Thursday 31 August 2017

Bad luck

We live in a dog-eat-dog world. The worldview in Ireland, UK and USA, the three countries where I've lived for the longest time, is that you have to live your own misfortune . . . unless you have insurance. Even having paid life or health or house insurance for years, you can still get caught with your pants down because of the small print [which nobody reads] exclusions.  In January 2010, our lane was washed away in a flood generated by 50mm of unseasonably warm rain falling on 30cm+ of accumulated snow. Snow packs 9 parts air to 1 part water. So that was a month's rain in a couple of hours, which amounted to 2-20 [hard to estimate the effective catchment] acre/feet of running water - which overwhelmed the drains.  It had happened once before in the Summer of 1997, so floods hereabouts don't come regular like the monsoon but when they come they run. Nobody else seemed interested in repairing the lane so that we could drive to work or get to the doctor. Accordingly we had to spend about €2,000 in fill, digger-time and surfacing to restore access to the outside world.

Last Tuesday 23/Aug a similar amount of rain was dumped on the NW of our green isle, especially on the Inishowen peninsula and widespread flooding resulted. A chicken farm lost all its stock drowned, bridges were under-cut and collapsed, sinkholes appeared in the middle of roads, all the equipment of a boxing gym was washed out to sea and many houses had water in their living rooms. When things happen in more than threes, it is worth politicians making a TV appearance and forcing the minority government to free up some money to restore the status quo ante or at least compensate the people for their losses. Quickly too, please, families can't survive for long without dry bedding, a fridge and a kettle to make a nice cup of restoring tea. If we had prudent governments they would anticipate such untoward events and ring-fence an emergency fund. But no government hereabouts can see beyond the next election and survives by handing money out rather than taking money in against a rainy day. We spent the 'Pension Reserve Fund' during the crash. The British press, with an excess of chauvinism, talked about damage in Derry, just across the border. As far as they are concerned there in no weather [see map R] in the Republic; on in France for that matter.

Could be done better, or with more compassion, or with more equity. Then again, there are many people who now live in houses which should never have been built there. In the Boom, planning went out the window as developers acquired sites in flood-plains. built house, sold them, went bankrupt later. What should we-the-tax-payers do about that? Because, with flood insurance, the rule seems to be one strike and you're out of the net. In some cases, the government can put in some infrastructure: flood defense berms or walls: the Feds are putting loads of dollars into that round Yuba City California. But it has to be cost-benefit QALY effective. If it's cheaper to knock houses and build them further up the hill, maybe the government could swallow some of its market-driven, self-sufficiency dialectic and help with that. Well shucks and jimminy, they found $42 million in the 1980s to relocate the plain people of  Centralia, PA when a subterranean fire made the town uninhabitable. If they can do it the land of the free, it can be tried elsewhere. Someone, preferably not a politician, has to make a call between bad luck and bad judgement.

The Inishowen event was apparently the tail-end of Hurricane Gert. Even as Gert was blowing out across N Europe, the next storm in line, Hurricane Harvey, was building in the Caribbean ready to deliver 1 m of rain to the coast of Texas . . . with added storm surge when the tides were coincident. That's 20x more rain than what overwhelmed the drains, roads and emergency services in Ireland last week but these things are somewhat relative. Yesterday I was, metaphorically, in Houston, looking at other deficits in forward-planning w.r.t. flood control and building houses downstream of the massive constructions that 500-year-storm flood control requires.

Wednesday 30 August 2017

Addicks & Barker

Y'all have taken H for Harvey on board because that is the hurricane/ tropical storm which is currently stalled over Houston, Texas and giving them a shocking wet hose-down. We in Ireland have been more intimately involved with G for Gert, the tail end of which 2017 hurricane delivered 80cm of rain to NW Ireland last week.  But there is a whole alphabet of hell in the immediate and medium term future for Houston - USA's 4th largest urban area.
That alphabet starts with A for Addicks and B for Barker, as indicated on the map. They are two roller-compacted earth dams - you may call them levees - established 70 years ago West of Houston as flood-control /recreation reservoirs. In the centre of the picture, two red rectangles show the location of through-dam concrete-lined spillways. Economists have intimated that by damping the boom-and-bust of normal precipitation and run-off, these structures have saved the city of Houston about $16 million each year in flood damage claims. Thanks to this reservoir system, a steady flow of water travels right through the centre of downtown Houston in a river called the Buffalo Bayou.  It has become a lung for the city [as in Cork] with parks and cycle-ways for office workers to take lunch-breaks in or cycle to work along. Add an indeterminate morale and productivity value that wouldn't exist if the Bayou flooded several times a year. The issues are explained with his customary clarity by Oroville's Own Juan Browne.  In 2009, it was revealed that the concrete spillways were being eaten away by waterwolf in the same way as caused the catastrophic under-cutting of the Oroville spillway. They think they have fixed it with an expanding polymer solution: let's see if that fixin' works when the water starts to roar through the structure - cavitation anyone?

The whole of SE Texas is pretty much flat. Lake Oroville, in N California, which had it's own watery dramas [bloboprev I - II - III] in the Spring was made by blocking off a natural valley in the foot-hills of the Sierra Nevada. Addicks and Barker had no such natural basin and are essentially prairie surrounded by their dams. Addick's earthworks are 19km in extent and would contain a quarter billion tonnes of water if brimful. Barker has a similar capacity within a slightly longer 22km berm. Neither reservoir has ever been close to topping out . . . until this week. At 2am local time on Monday 28/Aug the Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodgates to discharge water into the Buffalo Bayou. Since the complex was built, suburban Houston has spread out to and beyond the two lakes and hundreds of homes are being condemned to a dousing pro bono publico. If this is not done, then Houston and its people are looking at "a 30 foot [9m] wall of water" as the rising water over-tops and destroys the levees like the dykes in any medieval flood you care to name - Nieuwekerk - St. Marcellus - Zuiderzee.  Earth dams, even if roller-compacted, are no defense against running water. Lego - in the woods - on the beach - in the lab.

Tropical storms are damaging because of the wind, but also because they suck water out of the Gulf of Mexico and dump it as warm rain inland. They typically move over, through and off somewhere else and this limits the amount of precipitation to manageable proportions. Stalled by anti-cyclones over the Rockies and Great Plains, Harvey keeps on giving in buckets. A metre of rain has already fallen and at least another 300mm is likely before the end of August. 1300mm of rain in one place will flood all the local low lying areas, even if the height difference is a few metres.  Because the topography in Houston is so flat, water cannot drain away quickly which allows people to walk waist deep through it pushing a canoe full of pensioners without worrying about being swept away.  In mountainous N Italy in 1963, a 'mere' 50 million tonnes of water killed 2,000 people because it was travelling downhill fast and all at once.  If your local news starts mentioning Addicks & Barker in the context of Harvey anticipate a significant rise in water levels and more homeless people and trashed possessions. STOP PRESS: late bulletins last night on RTE were mentioning Houston dams, albeit not by name.

