order of the White Double Cross by his father's people for giving Slovakia an out of this world boost. He was, although few will remember this, the Last Man on the Moon [film-clip trailer].

You can see him [R] in the studio in California where NASA rigged up all their moon landings. Harrison 'Jack' Schmitt, the photographer is more recognisable than Cernan himself, reflected in the visor of the helmet. I've written before about the bodging can-do fix of the Lunar Rover which Cernan carried out after he'd knocked a lump of the world's most expensive car. That's why engineers are handy to have around, they are good for fixing material things. Cernan was the Captain and so had the honour of being the last back onto the ship before the Apollo 17 module blasted off to take Cernan, Schmitt and 100kg of rock [Schmitt was/is a geologist] back home to Planet Earth. When they took off, they knew that Apollo 18 had already been scrapped by Congressional bean-counters, so had a racing certainty of being the last chaps to set foot on the Moon but Cernan was optimsitic about a return: "And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17." Rather too much god-bothering in its sentiments for my taste.  Of the Apollo Twelve Moon-walkers, only six are now left alive. Obit here from the Reactograph and a Moon Triv Quiz from The Blob.

Wednesday 18 January 2017

Going going gone

In the week after Christmas a parcel, not Amazon but plainly a book, arrived in the post. Dau.I sniffed and said [I paraphrase] "It's probably another book on dying from yer wan" . . . and she was correct: yer wan being a colleague who is well connected with the medical profession who, like me, has lost her father. We are both interested in end-of-life issues, but not to the exclusion of all else. We don't, for example, listen to the death notices three times a day on Irish local radio. The fact that such an institution exists suggests that Ireland is much more engaged with death than, say, England where I grew up without seeing a dead body. I didn't even see the first dead body I hefted while working as a 17 y.o temporary hospital porter - it was all wrapped up in a sheet.

The book the way we die now [harrrumph, another book title without capital letters] was written by Seamus O'Mahony, a consultant surgeon specialising in alcoholic liver disease, now working in Cork. He spent 15 years working for the NHS in Britain, and the book draws on his experience in both countries. I've written about hospital death before - Atul Gawande's Mortality for the US experience; Henry Marsh's Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. I have filled in an advanced health-care directive AHD ticking all the don't intervene boxes, although I haven't yet gone so far as to have No CPR tattooed on my chest. O'Mahony is skeptical about AHDs: "no surgical intervention" precludes a quick nip and tuck to prevent copious bleeding in the stomach which can be fatal; resolving the bleed is most unlikely to leave you in a persistent vegetative state or with broken ribs [as in CPR]. The problem with such documents is that they are largely driven by anecdotal reasoning: such a thing was visited upon my Aunt Gwendolyn, I don't want that to happen to me; which is then summarised in a short generic phrase on the ADH. The phrase sounds firm and clear but rides rough-shod over the wobbly old nuance of real life. It's never exactly the same situation. In particular, it is very different when you are the principal actor: whatever your level of empathy or intimacy, it is easier to switch someone else off than yourself.

the way we die now is not particularly long but it is discursive and doesn't give any hard answers or advice. Which is a pretty good metaphor for our engagement with death. As I say above every death is different and, if you believe every life is sacred, each end-of-life will have particular circumstances that don't always, or ever, fit neatly into a piece of legislation or a standard operating procedure SOP. Most deaths in Ireland, the US, the UK and much of the Western World happen in hospital and all civilised countries have rules are regs about terminating other people's lives. O'Mahony has a locus standi on the issue because he's been there many many times. It goes with the territory if you choose to work in an acute hospital.  Inevitably his experience has coloured his practice and opinions; we know this because the book is filled with anonymised Endings to illustrate particular points. One of his key issues is 'informed consent' which we are now required to get from participants in medical trials [for, say, drug development] or medical interventions [surgery, chemotherapy, medications]. The doctor has to explain, in words the punter or the next-of-kin can understand, what are the potential down-sides of such a treatment, what are the benefits and what is the risk [likelihood x magnitude of gain/loss]. As most of these punters will have bought a Lotto ticket in the last month, they are clearly not equipped to do the math. This will not stop them having forthright opinions about what the doctor should do and that is usually to throw the book [MIMS] at their ailing relative; and insert tubes in all orifices to keep the Principal alive, preferably forever.

