Thursday 30 November 2017

Nous sommes désolés

The young and symmetrical Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau has been apologising on behalf of the State for oppressing The Gays through the second half of the 20thC. Inclusivity is in the air, and Trudeau said sorry for how LGBTQ2 Canadians were treated before he himself reached adulthood - he was born in 1971. I am trying to keep track of the fragmentation of gender identity and got as far as LGBTQ last Tuesday. Super-trendy Trudeau has stolen a march on me with his ABCDE2.  It stands for Two-spirit which has been appropriated by some of the First Nations to describe their citizens who don't fit a M and F dichotomy. I gather that it would be an impertinence for white folks to so describe themselves because their white privilege prevents them from experiencing the oppression meted out on Native North Americans, let alone NNA2s. Heck m Canuck, I bet NNA is now no longer acceptable in polite company, in the same way as the demonym for dark Americans changes so often as to wrong-foot almost everybody. When first encountered by French trappers, two-spirit folk were called berdache but you want to be really careful using that term outside of historical anthropology texts. Tim Minchin on the language of prejudice for minorities.

You may be sure that whatever the state of Canadian Law, different people are subject still to all sorts of prejudice and discrimination across the provinces of Canada.  The first step is to sort out the current situation and Canada has not been behind-hand in legislating for equality. Apologising for the sins of our fathers only works if you absolutely believe in the sincerity of the person uttering the words. I think I believed Gordon Brown British Prime Minister when, in 2009, he uttered a similar apology for the shameful treatment of Alan Turing 50 years earlier when Brown himself was still in diapers. I would not have believed his predecessor Tony Blair who was far to conscious of the cameras. What stuck in my craw about Turing was several years of political grand-standing that eventually secured Turing a retrospective pardon for his crimes and misdemeanors. Rewriting history with its whiff of whitewash is not the same as a sincere apology. The pardon allowed for a preening smugness and a delusion that those who secured it for Turing would have behaved better than their ancestors at that place and time. An apology otoh looks forward and carries the intention, however poorly executed in reality to do better in future with living people.  There is even talk of a compensation package as if ruined lives and lost pension rights (it was mostly public servants who were directly financially affected). That could be unseemly: do the surviving dependents get a claim; how much can money heal emotional wounds etc.
Catching the wave of Canadian right-on-ness on Metafilter led me to another sorry-fest from young Trudeau just after he was elected the second youngest Canadian PM in 2015.  That was flagged on MeFi as "The real value in the apology lies in a re-examination" and was about the shabby treatment of a shipful of immigrants from India to Canada who, in 1914 aboard the Komogata Maru, were held in limbo in Vancouver for 2 months before being sent back to India. On arrival back in the Subcontinent, they expressed their dismay and dissatisfaction at being unable to travel within the British Empire. In the ensuing riot, 19 of the landed passengers were killed by security forces. Trudeau apologised for a too nice application of the Law as it stood back then and for the series of unfortunate consequences of that legal stance.
I liked very much that fact that Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, was sitting directly behind Trudeau in his trademark bright red turban. Doubtless Trudeau, who is very much Optics-aware, made sure of the seating arrangements. When CBC cameras cut to split-screen Trudeau's continuing bilingual apology with grainy monochrome footage of turbaned chaps on the Komogata Maru [see above for screen-scrape], there was Bains as the bright proof that Sikhs and other minorities and immigrants have a sky's-the-limit future in Canada. That should give hope to all the Syrian paediatricians who are living tents somewhere. That bright red slash of colour may remind you of another symbol of hope: The Girl in the Red Dress from Schindler's List.  If you haven't had enough already of Trudeau fils, you might check his 2000 eulogy for Trudeau père.

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Charter of ye Forest 1217

This month is the 800th anniversary of the promulgation of the Charter of the Forest [facsimile and transcript] by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (and a token handful of bishops) on behalf of the infant King Henry III who had just succeeded his father as king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, and count of Anjou. Henry was a boy of 10 years and needed someone to act as regent until he attained his majority. Remember that all folks grew up earlier back then - Henry V was having a near death experience in battle at the age of 16.  This is the same William Marshall who ordered the construction of the Hook Lighthouse on the Wexford side of Waterford Harbour. So he got around.

800 years ago is 1217 and the CoF is a sort of codicil to the Magna Carta signed by King John, Henry's father at Runnymede in 1215. Hindsighters hail the Magna Carta as the cornerstone on which the edifice of democracy was built but they should note that its terms were repudiated by both King John and the Barons who had compelled him to accept its diminution of the rights of the Crown, annulled by the Pope and ignored until the Baron's War ground to halt in 1217. Some of its clauses were reissued in the peace treaty of 1217. The CoF was added as a separate document to push back some of the royal creep of the acquisition of lands and rights by King Richard [the Lionheart] and his brother King John.  Note that 'forest' then had a special legal meaning as a special domain for hunting that was outside the remit of Common Law - a sort of private club where only the owner [usually the King] could play with his rich and well-connected pals - think Golf Club, another institution designed to keep the riff-raff at arm's length.

These two Charters were a long way from democracy as we have it today except insofar as both political systems protected the rights of the rich to get richer. The starting point of the CoF, what everyone agrees to be true, is what pertained in the reign of Henry II, [Good King Henry Chenopodium bonus-henricus above R] father of Richard and John and granbdfather of Henry III.

What's fascinating about the CoF is its insight into what mattered to people back in those days and the words used [full glossary] to define concepts that are now largely irrelevant. Not everything though: a cord of wood is a stack of branches 8ft x 4ft x 4ft as it is today wherever there are English speaking wood-burning stoves.  Here for example are some of the sorts of commonage:
  • common of estovers the right to gather fuel wood, sometimes ‘by hook or by crook’ 
  • common of herbage a special dispensation for grazing sheep without surcharge
  • common of pasture the right to graze waste
  • stinted common of pasture restricted to certain times of year
  • common of marl the right to dig clay, chalk, sand 
  • common of mast or pannage,the right to graze swine on beech mast and acorns 
  • common of turbary the right to dig turf for fuel 
turbary rights are still held across Ireland today; but the recently acquired respect for the planet is preventing owners of the rights from vindicated them by cutting and burning turf.. But nobody is allowed any more to keep a pig in the back-garden let alone take it for walks in the woods to fatten up on acorns.  The glossary is so rich and evocative of a time distant but still recognisable - especially if you have read any Thomas Hardy and tie string round your trousers legs under the knee to stop mice running up there.

