Wednesday 31 January 2018


Hey Lunatics, today is a very special moon. It's BIG, it's bloody and it's blue. I was skyping with Dau.II a tuthree days ago and she reminded me that tonight's full moon was three-ways important. It's big because it's close-up . . . at perigee syzygy, which I riffed on last time there was a Supermoon on The Blob. It's bloody because there will be a total eclipse of the moon . . . on the other side of the World:
The line up only works perfectly over Australia, Alaska and East Asia and a vast expanse of Ocean dotted with small islands. It's Blue because, tonight is the second full moon in the month. That isn't super rare: the maths of the eccentric orbits of Earth and Moon ensure that 7/19 years have an extra 13th full moon which must slot into one of the 12 months to make a double-up. The Venn diagram of the three rare events occurs only about once every 150 years. So it really is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Within a day of hearing this celestial triple from Dau.II, we had Dau.I visiting and she shared that there are three sorts of twilight. We three must love each other very much. My lightning-quick response to the Twilight Triple was "I thought there were four books in the trilogy". That drew deserved cries of "lame" and a slow hand clap. That's the thanks you get for trying to be down with the popular culture of post-teenage girls. So back to the evening and the morning. As you know, I recently benefited from the existence of fading light to locate sheep troughs in a dark field at least 3 km from the nearest street light. aNNyway, the facts:
You can see from the diagram, that the grey between full light and full dark is, somewhat arbitrarily, divided into three based on what you can do/see as a function of how far below the horizon is the sun.
  • Civil twilight is when the sun has gone from direct view but you can still see everything clear enough not to require artificial illumination.
  • Nautical twilight is when sailors can still make out the horizon; and any horizon-breaking islands; but there is enough light-loss for them to be able to see the key bright navigational stars
  • Astronomical twilight is dark enough for star-gazers to see pretty much all they get their telescopes out for. It is affected by street-lamp light pollution and moonshine, of course, but is effectively the same as full dark.
There you go. Didn't know that before, so I'm glad m'daughters and I are still speaking. Then, just this morning, Twilight popped up above the horizon pointing at an apology from the film critic Lindsay "Nostalgia Chick" Ellis. When Stephanie Meyer published her teen-girl fantasy about love in a time a vampyres, she struck a chord that sold 100 million copies of her books. Those are Harry Potter stats! Inevitably there was back-lash where the Commentary Commissars complained about the quality of the writing, the absence of plot, and how teenagers and/or their Mums who bought into the genre were sort of anaemic. Meyer and her followers got a much harder crit-storm because it is easy [and therefore lazy] to slag teenage girls - it's part of the process of eroding their sense of self-esteem . . . so they get a better bride-price. Lindsay Ellis is really good copy for deconstructing popular culture: funny, ironic and insightful. Here she is on David Bowie's Labyrinthine package.

Tuesday 30 January 2018

Drummer meets Keeper

In September, as I've done for the last ten years, I rocked up to the Blackstairs Film Society [multiprev] and paid my annual sub for the season. Eight (8!) films with sub-titles for a €5er each - can't be faulted for bargain . . . if you get to them all. Well dang-and-blast-it, I missed the Oct, Nov and Dec screenings because we were in other counties at the time. Last Saturday, we had cleared the diary for BFS and then heard that Dau.I and her Plus1 were coming down to visit, so we made up a party to go to the movies. That required us to go for pre-event drinks in Osborne's the boutique bar and hostel across the street from the hall where the films are shown. Very civilised, very old style: you can buy wellington boots and sweets are Osborne's as well as beer and crisps.

And the film?  It was The Drummer & The Keeper [review RTE] written and directed by Nick Kelly. It was widely toured round the back-country earlier in the month as part of First Fortnight - Ireland's Mental Health Arts Festival. Whoa! Mental Health films? Like A Beautiful Mind? Is that going to be family entertainment? Seems like a lot of families thought so because instead of a few handfuls of getting-old aficionados of sub-titles, the venue was rammed with teenagers . . . and the usual elderly film-buffs. Drummer & Keeper is the heart-warming story of an unlikely friendship between two young men. Gabriel is the 20-something drummer in a rock-band and Christopher is a middle-class 17 y.o with Asperger's. The Drummer is troubled - the label is bi-polar - but can afford to get help from the same therapist who treated his mother before she offed herself. The bit of money inherited from his mother pays for the therapist and for his obsession with setting fire to material goods in unlikely places. The therapist is threatening to institutionalize the Drummer but holds off if he will join a mixed-ability soccer camp; which is where he meets Christopher; who has his own basket of obsessions - Lego, goal-keeping [he is the titular Keeper], woollie hats and statistics. He becomes the roadie for the rock-band because he can put everything back in the same place like assembling an elaborate Lego kit.

I won't give more of the plot away because you really need to get out and see the Film - it has won prizes at festivals and is going on the road beyond these green shores during 2018. You can, of course, buy it as a DVD and watch it all bobby-no-pals at home but I don't recommend that. We were privileged to have Nick Kelly the director at the BFS showing to watch it with us and have a short Q&A afterwards. One of the points Kelly made at the afters was that he likes watching the audience watching the film: every showing is different because each audience entrains and starts to react together in unpredictable ways - must be the pheromones.

