Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Ich kann nichts anders

It's Samhain = Hallowe'en today and the kids will be out for candy and mayhem all over Ireland and the USA. Few will know about the religious significance, or even the pagan significance of the night that's in it.  Tomorrow is All Saint's Day a catch-all celebration of the First Division of Christian players. For those of us raised in the Protestant tradition, this is a significant anniversary for another coincidental reason.

On this day, exactly 500 years ago in 1517, Martin Luther sent his critique of the Catholic church, The 95 Theses, to his superior the Archbishop of Mainz. Poor Luther he was really driven by his indignation and famously said he could do no other Ich kann nichts anders but fight the fight and prove himself right. He may also have nailed a copy of his polemic to the door of a church or churches in Wittenberg. Picture of him [L] trying the Mighty Thor look for the cameras of history. The 95 Theses picked holes or shot broadsides through the theory and practice of The Church of the time. 31 Oct 1517 is seen by many as the last time there was one catholic and universal church rather than the mother ship and hundreds of angry satellites. The change was called the Reformation but was rather the excuse for Multi-Schism. For Luther it was the doctrinal issues about Free Will [not!] and redemption by faith [so!] (that's faith working for salvation rather than by good works, compassion or sacrifice). But for ordinary folk, who baulk at the idea of transubstantiation, the Lutheran critique was mainly about the iniquitous selling of indulgences. This is the idea that those rich enough could buy time off purgatory later by paying cash now. Not to be confused with Simony, which is the selling of offices of the church. Although both sins hinge on the confusion of things of the spirit with things of the temporal order.

Whoever said "Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small" [the jury is out on that] had no concept of ecclesiastical political discourse. The Great Schism which split the Church East=Orthodox vs West=Catholic in 1054 hinged on whether the communion wafers should be leavened or unleavened. The date of Easter wasn't the splitting point, that had been rumbling on for hundreds of years. Luther and his friend Johann Eck disagreed on the 95 Theses: Eck summarised  his arguments in an essay called Obelisks [R, L?] and Luther wrote his counter-arguments in Asterisks [R, R], and the discourse was at least civil. Thomas "Utopia" More [prev] was much crosser altogether, really set himself against Luther and wrote Responsio ad Lutherum. This included such magisterial statements as "Who would not laugh at the most wretched scoundrel blasting out such frenzied boasts, as though he reclined on the bosom of Christ, whereas he lies confined withing the arse-hole of the devil? Thence he farts and trumpets his splendid victories." I said . . . she said . . .

Monday, 30 October 2017


Don Knuth [prevadvises young people to follow their own passion and be really wary of trendy and faddy scientific fashion. There was a famous set-to in 1986 between Doug McIlroy and Don Knuth. In parallel they were given a text file and an integer k, and asked write a program to print the k most common words in the file and the number of occurrences, in decreasing frequency.
Knuth wrote ten pages of fully commented Pascal 'literate programming' using an associative data structure and hashing, which on close scrutiny had edge-cases that would cause a crash and some other (trivial) bugs.
McIlroy wrote an effective, if not notably efficient, six lines of shell script -
tr -cs A-Za-z '\n' |
tr A-Z a-z |
sort |
uniq -c |
sort -rn |
sed ${1} q
Here's what that telegraphic code means (about 2/3 way through the piece).  The same source has a final slap at The Master "Knuth has shown us here how to program intelligibly, but not wisely. I buy the discipline. I do not buy the result. He has fashioned a sort of industrial-strength Fabergé egg—intricate, wonderfully worked, refined beyond all ordinary desires, a museum piece from the start." Ouch! Really what McIlroy is saying is "not fit for purpose" in a similar way to my reflections on write far too long an explanation for an every day matter. But make no mistake Knuth is part of the Pantheon of computing like Dennis "dmr" Ritchie and Grace "Cobol" Hopper

My programming was always a kludge, I never believed that the elegant telegraphic code such as McIlroy uses above would work. I couldn't ever get my head around associative arrays: my mind just didn't work that way. So my code was lumbering and inefficient but at least I put comment lines in so that normal people could follow my logic even as they snickered at the inefficient loopy way in which I achieved an end.  Almost all my programs included GOTO statements, which actually caused physical pain to the real coders I used to work with. For the sort of tasks I was engaged upon - analysing the 25,000 protein-coding genes of the human genome in, say, 2002 - the inefficiencies didn't matter much. My program might deliver results in 15 minutes rather than 10. It showed when doing all-against-all high-throughput analyses which took 30 hours to run. I was out of  my depth then and went off to walk in Spain.

But this isn't about me, it is about Donald E. Knuth . . . from the horse's mouth:
  • The whole thing that makes a mathematician’s life worthwhile is that he gets the grudging admiration of three or four colleagues.
  • Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer. Art is everything else we do.
  • Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Children's Humor

We had two books when the kids were growing up, which attracted far too much attention and were briefly put on the top shelf of the wall-of-books we have in the living room. Yes, censorship! and Yes, <tsk!> but with so much more printed material available [the wall of books for starters] it was frustrating to see those two books pored over ad over. One was "A Bumper Book of Cartoons", hundreds of which were culled from decades of newspapers and put between covers. The other was Children's Humour, a small paperback which consolidated out of a PhD thesis on the subject.  But Dang and blast but I can't find that book and, worse, I can't find it on Amazoogle.  Censorship like this doesn't work aNNyway. When the girls were much smaller Dau.I went through a desperate calories jag and would scarf a spoonful of sugar from the bowl. This is bad for the teeth, so we took to putting the sugar-bowl on the top shelf above the kitchen counter. But often-and-often we'd find a scatter of sugar on the counter-top because Dau.II had been mountaineering for the sweet stuff. We figured that sliding about in her socks on the counter-top was more dangerous than eating sugar and put the bowl back on the table.

The most interesting thing about the PhD thesis, which made me desperate for more example was when children blow the joke because they don't know which aspects are funny. They are repeating a form of words which drew a laugh for someone else but don't appreciate how the joke works. Thus a lot of simple jokes don't work on the page - you have to say it:
Q. "How do you get two whales in ten minutes?"
A "The M4"
makes no sense but the alternative meaning is partially hidden depending on the emphasis on two/to
Q. "How do you get to Wales in ten minutes?"
that joke can be precisely crafted so that the emphasis is ambiguous and it's the half second of cognitive dissonance, processing time and resolution that makes us laugh. The presence of Baner Cymru [R] in the background will require a change in the timing!
But up to a certain age, children will modify this joke as
How do you get two dolphins in ten minutes? or
How do you get to Scotland quickly?

Here's an article called How children develop a sense of humor which really isn't up to much. It claims that there is an age threshold for 'getting' jokes but acknowledges that kids develop at different speeds. It also says that humor depends upon incongruity realisation - as in the Wales/Whales joke above. It seems that humor is an essential part of normal human behaviour, that cracking jokes helps socialisation and cognitive development. Irony is at the heart of "incongruity realisation", and I'm afraid I'm addicted to it. I'm very rarely sarcastic (a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt) but [too] often ironic. And it annoys me when people don't know the difference in meaning between the two words. On the contrary, it grieves me when people miss the irony and consider me cruel and abusive . . . because I'm really a nice guy - my Mum has been telling me so since before I cracked my first joke.

