Saturday, 30 September 2017

Tentatively hopeful

Finns always happen in threes. If 'they' don't say that, they should. Just two weeks ago, I was watching Finnish subteens winning trophies by pretending to be horses. That was refreshingly weird. This coming week, we have a delegation of pharmacists from Finland coming to visit The Institute to see how we teach our Pharmacy Technicians. It's a day when I am light on classes, so I volunteered to  help show them around. Actually, apart from having an affection for Finns and memories of being uncomfortably hot in saunas, my main motivation in getting involved was saanko ilmaisen lounaan?

I'll tell you two woody things about sauna.
  • You want to be careful about the wood you use for the seats. On no account recycle floorboards or use pine Pinus sylvestris boards. These will have some residual resin which will leak out of the wood when the temperature gets up to and beyond 80oC. Sit on a gobbet of boiling resin and a) it will stock to your skin and b) raise a blister. My contacts recommend alder Alnus glutinosa boards. This tree, whose roots are considered a delicacy by badgers Meles meles, grows along the margin of our property where the river forms the county border. The tissue of the tree is so soggy, from the environment it thrives in, that there is no rooms for resin. It lasts for a long time in a damp environment with radical temperature changes.
  • The other piece of advice is the optimum species for use as a vihta - a sauna whisk. Irish saunas don't offer this but in traditional Finland you go out into the forest and cut some small branches of Betula pubescens the downy birch and Betule pendula the regular silver birch, make them into a bouquet  - a vihta -with the leaves fanning out and baste yourself up as you roast. One species is flexible and robust, while the other produces a frothy mix of saponins which helps clean and stimulate the skin. Science does not confirm this theory.
Sandwiched by these two Finnish experiences, the Blackstairs Film Society [multiprev] launched last night with Aki Kaurismäki's The Other Side of Hope [trailer]. Kaurismäki gave us Leningrad Cowboys Go America in 1989 which was a seriously peculiar film altogether tracking the experiences of a Russian rock band on the road in the USA. A bit like Spinal Tap. The Other Side of Hope tracks the experience of a Syrian refugee who has been formally deported from Finland after arriving as a stow-away in a coal-freighter, Making the refugee blacker than he really is becomes a metaphor. The bureaucracy is unforgiving but many of the bureaucrats do their best to subvert the system. Khaled the Syrian is adopted by a group of misfits running a small restaurant-bar in a bleak industrial suburb, somewhere in Finland. The bureaucracy give no credit to the stress of having home destroyed and family killed and operates a utilitarian algebra that has no kindness. Ordinary people, citizens and refugees alike, give what they can to the yet poorer. If they cannot give money they can lend a cell-phone, if they haven't a cell-phone they can share a cigarette. I think the film's title indicates that hope, however fragile, depends upon small acts of compassion from strangers who become friends. The film wraps up in a somewhat ambiguous, to-be-continued, manner but Khaled's situation is no longer so hopeless in Finland as it was when he was digging the bodies of his family out of the rubble in Aleppo.
Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing 
because he could do only a little. 

Friday, 29 September 2017

Hangin' On

If you quest about the sea-shore, as I do, and are not notably observant, as I'm not, then you might notice a number of Mount Fuji like creatures clinging to the rocks . . . and each other [L] and conclude that they are related because of their superficial form. For many years, taxonomists, including the great Linnaeus and Cuvier used to bin barnacles and limpets together in Phylum Mollusca because of this superficial similarity in form of the sedentary adult. Charles Darwin spent 20 of the best years of his life dissecting barnacles at different life-stages and helped to establish that barnacles were in fact members of Sub-phylum Crustacea and more related to crabs and crayfish [recently]. Some of the key classification data came from comparison of the larval forms which tend to be more widely similar than the more 'specialised' adults.  Maude Delap, Irish marine biologist virtually unknown to moderns, spent a lifetime making the connexions between adult and larval forms of some cnidarians. They, jellyfish and corals, are in a different Phylum again.

This drawing [L source and better graphics], in Darwin's own fair hand, of Balanus tintinnabulum, shows that the adult barnacle lives the life of Reilly lying on its back waving its legs in the air waiting for food. The other difference is that molluscs including limpets usually have fully roofed protective shell while barnacles must have a top-side hole to wave their legs through. No all limpets, however! Key-hole limpets, of the Clade Fissurellidae, have a neat hole at the apex of their conical shell which is used to expel water brought in from the rim of the conical shell, this allows throughput and expulsion of waste. A lot of functional features in the animal world are sacs with a single orifice. Think your own lungs, which take in fresh air from the top and have difficulty stirring up-and-out the gases languishing at the end distal from the trachea. Fissurellids have evolved a work around for this physico-chemical bottle-neck. And indeed these lads are in a completely different Clade of gastropods from the 'true' limpets Patellogastropoda. It is a warning not to infer evolutionary relationships from gross anatomical form and structure which might be due to a common life-style [here hunkered down on a rock being battered by waves].

Many sedentary animals are prone to predation by star-fish which move in on the limpet citadel, prise the feet from the rock and eat the soft wobbly bits which are thereby exposed. One species of keyhole-limpet Diodora aspera fights back in a variety of ways one of which is to provide house-room to a polychaete worm Arctonoe vittata which acts as a sort of guard-dog: biting at the sensitive tube-feet of the starfish until the predator is seen off the premises.  I tell ya, the Universe is stranger than we know . . . especially if we look carefully.

Thursday, 28 September 2017


Doctor doctor I get a pain in my eye every time I drink tea.
Have you tried taking the spoon out?
I was remind of this watching this instructional video for making the latest elixir to appear in our beverage closet. Cripes, how difficult can it be to spoon a dark powder into a cup and add water that it needs a video?

Me I'm a simple chap, because of the culture in which I grew up, Like George Orwell, I like a nice cup of tea [R credits]. When I was a teenager, and knew no better, I would put a spoonful of loose tea into a cup, stir, add sugar and milk, drink it down hot-and-strong. Often enough, on a no-waste jag, I'd scoop out the soggy tea-leaves and eat them too: rrrrroughage! Now, however,  . . .
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
. . . I drink my tea so weak that making a pot is more like making mystical passes over the water than infusing anything. I don't do Infusions - chamomile; fennel; bedtime; rooibos; wuggawugga root; lemongrass; honeybush - I know enough about the diverse pharmacopoeia of secondary compounds that plants produce to deter herbivores. I won't trouble to give you the Latin names of these ingredients because I don't believe the package contains, to sufficient purity, what the label asserts.

On Saturday, at home, if it's going, I'll have a cappuccino. This caused much amusement to our Polish friend Tadek when he spent the Winter with us in 2006 & 2007 "Hej Bobek, soboda, kawa har har har".