Two points though. One is that the film is awash with money; it lubricates the boys' journey. I can't imagine poor mentally troubled people getting more than ten minutes at the GP and a script for drugs to trick about with their neurotransmitters. In Ireland we are a long way from treating mental illness as an illness like pneumonia or hyper-tension where timely intervention can deal really effectively with the problem. If you are troubled in the mind, the waiting lists are far too long for timely intervention. Which brings me to my second point:

The Drummer describes the Up cycle of his bipolar as being 'like more of who you are' which is why it is no longer considered appropriate to call it manic-depression. Not every bipolar person goes/is manic: the wildly fluctuating flux of neurotransmitters enhances the true self. The meds damp down the surges to establish a calmer equilibrium state. For the mathematician John Nash the wilder reaches of his mental shore won him, eventually, a Nobel Prize but also thrust him off the last point of stable land into a turbulent sea of troubles. Nick Kelly makes the point that the Drummer's meds really don't help his drumming, because they make him less of who he is. Teaching Human Physiology at The Institute, my running theme / leitmotif is homeostasis: we normally exist in an exquisitely balanced equilibrium maintained by complementary neurotransmitters, hormones and negative feedback loops. A small shift out of line (on core body temperature; blood acidity; glucose concentration; cell division, water balance, mood) is brought back on track within seconds - well before it is a perceptible problem. Medications, even give three-times-a-day after meals, are as a bludgeon to a scalpel: think Factor VIII for haemophilia. And taken orally, they act systemically: knocking The Problem on the head perhaps but also crashing about the body on other wholly unexpected fronts. Anti-psychotics screw with your sense of balance and gait (and rhythm!), gum up your insides and make you more likely to suffer a stroke. That's why the small-print list of potential side-effects on any medication is longer than the list of ingredients in a shop-bought cake. Cue Yeats
I balanced all, brought all to mind,   
The years to come seemed waste of breath,   
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Monday 29 January 2018

Let there be light

Tuesday is my busy day at work, I have wall-to-wall classes with barely enough time for lunch and Wednesday starts sharp at 0900hrs with Cell Biology practicals. The new home schedule is that The Beloved is looking after her aged father Pat the Salt on Tuesday nights, so all the Tuesday farm work falls to me. Last Tuesday, I had to call in to the feed-store on my way home and buy six bags of #3 sheep muesli for our recently increased flock of ewes - they are starvin' poor cr'atures for want of grass. It was 1745 and dark by the time I pulled into the yard and I was faced with a choice: a) move the two feed-troughs to Crowe's and empty in a half sack of sheep feed or b) do it in the dark before leaving for work in the morning. There was a sliver of moon in the sky and it wasn't raining to I went for a).  Now if I'd dropped my keys, things would have been difficult but I could "see" the troughs loom up as a darkness on the dark grass and I was able to shift them, fill them and count the sheep as they fed. That must be the reason we prefer white sheep!  But I was careful not to take any short-cuts through the hedges - a poke in the eye with a sharp stick is no fun. That's sort of amazing, how effective our eyes are even when photons are few and far between.

It turns out, however, that some light is better than other light and sun-light isn't ever-and-always the best. Most people are aware that we can make enough vitamin-D if we get enough sunlight; and if we fail to get enough vit-D there are dire consequences for calcium balance and bone-integrity. I wrote in 2015 about how not enough day-light seems to be driving a myopia epidemic: it's the dopamine, stupid. Like every other living thing on the planet, we have been crafted by millions of years of evolution to use environmental cues to help run our lives. The author of Ecclesiastes knew this "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up" KJV.  If we run around at high-doh 24/7, then we rapidly run out of steam and succumb to tremors, cancer and an early death. I heard on the wireless last week that in 1980, the average teenager slept for 9.5 hours a night but that has slipped to 6.5 hours a night for 2015. But I'm not going to rant about smart-phones, the tyranny of popularity or cyber-bullying in the bedroom.

I am rather going to cue on a worrying piece to camera in Nature by Karolina Zielinska-Dabkowska (with that name, no surprises to hear that she's Polish - working in Gdansk). She's an expert on lighting design, so she might be tempted to see all the woes of the world through the tints in her own spectacles - like all my understanding of the natural world and human physiology is prefaced by "over millions of years of evolution". But her arguments have, for me, the ring of consistency and truth. I've mentioned how 10% (and rising) of the world's electricity goes to support server-farms and the Interweb, Dr KZ-D now tells us that 20% goes out for lighting.

That was worrying - to Fidel Castro; to the EU; and others - and so the incandescent light-bulb was fingered as the low-hanging fruit. These light-bulbs have been around for more than 100 years and so are a known, tried and tested, product. But they are hungry on the power. So there was a move to replace them all with CFLs = compact fluorescent lamps which, according to the packaging, gave the equivalent of 100W of incandescent light for about 20 W of power. Win! they were a bit cranky on the start up but lowered everybody's electricity bills; albeit by shunting the cost of the new product onto the housekeeping budget. You cannot buy incandescent bulbs in Ireland now, except maybe on eBay. Win, maybe, but definitely not win-win: because the new technology contained significant amounts of mercury and nobody thought through the disposal protocol - perhaps because the CFLs were marketed as lasting forever. So these delicate glass-and-metal receptacles are sent to land-fill where they break and leach mercury into the landfill sump. Should we take out a class-action suit against Philips and GE because their solution to save energy will brain-damage our grand-children?

