Wednesday 31 May 2017

Julius Petri

I must have mentioned Petri dishes aka boites de Petri or in their original language Petrischalen dozens of times in my ramblings about microbiology, several times shamefully without capitalising P for Petri. I should know better because some part of my brain had registered that they were named after their inventor Julius Richard Petri [R with beard]. Petri was born >!today!< 31st May 1852 in Wuppertal in the Eastern Rhineland and qualified as a Militärarzt - army doctor - who was seconded to Berlin to work with Robert Koch. Koch [prev on TB etc.] was biggest of big cheeses in the world of 19thC microbiology, second only to Louis Pasteur in Paris, so this was clearly a prestigious and stimulating place to work. Koch's laboratory was responsible for identifying the causative agents of TB Mycobacterium tuberculosis, cholera Vibrio cholerae and anthrax Bacillus anthracis. But his lasting claim to fame was the development of Koch's postulates for definitively tying down a disease state to an identifiable cause.

To establish a microbial cause, they had to be able to identify and grow that bacteria to the exclusion of all others in the local environment. It was really hard because contamination was rife. A huge break-through came when Fanny Hesse, working in Koch's lab as unpaid technical help to her husband Walter, brought an idea from her kitchen to use a seaweed extract called agar-agar as the vehicle for the various growth media. Resolution: write subsequent piece on this key woman of science. That had numerous advantages over the existing options [slices of potato, extract of calf's foot] and paved the way for Petri's contribution which was a pair of circular glass dishes the lid slightly larger than the base which held the media. It was the close-fitting lid that really gave Petri's system utility. It's neat because the lid's overlapping sides deter air-borne microbes from drifting onto the plate to contaminate the sample. And each plate was separate experiment that could be stacked and moved easily from bench-top to incubator to cold-room.
The dishes could be sterilised in an autoclave filled with appropriate media, inoculated with bacteria and then re-used. When I learned microbiology 100 years later in the 1970s, we were still using the same methodology. You can still buy glass Petri dishes at $188/dozen. For that price you get [see L] 'cover' and 'bottom' etched on the side and a life time's careful use. Nowadays, the plates are made in lightweight transparent polystyrene which is used once, heat-sterilised into a blob and sent to landfill. They cost about $1/dozen - you do the math. Plastic opens other functionality: you can buy [$6/dozen] plates split into three or four sections with little injection-moulded vertical walls. Or, if time is money, you can buy ready-to-go plates filled with the medium of your choice.

We were taught to pour the hot agar into plates and build them one at a time into a stack; that way the hot medium would warm the lid of the dish immediately below and so deter condensation on the lid. We were also requested-and-required to incubate the plates agar-side-up, so that no residual lid condensation would be able to drip down on the agar surface and mix the bacteria over the surface. Every year I have to re-teach at least some of students the elements of correct practice w.r.t. Petri dishes and agar.   There is a certain amount of irony in this because I am definitely not the safest pair of hands in a laboratory.

Particularly since Petri dishes featured as a Google doodle on 31st May 2013, their inventor has been sidelined as a one-trick pony. No fair! Petri went on to a stellar career carrying out research on TB and hygiene, progressing through various posts and institutions until he finished up in 1889 as Director of the Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt in Berlin where he had invented the dish nearly 20 years earlier. His 1893 work Versuche über die Verbreitung ansteckender Krankheiten, insbesondere der Tuberkulose, durch den Eisenbahnverkehr und über die dagegen zu ergreifenden Maßnahmen on the spread of tuberculosis by the railways could, with advantage, be read by 21stC epidemiologists worrying about the spread of SARS, bird-flu and Ebola by today's higher-speed mass transport. Later still Julius Petri became known a circus act.

Tuesday 30 May 2017

Orkambi - Health Minister caves in

There are 1200 sufferers of CF in Ireland but they have a very loud collective shout. I guess it's the esprit de corps in the cohort: they are all young because there are no old people with CF; they have been nobbled by one or other of the many bowel obstructions or pneumonias which the gloopy CF mucus fails to discourage.

I've set out my stall on drugs to ameliorate the symptoms of cystic fibrosis CF. The two recently developed drugs Kalydeco and Orkambi are both ruinously expensive at €300K/yr and €140K/yr respectively: no normal family can afford them; so Vertex, the company which developed the drugs, is banking on insurance companies (US) or governments (in countries which put collective caring above individual enterprise) to foot the bill. The purse-strings will not be loosened unless some sort of cost-benefit analysis is carried out. A democracy is not going to stop people buying snake-oil if it makes them feel better - the placebo effect can be really powerful magic - but they won't accept mere assertions of Widow Twankie that her snake-oil cures boils, the pox or the dropsy.

In Ireland we have a bunch of knowledgeable and experienced people who work in the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics NCPE. They are tasked to read the literature and do further statistical analysis as required to see if new drugs work well enough to justify the government paying for them. Kalydeco only works for a small group [N ~= 40 in Irelandof those who have a particular mutation that causes CF, and even then gives only a marginal increase in the quality of life. Reluctantly - nobody wants to deny children the chance of being fit and healthy - NCPE refused to allow the Health Service Executive HSE to pay for the drug. The then Minister of Health, James Reilly, over-ruled this evidence based decision by the governments own experts. tsk! that is a lot of money (my money, I pay taxes) which is now no longer available for other things, for other people who are not so articulate.

When I wrote about CF evidence-based economics in December 2016, the NCPE had refused to countenance paying for Orkambi. Although it is targetted at the deltaF508 mutation, which is the most common cause of CF in Ireland, and although there was a compelling rational drug design argument behind the drug's development, it only improved symptoms for about 3% of those who could possibly benefit.  Those who did benefit, seemed to do really well under that therapeutic regime and were not above shouting their wellness from the rooftops. It made a very effective feel-good story in the media and these happy few got a lot of air-time. In the Spring of this year he Minister agreed to meet CF representatives to assure them that His People were negotiating hard with Vertex to get the best possible deal. Vertex were interested in helping people with CF, true dat: they had devoted hundreds of person-years in researching and developing the best available CF therapeutics. But they also owed their employees and shareholders and needed to recoup their R&D costs; so they were playing hard-ball too.

Then at the beginning of April Simon Harris the current Minister of Health caved in to get a positive political photo-opportunity struck a deal with Vertex over Orkambi. Cystic Fibrosis Ireland were happy although they had to big up the benefits "improved their lung function by a very dramatic 6.8 percentage points".  Last time I used a peak-flow meter, my doctor asked me to try again because my puff was so woeful, but I don't think I'd notice a 7% increase in lung-function.  I wouldn't pay €380 a day for it in any case. If I wanted to improve my QALY, I'd put it towards a mobility scooter so I could get out and about and meet [both] my pals.  Minister Pot Reilly called Minster Kettle Harris black over this foolish subversion of a fair and agreed method for making the hard decisions in health care.  Nobody denies that making decisions in modern health care is hard - a former incumbent called the Health portfolio "Angola" It's hard to say No to the CFistas but let's not shy away from the maths that by paying for CF drugs you-the-minister are saying No to people waiting for a hip-replacement or psychiatric help or a bed in a ward rather than another night on a trolley.