In desperation, trying to find the two missing joke books, I sent out a calling-all-cars message to my adult children asking if they knew where they might be. Which is code for "have you stolen a book from the family home?". Dau.II denied all knowledge but pointed me at http://badkidsjokes.tumblr.com/ which includes these samples of childish hilarity:
what do you call a deer with no legs and arms?
still no idea 
​were does a bum live? 
in your toilet
why did the elephant eat a pig ? 
because he was bored 
which are excellent examples of the missing-the-point point I made above. The first is a mangling of rather a good joke:
What do you call a blind artiodactyl? [previodactyls]
No idea = a no-eyed deer
What do you call a blind artiodactyl with an arrow through its head?
Still no idea
the middle joke is just the licence to say poo, so deserves to be coloured brown
I'll have to work on the last joke but it must be something to doo doo with boar and bore being homophones.
What boggles my rational mind is why each or any of these should solicit hundreds of retweets and likes. Is this what the internet is for? Are server-farms across the globe keeping tabs on this nonsense?

There is a whole other line which I'm not going to address here about whether girls are funny, but I'll give you one example. 12 years ago when Dau.II was 10 and her sister 12, we went to England and back on the ferry. The return journey left Pembroke at 0245 hrs and, late at night ,we dropped into Tesco to get the makings of a picnic. At the dockside, after this scratch meal, the back of the car was a litter of bread-crumbs, orange peels and packaging.
The Beloved (brightly) "Who wants a wet-wipe?"
Dau.II "No thanks, I'm stuffed"

Sun Misc 291017

Weird and wonderful in the world beyond my front door:

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Very Old Art

Science Week, the annual nationwide raree show promoting science for the people, to the people by the people, is coming up: 12th-19th November. As Secretary of the Wexford Science Café, I was asked to send out brochures and information to our mailing-list, which is clearly more interested in Science than 40 random people in the Lidl check-out line. Many of the events are going to take place in County Libraries and so I became aware of a talk 12km from home: Preserving Prehistoric Rock Art! This is our sort of talk because we are Guardians of the Ringstone. When we unearthed the bits of the Ringstone 10 years ago and reassembled it 7 years ago, we were concerned about its security.  Not that some goon would come with a digger and take it off site to sell as an antiquity to an Antique Oil Sheik. But what about exposure to the sun, wind, acid rain, blundering sheep? Would the changes we made result in the rings becoming less crisp?

The presenter in Bunclody Library last Thursday was Claire Busher O'Sullivan, a recent Masters' graduate from Archaeology UCC. She has spent a couple of years out in the field in remotest Kerry and Cork looking obliquely [to catch the cast shadows of fain indentations] at the local sandstone rocks. Some parts of those counties, like Caherlehillan [map L], are like a Hallowe'en brack with all the red dots By being tuned into the look-and-feel gestalt of  rock-art she has discovered and documented 40 (forty!) previously unknown archaeological sites. That is an amazing achievement for a young student. Either that or it is a cinch to turn up these things and we are seriously under-reporting the prevalence of neolithic art-work across the country. One of the partly articulated hypotheses is that rock-art is more likely to be found in particular landscapes: with exposed boulders for starters! But also in upland valleys associated with lakes or streams. Maybe if we desire to find new sources of the stuff we could spent some time poring over maps in the office to identify other landscape features similar to places where there have been "hits". Another interesting suggestion from the floor was to ask if there is a memory of these ancient [sacred?] sites to be found in a careful analysis of the local place-names.

Finding more rock art is not always greeted with capers of joy and hats flung in the air. We grassed ourselves up to Chris Corlett [who wrote the book!] and the National Monuments Service, the Ringstone became a dot on their interactive map [R] and we scotched any possibility of selling sites for bungalows in either of the two fields abutting the site of the Ringstone. A meadow of, say, 0.2 hectares is 'worth'  €5,000; but as a site with planning permission its value increases to €50,000. You can see why a farrrmer might decide to bury or bust up an archaeological artifact found in the corner of a field. Neolithic art butters no parsnips! That's another reason why the inventory of National Monuments is probably thinner than it might be. My suggestion from the floor was to ask the government to give me €100-a-year for being the Guardian of the Ringstone. That modest carrot might have more effect on the discovery and preservation of ancient rock-art than a raft of threatening legislation which is never implemented.

Two years ago, Claire curated and created an exhibition of rock art in a gallery space in Cork. She's an enthusiast, but a focused one, who is going places in Ireland of the Antients.

Friday, 27 October 2017


22nd October was the 140th anniversary of The Blantyre Mine Disaster of 1877; Scotland's worst mining accident it terms of body-count N=207. Nobody likes to record the monetary cost in the Guinness Book of Underground Accidents although it often looks like this was all that mattered to the management and proprietors. In May 1878 the Blantyre management William Dixon & Co. Ltd., for example, evicted 34 widows who were awkwardly occupying tied cottages but not longer had husbands working down the pit on account of being killed there the previous year.

We don't do coal any more, or at least we recognise that we shouldn't because burning coal is a terrible thing for the atmosphere and global warming. But in the 18th and 19th and indeed 20th centuries, coal was king driving forward the industrial revolution which made everyone richer and some fabulously wealthy. I've alluded to the story that my Great Aunt Lily lived in retirement in Buddleigh Salterton, Devon. The name of their home, Woolsington, was the same as location of Newcastle Airport because her husband (or maybe 'husband' because it was hard to find a marriage cert) Walter Bell was a descendant of Northumberland coal barons who lived in Woolsington Hall. Lily had that peculiar mix of thrift and extravagance that goes with not having to worry about money.

This is all a bit of a ramble to explain why I'm on about noxious gases today: because 'chokedamp' appeared in the post-mortem on the 1877 Blantyre explosion and I'd never seen the word before. Firedamp, yes: that's methane. *damp apparently comes from the [same root as] the German word Dampf = steam or vapour and there are at least four variations. It's interesting because coal isn't coal but a wide variety of combustible materials of widely different colour, hardness and calorific value. Welsh steam coal was a high quality, hard anthracite [prev] that was exported all over the World from Cardiff docks because it burned clean and hot and was ideal for powering ships.  The Brits set up coal bunkering depots at convenient places round the globe to act as filling stations. Mindelo in Cabo Verde is one example. The local geology - not only the coal measures but the over-burden and under-burden - would dictate the atmospheric conditions down each pit. Miners and managers both would have a vested interest in knowing about the local conditions and acting defensively.

The solution to most *damp probbies was to increase ventilation and many ingenious schemes were invented to a) get fresh(ish) air down to where the workers were and b) pump out the water which inevitably accumulated at the bottom of the workings. In Blantyre and elsewhere they just lit a big fire at the bottom of one shaft to drive an updraft which would suck air /oxygen in down another shaft. Coal at the pithead is cheap and it seems like a rather clever appropriate-tech solution - fans being so expensive and how would you drive them?  The Enquiry exposed the fact that up draft was being serviced from No.2 shaft which was in turn getting its 'air' from No.3 shaft. Along that enormous distance more *damp was percolating into the spaces than was being diluted by the outside fresh air. It just takes one miner to decide it was time to light his pipe, and WHOOOOMPH! That sounds like victim blaming but such data appeared often enough in the reports of explosions.

