Monday 31 December 2018

De mortuis

It is midwinter, the days are short; shorter than they'll ever be - until next December. It is the time to be hunkered down by a fire, with family and mince-pies. The chicken and ham have been ate: roasted; cold in sambos with stuffing and pickles; as pie with mushrooms and a rich velouté; as scrap-fat and lentil soup; as chicken and rice soup; all that's left is the curry . . . and early next year for rissoles. But some winter-times comfort has to be parked because there are other imperatives. The most compelling of these is to Be Present if someone close to you dies. It is an unfortunate fact that winter burials are [about 15%] more common: unfortunate because the Irish sky is <pathetic fallacy> likely to be weeping on the mourners. When The Beloved's sainted mother died at Christmas time three years ago, I was fortunate to be a lee-side pall-bearer - it meant that at least my head was dry as we stepped carefully through driving horizontal rain to the grave.

On Christmas Eve this year, the youngest brother of The Beloved's oldest friend was found dead in Galway. I always think of him as Young Rory because I last spoke to him when he was a teenager and I was in my 20s. I was full of admiration when he borrowed a canoe and paddled from Dublin to the Shannon; although that was seen by others as being on the edge of bonkers. Later and progressively he was troubled and increasingly incapacitated by mental illness. With Bressie, I've reflected a little on how poorly we accommodate those with a troubled mind: too much medication, not enough care and attention; altogether best kept off the streets and so off our consciences. Not so Rory, whose family did their best with the help of regular carers from the HSE. It's just that I feel he'd have been better catered for if he'd presented with pneumonia or cancer. Whatever, he was dead and we were on the road for a Mass at Noon in Carraroe.

The interweb said it would take 4 hours to drive from our gaff to Carraroe . . . and it did. AArouteplanner seems to factor in the bumbling old dear heading into the village for some messages and the tractor hauling a load of straw along a particularly long and winding section of the Irish road network. The only time we felt we were making time was on the 60km stretch of the Motorway between Ballinasloe and Galway City. But that was only a quarter of the total trek. There's a story about a party of German tourists who were invited to spend New Year at Clifden in the West of Ireland. They arrived in Dublin airport, hired a car and drove off through the drizzle. The further west they went, the worse the weather became: drizzle became lashing rain, the car fogged up inside and all trappings of the familiar fell away behind them. Galway in the 1970s was bleak, and beyond Galway it seemed like the End of Days. At Maam Cross, a finger post pointed into the gloom "Clifden 20 miles". It was too much, they turned round and headed back to civilisation. It was a bit like that as we crawled west through the ribbon development of houses strung out so that Bearna bleeds into An Spidéal then Indreabhán and Casla and the road rears and bucks between the rocks of the bog and the rocks of the foreshore. At least it was full day-light and the rain held off under lowering clouds.

The Mass was mostly in Irish, which is appropriate in the Gaeltacht and there were other cultural differences from how it's done in the Sunny South East. The extended family were packed in 4 or 5 pews front right, the rest of the mourners filled the church from the back; that's normal. After the mass, however, the parish formed an orderly line down the main aisle to shake hands with Rory's brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. Meanwhile one sister and 3 nieces went to the coffin and sang Hope there's someone it was so affecting that the orderly line stopped in their tracks to listen. Quite right too.
One problem with the desperate landscape of the West of Ireland is finding a pocket with enough soil to bury the dead. When the medieval graveyard of Carraroe was finally brim full 30 years ago, they prospected around until they found a bleak hillside at Clynagh on the edge of the bog to the North. Thither we repaired. It was miz in the best Irish tradition; not exactly raining but definitely not dry either. The undertaker handed out umbrellas to the family and one was thrust into my hand as the men lifted the coffin from the hearse. At the best of times, I don't believe in umbrellas [all good fun until someone gets poked in the eye] and they seem deeply inappropriate at a graveside. Rain in your face is to be celebrated while you're alive to feel it; Rory was beyond all that. At most of the funerals I have been to, the heap of soil is covered with fake-grass and after a token few handfuls are thrown into the grave with some flowers everyone moves off in search of tea and sandwiches. Not so in Carraroe: the family seized shovels and and worked at the task of filling the grave, untroubled that their best shoes were getting destr'yed altogether. Part of the need for Closure was the fact that half a dozen bags were stashed behind a head-stone filled with coral from Trá an Dóilin to cover the grave.

Years and years ago when Rory was young and so were we, The Beloved and I hitch-hiked from Dublin to the Coral Strand for the weekend. We arrived after dark and after a mighty pot of tea and some food we went down to the beach for a paddle. Well it was mystic/wonderful ! The water was awash with phosphorescence: its eerie green light trailed from my hand as it was whished through the cold water. I'd never seen such a thing before but to Rory, with hundreds of Summer days of childhood under his belt, it must have been familiar as was the crunch of coral under his bare feet as he raced from breakfast to beach to the sea. Accordingly on Saturday, for auld lang syne, after tea, much chat and some food, I wandered down to the strand and picked a small handful of coral:

Sunday 30 December 2018

It's all about I

No, not about me. We're continuing the alphabetical theme with I for . . .

Saturday 29 December 2018

Moon rising

I'm not a person for whom Sunday [or any day] Lie-In has much appeal. Maybe there was a time when we'd spend the morning in bed surrounded by croissant crumbs and sections of the Sunday newspapers. But if those days existed in reality it was at a time when we lived in a city flat and had nothing to do but go to work, sleep and eat. Nowadays I have a protestant tendency to spring out of bed when I wake because things need a-doing. Occasionally I'll get caught by this reflex reaction and one of those was the Saturday before Christmas.

It was a weekend in holiday time, so as I fell into bed at Midnight I didn't set the alarm clock. When I woke it looked like it was dawn outside, so I flung out of bed and rushed downstairs, picking up a bowl of sourdough dough from the hot-press on the way past. I had transferred this living ferment to the tin and was half way through a cup of tea when I noticed it was 0510hrs. Dang! The 'dawn' was the last curtain-blasting rays of the setting full moon. As it happens, Dau.II was up at about the same time girding her loins for work at Cork's English Market; and she has a camera:
As I was up, I made a batch of sweet yeast bread to whc I added cherries, marzipan and almond slivers. I thought that was suitably medieve-yule for the season. But it meant that Saturday was a long time between sleeps.

The whole adventure reminded me of one night when I was walking back towards France along the Camino de Santiago. Peregrinos as a rule are absurdly early-risers. The whole train is driven by anxiety about securing a first-come-first-served bed after the day's walk. Dormitories typically start the wake-the-dead sussurrus of plastic bags being stuffed into rucksacks well before sun-up. That night I collapzzzzzzzzed on my bunk after a feed of pasta. I awoke  refreshed and energised; downed a cup of coffee [because Spain does not believe in tea] and started to get my kit together. I noticed a red glow in the sky through the door-way of the refugio against which were two men smoking. I went up to ask ¿Qué hora es? but I couldn't understand the answer "e diez y media" because it was incomprehensible to me. I had been asleep for only two hours; and half past ten at night was no time to start the day's trek.  The glow was the last shreds of sunset.