Tuesday 28 November 2017


Right next to my office is a Student's Union notice-board. I think the SU will have blagging rights on such a notice board in every building on the campus: Hey Management, we're the SU you have to put up a noticeboard in Y Building so we can advertise 2-for-1 drinks offers in the clubs downtown. It's handy, apart from the cheap booze, because I get insight into what matters to the Yoof. Last week a clatter of posters went up making the case for gender-neutral 'bathrooms'. Different posters numbered #1 to #5, each giving another (positive) argument for the change. A tuthree days later, I paused infinitessimally at a table in the central concourse and was loudly invited to contribute to a diversity tree [see similar L]. This required me to dip my thumb in one of 5 pots of poster paint and apply the print to a very stylised tree outline. As an early adopter, I could choose my colour and place my leaf wherever I wanted. As I cleaned up my digit, I chatted one of the students, who had been in my math class two years ago.
Alice: Thanks for that, here's a scrap of kitchen towel.
Bob: I hear you're the SU now.
Alice: Nah, I'm just the VP.
Bob: I saw your gender-neutral loo campaign
Alice: Yes, that was me. We're aiming to have one such facility in every building.
I have a totally crap gaydar. But I paused for half a second to reflect that Alice is probably somewhere on the LGBTQRSTUV spectrum. I've no idea what I'm to do with that information . . . except forget it. At my age mumble mumble drool drool that will be easy.

The next weekend, Dau.I, who is down with the BLT, came home and I mentioned my gender-neutral bathroom escapades. We agreed that Trans [LGBTQ] people could do with their own bathroom in the same way as wheelchair people needed to be cut some slack. Apparently, some people's transdar is so well tuned that they officiously expel folk who seem to be in the wrong bathroom. And there is a lot of Bathroom Law about in the air in the US, which I guess that will authorize winkie-wigilanties to go round checkin' people's parts. Unless we have the super-continence of a 12 y.o. boy, we need somewhere to take leak during the working day. I often nip into the (almost completely unused] wheelchair bathroom if I'm teaching in the Library and need some tissue to wipe the whiteboard clean. I don't 'use' the bathroom any more than I would occupy a disabled parking space. It seems likely that the roll-out of trans-friendly bathrooms will happen, because The Man(agement) won't be abled to withstand the push despite the cost.

We have been promised a new Science Building - I vote to name it Tyndall - and stake-holders are being asked to think about how it should be equipped. The Man would prefer to cram 8 or more lecturers into open plan offices because the build costs are significantly cheaper than offices like mine which I share with two others. I'll be gone before the new building is finished but I'll insist on white-noise headphone sockets for everyone who works in an N > 4 office. Allocation of space at The Institute is feudal: the President has shifted her suite to the top floor of the latest building with a view of the river; the VPs have offices with atriums, heads of school have big offices, heads of department slightly smaller offices . . . while The Effectives can't lean back in their chairs without exchanging cooties with a co-worker. I think the workers would have grounds for dissatisfaction if they get stacked like cord-wood while genders are nuanced into multiple options. I think we've moved on from SWM blokes freaking out about sharing the jacks with The Gays, but a couple of assaults and there will be G and L bathrooms for parity of esteem with M & F and T. But if we're going down that route there are two barely commensurate Trans options. Boys who become women have a much rougher time of it that girls who join the blokes. No surprises there: the latter find that people now listen to them, laugh at their jokes and talk about The Match.

Dau.I can't give me numbers or %s of Trans people but I'll wager €50 that they are outnumbered by Muslims by at least 10:1 in modern Ireland. The Koran requires believers to wash their parts after use.  I know this because I went to a funeral several years ago via Birmingham Airport and saw all the signage for appropriately serviced bathrooms near the multi-faith room. Only certain categories of water will do for 'wudu', and regular toilets - both M & F - are inconveniently far from clean water.  Here's one woman's solution to having To Go at work involving wads of wet tissue. Her parents had another solution at home: "My parents went hi-tech in our family home and installed a "Muslim shower" – a mini shower head and hose that attaches to the wall on the right side of the toilet. It was soon removed, though, because the water pressure was far, far too high. My dad looked like a fatigued tsunami survivor upon exit and like he didn't have a clue where he was. Poor sod." You might think this insistance on water for washing is peculiar for a religion founded in a desert but Islam has an answer for every eventuality. If you haven't enough water for wudu you do tayammum before prayer: using clean soil or sand for a 'dry ablution'. Think what you like about intolerance in the Islamic world, The Book has all sorts of compassionate, pragmatic solutions to everyday compliance problems.

Monday 27 November 2017

Just passing through

You really should know about 'Oumuamua [R named 'Scout' or fore-runner in Hawaiian] which is in the process of passing through the Solar System. As Freud said, Sometime a cigar is just a cigar. Here an interstellar object called 'Oumuamua is shaped like a cigar about 10x longer than it is wide. How do we know? Because its brightness varies as it tumbles in its trajectory.  I think they infer the length-width ratio from the 10x variation in brightness with a period of 7.3 hours. Its absolute length is 400m. Again that is estimated from physical constants; nobody has been out there with a tape-measure. And they are not going to because we've missed the boat. Having passed 0.2 AU close to us, 'Oumuamua is now travelling towards the outer reaches of the Solar System - receding from us at nearly 100,000km/h.  That's about 2x faster than Voyager I and II.
The hats off thing about astronomers is that from a record of movement of a dot across a series of 2D photographs, they can calculate the 3D trajectory [See above; source] of an object in space. It helps if they have studied conic sections in high school or college.
The deal here is that the curve tells the star-gazers whether the object is coming back, which it will if the curve is [part of] an ellipse. Edmund Halley's calcs and historical research told him that "his" extraterrestrial traveller had an elliptical orbit and so would return . . . in 75 years time - and it was so. 'Oumuamua won't. They are confident that the trajectory is hyperbolic. That means that 'Oumuamua was travelling in a straight line through space minding its own business when it encountered a vastly more massive object's gravitational field and was sling-shotted round the Sun and sent off in another direction.

'Oumuamua was first observed a month ago on 19th October 2017. Back-calculations led astronomers to make a couple of earlier precoveries [been there before] when the object was more distant and sufficiently faint that it didn't get flagged.  It seems that perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) was back on 9th September. Being close to the Sun creates a whole other raft of observational difficulties as we heard about burned retinas during this year's solar eclipse.

Reportage: Michelle Starr at ScienceAlert and Uncle Tom Cobbley across the Internet who is collectively on the story like gravy on biscuits. More Blobby astronomy: Sedna - Eris - Mina FlemingAnnie Jump Cannon - Pleiades - By Jove - Star Boks - others

Sunday 26 November 2017

Sun Misc

Cor lumme, it's the last Sunday in November. Soon be allowed to sing carols.