There is little room for palliative care in such a dynamic and there is, increasingly, the threat of the law. This is last thing the medical profession wants because it will impinge on their judgment and autonomy. We-the-patient, howver, would like to have a bit of legislation because we remember the medical gaffes [eg symphysiotomy] for a long time. The law is a blunt instrument which is only peripherally related to justice or common sense. O'Mahony devotes time to the case of Janet Tracey who broke her neck after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The hospital applied a DNR without her consent and lost their case in the British Courts. Similar cases now force medical staff to try anything and everything regardless of cost [not only financial cost] if 'the family' require it. It seems a bit odd to me: the desires of a particular group of next-of-kin with their own peculiar internal dynamics are now allowed to force an additional burden on me the tax-payer [an on the poor continuing to suffer patient]. All that money and time spent on 'hopeless' cases in acute wards or ICU could be spent on a new anti-smoking campaign, or a fitness regime for fat children . . . or the homeless or refugees if that's what engages you this Winter.

O'Mahony, in his chapter A Passion for Control, also has little patience with Marie Fleming who forced the state to engage with her through the court system up to an including the Supreme Court. She sought the Right to Die in a way that suited her rather than being forced to exit when her multiple sclerosis closed down her systems. The media, including The Blob, was generally approving of her bravery in taking a case that would clear the decks for others with terminal disease to exit in their own homes rather going on a final foreign holiday to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. O'Mahony investigates the particulars of Marie Fleming and concludes that she had control issues. Whatever the cost of a couple of weeks of medical intervention at the end of life, the costs of multiple increasingly expensive court appearance is astronomical [the state picked up the tab]. Senior Counsel feel they are even more entitled to money than medical consultants; and they don't need to put some aside for medical negligence insurance premiums.

Finally there is a whiff of trolleology about the arguments for medical intervention. Trolley ethics experiments show that most normal people would happily throw a switch to kill one person and save five lives but would be less willing to heave a fat chap over a bridge balustrade to achieve the same 5 vs 1 result. Medical ethics seems to be fine with allowing a patient to dribble out their existence with inattention but vehemently against cranking up the morphine on the syringe driver to clear the bed. I reckon the latter is kinder: we thought that when we terminated our beloved dog, but we are not allowed to think it about our mothers.

One final thought: there are 7.5 billion people on the planet. Some would argue that is about 5.5 billion too many. When there were far fewer people life was cheap, now paradoxically, it is super expensive.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

The death of devoir

We had two families, as a controlled experiment. As we left our teens, we had a single boy and as we left our thirties, we had two girls. That’s different: most people soldier on through a couple of decades of child-rearing – until the offspring finally begin to show a modicum of independence (financial, emotional, laundry) at about 25. Our experiment reveals key differences between the sexes: that girls pull up their socks, boys do not. The Boy had a wide experience of schools: alternative, main-stream; catholic, non-denominational; fee, free; NL, UK, US, IE; so we’re quite the experts on that. Second time round, the girls didn’t go to any school ever.

When they were six-to-ten, other kids would ask them, with amazement “How did you learn to read, if you didn’t go to school”. The answer was, more or less: the same way we learned how to walk, speak grammatical sentences, and know which end of a chicken delivered the eggs. You can make a meal out of something if you choose, or if there is a powerful lobby [textbooks] and special interest group [teachers] which says that education is something that is done to/for children. As it happens, Caitlin Moran was also home-educated. There is an amazing book by Francis Spufford called The Child that Books Built – and Caitlin Moran was that girl. She auto-didacted herself through Moby Dick, Jilly Cooper, Little Women, Narnia and Adrian Mole and as a girl articulated a fantasy that when she grew up she would marry the local library.