Friday 28 December 2018

Box ticked off

One of the last activities of last term was to have a progress meeting of our post-graduate students. they are each requested and required to make a 5 minute presentation of the last 6 months work. Afterwards everyone gets to offer feedback and suggestions. One of the kids was trying to "transform" his bacterial cells by persuading them to uptake some foreign DNA and incorporate it into their genome. To do this the bacteria have to be 'competent' - they need a set of increasingly well-understood genes which allow the uptake-and-incorp of transformation. He was having difficulty getting the technique to work and had spent weeks changing the protocol thus-and-so to work out where the glitch was.

My comment was that the student could with advantage read the undergraduate thesis of his contemporary Darragh who had done his final year research project with me. Darragh had actually beaten a path to my door at the beginning of his final year saying that he was really interested in competence and transformation and would I supervise his research project in that area. We agreed that he would, from the literature, compile an inventory of all the genes known to be necessary and sufficient to establish competence. And then check to see if named bacterial species had the kit or didn't. And it was so. I acted as an occasional foil, but Darragh owned the project and comprehensively motored through the task list. What this suggested was that unless your test bacteria had the tool kit (and you can check the inventory with standard computer/internet tools), then the experimenter was at nothing trying to transform the cells. If the struggling student carried through the Darragh Protocol, he could quickly establish whether his task was even possible, before he wasted even more reagents trying this and that to make it 'work'.

Five days later, I went to 'work' on the Tuesday before Christmas: I did shuffle some papers but I shuffled more tea and coffee. There was a missed call on my fancy works Cisco telephone; it came from Shering-Plough / MSD down in Cork and was <synchronicity alert> demanding a reference for the bold Darragh. I called the number back and it went through to the MSD switch-board. I found out that served 1400 people but the switch transferred me to the number which had dialled me and I came back to the robot "press 1 for an extension; press 2 for a cheese sandwich; press 3 to talk to a person . . .". So I was a little pissed off until I noticed the red light on Ms Cisco which indicated voice mail and that led me to a mobile phone number. The woman at the other end asked me if I found Darragh  to be competent. Competent? I launched into a slight ranty explanation of why competent didn't cover the extraordinary dedication, originality and drive of the said Darragh. I kept going even though the telephone started to ring at me: I have a policy of never answering a phone if I am talking to someone else. When I drew breath, I realised that I was talking to the wall because the line had been dropped.

Eventually she called me back  - her phone had run out of charge - and I quickly established that she knew no science so I was at nothing trying to explain in detail just how clever and useful Darragh was.
"I suppose you want me to answer all the standard HR catch-all questions?" I asked.
"I'm not HR, I'm An Administrator" she replied.
But whatever her title, she did just want me to tick [Y]es to
Does he keep good time?
Is he a team-player?
Can he work unsupervised?
It turned out that he was already hired by MSD and this whole interaction was about putting him on the permanent  payroll. His line-manager knew Darragh much better than me and in a job-appropriate setting. But the poor bugger couldn't just sign his Effective onto the pay-roll; he had to have his opinion independently validated. But not in a meaningful way that might expose Darragh's limitations or indicate his true talents. The MSD Suits had a written a SOP for hiring and promotion which included calling their HR robots "Administrators". What a waste of time and energy, it put quite a damper on my work-day until I went off to meet someone else for coffee.

Thursday 27 December 2018

Leave it to beaver

Beaver: Castor fiber [example R] not Jerry "Annoying" Mathers. Big things are afoot in the hills hereabouts. The Big Friendly Giant BFG = Blackstairs Farming Group has landed €1,500,000 to investigate sustainable solutions to the management of Ireland's uplands.  It's quite the project - 5,000 hectares, divided up into 44 commonages incorporating 250 commoners who have rights to the mountain. These hills have been lived in by people for at least 5,000 years: our ringstone is about that old and is only one of several examples of neolithomania in the area. But it probably hasn't been upland heath for all that time. The neolithic markers of the ringstone lived in a forest which blanketed pretty much the whole island. Many of my neighbours shop in the medieval town of Enniscorthy down in the flat-lands astraddle the River Slaney 15km East of here. The town entrance nearest to us is called The Duffry Gate [Dubh Tír - the dark country].

"The mountain didn’t get that way without work". The landscape grew to look like it does now  because the farmers could get more money from mutton and wool than they could from timber; and when the timber was gone, they dug up all the accessible peat for fuel. Species which supported, or at least didn't interfere with, sheep did alright, others maybe not so good. It used to be good shooting country and every 12th August, guns would go up stairs looking to bag a few grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus. But that's all over now. Grouse do well a) if you don't shoot 'em all and b) if the landscape is managed to suit their particular needs. Something changed on our hills from about 25 years ago that put the grouse off their feed; or at least off the hill. In searching for our sheep this Summer, I've been up-starting a slightly smaller moor-land bird the golden plover Pluvialis apricaria. That species is also on the conservation concern red list in Ireland.

I heard that, with €1million+ sloshing around the landscape, there might be jobs for the boys some ecologists. Unless the Sustainable Solutions involve sheep, then there aren't going to be many folk from our townland competent to balance the rights of the mollusc pearl mussel Margaritifera margaritifera against those of the angiosperm tormentil Néalfartach Potentilla erecta. In any case, I went off to talk to some local ecologists in case they had a nephew in need of a job. I used to share a house with two long-haired botanists who were strong on oak woodlands. But my local ecocontacts lean more towards hydrogeology and the impact that running water has on the landscape.

I was chatting to one of them at the end of term Christmas party at The Institute. He told me about a fascinating consultancy that he'd been involved in. If there is any sort of a spill of rain building on a longish wet spell, then the town of Graiguenamanagh gets washed out. Last major case was 3 years ago under the impact of Storm Frank. The problem is the Duiske: a tumbling mountain stream that rises on the sides of Mount Brandon and hits the River Barrow at right angles. That stream was early seen as a source of hydro-power and suggested the site of an ancient Cistercian monastery. The town grew up round the abbey and Main Street runs parallel to the stream. Buildings have appeared on both side of the stream which is now confined in a sort of open drain.
Too much rain and the water bursts out through the shops [R Jan 2016] to shoulder its way down-hill along the street. It is too late to remedy once the flood waters arrive at the town limits. My geo-engineering friend had advised them to encourage the water to dissipate its energy on the face of the hill.  "They've re-introduced beavers in England" he said; to let a potent image sink into the heads of the county council. Nobody is suggesting bringing beavers to Ireland - there is no evidence that they were ever part of the Irish fauna. But maybe some holding dams could be installed across the water-courses on the hillside above the town. Please make sure that they are properly constructed because a dam failure is far worse than any floods which occurred before its construction - ask Dolgarrog. It wouldn't be as a big a project as Oroville, but a series of dams has the capacity to even out the flow of water so that it is Goldiloxian = just right for almost all the time. Heck, they might even be induced to produce a bit of electricity.

Wednesday 26 December 2018

customer service

I'm blessed with two daughters so different in looks and temperament, as to make us suspect that one [or both] of them had been swapped into their cradles by the fairy-folk. On Christmas Day in the morning, the baby Jesus wasn't the only one wrapped in very little. Just before Noon, about 200 people stripped off and strode about in the surf at Tramore strand until their feet turned blue. Probably 5x that number stood on the prom in their overcoats watching events unfold. Dau.I was game to get allll wet with her old man; Dau.II was more about minding their outer garments. But those differences may be as superficial as judging them by the colour of the eyes.