But maybe more damaging, because insidious and a known-unknown, is the difference in the emitted spectrum of incandescents vs CFLs; especially insofar as it affects the hormones of our sleep-wake cycle. Without hours of darkness, we don't carry out a range of repair-and-polish activities in our brains and elsewhere. Sure, it's about getting enough dream-time, so that we can process, integrate and de-tox the events of our troubling day but that is by no means all that is controlled by the balance of melatonin and cortisol. The picture [L], modified from KZ-D's article, shows that incandescent lights, which are switched on as twilight falls, are a remarkably good fit with natural evening light. CFLs otoh are too rich at the blue end of the spectrum and have effectively no sunset red.

That turns out to be a Big Problem because of the photo-pigment melanopsin, which is super-sensitive to light at 480 nm = plunk in the middle of visible 'hello sky' blue. Melanopsin is the pigment in retinal cells interspersed among the rods and cones called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells - ipRGCs to their friends. These cells react to the the presence of blue light at day-break and no blue light at sunset to control the release of cortisol, melatonin, dopamine and serotonin. These lads have a finger in a wide range of physiological and psychological pies: alertness, appetite, blood pressure, immunity, mood, metabolism and temperature. Blue light at night = shepherds take fright. Dr KZ-D'd advice:
  • lights OFF at night
  • get an hour of real day-light on waking in the morning
  • no CFLs at all at all
The Blob's corollary: get up in the dark, switch on the CFLs and blog like a mad-thing for a couple of hours before work . . . you'll be wired!

Sunday 28 January 2018

Wood 280118

Today we're into the woods
But if you're chopping trees down to make firewood and lumber, you have to put back
  • Rewooding Iceland after 1000 years of over-grazing. Ecotypes, genetics, species selection, climate change.
  • Green wall across Africa. Planting a strip (mostly Acacia). 15km deep across the Sahel to hold back the creeping sands of the Sahara.

Saturday 27 January 2018

corsets for health

Ever since I realised I could wear what I liked, rather than the uniform sailor suits my father, Kapitan von Trapp, made us dress in, I've had a preference for crew-neck sweaters. I'm kidding about The Skipper and the sailor suits, but I did go to two schools that had a very peculiar dress code.  My sweater-pref makes it easy for the rellies come Christmas and Birthday. I was given a sweater a few years ago that was really tight round the gussets and it finished up at the back of the closet after I spent a day at work feeling positively purple in the face. That sweater surfaced in December when we took the opportunity of having a full house of family to do some decluttering. I wasn't ready to sent it off to Syria as it was basically unworn, so I tried it on again. It fit! . . . like a glove rather than an old potato sack. The reason it fits now, as opposed top then, is because I've shed some weight since my paragliding days  - something like 10 or 15 kg.

Last week the Minister of Education was down at The Institute for a symposium on Education and Enterprise. I arrived early enough to get a free cup of tea and start ripping into the micro-croissants that are served at such events. Apropos of appreciating the free food one of my younger female colleagues said, (a little ruefully)  "Hey Bob, you have a good figure, you can eat what you want". I don't think I could have said anything like that to her - it's not in my nature and also breaks the current rules of taboo discourse. Whatever, the words were spoken and I laughed them off explaining that my once-and-future sweater was like a corset . . . but stopped myself from continuing ". . . and you should see me when I take it off". Now that would be transgressive.

This-all is an, off-centre, introduction to a cunning plan out of Germany for helping / handling ADHD - which I heard about from "Rissoles" Hayes when we dropped in last weekend. A couple of years ago, I wrote of my qualified admiration for Temple "think like a steer" Grandin. Dr Grandin almost finished up rocking quietly in a corner of an Institution but instead secured multiple degrees, a TED talk, and a successful consultancy. She is out there on the autistic spectrum and talks of the relief she felt when constrained in a hugger-suit: a cross between a garment and an iron-lung that would make me, and possibly you, feel super-constrained and claustrophobic - especially if were both in there simultaneously. This relief by compression is not unique to Dr Grandin.

Educators in Germany have been reading the same anecdotes and now offer fidgetty kinder the chance to wear a special jacket loaded with sand [in fashionable pink R] to calm them down [Grauniad]. Not to be confused with the Michelin Man [prev]. Those who believe [Hallelluia!] think the intervention helpful - others start to rail about stigmatisation and making comparisons to strait-jackets. Doubtless someone will carry out a 'controlled' scientific experiment; matching kids off and giving half of then a sand-vest and the other half a regular jacket. I'm not hopeful that you can get a statistically convincing result without a huge sample-size. Even then, I'm not convinced that ADHD is one condition rather than a suite of behaviours that disturb other people. If it's a spectrum, especially if multi-dimensionally variable, then it's possible that some will respond and others won't because you're not comparing like with like.

Whatever the efficacy, there is now product. Apparently these things weigh up to 5 kg and cost somewhere North of €150 ! Holy sewing-machine, Robin. I've got a heap of sand in the yard, if your kid needs one, I'll run up a little jacket from sand and fertiliser sacks that will be just the ticket, €50 should cover it.