You can say that decision making is hard and give the responsibility to an objective protocol or you can say it's easy because you give in to the most articulate, the most pathetic or the most closely related to the Minister of Health.  James Reilly qualified in medicine and spent 25 years at the coal-face. Simon Harris may be qualified in Journalism and French, (or may have dropped out to pursue a career in politics) and I have to doubt whether he knows what evidence is, let alone how to evaluate it for the best possible outcome for the majority of the people in his care [that is essentially all 4.7 million of us in the Republic. If he threw the cheque book [€70 million /yr!] at Vertex over Orkambi, what do you think he will do when the nurses come out on strike later this year? He has been called 'Icarus' but that high-flyer was the son of Daedalus an archetype for a canny craftsman and inventor - a sort of proto-scientist - and I don't see that in young Harris.

Monday 29 May 2017

Crisis? nonsense!

St John oF Kennedy was born 100 years ago this very day May 29 1917. We revere him in Ireland since, in June 1963 he made a progress through Dublin and South Wexford where his ancestral homestead is located. A few weeks later he was dead in Dallas. Lots of people who were of sentient age then will have had a picture of him in the kitchen beside the perpetual flame and/or a picture of a favorite pope.  He had some great speechwriters and has sent numerous quotes down the airwaves of history. Not all of those sound-bytes stands up to critical scrutiny.
  • The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word "crisis". One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.  Hmmmm, not really  brush-stroke is not the same as character and, although the first character wēi is cognate with danger, the second ji means pretty much whatever you want it to mean depending on context.
  • Change is the law of life. Those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future. [so much for living in the moment, mindfulness people]
  • But the harsh fact of the matter is that there is also an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodies—whose physical fitness is not what it should be—who are getting soft.
    • also: Only if our citizens are physically fit will they be fully capable of such an effort.
    • etc. many versions of this idea
Maybe if he'd had a second term as President he would have implemented physical training in schools and knocked the obesity epidemic out of the park before it started to balloon. He did have a bit of a thing about the charisma of Hitler
  • “Anyone who has visited these places can imagine how in a few years, Hitler will emerge from the hate that now surrounds him and come to be regarded as one of the most significant figures ever to have lived.”
  • Ich bin ein Berliner doesn't really mean I am a donut unless you are being crassly clever-clogs.
So maybe school rallies and exercises would have supplemented saluting the flag, which US school children used to do by raising a stiff right arm.

He was posthumously notorious for his love of women. Apparently asking the British PM "I wonder how it is with you, Harold? If I don't have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches."  That was unintentionally cruel because Macmillan's wife had a long-standing affair with another Tory grandee Bob Boothby.  But to end on a more positive note.

  • For of those to whom much is given, much is required.
  • And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
  • My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
  • The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society
  • An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.
  • I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. [prev; prevlier; prevliest; quiz]
  • We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask "why not?". Speech to the Dáil 28 June 1963
  • I am reminded of the story of the great French Marshal Lyautey, who once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for a hundred years. The Marshal replied, 'In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.'"

Ave atque vale

Sunday 28 May 2017

Les enfants perdus

We were invited to an Irish wedding yesterday. After a a month without rain a huge wet storm passed over the country through Friday night, so I was able to strip down to my shorts and wash the algae off our polytunnel [picture - of the tunnel not me in my shorts]. It was still raining as we set off  - I had discarded the shorts in favour of my wedding / funeral / interview suit - but miraculously the world dried up as we drove South and, as we parked the car at the church, patches of blue sky could be seen. Beside us on the wall inside the church was a memorial
Sacred to the memory of
Lieut. E. Beatty 99th Regt.
who fell on the 1st July 1845
while gallantly
leading the forlorn hope
at the storming of the
Stockade of Waimate
New Zealand. 
Very sad. A bit like my namesake Colonel Thomas who died heroically leading his men from the front at the Battle of Nivelle in 1813.  Forlorn hope is an interesting coinage because it hinges on a false folk etymology. It comes as a homophone from the Dutch 'verloren hoop'. Dutch orthographic convention pronounces oo to sound like English goat, rope, or smoke. The submarine film Das Boot is about a boat not a boot.  Hoop can translate as hope but, in the phrase here considered, it means pile or multitude and is cognate with English heap. Verloren means lost or forgotten. So Lost Troop would be a better translation; the French use les enfants perdus.  Lt 'Jack' Beatty came from an Anglo-Irish family which, like mine from a different county, provided generations of officers for the British armed forces. They left home because duty called, but also because the prospects of growing old in Ireland spelled boredom and penury. One way to better your prospects was to achieve promotion and volunteering for a dangerous and daring feat of arms was seen as a way to expedite the process. 'Death or Glory'. In young Beatty's case, the gamble didn't pay off.

The assault on the Waimate stockade was an incident in the Flagstaff War.  The Brits annexed New Zealand on the 21st May 1840 after inducing some Maori chieftains to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in February of that year. a) Not everyone agreed that signing the Treaty was a good idea and b) there was a difference of opinion as to what exactly had been ceded to the incomers. The Flagstaff war was the first obvious push-back against the change of government. The anti-treatyites (to use language that will become more familiar over the next 5 years as Ireland plays out the centenary of the Irish Civil War) retreated behind defensive stockades and defied the government. The 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot was delegated to attack one of these forts and thereby assert the rule of law. Colonel Henry Despard, another Anglo-Irish soldier, i/c the 99th, pounded the stockade with artillery until the ammunition ran out and then ordered an assault. Young Beatty led his forlorn hope of twenty volunteers against the still robust and still actively defended stockade and died in front of the wall along with 100 others. There is a suggestion that at least part of some of the dead soldiers were eaten by the Maoris as part of their victory celebrations.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, at the wedding feast I was sitting next to a local historian, the editor of the book Medieval Wexford [bloboprev] and he too had noticed the Beatty Memorial in the church. It turns out that Lt Beatty was a relative - possibly great-uncle - of Admiral David Beatty who was one of the commanders of the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He famously said "there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today" when two of the ships under his command exploded. Revisionist historians have battened onto the quote with papers like "Our Bloody Ships" or "Our Bloody System"? Jutland and the Loss of the Battle Cruisers, 1916. At least that Beatty survived the assault on the enemy and died in his bed.

Sciency filmlets 280517

Berluddy 'ell, isn't yer man's blog called Science Matters? Doesn't he go drifting off-topic into song and dance a bit too often. Okay, okay, leave me alone. But I take your point. Some neat recent science stuff on youtube

Saturday 27 May 2017

Posset pretension

The 'cuisine' of Britain (the big bit split 3-ways England Scotland Wales) and Ireland (the second biggest bit to the West) is effectively the same. In the interest of political sensitivity I have called the whole area WEA Western European Archipelago; culturally and in the kitchen there will be no effect from Brexit. There are some regional variations -
  • a Welsh breakfast must have a slab of bread fried in saturated animal fat, 
  • Scots do eat porridge, tourists in Scotland can eat haggis
  • There are little local variations: 
    • Abroath smokies: small haddock Melanogrammus aeglefinus with added carcinogen
    • Bakewell tart: a pie made with jam and almonds
    • Chester pudding: like a lemon meringue pie without the lemon
    • Devon cream tea: scones with clotted cream . . . and a nice cup of tea
    • Eccles cake: a puff pastry filled with currants 
    • etc.
    • Wexford Rissoles: the only really genuine regional food in Ireland
    • . . . except, possibly, the Waterford Blaa
. . . but even they are getting eroded as the big supermarket chains want all their outlets to stock the same stuff. Nobody would claim the cooking hereabouts is sophisticated: good plain cooking is about the best you can hope for although you're more likely to experience a lot of stodge and over-cooked vegetables. Since I was born (it's coincidental rather than causative) a wider variety of food has become a regular part of the diet of ordinary people. Pizza; chicken tikka masala; spaghetti bolognese caused consternation when Brits first met it but it's now reg'lar spag bog; why just three days ago I had dish of moules à la sauce au vin au basilic tomate in Tramore!