As I wrote in May, book-worm Dau.I was early on marked down to work in a library or, at a pinch, in a school. She is now fulfilling that destiny: critiquing the Dewey Decimal System; stopping people eating their lunch into the computer keyboards; culling books for discard; suggesting books for dyslexic children, thanatophilic Agatha Christie fans and precocious 12 year olds. Knowing her father, for Christmas she gave me a little hand-bound booklet of Essays about Librarians which she had culled from the interweb. It was flattering that she included my own tribute to one of the profession. Another essay was about the questions a librarian has had to field when she was installed behind the Reference Desk. Obviously Dau.I felt a frisson of empathy for those experiences. A perennial question is when a patron tries to locate a much loved book [try sources] while s/he can remember neither the title nor the author . . . but is certain about the colour of the cover. That task is, on the face of it, damn-foolish but a good librarian who cares about their craft (and has read a helluva lot of books) can probably abstract more information and may even be able to locate the book.  Dau.I told me a great synchronicity tale a few weeks ago. Having spent chunks of her childhood on the Waterford coast, she was well aware of the Missing Postman of Stradbally. Re-shelving a trolleyful of books she came across a copy of Fachtna Ó Drisceoil's book on the story. Before lunchtime the same day, a chap from Roscommon dropped by asking in very general terms for such a book which had been recommended by a friend. Dau.I could not only identify the book but could put her hand on it without checking the catalogue. Rosco was amazed at this near miraculous "instant gratification" solution to his query.

You might think that working, like Dau.II, in a delicatessen is as different from librarianship as a CD player is from a tricycle. But as both of the latter work because of things that go round, so the different professions of the two sisters have a common theme of service and empathy. In the run up to Christmas Dau.II has been selling the most fantastical quantities of cheese, paté and salad. Daily she has been dealing with people who are unbelievably ignorant about food even as they shell out wodges of folding money to buy some. "That Cashel Blue which is like Gruyère . . ." the only thing those cheeses have in common is that they both came through a cow's teat at an indefinite time in the past. But when asked "I want the goat's cheese that catches you gk gk gk in the throat", Dau.II is on message: she knows exactly what that customer is trying to articulate because she's been there all too often herself. If they've run out of one variety on Christmas Eve, she can find the client a nearly-right substitute. Usually the nubb-ends of cheese are recycled into quiche the next day, but with a three day holiday this doesn't work. We had a wonderful range of cheese varieties for Christmas and Stephen's Day: snatched from the jaws of trash.

Tuesday 25 December 2018

Christmas morning

By tradition we should really be tuned into the family this morning. But I acknowledge that you may be alone all day, or prepping to go join the family. Maybe (this is an outside horse) The Blob is a regular part of your morning routine, like eating the porridge and brushing your teeth.
Other news. It is my plan to plunge nearly naked into the sea from Tramore Prom between 1100hrs and Noon local time, this day. [Last year higher tide, not me!] Dau.I that hardy annual has said she'll komm mit. If The Blob doesn't surface tomorrow, I will have gone (blue) to a better place.
Later I hope the cracker mottoes are up to standard:
  • Q. What do you give the man who has everything?
    • A. Antibiotics
  • I cried when I chopped up Onions
    • He'd been such a loyal pet.
  • Good King Wenceslas phoned for a pizza. 
    • They asked him 'Do you want your usual? Deep pan, crisp and even?'

Monday 24 December 2018

Blue skies

Five years ago, I wrote an 800 word potted Life of John Tyndall. It's not the first place people go to find out something about the man who worked out why the sky was blue: my Blob is half-way down the 6th page at Google. When a new biography of Tyndall was published in the Spring, I asked The Institute's Library to order a copy in case any of our students were interested in Victorian science, politics and mountaineering to all of which Tyndall contributed. The book by Roland Jackson is waggishly entitled The Ascent of John Tyndall to acknowledge five decades of Summer days he spent in Switzerland climbing mountains and scrambling over glaciers . . . but also his rise from very humble beginnings along the River Barrow in Co Carlow to rubbing shoulders with the the elite in London. When I got the note to say that the book had been shelved, I promptly went in to borrow it.

It has taken several months of elapsed time, but now I have trudged through 450 pages of biographical detail to emerge, battered by info but rather better informed, at the end of the text. 80 (!) pages of notes and references and a 16 page index complete the book. It is informatively illustrated with in-text pictures and a folio of glossy photographs in the middle. I say trudged because it is heavy going, being quite Victorian in its attention to detail.

A thread which weaves through Tyndall's life and therefore the book are the meetings of the X-Club an invitation-only dining club which started in late 1864 and met once a month for the next 30 years. The group was brought together by Thomas H "Darwin's Bulldog" Huxley and Joseph "Kew Gardens" Hooker, and included Tyndall, Busk, Frankland, Hirst, Lubbock, Spencer and Spottiswoode.  More than half of these hot-shot men of science have dropped out of the narrative of movers and shakers in the current story of how modern science grew out of alchemy, engineering, hunting and flower collecting. They wanted to talk science in a social setting like our meetings of the Wexford Science Café. Late 19thC England was a world where educated men knew Latin and Greek, Plato and Shakespeare, but were  hazy in their knowledge of logarithms and had no use at all for a sextant. Those tools were for 'mechanics' not the gentlemen of independent who made up the Victorian scientific establishment = The Royal Society. Team-X were mostly :poor and hungry and wanted to create a world where 'Scientist' was a profession with a salary.  Tyndall was one of the few who landed such a job at the Royal Institution where he was paid to give lectures on science to Joe Public.  Whenever a meeting of the X-club is mentioned in TAoJT it is accompanied by a roll-call of attendees. These data are a credit to the author's mining of the historical record but one could wish that such detail was removed from the narrative and put in a table . . . or just left in the kitchen with the potato skins. Same for menus: "We had soup, fish, choice mutton, roast chicken, a delicious salad and three or four kinds of wine . . ." just shows that Victorians of means were intemperate in their feeding habits.

Another thread through Tyndall's biography is particulate matter in the air; so much so that, born 150 years later, he might have been labelled Miasma Man. His current scientific credit lies in his explanation of why the sky is blue - it's the dust particles scattering the short wavelengths innit? But he had a long and noisy association with light-houses and fog-horns and how sound waves are affected by the water droplets in the air. Notably he was able to demonstrate in a lecture theatre the scattering of light by the Tyndall Effect with a nifty piece of apparatus. He was the first to propose that peculiar alpine mists that haunted valley bottoms were most likely due to clouds of dust and pollen and not to do with water-droplets. He spent many years investigating infectious organisms in the air in a dogged fight against the prevailing lazy explanation of spontaneous generation. One effective way he found to sterilise air was to capture it in vials coated with glycerin: soon enough all the floating bacteria-laden debris would touch the sides and be taken out of circulation like Br'er Rabbit and the tar-baby. His poor long-suffering wife had to help him transport sealed vials of old vegetables to Switzerland every Summer where they would open them on pure mountain peaks and outside the hotel kitchens to not how quickly putrefaction took place. She killed him in the end, accidentally giving him a huge tot of chloral hydrate instead of his morning draft of magnesia-for-the-bowels. She outlived him by 47 years, cherishing his memory and hoarding his papers, thus preventing a timely biography which might have cemented his position in the pantheon when his memory was still fresh.