Every so often, coffee and milk will go off menu and replaced with various substitutes.  I don't feel happy with the term chamomile or rooibos tea, because I'm with Wikipedia: "Tea is an aromatic beverage commonly prepared by pouring hot or boiling water over cured leaves of the Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to Asia" Likewise, I deprecate chemical emulsions like Oat Milk; Soya Milk; and Almond Milk. And I certainly don't drink them: far too complex. Compare:
  • Soymilk
    • Filtered Water, Whole Soybeans, Cane Sugar, Sea Salt, Carrageenan, Natural Flavor, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2, Riboflavin (B2), Vitamin B12
  • Milk
    • Milk
I'm not the only one - 10 reasons to never ever drink soya milk.  The latest faux coffee is called Macaccino which is achieving market share because coffee Coffea spp. is deadly p'ison. Instead Macaccino is a powdered amalgam of three completely unrelated species:
  • Carob is the seed of the tree Ceratonia siliqua, the seeds grow in long drooping pods that betray its membership of Order Fabales, the legumes: beans, peas and the locust tree.
  • Maca comes from the roots of Lepidium meyenii a member of Order Brassicales which includes turnip, cabbage, mustard, capers and nasturtium.
  • Lucuma derives from the fruits of Pouteria lucuma a tree that grows in Andean valleys. It is in the same Order Ericales as tea, blueberry, persimmon, kiwi fruit and cranberry.
That worries me a little. Plant secondary compounds are one level of worry but the interaction terms of several different species, with their own list of potentially toxic ingredients, is another. So I thought I'd find out a bit about it.  The site boasts about its 'dense nutrition': which enumerates:
  • alkaloids [would that be atropine, caffeine, cocaine, psilocine? all of which are alkaloids], 
  • ecdysone [an insect developmental hormone],
  • saponins [used as fish poisons and include solanine from deadly nightshade],
  • tannins [in wine and tea, sure, but tannins also denature animal skins to leather]
Here's the breakdown Macaccino amino acids which is interesting because it seems that none of the three species in the mix has detectable quantities of cysteine one of the 20 amino acids that are found in all proteins.  It also rings true that there is no asparagine [Asn, N] or glutamine [Gln, Q] in the report, that's because all these amides get broken down in the process of protein hydrolysis: so Asn becomes aspartic acid [Asp, D] while Gln becomes glutamic acid [Glu, Q]. And the proportional concentrations of amino acids in macaccino look normal enough compared [see chart R] to the ratios found in UniProt the protein sequence database, A bit more arginine and glutamate/glutamine than average expectations and a little less proline, threonine and alanine. I cannot believe that anyone, however deluded, would consume Macaccino for its protein content. I'm surprised that the Macaccino marketeers haven't checked out my graph because Glu = glutamic acid is a natural human neurotransmitter and Macacccino is loaded with the stuff. 

I'm guessing its benefits, if any, are no better than placebo. No worse than tea, indeed, but considerably more expensive.  Remember Michael Pollan's advice for food "Eat food; not too much; mostly plants"? Here's Bob on beverage "Keep it simple, stupid"

St Conflagration's N.S.

The vast majority of National Schools (5-11 y.o) N.S. are owned by the local church but the staff salaries are paid by central government. It turns out that many recently constructed schools fail to comply with fire-safety regulations. The so far discovered known-to-be-deficient premises were all constructed by an outfit called Western Building Systems. It couldn't have been better named because of the association of Westerns and cowboys. I'm sure tabloid headline writers will be having fun over this. The Dept of Education are caught in a turmoil of weasel-words: "The Department, at this stage, do not have any reason to believe that there are any fire safety issues in respect of any of the other buildings built by Western Building Systems. These audits are a proactive measure being taken, following on from consultation with stakeholders, to satisfy the Department that there are no further issues with school buildings constructed by that company." If the schools are not compliant with fire-regulations, they are not safe for continued use, and the kids should be sent home. The Department and the Minister Richard Bruton are trying to face off this most awkward eventuality by suggesting that identified deficiencies are only minor problems like a battery missing from a CO detector. Logic dictates that one fire-defective building from the WBS pipeline do not have any reason gives every reason to believe that their other schools have similar issues. There can be no minor infringements of fire regulations: if a rule doesn't have the potential to kill people it shouldn't be in the regs.

Yesterday, I was on about Sanofi, a multinational MegaPharm company, being unwilling to undertake the recall of a product despite 40 years of ever-accumulating evidence that it was teratogenic in a way not dissimilar to Thalidomide. Thalidomide was deliberately targeted at pregnant women as a remedy for morning sickness, so that was doubly culpable. The case of Epilim is slightly different, in that there are 50 years of data to show that it is an effective anti-convulsant and preventer of epileptic seizures. Some epileptics are women and some of those fall pregnant, and some of those have continued to take Epilim as the foetus developed inside them. The fact that they were not alerted to the dangers of the drug is a different sort of culpable negligence; they were a form of collateral damage. The feeling among druggists and regulators seems to have been that by pointing out the dread equation of pregnancy + drug = damaged babies, unwarranted anxiety would have been formented among unpregnant epileptics and some / many / all of them would have been left without an effective medicine against their condition. You don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We have seen that ordinary people have trouble doing the math of assessing relative risk with, for example, Gardasil HPV vaccination. The government regulator, The HPRA, Health Products Regulatory Agency, An tUdarás Rialála Táirgí Sláinte, has the expertise and a duty of care to make sure that everyone in the firing line from MegaPharma is sufficiently informed before they consent to taking the drug.

What about the Department of Education? Do they have a duty of care for their employees, the teachers, and their clients, the children? How is this manifest? Making sure that the classrooms, washrooms, hallways and playgrounds are clean, safe and fit for purpose. When we returned to Ireland in 1990, at the tail end of the desperate 1980s  recession, investment in educational infrastructure had been severely curtailed. Tales were told of toilet-blocks with weeping green slime on the walls; of class-rooms with bulging plaster because the gutter outside hadn’t been fixed for two winters; of cracked windows and broken door-locks. As the Celtic Tiger started to growl and then roar there was money sloshing around to fix many of these deficits. But a booming economy attracted back the Irish diaspora and also Poles, Brits, Nigerians who came to experience the good times. These willing workers tended to be young and soon there were children at foot needing to be educated; which meant more kids in school and new school buildings and indeed new schools.
In the building boom, most of the toilets got fixed, the wear-and-tear damage refurbished and schools became cleaner, warmer and more functional places to get an education.

The Minister is going to appoint a DoEd Clerk of Works to oversee future new-builds contracted for by the Department. One has to ask why there is no such functionary already and the shadow spokesperson for Education asked this very question on the radio. But his party, when in power, had not seen fit to make such an appointment. The math of the matter is that, outside of Detroit or Los Angeles during a race-riot, the destruction of schools by fire is a rare event. Successive governments have ignored the possibility because, with a finite budget, they had no appetite for turning over stones in the forest in case they turn up a toad or rather a fire-dragon. It's not really grown-up to adopt an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it attitude to fire safety. A school's fire safety is not demonstrably broke until one goes up in flames and/or the fire-escapes don't work.