Saturday 25 November 2017

On The Way

Rupert Sheldrake cruised over my horizon recently as link from my friend Brian who looks a bit like Sheldrake, and is similarly ready to embrace the strange. Sheldrake is a rather distinguished scientist: but not in the sense that they've asked him to join the FRS boys-club or laid a Nobel Prize in his lap. Maybe distinctive is the word I'm looking for? Not many of us scientists has got on the tits of the establishment so much as to have their TED talk relegated to a broom-closet on the TED website with a Nutjobs Adults Only sign on the outside. How many have riled up the Editor of Nature John Maddox so much as for him to say "I was so offended by it, that I said that while it's wrong that books should be burned, in practice, if book burning were allowed, this book would be a candidate"?  Not many, not me: hence distinctive; an outlier. I've mentioned him a tuthree times before. He has a new book out: Science and Spiritual Practices: transformative experiences and their effects on our bodies, brains and health and he's been out and about promoting it.  He enumerates 7 spiritual practices, and you and I both will have to wait to read the book to see where the science fits in.
  • Meditation
  • Gratitude
  • Connecting with nature
  • Relating to plants
  • Rituals
  • Singing and chanting
  • Pilgrimage and holy places.
I am particularly interested in the last chapter because a) I'm a scientist and b) after I walked back to France from Santiago in 2004, I wrote a short book Santiago! 800,008 steps along the Camino or Santiago; an analysis of the process of pilgrimage. The contents gelled, from the turmoil of my pilgrimage experience, over a weekend in Bidarray [split by the Pont d'Enfer shown R] in the Basque country but the title changed depending on how pretentious I felt.  My journey was about 800km or 800,000 paces, the 800,008 was a cheap-shot hats-off to the Buddhist idea of the Nobel Eight-fold Path:
  • Step 1 Simplicity & Parsimony
  • Step 2 Tolerance
  • Step 3 Mindfulness
  • Step 4 Charity
  • Step 5 Acceptance
  • Step 6 Availability and Openness
  • Step 7 Courage
  • Step 8 Being Positive
  • Optional Step Dance. On music and song
There is a certain amount of overlap between Sheldrake's dissection and mine. In his video on pilgrimage explains how the process / practice of pilgrimage: walking with a purpose; walking with others; getting outdoors will help towards getting inspired and getting happier and healthier. Pilgrimage is not [any longer] associated with a particular religion; indeed you are requested BYB bring your own beliefs.There is even a quintessentially English group called the British Pilgrimage Trust  BPT which will source a track / way / camino for you, near you.

A few years ago, Sheldrake proposed to walk to Canterbury Cathedral with his 14 y.o. godson. At least partly because he has made a resolution not to give more Stuff to anybody he knows or cherishes. Somewhat to Sheldrake's surprise the youth replied "I can". And they did, starting a country 8 miles / 13km from the city and walking towards Bell Harry Tower, [R from up close] which is 75m tall and can be seen for miles. On arrival, they paused for a cream tea because 14 y.o. boys are a bottomless pit for calories especially after some exercise. They then attended choral evensong as a spiritual reward for their slight enough pilgrimage.

I've been there, then, 100+ times, attending choral evensong in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral singing The day thou gavest lord is ended and Abide with me. If anyone thinks that the Protestants don't have the best songs, they are welcome to make a comment below. I was there because it was part of my very expensive education along with Latin, team-sports, biology and an 800g-loaf-and-a-toaster-a-day . . . and finishing up an emotional cripple!

If you want an hour more Sheldrake, and can tolerate Russell Brand, you can listen to them chatting in a studio interview.  Sheldrake's controversial position is anti-materialist and suggests that some thought patterns can become stronger through 'morphic resonance'. He suggests that the Times cross-word is easier on the train home because loadsa people have struggled over it all day. People all over the world, independently sending out vibes. Conventional materialist scientists just cannot accept this but are quite happy with other forms of magic like radio transmission and Schrödinger's cat. One peculiarity of data is that IQ scores have gone up by about 30% since they were invented 100 years ago. We all know that folk aren't cleverer than their grandparents, or if they are evolution doesn't work that fast. Morphic resonance explains the increase rather well although we are still hazy about the mechanism. Other explanations for this 'Flynn Effect' scrabble a bit citing better nutrition and more reading.

The thing that has really riled up regular science is Sheldrake's assertion that the speed of light in a vacuum - one of the great central cosmological constants - is not constant. Unbiassed estimates of this statistic have varied by as much as 20 parts in 299,792,458 m/s which says that the terminal 58 should be rounded off, for starters. Sheldrake won't suggest that physicists have fudged the data to get everything to agree; no, but he will suggest that "intellectual phase-locking" is going down. A sort of morphic resonance; but he would say that wouldn't he?

The chat bounces along between science and religion in a rather civilised way not least because Brand sees himself as "being quick to see that religious people are right".  If the physicists, or at least their results, get more like each other as time passes, so the spiritual side of humanity might be using
their rituals to entrain morphic resonance. Singing the Nunc Dimittis together at evensong makes people more Christian and maybe better people. Brand neatly wraps it with: "there yer go: more cathedrals fewer iPhones but you're probably not listening to this on a cathedral".

Friday 24 November 2017

A Black Day for the planet

Throughout this 'you' doesn't mean You, 
of course, it means everyone else.
You have a long weekend: Thanksgiving is a holiday, you can finagle your employer into giving you the bridging Friday off.
Q. What to do?
A. Why shop till you drop, of course!
As if shopping to fulfill your own unmet desires isn't enough you are now being schmoozed into fulfilling the unmet desires of an increasingly wide circle of friends-and-relations. Time was when presents would be given at birthday and Christmas to children who hadn't yet started working down the mine or in a sweat-shop. Your children, not the neighbour's children - even if they had invited yours to the party. Certainly not work-colleagues or the adult neighbours.  Back in the day, you'd pile everyone into the car and drive to the Mall and loaf around the shops being bedazzled.  That would be more exercise than you'd gotten in the week - unless you were already so hideously obese that you needed to motor scooter to move.

Now you don't even get that amount of exercise or family time. The kids are all up in their bedrooms  devicing away to Amazon and ordering up new devices, toys and games because everything they can see is tired, borrrring and, well, yesterday. Mom is in the kitchen ordering things that the kids don't want - because she is two weeks adrift in what's hip. Dad is in the den watching the big match and ordering a bigger tool.  Article in LinkedIn calling the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas "Shipocalypse" from the tsunami of card-board boxes which are being carried about the country. On-line merchants (not just Amazon) are expecting to clear $1,000,000,000,000 (trillion) of Stuff from their warehouses in the holiday period. No holiday for the minimum-wage sweated-labor drones who are competing with robots in the sheds. The average freight-load per US person is 60 tonnes a year; more than a ton of shite every week. You can't eat a ton of food, or wear a tonne of apparel, so there's got to be some lawn-mowers and flat-screen TVs in there. Make sure you gift your mailman - cash is handiest because that's the only thing the hernia doctor is interested in.

As if Black Friday isn't enough, they've dubbed the following workday Cyber Monday, where you can dessert yourself mightily with more gizmos. But please have a care for other people: they have a better idea of what they want than you do. Let them decide what to order up on-line - that will be disappointing enough. Me, I'm delighted to be going to work today.