In her book Moranifesto, she urges the abolition of homework for school-children because is demands extra work for pupils, teachers and parents. When we came back to Ireland in 1990, the boy was shoving 14, The Boy finished up in a fee-paying school in North Dublin. It was not so much of change from the catholic comprehensive school in North England from which he transitioned . . . except for the cult of home-work. We spoke to old pals of ours who had a boy of similar age, and they all three assured us that 3 hours of home-work went down in their house every weekday night. That's THREE HOURS of extra school-related work each day. Because we were busy / reprehensibly lax in parenting, we let The boy get on with it. It was a lot like the story of us trusting him in primary school to make his own lunch <not!>. Well, he never got into the habit - which is inculcated in middle class Irish kids from early days - and it was rare when 3 hours of home-work was completed in the whole week. Those two boys have both finished up in more or less the same position socially and financially.

Home-work is invidious for two other reasons than Moran's extra-work load argument. Firstly it is unfair - it give a chance for articulate, affluent parents to help their children directly to shine academically and gain extra positive attention in school. It is hard to step off this self-serving unmerry-go-round without feeling like you are failing your child, so everyone buys in and everyone suffers.

Secondly, it is counter-productive. In WWII there was a great demand for signallers in the US Army so lots of squaddies were told off to learn Morse code. Because they were in the Army, they did 4 hours of Morse between reveille and dinner and 4 hours Morse between dinner and knocking off. Results were not so good. Somebody had the idea of halving the Morse-working day and found that competence in Morse could be achieved in half the elapsed time. If time was allowed to embed the learning, then learning was more efficient. Less is More - again!
As for homework: just say No.

Monday 16 January 2017

What is a house?

Since New Year, I've been reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto, her book mainly of columns from The Times [of London]. We’ve met Caitlin before and before. She grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton in the post-industrial West Midlands of England. Her father was a union shop steward on disablility, she was the eldest of eight children who were home educated. She taught herself to write, and because she didn’t go to school, didn’t have any voice to adopt but her own and that of the many many books that she read as a child and teenager. She had to integrate facts, attitudes, politics and sensibilities and invent herself. Comfortable people should read her because she can make you feel uncomfortable without ranting like a demagogue. A joke can make the pill more bitter.

Here she is on the time when 'house' changed from being synonymous with home to getting redefined as asset, investment, nest-egg . . .
In the 1980s, when the Conservative government put Britain’s council housing stock up for sale, my father received a letter – asking us if we wished to buy our home, for £12,000.
‘Even if I had the money, I wouldn’t do it,’ he said. ‘There’s no moral logic to it. A council house is for someone who would not have a house any other way. If you can afford to *buy* it, you shouldn’t be *in* it”.
Our old house – our home – is now worth £100,000. I looked it up on a property website this morning. Those council tenants that did buy, back in the eighties – half our street – got an astonishing bargain.

In Ireland, we slavishly followed the Thatcherite model of letting The Market sort out housing, including the selling of much of the corporate housing stock to the then present incumbent. Those families, particularly in Dublin, are now sitting on an asset: the mortgage will have been paid off and the house can now be used as collateral for further loans. Meanwhile, The Market generated thousands of domestic houses during the boom, often in famously unsuitable locations: on the flood-plains of rivers; with no transport infra-structure; on top of radon sumps; on foundations of pyrite. In 2009, the chattering classes looked around tsk tsk to count the ghost-estates of empty and half-finished houses which were never going to sell.

Now the chattering classes are talking about the housing crisis because hundreds of children spent Christmas in hotel rooms and hostels. Many of these talking-heads have an "obvious" solution to this glitch in supply and demand which turns out to be "impossible to implement". It's impossible to implement under an economic model that building houses has to involve profit as an incentive. But there's all sorts of things that happen for / in society which don't make a profit: public transport, the post office, the Abbey Theatre, national parks, schools, parliament itself. For reasons that go beyond logic, the first three items on that list, at least, are 'meant' to be profitable. But nobody seems to ask why?