Grenfell Tower in London [R, burning] was similarly ignored because Towering Inferno is only a film and the inhabitants of Grenfell were mostly poor. Numerous Celtic Tiger housing schemes, including Priory Hall, [thrown up in 2007 but found deficient and evacuated by court-order in 2011] were built asap in a rush for turn-key profitability. Local Authorities across the country took fees for planning permission but culpably failed to employ inspectors to go visit the buildings as they were going up to ensure that each unit was fire-stopped from those surrounding it and that the to-be-hidden materials in the building's fabric were a) present and b) of functional standard. Here's the catechism:
  • Who issues fire-certificates for schools? 
    • The same goons who issued fire certificates for Priory Hall without leaving their desks in County Hall.  
  • Do you believe that Western Building Systems is the only school building contractor which has cut corners since, say, 1998 and the beginning of the boom?
    • hmmmmm?
  • Should the Department of Education have their own, higher, standards of safety? 
    • Aye, surely. 
  • Have they in the past?
    • Nope! 
  • Will they in the future?
    • This Clerk of Works is going to put a lot of miles on his limousine.
One radical TD has suggested that WBS should be black-listed and never ever get a government contract again. Fairy nuff, but boom-time contractors, who cut corners to get buildings up quickly, tended to go bankrupt before the deficiencies of their construction became evident. Those once and future entrepreneurs are now champing at the bit to get back into construction under a new company name. Expect the People's Front of Building Services to appear on a building site near you soon.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Grand mal

European Medicines Board was been having a field-day or open-house in London yesterday taking depositions and gathering evidence about Valproate aka 2-propyl-valeric acid which has been used in medicine since about 1962. There's 5 hours of it captured on youtube.  It's a simple compound: a carboxylic acid with two tails like a bigger fancier acetic acid.  It is marketed by French megapharm Sanofi as the sodium salt, often under the brand name Epilim and because it is long off patent, the daily dose regime is affordable in the Western World - maybe $1 a day but 80% cheaper in the Third World. Where? When? To whom? Primarily to epileptics where it has been found very effective in preventing seizures. But doctors have been prescribing it for migraines and bipolar disorder . . . because they can. Nobody really knows how valproate works - maybe something to do with affecting GABA the neurotransmitter - but it is known to have a number of side-effects. You would put up with a bit of nausea, drowsiness, and dry-mouth to ward off an epileptic seizure which is no fun at all. Even adverse effects on liver-function would probably be tolerable in the utilitarian balance.  But if the cost of avoiding a seizure through valproate use was a much higher likelihood of delivering a child with neurological defect like spina bifida, or one cognitively impaired, or 10x more likely to be autistic; then maybe you'd prefer the risk of seizures for the few months long long months of pregnancy. a

The under-appreciated problem of the pharmaceutical world is the interaction terms. The drug company may have carried out all the efficacy and side-effects tests in healthy male volunteers but it would be absurd to require trials of valproate in combination with all 10,000 different drugs in the pharmacopoeia: nothing would ever get to market if you so insisted. A whole alphabet of other active compounds have been shown to synergistic effects with valproate: Aspirin: Benzodiazepines: Carbapenems: Cimetidine: Erythromycin: Ethosuximide: Felbamate: Mefloquine: Primidone: Rifampin: Warfarin: Zidovudine. The likelihood of an adverse effect on the foetus is increased a) if the Epilim dose is higher but also b) if other drugs have been taken 'in cocktail'.

We do these cost-benefit reckonings all the time if we are healthy. My drug of choice is aspirin, I take about 2 a year to drive off a headache, which is thankfully that rare for me. I've got a job, so the cost of the aspirin is nothing-at-all compared to the relief it brings. If it cost €500 a pop, though, I would probably tough out the headache and trust it would be gone by morning.  If we are sick (and therefore vulnerable, distracted and anxious), we rely on our doctor to prescribe medicines at appropriate (hopefully minimal-but-effective dose) appropriate to our age, sex and condition. Many of us run a cross-check with Dr Google, but the long words on the internet bamboozle us more effectively than a doctor trying to get through his list and out to the golf-course. It is, for example, a bit disconcerting to be reading the small print of one of Pat the Salt's medications to find that it is not recommended for the elderly because it greatly increases the risk of stroke.

Within ten years of launch in the pharmacopoeia, epidemiologists were noticing that epileptic women were presenting at doctors surgeries with neurologically compromised children. But Epilim was so effective for epilepsy that these data were suppressed from general release and only doctors were warned about the possibility of adverse effect on the foetus. I can only imagine the amount to paperwork that GPs are expected to read, learn and inwardly digest so that they can remember which drugs have which side-effects with which classes of patient. Bearing in mind that every hour of surgery 10 or even 20 people will appear with a bewildering array of symptoms. Nevertheless for 40 years, these things have been known, and in effect suppressed. Check out the Irish HSE fact-sheet on this drug.

Last year, a study in Rhone-Alpes found a connexion between the drug, marketed as Depakine, and the birth defects. Extrapolating to metropolitan France indicated that as many as 450 such events had occurred between 2006 and 2014. The authorities mandated more obvious labelling on the packet. In Ireland, record-checking in Ireland suggested that 1,600 women of child-bearing age were prescribed valproate over a similar period. But writing warnings requires that the user is not ditracted by pain and anxiety and has good enough eyesight to read the small print. Every adverse side-effect is typically recorded without clearly indicating which ones have the greatest risk = magnitude of badness x likelihood of occurrence. Which is fair enough because your risk is not my risk - I am not, nor have I ever been, pregnant, for example.

Sanofi has been selling this stuff for 40 years and seem to have altered the labelling only when required to do so by a government enquiry - changing the packaging and reprinting the Advice adversely affects the bottom line. A class-action suit in 2010 fizzled out because the legal costs couldn't be guaranteed to the prosecuting lawyers. This new publicity and documentation will have lawyers all over the World cuing up offering their services no-win, no-fee, because the treasure ship SS Sanofi is now ready for taking . . . and thousands of mothers will get some cash to help them cope with their many troubled children.

I should add that this story only made the Irish news because an Irish mother of three affected boys took up a chunk of the 5 hours of testimony at the EMA hearing. The news is always parochial.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Tuck into astacus while you can

It's looking bad for the European crayfish Astacus astacus [L with toes for scale: the crayfish equivalent of never eat anything bigger than your head].  Like the native red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris [prev] getting displaced by its larger North American cousin the grey squirrel Sciurus carolinensis, the écrevisse á pattes rouges or European or Noble crayfish has been out-competed by a larger North American relative, the signal crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus, so that the native species is now red-listed as vulnerable.  That's a shame because the species was widely considered a delicacy by the well-to-do of Olde Europe and were an important source of protein among those peasant cultures which were okay with eating invertebrates. Even today, the end of Summer in Sweden [that's about ten days after the start of Summer in Sweden] is marked by a kräftskiva party when large quantities of crayfish are boiled, seasoned with dill Anethum graveolens and washed down with buckets of akvavit. Similar traditions spread as far as Baltica and probably down to Poland. Time was when you could make a 'lobster-pot' out of basketry or weld-mesh, load it with old fish heads, tie on a line attached to a convenient tree and fire it into the water. Any slo-moving river or no-moving lake will do. As darkness falls the crayfish come out of their crevices and zone in on any dead protein. Note on etymology: écrevisse comes from old french crevice, acquiring the extra first syllable by agglutination of the definite article: le crevice becomes l' écrevice etc. The traps are designed to allow animals of little brain to get in but not get out. Accordingly in the morning the fish-head is replaced by a host of pincer-clattering crayfish ready for the pot. Yum! if you like that sort of thing and can be bothered to pick the muscle out of the claws and tail.

The signal crayfish is bigger, so the dismemberment is easier and the rewards are greater. As it is an invasive species, by eating some you are doing your bit for the native fauna and getting a bunch of free food. Here's Gordon "The Mouth" Ramsey making the case for this form of shooting fish in a barrel.