We do like our creamy desserts though - heck even people with a full set of teeth will order mousse or crème caramel. When we were kids we'd often make up a bowl of Bird's Instant Whip by pouring the contents of a packet into half a pint of milk and whisking like buggery. They don't make it any more, probably because its emulsifiers were all diverted to the paint industry. If Bird's Instant Whip is sooo last century then mousse is also showing its age. Some marketeer has recently decided to launch something called posset for young and hip and fanged.

Posset has an even more venerable tradition than BIW but not as we know it. In Olde Engelande folk made posset by curdling hot milk with wine or beer, adding nutmeg and chugging it down as a slobbery liquid; especially for people feeling under the weather. Take cowe Mylke, & set it ouer þe fyre, & þrow þer-on Saunderys, & make a styf poshotte of Ale. Nobody is going that route now we have paracetamol and aspirin, so the word posset has been looted for a 'sophisticated' mousse / milk pudding / blancmange. Syllabub! You first heard it here; it will be soon in a deli near you looking suspiciously like a 1980s mousse.

When I was over with my mother at the beginning of May, I found a full fridge, with some food perilously close to the sell-by date. I did my best to rotate the stock and eat the stuff nearest the edge first; obviously giving my aged mother first dibs if there was a choice: it's her house after all and her immune system isn't what it was. I'm an old hand at this; making something hot and tasty for Pat the Salt's Sunday Supper without rushing off the shop for more food. Accordingly I ate (on successive days, not all at once!) a couple of chocolate mousses which were on the cusp but perfectly serviceable.

My mother had the Salted caramel and chocolate posset: [arrowed L picture from IcePandora who likes them too] A blend of salted caramel and chocolate made with the finest Cornish sea salt. Absolute bloody nonsense: what's wrong with Dorset sea salt? Why go two counties to the West for the salt? This salted caramel is A Thing nowadays. For some reason salting caramel makes it more grown-up. Caramel is super-tasty and we all love it but boiling up sugar till it goes brown [= caramel] creates some nasty chemicals some of which are potentially carcinogenic. Salt whether brined out of salt-mines in Siberia or Cheshire or created by pixies in Cornwall is sodium chloride and humans have a taste for it. When we came down from the trees, salt was in short supply so we are programmed to eat it when available. We now have as much as we want but getting rid of the surplus puts a big strain on our kidneys which are really only designed to pee out about 5g a day. Next time you're in the kitchen weigh out 5g of salt and see how little it is,  Here's the ToC for Pots & Co's Salted Caramel and Chocolate Posset [which weighs in at 100g):
Whipping Cream (Milk), Belgian Milk Chocolate (25%) [Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Whole Milk Powder, Cocoa Mass, Emulsifier: Soya Lecithin, Natural Vanilla Flavouring], Whole Milk, Double Cream (Milk), 56% Belgian Dark Chocolate (9%) [Cocoa Mass, Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Emulsifier: Soya Lecithin, Natural Vanilla Flavouring], Caramel (6%) [Sugar, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Water], Free Range Pasteurised Egg Yolk, Unsalted Butter (Milk), Cornish Sea Salt (0.5%). 
Whoa!? That last item is 10% of your salt allowance for today. And the stuff in bold are, as is now required, the usual suspects for anaphylactic shock potential allergens. I've had a go at these long long ingredient lists before - Pizza - Tarte au chocolat - Sou'wester cake - and have to say that the Lemon and Lime Posset (which my mother doesn't like quite so much) has a much shorter ToC.

But I can't leave Pots & Co without unpacking their packaging. Each of these desserts comes in a nice ceramic ramekin - colour-coded so you can be sure what you're eating even after discarding all the wrapping. I don't know, you don't know, how much of the product's retail cost is from the cream and the Cornish sea salt and how much from transport, marketing, product development, pensions, profit and a ceramic pot with each serving. But these desserts retail at £2 each!  You may compare that with chocolate mousse which sells for between £0.08/100g and £0.70/100g.  The back of an envelope suggests that the extra £1.00+ you spend on Pots & Co posset gets you a dinky ceramic pot which will probably finish up in a land-fill . . . despite the company making some pretty lame / weird suggestions about what to do with them after they've been through the dishwasher. My mother has a short stack of the things in the garage. If she didn't already have a life-time's supply of butter dishes, they'd be just the ticket.

Sing song Sat 270517

Wimmin singin'

Now it's your turn fa la la.

Friday 26 May 2017

Naming of heart

For more than four years, I've been bloggin' about the process of teaching in The Institute. It will be the work of moments to find out where that place actually is . . . and indeed the name that appears on my pay-cheque. But I have been careful to formally anonymise the place where I work. I've also been pretty careful to be silent about my colleagues: there is neither catharsis nor future in unloading about their oddities in this public forum. My students haven't been so well protected from criticism but I hope that I have been respectful about them and their mistakes. It's important to say that being wrong is not a bad thing; realising you are wrong is after all the first step to getting things right. And I don't think, on balance, that I have moaned about them more than I have celebrated their successes.  Earlier this year I set my 1st Year Human Physiology students a task under exam conditions:
Make a sketch of the heart, naming i) the main chambers and showing where 
the blood is oxygenated or not ii) the valves, indicating the direction of blood flow.
This is easy to do only if you haven't attempted it!
1. The heart is a 3-dimensional object and you are asked to flatten onto a 2-D page.
2. As the heart develops, it makes an axial rotation so the blood-vessels are entangled at the top.
3. All the blood vessels are attached at the top. This is particularly hard for showing the connexion of the L and R ventricles, which form the lower part of the heart, to the outgoing vessels [aorta & pulmonary artery]. The question is essentially a naming of parts but it is cast in such a way that should elicit an understanding of the process - the flow-diagram, if you will. I got a variety of responses: some beautiful anatomically correct drawings; some functional cartoons bearing little resemblance to reality. And almost everyone forgot at least one valve or some other functional part. Then I got this:
What I like about this answer is that most of the heart-parts are named . . . but in a totally random way.
  • the left ventricle and the tricuspid valve float in the middle unattached to anything else [island in centre] - tricuspid usually on the edge of the right ventricle;
  • the right ventricle is correctly attached to the pulmonary artery but are likewise totally independent [island on left] they need a pulmonary semi-lunar vale between them; 
  • there is a mysterious third blob [island on right] where two key parts on the list - pulmonary and bicuspid valves - are propping each other up as another independent republic
  • there is neither left nor right atrium
    • indeed there is no septum separating the left side from the right
  • the inferior vena cava is by-passing the heart entirely [bottom L]
  • are the three funnels at the top one aorta or three? One is labelled as 'to lungs' and that's not true of any aorta.  This has nothing to do with a triple bypass
I gave the student some credit for getting most of the heart-part inventory and spelling things correctly but it is clear that s/he doesn't have the least idea what happens inside her heart. I have repeatedly commented on the naming of parts in science: how names are essential to establish what we are talking about but largely irrelevant for revealing out how things work. There are some exceptions, of course: pulmonary semi-lunar valve gives clues as to its shape, location and function. Meles meles, on the other hand, just tell us what Romans called a badger - nothing about its habitat, family structure, gestation period, diet, size or colour.  As Richard "Nobel" Feynman famously said [parrotting his Dad]: “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts.” Option: great man tells the story on film.
It is always nice to read Henry Reed's dreamy WWII poem Naming of Parts.
I don't usually snicker at the wild and woolly things students put down in exams; but eeee I 'ad to larf at this answer to the question sketch the crystal structure of the two forms of pure carbon: graphite and diamond.
I bet you €5 that student spent far too much time as a girl watching Disney princess movies and drawing tiaras.