He was famous in his day as a good-pair-of-hands, dreaming up hardware to demonstrate physical phenomena. He thus served as an important interface between theoretical and experimental physics. The theatre and the props made of brass & glass & wood made him a rock-star on the lecture circuit. When Aoife McLysaght and Alice Roberts launch the 2018 Royal Institution Christmas lectures on 26 27 28 December BBC 4, they are walking in Tyndall's footsteps. To reprise the "those who can do, those who can't teach" theme, it is likely that Tyndall's skills and inspiration as a teacher had more impact on the rise and rise of science than all his experimental observations together.

Sunday 23 December 2018

H for consent

Ho Ho Ho. Santa's making his final inventory; oiling the reindeer and buffing the runners on the sleigh.
H [age] for consent is a letter of one version of the Cockney alphabet: 'Ay for 'orses, Beef or mutton, See for miles etc.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Shameful College

Don’t listen to her Bob. Remember those who can, do; 
those who can’t, teach. GB Shaw. Man & Superman.
It's not strictly true, some brilliant and creative people are incapable of conveying to others how to do likewise. Doing and teaching require different toolkits. On the other hand, genius is not normally distributed: people at the left-hand of the bell-curve of brilliance are . . . just people. Whereas that left tail in the teaching profession comprises people who are getting a salary for teaching albeit not very well and at the very edge of their competence. It's like
Q. What do you call the chap who graduates last in medical school?
A. "Doctor".

Years ago I was co-opted onto a committee tasked to approve the launch of a new degree course called Industrial Microbiology with Bioinformatics. Having spent the previous 15+ years working at the frontiers of bioinformatics, I was qualified to judge whether the college launching the new degree had the competence and commitment necessary to support their project. In agreement with the stated policy of the HEA [Higher Education Authority] IM&B was a bolt-on degree, the college having run a plain Industrial Microbiology degree for several years. We on the Appro Committee asked how the college had made room for the bioinformatics module in what was presumably a full course. "Oh we will phase out the module on business organization." When the original IM course was put together, a case had been made that teaching Industrial Microbiologists the elements of double-entry book-keeping was essential because some of the students might find themselves running a campus company or a start-up based on their final-year research project. Abruptly, when a more glittery gem presented itself, the essential became yesterday. My cynical crap-detector told me that the BizOrg module was a make-weight to give teaching hours to some under-used faculty member in the other department . . . with a post-hoc future use requirement created to justify the fact that generations of students were being short-changed.

On Tuesday, through the day, I found myself talking to several teenagers about college courses and whether they were a good idea.  One of the lads, a really talented film maker, with an obsessive attention to the quality of the lighting, has about 4 years practical film-making experience under his belt but he won't be old enough to vote until next year. That's one of the positives of home-education - you can specialise in something that you care about and, through months and years of deliberate practice, you can perfect your craft. While his Dad slipped off to the jacks, I begged the boy not to go to college - the process might not crush his true spirit but would likely flatten out the interesting differences between him and his peer group so that they all regressed to the average. That would combine with a finite number of tutors and teachers (however talented themselves) to limit and trammel and impede the direction and distance of the boy's development. He phrased it differently: "Yeah, I know the first two years would be 'teaching' me stuff I already know". He reckons that the following two years may help cement his network. Trouble is that, after everyone has a smart-phone consonant with the depth of the parental pocket, then everyone gets a movie camcorder: €200 will get you a Sony HDR-CX405 starter model going up each birthday and Xmas to €1,000 for a Sony HC2500-Pro. Because most people have no talent or aptitude for film making, getting a better camera doesn't help anyone except Sony shareholders. It takes a team to build a film and FilmBoy reckons that he'll meet the best key-grip; the best best-boy; the best boom operator and the best script-writers in Ireland in and about Film School. Good luck with that; it might work out but in the car home after wards Dau.II's laconic assessment of Third Level came to mind -
"No degree is the new degree"

In the Cork School of Music, they are taught composition, syncopation, orchestration, harmonation, and a lot of music lore besides. But , like the college I vetted above, the CSM Suits have decided that their students need to know the basics of business. There is accordingly a module in which one of the lecturers gets up and announces:
Task 1. Plan and cost a tour of concerts: you are a group of four musicians and a sound-engineer booking gigs for 400 seats in Wexford, Cork, Dublin, Athlone, Dundalk, Roscommon, Waterford and Tullamore. Estimate a time-line and the costs of transport, accommodation, insurance, food, publicity material  and bribes.
Like FilmBoy O'Maven above, one of the students has spent the last several years touring about the country earning an honest crust entertaining people at weddings and birthdays in pubs and hotels:
"Sorry, but you're not going to find a 400-seater in Tullamore" and then (more reality station):
"When we do the gig in Cork, do I have to stay in a hotel, or can I go home to my own gaff?"
He's neither stupid nor insensitive, and he noted a frisson of annoyance pass across the lecturer's face. Doubtless the unfortunate older chap wanted to say "It's only a game, you young blaggard". But he dared not thus undermine the whole charade that he was transmitting information to the students that would, at any stage in their future lives, be useful. Far too much education involves that sort of deceit.

Friday 21 December 2018

Liqueur liquor

I was having a bit of a sugar rush last week talking about sucrose, glucose, fructose [and ethanol]. It is physico-chemical peculiarity of the two monosaccharides that, although they have the same C6H12O6 chemical formula, they have a rather different structure and consequently rotate polarised light in opposite directions. The reason why this happens is way beyond my ability to explain.

We have a taste for sugar because, in our evolutionary past, such easily digested calories were hard to come by and those who had receptors on their tongues that recognised sugar molecules made better choices in their diet, grew a little fatter, got off with the opposite sex more often and left more offspring in succeeding generations. Their taste-insensitive cousins ate a lot of bark and wasted away. Our perception rates fruit sugar fructose highest: If sucrose tastes 100%, then fructose tastes 150% while glucose seems only 75% as good. As you know, food engineers have long been gaming the system with other peculiar chemicals - cyclamates, saccharine, aspartame - which fit the taste receptors even better than nature's intended and make us swoon with sweetie delight. The dreaded HFCS high-fructose corn syrup makes considerable in-roads to the American Maize Mountain, by processing milled corn with a frightening array of chemicals and unnatural enzymes to produce a viscous liquid called HFCS-42 which is 42% fructose. This is added to an eye-watering variety of beverages, processed foods, cereals, and baked goods.