That was fine and dandy except that the numerous accidental, deliberate and foolish releases of Pacifastacus leniusculus across Europe brought with the invaders a fungus Aphanomyces astaci that was devastating to the original inhabitants - the disease is called crayfish plague. The signal (NA) crayfish had been living so long with the fungus that its immune system was able to cope but A. astacus just got consumed from the inside by this aggressive fungus. Imagine having a dose of thrush Candida albicans that sprouted fur out of your nose before it turned in to digest your brain. Did someone mention furry-noses? This all should remind you of white nose syndrome a fungus which is currently hammering North American bats. Over the last ten years, some estimate that 80% of bat biomass in the Eastern US has been turned into worm-food. That has consequences for insect abundance because bats, especially a lactating female, can eat their own body-weight in a single night. The mass-extinction of frogs, which I wrote about last year, is also due to a fungal pathogen. The most chilling, and famous, picture of fungal infection is Jules Hoffmann's picture of a fruit-fly [R] wearing a furry waistcoat of fungal mycelia because its immune system is desperately compromised.

Mais revenons nous a nos écrivisses, The Beloved sent me an ALERT! ALERT! that large numbers of crayfish are going belly-up in the River Barrow between Carlow and Graignamanagh alongside of which I drive on my way to work every week-day. In central European waters, once the core and heartland of A. astacus habitat, it is now very hard to find any, let alone get a dinner together from hunting them. Ireland was a refuge and with this most recent outbreak, another huge catchment area will soon be without the native crayfish.  Remember folks, extinction is forever.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Curtains, please.

George "Spluttering" Hook has been at it again heaving himself up to the microphone to say something deeply anachronistic and/or offensive. I caught up with him in the Spring using infantile rhetoric to defend the intrusion of mandatory prayers in the Dail.  He used to host the tea-time programme on Newstalk FM and called it The Right Hook to imply that his political interviews were hard-hitting. But do we really want to use the metaphors of licenced assault and battery boxing in public discourse? If we can't cherish our golliwogs anymore because of the implied racist insult and because we no longer allow slavery then why is it legitimate to celebrate pugilism, that other 19thC institution? I've been here before and before that. You can get a flavour of the old buffer (two minutes will be plenty for a life-time's exposure, we usually only have to listen to him not see his spittle) laying into an articulate young singer song-writer called Blindboy Boatclub for describing the eucharist as 'haunted bread'. If the church or christianity needs George Hook to row for them, then they and their arguments are in trouble. Here's BbBc taking a stand for feminism as a solution to the problem of lost boys who are topping themselves. Did you listen to the lyrics of the Rubberbandits song about hanging last Sunday?

One of the most cringey interplays on Irish radio recently has been between Dr. Ciara Kelly and the said George Hook. He used to invite her on to his programme for a regular health check slot where listeners wrote in about their wens, cysts and discharges. Hook would read the incommming message and give his ideas on the matter: unresearched, often ignorant but occasionally relevant: as an old chap he has his share of crocked up ailments. Dr Kelly, a grown woman with her own GP practice and raising a family in parallel would then give an informed and authoritative answer which frequently included "you really should see your doctor". What was horrible was the sort of girlish simper that the Good Doctor adopted towards her host "Oh  <flutter; hits him with her fan> George, you can't say that".

Let's park George there for a while. Meanwhile back at The Institute, my roomie and I, who have both been working part-time at some stage, have received a bill from the government to make us pay more social security contributions now to make up for the short-fall of being part-time, on partial pay and so not having paid full whack towards our pension. She went down to make arrangements and came back with the news that she, and by implication I, could work on at our Public Servant jobs until we dropped or decided to call it quits. If we'd started at few years earlier we would have been severed from our billet automatically at the age of 65 . . . but could retire at 60. If we'd started a few years later, the case would have altered to mandatory work until 65 with the options to continue on until 70. I sort of knew this already but it was nice to have independent confirmation. Am I going to work until I drop? I am not! As I articulated before the Summer, my generation have robbed the patrimony of the next in far too many ways already: making home-owning impossible, for a start. My desk should be vacated asap for a younger teacher, preferably a woman, so that she can start a fulfilling and inspirational career in science.

Meanwhile back to George Hook, who was commenting 2 weeks ago on a case before the British courts where a young woman met a bloke in a bar, took him up to her room, had sex with him and passed out from the drink. The bloke is then alleged to have passed her on to his pal who is then claimed to have raped her comatose body. I may not have the details correct; indeed, as the case was brought to court more than a year after the event, the correct details will have been reconstructed by all the relevant parties to make it easier to live with themselves. Of all the events in all the world, Hook doesn't have to comment on sordid events in another jurisdiction, but he chose to do so, One of the problems with radio broadcasting, in contrast to TV, is that there is no place for silence - listeners start shaking the radio if it goes quiet. Broadcasters are selected on their ability to keep the patter pattering until the next ad-break. Hook chose to give us his two minutes (= 260 words full text) worth of opinion, deciding that the young man was a scum-bag and should go to jail. He has no locus standi to make those judgments on hearsay and news reports but because he's an opinionated old man he can't shut his gob. But in the middle of his tirade of blame he remembered "keep it balanced George" and wandered off for another target "But is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?".  >!cue sound of shit hitting fan!< Sorry George, that sort of comment is a) called victim-blaming b) not allowed and c) not helpful. It perpetuates a stereotype that girls dress-up and go out to have sex with blokes, rather than dress-up to make themselves feel good and go out to have fun with their friends. Senator Lynn Ruane [bloboprev], my favorite young female talking head because Caitlin Moran [multiprev] is now over 40, had this to say [I paraphrase]. The correct response when you find a young woman of your acquaintance passed out on the bathroom floor is to ensure she is still breathing and put a pillow under her head; not to have sex with her.

The next day, having been told by everyone including his wife that he was a doofus, Hook issued a fulsome and contrite apology for letting mouth express what his visceral mind truly thought. The day after that, the commentariat remembered earlier instances where Hook had made similar comments. When you get old, all sorts of systems fail: your heartbeat and BP get irregular; blood sugar goes all yoyo; hair sprouts out of your ears; and urine leaks from your bladder. Then, or even earlier, you should consider taking a curtain-call and stepping off the stage. Not here though: after a two week suspension, Hook has been sacked from his current lunchtime slot . . . but will return in December for a new week-end show. Aaaaargh will broadcasting companies please not be so risk averse? Let the old chap go, we've heard everything he's got to say, even if we agree with him. It's clear that Hook can get bums on seats to deliver them to the advertisers, but there are other different people who could do the same and a change of voice is always welcome. One of the twitterati defended the solution "George Hook not getting fired is a victory for free speech and a crushing defeat for the pc brigade." This free speech position is really pernicious nonsense. There is an infinite number of topics you can talk about and an infinite number of ways we can address and articulate those topics. Free speech allows people to deny the holocaust, advocate slavery, adulate Katie "The Fists" Taylor and sell additives in the guise of food. Responsible speech engages brain before opening mouth and reflects on the likely consequence of each utterance . . . especially when the voice goes beyond the pub or the kitchen and gets broadcast across the country and to the diaspora on the web.
I pray you, speak not. He grows worse and worse.
Question enrages him. At once, good night.
Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.
Lady M.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Old style 240917