ANNyway [stop me if I'm boring you] . . . the chemistry
  • Firedamp, that's mainly methane CH4 which is basically the same as North Sea Gas which is being piped ashore by UK and Norway. In other words highly flammable if mixed with oxygen . . . and triggered by a spark or a naked flame. Humphrey Davy's safety lamp used a steel gauze to separate the naked flame, which enabled miners to see to work, from the flammable mixture that surrounded them. Once the methane ignited the flame front travelled fast along the shafts, fuelled by coal-dsut and more methane in a catastrophic deflagration. Note: not a detonation because it travelled slower than the speed of sound - but far faster than a man, pit-pony or canary could run. And of course, if you survived the actually blast of flame you were done for aNNyway because there was no oxygen left.
  • Afterdamp is what they call this deadly residuum. It is rich in CO carbon monoxide which forms a strong essentially irreversible bond with haemoglobin, so even if you're breathing when they get you hospital you are like to die. Afterdamp will also have varying amounts of CO2 carbon dioxide, which will kill you too but will flee haemoglobin if oxygen is supplied. I've mentioned a near-death experience in the lab initiated  by culpably foolish storage of dry-ice = solid CO2. In terms of volume afterdamp will be mainly nitrogen N2 because air is 80% inert N2 which doesn't take part in any of the chemical conversions . . . except in the red-hot chambers of internal combustion engines where it is converted the atmosphere destroying NOx compounds
  • Whitedamp is also a mixture of carbon monoxide maybe with a dash of H2S, hydrogen sulphide. The canaries, which were instituted following experiments by Professor John Scott Haldane, were designed to faint dead away if exposed to levels afterdamp or whitedamp that weren't enough to kill a man. That Haldane is the father of JBS Haldane the geneticist.
  • Chokedamp, stythe or blackdamp was more of an asphyxiant than a poison. The atmosphere was depleted of life-sustaining oxygen leaving only N2 and CO2 and water-vapour behind. You died aNNyway.
  • Stinkdamp is when the air is particularly rich in H2S, hydrogen sulphide reeking of rotten eggs and old farts. H2S, like CO is toxic as well as smelly

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Siege mentality

I was on about my pal Aedin's list of requested-and-required equipment and consumables after Hurricane Maria's tromp through Puerto Rico. It reminded me of a really useful list that was posted by a survivor of the Siege of Sebrenica 25 years ago . . . or was it Beirut in the 80s? Sebrenica went on for 3 years, so certain things could be used as currency because the most useful thing to do with folding money was to wipe the baby's bottom. I never made a copy of that list but I remember it included eggs, cooking-oil and toilet paper.  It is impossible to get google-help on retrieving the list  because, depending on the key-words and their order, I either get dumped into Betty Crocker cake advice OR into medieval sieges, rats and bubonic plague. It's important to reflect on the issue because we've had two damaging storms sweep though Ireland in the last 2 weeks compromising the infrastructure. Bottled water ran out in Dundrum! The Drummies had to make do with gin.  The thing is that people buy 5 lt of  drinking water in the supermarket and then send the empty container to land-fill. We have a few dozen of these things about the place ready to be filled with our own chlorine-free lightly-coliformed well-water. With a poly-tunnel needing to be watered, we are unlikely to be short of flushing water.  It's a bit different from Dau.I and Dau.II living in the city. A 4th floor apartment is not the place to store large quantities of water. Then again, cities are the first places to have power restored.

I was listening to a couple of talking-heads on the wireless re-churning the information that filling the bath with water before disaster strikes will sort out the flushing water supply for a few days - you need a bucket as well. Then I came across AquaPodKit, a product (basically a large plastic bag capable of holding 300 lt of water) which costs $30 and doesn't seem, to me, to have more utility than a bath-plug . . . which most folk have aNNyway. Customers Who Bought This Also Bought: Mountain Home Beef Stew $34.95 and Mountain Home Chili Mac with Beef $27.95 and Instant Nonfat Fortified Emergency Dried Milk Large Can $17.95.
Even with a freeze-dried 25 year shelf-life, (so it will stay fresh on your shelves until the [Armageddon] day you need it), and supposed 10 servings, these prices are so eye-watering that you won't need to tap into your AquaPodKit.

Where did I 'come across'  BePrepared.com and their expensive long-life food-products? By googling up emergency rations. And getting 20 Must Have supplies for a Hurricane. Most of these are applicable to a Zombie Apocalypse including the Hurricane Proof Window Shutters.  Some of the items are surprisingly mundane including a pack of playing cards and the list thankfully don't include those All American stand-bys Guns & Ammo to go with the beans. Everbode kno that zombies can take a bullet or two without harm, anyway.  Needless to say, all the items on the list are for sale on-line at beprepared.com.  Another top-hit source of information is www.ready.gov which is a Feds-approved site of authoritative information.  So get yourself:
  • Playing cards: piquet is a very civilised two-hander
  • Plenty of paracord, or an equivalent which I've been scooping off the beach these last several year. 
  • A plastic tarpaulin or two for when the roof disappears into the next county.
  • A whistle to keep folks digging because you're in there somewhere.
There was an unfortunate Irish mother on the wireless over the weekend talking about the downside of being without running water for a couple of days "the eldest girl succumbed to the winter vomitting bug on Sunday night before Ophelia" eeeuw, that's a lot to cope with if you only have wet-wipes and tea-towels.

Now here's some advice for those who, like most of us, have far-flung family. This Thanksgiving or Christmas, when you're all together, agree on a rendezvous for AYSHYF - after ye shytte hits ye fan. There won't be any phone coverage if it's a Carrington Event for example. It would be a sadly ironic state of affairs if we set off for Cork to rescue Dau.II and she sets off to Dublin to succour Dau.I and she heads off towards our mountain because she knows there will be wool to knit sweaters against the Ice Age. It should be like it was when The Beloved and I were courting. No txts then, so you'd have to make a date to be there, then by post-card and not be [tooo] late. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017


Hey Folks, almost forgot: today 25th October is the feast day of Sts Crispin and Crispinian, Patron saints of cobblers, tanners and allied trades including  curriers; glove makers; lace makers; lace workers; leather workers; saddle makers; saddlers; shoemakers; weavers. These guys are not real saints like St Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) or Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) for whom we have data like birth and death dates and contemporary records of their miraculous doings. C & C au contraire are sort of lost in the mists of time, having lived in Gallia before the fall of the Roman Empire. Any miracles they have wrought will have been due to the placebo effect.

When I was in school in England we learned about the Battles of Crécy 1346, Poitiers 1356 and Agincourt 1415 when the Brits won, usually against fearful odds against the upstart French. The anglophone history books a strangely silent about all the battles of the Hundred Years' War which were won by the French: of the decisive battles of Pontvallain 1370,  Patay 1429 and Formigny 1450, we heard not a word. Be that as it may, Agincourt was famously fought on St Crispin's Day 1415. Famously? yea and forsooth, because it inspired a brilliant harangue by Henry V in the Shogsporian play of the same name. I've cited Kenneth Branagh's version before but let's hear that again, because for many it sets the recent standard for Band-of-brothersness:

  • Kenneth Branagh. You might think it don't get better than that but hark:
  • Richard Burton. Even without the moving image it is just The Voice. As I said before Burton's Under Milk Wood is pure poetry.
  • Young Master Hatch gives it socks. Of course the music (ripped from Branagh's film) helps; but this kid has Presence
  • Laurence Olivier does his best in the WWII propaganda film but credibility is diminished by having Oliver clanking about the [rather obvious] set on a pair of legs borrowed from C3PO.
Enough already?  Now here's the sciency bonus. Turns out that Henry, then Prince of Wales and only 16, was struck in the face by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.  Surgeon John Bradmore invented a novel tool for extracting the arrowhead from inside the Prince's skull and the patient survived. Indeed the young chap turned over a new leaf "For whereas aforetime he had made himselfe a companion unto misrulie mates of dissolute order and life, he now banished them all from his presence . . ."