I may get back to HFCS later, but today we are making liqueur chocolates. The ability to make something that has a liquid centre hinges on another difference in the physical chemistry of the three sugars of which we treat. Some solids will dissolve in some liquids. You know that if you've ever put sugar in your tea or made a cake or salted your porridge. Scientists are wonks for quants, so they like to measure exactly how much of solute [the solid] A will dissolve in solvent [the liquid] B. They quickly worked out that this solubility was temperature dependent: that teaspoon of sugar disappears in a flash in hot tea but requires a bit of a stir in cold water. It turns out that you can dissolve a lot of sugar in water at room temperature (20ºC) a litre L of water, weighing 1000g will take:
Fructose: 3750 g/L
Sucrose: 2040 g/L
Glucose: 900g/L
This says that if you lurry in 2kg of granulated white sugar into a litre of water it will all dissolve [needs a good stir as you may imagine]. If you add a little more you'll have a thick paste which you can treat as a solid for the purpose of Making cherry liqueur chocs, factory style. Similar eye-glazing choc-factory in Canada. Form your chocolate into little buckets. Fill with a suitably flavoured sugar paste - a little alcohol doesn't go amiss, but doesn't at all at all help get the sugar into solution. Then cap off with more chocolate. Voilá! You have hard candies covered in chocolate. But note in the film when they spray invertase into the filler mix of sugar and cherries. As we saw last week, invertase is the enzyme which converts each molecule of sucrose into 1 of glucose + 1 of fructose. The fructose, avid for water, goes back into solution making the interior a) sweeter b) gloopier. The glucose doesn't help on either of these food engineering axes but the average solubility [(3750+900)/2 = 2325] is more than the original sucrose-only paste. The process takes a few days at least partly because <chocolate alert> you cannot warm it up too much to speed the process along.

You can do this at home.

Thursday 20 December 2018

when I get older losing my . . .

. . . hair marbles?
I was talking to my mother in England; she's 98¾ and living in her own gaff in one of those megacute Olde Englyshe villages: a pub, a church, a village hall,  a cricket ground, a little river, a manor house, a postman, even a railway station. When they moved there on my father's retirement in 1983, there was also a shop-cum-PostOffice, since closed. They had a pact that when one of them pegged out, the other would downsize and declutter to more suitable accomodation in the market town where they preferred to shop. Never happened! The Old Man died in 2001 but inertia and familiarity took root and my mother is still looking after herself in the same house she's lived for 35 years - which is by far the longest time she's lived in the same house.

There is a community in the village and they look after their own, as we found last year when she needed drops in her eyes several times a day after a cataract job. But everyone has their own life and, being English, they have their boundaries. The family were concerned that, if a fall were to occur <which heaven forfend>, and the alarm pendant failed, then she might be lying at the foot of the stairs for a couple of days before anyone noticed. Then again, things come in the post, which her failing sight doesn't make easy to read and small-small t'ings need doing for which it is not worth asking a neighbour to come over specially. Accordingly, my sister, who lives in the same country and visits every week or so, found an agency who would sent An Effective round every evening at about 1800hrs. And it was so; the new regime has been motoring along for a couple of weeks. Having that regular injection of assistance [and chatter and care] should be enough to keep the current domicile in place and functional for a while yet.

When my mother stopped driving 12 years ago [failing sight mainly], she gave up the car and adopted a taxi-company. Typically, she'd walk across the village green empty-handed to the once-a-day bus-stop [it was axed in the Spring of 2018], potter about town buying spinach, trout, raspberries and whatever else she fancied and then call a taxi to carry her loot home. It worked fine, the taxi-driver would carry her groceries into the kitchen table for her. In December each year, the taxi company would give back the lucky penny to their loyal clients: they stood everyone a Christmas lunch including, of course, a lift from home and back. A similar thing happened last week with the Care Agency: they picked up all their clients - including newbies like me Mum - and took them into the County Hall for a cup of tea and a mince-pie.

My mother gave me a report: obviously the people at the tea-party were not a random cross-section of the population - there were no Goths or single parents or surfer dudes; or anyone under the age of 60. But they were - here she was a bit at a loss for words - normal . . . by which she meant not obviously demented. That was a welcome change from her wide experience of visiting pals in nursing homes. "But", she added, "everyone had their own reason for signing up with the agency." One of her new friends [co-clients might be a better descriptor], for example, requested and required someone to come round every morning. He was wheelchair-bound and could look after himself but some days he'd wake up all cosy in bed and think a lie-in would be nice. He feared that might be the beginning of a slippery slope of indolence and sloth [chap sounds like a protestant] which would leave him, far to soon, covered in bed-sores and waiting for the end. He therefore called in the agency to ensure that, no matter how bleak the day, he would get up and get dressed.

That reminded me of a 10 Point "motivational" conferring address given a few years ago by Admiral William McRaven. He called this piece to graduates Change the World by Making Your Bed and drew lessons from his experience going through Boot Camp as a US Navy Seal. As well as a brutal, deliberately de-humanising, shouty,  physically exhausting, sleep deprivation hell, elite forces Boot Camp has peculiar pernickety standards. One of those is a requirement to make your bed to exacting standards [no duvets need apply] every morning. McRaven reflected that this deliberate practice was good for moral because - eventually - you started each day with a small achievement. Banking that before breakfast was likely to lead to further morale boosting successes through the day . . . and give you a clean bed to fall into that night.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Food burden

Damme, it used to be simple. You'd have a limit budget with which you had to feed the family, so you bought a large sack of spuds because they were cheap and filling; and then you eked out the rest of your food budget on a tin of beans or a packet of sausages to act as condiment to calories as recommended by Thomas Jefferson. The Market should work so that the commodities that were most valuable would have the highest price because demand would ensure that. Then came 'organic' and you were made to feel like a heel if didn't pay extra for something so labelled.

We had just about nailed this other dimension to food economics - there wasn't a particularly clear relationship between price and organichood. - when my sister came to visit and told us we should worry about the air-miles . . . as well as the O-word. That started us looking at the country of origin and refusing to eat new potatoes in the early Summer because they all came from Cyprus or Egypt. As I say, it all got too much for my little brain and I went back to price. If regular milk is 75c and organic milk is 100c, and it is, then I save the 25c towards giving myself a clock when I retire. And the hell with thin milk, fat-free milk, and other adulterated products where you pay the same price and don't get all the ingredients. And I certainly don't buy other white beverages made with seaweed, palm oil, emulsifiers, and soy | almond | rice | oat. I tell ya there's a killing to be made with Genuine Irish Potato Milk.

Now The Beloved has pointed me at yet another dimension of food-guilt. As well as the organic, fair-trade, forest-friendly, kosher, nut-less, milk-less, gluten-free; we now have to get all WIGged out over the Warming, Index of Global. It hasn't yet appeared on the labelling but the BBC has a helpful starter pack to see just how your self-indulgence over pork, coffee, wine is quietly destroying the planet. According to this BBC app, I should be putting almond 'milk' in my porridge:
. . . but it ain't gonna happen. You can jump out of the global warming frying pan and find yourself plunged in a toxic maelstrom of carcinogens from these made-in-lab commodities. I'd rather skip the white stuff altogether and have my porridge protestant plain.

Tuesday 18 December 2018


D'ye live in these [Western European Archipelago WEA] islands? How was Storm Deirdre for you? It was wet wet wet for us. It rained from wee-hours Saturday 15/12/18 for 24 hours. I got up at first light and, with my azada and a shovel in gloved hands, I went to clear the drain that runs up beside the lane to our house. It's important to do this in the rain because then you can see where the debris is getting accumulated and scoop it clear. I was thereafter confident that the water would run away below us. In the early afternoon it eased off a little and I peeked out of the gate to see water roaring down the drain from above. I wasn't surprised: Storm Deirdre delivered about 50mm of rain in 24 hours. Usually 24 days would have to pass to accumulate that much precipitation. 15km East of here, the River Slaney burst its banks at Enniscorthy [again] and flooded the shops along the quay.