Saturday, 23 September 2017


When you meet a new person, do you cut them some slack and give them the benefit of the doubt? Me, I try not to hate people because they are black or over-weight, I wait until I realise that they kick dogs, put the milk in first, have robbed a pensioner or driven a car while drunk. Even then I'll be quite forgiving because [yappy] dogs can be so annoying and the drunk took over the wheel to rush the designated driver to hospital when she had a coronary.  Peter Singer is on the planet to help us tease apart these ethical dilemmas. I was doing a little light research about famous scientists (as you do if your blog is called Science Matters) and in fairly quick succession turned up three Hot Properties, two of whom are on the cards for a Nobel Prize, who have something narrrsty in the woodshed. That struck a certain resonance because I've been there before with
Note that two of those three men had already collared a Nobel Prize. You don't get Nobel Prizes thrown at you as you drive through the streets of Stockholm; you have to be smart, lucky, hard-working and ambitious. I can sort of understand how if you are super ambitious, you might step on the faces of rivals and colleagues as you climbed up the ladder of fame and fortune. But I cannot easily imagine a scenario where bullying youngsters was instrumental in anyone's success in science. The bullying is not caused by ambition, it is caused by a character flaw . . . an unhappiness, possibly engendered by a 'troubled' past.  That is not to condone but to begin to understand.

Of my recent discoveries
  1. One a bit of shit, a narcissist whose grand vision and supreme confidence tended to trample subordinates and brush aside bystanders and be really impatient with other people's sensitivities. 
  2. Another seems to have been catapulted to fame by being the first to get a key discovery in neuroscience published although he was the second to have the idea and prove it was a) true and b) useful. That first person had publication troubles, possibly due to a humble and a retiring disposition and preference for doing the science rather than getting the kudos. The defence of #2 by his partisans has been more robust than it needed to be if his demeanourwas squeaky clean and lovable.
  3. The third was and is a sexual predator who uses his considerable fame and success in science to bed young, vulnerable people of both sexes. 
With whom would I least like to have dinner? Not sure.

Maybe it's because I have daughters, it riles me up, this urge to disrespect women because it is a) wrong and b) inefficient and so stupid [prev Caitlin Moran]. But I can sort of understand it if you accept that a large proportion of successful academics are on the autistic spectrum. I understand that to be counted as Specky you have to have trouble with establishing empathy and have certain traits of compulsive, persistent, monomaniacal engagement with solving problems and finding patterns. The National Institute for Mental Health NIMH thinks that these rather different traits are flip-sides of the same coin; and who am I to differ?  Solving Rubik's Cube as a nipper or knowing the tooth-count of every dinosaur that ever lived, strikes me a pretty sound foundation on which to build a successful career in science. When you grow up you may leave the Rubik's Cube aside as a desk ornament but the urge to solve problems remains. Trouble is that other urges start to manifest themselves, and as hormones sweep you towards sexual partners you don't pick up the cues that more empathic people have and soon enough you're getting a reputation for being gross. Or you push things too far or inappropriately and if there is vulnerability or a difference in social standing, tears [vide supra] result.

Is it true to say that autistic people tend to be a bit smarter than average . . . or smart enough to be educated? Then maybe a training course, rather than a punishment, could be implemented? Not easy because sex and sexual behaviour is still quite taboo. It's easier to be taught that students prefer if you face them, rather than facing the blackboard, when lecturing.  Anyhow cursing the perps does not really help except to raise the temperature to hot and bothered.

Footie: Spextroscopy? Not a totally new coinage: used more than it shd be as a typo - on Amazon for eg.

Friday, 22 September 2017


What's the opposite of stolid [impassive, calm, dependable, and showing little emotion or animation]?  A case could be made that it is stollid, after Cliff Stoll the author of The Cuckoo's Egg [reviewed] and occasional contributor to Numberphile. The Cuckoo's Egg came out in 1989 and is a nerd's thriller. From a tiny discrepancy in the accounting software on his mainframe computer in Berkeley CA, Stoll hunts down ring of German hackers who are trying to infiltrate US government networks to sell the goods to the KGB. It's a race, I read it on the edge of my sofa, rather than settled back on Stoll's [R reading his magnum opus  while immobile (rare enough for him) on a sofa]. Here's the story in 12 minutes to save you reading the book. This video is an example where Stoll plays it frenetic, fidgetty overwrought - ie. stollid. Nevertheless his exploits inspired me a few years later to make my own small-small forays into protecting the data of my users.

At the end of that tale, Stoll articulates a moral that is mightily important, and not just for science. You can ignore discrepant data and moving quickly on record more data that sits more comfortably with our current notions. Or, like Stoll and his missing 75c you can worry about it and then worry at it like a terrier, pulling the miscreant thread this way grrrr and that nnnggg until it unravels the whole tapestry of our certainty and gives us a new fresh view of this our world. We also need patience to see past the annoying, peculiar, different character traits of other people. They may be aggravating but may still have insight and speak truth.
Treasure your exceptions.
William Bateson (1861-1926)
Here he is reflecting on why the sky is blue, which we've known about since John Tyndall [bloboprev] explained it. And then realising that it's not quite so obvious after all. It is a lesson to us all to refuse to accept it when talking-heads and politicians say that such-a-thing is obvious or is clearly whatever.

Why did this all boil up to the execute section on my 'mind'?  Because I came across a recent contribution from Stoll on the Numberphile channel: here he talks about two different concepts in effective computation: iteration and recursion.

Iteration is when you induce your program to process line after line after line of data.  It is a threshold issue: when the length of your data-file is much longer than the length of the software to process it then you write the code. Otherwise it's not worth the trouble of writing a program and debugging it and scaling it up; it's quicker and more efficient to process the data 'by hand' with the help, if necessary, of your handy calculator. This is a relevant dilemma for my just-starting final year project students at The Institute. They can do a 'pilot study' analysis of some data but, without programming skills, they cannot scale it up to do a substantive piece of work.

Recursion is when your analysis spirals down [or indeed up] through successive depths of data. I saw this happen in a way that made me weak at the knees when I paid my pal Speedo to help me set up a big Unix box to service the needs of Irish bioinformatics. At one point he thought to tidy up his work by removing some temporary files. Not realising that he was at the root of the tree rather that on a peripheral twig he uttered 'rm -R' and deleted the whole operating system. That's -R for recursion. Thank foresight that we had made a back-up!

Much as I was gripped by The Cuckoo's Egg, I was super disconcerted when I watched Stoll giving a TED talk published in 2009 [the talk itself was earlier: TED Monterey 2006].  He roved the stage and gabbled off in all directions, butterflying off from one bright idea to another to the next in a thought sequence which was only related in his head. He had written his talk-notes on his left hand which he insisted on getting captured by the roaming camera. It was chaotic and ultimately disrespectful: you have to meet your audience half-way, rather than induce in them a lot of nervous giggles. My under-Mentor in graduate school Bob Tamarin [multiprev] explained that you wear a tie to an interview to show that you'll jump through that hoop because you want a) the job and b) to be taken seriously. The tie respects the conventions and makes everyone on the other side of the table comfortable. Making other people comfortable is the key to good manners.