So let's ask: why should public transport or public housing be profitable? And what parameters do you throw into the model to determine the profit and loss? Homeless people are more likely to get sick and occupy a hospital bed. What price do you put on a chap topping himself because his home has been repossessed? Will properly resourced = unprofitable transport infrastructure get cars off the roads, allow children to walk their obesity off on the way to school, reduce road-rage, decrease commute times, lower the carbon foot-print? Caitlin Moran asserts that 75% of the rentable domestic housing stock in London is owned by foreign investors. In Dublin this ratio is only 40% but we're catching up. Cui bono? Who benefits here? not the people on benefit.

Sunday 15 January 2017

Not of this world

I was alone in the house the other day and a bright and chirpy chap on the other end of the line said “Why hello Bob, it’s Eric here from Whoosh telecoms”. The Conversation continued . . .
B. Err, hi?
E. Which provider are you with, let me guess . . . Vodafone? Whoosh can cut you a deal for €27.99 a month all in: landline, mobile, data.
B. Vodafone? I don’t know, I don’t think so.
E. Well, who do you pay the bills to?
B. I don’t know, I don’t pay the bills.
By now, Eric is convinced that he’s talking to someone who is a bit slow, rather than someone who makes 3 telephone calls a year, and is in a hurry to close the telecon down to get on to his next mark.
E. Thank you for your time, Bob, have a nice day
. . . brrrrrrrr.

It’s like I say, I don’t use the telephone much but I do own a mobile since the days when I was commuting home from Dublin at the end of a working week. Friday evening traffic out of Dublin was so unreliable that it was impossible to predict when I’d arrive at the bus stop “near” home to get picked up. A txt or a call from Castledermott, 25 minutes to destination, meant that herself and myself could coincide +/- 5 minutes. That was an efficient use of mobile teleccoms. I buy €20 worth of calls when Vodafone tells me they’ll give me extra €redit if I do this. That much tends to last me about six months. I’m not really helping to float the telecoms bubble, and it’s only partly because I’m 'near' with money.

Talking of my old bicycle and commuting to work in the days before we bought a car reminded me of using that old black war-horse to take the laundry to the laundrette in those days before we owned a clothes washing machine. I made a huge laundry-bag by folding a nice piece of chequered cloth in half and sewing up two of the three sides. When full this became a fat sausage which could be slung across the carrier of my push-bike and, barely, not scrape along the roadway on either side. One Saturday I had a particularly large consignment to process and dithered about whether I should do it in two machines or one. Being near, I went with the cheaper option – naturally. When the load was finished there were items of clothing in there that, far from being properly washed, were not even wet – the machine was that tightly packed. Really, I haven't a clue and it shows.

Bit 'n' Blobs 150116

I think I've given up on youtube, because it became so restlessly unfulfilling for me, but I need a place to pop 'interesting things' for my records and your edutainment.

Saturday 14 January 2017

Dinner catcher

We're the sort of people, mostly rational but with an edge of woowar, that might possess a dream-catcher [R] a device for predicting the weather invented by an enterprising Ojibwe shaman in South Central Canada long long ago. In Ireland we rely on a postman for Donegal [prev] who has about the same level of predictive accuracy. Our dream-catcher certainly catches a lot of dust . . . it's the feathers.

Failing sight is an almost inevitable consequence of aging. In the early days of WWII, roaring about in the dark in a gunned-up 20m powerboat, my father was known as Cat’s-eyes for the acuity of his night vision. My eyes were grand until I shuffled past my mid-40s and I’ve been using glasses since. Although they are functional, even essential, they are nevertheless Stuff which has to be accommodated somewhere when they aren’t on my nose for 'close-work'; which is whenever I’m not reading or sewing. In my last place of work I was mocked for planting the glasses on top of my head, as if they were sun-glasses and I was on the Côte d’Azur with my shirt open to the sternum. I am so alien in my current job that nobody dares say a word in case a racism accusation is made. I have many sets of reading-glasses and it has happened more than once to push them up only to have them clink against an already incumbent pair in my hair. Dau.I, being a generation more adrift from Cat’s-eyes, also has reading glasses although she is much younger than me; and she stores them on her head as well.