Thursday 25 May 2017

North Sporclea

Before Dau.II left home 4 years ago when she was almost 18, she spent days on the sofa watching boxed-sets and doing quizzes on Sporcle. It was her last ditch attempt to learn some stuff before she enrolled full time in U.Life. Ask her now and it's a racing certainty that she'll be able to tell you the capital city of any country on this planet. She could also point to almost all of them on a map. Maybe she is an idiot savant about geography; it's true that she was at a much younger age able to identify the counties of Ireland (we had a jigsaw puzzle) by their silhouette either in forward or reverse mode.  But I suspect it's just that she had the curiosity to find out and the ability to retain the information once she had discovered it.

It turns out this is a rarer quality that you might think. So rare indeed that you might be worried about just how plug ignorant [= uncurious, complacent] that most people are. After a lot of recent news coverage about North Korea - one of the legs of the Axis of Evil if you can remember back to George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union address - and nuclear missiles, someone asked 1700 US citizens to point to North Korea on a map of the world. Only 36% of adults could do this correctly. The odds were better if the respondent was a man; over 65; having a post-grad degree; knew any Koreans; or had travelled outside of the USA. If this doesn't depress you too much you can check out how well the knowledge of where is N.Korea agrees with how much the people favoured sending in troops or air-strikes against Pyongyang - that's the Capital of the country.

If you like geotrivia, I did an analysis a few years ago on Geoguessr - it's fun and relies on other info rather than reading and memorising lists. I'm not too judgemental about this - no, really: I don't expect normal people to be as good at Pub Quizzes as me; normal people have friends.  But some classes of trivia / sporcle-like information are of more immediate value in our day-to-day digestion of what passes for news. If 4 people die in a train-crash outside Thessaloniki, that's unfortunate but it's not going to help them or us if we know, or don't, if Thessaloniki is in Greece, Turkey or Bulgaria. But if a foreign power is rousting out the rhetoric and pooping off nuclear missiles, then it might be as well to find out where Pyongyang is before anyone looses a pre-emptive strike on Povelskoy Полевской because it begins with P, has nine letters and is full of foreign Johnnies.

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Cattle cake

I spent 10 days with my mother recently, triggered by the fact that she had a cataract op and needed drops to be popped into her eye. She asserted that she'd be able to do the drops if it was okay to touch the tip of the dropper in the corner of her eye - which it is not! You don't want to contaminate the bottle with whatever is growing in the tears. It was a long time between drops 4x a day, so I did a bit of deep cleaning in the kitchen. Not a lot, I didn't want to get officious and, by implication, judgmental. My father used to visit his cousin pretty much every year: not the lesbian cousin, but the sailor cousin who lived romantically on the shores of Lough Derg. One day during his visit, he went into Nenagh, the nearest town, and bought half-a-dozen crisp new t-towels and 'helpfully' presented them to his cousin because he'd decided that her existing towels were a health hazard. The cousin was more bemused than offended. I am aware that there are aspects of our kitchen that would not pass muster if the food safety authority descended for an inspection but they are effectively invisible to us. Because nobody has gotten ill yet and we have neither mice nor cockroaches in residence, there isn't a huge amount of pressure to change.

The first morning I was with my Mum, I went at her primary food cupboard which hangs off the wall over the work-surface between the hob and the oven. Like many elderly ladies, my 97 y.o. mother has shrunk from a rather tall-for-her-era 1.75m to something at least 10cm shorter - it's the bone density, silly. She can, therefore, barely reach the top shelf of this cupboard let alone see the surface. Nobody, or no kind person, is going to recommend that she gets her wobbly pins up on a step-ladder or stool to reach the back. Accordingly, I found some interesting things up there.  With macular degeneration and a rheumy right eye it is impossible to read the sell-by date and she often can't find whatever she's looking for . . . so she buys more. I found 6 cartons of Cadbury's Bournville Cocoa, 3 opened; 5 slabs of Green&Black organic chocolate; 7 containers, various, of white pepper; 4 containers of black pepper; three small tins of Lyell's Golden Syrup two open; two ancient packets of flour. It's a hassle living on your own because you cannot buy 50g of flour to make a white sauce.

In between eye-drops, we had plenty of time to catch up and Mum told me about the olde days (within my life-time) when the local grocer had biscuits displayed in 30x30cm tins with glass tops. As a naval wife, she had to shift house every year or two which meant establishing a relationship with another grocer. If you sell biscuits by the pound [450g] or half-pound, there are going to be broken biscuits in the bottom of the tin. These were sold cheap as Broken Biscuits and were a source of shame "That Mrs Doohickey, I heard her ask for broken biscuits at the grocer, her husband drinks and that's all she has to feed the children".  Our family [no shame] bought them regularly because they were an essential ingredient of cattle-cake
  • Ingredients:
    • 8oz + 3/4 broken digestive biscuits 
    • 3oz butter
    • 2oz sugar
    • 2oz cocoa power
    • 1tbs golden syrup
    • note 1oz/ounce = 28g
  • Method: 
    • melt butter in saucepan, 
    • cast thereto sugar, cocoa and golden syrup
    • stir into broken biscuits
    • press into swiss-roll tin to set (fridge recommended)
This is clearly from the same family as Bob's Famous Flapjacks which I made the other day for the walkers on the Blackstairs Challenge and also periodically for the starvin' graduate students at The Institute. They are both essentially a carbo-vehicle + butter, sugar and golden syrup.

It also explains the presence of so much cocoa powder and golden syrup in my mother's store cupboard. The neighbours are not above dunning the Oldest Person in the Village for a batch of cattle cake when the village fête, or a cricket match, or the duck-race, needs something to go with an urn full of strong tea. I came away with half the pepper, and the oldest cocoa that was sell-by 28 04 2014 and a tin of syrup sell-by end May 2015. As well as shrinking, elderly people get a bit sketchy on the immune front and readily succumb to Listeria etc. and I don't want my Mum to go from a terminal case of botox.

On the morning of the Blackstairs Challenge, I thought it might be Der Tag to make up a batch of cattle cake which I proceeded to do, using a tin of, now bendy, ginger biscuits (which I found behind atop the fridge) instead of digestives. The cocoa was a bit caked but sieved out fine, and the golden syrup was darker than the more up-to-date stuff but it all worked out . . . except that I forgot the sugar. But that's okay: I discarded half the sugar from the original flapjack recipe when I inherited it and that less-is-more improved it. But I declined to serve the cattle cake out to strangers the walkers in case the antient sirope was awash with Clostridium botulinum.

Notes: two questions will have occurred to the curious:
  • Why cattle cake: not because of its resemblance to the compressed protein-rich livestock feed cobbled together from the byproducts of the brewing industry or ground-nut Vigna subterranea oil factories. It was so called by my elder brother when, in short trousers, he was helping make a batch in the mid-1950s. My mother brightly asked the young shaver what they would call the new treat and he looked dreamily out of the window at a field full of Friesian cows.
  • and what's with the 3/4 biscuit on top of the 8oz of digestives? That seems a spuriously accurate quantity given the long-as-a-piece-of-string "tablespoon" of syrup. I guess that one batch, long long ago, turned out a bit gloopy and someone threw in an extra biscuit to thicken up the mix. I do that - throw in a handful of extra oats - with my flapjacks. It's a bit like Primo Levi's famous story of a [paint] recipe that demanded 23 [not 22 or 24!!] drops of one component.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

PRESennnnt Data!