The currently dominant political thinking in the USA, UK and Ireland is that we-the-people don't like big government - if we're working we'd rather pay minimal taxes and stand on our own feet surrounded by our own much desired, and ultimately unfulfilling, stuff. And if we're not working  - because we're old, young, sick, unskilled, under-educated - we don't pay any tax aNNyway. But we love having toll-free trunk roads, free schools for our kids, functional hospitals if we need them. A lot of the infrastructure for these comms, educational, health and security expectations were put in by more public-spirited ancestors . . . and we're not even willing to pay for their upkeep & maintenance. The aging infrastructure maintenance requirement is HUGE and largely unaddressed [e.g. Eisenhower's interstate highways]. Small government also means insufficient inspection and regulation [who needs a lot of idle bureaucrats?] so we get houses built on crap foundations, with dodgy wiring and no fire-stopping between units. I'll mention building on flood-plains tomorrow.

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Lithium does yer head in

I've written a lot about lithium on The Blob because I've spent the last 4 years supervising a research project at The Institute which set out to measure the concentration of Lithium in the groundwater of Co Carlow and in some plants which take up water (and lithium??) from the soil through which that groundwater flows. The results have been published, not as crisply as I might have wanted. The running sore in the results is that lithium is present in our groundwater at concentrations that bumble along at the threshold of detectabilty with our instruments. If you live beside a brine lake in Bolivia or sink your bore-hole through a reef of spodumene you may get higher levels of lithium in your tea.

Here's a recent headline "High Levels Of Lithium In Tap Water May Cut Risk Of Dementia" from IFLScience. It's interesting because the study [original in JAMA] is a) massive: 70,000+ cases and 700,000+ controls b) hypothesis driven.  The hypothesis being that lithium carbonate has been used to treat bipolar and other psychiatric conditions for nearly 70 years and, therefore, features in the WHO list of Essential Medicines.  It's hard for Mega pharm to make much money on lithium as a product because you can literally dig it out of the ground: it costs about $0.10/day in the third world and 10x that in The West.  If it is efficacious as a psychiatric medicine maybe the risks of dementia are lower in areas where lithium is delivered naturally to the kitchen tap?  Here's the data [I've trimmed out the sample sizes and median concentrations so that the table fits across my narrow page]:
Three sorts of dementia have been characterised, both generally and in this study, and the extraordinary feature of the data is the identical pattern of effect in the three parallel 'troubles'. It is an epidemiological study which attacks the data arseways: in a normal case/control study you'd have your patients and give them different doses of lithium; here they have different doses of lithium and ask if the rates of dementia track that.
All reported differences are related back to a cohort of people who live in an area of very low [<5 ppb] lithium in the water. If you double that threshold to 5-10ppb it looks like you are more likely to be demented. The difference is small but, because the sample size is enormous, it is statistically significant. If you crank up the level again to 10-15ppb, the effect disappears and then it comes back, in spades, in the opposite direct for the highest level >15ppb of lithium in the water.  This disconcertingly swoopy pattern is captured (without clear error bars) in the diagram [R].

FWIW, the story was picked up by the Telegraph: " . . . Lithium is a metallic element which is found in varying quantities in water in Britain, from around one migrograms per litre to around 21 micrograms per litre. The researchers found benefits after 15 micrograms per litre." What am dis one migrograms anyway? Something to do with migraines? That's in yer head too, innit?

Monday 28 August 2017

The widder's mite

Dau.II, my youngest, is a quite peculiar young woman. We had 48 hours staying at her flat hanging over the south bank of the River Lee in Cork. For entertainment we went twice to the English Market to pick-and-choose from a dazzling, fattening array of delicious breads, cheeses, salamis and pastries. Then we went on an exploratory visit to the Nano Nagle Centre and its small-but-perfectly-formed gardens. We had one spare evening at home and she settled us all on the sofa to view The Barkley Marathons: the race that eats its young. [IMDB 90 minutes; it's on Netflix]. Herself and myself are the only people I know who treat long-distance running as a spectator sport. There isn't much to see after all: the standard athletic track is 400m round, so a 10,000m race requires 25 circuits which gets quite boring.  For marathons, without TV or a drone, you get to see the front runners for a couple of minutes and then as much of the tortured peleton as you have patience or cruelty for.  I've written numerous Blobs I - Luz Long - Andrew Lloyd - IIII - Zatopek - Pollock - etc. on the triumph of the will: where athletes strive against some inner standard of excellence to do the very personal best they can: to give it bloody socks.

Bloody socks is the least of it with the Barkley 100, which I indicated in a Sunday Supplement in 2015 as a 20 minute documentary of the process and its history. On dit que [well, Bismarck actually] despite their utility you don't want to see either sausages or politics in their making. Seeing grown men and women in voluntary extremity is not a pretty sight either. When Dau.II suggested watching The Barkley Marathons, that 2015 link was the reason I thought I might have seen the film before. I hadn't, but I did know the back-story . . .

In 1972, James Earl Ray, the hard chaw who assassinated Martin Luther King in 1968, escaped from Tennesssee's maxiumum security Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. There was a massive hue-and-cry man-hunt with blood-hounds and helicopters to re-capture Ray and his fellow perps escapees. When Ray was apprehended (exhausted, dehydrated and hungry) from under a pile of fallen leaves 58 hours later he was a mere 13 km from the perimeter of The Brushy. "These hoods think they're tough" thought long-distance runner Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell, "I could do at least 100 miles [160km] in that time". And so the quirky Trials of Hercules Barkley Marathons was born.  The Full Monty consists of five (5!) circuits round a nominal 20 mile = 30+km fell running course. 'Nominal' because the course changes slightly each year and is probably accreting rather than trimming miles. Call it 5 consecutive marathons.  You have to complete it in 60 hours (it's not a stroll in the park or a Santiago pilgrimage). As we sat there watching the start of the film, Dau.II did the maths: "but that's less than 3km/hr" [with the implication I could walk faster than that] . . . as the thought became words, the gods of film cogently cut to a shot of a handful of competitors toiling up a steeper-than-1:1 slope. Can you walk up that so fast? sprang from the screen. All told the 100 mile route requires 16,500m of vertical climb (and down again because the start is the finish). Mt Everest is half that at 8,850m . . . from sea level, not Base Camp at 5,400m - ya wussies.

60 hours requires consecutive marathons because the schedule is tight - there is no time for a recovering snooze between circuits: barely time to dress the wounds, change the socks and stoke up on calories. And let's not forget the 'rat bites' [R = part of John Kelly's crop from 2017]: horrible, unavoidable thorn damage from a section of the route called The Rat's Mouth. Last time I ran further than for a bus, I couldn't even manage two consecutive circuits of the 400m track without stopping for a breather.