Quality of communication

Each year I have one or two sections of 2nd Year QM: that's Quantitative Methods. Except that it's not any more because the powers-that-be have decided that QM is not what we teach here and so renamed the course Research Methods aka ResMet 2. Call it what you like, the course is essentially the same. In 2nd year we assume that the kids are now reasonably numerate and are now fit and ready to get some training in statistics.  One of the deliverables is "familiarity with statistical terms and definitions" and a couple of years ago I invented a nifty way to make sure that everyone knew the difference between a "double-blind experiment" and "the placebo effect". Same again this year: it makes a change from dragging data-sets backwards through the hedge of SPSS or Excel.

This year I noticed that the definitions coined by the students which appeared to have least explanatory power were rather short. Whereas the longer, more qualified definitions which were clear as daylight. Here's some data. Never have enough data. I plotted the success of the various student-generation definitions against their word-count, thus:
It's not a super-tight relationship, but the three very short definitions on the left of the scatter were opaque of meaning to other students. When brought this up in class, there were respectful jeers from all sides: "that Bob, he'd analyse the chick-peas in a vegetable curry if someone would count 'em for him".

But I think there is a general minimax concept at foot here for our communications. You have an idea to get across, you know that ambiguity won't help anyone, so it is worth devoting some time to a longer explanation. But you don't want to go all Lawyer over it and generate 15 pages of  small print, qualifications and get-out clauses to tell the waitron how you like your steak.  Less is not always more; but a Goldiloxian just-enough is what we should strive for.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

De minimis

Let's start in the chilly Baltic with Märket a skerry - a small low-lying island - the most Westerly of the Åland Islands located between Finland and Sweden.

I mentioned recently that 5% of Finns speak Swedish as their first language and that the density of Swedophones is highest in the SW of the country, and stronger still in the Åland archipelago, which was in its day a great centre of maritime trade. Many of the last of the tall ships were registered in Mariehamn / Maarianhamina the capital of the territory. They speak Swedish there because the islands, and indeed most of what is now Finland were part of the Swedish empire up until 1809. In that year, the Treaty of Fredrikshamn between Sweden and Tsarist Russia ceded Swedish Finland to Russia. That treaty concluded 18 months of hostilities which were a Northern sideshow to the continental conflagration which we call the Napoleonic Wars. The border between the two empires was set as a line midway between the Swedish mainland and the substantive chunks of  Ålandia. Surveying at sea is difficult, so the line was anchored by being made to pass through the middle of Märket a low lying rock in mid-channel about 3 hectares in area.

Whatever about the political border, being in mid-channel made Märket a major hazard to shipping with ships piling up against the rock whenever visibility was compromised - dark, fog, sleet-storms all being endemic at the end of the Gulf of Bothnia. In 1885, the  government of Alexander III wearing his Grand Duke of Finland [Великое княжество Финляндское / Suomen suuriruhtinaskunta / Storfurstendömet Finland] hat authorised the construction of a lighthouse complex on the highest part of the island, and it was so. Everyone was grateful, especially the families of mariners who were not drowned on the foreshore in a storm.  Finland achieved its independence in 1917 but declined to cede the Åland Islands to Sweden despite a plebiscite of 95% calling for re-integration with The Old Country. Eventually the islanders settled down as an autonomous region of Finland and peace reigned . . . until someone noticed that the Finnish lighthouse on Märket was on the Swedish side of the border!

The two parties set up a boundary commission and in 1985, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the lighthouse, the border was cleverly and pedantically adjusted [see map at top] so that, a) the old border hit the shore line at exactly the same point (so that established fishing zones were retained) but that b) Finland ceded an area East of the lighthouse buildings to compensate precisely for the territory lost Finland by its buildings. Considering that the exchanged areas are each about the size of our haggard [= farmyard from Old Norse heygarthr: hey hay + garthr yard] the solution probably cost something North of $10 / sq.m. Finland and Sweden [and Austria] joined the EU in 1995, which doesn't mean they aren't potentially in dispute over fishing.

A bit more quirky detail and a rather good slide show of developments from Irish blogger Diarmuid O'Daft. Political posturing over a lighthouse? We've met that before in the Far East.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Borges by Borges

Title is a pretentious tribute to Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott's guide to life, the universe and writing. Here we are having a go at Jorge Luis Borges the blind Argentinian librarian, writer and philosopher [yes, all three at once]. I acquired his books of essays Labyrinths, as a grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics while I was still at school. Even with my expensive education, Labyrinths was erudite and, well, difficult. I mentioned before one of the stories Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius which has a puck at the idea that without names, things would / could scarcely exist.

Borges surfaced recently in an essay by famously difficult French philosopher Michel Foucault. I couldn't finish the essay because I'm just not clever enough. But I loved the Borgesian conceit,  in an essay El idioma analítico de John Wilkins [full text] alluded to by Foucault, that a chap called John Wilkins has discovered a Chinese encyclopedia called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge which, helpfully, classifies animals into 14 distinct bins:
(a) pertenecientes al Emperador; those belonging to the Emperor
(b) embalsamados, embalmed ones
(c) amaestrados, tame / trained ones
(d) lechones, suckling pigs
(e) sirenas, mermaids / sirens
(f) fabulosos, the simply fabulous
(g) perros sueltos, stray dogs
(h) incluidos en esta clasificación, included in this list
(i) que se agitan como locos, the frenzied
(j) innumerables, the uncountable
(k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello,  those drawn with a fine camel-hair brush
(1) etcétera, Etc.
(m) que acaban de romper el jarrón, those which have just broken the vase
(n) que de lejos parecen moscas those which look like flies from a distance
There, you see Bob, classification of the natural world is dead simple if you're not hide-bound by what you "know for sure but just ain't true". Shaking us from our certainties is one of the prime functions of great literature.

Such a list! It gives me the excuse to put out again [first] Ann Fadiman's list of 22 words unknown to her that she encountered, as an adult, in a single book . . . about cats: adapertile; adytum; agathodemon; alcalde; apozemical; aspergill; calineries; camorra; cupellation; diapason; goetic; grimoire; ithyphallic; kakodemon; mephitic; monophysite; opapanax; paludal; perllan; retromingentadapertile; adytum; agathodemon; alcalde; apozemical; aspergill; calineries; camorra; cupellation; diapason; goetic; grimoire; ithyphallic; kakodemon; mephitic; monophysite; opapanax; paludal; perllan; retromingent; sepoy; subadar; ; sepoy; subadar.  I note that only one of these  (diapason) is not underlined as unknown to blogspot's spelinge chekkur. The least bit interested but slightly foxed? The 'answers' are here.