Whatever about a cure for ADHD, I heard recently that wearing a tight sweater when going out to dinner can help the obesity epidemic. It's to do with the feedback loops that are in each of us to control appetite. One system involves a homeostatic balance between two hormones leptin and ghrelin. The former says "I'm stuffed' the later "I'm starved".  Another, parallel, system monitors whether the stomach is full. A real tight six-pack framing shirt can trigger this latter system into believing it is full. Just sayin'! Probably even less data on that than the ADHD vs sand story.

Whatever about sandstrait-jackets, these things may remind older readers of a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, where talented, intelligent or athletic people are assigned handicaps to bring everyone down to an equal baseline. Harrison Bergeron finishes up burdened with bags of lead-shot, headache-inducing spectacles and hideous make-up.

Bird strike 270118

Class Aves - the birds. I think there are 10,000 different species; maybe twice as many as species of mammals. Some are "right purty" but others are known to birders = twitchers as LBJs little brown jobs; which need some expertise to identify. Still I'm not going to bore you with science; it's just that I've accumulated a handful of links on birds, and that sent me off down a petrel-burrow [petrevious] of connexions:

Friday 26 January 2018

Mother's Ruin

Picture left is a zoom from Gin Lane a famous print by Hogarth. It shows a mother so smashed with Dutch courage that, in scrabbling in her snuff box for more drugs, she allows her infant to fall out of her arms and onto its head. Mother's Ruin is cockney rhyming slang for gin. I didn't realise that the print was paired with another called Beer Street where honest English yeomen are quaffing pints of healthy English ale . . . so different from imported Hollandish gin. Hogarth was of the same mind about beer as William Cobbett who preferred beer to tea: another unpatriotic import. We think we've come along way since 1751 and that nobody now would dream of quieting a noisy baby by using alcohol as a soporific. hmmmmm?

I was drawn to think about this issue last week because I was in the pharmacist. I was in the pharmacist because my neighbour across the valley called me at work to say that she and her husband were poleaxed by the Australian 'flu and good for nothing but the bed.
Could I pick up a couple of packets of  Lemsip  with the turbo-charge of paracetamol on board?
I could!
It was bit of a rush because I was just about to leave the office, late, and I was 20 minutes from the four (4!) pharmacies in Bagenalstown [pop. 3,000] which closed in 25 minutes. Nevertheless, I barrelled in through the door of Nolan's before they were shuttered and asked for the 1000mg paracetamol  Lemsip .
  • Is this for you?
    • No, it's for my sick neighbours
  • Are they on any other medication?
    • Que?
  • Because they don't want to take this stuff if there is paracetamol in their other meds.
    • I don't know
  • Well make sure they don't overdose on paracetamol it will destroy their livers [prev]
    • Okay
    • Hey, can I have two packets, one for him and one for her?
  • I'll ask The Pharamcist
  • Okay, I can sell you two packets, that will be €15,80
    • Thanks for caring about my neighbours' liver.
  • We can't be too careful.
    • Do you remember Dozol? (she was of the right age)
Which allowed me to reminisce about being part of the Dublin-London shuttle in the early 1990s. Dozol is marketed €5.95/bottle as a pain-killer - contains paracetamol and the anti-histamine diphenhydramine but the name and the packaging [see L for child seeing stars] tells parents that it is a really effective knock-out drop.  Half of The Beloved's family were then living in England, so anyone flying in either direction would be requested-and-required to take a black bin bag full of children's clothes as checked baggage. Everyone was breeding and the nice Mothercare micro-dungarees would be outgrown, get shipped to Ireland for the next smallest cousin and then shipped back and then returned. The end of the 1990s coincided with a slackening of the rate of child-birth, (and, of course, 9/11) and the traffic in kid's clothing also dried up. One time, the day before my departure to Stansted, I got a call from London to go buy six bottles of Dozol and bring them across the water so that the family could get some sleep. The stuff wasn't on sale in England.

I went round to the Pharmacy by the back-gate of Trinity College Dublin and asked for six (6!) bottles of Dozol. Well, the pharmacist had a fit and lectured me strong about how dangerous the stuff was: Six bottles is a LOT of Dozol. Telling him that the load was for export to England put an abrupt stop to his gab - he was quite happy to take my money if it was British kids that I was going to do to death. Really folks, don't do this at home. Dozol replaced Woodward's Gripe Water in the years after WWII despite the latter being a very effective soother of colicky or teething childer. Gripe water contained sodium bicarbonate and dill Anethum graveolens and . . . 4% alcohol! It was a lot more expensive than gin and thrifty mothers soon saw through the marketing and just put a tot of gin the baby's bottle - vodka would do nicely as well.  There is nothing so wearing as the sleep deficit caused by a continually crying baby.

Thursday 25 January 2018

Lay off the bitchin': it's discouraging

Further musings on BTYS [prev; prevlier]: I'm usually aware of the BT Young Scientist BTYS competition as it come around every year in early January. When our girls were of the equivalent age we even went up to the show a couple of times. But the timing is awkward for me as it coincides with the end of the first week back teaching at The Institute. Usually, therefore, BTYS surfaces in my mind around New Year and then sinks into oblivion without me knowing who won or what the sexy projects had been (the two are not always the same). A friend of mine was a BTYS judge for several years, so I know something of the efforts the system puts in place to ensure that the winners deserve the ballyhoo. There are lots of subsidiary prizes too, so lots of good kids get a bit of a boost and hopefully are encouraged to stay on in science when they leave school.