Vision problems among the young are not limited to myopia. When I was working in SVUH 15 years ago I heard a self-deprecating story from one of the lads. He’d been out on the Saturday night getting hammered with his mates when he realised that, if he legged it now, then he could catch the last #7 bus home to Dun Laoghaire. He made it, paid full fare to the end of the line, went upstairs and fell asleep. He woke 40 minutes later in Tallaght, a far less salubrious suburb in the Wild West of Dublin. He said, ruefully, that he’d seen then #77 on the front of the bus as he got on but assumed his vision was blurred from the drink.  A fine example of Confirmation Bias.

The other day, beach-combing [multiprev], I popped the glasses into my shirt-pocket as I got out of the car and was 4km away on another beach before I noticed them missing. I went back to the first place and found them under a large tangle of rope and netting from which I’d been plucking buoys. Other pairs have just gone or been sat upon or driven over. So head-top is better than shirt-pocket. My mother has adopted another option: she wears them round her neck on a chain. Which is grand until she needs to use them right after lunch: then her view is likely to be occluded by a splot of soup that hasn’t reached either her mouth or her lap. Dau.I says that one of her arty pals is starting a business making ornamental glasses-chains. Maybe I should order one – a double helix? – then I’d be sure to have a mid-afternoon snack. A dinner-catcher is waaaay more useful than a dream-catcher.

Friday 13 January 2017

2016 a bad year for death?

Oh ho, Friday the Thirteenth, let's not be in a rush to recognise [reports of] ill-things that happen on this day, because they are probably in the normal range. As our family gathered over the Christmas & New Year, it seemed like a lot of celebrities were going down. The girls were down, and both of them are 'on' Friendface, and their social network was restlessly pointing to yet another death. Carrie Fisher was one noted , her mother Debbie Reynolds the following day, John Berger on Christmas Eve.  I was going to put together a tribute in the form of short clips respecting each well known person's death, but then we had our internet access issue and I didn't get round to it. That also made me reflect of the folly of watching youtube clips as a way of passing the hours compared to, say, reading . . . books. ANNyway, between us we quickly knocked off a list of a dozen famous folk would had died in 2016: Andrew Sachs, Loenard Cohen, his muse Marianne, David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Vera Rubin, AA Gill, and Richard Adams. It seemed like a lot. Because of availability error, it was much easier to remember Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds than Muhammad Ali, or Eli Wiesel whose deaths in June 2016 are fading from my memory despite being blobbed up at the time.

Because of the immediacy /availability of the recent it can seem as if 2016 was a bad year for celeb-death and a few people have made that comment. Anyone with a crap-detector should be skeptical about whether such an observation was objectively true but it takes a special type of quant to start shovelling data into a hopper and doing a proper statistical analysis. Jason Crease is The Bloke for doing it. Picked up on Metafilter, where the comments are, as often, worth reading. One comment points out that, with Crease's sort of analysis we can measure whether John Lennon was 'bigger' than Jesus rather than just taking Lennon's assertion to be true [he isn't].

[aside: another comment draws attention the story of a Brazilian woman over many year praying to a statuette of Elrond believing it to be St Anthony. Dau.I also picked up that story a couple of days ago and told me, which allowed me to point out the parallel's with George Orwell being saved from the brink of starvation by praying to a picture of  a courtesan].
This is Crease's bottom line for the date of death of mega-celebrties. I've added the arrow pointing out that 2016 is just above the 99% confidence interval. You expect that many deaths in a year about once in two centuries, so it's not a holocaust but it is indeed more than expected. You'll have to click on his article to get the list of 2016's crop of famous-folk. And while you're there, check out the comments at the end, which are instructive.