My team of soon to be qualified molecular evolutionistas have finished their exams and have been requested and required to give a talk today, Tuesday. I sent them some Uncle Bob advice at the end of last week.
  • You have 10 minutes + 5 for questions or 12+3
    • be kind to your peers and think up a question to ask
    • prime your BFF with a question so you can say "I'm glad you asked that"
    • practice the timing in the bathroom (easier to mop up anxiety puddles)
    • don't gabble, speak clearly, don't mumble
  • The slides
    • Title slide shd have title, yr name & affliiation, my (de gaffer) name
    • swoopy transitions don't make the pres easier to follow
    • never show more than 5 numbers on a slide in a table or otherwise
    • never say "ignore these numbers, look at this one"
    • be careful of coloured backgrounds/text, they may look readable on yr laptop  but on the  screen  blue=green
    • you can't go wrong with black on white.
    • Pictures sweeten the pill
  • The rules of thumb are
    • 1 slide for each minute
    • not more than 5 b.points per sllde
    • not more than 5 words per b.point
    • the b,pts provide structure  / ToC, they are not a script
  • therefore
    • do not read the PPTs, we can do that fine on our own
    • talk to the audience not the screen (easier if you're not reading from the screen)
    • nobody is interested in how sharp your hair-cut is.
    • don't get a hair-cut specially, the pres carries marks but only for content
  • dress comfy: 
    • smart casual (shows you care) better than 
    • interview suit (shows you're desperate)
  • relax, and knock 'em dead: 
    • you each know something that nobody else on the planet knows.
  • I'm looking forward!
And you Dear Reader, if you care about the genetic basis of Huntington's Disease; immunology in bats; olfactory receptors in whales <none!>;  viral diseases of sheep; muscle cramps in horses; genes associated with tuberculosis in cattle; OCD and trichotillomania; peculiarities of the immune system of the great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus; the evolution of Wolbachia in insects and nematodes; the role of TRAIL in apoptosis, OR the inventory of interferons in mammals . . . then come along but don't heckle from the back: it's disrespectful.

Monday 22 May 2017

$=4 years scrivening

"Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for".
Mark Twain
I've quoted this bit of worldly wisdom at a couple of other milestones on The Blob: 500th Post; 1000th Post. It is particularly apposite because today's post marks four (4) years of posting something on The Blob every day. I started The Blob in January 2013 to record the process of transition from a part-time job in a University to a full-on full-time commitment to The Institute - the shadowy organisation in the South-East of Ireland that pays my salary. According to Twain I should have turned to carpentry a year ago. I'm not ready to give up the blobbin' yet but I foresee a lot more sawing wood; an occupation which is useful, contemplative and good exercise.

Sunday 21 May 2017

Round-up not glyphosate 210517

Ah Jakers, 'tis Sunday again.

Saturday 20 May 2017

Blackstairs Walk 2017

That would be today 20th May, the third Saturday of the month. Even at this early moment, walkers are starting off on the 31 km trek up hill and down dale in the Blackstairs 'Mountains'.  As the highest point on the trail Mt Leinster is a mere pimple at 795m, it is a little ambitious to call them mountains. Then again the peak is more than twice the height of Vaalserberg 323m the highest point 'in' the Netherlands. Vaalserberg actually marks the edge of the country being the Drielandenpunt / Dreiländereck between NL BE and DE.  This should remind you of the cunning plan to cede 1.5 ha of Norway to Finland to give the Finns something of their own to look up to. Finland is another shockin' flat country.

To participate in the Blackstairs Challenge you have to be fit enough to cover the distance in 10 hrs. I guess if you fail to make it you annoy the stewards who have to go back and find you before dark. Two years ago, I wrote about (with added maps) that walk. I've never done it. It's on our doorstep, I can do the walk whenever I want and so am very unlikely to do it ever . . . that's the way with the familiar: it's not valued. But I have walked long distances in Portugal and Spain and have a certain amount of empathy for fellow hikers. We've been living in the Blackstairs for 20 years and a couple of months now; and for the last 15 years, at least, we have provided water for the walkers on this day. When I remember, like this year, I make a slab of Bob's Famous Flapjacks and leave a tinful out near the tap.

Since time immemorial, many of the walkers (the hard chaws) have rough camped on the green at St Mullins for Friday and Saturday nights. The walk finishes in a pub in the next village Glynn and walkers are not fit to go anywhere in a straight line after 'rehydrating' in that hostelry. It has something of the atmosphere of a medieval jongleurs festival, which is wholly appropriate for one of the most evocatively romantic medieval sites in Ireland [R with river frontage, holy well, motte&bailey, packed graveyard and amazing medieval mill race]. This year, the dreadful Carlow County Council has officiously ringed the green with No Camping signs. I have no idea how the walkers are to be accommodated and you may bet that Carlow CoCo don't give-a-damn.

About a month ago, there was a bit of a flap because walkers up our lane were being made anxious by a "Beware of the Bull" sign on one of the two gates between the county road and the mountain itself. I was contacted by the Wayfarers' Association, who organise the Challenge, to see if a) the bull was real b) the bull was feisty and c) the bull would be there today. I txtd and phoned around and found out who was running shaggable cattle on that part of the townland. I am happy to report that the bull and his harem have exhausted the grass on the Walk-way and have been moved two fields over.

Forecast for the day is good "Patchy rain in the northeast at first, soon clearing. Otherwise today will be a bright, fresh day, with sunny spells. Scattered showers also, mainly in Atlantic coastal counties at first, becoming more widespread during the day, many of them heavy, with scattered thunderstorms developing, mainly in the eastern half of the country during the afternoon and early evening." Walkers don't like it too hot and scattered showers can be waited out in the lee of a hedge. Excuse me, I have to prepare the pit stop . . .

Friday 19 May 2017

Degrees Christin

Honey it's cold out there this Spring morning in Ireland; why it's only 7oC [degrees Christin]. Or it might have been in an alternate time-space Universe where the work of French polymath Jean-Pierre Christin [L photo looted from] was properly acknowledged. J-PC was a know-all astronomer, musician and mathematician who was born in Lyon 31st May 1683 and died there in 1755 well before the [political] Revolution. Nevertheless he participated in the ferment of those 18thC years which launched Linnaeus. Isaac Newton and the Royal Society. When my father was in school, he used Fahrenheit thermometers but had heard about the centigrade scale because, as they explained at Naval Training College, he might have to interact with or go to war against them foreign johnnies from continental Europe. In 1948, centigrade was renamed the Celsius scale after it's supposed inventor. Actually Anders Celsius (1701-1744) had it arseways with zero calibrated to the boiling point of water and 100 as the melting point of ice.

Christin is said to have released his Thermometer of Lyon,[R] as it came to be called, on 19th May <today> 1743. Christin upended the scale with 100 hotter than 0 and everyone rowed in behind that as an idea with more utility. In 1948, I suspect that they honoured Celsius because Christin is by no means the only contender for having been the first flipper of the centigrade scale; Linnaeus is another.  The other innovation was to fill the thermometer with mercury rather than a mix of water and alcohol with a drop of red dye.