This year's Winner Winner was Simon Meehan [L holding his active principle] of Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, Co Cork; with a microbiological project "Investigation of the antimicrobial effects of both aerial and root parts of selected plants against Staphylococcus aureus".  That gave me a frisson of interest because briefly in my butterfly life as a scientist, I'd also made a contribution to devising a novel therapy against MRSA = methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is what kills you if you go to hospital for a hip-replacement. It's not really a problem outside of hospital - 30% of us have some MRSA up our noses without it being the least bother. Our immune system and the other bacterial actors on the surface of our nasal epithelium keep the bad boys at bay. Back in 2005 and 2007 we found that certain anti-microbial peptides AMPs, which we had discovered in the chicken genome, were particularly effective at killing some pathogenic bacteria. With a rush of blood to the head we thought about setting up a campus company which would design novel AMPs - effective against MRSA, cholera and whatever you're having yourself. One of our post-grads was notably ambitious and enterprising in the pursuit of science, fortune and fame. One of the consultant surgeons in the hospital, where all the research was going on, was approached for the first tranche of VC. We started to casually use corporate-speak about burn-rate, low-hanging fruit, and paradigm shift. Then it all went pear-shaped. Our Young Turk went to work with another research group, the consultant went back to his theatre saving lives directly and the vision about  retiring on our money at 40 fizzled out in a bath of dull reality.

I would have missed Simon Meehan's story entire if my correspondent G [prev, prevlier] hadn't sent me a link from  You often get interesting discussions, insights and straight-dope info on but the only qualification for contributing is that you have an internet connexion.  The tenor of the commentary about young Meehan is that about 10 years ago his mother Brigid Lucey, a scientist (now in CIT then at Cork University Hospital) and a student at Cork IT Susan O'Shea  investigated the MRSA-killing power of certain wild-flower extracts. The implication being that the son is just a sock-puppet for his Mum.

In general rather than in this particula, at least as relevant as the parent is the science teacher. During the 43 years the competition has been running, 4 schools have won twice and 2 schools have won thrice. No fair! the begrudgers complain: there are nearly 800 secondary school in the country, why don't they get a chance? Because the quality of the mentoring, the passion in their science department and/or the spare capacity and commitment of their teaching staff is wanting. Let's hear it for the teachers and the ethos at Abbey Grammar School, Newry; Coláiste Mhuire, Dublin Kinsale Community School; Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál, Blarney; St Finian’s College, Mullingar; Synge Street CBS, Dublin.

I find prima facie that the sock-puppet theory of BTYS success is both unlikely and unfair. Every year about 60,000 kids sit their Junior Certificate, that is more or less every 15/16 y.o. in the country. Only a few hundred of those kids start doing a Young Scientist project on top of their school work. The rest don't: they have enough on their plate with hormones, school, drink, sports, helping on the farm, sex, tricking about with their smart-phones, sex, worrying about being bullied, bullying smaller people, counting their Friendface friends, sex, recovering from the binge drinking session last Friday, volunteering with St. John's Ambulance, more drink, instagraming another picture of themselves or their parts in the hope of getting more sex.

Why does one teenager have an interest in science while another goes swimming?
Because they click with their science-teacher [_];
because their pals are also doing sciency things [_];
because they have a relative who does science [_];
because of that documentary they saw on the TV [_];
because they read Feynman's book [_];
because they 'are good at it' [_];
Tick all that apply. If a kid ticks none-of-the-above then s/he is most unlikely to win the BTYS . . . because s/he never got into the traps at the beginning of the race. But even if you tick ALL the boxes, you need additional toolkit else to be successful.
  • You need to Do The Work - nobody won a prize without data
  • You need to analyse the results - nobody aged 15 knows enough statistics to design the experiments and apply the correct tests to determine if they are interesting; so you almost certainly need help, guidance or discussion on this. My experience in the local competition is that statistical knowledge is close to nil.
  • You need to continue through the dark tea-time of the soul when nothing is going right: when your trial plants get eaten by your brother's rabbit; when it rains every day in July; when you spill coffee on your (unbackedup) laptop; when you find fungus all over your Petri-dishes.
  • You need to present the data presentably: deciding what details are left on the cutting room floor; deciding that Helvetica looks better on your poster than [default] Calibri; deciding how to best graph the results [not a bar chart!!]; deciding which picture will catch a judge's eye.
  • You need to defend your results, your experimental design and your methodology, when grilled by the judges
Who had the original idea is the least of it and it was aNNyway almost certainly only part of an idea which grew through discussion and preliminary results and changes in direction when the original concept met reality on the ground. I've written with some hilarity at the thought that ideas spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus. The begrudgers on should just zip it unless they have some better evidence that young Meehan didn't do the work. And sitting on your fat arse on the sofa busily typing one-liners on doesn't really give you locus standi as a referee of scientific ethics.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

How the other half

I've cited Steven "Curse of Knowledge" Pinker many times over the last 5 years but not mentioned his book The Blank Slate about the relative impact of nature (genetics) vs nurture (upbringing). The first sentence of the preface reads "Not another book on nature and nurture! Are there really people out there who still believe that the mind is a blank slate? Isn't it obvious to anyone with more than one child, to anyone who has been in a heterosexual relationship, or to anyone who has noticed that children learn language but house pets don't, that people are born with certain talents and temperaments? Haven't we all moved beyond the simplistic dichotomy between heredity and environment and realized that all behavior comes out of an interaction between the two?