Thursday 23 November 2017

Small-minded science

Here's a compelling graphic to show how much ace US science labs are dependent on Foreign Johnnies. It might be called the incredible shrinking lab as it flicks from all the workers to USCs to those born in the US to those whose parents were born in the US. I've captured the two extremes [L]. Those remaining native North Americans look pretty lonely and isolated, don't they. Can they do, even pro rata, as good science as the larger and more diverse body can? I don't think so and there was an editorial in Nature at the beginning of October which hangs some flesh on the basic story. If you follow the links in that piece you'll get some citation analysis to show that scientists who move countries make objectively better science than stay-at-homes. It's not that any old Syrian or Cambodian will boost your Institute's productivity; it's more likely that people with enough ooomph to up-stakes and go abroad will have extra energy and smarts and therefore be an asset. But I'm sure it is a benefit to have a cultural mix in any creative arena. If French people think differently or have been trained with a different skill-set then they will have a disproportionate impact on their colleagues. It's as if they were southpaws, who do so much  better than average in a variety of sports.  And of course I've cited Caitlin Moran noting countries which fail to cherish or equalify women, blacks, gays . . . are stupider: because they thereby reduce their pool of talent.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I'll acknowledge with gratitude the 4 years I spent in graduate school in Boston. At many levels they all took me in and embraced me and educated me and taught me manners. My gaffer and his family literally took us into their home; the student body, my peers, treated me as an equal and an asset; my professors cut me no slack in standards or scientific rigour and valued my slightly different outlook and background; the [mostly] ladies in the office just loved by European accent. What really surprised me and made the whole venture possible was that I was awarded a Teaching Fellowship TF which a) covered my tuition fees and b) settled on me a modest stipend on which, with extreme economy, I could live. They could have reserved that for US Citizens only and soaked me for fees the way my current employer looks at Chinese and Malaysian students as a herd of cash cows.

But I suggest that I was a good investment, because I was to a certain extent the grit in the oyster, alien and different, who helped to bring about a few pearls - a few scientific publications and a LOT of data which wouldn't have happened without me. And I've spent the rest of my life as an ambassador for the US and its ways of doing. I mourn some of the political changes that have happened since I left, especially the current wall-building, exclusionist, racist and nationalist aspects of the current regime. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . and they will repay you in spades with better, more creative science.

Sorry to go on about it but Ye true story of Alice's Restaurant.


That would be today, unless you live in Canada. Everyone in my family has spent time in the USA and been present at a Thanksgiving Dinner, so we know what the score is: a lot of food. I'm sure that everyone is sincere when they give thanks for all their blessings, before they bib up and tuck in to an extra inch on the waistband. It's not clear why being grateful should involve so much stuffing but it cannot be right that a large part of the dinner ends up in the trash without passing through even the dog's digestive tract. According to the not-for-profit National Resources Defense Council NRDC, last year saw 6 million turkeys so discarded. This month accordingly they are putting out a Guest-imator, to stop families over-catering for the unexpected guest or because their eyes and bigger than their stomach. The NRDC claims those 6 million discarded turkeys are a wasted $293 million, and I said that cannot be true.

And it's not: CNBC reports that a standard 16 lb 10-person turkey can be had for $22.50 this year down 1.6%.  The whole dinner [cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, corn-pone, grits, peas, gravy, pumpkin pie, cream, ice-cream, lard-sandwiches] costs $49.12 and that's where NRDC got their inflated incredible $293,000,000. This kind of lazy-arsed innumeracy makes me chew my beard so I won't need any dinner. The Guest-imator is for people so simple that I doubt if they could click a mouse: if you tell it that you're planning cake as well as pie for dessert then it reduces the quantities. It seems like a daft and unnecessary bit of faux-tech. A bit like the gorn-viral hack last month of rolling out peanut butter; freezing the pancake and cutting it into sandwich sized squares to speed the process of making school lunches each morning.

It's 50 years since Arlo Guthrie sang about a thanksgivin' dinner that couldn't be beat at Alice's Restaurant.

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Eircode useless

Just over 2 years ago, Ireland joined the wired world by assigning every dwelling in the country a unique Eircode - like a postcode UK or zip code USA only more specific - down to the house rather than the street.  I had a truculent grump in 2015 about how the Irish government implemented the project. If you're going to throw €25 million of budget at such a project you'd expect it to have public utility. It works grand for An Post the government distribution service not least because they gave most input to the project. But it is much less handy for rivals of An Post, like FedEx and UPS, because the within-post-town numbers are deliberately assigned at random. If R95 R6X6 is in the same county [R95] but otherwise nowhere near R95 R6X7 it is difficult to plan a round of delivery drops efficiently.  Who gains? An Post. Who loses? everyone else.

Every so often we'll hear wireless & TV adverts begging us to know our Eircodes because it would be handy for an emergency. The implication being that if you call the fire, ambulance or police they will have a GPS tracker on-board the emergency vehicle that can tell the driver the fastest, safest way to get from A&E to Bogge Hall, Ballygobackwards, R95 R6X6.  This has apparently been integrated in the Ambulance Service. He's another party heard from indicating than Eircodes are useless unless you are at home. And here's an autopuff for Loc8code an alternative system which seems to have more utility; although they would say that wouldn't they?

So the other day, one of neighbours called us in a flap at 0720hrs because she'd woken up to find smoke filling her kitchen. Could we come and help sort it out? We were half-dressed and I was only two cups of tea into the day but we threw on some clothes and drove across the valley. She should call the fire-brigade [not us] we said as we went down the lane. But then, not everyone behaves sensibly in an emergency. When we were threatened with a domestic conflagration in 1994, I did some really dopey things: a) deciding to push a pair of horses out of a burning barn with the heel of my boot b) saving our new computer rather than our old photographs.

Let me tell you that FIRE emergency services in our neck of the woods is kind of cruddy old-style. Neighbour, who is not a native anglophone, had handed her phone to The Beloved, whose very expensive education had included elocution lessons. ER operator required a whole lot of rural Irish directions before asking for the Eircode. Transcript(ish):
  • County? Wexford!
  • between Kiltealy . . . no KILtealy with a K . . . no K for Kleptomaniac . . . and Borris . . . no BORRIS . . . that's B-O-R-R-I-S
  • Yes I know Borris isn't in Wexford . . . no, Borris in Carlow
  • In Kiltealy you turn right at The Thatch . . . no right, if you're coming from Enniscorthy you turn right. [note all sets of directions in Ireland involve at least one pub]
  • You take the second turn left out on the Borris road . . . no the second turn . . . no before the fork
    • [meanwhile smoke is roiling out of the kitchen]
  • Yes the Eircode is Y21 M6N6 . . . that's Y for why are you so stupid?  then 21 then M for monkey sixer and N for nuts sixer
I tremble to think how this desperate conversation would have been further delayed if the speaker was old, deaf, or had a deeply rural or foreign accent.  Emergencies, by their nature, require brisk, efficient, calm and effective response.  Many of these attributes were missing in this incident. Every second car has GPS directioning but seemingly fire-engines do not. So they have to wait at the fire-station until the directions appear from the National Emergency Phone Centre in Dublin. In an efficient world, they would be off on the road in the right direction expecting to fill in the local details when they got closer because we're all wired now. In a 21stC world they'd just zero in on the Eircode. As I say, this is apparently what happens in a paramedic emergency . . . unless you're on a mountainside or in a car-wreck.

Here's Gary Delaney, CEO of Loc8code and rival of Eircode, quietly pointing out how disfunctional Eircode is. The tendering process was illegal under EU law and steam-rollered through by vested interests. Shorter critique by RTE.