That list is not going to butter any parsnips for anyone. Robert Heinlein's list at least pretends to be useful, if only as an aspiration for humanity. Yer 'tis: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Banana Sundae 221017

I hope this inspires you to make something self-indulgent to pile up between the two halves of a banana. I hope you have a banana!
What else is new:

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Pushing the boat out

We got the power back after Ophelia in time to make a hot-water bottle for bed on Wednesday after 56 hrs of darkness at night and washing in a bucket. Pals of ours on the Wexford coast were still powerless yesterday (Friday) evening which means they have missed the boat and will be bumped down the list by at least 48 hours. Why? Because Storm Brian is in the process of stomping through Ireland for a shortcut [see whippy winds, especially at sea R]. The electricians will work though rain-storms but draw the line at being on top of a cherry-picker in 100km/h winds. The prequel to Brian was a wall of precipitation that took 6 hours to travel across the island W to E. That's about right because The Weather travels at about 60km/h regardless of the speed of the component circulating wind. aNNyway, we had been looking forward to the launch of m'pal Russ's book about The Fishin' in Waterford Harbour. We set off as night fell and the rain was still hosing down; we had to cruise through a deep road-wide puddle before we reached the first bridge at the county borrrder and another before we reached the first village on our journey; so we bottled out and went home. Launching a book is one thing; to launch the car is another. Hardier, localler folk turned out in sufficient numbers so the Book Launch wasn't a total wash-out. In my Ophelia aftermath report, I mentioned the far more serious consequences of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

It turns out that one of the smartest members of my scientific Set has done good for herself and has joined the diaspora to work in Harvard Medical School. She posted a message to the bioinformatics listserv list to tell us-back-home about Harvard's response to Puerto Rico's woes. I complimented her and her co-workers for doing something rather than closing the emotional shutters in the face of a tsunami of disturbing thoughts and pictures.  Her e-mail included a
List of Urgently Requested Supplies; 
Solar panel charger for USBs; Phone battery chargers with USB and a wall charger; Inverter power units for cars; Portable water filter bag; Feminine hygiene products; Mosquito repellent; Sunblock; Sleeping bag; Baby wipes; AM/FM radio that can be recharged with USB port; Hand sanitizer; First aid kit; Plastic gloves; Disinfecting wipes; Flashlight or lamp (preferably solar or charged with USB); D batteries; AA batteries; Hat to protect from sun; Matches; Toilet paper.
If you have a drop of kindness left for the inhabitants of a distant sub-tropical land, you'll want to do something. Your far more likely to actually respond if the path-of-giving is clear. Since before my parents got married in 1950, happy couples have wanted to avoid getting 12 toast-racks and no bath-towels as wedding gifts. The solution has been setting up a wedding list service at the local department store to allow wedding-guests choice while ensuring that the happy couple get a useful cross-section of what they need to start a home together. Amazon has tapped into the well of well-wishing and will provide a similar service for other events: here's the Harvard list of essential supplies for Puerto Rico, you can buy (among a lot of other required kit)

  • a sun-hat 192/200 -- 4% donated
  • solar power bank 163/225 -- 27%
  • protein power bars 57/75 -- 26%
  • AA batteries 199/225 -- 11%
  • sanitary pads 150/225 -- 33%
  • sleeping bag 211/225 -- 6%

The fraction indicates the number of each product still required, the % is its reciprocal: the percentage of that requirement which has been fulfilled. Oooo, data! The project was only launched last night, so the giving is ongoing, but it's interesting what the first responders consider to be the most important items to ship out foreign. The item most seen-to-be essential is a box of rubber-gloves [76% fulfilled]; that might be because they are cheap or for more complex psychological reasons. I know that the charity sector [in Ireland at least] has suffered significant reputational damage in recent years [fraud, featherbedding, 4x4s]. The Irish response to this Irish problem is to set up a new supervisory quango under a well-paid CEO! But really wouldn't it be more efficient to give $7.69 to Oxfam / Goal / Trocaire and let their experts decide the optimum way to spend the money in San Juan? Heck, Oxfam would be able to negotiate bulk discounts from wholesalers rather than paying retail to Amazon.

Remember the Sumatran Tsunami of Christmas 2004? I was working in UCD at the time and so was Dr Chandralal Hewage.  Indeed, that community was so small that we were co-authors on a paper.  Chandralal originally hailed from Sri Lanka and, in the aftermath of the tsunami's destruction of the fishing industry, set up  a fund to buy a replacement fishing boat for any surviving fisher-folk to use. Because we knew Chandralal, the project was massively oversubscribed and within the next year fifteen 15! boats were built with the UCD logo [L at launch]. If the same thing happened today, they'd be more imaginative about the names of the boats.
Note: today its a twofer: check piece immed below?

Mind your mouth

Annie Dillard, Anne Fadiman, Anne Lamott. They are filed in my "mind" in the same bin. Maybe it is something so superficial as the fact they run variations on a common first name, but probably it's coupled with the fact that I started reading them at the same time. The other thing is that they write really well, I fact I've reflected on before in the case of Dillard and Fadiman. Now is the time for a bit of parity of esteem for Anne Lamott who is the most difficult of the Trinitanny.  I think the only book of hers I've read is Bird by Bird; some instructions of writing and life, which is both insightful and a stitch.  It's also holding its original price on Amazon better than Ex Libris [Fadiman] or Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek [Dillard].

Bird by Bird's title comes from an anecdote about Lamott's father and her younger brother who, as a teenager, was experiencing writer's block over a daunting essay on ornithology. The father's advice was "Bird by Bird, Buddy" in the sense that all great journeys start with a single step but that without that first step you'll spend the rest of your life unfulfilled on your sofa. Addressing a massive entangled problem by finding a small knot and tugging - just to do something - is what I have called a Javi Problem. Lamott, like many women, had an uneasy relationship with her mother whose was uniquely infuriating to her daughter. But their relationship softened a little when Lamott became a single parent in her mid-30s: granny and grandson were besotted with each other and that helped Annie-in-the-middle see more virtue in the older woman.

That boy Sam, features in a brilliant anecdote in Bird by Bird which I'll defy copyright by quoting here in full:
“My son, Sam, at three and a half, had these keys to a set of plastic handcuffs, and one morning he intentionally locked himself out of the house. I was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when I heard him stick his plastic keys into the doorknob and try to open the door. Then I heard him say, "Oh, shit." My whole face widened, like the guy in Edvard Munch's Scream. After a moment I got up and opened the front door.
"Honey," I said, "what'd you just say?"
"I said, 'Oh, shit,'" he said.
"But, honey, that's a naughty word. Both of us have absolutely got to stop using it. Okay?"
He hung his head for a moment, nodded, and said, "Okay, Mom." Then he leaned forward and said confidentially, "But I'll tell you why I said 'shit.'" I said Okay, and he said, "Because of the fucking keys!”
I hope that makes someone go and get her book out of the library and read it. You might then be ready for an hour-long interview which is, by turns, confessional, insightful, laconic and funny. Her boy Sam became a father at a ridiculously young age [why a year younger than me] and Lamott wrote a book about the coming of the wunderkind called Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First son. Here Lamott reads sections with Sam to rein her in.

If you're not [yet] a fan, you might try 12 truths I learned from life and writing which is a) TED and b) only 16 minutes long . . . and nails world peace. Here's an even shorter piece [5 mins] anout how she got sober with the help of Jack "Why don't you come over and we'll talk" and God.

Friday, 20 October 2017


I love my work. Every day I find out something new - about science, about myself, about the students, about real life.  My mind is a bit like Lake Oroville [prev] now; I feel that it is reaching capacity: every bit of information added sends another over the spillway to oblivion. That's possibly why I think I'm learning new stuff all the time.