. . . my brother and I have half our genes in common, we went to the same schools, albeit 3 years apart and we both have three children. But despite these constraints (and being SWM beyond middle-aged, of course) we are very different creatures. My mother summed it up a while back in the context of shirts. When our Dad died in 2001, I snagged all the oul'fella's office shirts . . . and his best pair of black shoes. I wore those shirts at work until The Beloved ripped them off me back and reduced them to kitchen rags. The Brother otoh wears one shirt, throws it on a growing heap near the laundry room and buys more shirts when there are no clean ones left in the press. I'm still using The Da's shoes because I keep them for weddings, funerals and interviews which are thankfully rare events in my life. The wider run of my family (including in-laws, out-laws, nieces and neffies) split about 50:50 on the thrift v spend-thrift axis.

I've been bumbling along just above the base-line for salaries in science for nearly 40 years and science is notorious among the professions for being poorly paid [R all the yellow dots to the left side of the graph], so I couldn't have gone all flaithulach about money without selling one of the kids. The Brother otoh was one of the most successful people in British wireless and TV entertainment through the 1980s and then worked in the advertising industry, which can both be a bit boom-and-bust but the boom years can be spectacularly boomy. At one time, he was instructed by his accountant to buy a piano - Steinway for preference - to offset that allowable expense against the tax bill. I'm not completely sure but think that our two careers were tailored to the character rather than the other way about.

I've written before about Dau.II who is currently "resting" - as actors have it - between jobs because she saved enough over the previous four years of hard-graft in the catering trade to take a sabbatical. The way she phrased it " what more could I want, I have four sorts of cheese in the fridge". When she got a pay-hike, there were five sorts of cheese available for breakfast . . . and not a whiff of a foreign holiday, or payments on a car, or down-payments on a house. Looking at her peers, she explains her positive finances by noting that neither she nor Her Feller dhrink. But it must be more than that and she a notoriously light packer when travelling. If you only have two pairs of shoes, you don't need checked baggage. Dau.I otoh seems to be skint a lot of the time, not least because she will buy books, new books, of which we are storing a library-full in her bedroom at home. She went to England aged 17¾ with two suitcases and came back 4 years later with 2 tonnes of stuff - mostly books. Oddly, although I'm now a two sorts of cheese chap now, when I had no money as a student I was often to be found buying books, new books. The accumulated collection of which I guess helped the girls kick-start their own reading habits.

Now although this is all very personal, it's of limited interest because the range options and choice described above is quite limited - genetically at least. I'm on this jag at all at all because I was browsing the blogosphere and was directed to a number of comparative weekly spend-diaries for 'Millennials" - all women I think. It's quite compelling in a voyeuristic way to see how the other half gets through their pay-cheque each week, whether they are in Lisboa or NYC, and earning $40K or $160K. Because it's about Millennials, a lot of the discourse consists of cheap shots against avocado toast. Which is really quite yesterday at this stage and not worth flogging with the whip of judgement. While you're about it (if indeed you've read this far) you might check out this thoughtful deconstruction of the gender pay gap from Vox. The pay-rate graphic above is lifted from the Vox vid. Short answer: be sure to compare like with like.

Finally, I'll point out that, over the last 40 earning years, whether we had a month of dining out and weekends away OR a month of eating nothing but Caldo verde, my pay-cheque disappeared just the same. When UK academics got a 25% pay hike in the mid 1980s, I promptly went out and bought some Japanese consumer electronics and then settled down to getting through my augmented salary without being able to point to aNNything which had 25%-improved the quality of our lives - apart from the Technics HiFi: that was mildly entertaining in a vinyl sort of way. It has been my sneaking suspicion that if I'd lived higher on the hob all those thrifty years, I'd be exactly where I am now but having had more fun. No moaning, mind - cue La Môme.

Obits: Masekela and Le Guin gone

Hugh Masekela a legend in music is dead - yesterday morning, prostate cancer, apparently. No better way to remember him than in his music:
That is all.

For Ursula le Guin, who died on Monday after being poorly for while, I can refer you to three recent Blobs. I came to Earthsea late, regretting I didn't read that stuff much earlier. Le Guin on how to write [regularly and often]. On gender politics. I won't here say "That is all" because I'm just flitting across the surface of le Guin's work and it is not to be treated as background music.