The extraordinary aspect of these Ultra events is that, although there are rules and although there is a winner [or many years when everybody loses] it's not really about competition with others; it's much more a challenge to the runner's own sense of what s/he can do. It's about taking part, meeting people who are on the same wave-length, doing the best you can . . . and then a little bit more. I guess, to use an old fashioned word, it is about being brave.

The race has been run since 1986, the first person to complete the course didn't emerge until 1995. Since then only 15 people have achieved this distinction. As only 40 people are allowed to register for each event, that's a success rate of less than 2%.  In the film, based on the 2012 run, three men completed the course, John Fegyveresi in 59: 41:21 with just 19 minutes to spare. This Spring there was a near miss by Gary Robbins, who came in 6 seconds over time but also, groggy with sleep deprivation, from the wrong direction following a navigational error.  It is a measure of the man, the event and the sense of camaraderie that his response was “Thank-you very much for another wonderful event,Robbins said

The title makes a reference to a biblical parable about how the widow's tiny contribution to the Temple's collection was more valuable than a fat cheque written by a rich man. Likewise the Barkley, for some people failing to complete a single circuit is seen as a triumph of the inner resources of the mind over the hellish matter out in the unforgiving woods. Everyone pushes their own envelope uphill!

Sunday 27 August 2017

Last Sunday Misc

I don't think I have an addictive personality [my family may give you a different assessment]. When I was a nipper, I chewed my fingernails; it drove my parents and teachers mad but no external remedy [aversive interestingly spicy nail-paint etc.] was effective. Then one day in my early teens I decided that nail-biting was not sufficiently exciting and stopped doing it. It's like that with Youtube.  I've been watching far too much of it recently and it's deeply unsatisfying: I'll restlessly check to see if there is anything new and diverting about forestry, or flash floods, or Fourier transforms, or food processing. There is, of course, because 300 hours on new material is uploaded every minute but it's mostly derivative nonsense. For the last couple of years, on Sundays I've been putting up a digest of 'What I saw / read this week'.  A distillation which leaves most of the nonsense on the cutting room floor.  As of now, I'm giving up on looking to Youtube and Vimeo for entertainment and will read books instead . . . or just sack out on the sofa looking, slack-jawed, at the ceiling. You have been warned

Saturday 26 August 2017

A lung for the city

Like sheep Ovis aries people want life simple: enough food, sex at the appropriate time, a change of clothes for the Summer and reasonable health in the feet and internal organs. Because thinking is hard, we prefer our opinions also to be simply formulated and articulated. When an independent Ireland was born in 1922, the [Catholic] Church and its officers were given extraordinary respect. Article 44.1.2 of the 1937 Constitution held that "The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens."  That was comprehensively ditched [85% for removal] by the Fifth Amendment referendum of 1972. More or less at the same time came the church child abuse revelations; first as a trickle and then as a flood and from being paragons the Religious were deemed to be all Black Hats. That hostility blew up again a few months ago when the new National Maternity Hospital was to be paid for by the tax-payer but owned by the Sisters of Charity (the few that are still above ground). The commentariat grudgingly praised the Sisters for being 'tough negotiators'. Ditto issues are spread throughout the education sector where the state pays the salaries and the maintenance but the parish priest is normally on the board of governors and the church owns the school. Demonizing the catholic church and all who sail in her is unfair and unproductive.

Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary aka The Pres were founded in Cork by Nano Nagle in 1775 primarily to educate the children of the community. The order grew and prospered and sent colonisers all over the World so that there are Pres schools from Arizona to Zambia. The original foundation not so much, the Victorian buildings on the edge of downtown Cork just across the River Lee were no longer in the heart of a residential district and the school closed its doors in 2006. There was a heritage preservation order on the sites and its buildings and so demolition and development was impossible; and the steeply sloping site didn't help matters. The Sisters decided to re-purpose their home as Nano Nagle Place to house the offices of various educational charities but also to make rooms available for local "community groups, charities and local businesses".  That deals with the school buildings - users will pay for access which will put some cash in the coffers to replace slates on the roofs. The old chapel has become a heritage centre giving tribs to Ms Nagle and her crew. The rest of the site is being retained as gardens which are available to the public as A lung for the City.

A similar thing has been achieved by giving over part of the corridors of power in the Dublin Castle complex to the Chester Beatty Library which we visited earlier in the Summer for Hokusai. Incorporated in that site is a roof garden which we ear-marked as the ideal place to have a picnic lunch during our day in The Smoke. Before I'd taken a second bite of my sandwich a fonctionnaire rushed out of the stairwell to tell us the eating and drinking are streng verboten in the garden: his job apparently is to monitor such transgressions on CCTV. There was no signage to indicate the forbidden nature of our undertaking; indeed we'd checked and been told that it would be okay by a volunteer at the Welcome Desk. The most regrettable effect of the sorry interlude was the thought that the charming and accommodating volunteer was in for some Stalinist re-education in the basement.

Not So Nano! It was too early for lunch when Dau.II took us to visit the Nano Nagle Centre a few days ago but I asked the lady at the desk if the garden was also a Lunch for the City. Indeed it was, she replied, the gardens were an open space freely available to the public. She often noticed that people brought their sandwiches and coffee cups through the reception area and never left the remains as litter. Hmmmm, the gardens are free, yes, but you have to go through the reception / gift-shop (and up some formidable steps) to get to them. We were forcibly greeted and welcomed by a relentlessly sunny woman who came out from behind the desk to check-us-out as she checked-us-in. I daresay any wannabe litterers are in fear of some re-education down in the basement.

Verdict: an asset for a crowded city centre . . . more benches needed. The awkward sloping site has been made wheel-chair accessible with handy three-level elevator and smooth paths with reasonable gradients but the several arbours are currently without a place to sit and pause.

Friday 25 August 2017


I don't think we ever owned a television, we certainly never went to Currys and bought one new, let alone traded up for a 45" flat-screen so we could watch the Big Match bigger than the family next door. In the 1980s, The Beloved joined a video co-operative [no end to that woman's talent] which met in the homes of members in rotation to see the rushes and discuss how to edit the latest footage. TB needed to take her hostie turn and so we became among the last people in England to rent a TV.  Which we did for 15 or 18 months at £3/mo until the video co-op fell asunder. For an additional token amount you could sign up to TV-rental's VHS video library: for a monthly payment you could take out a new video whenever you rocked up to the shop: it meant that, in theory, the whole family could watch a film-a-night for less than the price of a Mars bar.  It didn't work out like that because, after a very few weeks, we had seen all the available films which we had the slightest interest in viewing. And there is only so many times you can watch Zulu without fervently hoping that an assegai from off-screen-left would put you out of your misery.