I wrote all this hot-stuff up in 2014 to celebrate Christin's birthday and am a little bit ashamed to be thus rechurning my own stuff. On the other hand, nobody reads links in the blogosphere because the are restlessly coursing after the Next Bright Thing. I deprecate re-churning [Aimé Bonpland, Rachel Carson] on the interweb but have been know to do it before. tsk

Thursday 18 May 2017

Risk Assessment

At The Institute, the culmination of  four years of training and knowledge acquisition is the student's final year research project. I've been supervising a lot of these over the last tuthree years far more than anyone else on the Faculty which is all good fun because it means that a lot (about a third) of my billable hours are given over this task - at which I am competent - rather than water chemistry which I taught by the seat of my pants. Two years ago, the new head of department HoD decided, quite rightly, that each project report should include a Risk Assessment in which potential hazards were identified. Risk Assessment is now a science in itself but the basic idea is to use your imagination and estimate a) the likelihood and b) the severity of each event: the product of these two numbers is the Risk and you want to work hardest to avoid the riskiest items on your list. One of the reasons I get a lot of project students is because my advent on the campus coincided with an up-blip in student numbers, and the final year cohort slipped over the magic number of N=36.

Timetabling is a nightmare for our redoubtable HoD because the teaching staff must get exactly 17 or 19 contact hours each week, the students have and even fatter time-table [24-27 hours in class] and there are a finite number of rooms all at > 90% capacity between 9am and 5pm M-F.  Lecture hours are easy enough to accommodate but laboratories are, for health and safety reasons, limited to 18 seats, and only one lab is equipped to service research projects. In the leisurely days of yore [2013 CE], there were only 16ish final year students and we ran things so that before Christmas they would carry out a Literature Review of their research topic, so that in the New Year they were fully informed to get down and dirty at the lab bench. 2014 doubled the numbers and we finagled it so that half the kids did their project in the old way and the other half, somewhat absurdly, did the lab work first and revealed its context in the library after Christmas. When numbers climbed above 2 x 18, even that bodge wouldn't work, so my appearance was somewhat providential. Because I am a danger to myself and others in the lab, I've spend the last 30 years doing research on computers analysing DNA and protein sequences to reveal the pattern and process of evolution.

At the end of Third Year, I shill for my 'bioinformatic' projects by telling the students war -stories about a) my 3 big ideas in a lifetime of science b) what the best their predecessors have achieved in their projects. For logistics, I have to take at least the number of students that are surplus to 2x18 = 36 and the computer room has 18-20 seats [any 2 of the computers are likely banjaxed on any one day) so I could have 18. Last year it was N=14 this year N=11. It is very busy: I scoot about the room talking to someone pretty much for the full 2 hours of each class.

Even these students have to carry out a Risk Assessment like everyone else but the hazards are not quite on par with resting your arm in a puddle of sulphuric acid, or spraying yourself with hot sticky agar fresh from the autoclave, or flicking radioactive phosphorous into your eye. Accordingly, the risk assessments are filled with
  • tripping over bag
  • eye-strain
  • repetitive strain injury
  • headache
As all things are relative, these hazards get parity of esteem with the more serious risks of chemical and physical injury in the laboratory.  Oh oh oh, I feel a research project coming on: do students in the bioinformatics group perceive their risks as being milder than those they'd meet pouring Petri dishes or flipping eppendorfs: a t-test should do it.

Wednesday 17 May 2017

Regrettable substitution

The Beloved was staying with her BFF when they were both teenagers. One day they were being driven by the Mammy in an open-topped car with two dogs. Passing a rival dog the two hounds went in paroxysms of barking and looked likely to plunge out of the car. The girls put a restraining hand on a dog each and the ungrateful terrier turned round and bit TB in the arm. For the rest of the holiday this was a major topic of conversation and, as the tale unfolded visitors would edge away from the Alsatian and closer to the psychotic terrier. Such failures of risk assessment are clichéed out of the frying-pan and into the fire, and there are a lot of them about. Famously, there were 1000 excess deaths in the aftermath of 9/11 because travellers avoided intrinsically air-mile safe aeroplanes and died making journeys by car.  I have also made an argument that the space shuttle was as safe/dangerous as travelling by car in Ireland. Nobody said risk-assessment was easy: not everyone agrees about the balance between immediate possible vaccine damage to teenage girls vs distant possible HPV-induced cervical cancer to those same girls in 40 years time.

Modern governments, even those that purport to be entirely free-market capitalist, allocate resources to ensuring that drugs, food, the roads, air-travel are as safe as possible. If adverse events occur, protocols are put in place to see that they don't happen again but Risk Assessment is carried out. You don't want to spend $1 billion to prevent seamstresses getting needle-stick injuries but you might allocate money to prevent the same accident in HIV clinics or Porton Down. When it was shown that large doses of cyclamate artificial sweeteners caused cancer in lab rats, they were taken off the market because saccharine was available as a substitute. When saccharine turned out to be similarly (and not very) hazardous, the food lobby bullied the FDA into allowing them to continue its use. I wrote three pieces on this dilemma last October.

Regrettable Substitution is what scientists and risk-managers call frying-pan vs fire issues.  The piece in Wikipedia cites the chemicals used for brake-drum clearing: dichloromethane was phased out because it was destroying the ozone layer and replaced by the solvent n-hexane which turned out to be a neurotoxin.  That's a hard one because the targets for damage were barely commensurate: the atmosphere and the planet being set against mechanics in garages. Dichloromethane is a rather potent CFC which, as we now know, are super-stable at ground level but eats ozone when UV is added to the mix up there. Pressurized CFCs were used for decades as propellants for aerosols: bug-killer, deodorants, WD-40. They were replaced by butane gas which is a lot less stable than CFCs <WHOOOMPH!> . . . a flame-suppressant is added too.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

I R Home

I arrived home before dark last night having spend another afternoon bobbin' about on the Irish Sea on the MV Isle of Inishmore [R with stablisers] video. On the way out ten days ago, I had cocooned myself up in a blanket and sleeping bag against the mal de mer. It had been difficult to sleep because I was being regaled with shop-talk about pernicious infectious diseases in the hospitals of North Carolina. My last night before leaving England had been spent at a rare knees-up with my brother and sister and their spouses. "Knees-under" would probably be a more accurate description because it more dinner round a table than dancing upon it. My sister lives in yet more unsuitable accommodation than us. We live 300m from the county road up a dirt track with a 1:10 gradient. They live 150m from the county road up a precipitous footpath with a 1:3 gradient. One slip and you will be shoooshed down hill and dumped in front of the traffic. Without vehicular access, they have to carry everything - milk flour coal pot-plants biscuits - up hill by hand or with the help of a nifty tracked power-barrow. aNNyway, The Sister had to leave at 0500hrs for a cross-country road-trip and I offered to walk down through the woods (through a storm of bird-song) to see her off.  Not worth going to bed again at that stage, so I didn't get much sleep that night.

But it all worked our for the best because it meant I was more inclined to sleep on board the ferry as she carved a path through the waves - which were moderately mighty as we left the shelter of Milford Haven.  This time I was regaled with endless stories from the two elderly ladies in the next bay who were comparing notes on the many and varied medical misadventures sustained by themselves and their extensive acquaintance. I also tried to shut my ears to numerous anecdotes about losing or nearly losing lunch at sea. Really, next time I'll bring ear-plugs or, probably better, ear-phones connected to a white-noise gizmo.