PS Fire Brigade came; they were conscientious, efficient, and did their best to limit the mess; the house didn't burn down, but a total re-wiring job is indicated; nobody lost an eye, or their wedding photos.  As with the Health Service, it is hard to find fault with individuals, however much we criticise the system - creaky, under-resourced, over-bureaucratised and backward-looking.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Run in the dark for Ark-Ark

I have a friend, almost family, who has been dealt a rough hand but a big heart. Mark Pollock, mad about the sports and super-fit, had his last retina drop off in college. It didn't stop him rowing (Commonwealth silver medal) or running long distances in insane conditions. A few years ago, he fell out of a 2-storey window and broke his back. Largely because he was super-fit he survived and has since made himself a guinea-pig for research in neuro-regeneration which current science asserts is impossible for motor nerves. Backstory Shortform If you are having a bad day, just reflect on the months Mark spent in a rehab hospital in England and the years he's been tooling about in a wheel-chair since. Living under such conditions is much more expensive than it is for me and you: putting yourself into a high-tech regime of interventions is beyond the purse of any normal family. A few years ago, someone had a bright idea called Run in the Dark for Mark which hosts 10km and 5km runs [in the dark] after work in November . . . all over the world. The event raises significant funding for the research and rehabilitation projects which Mark is spear-heading. Lots of motor-cycles out there, lots of young people come off them while doing the ton and finish up like Mark. Shame if we can't do something to get them out of bed and back in society.  All the fit-enough people who are friends-and relations of Mark have been doing the RITD for the last 5 years. Why, even I have acted as a steward in the past.

The local RITD happened in Kilkenny last Weds 15Nov17 and The Beloved was all registered up for it.  She was also registered to spend a couple of nights Mo-We with Dau.II in Cork for a birthday and Ikea-stuff delivery. If you are brought up Catholic believing every sperm is sacred then the transition to respect-animals vegetarian Buddhism is a reasonably straight path. How-and-ever, one of TB's ancillary meetings was postponed because her Buddhist oppo had to drive West pick up a yearling seal Phoca vitulina which had washed up all orphaned on the beach somewhere way out West. That seal came home to roost the following day when TB found herself volunteering to drive it 200km across the country to the Seal Rescue Ireland in Courtown Co. Wexford. A yearling is weaned and should be able to survive on its own but this one was well snotty and probably had lung-worm Otostrongylus circumlitus and might benefit from some human intervention. The word went out and another seal, this one much smaller and cuter, was assigned to hitch a ride. At the start of the day, it looked like everything was possible:
collect seals 1300 - leave Cork 1400 - arrive Courtown 1700 - transit home 1800 for calories - start Run in Kilkenny 1930.

But what about the seals? Well they were late! t'buggers are all over the salmon but can they keep time? It wasn't until 1630 with darkness falling that The Beloved was pulling out of Cork, her time-table in tatters. It also transpired that seals, which after all are well blubbered-up are not able for warm cars and TB was obliged to make the trip with the heating off and all the windows open. As this adventure had sprung up sudden-like, she had left home without leather driving gauntlets and a Crombie overcoat, so she dressed in her running gear, pyjamas and all the clothing she had [L?]. She wrapped her head in a t-shirt re-purposed as a hijab, tied round the ears with a silk scarf.  It fell to me to wash out and bleach the transporter box - lung worms are no fun and you don't want the eggs (or indeed the snot and seal-poop) to get left for the next delivery.  Just like for RITD in 2013, I was providing the infrastructural support for this year's Run in the Dark for Ark-Ark the teenage seal. It's all about me.

Monday 20 November 2017


It has been a while since we did some food science, so we'll start with a[lmost] non sequitur:
Q. How many multinational pharmaceutical companies are there?
A. errrm, Six? aNNyway it's lot fewer than there were 25 years ago when my pal Liz joined Glaxo as one of their early bioinformatics hires . . . or was it Wellcome? I can't remember; in any case those two companies merged in 1995 to become GlaxoWellcome which merged in 2000 with SmithKline Beecham (itself also a mega-merger) to become GSK. Pfizer, Novartis, Sanofi, Merck, Hoffmann-LaRoche are all bigger and have also been rapaciously engulfing smaller companies. On reflection, I may be talking tosh here: for all I know pharma companies are spawning faster than they can be gobbled up.

Years ago I jested that everything was ultimately owned by either those three famous soldiers of fortune General Foods, General Motors or General Electric. In the feeding frenzy sector you want to be careful about taking tooo principled a stand on what you buy, because the food, inside the packing, may be exactly the same as some other product at which you are baulking. A curious thing happened to me this week when I bought a packet of six (6!) mince-pies from Aldi . . . and then bought, for the same price, a packet of six (6!) mince-pies from Tesco. It would have been justifiable if I was researching for Consumer Reports but it was much more plain honest gluttony. Six (6!) mince-pies at 89€c is 15c for each pie.  There isn't much you can buy for 15c, and there isn't much you can buy for €2.54/kg that isn't a family pack of root vegetables.

I checked the sell-by date to see how likely it was that the inside was a mass of blue-green mycelia.
J294 A97(3)
13 Dec
J295 A96(3)
. . . notice that the date was 13 Dec [no year for Tesco] on both packets. Furthermore the code underneath was suspiciously close. And, ahem, since when does a product go 'off' to the minute? These pies are okay up until 16:30 but by 16:35 they are not quite safe?

It look like, at 1600hrs a few days ago, the General Foods product line was switched from generously size Aldi mincers to 'neater' = meaner Tesco pies with a star on top to indicate gold-star quality. Somewhere in England this mighty factory is supplying mince-pies for everyone in this NW corner of Europe. I hear you ask: But never mind the price what about the quality, or at least the table of contents?. So that you don't have to,  I've transcribed this info here:

Aldi Holly Lane Mince Pies
Mincemeat [48%]: Sugar, Apple puree, Sultanas, Glucose syrup, Apricot filling [Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Apricot puree, Sugar, Gelling agent: Pectins, Acid: Citric acid; Preservative: Potassium Sorbate; Acidity regulator: Sodium citrate], Candied/Mixed peel [Orange peel, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Lemon Peel, Sugar, Acidity regulator: Citric acid, Preservative: Sulphur dioxide] Currants, Palm oil, Rapeseed oil, Maize starch, Mixed spice, Barley Malt Extract, Acids: Acetic acid, Citric acid, Preservatives: Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Metabisulphite, Sulphur Dioxide, flavourings. Wheat flour (Wheat Flour, Calcium Carbonate, Iron, Niacin, Thiamin), Glucose syrup, Butter (milk), Palm oil, Rapeseed oil, Sugar, Salt, Dextrose, Whole milk powder, Raising Agents (Diphosphates, Sodium carbonate), Preservatives: Potassium Sorbate. Each pie claims to weigh 58g, but my scales say they are heavier - more like 66g or a full 15% more massive than Tesco.

Unnecessarily complicated to read, especially in tiny white print against a red background, with several sub-lists of ingredients. It's also a bit ominous in these adulterated times to have 'Wheat flour' qualified with all sorts of additives.