Tuesday 23 January 2018


Scale is all. The picture above is an electron micrograph of a single mitochondrion - the power house of the cell [source]. It is 1 micron (1 millionth of a metre) long. Below is Otočić Bavljenac [bigger better picture], an island off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, not a million miles from Split. Bavljenac is 500m long. It is known as Fingerprint Island because of the multiple parallel ridges whose function is rather mysterious  . . . unless you live on the side of a rocky hill which has been cleared for the purpose of agriculture. Our 7 ha. farmlet is divided into 8, 9 or 10 [definition of 'separate' issues] separate territories by stone walls. These walls serve two purposes a) to keep stock in particular domains and away from the oats, potatoes, hay b) to clear the fields of stones so that the oats, potatoes and hay may be grown at all at all. The first agricultural settlers hereabouts 200 years ago, marked out their patrimony in chunks of 0.5 to 1.5 hectares and started to pile stones up in straight lines to divide the nascent fields. On other parts of our townland, with steeper slopes and more run-off, the stones are too numerous for field walls and part of the property has been sacrificed as a huge rock heap with faced vertical walls filled with rubble. Vertical walls as high as could be made reliably stable, so as to maximise the rock bearing capacity of the area. It must have been the same on Bavljenac. But the stones were so numerous that the walls were really close together. You cannot harvest wheat easily from a series of table-cloth sized patches but you can scramble from one parcel to the next to harvest grapes. It seems likely that was the long-time fate of the fields of Bavljenac. Some rather dorky 'scientists' think so aNNyway. So the stripes and striations appear to be primarily to maximise the spaces.

In contrast the stripes and striations of mitochondria, which go by the name cristae, are primarily to increase the surface area of the inner membrane of each of these sub-cellular organelles. Why? Because the enzymes that perform oxidative phosphorylation and ATP synthesis are embedded in that membrane. More cristae means more bangs for bucks. Cells which have a high demand for ATP [the energy currency for all other metabolic activity] have proportionately more cristae in their mitochondria. They have more mitochondria as well. Indeed one handy 'definition' of stamina is the number of mitochondria in the cell. Training - concerted use - is one way of building up your store of mitochondria or increasing stamina.

You can go all woowah about the walls of Bavljenac and imagine that they are for catching messages from the gods or resonances from ley lines. There has been a lot of lazy-arsed rechurning of facts about the island since the meme came over the horizon in the spring of 2017. Any site that claims an area of 1.4 for an oval island 500m in length can be ignored, because a square island 500m in length can only be 0.25 and an oval island must be less. What's happened is that The Innumerati think 0.14 and 1.4 are essentially the same. This page has the 1.4/0.14 wrong but the best pictures. Likewise reporting the length of the dry-stone walls as 23 km and 357m is plainly nonsense because nobody can be confident about the final 7m. Why not 356m or 358m? They can't even measure swimming pools to that level of accuracy and they are engineered in concrete with vertical end walls. harrumph!

And fingerprints? What are they about? The idea that they increased friction to help us grip things better was debunked about ten years ago. An alternative, as yet untestable, theory is that act like tyre treads to shed water between the two surfaces, again to promote grippiness. Some people are born without dermal ridges because of a defect in their SMARCAD1 genes. The loss doesn't cause them any problems until they cross borders which require finger-prints!

Monday 22 January 2018

Kanturk feeds the millions

Every year in January the Royal Dublin Society RDS hosts a Young Scientists competition. For the last several years this has been sponsored by British Telecom as BTYS. Royal? British? really the optics don't look good 100 years after Ireland fought a bloody war of independence. Still-and-all, it's better to have BTYS in the RDS than to have nothing to show-case the ingenuity, tenacity and technical ability of our teenagers. As I say repeatedly to my students at The Institute "You are the Future of Ireland as a Technological Nation" FITNa. It takes a chunk of committed time to even get a project to the Finals. Time on experiments and analysis when their peers were having time on iPhone and ice-cream. I have a bit of an interest or at least an angle on both the winning project and the first runner-up.

The latter first: Feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050. The effects of Pseudomonas fluorescens L321 on enhancing barley crop yield. A project steered through choppy seas to port by Darragh Twomey, Neil O’Leary, Andrew Heffernan from Colaiste Treasa, Kasnturk, Co Cork. Pse.fl. L321? I know its very bones, or at least its DNA sequence. When I started work at The Institute five years ago, three of my colleagues had just finished a trial of PGP (plant growth promoting) bacteria. They had started by isolating bacteria from the root nodules of plants which grew better than their neighbours in a controlled field trial. Three strains of those bacteria were taken forward for lab studies to discover Why? they enhanced the growth of their host plants. Part of the discovery process was to get the genomes of the bacteria sequenced. To this end my colleagues had obtained money to a) grow up the bacteria in a vat, extract the DNA and send it off to be sequenced commercially b) purchase a Linux server to analyse the data and c) employ a recent PhD graduate, now post-doctoral research fellow, to do the analysis. My appearance in January 2013 was providential because I was the only person on campus who'd ever analysed a genome (or two, or three). I was far to busy doing remedial maths and physics to do any genome analysis . . . and it wasn't my contract aNNyway. There was considerable irony in thus assigning people to tasks which were outside their competence [wot, me physics?] in a game of musical chairs in which every chair was a bad fit for the assigned bottom.