Because I left early - to be in good time and allow for a pit-stop and two punctures - I had at least two hours in hand as I crossed the Pembrokeshire line. Accordingly, I took a small detour to Tenby, where I bought two tourist souvenir mugs, neither of which was as tasteful at the one pictured [L]. I could have bought a kiss-me-quick hat, a plastic bucket-and-spade and/or some Welsh toffee, but instead tootled off along the coast through the pretty coastal villages of Lydstep Lis Castell and Manorbier Maenorbŷr where my mother trained as a kine-theodolite operator in 1941. I'll have to write about that later, when I don't have to psych myself up, and make a Welsh cheddar sandwich, for the return to work at The Institute.

Monday 15 May 2017

El Olivo Oyl

Saturday 29th April was the last meeting fro this Winter Season of the Blackstairs Film Society BFS. We stop showing films in the Summer because the black-out curtains are kind of sketchy and it's still light outside at 8pm in May-August (the not oysteR months). The film El Olivo The Olive Tree is a labour of love between Scots screenwriter Paul "Wind that Shakes the Barley" Laverty and the director his partner and Madrileña, Icíar Bollaín. Laverty wrote the screenplay for I, Daniel Blake, a tragedy of the modern world which we saw at BFS last month. Both films premiered in 2016, is there no end to his talents?

El Olivo, like I, Daniel Blake, ends with the death of an older man which leaves a young woman bereft but the eSpanish film is much more upbeat, funny and heart-warming.  My preference for fluffy films wasn't met because there is a thread of edge running through it, dealing with silence in families, social justice and  the grasping of Multinational MegaCorp. The Olive Tree of the title is the gnarled, craggy, patriarch of the family farm, perhaps 2,000 years old, from which scions and cuttings have been taken by generations of small scale farmers.  The grandfather is looking backwards through the rose-tinted mists of nostalgia and heritage and sees the tree as the soul of the farm and hence the soul of the family. His sons see it as an asset that can be stripped to give them a better life in town. The grand-daughter, not co-incidentally, is called Alma [=soul] and she skips a generation of baggage and loves her grandfather unreservedly. The love is reciprocated from the moment of her birth. There is a lovely scene in which a sub-teenage Alma is seen painting Grandpa's nails shocking pink and then applying red gloss to his aged lips "whoa! it tickles". I leaned across and whispered Eddie Izzard in The Beloved's ear.  The second part of the film is a road movie in which Alma, her humble Uncle and the truck-driver who collects the chickens for market all drive off to Dusseldorf in a flat-bed to re-patriate the tree. The lose ends are all tied up in a coda where another slip from the father of all trees is set in the ground to see what the next 2,000 years look like.

The day after we saw the film I was pointed at an article in the LA Times about Sissy Goodwin of Cowpoke, Wyoming. The pointed, as often, was metafilter where you can read some extra commentary and a sweet to-from between Sissy and his wife. Goodwin is a hard-chaw cowboy who did a stint in Vietnam and recently retired from teaching science in the local school. He's married with two kids but, like Eddie Izzard, is waaay happier dressed in a frilly skirt than in tooled leather cowboy-boots with a huge shiny belt-buckle. That's who he is, and he decided long ago that he can't be bothered to rein his cross-dressing into lonely sessions in the bathroom at home. Accordingly, he goes to work, the hardware store and the gas-station dress in is something comfortable to him - even if it makes everyone else around his uncomfortable. That should be fine on the basis of your rights end where my nose begins, but of course it isn't and he has sustained rather more barracking and assaults than his more blend-in neighbours.

Part of the deal with going on the March for Science with Dau.I was an away match with her BLT pals at Dublin Pride on 24th June this year. Since the first Gay Liberation Day of Haight-Ashbury in 1972 Free The Gays has been steadily adding classes to the group: any advance on LGBQTIA, this week? Maybe by June I will added right in [with my leotard and sequins] as part of LGBTQIASWM. You may choose to heed Sir Thomas Beecham's advice "In this life try everything once, except morris-dancing and incest", but I can tell you I've broken 50% of his anathemas. And i don't mind telling <TMI alert!> that along with Eddie Izzard and Sissy Goodwin I've had my 15 minutes of fame TV.  In about 1960, when I was six, my father was put in charge of HMS Vernon [prev], a naval shore-establishment in Portsmouth. A house came with the job right beside the front gate. My older brother bet me half-a-crown = 2/6 = 1/8th of a £ that I wouldn't get into my sisters ballet tutu and dance outside the house at out-muster when all the workers in the place knocked off work for the day. Always up for a challenge [it wasn't about the money] I rose to the bait and spent about 30 seconds cavorting about on the pavement to the bemusement of a couple of hundred sailors. My brother handed over the money but suggested that it would be only fair if we went together to spend the money at the seaside amusements about 600m away on the Promenade at Southsea. And that too was so. It was within the normal range of parental behaviour in 1960 to allow two chaps aged 6 and 9 to bunk off to the other side of town and piss away enough money to buy 10 cigarettes or three loaves of bread.

Sunday 14 May 2017

Food glorious food 140517

If you're reading this, it's a placeholder for The Blob because I am benighted in England without the interweb.  Cooking will still be going down however.

Saturday 13 May 2017

Dr Druppel will see you now

As I mentioned a week ago, I'm over in Olde England this week looking after my Olde Mother after she had her eye-balls scraped for cataract.  She has been prescribed 7x eye-drops per diem for 4 weeks.
  • Tobradex 4x/day this is a mix of tobramycin [an antibiotic] and dexamethasone [a cortico-steroid] ophthalmic . . . if you have as much trouble with the long words as my Hum Phys students try saying (TOE bra MYE sin and DEX a METH a sone off THAL mik). The combo is designed to act as prophylaxis against bacterial infection of the raw front-end of her eyeball.
  • Ketorolac trometarol 3x/day this is an NSAID [non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug] to stop the itching by inhibiting the production of prostaglandins.
Delivering these drops on a more or less regular schedule would be a doddle, if your could do it yourself OR you had someone living with you who could spare 30 seconds 4 times a day. The last permanent house-mate of my mother, her husband, died 16 years ago and she's been living independently and essentially alone since then. Independent is a key word here: she will not surrender that independence easily. She has seen too many of her generation settled in sheltered accommodation which is serviceable but 'cosy'; easy to clean and heat but hard to accommodate a lifetime's accumulation of Stuff "why, you couldn't swing a cat in her living room". She has witnessed the, often quite rapid, decline in health and morale when her elderly pals have been shipped to a residential care home . . .  even the homes which don't 'smell'. She also deprecates the several instances where the Elder, especially the widowed variety, has been shipped to a remote part of the country to be nearer the grandchildren. Grand children are fine but they have nothing in common with granny except 1/4 of their genes: unfamiliar with WWII, the wireless, telephones with rotary dials, rice pudding and Jeyes Fluid. It's really hard to make new friends of your own age in a strange town where the accents are unfamiliar.

But it turns out that the inhabitants of the remote, quaint, village with Green and Pub where Mum lives are quite willing to form an orderly queue and take up a slot in a schedule to give my mother her eye-drops. They were, after all, quite capable of formenting a disorderly riot when the government threatened to take away their postman. Me being here has given the friends-and-neighbours rota a week's respite but they'll be back next week. Asking them was like pushing at an open door; because they care for their own. The milkman delivered his weekly bill to the house at some impossibly early hour on Wednesday morning and was seen and heard by a neighbour preparing to go to work. That evening he called us to make sure my mother was still alive. That's kind of useless: if the dawn visitor had been an axe-murderer then my mother would have surely bled out between 0500hrs and 1930hrs . . . but also kind, compassionate . . . neighbourly. 