Tesco Reg'lar Mincers
Mincemeat (49%), Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Calcium Carbonate, Iron, Niacin, Thiamin), Glucose Syrup, Butter (Milk) (6%), Palm Oil, Rapeseed Oil, Sugar, Salt, Raising Agents (Disodium Diphosphate, Sodium bicarbonate).
Mincemeat contains: Sugar, Apple, Sultanas, Glucose Syrup, Currants, Raisins, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Orange Peel, Palm Oil, Rapeseed Oil, Maize Starch, Ground Mixed Spice, Lemon Peel, Apricot Purée, Malted Barley, Acetic Acid, Citric Acid, Gelling Agent (Pectin), Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Metabisulphite, Sulphur Dioxide), Flavouring, Acidity Regulator (Sodium Citrate). Each pie weighs 54g.

By way of comparison, I've also managed to clip the ToC from the up-market version which is available at Tesco.
Tesco Finest
Mincemeat (50%), Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Calcium Carbonate, Iron, Niacin, Thiamin), Butter (Milk) (14%), Sugar, Dextrose, Salt, Raising Agents (Disodium Diphosphate, Sodium Bicarbonate),
Mincemeat contains: Sugar, Apple Purée, Sultanas, Currants, Glucose Syrup, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, COURVOISIER® VS Cognac (1.5%), Sunflower Oil, Orange Peel, Almonds, Apple, Brandy, Cherries, Cornflour, Walnuts, Port, Mixed Spice, Lemon Peel, Preservatives (Acetic Acid, Potassium Sorbate), Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid), Colours (Plain Caramel, Anthocyanins), Orange Oil.

Finest appears more expensive mainly because they have more than 2x the butter and a dribble of Cognac. Why would you bother to add port at quantities much less than 1.5%?  The deficiency in butter in cheap mincers is made up for with oil.  The cheap filling is missing other pinches of fanciness like walnuts and cherries and clearly needs gelling agent and maize-starch to make the inside gloopy enough not to run down your chin.

Further information that you could go further than Aldi and fare worse.

Sunday 19 November 2017

Sunday Misc 181117

  • A solution to gerrymandering [prev]: Treat each area as a cake then I cut, you choose "It calls for one political party to divide a map of a state into the allotted number of districts, each with equal numbers of voters. Then the second party would choose one district to "freeze," so no further changes could be made to it, and re-map the remaining districts as it likes. The first party then would choose a second district to freeze from this map and proceed to redraw the remaining districts as it sees fit. This back-and-forth process would continue until all of the districts are frozen.via MeFi where there is lots of cogent and critical comment.
  • On Quora they have a thread about overhearing conversations where the participants assume you don't understand. Occasionally funnyMan entered shop with a few mates, saw the tasting table with samples and asked his mates if they thought he could just take some and what the F was that green shit? I smiled, said bonjour, and told him he was welcome to taste any of our cheeses and that the green shit was in fact green pesto cheese. His reaction was to stop dead, stare at me as if I had three heads and go: mais.. mais.. Tu parles Français ??’ (But.. But.. You're speaking French??) To which I responded: ‘non, non, je fais semblant.’ (oh no, I'm just pretending.) This confused him further until I told him I was joking and my mother is French.
  • I wrote about the amazing ingenuity of physicians in 2014: using a coat hanger and some cutlery to carry out a pneumothorax at 28,000 ft. That's one sick woman saved. Imagine being the ER resident in Las Vegas after the recent mass murder. He and his team processed 250 gun-shot wounds overnight. He only stopped work when he realised he could not see straight any more.
  • Why Saints Alive! of Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim
  • Universally challenged. My sort of people: Expensively educated and chock-full-o-facts.

Saturday 18 November 2017

Science Week Table Quiz

Well Science Week is wrapping up now. At The Institute I've been at a parcel of events and not one was a sleeper. Thursday night, they scheduled a Pub Quiz in one of the local hotels. A round dozen of our science post-graduates stepped up to the plate and found €20 a table for a night out with the grown ups. Otherwise the demographic was really top heavy with crumblies. It is ever thus: our younger colleagues have family commitments with small and medium sized children. Me I do love a Pub Quiz - it is one of the few situations where my very expensive education can be run through its paces. The quiz was sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland SFI (finger food bring on the orange goujons and, weirdly, fireworks) but raising money for Camara a charity that takes old computers, reconditions them and recycles them out to the third world. Back in the day, when I worked in St Vincent's Hospital Dublin, the IT guy was from Uganda via Botswana. He was entirely and comprehensively dismissive of Camara at the time: "we may be black but we don't want or need your elderly tech kit; just like you we want the latest thing: antiques are clutter". My Pal Terry thinks otherwise and has done at least one stint out in the Horn of Africa training up the local kids on Camara computers.

Mais revenons a nos pub quizzes this one was 10 rounds of 10 questions to make the scoring easy.  As happens when you have such a Works do, you tend to lose autonomy about who you share the night with. Ideally, a team wants
  • one Me: good for what we facetiously called in skool JN - Jeneral Nollidge: South American capital cities; British generals and prime ministers of the 19thC; obscure weights and measures
  • one Hello Magazine subscriber for the celebrity photo round
  • one Sporty person who knows who won the Ryder Cup (nothing to do with horses, I gather); who is top of the Premier League in the soccer; how to spell sliotár or at least know that it doesn't take a fádá,
  • one youth who has head-phones tuned all day to pop and rock 
if you can't draft a dream team you have to pretend that you're only doing it for a bit of craic and don't care if you win. I spit on that sort of nonsense. I don't have very high standards but I try to do my best: lash out my pub-quiz knee-jerk answer but then have a bit of a think and a bit of discussion about it - keeping the grey cells warm y'know. And it is considered extremely bad form to dispute any answer with the Quiz Master even when it is a) wrong or b) ambiguous because of a sloppily worded question. I cannot remember more than a small fraction of the questions, which were the usual sort of forgettable thing. But one of them was "Which member of The Police has a degree in astrophysics" My knee-jerk was Brian May, but my team said that he was in Queen not Police and opted for Sting. That question was rather quickly withdrawn because the QM didn't know one authority-named 1980s band from another : silverbacks have their day . . . in the 1880s. But I kept the Dingbats sheet, filleted it and share them with you now:
They are a fair mix of the usual cannon-fodder and some which took a bit of time and a flash of insight. We collectively got the 011011010 and the circle below it wrong, wrong, almost right. Give it a go: answers below the fold

Friday 17 November 2017

All Washed Up

Years ago we bought a Ford Focus that turned out to be a bit of a pup. With 20/20 hindsight, it had plainly been clocked - the floor under the pedals was worn to metal but the milometer only registered 100,000km. ANNyway, a few months later, the car blew up between Rosslare and home. I'd taken all three of my offspring to England to visit the rellies, so we called The Beloved to airlift the kids and the recovery service to take me and the dead car back to the dealership . . . in Duncormick., Co Wexford [sample property shown R]. As we puttered along through the countryside, one of the recovery lads turned to me and said "Duncormick, Co. Bosnia". To him, the village was a beat-up backwater like something he could barely remember from Ireland in the 1960s. The only contemporary reference point he had was Bosnia which had just emerged from a devastating civil war. And it was so, the car dealership had filled the original cobbled village street with wrecks and there was a ruined bicycle shop, with the door off its hinges, filled with a heap of fire-damaged bicycle parts. It was an unpretty grim metaphor for the parts of Ireland that had been left high and dry by the Celtic Tiger.