Not having a telly left us a bit short changed w.r.t. popular culture. Once we went to the cinema with our pal Roy and found ourselves laughing uproariously at a clever advertisement for Carling Black Label. Nobody else was laughing and Roy leaned over quietly and indulgently to say "It's easy to tell who doesn't have television". The Boy solved the lack of common TV ground for school-break chatter by inventing episodes of Star Trek that no-one had seen, just so he wouldn't be the only one who was missing out. As experience becomes quotidian it loses its savour and even the best gets ever so slightly yawny. When Dau.II was going on boxed-set binges before she left home, she'd get into a trace-like state over House or Desperate Housewives: taking it all in but not really caring one way or the other.  So, for us, daytime television can be exciting, engaging and immediate because we don't get much of it.

Through 2012, when we were time-rich but cash-poor, Dau.II and I would go to visit her grandparents most weeks on The Pension Run. Part of that would involve watching the television after lunch on a Thursday with Souad. One of the programmes that was okay in small doses was a general knowledge quiz called Pointless. It was/is a game the whole family can play. The deal was that, prior to recording, they would give 100 ordinary people 100 seconds to name things in a specified category: Plays by Shakespeare or US Presidents, for example. The contestants were then given the same question but got fewer points if they could name the relatively obscure Timon of Athens or James Polk [R] rather than Romeo & Juliet or J.F. Kennedy which everbode kno. Having a plunge and getting it wrong with Doctor Faustus or Henry Kissinger was worse than picking the obvious. Thus, if you were part of popular culture at all at all, you could get some points but there was scope for a weasly mind as well: to know and reject answers that everyone was likely to know. The goal was a pointless correct answer that none of the 100 ordinary folk had named. But the title Pointless also acknowledged that the whole thing was not to be taken seriously . . . and the money prizes were modest. With a touch of irony, not too competitive and my pub-quiz mind, it could be good fun. There were worse ways to spend half an hour if the alternative was mowing the lawn.

Like the distinctly finite experience of rented VHS videos 30 years ago, I am coming up empty all too often with Youtube.  But I came across a couple of Pointless clips that were peculiar enough to give me a rush of nostalgia for those days before work and The Blob ate so voraciously into my time.

Thursday 24 August 2017


I mentioned aqueducts, somewhat elliptically, back in March.  Now I'm back there because my California water-guru Juan Browne is bored with going to visit the Oroville dam and spillway repairs and has gone down-stream to Yuba City, CA, large sections of which are built below high-water on the Feather River and protected by levees. Your attention-span for hydro-engineering is likely much shorter than mine, so I'll give you an executive summary for how to make a levee water-proof. Concrete is riotously expensive not only in money but also in carbon foot-print because it employs a lot of cement:
  • Calcination by heat from calcium carbonate to lime
  • add water to make slaked lime (calcium hydroxide):
    • CaO + H2O → Ca(OH)2
  • setting as excess water evaporates
  • carbonation as atmospheric COis absorbed back to calcium carbonate
    • Ca(OH)2 + CO2 → CaCO3 + H2O
Concrete is rather effectively water-proof, but mainly because modern concrete uses Portland Cement which incorporates hard impermeable silcates in the mix with the slaked lime. That's why you see it used in bridges, drains, walls, pillars and dams. But it's also rock hard and quite brittle.  The stones of which our farm-buildings are built are stuck together with lime mortar because it is a bit hygroscopic (water-absorbing) and considerably more plastic than the sand-and-[portland]cement used to bond concrete blocks or red bricks in building work. Our rough stone walls need to have more give because the stones are many-and-varied and each will have a different coefficient of thermal expansion. As the wall heats up in the sun, the grey granite expands a little more than the red granite but the lime-mortar takes up the slack nicely so the stones don't crack.

Acequia is the name used for irrigation ditches in Andalucia. It looks like it might have something to do with aqua /water but actually the word is transliterated from the Arabic as-sāqiya = the water-bearer. When Los Reyes Catolicos finally completed the reconquista with the fall of Granada in 1492. they kept the Andalucian peasants because only they knew how the acequia system worked and, especially, how to maintain it. The acequia were contoured: snaking round the face of precipitous hills to get from source to orange grove with just the right amount of fall / flow. They knew how destructive moving water can be. Flash flood? [10cm of rain falls in some distant place and a life time's supply of firewood goes past at 30km/h].  In 1500 Spain all maintenance was main{hand}tenance. The peasants would go up every year with azadas and delicately lift out seedlings from the water course while leaving alone the vegetation beside the watercourse because their roots held the clay in place for the channel walls. Repairing with stone or concrete was a disaster because the discontinuity between dirt and concrete is an incipient failure. And concrete settles and then cracks and water causes more settlement and cracking and . . . catastrophe.

In Yuba City this summer they are repairing a 5km stretch of the levee. The money has been freed up because of the Oroville spillway fiasco has put water-damage higher up the political pecking order. One of the issues with managing the discharge from Lake Oroville was/is to keep it steady, lads. If you let out the bath upstream then the water rises up against the face of the levee saturating it. If you then turn off the tap then the water drains away to the Pacific and the water-logged levee slumps down ripping out trees and bushes whose roots hold the structure together. This is one of four ways in which levees fail [helpful if school-marmish explanation with cartoons and cross-section] and their different solutions
  • slumping or undercutting of the face
    • reinforce the face with rock or concrete too big to wash away
  • seepage through the structure
    • cut a vertical trench in the levee up to 30m deep and parallel to the river. Back-fill it, not with concrete, with a mix of bentonite clay and local dirt that will settle down and bend a little during earthquakes and settle some more. Clays tend to be water-impermeable. Concrete will, sooner or later, crack; probably inaccessibly 20m below the surface.
  • seepage under the structure
    • build a seepage berm out from the foot of the levee to slow the water down by forcing it to travel through more dirt. When it surfaces, it travels, when it travels it carries all before it.
  • overtopping
    • Sandbags!
    • Or maybe here a neat concrete wall to raise the flood level from 100 year height to 200 year height [as you fondly believe from looking backwards at the data rather than forwards through climate change extrapolation.
That was an education for me  to realise that Hans Brinker is not the only way to prevent dykes getting destroyed in a storm.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Another toothy tale

I was on and on [TMI, I daresay] about my wisdom teeth which were uppermost in my mind last week and bottom-most in the discard bin at the dentist. I was sharing the info about their abstraction with my twin sister and she airily asserted that she'd shed hers 30 years ago when she was briefly a student in Minneapolis and could get them out for nothing-at-all. That's an interesting view on health-care in the USA where medical bankruptcy is A Thing. In my life-time, with fluoride-in-the-water and other measures the policy has been to keep as many teeth as possible for as long as possible. In times past toothache was a scourge and drilling dentistry was an expensive luxury, so tooth-puller was A Trade aka L'arracheur des dents [from which I have lifted the picture R].  The tooth-puller was an entrepreneur and impresario who would travel the fairground circuit offering instant relief with a variety of medieval implements. If you're into pain, Theodoor Rombouts and Caravaggio were among those who painted this everyday story of medieval folk. It is probably true that the rise of such rough dentistry as a profession was coincident with the rise of the sugar trade in the 17thC.