At the end of his TED talk, Stoll's legs stand briefly still and his arms cease their windmill as he reads the inscription on the bells of the campanile atop Hayes Tower, in SUNY Buffalo. The sentiment sings to him and the respect it engenders quiets his troubled mind&body.
All truth is one in this light:
may science and religion endeavor here
for the steady evolution of mankind from darkness to light,
from narrowness to broadmindedness,
from prejudice to tolerance.
It is the voice of life which calls us to come and learn.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Daughters civilize their fathers

Before they left home, my daughters wouldn't let me off if they thought I was talking nonsense or saying something outrageous. It made me more careful about what I said because it's humiliating to be called out by an eleven year old who obviously has a better moral sense and higher ethical standards than you do. By stopping my gob about certain matters, I adhered to and eventually absorbed their standards.  It seems that I am not the only father who has become less of a grumpy old bear with sketchy values by the schooling of daughters.

Paul Gompers, an economist from Harvard, and Sophie Wang, his graduate student, carried out a survey of hiring practice and economic success among a large large number of business start-ups and the Venture Capital firms who funded their rise. Weirdly, and it transpires interestingly, they also surveyed the hiring-and-firing decision-makers whether of not they had daughters. That question or the comparison of those data do not spring fully armed from the head of Zeus. It is asked because someone has a hypothesis - probably based on an anecdote and an insight.

It turns out that a) having a daughter makes you 25% more likely to hire women to work and make money for your company b) having made that admirably inclusive decision your company is going to do 3% better year-on-year than equivalent blokes-only firms. HuffPo's take on the story. As one who has two daughters in the work-place who will be looking for challenging jobs in the future, that is good news. Turns out that these good things flowing from girls-rule households include more liberal political view among congressmen, and more compassionate sentencing from judges with daughters. You can read the original paper IF you come from any of 200+ developing countries - including Vatican City, Liechtenstein, and Singapore which are not associated in my mind with extreme poverty. The rest of use have to pay for access.

It's sad that we have to make an argument of utility to achieve equality of opportunity for women in the world of banking and finance. But if it is shown to be profitable, more women will get the high flying, high paying jobs. That will promote diversity and diversity has to promote a certain bendiness and resilience in the face of challenge. If more and different solutions are put on the table then the problem is more likely to be solved.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017


I have a twin sister. In utero, I had a much better placental connexion and weighed in (or weighed out?) about 50% heavier than her in the midwife's scales. But, normal boy vs girl development being what it is, for all the years that mattered she was about 2 years ahead of me. She was educated in the Arts Block [French and Linguistics BA Edinburgh, as you ask], and worked for several years in the publishing trade. It was, in other words, a long way from Science that she was r'ared. But you can't keep a curious mind from asking scientific questions. A tuthree days ago, she sent me this:
  • Here's a mind bender. A woman 5 ft 6 1/2 in tall is walking on open ground at 500feet. Her shadow is 112ft6in long. It's 14 September in northern hemisphere. What time is it? 
That's interesting because it makes you think about which of these data are essential for cracking the puzzle and which are mere padding. Height above sea level, for example, is not relevant and it is only in the metaphorical sense that women throw a longer shadow than men. And we have to deprecate the use of imperial ft and ins because they make the math a bit harder. I straight away converted everything to metres and recalled the Mnemonic of Trig SOH-CAH-TOA. What we need to calculate is the angle on the left of the diagram above formed between two lines ended at The Sister's head and feet.  By extraplolating these behind her to the sun we can calculate Sol's height above the horizon. I've induced kids to use similar trigonometry to estimate the height of trees.
So here we have the sides opposite and adjacent to the angle so we can solve for tan θ = O/A = 1.67m / 34.3m = 0.05 which gives an answer of 2.78 degrees. The sun goes all the way round - 360o - the earth in 24 hours or 1440 minutes. Throwing the shadow in question, the sun is 2.78/360 * 1440 = 11 minutes before sunset. Which was at 19.24 on the day and at the place where the experiment was carried out.

This is an example of where the calculations are extremely sensitive to the stated conditions. Not in a chaos-theory sense where Hurricane Irma is triggered by a herd of locusts throwing up dust in Mauritania which blows out to sea in a wisp of a vortex. But if you think about it, the angle subtended by my sisters head a moment before sunset is infinitely small and her shadow is infinitely long. Thus a one minute difference about that time will make a huge difference in the shadow length and therefore [what we are driving at] the estimate of what the time is.  As it was, I was ten minutes adrift in my estimate.
Shadowfax is the name of Gandalf's horse and has nothing to do with this at all.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Anonymous shopping

In the world of teaching biology, I can be a gun-for-hire. When I started at The Institute, my boss waved an absurd list of courses that I would be required to teach [human physiology; remedial maths; 2nd Yr physics; 1st year biology and chemistry; environmental chemistry of water; food microbiology].
Yore 'avin' a game, guv'nor, I said.
No I'm not he replied this is what we need you to do, so I did.
In the 1990s, I was contracted to tool all over Ireland, with occasional forays across Europe, to teach short courses in bioinformatics and molecular evolution. It was tremendous fun. Along the way I developed a module for becoming a power-user of PubMed, the database of bio-science literature. I dreamed up a list of bizarre things to hunt for on PubMed, at least partly to show the wonderful breadth of human research curiosity.
  • Vending machine injury
  • Vacuum cleaner injury
  • Vasectomy and prostate cancer
  • Vesalius
  •   . . . and vat's jvst ve Vs
I was reminded of that because a comment on the blogosphere pointed to a an article tallying up the count of peculiar deaths occuring each year in the USA. That was interesting in itself because if you were required to put these potential killers in order of body-count, I bet you couldn't:
  • Vending machines
  • Dogs
  • Txtn while drivn [prev]
  • Autoerotic asphyxia
  • Roller-coasters
  • Falling from the bed
  • Terrists
The comment appeared under a flag on Metafilter pointing at a FastCo piece on the latest convenience startup. A couple of ex-Googlistas, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, are trying to launch a series of teched-up retail boxes called Bodega which will spring up at a location near you. Bodega will sell a short range of essentials and undercut the Mom-and-Pop store on the corner. Real convenience stores have a longer inventory and overheads like people-who-say-hello and will hold a UPS parcel for you. Bodega intends to cherry-pick the fly-off-the-shelves items and leave the competition high and dry. Retail is a dog-eat-dog world where the whole enterprise is predicated on a race to the bottom on cost. When I first knew them, Pat the Salt and his late and much lamented wife, my in-laws, ran a grocery in a village in the middle of County Kilkenny. Not a hamlet but a long way from a town also. That distance, demographic and geographic, meant that 700 inhabitants, with maybe 700 farming families for a hinterland, were supported by a national school,  two churches [RC and CoI], a creamery, an expensive petrol-station, 7 pubs and 7 shops.

It was pretty harsh.  In order to differentiate themselves from the competition, they started baking a big ham each weekend and selling it in slices through the week. It was an instant success, everyone came to try it out and and all resolved never to turn vegetarian. But it didn't do enough for the bottom line because the clients would buy their few slices of ham and then duck round the corner to get their tea, sugar, butter, milk, bread and baked beans from Mrs Doohickey who know their mother really well and had run her shop forever. After several years on the downward slope they sold up and tried something else. The Garda Sergeant's wife, who had an account, owed them a huge amount of money which she had no intention of ever paying . .. the trollop. Google maps suggests the premises are now a chipper: sic transit gloria hami.