I hope he'll forgive me, but this is what surfaced in my mind when I finished Andrew Doherty's book Before the Tide Went Out [prev]. That and a dull throbbing anger at how the rapacious pursuit of profit can just casually brush to oblivion a whole section of the population, not to mention billions of by-catch discarded fish. As SS Ireland whored herself out to Multinationals, the fisher-folk (and agricultural laborers, Castlecomer coal-miners, Carrickmacross lace-makers and Donegal tweed-weavers) were packed away in the hold because they were not wanted on voyage : first clothing, then pharmaceuticals, then computer hardware, then call-centres and now every major software company that you've heard of: Google, LinkedIn, Amazon, Facebook, Etsy, Twitter, Stripe, Eventbrite. Ordinary people making a living in ordinary ways had no place to work, and increasingly no place to live as starter house-prices in Dublin rose to 10x the average industrial wage.

Before the Tide Went Out is a memoir: of a boy growing up in a fishing village in the second half of the last century. From a Now perspective, life then was somewhere between simple and brutal: three rooms, parents and five childer, an outside tap and a bucket in the shed for the toilet. The windows leaked, the roof leaked, the very walls leaked. You get the sense that people would go out on the river to fish because it was more comfortable in an open boat or at least crowded. In 1972, the family got a council house because in those days, poor as the country was, there was a sense that nobody, certainly no family with small children, should be left to exist in such a cabin.  In a sense that was the high tide of prosperity for the fishing communities round Ireland. Nobody claimed it was an easy life, but it was a living.
But the stocks of salmon, which had been sufficient and sustainable since forever rather abruptly started to dwindle. It was easy to blame the local river drift-netters, whose practice really hadn't changed for hundreds of years, rather than German fly-fishers, agricultural run-off, raw sewage discharge, or the fact that farmed salmon in every bay and estuary were a hot bed of sea-lice Lepeophtheirus salmonis which hitched rides on passing wild salmon. But whomever you blamed for the fall-off in salmon stocks, the bottom fell out of the market because consumers didn't know or care about the difference between wild salmon and farmed salmon. It was the difference between venison and chicken but "chicken" was waaaay cheaper and didn't taste so eeeew fishy. A friend of mine, PhD in Genetics, secured a job in the salmon trade as wild salmon started to be displaced by farmed. A large part of her work was measuring how red farmed salmon was [R] and devising genetic schemes to make it redder. That sole Solea solea attribute was used as a tawdry surrogate for Quality: omega three fats, taste, firmness, mineral richness were irrelevant because not easily measurable.

In Ireland, we are talking large but doing little about the plight of refugees from Syria. These are people who, through no fault of their own and minding their own small businesses, have found themselves underfoot as competing geopolitical ideologies have fought to control their country. When elephants fight, it is the grass which suffers. It is essentially the same for the fishing families of Waterford Harbour who have become economic refugees in their own land since salmon fishing was switched off with a stroke of the legislative pen in November 2006.  With the Syrians it is recognised that we have no need of muezzins, carpet-weavers, or artisan coffee-pot makers in Ireland. And actually we have enough gynaecologists and engineers as well. Therefore, in addition to English (and Irish for the kids!) lessons, some effort is made to retrain the adults as call-centre techs, shelf-stackers and milk-parlour operatives. I'm not kidding about the last: I heard about 2 local Romanians who spent several months driving to the next county for work-experience [unpaid, of course] as milkers: there are no paying openings in the field anywhere in the country. I wouldn't be surprised if a similar scheme of desultory, half-arsed 'training' was offered to redundant fishermen ten years ago on a take it or leave it basis.

The author of Before the Tide Went Out wasn't prepared to sit on his thumbs waiting for the next compo/dole cheque, he sold his boat, got on his bike, and found a landsman's job. It takes a special sort of courage to re-invent yourself as an adult when all your accumulated knowledge, your tricks-of-trade, your comradeship and rivalries have been swept into the dustbin of history. Hats off !

Thursday 16 November 2017

Finding it positive

Science Week trundles along with more happenings and events at The Institute. I almost missed an amazing talk on Tuesday because I didn't recognise either the Name or his company: Eddie O'Connor [who he?] founder of Mainstream Renewable Power [never heard of it]. O'Connor started out as a bureaucratic Mandarin successively working his way up two semi-state bodies: the ESB - Electricity Supply Board and then CEO of Bord na Mona - the company charged with destroying the bogs of Ireland to supply garden mulch as Irish Peat Moss, domestic heating as peat briquettes and power for the electricity grid. It's a bit like looting the fish-stocks of the oceans for cat-food and fertiliser. In 1997, he had a rush of blood to the head and became the founder and CEO of Airtricity.
The company was an early adopter of wind-farm technology long-and-long before it became economically sensible and was dependent on playing-field bending subsidies and grants. Over the last 20 years, the cost of wind-power has tumbled so that it is now absolutely cheaper than fossil fuel. Whoever owns the windy sites is sitting on a gold-mine because a modest on-site turbine can be replaced with a mammoth 10+MW turbine . . . or two [R from 2010]. No matter how well paid you are as a public servant (semi-state CEOs were capped at €250,000 pa in 2011) the prospects in the entrepreneurial world are fabulous. O'Connor's exit strategy was to sell Airtricity in 2008 for €1,800,000,000. That was 7000x his final year's salary in BnaM ! And more power to him. So getting him down to talk to our engineering students (and me) was a coup.

But I'm not here to talk about energy futures or the fact that 10% of the World's electricity is consumed by server-farms storing cat food: Snapchats, crap snaps, Friendface trivia, and millions of duplicate copies of Michael Bublé hits. I have one point to abstract from Eddie O'Connor's talk. Many small compnaies regard maternity leave as a burden which has to be, willingly or otherwise, sucked up against the bottom line. O'Connor sees it as an Opportunity rather a Threat. It gives his company a chance to stir up the personnel: if Mairead is out for six months, we can have Kevin and Sinead split her work load and hire a new graduate with a quirk skill-set to try out something new. It's a bit like a soccer team playing a few practice games with the centre-forward in goal etc.: everyone sees their tasks from a different point of view and esprit de corps gets a boost all round.