It is almost beyond comprehension now but, in the 1950s, both my parents (b 1917 and 1920) were persuaded to have all their teeth removed because they were 'beyond economic repair' and replaced with dentures which were billed as the modern, hassle-free solution to all dental problems. That's sort of okay except that dentures themselves can be quite high-maintenance. Pat the Salt complains that hot food melts the dentifix adhesive so he tends to use his partial dentures for company and going to mass rather than for chewing. As you age, there is quite a lot of bone turn-over and restructuring including the palate and jaws and the dental plate of your 70s may not fit your 90 y.o. mouth so well.

My mother recently experienced a different denture malfunction. She lives in a village in remotest Dorset in SW England. A few hours after a significant spill of rain upon the downs above the village the piddling stream, appropriately named the Wriggle, which runs past the pub becomes a raging torrent that floods the lane on which my aged mother lives. That's an inconvenience and so checking the water-level has become a sort of reflex for many of the villagers. aNNyway, The Mother went off to collect her pension several weeks ago and paused on the bridge to gauge the depth of flow. While leaning over the balustrade, a sneeze came upon her suddenly and >!ptui!< her top dental plate was fired into the stream and set off towards the sea. That required three visits to the dentist which would never have happened if she'd held on to her own teeth back in 1956. otoh, the new dentures are a much better fit, that are therefore less likely to be explosively ejected.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

We are the product

I think I'm getting to be a John Lanchester groupie. We've met him before 1) as a Londoner loving the Underground 2) on the gross discrepancy in London housing for the indigenous dispossessed vs foreign investors. That last bloboref was on foot of a piece written in the London Review of Books. You can often get quality unpaywalled longform reading at the LRB as the sprat to catch the mackerel of your sub to the journal. Here he is again writing a triple-play review of recent books about Friendface and the other multi-billion players in e-commerce.

Friendface now has 2 billion people who tune into Zuckerland at least every month. It's hard to see how an economic model requiring growth can continue to work on those figures. There just aren't another billion unsigned-up people dithering about whether to join the Friendherd: the Russians and Chinese (there a billion of them) have their own social-media platforms. You can discount the half billion Southerners who may have a cell-phone but don't do internet data because they'd rather have a plate of real dates out of their $2/day. You can discount a billion children who are either starving or still locked into Harry the Bunny, Operation Ouch! <barf alert!> and Nick.  Then there are a billion crumblies like me and my Mum who just use the telephone or the quill pen to communicate. After a decade of exponential growth Zuckerpal is now in the business of monetising their investment by delivering their client-base to advertisers. There are companies that would dearly love to target white-skinned silver-backs with disposable green-backs and tap into their unarticulated desires. Even without being a Faceborg, I've gotten my share of dorky targetted marketing. Lanchester's review is profoundly depressing given that 10% of the world's electricity is going up the climate change chimney to service the desire to post hilarious photos on Snapface . . . and service the need to deliver ad-fodder to Megacorp.

But I was taken by this: "Bork’s most influential legal stance came in the area of competition law. He promulgated the doctrine that the only form of anti-competitive action which matters concerns the prices paid by consumers. His idea was that if the price is falling that means the market is working, and no questions of monopoly need be addressed." That's Robert Bork, who was controversially rejected as a Supreme Court Judge after being nominated by Pres Ronald Reagan 30 years ago.  This Borkian view of economics says that we should all be happy with Amazon because it delivers books (and every other shaggin' thing imaginable) to our doors for much less than we'd pay in the shops - and that's not costing in driving into town and parking. But that's not right; The Brother is trying to monetise his very expensive education to bring Quite Interesting books to market. He has to sell his edutaining erudition for half nothing because Amazon owns The Globe w.r.t book retailing.  That's nice for me because I am able to buy not-totally-useless Xmas presents on a limit budget but, I put it to you ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is very bad for the global market in creativity. Would you give up the day job if Bezos The Market dictates that you have to sell your book for half-nothing? Not to mention that the business model of that branch of Megacorp depends on thousands of human employees who work soullessly like robots for the minimum wage.
  • Two Qs 
    • Is that how you want the world to work? 
    • Does it have to be like this?

Monday 21 August 2017

The grit that niggles

This is by way l'esprit d'escalier: all those witty and trenchant things you think of as you descend the stairs after the interview. We were invited to a birthday party last weekend. These things are a bit daunting for The Beloved and me, partly because social events happen so rarely that we get out of practice. Birthday Boy is an artist (more conceptual than my father's water colours) with a strong theme of feminism and science about his oeuvre, so you never know whom you might meet at his gigs.

One of the problems with morphing from wrinkly to crumbly is that you get lost in the middle of a sentence and never get it to . . . Part of that is, of course, that conversation is a dialogue and you have to give the other chap some space in the conversation. The Blob is a bit easier that way because a) it's not in real time [it is now 0255hrs as I write] and b) nobody is interrupting.

One of the people I met at the bday seemed to follow what I was saying about databases, servers and the human genome and it turned out that he was Artist in Residence AiR at CONNECT "the world leading Science Foundation Ireland [SFI] Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications". I was intrigued because we have just submitted a grant application to SFI to forment relationships among artists + scientists and + teens in order to promote FITNa. The AiR seemed to be already embedded in that role . . . although I have no idea whether nascent scientists get access to him wearing his AiR hat-of-power. I put forward the idea that Science can be rather magisterial because it is now much more the Age of Science than the Age of Aquarius, The Gods of STEM have brought us cars, mobile-phones, wind-farms and server-farms [just to mention a few of the items of tech kit that had appeared earlier in our dialogue] and it is as if everything worth having is due to science. I suggested that we scientists could have a teeny bit more humility about this because Science is A Way of Knowing [bloboprev] but surely not the only way of generating 'value'. Philosophers, geographers, historians and linguists all add value to the trudge between cradle and grave. Not to mention potters, weavers, painters, poets, singers and sculptors.

Our application was submitted through SFI's Discover programme which promotes inter-disciplinary collaboration. A tiny fraction of the SFI budget [Total = €184m in 2016] goes to that sort of thing. The bulk, I suppose quite properly (There is an Arts Council - [€65m in 2017] after all!), goes to fund those who are hewing at the coal-face of science. The Discover programme could be seen as a crumb that falls from the table: The Gods of Science will allow Art to taste the ambrosia of science.  Oh oh the hubris.