This is only fair because my mother spent the first 25 years of her life in the village, when she had her eyes, the use of her legs and a car, taking old people to clinics, getting groceries from town if she was going, making cakes and cookies for the village fête and always contributing raffle prizes - often boxes of chocolates which she had been given by someone else: she has a drawer full. If you are registered blind, things can get a little sketchy round the kitchen sink but you probably don't notice. We're hoping that two hours a week from a fit young person with rubber gloves and a scouring pad can keep this from becoming life-threatening or attracting vermin. What goes around comes around. It takes time to build up the social capital, we'd all be advised to start paying forward now.

Hardware 130517

A few things hanging out in the archives which need to see daylight.

Friday 12 May 2017

A error of some gravity

So there I was idly flitting about youtube trying to get through all 100GB of i/o bandwidth we pay for each month. I see a report from 2015 about William Merideth from Redneck, Kentucky who shot down his neighbour's drone when it overflew his swimming pool. This achieved him some local notoriety - enough so he got some 'drone-slayer' t-shirts made up and sold them to cash in on his 15 minutes of fame. His case came up in federal court in March of this year but was dismissed because the Feds had no locus volandi standi. in the case which was essentially one of trespass; and as such subject to Kentucky state law. The plaintiff was David 'drone-driver' Boggs, and he's now out-of-pocket to his lawyers and still without either redress for his destroyed drone or resolution for the law in such matters. There's a lot of it about, even a youtube channel called Drone Compilations in which the war between human and robot is tallying up goals on both sides.

Less that a week later, I'm on Metafilter reading about drones - the ultimate boy-toy for the 21stC - and the legality of shooting t'buggers down if they hover over your swimming pool.  It turns out that drones, though small and unmanned, are classified as aircraft in the US. For obvious reasons, it is a federal offense to shoot down aircraft in US airspace. Few people are happy about that sort of thing elsewhere in the World: in Sinai (Metrojet9268) or Ukraine (MH17), either.  But no sensible judge is going to send a fat git to gaol for 20 years for swatting a drone with his tent t-shirt. As in Ireland and the UK, in the US law is made by statute (Acts of Congress or Parliament) and by case law (where lawyers argue about different interpretations of existing law until a judge or jury rules on who has the better arguments). Poor Mr Boggs is now expected to shell out a chunk more money to take his case to another court so that the legal status of drones can be slowly and expensively resolved. Shucks, it may have to wait for another test-case with longer pockets.

In the gizmodo comments, several people plead that it is not a good idea to fire guns off into the air at a drone, no matter how annoying it is, because the bullet has to come to ground somewhere. In the country that's likely to be a bare field somewhere over there but in cities there is a much higher chance that it will land on, or even in, a person. Where simple folks fire off guns for pure joie de vivre - Afghani weddings, Los Angeles on the 4th of July, Puerto Rico at New Year - the combination of a lot of falling bullets and a lot of people out partying routinely results in tragedy or injury. Simple folks either a) seem to believe that bullets dissolve 'up there' or b) are too out of their heads on booze or ganja to care.

The physics / forensics are straight-forward. A 0.30 caliber bullet weighs in at 7g and travels with a muzzle velocity of 850m/s. That is designed to go straight through you or a door. What goes up must come down but gravity can deliver rather less oomph than cordite and after an infinitesimal pause at the top of its trajectory the bullet accelerates earthwards. However, there is air-resistance which slows the bullet in its fall down to a terminal velocity of about 90m/s. For more familiar car speeds note that 60 mph = 88 fps ~= 25m/s or strictly come metric 25 m/s = 90 km/h.  Bullets are smaller but travel faster: 90m/s = 325 km/h If a car hits you, even a glancing blow, at 90km/h you'll be broken; but even a 7g mass going at 325 km/h can penetrate your skull. The injury is the same or similar wherever in the World it happens but the punishment differs wildly depending on the jurisdiction. Living in, even rural, Ireland I am extremely unlikely to be hit by an accidental bullet, boys and guns is just not part of the culture

Between swatting drones with a t-shirt and shooting them with a shotgun there are intermediate solutions: netting passive - netting active - whacked by eagle - don't mess with no goose - laser flamesbreathless advertising -

Thursday 11 May 2017

How quickly we forget

Probably because I found them on the shelves of my naval father, I have a taste for the books of WW Jacobs, which are quietly funny in their exposure of human folly. If you like your books all wet and salty let me remind you to check out the books of Bartimaeus and Taffrail, pseudonymous memoirs about naval life more of less contemporary with WW Jacobs. Apart from The Da, these books inspired at least one future admiral but have now effectively disappeared beneath the waves. It's peculiar who only a fraction of contemporary culture - Booker Prize Winners, NYT best-sellers, le prix Goncourt - survives to become a timeless classic. Most of those best sellers drift down the listings on Amazon until they are available for 0.01c. I absolutely don't believe here in the market-place as the winnower of quality. All you need to do is reflect on the fact that of the 123 plays of Sophocles only 7 have survived to our times. The corollary of this is that there are gems in the dust of history and you'll be rewarded if you look for them.  I've written before about browsing through shelves of random new books and finding pearls which were never, never would be, reviewed in The Sunday papers.

On reflection it's the same for Nobel Prize [Med Chem Phys] winners. Here's a quick quiz: how did these people confer the greatest benefit to mankind net $£€1 million?:
  • Peter Grünberg 2007
  • Paul Boyer 1997
  • Georg Bednorz 1987
  • Roger Guillemin 1977
  • Manfred Eigen 1967
  • Daniel Bouvet 1957
There, I bet you can't place more than a couple. I picked those names because I had never knowingly heard about their names or achievements.  That's an indictment of how specialised we are in science. As Haldane articulated, "Keats and Shelley were the last two poets who were at all up to date with their chemical knowledge”: the age of polymaths is over.

This was brought home to me last week when I wrote a couple of pieces recently about people who were ground-breakers in their time but have now passed on. One of my readers once suggested that a diet of 700 words of Blob was sometimes hard to digest and the pill would be easier swallowed if I plugged in a picture or two. I heard and try to obey, but this is what happened. I hunted for "Ed Morrow" scourge of the establishment and nemesis of Senator MacCarthy, Google images gives lots of pages of a young basketballist called Ed Morrow who has only been on the planet a wet week let alone made a significant contribution to the political health of his country. Heck, even London-based twitterer Ed Morrow edges out the 'original and best' Ed Morrow. I know how Google works: fame and links drive up the pages which are delivered. I was reflecting on it being a sad comment on the quality of discourse that today's sportista trumps yesterday's anything when I realised that I should have been searching for Ed Murrow. Google can deal with illiterates like me if given one iota of extra information "Ed Morrow CBS" gets straight to the Great Man.

With the late great Audrey Jane Pinsent/Gibson, it was even harder. There were, essentially, no pictures of this solid, insightful scientist who was at the top of her game between 1950 and 1990. As a trained researcher, I was able to hunt down the current head of her old department and one of her daughters - who is married but retains her first name and now lives in a different country - and ask them if they had a snap in a file somewhere. As you can see, that brought a lovely picture of the young Dr Pinsent out into the public domain.  Unless you are interested in this week's clamour, it's nonsense to believe that Google or Bing will easily deliver the information you want. Blimey, if you were were trying to locate material in the, much smaller, francophonie you'd really have you work cut out.