The evening before O'Connors talk, I had a meeting with one of our suits. It was on foot of someone finally picking up on my annual analysis of the domicile of our graduates, which I do for my own interest and because, as a data-wonk, Ich kann nicht anders. It was just after Niall Moyna's talk about the holistic virtues of having fit people about the place. One of Moyna's points had been to ask ironically if the students and staff parked their car as far from the campus as feasible in order to get a 5 or 10 minute walk in at the start and end of the day. I can't walk, or even cycle [done it once, nearly died], from home because it is 40km away but I could park off-campus and walk the last km in. That would mean paradoxically that I could leave home later because to be sure of securing a parkplatz I arrive at 0830hrs.  But my pal The Suit suggested that having tight parking issues was Good because it kept everyone on campus for serendipitous collegiate happenings. If you don't drive home for lunch because you'll lose your treasured spot, then you might stay and have lunch with the some engineers and thereby ferment a cross-disciplinary research project or think about a new course for the students. Or, being on campus, you might notice that one of your students is looking all woebegone . . . and do something about it. I pointed at the tyranny and privilege [and huge cost] of parking in August.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

A little goes a long way

Did I mention that it is science week? I did.  On Monday we had three visiting speakers at The Institute:
- Dr Michael Curtis, the Deputy State Pathologist;
- Dr Niall Moyna, an exercise physiologist from DCU and
- Prof Martin Downes from Maynooth.
I went to the first two of those talks but really shouldn't have gone to the first except to show willing. As a fainter, I cannot always reliably stay upright when presented with images of gun-shots, tram-line bruising and decapitation. Curtis presented loadsa these, each more disturbing than the next. As with the Gardai Forensics team a few years ago, I looked intently at my hands and recited Shelley's Ozymandias while waiting for him to finish. A very little of that is way too much. What I did learn from that talk, which was shocking in a different way, is that nobody in the scene of crime field, certainly not the forensic pathologists gets any counselling or psychological support.

We've had Moyna at The Institute before, and looking back at my notes, [how handy is keeping a blogodiary?] he seems to have given the same Exercise is Medicine talk again.  Same take-home aNNyway. It was interesting because he assumed correctly that the vast majority of the audience - fit people under 30 studying sports rehab, strength & conditioning, sports physiology - would have found his message largely irrelevant. Moyna's case is that a little serious heart-rate raising exercise a few times a week will extend your functional independent living by years at the end of life. That is pretty much beyond imagining to a fit 22 year old who is going to live for ever. Moyna suggested that they could take his message to their parents and to their fat Cousin Bob who appears to be welded to the sofa . . . it's even not too late for Pat the Salt at 92! Indeed, an experiment Moyna set up in a nursing home was able to get 26/28 elderly women out of diapers simply by giving them enough quad strength to get up out of the chair and potter off to the potty. How QALY is that!?

We've know that exercise and coronary disease are inversely proportional since a couple of epidemiological studies in London in the early 1950s. Prof Jeremy Morris [obit - he lived to 99] noted that bus drivers who sit for the whole working day were far more likely to die of heart attack than their conductors who were running about the double-deckers collecting fares. Sedentary didn't help but bus driving is among the most stressed jobs available: all that responsibility, all those mad drivers cutting you off and cursing you out, the kids who run into your path, A parallel experiment found that 'beat' postmen were much fitter and healthier than their colleagues who sold stamps.

You can measure your metabolic activity by tracking you oxygen intake. If you establish a baseline by measuring this while sitting on the sofa, you can then get a handle on your METs = Metabolic Equivalent Tasks for doing anything more intensive.
A walk round the sofa is more intensive, throwing the duvet about, hoovering the carpet, washing the car, walking to the corner shop will all have higher METs. Super-fit athletes are able to exert themselves to 20 MET - 20x the oxygen intake as required for sitting. If I took in that much oxygen, I'd probably self-combust. Super frail osteoporotic people can't manage 10 METs or even 5.
But if they make some effort, the benefits will be mighty.The graph [L] suggests that as small effort by "novices" = deeply unfit will yield disproportionate benefits in the future. The super-fit at the other end of the distribution are caught by the law of diminishing returns: the extra ooomph to secure Gold takes huge commitment to training and exercise. Indeed, youngsters who are scheduled to becoming frail as elders because they now have no muscle tone also should be encouraged to do a little  . . . and a little bit more.

And don't make it a penance! I see now that, in managing my duffers team at school to play it for larfs, I was getting them to commit to a minimal level of exercise for the good of their future health. Putting them in a real team filled with jocks would have made them into refusniks who are now dead of atherosclerosis, diabetes and stroke. Let's get the Health Service Executive stop being the Sickness Drug Doling Executive and put 1% of the annual budget to making folk fitter in funner ways. Whatever it takes to make exercise into less of a chore. I can't find a link but I heard a story about a fat boy whose TV was linked up to a transponder in his shoes. The more he moved the longer the TV stayed on; linking the power to a stationary bicycle might work too.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Emma Darwin

. . . The Inspirational Wife of a Genius".
I've just finished Edna Healey's 2001 biography of Emma Darwin née Wedgwood [R while young] which fills in a lot of the details of Charles Darwin's domestic life. Emma was remarkably well educated for her time and even for her class: she was fluent in French and Italian, better than competent on the piano. The book is an easy read because it's well-written - Edna read English at Oxford - but confusing because all the relevant families had enormous numbers of children including at least one girl called Fanny. Charles and Emma were first cousins, his sister married her brother; another of his sisters married the man who had married another sister of Emma, Not quite like Tom Lehrer's [sing it!] Oedipus Rex:
Yes, he loved his mother like no other
His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother
but close.

In those pre-TV days, much of the family entertainment centred reading aloud, music or playing cards. Most nights Emma and Charles played backgammon and if she won he would declaim "bang your bones" in a good-natured way. Although the modern ahem meaning was opaque to Edna Healey let alone Charles and Emma, it does suggest that the couple repaired to bed immediately after the game. Poor Emma's victory at dice meant another tedious pukey pregnancy and a painful and difficult delivery. In invention of obstetric chloroform by James Young Simpson on 1847 was eagerly embraced by the family. Darwin was sick for much of his adult life and worried that some of his health issues popped up in his children . . . because of the inbreeding. For a smart chap he doesn't seem to have made the connexion between banging her bones and another child 40 weeks later. Their last child Charles Waring Darwin was born 1856 with Down's syndrome when Emma was 48. Poor scrap only lasted a couple of years before dying of Scarlet Fever. Between CWD and the next oldest child, Horace b. 1851, Emma suffered two miscarriages.  In all she bore ten full term children.  The death of Annie, who died tragically at the age of 10, knocked the stuffing out of her parents, especially Charles who couldn't accept that there was any hereafter. Her story and her influence on Darwin's thinking were neatly captured by Randall Keynes (a descenant of Emma and Chas, in Annie's Box - reviewed - available £1.20 +p&p.  Edna Healey's book is £0.01+p&p even cheaper.

The Emma Darwin biography is quite heavy on the perpetual feeling-crap that everyone in the household experienced. Emma had her migraine and miz pregnancies; Charles his flatulence and gut-pains and vomitting; but most of the children also seem to have been off their food and generally unhealthy a lot of the time. Quite apart from the crises of scarlet fever, diphtheria, consumption and measles. Vaccination and peak antibiotics have spared us endless anxiety as parents - even the anti-vaxxers who are coat-tailing on herd immunity. But the enumeration of symptoms doesn't get definitively to the heart of Darwin's Illness. Was it Chagas Disease from his encounter with a Brucid beetle in South America? Or was is mere hypochondria?  After reading this biography, I tend to think that if was all of the above. It reads like many people, not just the Darwins, felt rotten much of the time. What is striking is the devotion that the less ill showed to their sicker relatives: all those bodily fluids to be disposed of. Not all of that could be off-laid on devoted servants.