But it does not have to be like that. Bringing outsiders in to scrutinise the work of science can be a positive good. I'm not talking about outsiders as peer-reviewers of scientific manuscripts for publication - they are insiders. Outsiders are AiRs - and others - who get to sit in on our lab meetings and a) force us to analyse what we are saying/thinking in order to get the language intelligible. Visiting seminar speakers will often, as a courtesy, have a session with individual post-grads after their talk: a different world-view, a different experience can often expose an unwarranted assumption. Steven Pinker recommends your old college room-mate who is smart but in a different field. If you can't explain your idea to a 15 y.o., or a visiting professor, or an AiR, then it is is probably too woolly to be correct. The mere act of articulating your thoughts, can help you work them through and give insight.  But it gets better; once you've gotten over the language barrier, the AiR can act as the grit than niggles . . . and forces the development of a pearl: a truly original creative idea.

Sunday 20 August 2017

If I had a hammer

I was getting all hot about the mighty thighs of prehistoric Venus figurines the other day and thought it would be good to even things out by writing about Mighty Thor.  He's the chap from Asgard with the big hammer.  There is a film . . .

Saturday 19 August 2017


That would be Rhinecanthus rectangulus the reef trigger fish [R pretty], the state fish of Hawaii. I say she be right pretty, tho she but little she is fierce and has been known to bite snorklers who get up its gills too much. I've had a poke at the idea of a state designating official whatevers: state beverage? [that would be kool-aid for Nebraska]. Call me exclusive but surely the state whatever should be characteristic and distinctive; whatever I may think, 7/50 states have chose the Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis as their official bird which shows a want of enterprise. Hawaii's choice of a state fish has been not without controversy notably because R. rectangulus is found all over the Pacific rather than being endemic to the 50th state. Being so widely distributed and living on coral, the species has accumulated quite a lot of genetic diversity but molecular taxonomists are happy that it is one species unlike giraffes and African elephants. They have designated a bar-code
of DNA sequence taken from the COX1 gene which is present in all things that look like Rhinecanthus rectangulus and different in all other animals. Different from Rhinecanthus aculeatus the lagoon trigger fish, for example.The bar-codes are being collected by BOLD the Barcode of Life Data Systems project which so far comprehends more that 5.5 million species.

Not all US states have scooped an official fish from the bottom of the barrel of state identity: so well done Ohio and Arkansas for wasting no legislative time on the matter. Many other states have compensated by designating both a freshwater and marine fish for most of its citizens to forget.

humuhumunukunukuapua'a features in the nostalgic / romantic ballad My Little Grass Shack sung here by Leon Redbone and Ringo Starr. I misheard the lyrics as I want to be with the commies and wahines that I knew long ago which seemed a bit unamerican: it's actually kanes and wahines which is Hawaiian slang for boys and girls: like Feen and Beoir in Cork. You'll see these designations on 'bathrooms' in Hawaii.

Friday 18 August 2017

Fat lady sings

I've written before about the hardship of getting enough to eat when we came down from the trees and how this anxiety was represented in contemporary art. Numerous examples of these Venus figurines have been dug up across the world. The most famous of which is perhaps the Willendorf Venus which was discovered in Austria in 1908. The salient feature of these representations of the female form is steatopygia to indicate the fat laid down under the skin of the buttocks and the mighty thighs. In a time and place where calories were hard to come by, the ability to store fat was recognised as an indicator orf biological fitness. Fitness as in the ability to survive [adverse circumstances] and produce offspring for the next generation.  Our swallows Hirundo rustica, for example, arrived this year on 17 May 2017 which is well late according to our records. Nevertheless, they are going for a second brood even at this moment: I can hear the nestlings chirrupping for more grub as I write. I'm guessing this is because a drizzly wet August has bought out a glut of insects to feed on. To my mind, the Venus of Willendorf is peculiar, not because of her capacious bosom and love-handles but because she appears to be wearing a tea-cosy over her face (it goes all the way round).

Archaeologists have also deduced that the limestone from which she was carved came from 130+km NE in Moravia near Brno [near where Gregor Mendel worked]. And the workmen had to travel a further 150 km N to pick up the flints hard enough to carve the block.  This speaks to me more of trade rather than itinerant stone carvers. 280km transport of materials is by no means the longest. Ancient objects recovered in England and stored in the British Museum have been proved by Pierre and Anne-Marie Pétrequin to have started their journey from Northern Italy - more than 2000 km!

But enough of Central Europe! Today we're off island hopping to Greece where there is, between Paros Πάρος and Antiparos Αντίπαρος, a tiny islet called Saliagos Σάλιαγκος which until Byzantine times was the head of an Antiparonian peninsula. Indeed, this was one of the earliest sites in the Cyclades to have been farmed. The current islet is less than 1 size and was 'dug' by archaeologists Renfrew and Davies in 1965. Because they were going over the ground with tooth-brushes they recognised a marble pebble as being [part of] another mighty-thighed lady, who in contrast the the Willendorf Venus has decided to take the weight off her feet and is shown sitting down. Less respectful than an earlier generation of archaeologists, the figurine was dubbed the Fat Lady of Saliagos. I've chosen to show the explanatory drawing [R] that appears behind the actual sculpture in the museum on Paros: it's hard to make out what you're looking at in the real thing, especially as the head is missing and the right shoulder too. She is displayed facing front but someone had the bright idea to position a hand-mirror so that we may marvel at her behind - kallipygia indeed.  These islands ar not to be confused with Paxos and Antipaxos on the other side of the Greek mainland.

Thursday 17 August 2017

Erdös Aaron Numbers

A while back I was on about Erdös-Etc-Etc numbers which establish your status in mathematics depending on whether you danced with the Prince of Maths or danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Maths [sing it]. Here's a nice Numberphile story by Carl Pomerance about Erdös numbers and the triggers of creativity. It starts in 1974 when baseball star Hank Aaron equalled [N=714] and then beat [N=715] the home-run record held by Babe Ruth since 1935. Like 1729 the Taxi-cab Number, certain numbers sing to mathematicians. Pomerance, a baseball fan, pondered on the numbers 714 and 715 which were being headlined all that Spring and noted that the prime factors of these two consecutive integers included all the primes up to 17 without dupes:
714 = 2 x 3 x 7 x 17
715 = 5 x 11 x 13
the sum of the prime factors is also [marginally] interesting:
2 + 3 + 7 + 17 = 29
 5 + 11 + 13 = 29
Pomerance wrote a jokey-serious paper about these inter-weavings; which attracted the attention of Paul Erdös; who came down and started a fruitful collaboration with the young Pomerance; which kick-started the latter's career. Years later, Erdös and Aaron are being given honorary degrees at the same place and Pomerance is able to introduce them . . . and get them to sign the same baseball [preserved R]: giving Aaron an enviable Erdös Number of 1.  Sweet.