I was drifting out of Human Physiology class last week chatting with some of the students about the overlap between the different courses they are being taught. We agreed that it was usually a Good Thing to hear the Human Physiology take on a subject and the Drug Actions and Uses version of the same information. One of them then launched into the fact (news to her; and to me) that Roaccutane, which is prescribed for serious acne, is severely teratogenic - it generates birth defects. That is most unfortunate because the girls who are experiencing the worse cases of acne are also approaching their peak of fertility. Roaccutane = isotretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A and works by reducing the quantity of  sebum produced in the hair-follicles; making them a far less hospitable place for bacteria, like Cutibacterium acnes and Staphylococcus epidermidis. A course of 12 or 16 weeks will often knock the problem on the head.  But you need to be super careful not to fall pregnant while this stuff is coursing through your veins. Responsible GPs insist on two independent forms of contraception and a pregnancy test before and during the course of treatment. In Ireland, of course, finding that you are pregnant while under Roaccutane treatment won't help a lot because of Article 40.3.3. of our Constitution.

Like Gardasil, and for similar reasons, some folks hold that Roaccutane induces depression and suicidal ideation but, despite the tragic anecdotes, there is only weak epidemiological evidence for such an association. The drug will also filter through into the prostate but the levels of Roaccutane found in semen are too low to impact on the fetus.  The most common side-effect <duh!> is dry skin because you are interfering to reduce the normal lubricants. Dermatologists are likely to claim that Roaccutane is wildly over-prescribed in General Practice, but they aren't at the front line when an unfortunate teenager with a boiling face presents in surgery.  In my day, you just sucked it up (no, not literally, ye daft bugger) or went through a bottle of Clearasil and realised that a) it didn't really adversely affect your ability to 'pull' - because unpretty much all your rivals were similarly afflicted b) all things, even pimples, do pass.

A fortnight ago, we had a couple of visitors from Finland, and I landed a free lunch out of it.  My colleague refers to events in the white tablecloth corner of the canteen as "a bit of rubber chicken with our guests". That's not fair, especially if you like mashed potato, which comes with everything. All the larger place-names in Finland are doubled up, like our Gaeltachts, because Swedish is present as a minority first language [about 5%] especially round Åbo /Turku in the SW of the country.  The majority live in a country called Suomi or, formally, Suomen tasavalta = Republic of Finland. The Swedophones call it Finland and themselves Finns. That label makes their Finnish-speaking neighbours a teeny bit uncomfortable because, in their language, Finni = pimple.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Ophelia: there's rue for you

We were all hyped-up for Ophelia. It's just wonderful that, with Met Eireann and a network of weather satellites, we can see The Big Winds coming in orderly one after the other from the Atlantic. Ophelia was a little peculiar in that she didn't visit Disneyland on her way to Europe but headed straight NNE after being born near the Azores. It could only do that, gathering power as it went, if the water was warm enough to hype her up; and it was this year. Maybe in future years this will be one consequence of global warming. I've had a little to say, mostly wrong, about oceanic water temperature and its effects on weather in Ireland.

ANNyway we spent last Sunday reefing the tops'ls, battening down hatches, putting a concrete block on the wheel-barrow. We also made sure the Good Ship Powerless had sufficient water i n containers because without electricity the water stays in the borehole. Not much we can do about our 17 x 9m poly-tunnel [pic etc.]. If it decides to take off, and it's bigger than the Cutty Sark's mainsail, it's gone into the next county. When the storm was fizziest, I went out to see what went down in between showers of horizontal drizzle and noticed that the edge of one of the corrugated iron shed-roofs was lifting and rattling a little too rhythmically for comfort. Power had failed us by then so I couldn't drill a hole in the corner and tie it down. But, with PhD smarts, I attached a C-clamp and tied that off on something solid. Not before some of the roof-nails had been worked out by 3 cm, though. Whatever about a mainsail's worth of plastic from the tunnel, nobody wants to see sheets of corrugated iron taking off . . . or indeed coming in to land again.

Ophelia tracked up the West coast bringing down trees and whisking away the roof of a community school in Douglas, Co Cork. The Education Minister closed all schools and colleges on the Monday and most bus & train services were shut down in anticipation. In the end, it wasn't as bad as it might have been. 3 dead, 360,000 without power, 50,000 without water. Both those including us for the last 46 hours. Living remote, we are the last people to get power restored: those darned sewage treatment plants, hospitals and old folks homes getting priority. It's fun (for a while) cooking on a wood-stove and washing in a bucket. The Beloved is going to do triage on the freezer today. A lot of our neighbours are going to get lamb-chops, if they are getting soggy, even if they are vegetarians. I was comparing notes with one of my colleagues at work who lives in Athlone. He reported the most exciting news as the car (empty) of a neighbour of a friend of his cousin had been flattened by a tree. Then he mentioned another neighbour who works for a multinational which has offices in Puerto Rico. 200 employees of the Puerto Rice branch are unaccounted for after Maria. One flat Nissan Micra is a bit of a First World Problem.

When I went to work on Tuesday, I packed a fuelled-up new-sharpened chain-saw in the boot of the car along with the PPE clobber: hard-hat and visor, chaps, boots, gloves, ear-defenders. But the damage (maybe 12 biggish trees down over 40km of back-roads) had all been tidied away with just leaves left on the road. Those farrrmers, nothing they like better than getting out in the dark with a 4x4 for headlights and a chain-saw for macho. For us, apart from deadwood branches and twigs, a big ash tree Fraxinus excelsior fell out of the ditch and I've been doing manly things after work with the chain-saw gathering Winter fuuuuuuelll.

OPHELIA: There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue
for you; and here's some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o' Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference.
Hamlet by Wm Shagsper
All in all we didn't rue Ophelia too much because she didn't get get real mad and make us over-much sorry from her passing through. The Hardy Boys and Girls from the ESB, have been putting in 16 hour days restringing electricity cables and got to us last night after 2100hrs and the power came on again. Two and a bit days without power is okay if you have a car and a job to go to, the use of your legs, and are reasonably continent in the toilet department. Failing any of those and it would be tedious. The contrast between my getting up this morning and the deliberate schedule (lighting the fire in the dark for hot water for starters) of the previous two days put our carelessness about the benefits of modern convenience into perspective. I heard a story on the wireless a few days ago about the bliss of a farming lady being brought a cup of hot tea in bed by her daughter after the Shannon Scheme came through with rural electrification in the 1950s. Before that, it was too much trouble because the cows needed to be brought in for milking before the fire could be laid to heat the kettle.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Homage to Catalonia

Title is Homage to George Orwell [prevoblobs] who was fighting there in the Spanish Civil War. Ever since I read H2C as a teenager - along with every other word of Orwell's that I could dredge up - I've flagged the Catalans as the Good Guys. The last hold out against the grey tide of fascism. I was schooled to adopt a less black-and-white view of Spanish politics when I got to be good friends with Pepe Malpica 25 years ago. There were good people on both sides of the barricades who were  sincere in their beliefs and anxieties. After such hideous internecine warfare comes to an end, you, me, we have to move on and the Spanish adopted a collective amnesia, so that after three generations the wounds are healing.