It was no time to creep back under the duvet and hope that things would be okay. Therefore, I shucked myself into my rain gear and plodded up the hill with my tools. Sometimes a mighty back-hoe is the tool of choice - ripping and tearing and dumping stuff in and out of the way: but they make a terrible ragged mess which will be particularly vulnerable to subsequent water damage. Sometimes a more focused Little-Hans-at-the-Dyke attack is better. In 1997, after we suffered the first destruction of our access road from a surfeit of rushing water, I button-holed one of our neighbours as he drove up the lane to talk about a solution. I pointed to a heap of 2-inch-down or Clause 804 gravel in our yard and said he could have as much as he wanted to make berms across the lane above our house. We agreed 4 places where a small intervention would turn any water off the road surface and into a big drain that would take it elsewhere. The next few times he went up the mountain to view his sheep, he brought up a front-loader full of aggregate and dumped it at the appointed places; and smoothed it out with a shovel while I was driving a desk up in Dublin. Over the years, these humps have settled down and grassed over and are, for intermittent flash floods, as good as concrete.

My Deirdre task was to make sure that the exits at each of these escape chutes were not clogging up.
Berm001. The lowest berm was holding firm but the ruts of the roadway above were inches deep in running water. As the slope is about 1:10 there is a lot of kinetic energy in the moving water and pebbles were bouncing along in the torrent - the twigs and fallen leaves or spikes of gorse Ulex had already been swept clean and down. My problem here is that, three years ago, we installed a long 30cm ⌀ plastic drain-pipe to carry the spill-water downhill. The plastic pipe is super slick inside but it's a long flattish journey for all the debris and I am concerned that it is slowly filling up. When it rains enough to flush things through, more crud is coming down from above. I only put in the pipe to stop my neighbour-above from swinging his tractor and trailer into the open drain every frigging time he turned into his field. The collapsed drain was invisible to him but I'd go up periodically to shovel the debris clear against the next flood.
Berm002I went up to barrier two knowing in was a lost cause. A while back, the same neighbour had decided that there was no advantage to him in allowing water to spill into his field 3 or 4 times a year . . . as insurance that there would be a lane to drive up to that field in the future. This is ironic because the 1997 flood stripped the topsoil and a generous dressing of artificial fertiliser from his newly created pasture and dumped it all in a heap on the county road. That Spring he'd been clearing and smoothing that 4 hectare field having knocked and buried and levelled all the walls and drains and ditches that had separated the 5 smaller fields which he'd bought at auction. After the storm and the loss and destruction he confessed ruefully: "The village idiot stood on the ditch and called out 'Sean, Sean, where's the water going to go, Sean?'" He had to get the back-hoe back on site to restore the drains that kept the mountain catchment delivering itself into the top of his 4 ha field and leaving 5 minutes later from the bottom corner.
Berm003. Like Berm001 this was holding its own and performing at specification. But like Berm001, there was a lot of water being turned aside here. With some trepidation, therefore, I quickened my pace to find out why so much water was travelling.
Berm004. Aha! When I arrived, water was brimming behind this dam and spilling over into the road-bed to gather speed on its way down hill. I started shovelling sods and mud up on top of the berm but these were getting carried away as soon as they were thrown up. I was alone, increasingly wet & out of my depth in water and resources. So I stopped and looked at the situation sideways; in particular at the place where the lake behind the berm headed East and into a capacious drainage channel. Water wasn't making its exit. I plunged into the lake and started to pull crud from the holes in the wall through which the water was meant to drain. Out came twigs, leaves, brambles, gorse, matted grass, old bracken: with each clot, mud and small stones came out with cloooargh sound. It was like a bath draining: the outflow increased dramatically and the level of the lake fell 20cm in about five minutes making the remains of my pathetic earlier shovellings look like sprinkles on a cake.
This is The Mountain Gate aka The Iron Gate; just to show what blurfed out of the drain this last weekend. The largest stones are as big as a baby's head. Also note the ominous sign on the gate. Forestry Operations are 15 hectares of scrubby hillside which is even as I write being grubbed up and stripped of bushes and ditches to plant Sitka spruce Picea sitchensis. The rain isn't going to stop because they planted some trees and a lot of exposed top-soil is going to start travelling until the tree-roots spread out and start holding things together. Tricking about with running water can be fun but only if you box clever. Being water blind [Fr. aveugleau ?] or staying on the sofa watching telly when it is hosing down outside is just laying yourself open to more expense and trouble later on.

Monday 17 December 2018


If you have a forensic bent and like reading recipes from pixellated photographs, you will have noted that the recipe for Christmas cake was not fully transcribed because there was more at the bottom of the page: the instructions for making marzipan from first principles. Thus:
  • 1lb (450g) ground almonds
  • 8oz (225g) icing sugar
  • 8oz (225g) caster sugar
  • ½ tsp almond essence
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp sherry ½ tsp whiskey
  • 4 egg yolks
We had an unaccountable large store of ground almonds approaching sell-by date, so Dau.II elected to make the marzipan for the cake. Other recipes suggest that a whole egg can substitute for the separated egg yolks which would clearly mean less faff. My understanding about the properties of eggs is that the yolks are full of lecithin which is the best emulsifier [think the miracle of mayonnaise] available outside of a food science laboratory; whereas egg white is just wet protein. Our discussion slipped into an enquiry about what was in commercial marzipan.
  • Aldi: 54% ground almonds; sugar, water, invert sugar syrup; humectant: invertase.
  • Tesco: Sugar, Almonds (24%), Glucose Syrup, Water, Invert Sugar Syrup.
  • Shamrock: Sugar, Almonds (25%), Invert Sugar Syrup, Stabiliser: Sorbitol, Glucose Syrup, Invertase, Colour: Lutein, Natural Flavouring (almonds)
  • Dr Oetker: Sugar, ALMONDS (26%), Water, Invert Sugar Syrup, Glucose Syrup, Humectant (Sorbitols), Ethanol.
Clearly Aldi's version wins the authenticity stakes hands down. It has more almonds that the first principles mit eggs version; and twice as much as the other industrial products. My pal Ysabel from Madrid looks at ground almonds with withering contempt - "all the goodness will have evaporated in factory leaving nothing for your kitchen; if you grind shell, blanch and grint your own almonds, you won't need <ptui> almond essence". I feel sure that the egg yolks add more lusciousness than just their yellow colour. Tesco's 'nut-free marzipan' is nothing of the sort - it is shortbread, rolled thin.

The humectant which appears in several ingredient lists is a wetting agent. Invertase, the enzyme, as explained last week, works by converting some of the sugar into invert sugar syrup which is intrinsically more wet than a sucrose solution.

Sorbitol E420 by contrast seems to work because it is hygoscopic - it has an affinity for water and so stops the wet stuff evaporating. It keeps things squidgy. Things being a long list including toothpaste, face-cream, marzipan, cakes, cigarettes, peanut-butter. You and your microbiome can digest the stuff but only slowly; which give it a desirably high glycemic index. Porridge oats will do for that too, and much cheaper.