I must have an  Erdös Number. And in the nature of things it is going to be much less than Heinz 57. There are 500+ people with Erdös = 1, and very few mathematicians with E# higher than 8. Indeed it is almost a distinction to have a really high E# because that means you've been fossicking about on the most distant frontiers of maths. In this deeply databased age, it is, of course, the kind of thing that can be computerised and a number of large-hearted, time-rich people offer help in finding your E#.  You can also game the system if you're well positioned when the Apocalypse starts.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

I am become dumb

I've done I am become Mark where I cited J Robert Oppenheimer's "I am become death".  I have toothsome tales today about two generations of my family. At The Institute I have a useful classroom exercise to reflect upon the [wonderful] diversity that is part of the  human condition. It provides an opportunity to critically evaluate a 'fact' that everyone knows to be true, but isn't. The fact being that adult humans have 32 teeth. Counting actual teeth is real human heads reveals that N=32 is not even the majority condition: most of us have at least one 3rd molar which fails to erupt.
Me, I have only 3 visible 3rd molars; or wisdom teeth as they are commonly called. The upper left M3, although apparent on X-ray, never showed its head above the gum-line. That's okay, my two lower M3s, however, didn't have enough room in my lower jaw and so came out crooked with the occlusal face pointing forward at the adjacent M2. This condition is common enough to feature in Wikipedia  as impacted wisdom tooth [whence x-ray R]. My offspring Dau.I and Dau.II have half their genes in common (with each other and their father) and manifest a similar dental problem. As they crossed into adulthood and their wisdom teeth started to erupt wonk, they went to a dental surgeon and had some of them removed. Part of the argument was that by decluttering the jaw, the remaining teeth would shuffle about in the remaining space and straighten out.

That option was never suggested to me at the appropriate time, so I've had to soldier on with an awkward diastema on both sides at the back of my lower jaw. My dentist [prev], let's call him Bill, is mildly eccentric as dentists go: prone to homeopathy, over-enthusiastic about dental floss, sporting a peach-coloured dentist's chair, and convinced that amalgam fillings are the cause of most of the evils in the world. I like him because he's quite non-interventionist and over the years we've talked about my wisdom teeth and then done nothing about them. One persistent argument which muddied the waters was that he'd rather remove the adjacent M2s which both have [amalgam!] fillings in the belief that the wisdom teeth would then turn face up and shunt forward and serve their turn at the chomp. All Spring this year I had a succession of transitory toothaches and infections which resolved themselves with a few days of vigorous brushing - or just resolved themselves in time.  I figured that, getting older, my immune system wasn't dealing with crud build-up in the subtle, nuanced way of a younger chap and that I was looking at similar problems more often and more serious as senility progressed. Bill and I had a forthright discussion and he agreed to refer me to his current favorite among dental surgeons in Dublin with the imprimatur "maybe it is time".

Anyway, I went at the end of last week. You've got admire the efficiency of healthcare professionals; they don't piffle about when they are working at the rate of  €900/hour. The sports car needs to be paid for. The X-ray of my dentition was produced with a chef's "this one was done earlier" flourish and we discussed whether the top right Mshould come out too because it would have nothing to bite on after its lower partner was gone. I said "Take it"; she sent me out to pay anther €100 and when I returned she gave me two paracetamols, 1 aspirin and an IV shot of midazolam "it's like valium only 20x stronger". The next 30 minutes was a most peculiar out-of-mind experience. A distant aethereal part of my mind registered a lot of crunching and drilling but I couldn't feel a thing because, while I was in a dream-state, the d-surgeon had localled up my gums with lidocaine. Less than an hour later (so the d-surgeon and her assistant had time for a cuppa tea before the next patient?) I was being escorted across the road to my waiting car lighter by 3 surplus teeth and the bones of €1,000.

If the quality of The Blob seems to shift down market over the next few weeks, it's because I've lost my wisdom teeth. "I am become dumb" [that's what passes for a joke here]. Actually I was literally dumb for the first 40 minutes after the midazolam wore off: my tongue and lips felt so thick that I could only mumble. I'll add that, the night after the operation, I woke up at 0230hrs [two-thirty = tooth hurtee, geddit? It's the Chinese dentist joke, to which I so rarely get a chance to give an airing in these right on times].

But there is a serious sensory investigative outcome from this because midazolam is the first player in the current US lethal injection protocol which I've covered before and indeed before. From my experience last week, you could have hacked off my leg with a rusty saw and I would have been frankly, midazolam, I don't give a damn. In that sense alone, the death penalty is not a cruel or unusual punishment as forbidden by the US Constitution.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

Cant possibly be wrong

It was delightful to have Dau.II and then Dau.I come home for visits recently. Not least because they did some serious decluttering at the family home. Last November, Dau.I came home from a four year sojourn with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt in England. In exile she had started to learn the Irish language and has been continuing her studies, helped by duolingo and the fact that some of her pals are fluent. She is also down with popular culture in a way that I, in my mountain fastness [well stocked with baked beans, guns and ammo], am not. She asked if I'd heard about the Rubber Bandits and their opinion on the Irish origin for much of the slang used in America. I had not. I asked for examples. She offered
US Dig it? IR Duigeann tu? UK Do you understand?
The next day, I followed up because even I have heard of The Rubber Bandits. They were a viral [16m views] internet sensation arond Christmas 2010 with their analysis of Irish yob culture in [all kinds of NSFW warnings] Horse Outside.

Funnily enough the RBs linguistic twitter-storm started on 11th August; two days after I - it's all about me - made my revelatory insight into the unwitting use of Traveller cant in Waterford. Twitter is maybe not the best medium to have a deep or extensive discussion on matters that require research, or closely reasoned arguments of issues that are not necessarily black and white. But the RBs start off well by citing Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) [Full text]. It's a super useful resource and contains entries such as "GAFF. A fair. The drop coves maced the joskins at the gaff; the ring-droppers cheated the countryman at the fair." Gaff as a slang word has shifted its meaning to "home" over the intervening 206 years. Anyway, the Rubber Bandits assert "So many English slang in this is either from Gaelic or Roma Cant." and in response to a comment from across The Pond say "Yank, words that have their etymologies in the first wave of dirt poor Irish speaking immigrants." followed by the (unattributed) list of US slang terms from Ireland which perked up Dau.I's curiosity.

Meanwhile, in another part of the internet, this casual investigation of etymology by two lads from Limerick has been fueling a shit-storm of indignation. That is because the list of supposed Hiberno-Yankee slang seems to be from How The Irish Invented Slang published in 2007 by Daniel Cassidy. There seems to be no sense of de mortuis nil nisi bonum (Cassidy died of pancreatic cancer in 2008) among certain linguists and etymologists. In 2013, an anonymous gaelgeoir started a blog to debunk, eviscerate and pour scorn [an ignorant, narcissistic fraud with no qualifications] on Mr "Deceased" Cassidy and his one book. This chap has been posting several articles a month ever since on this one topic.  That shows commendable stamina in setting things right: "Etymologies from Cassidy's How the Irish Invented Slang are widely duplicated across the internet. However, many of Cassidy's definitions have been shown to be wishful thinking or completely made up". As the blog was started a full five years after Cassidy died, this may seem like bolting the stable door after the horse is gone. But one of his (I presume cassidylangscam is a He, because none of the women I know get so cross about such a small annoyance) points is well taken. If nobody complains when things are wrong, the error will fester away and other people, less careful about evidence, will believe them to be true. By far the highest number of pageviews I've achieved on The Blob was Stilt-Walking Nonsense which debunked a persistent but erroneous meme. I guess I'd rather folk read my skeptical assessments than the original silliness; but nobody seemed [from pageview stats] to hang around to read other examples of my masterly analysis. It must be added that, like Daniel Cassidy misconstruing the etymology of a phrase, nobody died because they got the scale of sub-cellular organelles all wrong. Nevertheless it's better to be nearer truth and further from error.