To honour of the rapacious enterprise of McDonald and Rajan, I note that today is Talk Like A Pirate Day. All aboard the SS Amazon, me hearties.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Filth

Charles Darwin spent his post-Beagle years largely recumbent, initially fathering an extensive squad of children [N=10 over 16 years] and then on the sofa downstairs reading through an extensive correspondence [average 2+/day in, say, 1872] and firing off suggestions about what to do next. He also read loadsa books of course and had the habit of dismembering big volumes so he could read them section by section. I think there are probably as many books published in Britain every day as the entire output of 1872.  In my restless search for copy, I have to rely on my own efforts, searching the blogosphere and my own, particularly unexciting, life at The Institute. I have, nevertheless, two 'correspondents' who send me links on a regular basis and I appreciate both link and sender. Not too many, mind, G - I don't want to direct all your mail to the spam-box.

All that preamble is by way of acknowledging a Guardian report on micro-plastics in the drinking water which was sent me by G a tuthree days ago. Microplastics are the new environmental bugaboo, not because they are unsightly but because they are invisible and we have no idea a) about how we are going to clean them up or b) about how harmful they are. Microplastics are defined as particles smaller than 5mm and larger that 1 micrometer µm = 1 micron = 1/millionth of a metre = 1/thousandth of a mm. Smaller than that we are talking about nanoparticles. E. coli is about 1µm across and 2µm long and a human cell is on average 30µm in diameter.

On microplastics on the beach, here's a nice imgur photo-story [and R for a sample] about beachcombing  on Tregantle Beach near Plymouth, UK, for the cohort between microplastics and my bailiwick of ropes, buoys and fishboxes.  It takes a particular and peculiar dedication to sift through 35 bagsful of beach detritus to find all the Smarties-tops, or Lego flower-parts.

The question is, Guardian readers, whether you should be really worried by the fact that 72% of your UK drinking water is contaminated with microplastics? First off, note that 28% of such sources had NO microplastics.  Of the rest, the contaminated, the average discovery was 4 particles per 500ml. Now there may be a long tail here, with some taps spouting 100s of microplastic chunks but I don't think 4 is enough to concern you/us. You could, for example, decide to go out and purchase a 1 micron mesh water-filter and sustain a disfiguring facial injury from a car crash on the way to the store.  That's not likely but it's a terrible outcome and Risk Assessment requires balancing that against a more common event (assault by microparticle) which has no known effect. No known effect is not the same as no effect! But the risk assessment helps put your worries into perspective and that should help formulate a rational course of action.

On the stuff-I-put-in-my-mouth front you should know that the FDA in the USA has allowable levels of contamination in the various food-products that pass through its labs and our guts. The plain people of Ireland thanks the US government for carrying out these time-consuming studies for the free[-loading] world, because, according to my calculations, our Food Safety Authority spends more of its time drinking tea than analysing it. The FDA's Department of Sanitation and Transport publishes a long, and fascinating, list of the levels of allowable 'filth' in food products.  Here we go with an excerpt:
  • Ground Paprika : hazard and action level
    • Mold Average mold count is more than 20%
    • Insect filth Average of more than 75 insect fragments per 25 grams
    • Rodent filth Average of more than 11 rodent hairs per 25 grams
The FDA recognise that it is impossible to keep insects and mice out of food-stores while noting that we don't want to pick earwigs and weevils out of the rice before we cook it. 50 insect wing fragments in your paprika? Meh! You want to look at your bacteria-laden tea-towels and pot-scrubber before your start to worry about evidence that your food is edible to both humans and rodents. 1000 insect frags, and you may take notice - it is evidence that hygiene standards in that food-processing process are dodgy and should be investigated and, probably, changed.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Sporting life

For several years in the 90s I taught courses in Finland. It is about the only time I went to a sauna; as a sort of hats off (and kit off, of course) to the host country. Far too hot to be comfortable, really. I found the Finns had a very sharp laconic sense of humor, often quite dark. One chap referred to another as "about as useful as wet toilet-paper": with the accent and delivery it took me a while to twig this phrase as a synonym for utterly useless. Here's a pretty and peculiar [both] aspect of Finnish culture - keppihevonen - in which girls gallop over jumps astride a hobbyhorse and perform a fair imitation of dressage.
  • I've mentioned wife-carrying, another Finnish sport, before.
  • But maybe not [English] shin-kicking.
  • Worm-charming is another English all-the-family sport
  • Quintessentially British at this time of year: conkers.
  • Mountain unicycling, anyone? You've got to have a cotter-pin loose for that sort of thing
  • Paragliding.  It boggles my mind that I was in 2002 able to master the task of getting my canopy airborne above me and then launch into space.
  • Previous coverage for out-there passtimes.
Here's a another form of fun: playing a power-hose on a 130 tonne fatberg [2013 prev] under ground in East London. Metafilter used a come-on-and-click title Congestion backs up London Tube for a quarter of a kilometer to a predictably witty rich seam of comments.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Ginger Man

I pretty green in 1973; but at least I had the gumption to leave home and country to go to college. Travel broadens the mind and I really needed to be exposed to different vistas after more than ten years being institutionalised by my very expensive education in England. On the ferry from Liverpool, I had brought a 20 lt volume box of volumes mostly Penguin paperbacks which I considered essential to civilised life. It turned out the at least two of these not particularly racy [for 1970s England] books were on the Index Librorum Probitorum and banned in Ireland. I had, for example a copy of La porte étroite by Andre Gide. I've written before about how another of these banned books, The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy, or rather my laughing at one of these, brought me and The Beloved together. It is accordingly with a certain sadness that I note the passing of Donleavy [L last year at his 90th bday with Glen "Once" Hansard] at the beginning of the week. There was a time when I read The Ginger Man ragged; riffling through it to find favorite passages and slapping the open book's face down on the kitchen table to acquire some accidental butter stains. I read a lot of his other books but they seemed a bit tired and derivative after Donleavy's first and most immediate book.  I will acknowledge that I cannot remember reading his Fairy Tale of New York but do rate The Pogues song of the same title.  The Ginger Man itself inspired Brian Cadd's song of that name.

I wrote him a letter in about 1974, offering to come out to his country mansion and interview him for the TCD student newspaper (with which I had absolutely no connexion or affiliation). Donleavy, quite sensibly, didn't reply to my letter.

Donleavy must have been an engaging chap, he was certainly a great boozer and intimate of Brendan Behan. You get a flavor of this listening to him on Desert Island's Discs DID in 2007. I've had occasion to mention DID as the ultimate tribute of respect from the British Establishment (=BBC): better than a medal, better than an honorary degree. I must ask The Brother, who has landed all three fish. Somewhere in his interview-with-music JPD offered the suggestion that some of the 45 million copies of the book have been so good for the morale of the sick that they have recovered "You don't die in bed if you have read The Ginger Man". That is likely to be confirmation bias, selective attention or cherry-picking. So many copies out there and everyone dies, most of us in hospital beds (or on mere trolleys in Ireland, there being insufficient beds). If every sick person receives ex officio a copy of The Ginger Man, some of them will recover and that connexion will wing its way back to head office at the publisher; the unmiraculous copies of the book won't be noticed under the hospital bed, let alone tallied up.