Sunday 16 December 2018

St Adelaide's Day 161218

St Adelaide,whose feast day it is, is patron saint of of abuse victims; brides; empresses; exiles; in-law problems; parenthood; parents of large families; princesses; prisoners; second marriages; step-parents; widows . . . which tells you a lot about Adelaide's life and times.
In an ideal world we'd put Christmas in a box and have it delivered on the 24th December, where its unpacking would delight and entrance the children. Decorating the tree; putting out a carrot for Rudolf; and a stiff whiskey for 'Santa' could all be compressed into a time of mystic power. As it is 'Christmas' starts as soon as Thanksgiving is finished, if not shortly after Hallowe'en.

Saturday 15 December 2018

Sing a song

♫ I mentioned a sing-song in my story of 20 hours of Eating for The Institute. Part of the traditional schedule of events at the End of Term party is a Not Everybody Has Talent 'competition'. I've been working there 6 years come New Year, so I know this happens. Seven days out, I hadn't heard anything about our contribution; so I foolishly asked our Shop Steward, who usually arranges this event "whaaaa's happenin'?". Two hours later, I was accosted by one of newer younger faculty members to find out what I had chosen to sing that year. Apparently I had been elected Weihnachtskapellmeister - unopposed, naturally - by a fourth party. I am as happy to shirk tasks as the next government salaryman, but I figured I could do worse than previous years. In 2015, we sang the utterly repellent Grandma was run over by a reindeer. Last year, someone picked a carol with a really awkward key-change,  there was no rehearsal,  and the whole perf was a shameful ragged mess. At these events you can go religious or secular; be serious or hilarious; send up the management; or not participate. What you cannot do, in my lexicon of manners, is demonstrate that you, collectively, can't be arsed: it suggests that you think the whole event is pointless and other participants are rubbish.

♫ Now I confess that I love Holst's arrangement of Christine Rosetti's aching nostalgic hymn "In the Bleak Midwinter". Just sing it straight - it don't need tremolo, descant or trills - and not tooooo slow. It's a curious mixture of evocative rural landscape and religious sentiment. I spent a while trying to trick about with the lyrics to make an ironic attack on The Suits and government education policy. But  Rosetti's poem doesn't scan in a tum ti tum ti way so you can't easily just count syllables and replace cher-u-bim with pres-i-dent. And the reason why this piece is chosen by professional choirs is because the tune is challenging. Eventually, I threw all my efforts in the bin and went back to the drawing board.

♫ I wasn't sucking my pencil for long before I came up with Tom Lehrer's A Christmas Carol. When we were growing up in the 1960s, my Dad had a couple of dozen vinyl LPs. Two of which were of songs by Tom Lehrer. Who?never-'eard-of-'im! Tom Lehrer was a child prodigy who excelled at both Math and Music - he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He has been recognised, by no less than Daniel 'Potter' Radcliffe as "the funniest and cleverest man of the 20thC". Like young Daniel, we kids internalised every song on those two LPs. The advantages of choosing to sing that song last Friday were manifold:
  • I knew all the words
  • The tune is straight-forward
  • The rhythm is honky-tonk
  • It's all over in 90 seconds.
♫ I called My People [N=59 in School of Science] to arms for a rehearsal at noon on Tuesday. Four (4) people turned up, which was twice what I was expecting. We agreed the song would work (although I was the only person in the room who had heard of Tom Lehrer) if we hived off the two difficult bits to soloists and announced a Dress Rehearsal on Friday morning just before The Event. That doubled the choir to N=8, if you count a toddler in a buggy who chewed cheerios through the whole rehearsal. The choir was doubled again when 'Science' was called up on stage. We gave it socks and it was a much more creditable perf than last year.

♫ Notes on sex-ratio.
  • 10F:1M The choir mobilised by our College Chaplain. This is consonant with my varied experience in drum circles, samba schools and song camps: participating women outnumber men by about 10 to 1. Men aren't much interested in getting in touch with their inner selves. They'd rather be making inner shelves in a kitchen cupboard.
  • 2F:14M The Engineering Faculty choir. The Institute is really woefully behind the times. But that ratio is better than, day U.Birmingham, School Eng where The Boy did his M.Eng. - there 5F:95M
  • 3F:9M The Institute Senior (Grade 6 and above) Management Team. 

♫ Two sequels
  • Chatting later on in the concert, it turned out that one of our choral backbone a) could play a guitar and at a pinch a banjo b) knew the difference between a key-change and a major fifth and, most importantly c) was happy to be Weihnachtskapellmeisterzweitausendneunzehn. I'm delirah about thus passing the conductor's baton.
  • After the concert but before lunch, a lady of about my age came up from Finance to tell us how much she'd enjoyed hearing Tom Lehrer again. Her favourite song being The Masochism Tango. It was nice to know that we'd made one person in the room happy.
♫ Prequel. I shared a family story with her because, as a Lehrer groupie, it would resonate especially. In 1969 my older brother left school and inter-railed to Greece with a school acquaintance. They abandoned each other almost as soon as they arrived. A few weeks later, more or less on his way home, The Brother was sitting on a park bench in Rome, more or less skint. He was, quite unexpectedly, hailed from across the street by an English chap whom he knew but slightly. The chap said that he was on his way to a party and why didn't The Brother come along? The happening was in a slightly run-down Roman Palazzo and who should be installed at the piano but . . . Tom Lehrer.  As I've said before, in my family [and yours, dear reader] you make your own luck.

Friday 14 December 2018


My pal R came up to visit from The Holy Land part of the River Barrow valley. I won't be more specific because the questions we had to thrash out were mostly about distillation. The Gardai keep a watchful eye on distillers because rogue manufacturers who concentrate alcohol by distillation have rarely read chemistry at university and have only a hazy, seat-of-the-pants, idea about the relative boiling point of a) water 100oC b) ethanol 78oC c) methanol 65oC d) congeners ???oC. Earlier this year I alluded to a case where several deaths were cause from methanol poisoning at a Balkan wedding serving home-made cherry brandy. Hundreds of similar instances happen every year.

Distillers first make a ferment of yeast and sugar (and some additives because yeast cannot live on sugar alone). Pure white p'ison sugar costs money, so anything with sugar in it will do: apples, sprouting grain, potatoes, and of course grapes. With an alcohol-tolerant strain of yeast, reasonably tight control of temperature and sufficient food, this mash might finish up at 20% ethanol by weight. Depending on how pure the inputs are, you're going to have water and more or less ethanol and less or more methanol and the other shite. I suppose you could start with dustbin full of beyond-sell-by-date cakes and see what happens. The mash is then distilled by heating up the water and condensing the vapours. First comes the methanol, then the ethanol and finally as the temperature rises from78oC to100oC the ethanol concentration falls off and you're getting [impure] water.

There are reasons for having a really fast fermentation: to crank up the concentration of alcohol to the max before the dead yeast start to make the kitchen smell rank. If you're using sucrose = cane sugar = the stuff you buy in the supermarket; then the yeast has to do extra work before it starts to convert the sugar into alcohol. That's because sucrose is a disaccharide: its made up of one glucose and one fructose [see R] and the currency of metabolism is glucose so splitting the disaccharide and reconfiguring the fructose are pre-requisite actions before the actual ferment can begin.