Coda: The Internet is vast and wonderful but we shouldn't switch off our crap-detector when we access it. Before you accept or propagate something from the internet, ask yourself whether it is a) more or less correct and b) offensive to the recipient c) cruel and oppressive to the dispossessed  . . . including those no longer possessing life?

PS Today via neatorama came across this crap-detector for viral videos at The Verge: “I see these detailed explanations where someone very authoritatively writes step-by-step how some video was faked,” he says. “But what they’re claiming is not correct, and they’re so sure about it.

Monday 14 August 2017

Language borders

Language allows you to communicate with others and conversely hinder your communications with The Other.  Most of us could get a fried egg sandwich at a diner anywhere in the world without having a word of common language. There may however be limits to the dialogue you have with the waitron about the fact that her apron is dirty or that it is raining stair-rods outside and sorry for the puddle.  There are still about 20,000 French citizens whose first language is Flemish. They live up against the Belgian border from Dunkirk south and east including Kassel and Hazebroek. These are all quintessentially Germanic names. These sort of place names spread west as far as Etaples and including the channel ports of Calais = Kales and Boulogne = Bonen. I think that sort of peculiar diversity should be cherished, not least because Fremish is quite different from the standard Nederlands of Den Haag and Amsterdam. You can see a similar retreat in the genetic, linguistic and toponymic hegemony in the shrinking Basque lands in the very opposite corner of France. A few years ago in a Lingo Quiz I invited readers "Draw a tree of relationships among the languages spoken in Metropolitan France: Alsatian Basque Breton Catalan French Occitan (we'll spare you having to slot in Tuareg, Vietnamese, Arabic)."  At least vlaams / vlaemsch are both Indo-European languages descended from PIE, so if we furrow our brows and are familiar with some antique forms of our own language and it matters we can have a conversation with another IE speaker. I remember carrying on a long discussion in a Navarrese church-yard about the process of pilgrimage in my français affreux with a German who was similarly prepared to mangle the language of Baudelaire and Zola. You probably know more Klingon than Basque, though - that's on a totally different tree.

Although it is spoken by people with a better tan, Punjabi is more similar to English than either is to Basque. The first two named are both branches on the great Indo-European tree. Someone, possibly not GB. Shaw said "England and America are two countries separated by the same language!". Punjabi, by contrast, is one language separated by two scripts. I'm primed about this because The Boy's Beloved TBB grew up having to rollick along in Punjabi because that was the best way to converse with her beloved maternal grandmother; who had been born in British India, spend a working lifetime in Kenya and washed up in London as the tides of empire receded in the 1960s. But I was more immediately jangled by a nostalgic report in the Guardian about exiled Punjabis who have been living in Dehli for 70 years since the partition of India. Warning: the report switches into harrowing eye-witness accounts of the process of partition and reciprocal atrocity. That would be today 14th/15th August 1947.  I've written about the maths of partition in the wake of the Radcliffe Report and his bloody, bold and resolute line across the map of the Raj.  As a wonk, of course I want to know about the maths of similarity between Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. They say that Hindi and Urdu are effectively the same language but that Punjabi is different.

It's not easy to abstract those data from the interweb, although here is a rather pretty 19thC-looking tree of IE languages on their separate branches with the leaves approximately equivalent to the number of speakers. That should remind you of the zoomable map of species relationships on the Tree of Life [bloboprev]. The GoTo source for quantified inter-language similarity is a 2003 Nature paper by Gray and Atkinson from which I have editted the two branches shown [R]. From this, I am 'confident' that Punjabi and Hindi are about as different as German and English. Which in my experience is not too difficult to penetrate, especially if you are reading rather than trying to follow dialogue in real time. French and Portuguese are of a similar level of difference. You can check out the whole Gray and Atkinson tree [not too badly reduced and pixellated] here.  Of course, if you were reading, you'd think that Hindi and Urdu are totally different lingos, because they are written in different scripts; but parking jingo, it is sensible to treat them as dialects of a single language called Hindustani.

Punjabi is likewise a single language spoken by 75 million people living in Pakistan, 30 million in India and maybe 2 million in the diaspora [mostly UK and Canada] It is unhelpfully written is two different scripts Shahmukhi [from the king's mouth] and Gurmukhi [from the mouth the (Sikh) Guru Angad].  Shahmukti is clearly derived from Perso-Arabic, written right-to-left and used in Pakistan; while Gurmukhi is written left-to-right in India mainly by Sikhs.

Shahmukhi: لہور پاکستانی پنجاب دا دارالحکومت ا
Gurmukhi: ਲਹੌਰ ਪਾਕਿਸਤਾਨੀ ਪੰਜਾਬ ਦੀ ਰਾਜਧਾਨੀ ਹੈ 
Translit: lahaur pākistānī panjāb dī rājdā̀ni hài
English: Lahore is the capital city of the Pakistani Punjab

Sunday 13 August 2017

warning: infants feeding

The Boy was born in 1975 and spent the next year or so periodically attached to his mother's breast. Back then, there was only one café that served real coffee: Bewley's, which was accordingly a Dublin landmark. If you got there at the right time, you could scuttle into a 'booth' with high seat backs and have pretty good privacy. We were once summarily ejected from Bewley's for feeding The Boy, who really wasn't into coffee and cherry-buns at that age. The eviction notice was served by a hatchet-faced waitress who conveyed the message with far more disdain that the infringement warranted. We were very young and meekly left the premises. Ireland has the lowest rate of breast-feeding in the EU, with only 56% of mothers trying it at all at all; falling off to a mere 6% still suckling at 6 months. The rate wasn't any higher 40 years ago. The spirit may come upon me later to write about the insanity of not using the ould chest appendages for their evolutionary purpose.

This sort of nonsense is still going on and not just in Ireland. A mother was discretely feeding her infant in a courtyard in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and was told to "<frisson!> cover up please Madam" by one of the fonctionnaires. ERROR! because the lactator @Vaguechera was a twitterer with a fine sense of irony:
That's pretty funny because yer wan is snacking from a cornucopia. And it is by no means the only example of bared stone bosom in the V&A. My mentor was fond of summing up Ethics with "Your rights end where my nose begins". Now we extend this to "Your rights end where my breast begins" or more accurately "Your rights end at the back of my feeding infant's head".