I don't really have a locus standi on the independence referendum that was carried out in Catalonia two weeks ago. It's the same sort of thing as Brexit, about which, as a horse European born in a stable in Dover, I have strong feelings. I believe in SS Europe The Good Ship Europa, especially the aspiration to equilibrate upwards: the belief that a larger market and free-movement would generate so much extra wealth that the poorest outposts of the continent would no longer be dispossessed. Poverty is not just about money, it's about culture and different ideas, and sharing. I found out last week that, in PIE Proto-Indo-European, the word for give was the same as the word for take. Back then on the steppes of Kazakhstan exchange was an essential part of life.
And please note, as did my pal Russ, that "believing in SS Europe" would stretch my politics further right than I feel comfortable about. Big red face on those nautical metaphors.

Strange Maps had a commentary on the prospects of succession in Catalonia which included the map at the head of this post which was created by redditor bezzleford.  I love that map: the flags [multiprev], the borders, the quirkiness of the displayed data, the unexpected findings and the new information.  The snapshot doesn't flag the changes to the map of Europe where a region has already achieved its independence.  Think Slovenia, the first of the regions of the Former Yugoslavia to go it alone.  They achieved this aim in a mere 10 Day War  of succession in 1991, at least partly because the central government in Belgrade was stacked with Serbs and there were only a handful of Serbs in Slovenia.
It was bloodier, longer and uglier in, say, Bosnia which I still associate with Srebenitsa, pogrom, and ethnic cleansing. And part of the reason for that is because the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina was and is ethnically and religiously heterogeneous. Bosna i Hercegovina aka Боснa и Херцеговина is now separated into two autonomous regions with a yellow cherry on top called Brčko. [map L]. The red area is now an autonomous region of the country which calls itself Republika Srpska or Република Српскa. It is a separate auronomous entity from 'the rest' of the country Federacija Bosne i Hercegovine aka Федерација Босне и Херцеговине. It looks like a desperate example of gerrymandering but actually closely tracks the ceasefire line at the end of the Bosnian War. This wiggly line is known as the Inter-Entity Boundary Line Međuentitetska linija / Међуентитеска линија. Although there are two constituent parts of the country, there are three constituent ethnicities which fall out on consistent religious and linguistic lines:
Group % Pop Religion
Bosniaks 51% Sunni Islam
Serbs 31% Orthodox
Croats 14% Catholic
There are three official languages, too, but they are essentially the same as variants of Serbo-Croatian. The Serbs preferring to write theirs in Cyrillic. The two blue exclaves at the top of this map don't make sense until you realise that they are just across the border from Croatia. And what about Brčko, the yellow hinge between the two flanges of Srpska?  There, the demographics between Serbs vs Bosniak-Croats are more nearly equal and it is currently run as a sort of condominium. According to the Guardian 3 years ago; it is a beacon of multicultural hope . . . a bit like Lebanon was before it collapsed into its own civil war 30 years ago. It will come as no surprise that Srpska appears on bezzleford's map with more than 50% of the inhabitants favouring independence. They have to sort out Brčko first, I hope they are less black and white there than they were in Sebrenitsa

Just about 15mm NW on the Eurosplit map above is another purple (>50% wanting out) enclave called Veneto which wants to pursue its own dreams independent of the rest of Italy. Where does that leave Friuli-Venezia Giulia [L. zoomed in and coloured red]? An exclave of Italy, is where! This map also identifies where Slovenia SVN and Croatia HRV fit w.r.t Italy, Austria AUT and Bosnia Herzegovina BiH. While self-determination is all well-and-good some consideration should be given to how your self-determination impinges on other people especially neighbours. Ireland isolated by Brexit, Friuli isolated Venexit, Brčko maybe disolated by Srpska in the future.

That-all only deals with geographic divisions. Many of the self-det movements are driven by an unwillingness to help neighbours less fortunate that ourselves.
  • Barcelona wanting to dump Andalucia; 
  • London [which is a 12% entity on the Eurosplit map] wants to ring-fence itself from The Tanned Other; There is a vulgar substratum of English yobs who really believe that wogs begin at Calais.
  • Lega Nord (full name Lega Nord per l'Indipendenza della Padania), which includes Liga Veneta wanting to ditch "Africa", which they consider starts just South of Rome. Padania is more or less cognate with Cisalpine Gaul which Julius Caesar left when he crossed the Rubicon on his march to supreme power.
Other self-det movements are pushed by a sort of romantic vision of history being used as an aspiration for a still rosier future. Last weekend there was an apologist for Catalan independence talking with Marian Finucane on RTE1 about how being a Catalan wasn't a matter of language or genetics but was a sort cultural sense of being. He mentioned that the Catalan 'spirit' had been stifled, if not actually crushed, by 300 years of Castillian misrule. To which Finucane chirped up that 'we' in Ireland had been similarly oppressed for 800 years by our larger neighbour. In her wobbly little noddle, I know that she was referring to my protestant ancestors. It's only a step from there for her to invite me and mine to go back where I came from to preserve the holy fantasy land of Ireland for Caitlín Ní Uallacháin and young subtle Conchubar, dancing at the cross-roads; Niall of the Nine Hostages tucking into colcannon, and Waterford winning the All Ireland. This is the most egregious sentimental nonsense: I have far more in common with a white man from Boston, a scientist from Turkey or a middle class professional mother of two from anywhere on the planet than I do with half the people whom I meet on the road home from work.
Patriotism? The last refuge of the scoundrel.
Samuel "Dictionary" Johnson

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Learn by doing

In my time at the digital coal-face, I've learned how to program computers in Basic, PL/1, Fortran, Cobol, Pascal, C and Perl. I've done this in all possible ways: by the book, in formal courses, on my own or embedded in a lab. The best way has always been to a) have a project that needed to be completed b) access to i) time ii) a computer iii) a colleague. The colleague didn't have to be better at the task or a mentor; better be the source of half an idea towards the solution to intermediate problems or a willing ear. Book learning is a useful asset, but lectures are more or less a waste of time. Just DO it!

When I started work at The Institute it was about 5 years since the bottom fell out of the construction industry in Ireland. The undergraduate years were leavened with a really interesting cohort of grown-ups who had missed out on college because they were technically competent and a good pair of hands and had been sucked into the celtic tiger tornado more or less straight form school. They were great to deal with because they brought something to the table at lectures and had a very direct idea of why they were embracing 4 years of poverty in college. I caught up with one of these blokes last week when I saw him having a late lunch in the coffee dock. Turns out that he was back in college for a few days to run some samples through the HPLC; because they needed to be processed but also because he needed to be able to add "can drive an HPLC" to his CV.  He could do this because he is currently between jobs, which a cause of some anxiety, but he wasn't going to fret at home if he could be twirling the dials in the lab.

I suggested that, while getting down and dirty with the instrument was sensible if it didn't cost too much, it would be silly to go an an HPLC Course; if such a thing was on offer. All technical instruments are different; heck, each brand of HPLC is different, but they are designed to be used, if not by idiots, at least by technophiles. I reckoned that a couple of days would be enough to be able to blag "HPLC Effective" onto his CV. What he couldn't work out when he was hired by Chemicals Inc., he could ask about, or read the S.O.P. . . . or even peruse the manual.