Thursday 12 January 2017

Talking rabbits

Rabbits Orychtolagus cuniculus are members of the mammalian order Lagomorpha. They are not rodents, although in the grand scheme of mammalian taxonomy the two orders are close (as are We The Primates) within the Subclass/ super-order Euarchontoglires. One of the defining characteristics of the Lagomorphs is the presence of two diminutive 'useless' incisors tucked up behind the prominent "what's up doc?" first incisors. Rabbits are not kosher because, although they have split 'hooves' they do not chew the cud. Cud chewing is what cows, sheep and goats [Order Artiodactyla] do: having allowed a load of grass to ferment awhile in the rumen, these animals barf it up and give it another going over in the mouth to abstract maximal nutrition. Rabbits double down the digestion too by re-eating their own, first-pass, green, poos to give them another journey through the gut. Neat, eh? Efficient use of the microbial flora of the gut - we should all give it a whirl. As discussed before, whales and dolphins (and pigs!) are Artiodactyls but are not kosher either; because they live in the sea but do not have scales. The whole kosher thang is a series of rules-of-thumb to stop the chosen people eating the wrong food before the days of DNA testing to determine relationships and a proper understanding of food hygiene and the sources of nematode parasites. You can choose to emphasise the wisdom of the ancients in the matter of spoilage of pork products or put it all down to woowah mumbo jumbo. On dit que, the highest loads of intestinal worms are to be found among Lutheran pastors of the US Midwest, who are obliged to sample the, some doubtful, home-made sausage of all their parishioners.

As you know, for Christians and post-Christians, perhaps especially at Christmas, pig Sus scrofa pork, sausage, hammmmmm good and rashers are okay to eat - Chrosher, maybe? And so are rabbits. Rabbits have been in my mind a lot over Christmas, which we spent with Pat the Salt down in Tramore on the Waterford coast. On Christmas Eve evening, I escaped from the heat of the kitchen to take a long blustery walk along Tramore strand to the rabbit burrows [R R = RabBur] at the far end. It's a round trip of about 7km and I've never done it before. Tramore strand is a classic sand-dune system combed out from the rocky headland, on which the town is built, by the prevailing West-to-East current. The back-strand is an interesting domain of tidal slobs and wetlands which was used for several decades as the county dump! There is very little evidence of rabbits in their eponymous burrows nowadays but in the olde dayes, sandy islands in Ireland were often used as rabbit warrens; and this is captured in several place-names, like Coney Island, clapper = Fr clapier = ME clapere rabbit burrow or hutch; coneygarth = cunicularium; coniger etc. Information which I have gleaned from Paul Murphy  Dept Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs

12 days later, I was on the beach again, this time on the South coast of Wexford taking a constitutional with friends at Bannow Island. The landscape is very similar to that at Tramore, some barrier dunes protecting an area of slobs and mudflats from the full ravages of Atlantic storms. Bannow Island is not at present an island because the sand has piled up on its Eastern flank to join it to the mainland. The tide rips twice a day through the narrow gap on the other side. The slobscape changes radically after each storm. One of the hummocks on the island is believed to be a man-made rabbit warren and has been the subject of an archaeological dig as described in a chapter by Paul Murphy, doctoral student NUIG, in a new book Medieval Wexford: essays in memory of Billy Colfer eds Ian Doyle and Bernard Browne a snip at €45! And hats off to Mr Murphy for getting such a prestigious publication before he gets his doctorate.