Nevertheless, I will share a nice story that was going the rounds when I started working in St Vincent's Hospital in 2001. In 1990, Ireland did surprisingly well in Italia 90, that year's World Cup soccer tournament. An elderly lady was occupying a hospital bed for her last journey surrounded by her anxious family. As the time for a crucial Ireland match approached, she told her sons and daughters to go off and watch the match in the common room "sure don't be worrying about me". After the game, her rellies trooped back somewhat sheepishly having had their priorities exposed. "How did we do?" murmured the old lady
"We won on penalties" they chorused
"I'm feeling much better, so; is there a cup of tea to be had?"
The restorative power of tea (and soccer) worked its magic, she was soon discharged and lived on for several more years.

It is strange and peculiar how sporting events can be so inspiring for people; even those whose nearest approach to a football is sitting on a sofa all Saturday afternoon working through a slab of tinnies and shouting at the ref. The case has been made many times that Ireland's somewhat limping progress through Italia 90 was the catalyst for the rise and roar of the Celtic Tiger.  On 3rd September this year Waterford and Galway met in the All Ireland Senior Hurling Final. Waterford, of all Ireland's cities, has had the roughest time through the recession and could do with a boost. Galway with a critical mass of IT companies is doing much better.  It was mental in Waterford in the run up to the key weekend: every house was dressed out in blue&white  Pat the Salt was compelled by his carers to buy a large flag although he has no time at all for GAA having grown up in Wales where Rugby is king. When Waterford went down GALWAY 0-26 WATERFORD 2-17, I wrote to my pal Paul who used to hurl all over Galway in his youth "Thanks a bunch Paul, you and yours have screwed over any chance of economic recovery in Waterford this decade"

Friday, 15 September 2017

Dry hands right now

At the beginning of the Summer, I was out with the family and none of us was able to dry our hands effectively after using "the bathroom" in a new Cork restaurant.  Ellen DeGeneres doe sit much funnier as she riffs on the evolving technology of hand-driers. We're back in The Institute now and I'm having to pee on company time. Some of the hand-driers are antiquer than others and I was tickled to notice that the pair nearest my office are called "Worldwide Driers Tempest". This is more aspirational than appropriately metaphorical - unless it's a reference to the length of time taken to dry the hands being the same as a reading of Shakespeare's play.  New parts of the campus, nearer the President's penthouse office, are equipped with Dyson Blade driers which has a decibel rating 85dB a little less than that of a lawnmower 90db. You should wear ear-defenders for anything more 85db. And it also makes a difference that the hand-drier is by definition at arm's length while the lawnmower is that plus the lawnmower's arm away.

I note that UC Santa Cruz, aghast at the statistic that 1 third of to-landfill traffic was paper towels from bathrooms in halls of residence, is now recommending that students bring a few hand-towels to campus along with lots of t-shirts and devices. Here are some earnest UCSC students embracing the plan to save the planet. "instituting this change campus-wide would save as many as 1,400 trees, that's, like, a forest" True dat, if a forest is one hectare in extent.

ANNyway, I have now taken my own advice and take a small towel 30x30cm to work to dry my hands after rinse. It may not be super-sterile, but at least it's my germs being transferred from hand to towel to hand. I am now adding hearing-loss the the ever increasing list of accumulated deficits as I age. Using my hand-towel is saving the old lugs further insult. I don't want to spend my declining years asking mumbly students to repeat everything repeat everything repeat everything they say.
Towel? You should try it; should dry it them!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Big number wrecks head

A few days ago, I was writing about a lesson plan to get the students at The Institute to think about numbers and guesstimate a few statistics. On the day we registered the incoming first year students, they were given an orientation session for each of the courses they have signed up for: physics, chemistry, biology, lab science and quantitative methods QM. I had each of the four student groups for half an hour of QM. I'd overheard  my colleagues using the opportunity to transmit information "you must wear PPE = white-coat, closed shoes, safety-glasses . . . here is the fire extinguisher . . . there is the eye-wash . . .". There's only so much of this you can take in one sitting before you have to shovel out previous information in order to accommodate new stuff.

Instead of that, I gave each tuthree people a sheet with four questions which required an answer although nobody in the world knows accurately what the true answer is. Here we go:
  • Q1a How many trees are there in Ireland?
  • Q1b If we had a country wide Electric Picnic, could we invite and accommodate everyone on the planet?
  • Q2 How many red blood cells do you have?
  • Q3 If this 120-seat classroom was in downtown Houston and filled to the brim, how many tonnes water would it contain?
You should give [some of] those puzzles a go, yourself. The answer is far less important than the process of thinking it through. My students were almost all initially reluctant to test their mathy mettle. "I have no idea" being the commonest response to the question direct. With some, when I said that they didn't have, couldn't have, "No Idea", they picked up the baton and started to move off the blocks. This sort of Socratic method was often used on my poor daughters  "You have No Idea how many trees? . . . Is it more than the 20 trees that we can see out of the window? . . . Is it less than the Eddington Number?". If you can see 20 trees in this part of campus, are there more than 2,000 trees in Ireland? etc,  It turns out that Ireland has the lowest rate of tree-cover in Europe.  It is now a piffling 11% against a European average of 40%. But that is up from a frighteningly denuded 1% two generations ago. This and other uncertainties make the answer to that question the least certain of the four posed above. Sitka spruce Picea sitchensis plantations, which is the main source of the increase from 1% to 11%,  start off on 2m spacing, so that's 2500/hectare, but how many hectares are forested and how many 'rogue' trees are there in hedges and gardens. The picture [R source] shows the Fairy Tree Crataegus monogyna on the Magic Road near Mahon Falls Co. Waterford.  It is covered with votary rags and holy medals to show that paganism flourishes in Ireland.  In antient tymes, Ireland's tree-cover was as much as 80% “a squirrel could go from Skibbereen to Mizen Head on trees without touching the ground"

Several students came up with an answer of 709 million trees in Ireland.  All that indicated was that they had given up the ould thinking and googled an answer from RTE. That is a bad estimate for two reasons a) it is plagiarism on which we are not big at The Institute b) it is spuriously accurate: writing 709 means you are confident that it is not 707 million or 715 millon, 700, though vaguer, is better because it doesn't imply an unevidenced confidence.  Now I have a mission: never allow students to accept facts-from-the-web without at least doing an order-of-magnitude analysis [see voluminous nonsense prev] to see it is on target rather that off the wall. It will be a task: at the moment many struggle with the fact that there are a million sq.m. in one

They were at all sea on the Houston problem above. First many were confused by the reference to the recent flooding of USA's fourth largest city; the event didn't seem to have bobbed across their section of the Snapchatverse. But on to the problem itself. The room in which we were working is 7m x 11m x 3m. There is space accordingly for 231 cu.m. of water. That's a silly answer unless we had used a tape-measure to generate the fundamental LxWxH dimensions, so we could  call it 200-250 tonnes. Or 100-500 tonnes if you're hazy about the size of a metre. I got 20 answers, ranging from 8 tonnes to 378,000 tonnes; only 7 of which were within the 'possible' range. hmmmm.