That all reminded me of a family legend about G [prev] when she was young before she became a wife-and-mother she took herself off to London to seek her fortune. This was in the 80s and there was bugger-all in he way of work in Ireland. She decided, after some earlier experience working in a factory in Germany, that office work was easier on the back and paid better too. So she presented herself for interview at some financial institution as a secretary, typist and all round effective.
"Are you familiar with the Wang?" asked the office manager
"Of course" replied G
"Can you start Monday?"
"Of course"
So she started the next Monday and her desk was a Wang 1200 console. She leaned across confidentially to her neighbour and asked "How does this yoke work?". By lunchtime she had made a friend and made enough inroads into 1980s word-processing so that she didn't let the side down. Technical things, if they are designed properly, are easy to use. If they are not so designed, they don't clutter up the market for very long. I'm sure that,, at the time, secretarial schools were willing to take folding money from you to teach you "How to WP with the Wang 1200". All the pupils would have found it excruciatingly patronising and slow. Those being funded by their employers would be happy enough to have a week off real work. Those paying their own nickel would less happy about the time-wasting but hoping that the course qual would get them work.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Ophelia incommming

The L picture is a still from https://earth.nullschool.net/ which tracks winds in real time all over the world; it shows the whole of the Atlantic. The site allows you to rotate the globe, so I can assure you that the zoom R of incommming Ophelia is the most exciting thing happening on the planet at this time. The arrow is to show the direction of travel. This Mother of Storms is about to travel through Ireland for shortcut.  Schools are all closed including (message at 2045 last night) The Institute, so I'm hunkered down at home. We spent yesterday afternoon battening down the hatches, reefing the tops'ls, and securing the raffle about the decks. We've made sure the life-boat has water [no electricity no pump] and ships biscuit and there is fuel for the wood-burning stove, so we can heat soup and make chapattis. I also took 20 minutes to fuel-up and sharpen the chainsaw and put that in the back of the car . . . before the news of school closure came through.  The blessing is that, in contrast to the Big Wind of January 1839, Ophelia is making her passage in daylight.

The Darwinday Storm of Feb 2014, when I had to cut my way back home through a fallen tree, is in the Ha'penny place compared to Ophelia which is said to be bigger than Charley 1986 and possibly bigger than Debbie in 1961.  Reading up about those big Irish storms of the last century shows that we have way more information now - see frighteningly beautiful maps above - than back then. The meteorologists 'lost' Debbie for a few days between the Cabo Verde, where it killed a planeload of people, and its arrival in Ireland.  No amount of information or preparation is going to keep trees upright if they are worked to their resonant frequency.  The other blessing is that Ophelia will pass quickly through on her flight to Russia and this time tomorrow we'll tidy up and move along too.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Away with the fairies 151017

Very miscellaneous.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Outdoor Man

Another of my friends has recently pegged out. We first met him when he and M'sis were living on Erraid in 1997. Or rather we met his legs, because that’s all we could see of him poking out from under the Erraid tractor trailer as he welded its broken axle.  Getting to Erraid, an island, off an island, off the West coast of Scotland, was the trekkiest one day journey (from O.Fr jornee a day's march) we made with two small children. Taxi to airport; plane to Prestwick; train to Glasgow Central, shuttle to Glasgow Queen Street, train to Oban, ferry to Mull, minibus to Fionnphort, row-boat to Erraid, wheelbarrow for luggage to house. You may be sure that the Erraid community of candle-dippers and wiccans really appreciated having one good pair of hands about the place.

For the next tuthree years, “McAndrew” (because we encountered him in Scotland) and McSis would come to visit us in Knockroe for about a week.  He was kindly and avuncular with the girls but had little patience for kitchen chit-chat and catch-up. Sometime early on day 2 of any visit, he’d ask if there was something useful he could do, preferably outside, preferably with his hands.  We’d set him some task which seemed incredibly daunting to me and he’d quietly set to: scoping out the problem, thinking about it briefly, then gathering tools and starting work. He’d come in when called for dinner or if his hat bowled away on a really wet gale but otherwise quietly plugged away at the job. Very occasionally he’d ask me to supply some brute force – heaving up a bigger-than-one-man rock or holding the other end of a long timber – but generally he preferred to be unencumbered with ‘help’. Unless it was Dau.II, he was always happy to have 5-6 year old Dau.II pass him nails.

I’ll give a couple of anecdotes because respect is in the details.  In scrabbling about the farm, we had unearthed a huge flat kidney-shaped stone and conceived the idea of raising it on 3 granite piers to make a garden table.  The stone was really flat on one side but undulating on the other. McAndrew coursed around the farm locating three sufficiently long piers [they had to be down in the ground at least 15 inches and we wanted to get knees under the table too]. He then carefully measured the underside of the table-top, dug three holes, dropped in the table legs and back filled them so they were immovable.  The tops of the three legs were at slightly different heights, so that, when the granite table top was flipped over, its undulations would complement the piers and the table-top would be perfectly horizontal. And it was so.

On the other side of the lane from the house we own another 3 acres of fields in the middle of which are The Ruins a.k.a. Hickey’s after the last family to dwell in them. When we took over, only one building had a (corrugated iron) roof and we used that as a reasonably convenient, reasonably dry, wood-store. As well as a roof it had an ivy-covered gable-end which loomed ominously over the lane because the ivy had penetrated the fabric of the wall and lifted the stones up and outwards. This was a source of 3AM-screaming anxiety for me because our lane is used by hundreds of hill-walkers a year getting access to Mount Leinster and the surrounding uplands. The nightmare was that our wall would crush a group of boy-scouts as they adventured up the lane.

McAndrew did things rather than worried about them and he hunted out a packing-box and a beer-crate that together would just give him access to the topmost stones of the disintegrating wall. Let’s start small, he thought, at the top he thought and carefully lifted out one stone . . . pause . . . there was no roaring avalanche, so he stepped up again and removed another stone. By lunchtime the wall was down to shoulder level and he could put the beer crate out of harm’s way. He then removed the last sagging 8 ft of the roof: carefully, to keep the corrugated sheets for recycling. Having dealt like a dentist with the cause of the decay and dug back to sound foundation, McA then rebuilt the gable-end wall 8 ft back from the lane (and the innocent walkers) – the neatest, solidest, and most functional dry-stone wall on the property. He finished off the apex of the shed-wall with a hit-and-miss wooden curtain (like we built our woodshed last year) made of creosoted match-board recycled from the house’s original kitchen. That solution kept the wall to head-height and allowed draft to circulate through the wood shed behind the wall. It was triumph of recycling, appropriate technology and getting on with things. He was really happy with the result; I was delighted.

The next year we decided to recycle one of the wrought iron gates that had been thrown into a ditch on the property. Painted up it would make a nice entrance from the lane into The Ruins. That meant straightening the existing pier so it would hinge the gate and sorting out some recycled ironmongery to hold gate to pier and allow it to open. That required a lot of patience, WD40, a lump-hammer and a vice-grips. But the icing on the cake was finding another pier for the new gate to close against. I was useful here because the only suitable granite pier was 150 m away, so I was allowed to help push/pull/drag the stone on a sack-trolley up the hill to its new site. As with the legs of the stone table, you may be sure that when the jamb-pier was dropped into its foundation hole, the top was precisely level with the top of the gate. It didn’t have to be like that for function, but, for McAndrew, it could be none other.
That’s the thing about McAndrew, he made a difference to the things around him and by doing made other people happier. I learned a little from his confidence that the sky wouldn’t fall if you stopped thinking and just made a start; I have fewer nightmares now and do more about the place. McAndrew’s changes to the landscape will be there, unsigned but appreciated by those who use them, long after we are all gone.