As it happens, even at the moment that I was trudging along Tramore Strand, Richard Adams was dying in England. He was 96 and crossed The Bar just a few miles from Watership Down, in Northern Hampshire, and the place he'd been born, Newbury, just across the county line in Berkshire. You may sing along: Bright Eyes. Watership Down grew from a story about talking rabbits which Adams started to tell his two daughters on a a car-trip in the 1960s. In many ways it is a most unsuitable story for children, especially girls, but it is almost more a story of our time, with 50 million displaced persons shuffling about the planet, than it was 50 years ago. The rabbits are seeking a better life for themselves because their home place has been destroyed by humans in the name of progress. Adams insisted that it was just a story but others have read it is a parable and one of the most inspirational journey stories [Aeneid; Odyssey; Wizard of Earthsea; Canticle of Leibowitz; Grapes of Wrath; Heart of Darkness] ever written. The Metafilter link has dozens of expressions of grief and tribute about how Watership Down changed their young lives. One of the critiques of the book is that the does [doe, a rabbit, a female rabbit] are mere ciphers in the story and that this is what you would expect from the patriarchy. But St Caitlin of Moran's take on such issues is more affirming; a step in the right direction shouldn't be knocked right over and kicked because it doesn't address all the evils of the world. Watership Down pointed out some of the key issues in setting boundaries to the civic state; taking a difficult ethical stance; trusting your pals; and the peculiar condition called leadership, for which responsibility some most unlikely candidates step up to the plate: ". . . the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill . . ." Ecclesiastes 9:11

Wednesday 11 January 2017

On being present

In November, Dau.I came back to Ireland after five years making her way in England. In contrast to her sister, she is determined to learn Irish and live in Baile Átha Cliath, as is the official Irish designation of the capital Dublin. It is a tourist-baffling mystery why An Fear didn’t call the city Dubh Linn, the black pool and provide some bilingual consistency with modern toponymy. Whatever, she’s landed a room in a house in the far Northside in Finglas = Fionnghlas, the clear stream. This is boomtown country which shows as white space on our year 2000 street atlas but is now a busy network of streets, avenues, gardens and closes. She was reflecting that she is returning “home” to Dublin almost exactly 20 years since we left the farmhouse in far outer distant Northside, where she was born, to come down the country and up the mountain where I am now writing.

Who’d chide her for being enthusiastic about her next set of adventures? She’s really looking forward to meeting Finglas library which, it transpires, is about 2km from her new gaff. I was wondering how long it might take to walk, but she said “Duh, I’ve got my bike, I can get there in no seconds flat.

When I landed my first job after my PhD, our home was about 2km from my office in the University. I had my old black no-gears bike from Dublin college days and used to whizz across the intervening distance twice a day. Occasionally, in the Summer, even coming home for lunch. After a year and more of this, I decided that this whizz time was dead time and it wasn’t good for my sanity or equanimity; so I gave up the bike. I set off a little earlier and paid attention to the Edwardian and Victorian streetscape that I passed through. It’s what trendies of the present day would flag as being mindful. It’s a long way from Mindful I was reared! After a few weeks of this new, more relaxed regime, I realised that I kept checking my watch at the key intersections to see if my progress was on schedule. This will never do, I said, and gave up wearing the watch. That’s about 30 years ago, and I’ve never missed the wrist-watch.

I told this tale as a bit of paternal parable and Dau.I’s response was “Yes, that might work, if I walk to the library, I can start reading the books on the way back. Heck and jiminy, who’d be in the present moment, when you can be on a flying horse slaying goblins? The wonderful Caitlin Moran was in a similar case with libraries. "I’ve written about that library before. About how this place was the delight of my life – a thing I would have married in my pre-pubertal anthropomorphic phase. I would have been happy as a clam – and, if the gods had so blessed us, in later year, I would have got pregnant by that library, and would have raised a couple of little mobile libraries together".

Dau.I was a little intrigued that I had been obsessively checking my watch back in the day when we had one-function devices. She suggested that I/we should have stuck with watch-glancing because once done it's over . . . until the next OCD tic kicks in. People of her generation don't have watches either, they have smartphones - checking the time on one of them might well involved a jump down a rabbit-hole of social media which will spit you out in anther frame of mind an hour after you last checked the time. Go on, give up the old instachatter, it's just a tic and you'll never miss it.