Glucose is aka blood sugar [it's our energy currency as well as yeast's] or dextrose. Me and R had a bit of a barney because he refused to accept that 'glucose' is chemically identical to 'dextrose'. Sometime food ingredient engineers will put dextrose on the table of contents to hide that fact that they are lurrying in the sugar into the product. Dextrose is a funny name for a girl but an evocative name for a chemical. It rings of dextrous, dexterity and right-handed as opposed to sinister with all those negative left-handed associations. Dextrose gets that name because if you shine polarised light through a bottle of glucose the light will be rotated clockwise = to-the-right. This is quantitative: higher concentration = more twist, longer light-path = more twist. Sucrose also performs this turn-right party-trick. Fructose otoh, the sinister member of the couple, rotates light even further anti-clockwise. As your solution of sucrose gets broken down, more fructose goes into solution and the light inverts.

You can do the breakdown by brute force by adding acid - such as citric acid: the Go To acid for food use: like all chemical reactions things go faster if you heat them up. Or you can do it elegantly with an enzyme called sucrase aka invertase. Enzymes are proteins which miraculously make biochemical reactions go faster at normal temperatures. R's 'recipes for rot-gut' advised using a jolt of citric acid and heat to increase the initial concentration of mono-saccharides and then cool the mix down before adding the yeast. The reaction [glucose --> alcohol and carbon dioxide] is, of course, carried out by enzymes too. I suggested that R might try to source commercial invertase to do the pre-processing. Enzymes really do work fantastically more efficiently than chemical reactions.

Works Do - Bob Does

It's mid-December, it is okay to start thinking about getting festive. Thursday evening was the Departmental party, to which many people look forward with dread. What if I finish up seated next to the winner of The Most Boring Colleague prize? What are the chances that I'll food-poisoning? How likely is it that the DeptLush will spill his drink into my lap? Everyone will be dicing with those possibilities. Women will be alert for the roamin' hands of the DeptLothario? Silverbacks like me know that they won't be able to hear half the conversation because youngsters mumble and the music is always too loud. We also have to worry about forgetting whose mother died earlier in the year and whose boy-friend has more recently dumped her. This year it was okay.
  • I had an excuse for leaving after a couple of hours
  • I weasled some useful information about retirement from the MBC
  • nobody spilled anything into my lap
    •  nobody was sick ditto
  • the food [international tapas] was better than expected:
    • papas bravas; lamb tagine; falafel; hallomi in a bun; duck 'wings' with hoisin sauce; gambas & chorizo bake
    • you can't fool a tableful of biologists: "waiter, this wing is suspiciously like a femur"
I was at home by 9pm, €25 lighter in the pocket and looking for a small alcoholic bevvy and a hot water bottle before falling into bed.

Yesterday, Friday, was the last day of term. I had read all the Literature Reviews of my final year research project students . . . and given them a chunk of mostly positive feedback. All my exams were marked and I was up to date with the lab reports. I was only at The Institute because free food was on offer. Free Food was on the table because, by long tradition, the Christmas after folk retire from The Institute, they are invited back to be tribbed by their line-manager and presented with a clock by The President. With unaccountable generosity all employees are invited to dinner in case any of the recently-retired wants to catch up with colleagues, cleaners, porters or administrators.

Before that, again by long tradition, there is a bring-and-buy cake sale and raffle to raise funds for local charities intercalated with a Christmas sing song. As with much of modern Christmas tradition, it never rains but it pours. On top of a morning of doing justice to the home-baking crew - it would be unfair not to sample one of everything - we were expected to trencher through a mountainous plate of turkey-and-stuffing-and-ham-and-gravy-and-roasters-and-sprouts. I usually go for the vegetarian option because the queue is shorter; but this year I went trad . . . and followed it with mince-pies-and-brandy-custard.  Even with a damn good Kobayashi shake, I couldn't stop myself falling into a drooling sleep on the sofa as soon as I sat down at home.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Eat local

We live in Ireland, have done for the last near 30 years, and we'd like to think it's a happenin' place rather than a rural backwater on the edge of Europe. Certainly we get all excited when something creative bursts out of Ireland and becomes A Thing in the wider world. Let's think . . . The Book of Kells, Guinness, U2, RyanairIdentigen, Stripe, CoderDojo, Nobó . . . note that two of those global brands are in the Food & Bev sector. There must be more F&B globals because Ireland is renowned for its 40 shades of green Kerrygold smoked salmon. If there's anywhere on the island that's down with the food, then it's got to be The People's Republic of Cork. Dau.II works in the epicentre of épicerie - The English Market in the centre of Cork City. When she came to visit on the weekend, as well as some olives and some fancy french pastries, she brought news of two interesting local foodie start-ups at least one of which has burst out on to a wider international stage.

Hive Mind operates out of Myrtleville, Co Cork, on the idea We Keep The Hives You Keep The Honey. Why would I need that? you ask, I can get Boyne Valley Squeezable for about €8.00/kg and Boyne Valley Pure and Natural for €11.00/kg. That makes suspicious-me wonder WTF is in the (Impure & Unnatural) cheaper stuff. And before you assume that Boyne Valley honey has been sourced and dew-picked from an Irish hive be sure to read the small print on the label. Packed in Ireland, produce of Many Countries is likely.  I've had a slap at the difference between smoked Irish salmon and Irish smoked salmon. Immediately after that you should be looking for the Fair Trade symbol . . . and not finding it. That should assure you that some peasant in Honduras and Guatamala is working at the hive for rather less than a latte-an-hour - possibly a latte-a-day. Me, I prefer the wholly industrial food-chemist-created Lyle's Golden Syrup for about €2.00/kg - at least for my flapjacks. Hive Mind will take €300 off you at the beginning of the year and give you the produce of a single hive - which averages 15kg/year. They will cut you in for a 1/3rd share at €100/yr. That sounds like a good deal from me: knowing and trusting your supplier is important if you are to have any foodie street-cred at all at all. And you'll get a fortnightly progress report by e-mail through the season. I'm assuming that, if your hive gets colony collapse disease or varroa or gets eaten by a marauding bear, then you-the-venturer have to suck up the loss. Contrariwise if it is a bumper season with accessible clover Trifolium repens and a finish of ivy Hedera hibernica then you get all the bounty. Sounds like something for which there should be an insurance market.

The other Cork-founded Food&Bev asset is Neighbourfood [neighbourhood geddit?] which serves as a nexus between foodie consumers and a range of local farmers and food producers. How it works: You order on the web, pay by credit card and collect your basket of earthly delight on Tuesday evening.
  • Delights?
    • How about Free-Range Chicken, Organic Veggies, Fermented Tonics, Freshly Made ready-to-eat meals, buffalo meat, chocolate, beer, preserves, oils, body care bits, ice cream, freshly cut flowers, real bread, natural/biodynamic wines, sweet treats, sugar-free sweet treats pantry essentials and even kindling, logs and much much more
I believe them when they claim that the process of collection is part of the positive experience. In Lidaldi I feel bullied into scrabbling my groceries off the check-out under the baleful eye of the check-out person who is being productivity paced by the management. Neighbourfood sounds like our Subtitles Film Society you go along expecting to meet your friends and neighbours-in-food, and maybe the producers. Swap a few recipes, praise the new ice-cream, moan about the weather, and try not to imagine which one is your husband's lover. Common ground makes Community.