Nevertheless I made three key interventions:
  • I waggishly named the bacteria - prosaically coded as L111, L228, and L321 - whose genomes got sequenced The Three Sisters to honour the rivers Suir, Nore and Barrow which flow through the SE of Ireland under the same soubriquet. Indeed the R.Barrow drifts past The Institute about 50m West of where the Linux server and the post-doc were housed.
  • I fired up my network and sent the post-doc up to Dublin to participate in a weekly meeting of those-who-analysed-genomes at UCD.
  • I printed out some copies of the Quick Guide to Unix which I co-authored 20 years ago.
That got me invited to some of the progress meetings at which the project was inched forward and eventually got my name somewhere in the middle of the author list of a paper.

The day after I heard about L321 winning a prize I bounced next door to ask my neighbour at work if he knew his (our!) PGP bacteria were helping to feed the starving millions . . . and who did these yahoos from Cork think they were? Well (of course) it turned out that he knew all about it; indeed he'd supplied the initial vial of L321. The lads from Kanturk had their idea about PGP bacteria and couldn't get sufficiently detailed mentoring from the science teacher. So they rocked up to the local branch of Teagasc, the agricultural advisory service . . . who said that PGP was above their pay grade but Teagasc at Oak Park in Carlow knew allll about it. Oak Park is just across town from The Institute and so the snaking network was able to complete the circle of complementary skills. I was vicariously delighted but also miffed: "When were we all going to hear about your contribution to scientific progress? When will you draft the press release?" I asked my colleague. I am continually brought up short at how little we communicate with each other at The Institute; it's like we're too busy teaching science to talk science. That can't be good for the quality, diversity or integration of the teaching.

Anyway. Hats off to the Boys of Kanturk - they put in the hours.

Sunday 21 January 2018

Sunday catch up 210118

Was he going on about crisps? He was. He is not the only one. With fabulous synchronicity we have:
But there is more to life than Tayto Cheese & Onion. There is:

Saturday 20 January 2018

Paternity and the patriarchy

IF you're reading this from Abroad [which is likely given The Blob's readership stats R], OR you are our Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, OR you've lived all your life under a stone THEN you may not have heard of the Kerry Babies case which shook the nation in the 1980s. At about the same time, in another part of the country, Ann Lovett and her neonatal child died in the drizzle near Granard. For me, the fact that the head of the current government should admit to ignorance about such a watershed in Irish social development is worrying. George Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." which is entirely on the button because a key element of the Kerry Babies was a stitch-up by investigating Gardai, which led to a Tribunal which failed to put the stitchers back in their box, let alone behind bars. Right now we are taking a long time to not find anyone to blame for the stitch-up of Garda whistle-blower Maurice McCabe. The Blob carried the McCabe story in April 2014: that is four years ago and we're still rumbling along looking pointedly in the wrong direction.

The Kerry Babies boiled to the surface this week because someone decided to look at the DNA evidence . . . 34 years after the necessary tissue samples were gathered. That showed conclusively that Joanne Hayes, despite confessing to his murder in elaborate detail, was not the mother - not even a close relative - of Baby John whose body was washed up on a beach near Caherciveen. Sufficient details of the events in Kerry in 1984 can be found in The Indo.  Indeed even back in 1984, the dogs in the street knew that Joanne Hayes could not have been the mother of Baby John because he was blood group A but Ms Hayes, her own dead baby and the baby's father were all blood group O. I think we can be sure that if Baby John had also been blood group O, then Joanne Hayes and/or members of her immediate family would have been convicted and imprisoned and the relevant Gardai would have been congratulated on a brisk and efficient investigation.

How likely was that? How close did an innocent woman come to being banged up in chokey in a stitch-up that required so many bizarre and unlikely events to be true. Let's look at the numbers. If you have no idea how ABO blood groups work, I refer you to my tutorial on the genetics. Today's investigation is about probability and gene frequencies which I've looted from George Dawson's famous survey of Irish blood groups from the 1950s, which I've cited before. Each of us has two copies of the ABO gene - one from The Mammy and one from The Dad. If you tally up a bunch of them as A, B or O and divide by the total number of genes counted, then you can calculate the frequency of each variety in Ireland [see chart L]. You can see that blood group B at 7% was very rare in 1955 and also in 1984 a generation later. It's a bit higher now insofar as we've welcomed people from *istan and the PRC where this variant is much more common [see map in my prev cited tutorial]. To be blood group O you must have inherited O genes from both parents. But there are two ways you can be B - either with one B gene or with two - pedantically but necessarily for the maths to work there are really 3 ways you can be B - BB, BO or OB. Similar arguments apply to those who are blood A. Finally you are group AB if you get A from The Mammy and B from The Dad = AB or the other way round BA. This is no discernable difference between the two cases except their history.

Many people get a bit confused about the gene frequency and the frequency of the blood groups. It's mostly because manifestation of a particular blood group - called the phenotype - depends on the presence of two variants of the ABO genes. You can verify from the table above that the chance of being blood group O depends on independently acquiring two copies of the O gene:
0.738 x 0.738 = 0.545
So that's how close Joanne Hayes got to being convicted. All other things being equal, 54.5% of Irish people, including murdered neonates, are going to be blood group O. It's like Fortuna tossed a coin and it came down heads-for-exoneration rather than tails-for conviction. Phew!

Well, at that stage I got an attack of the datas and put together a comprehensive study of ABO blood groups as they impinge on paternity testing. Apart from the odd cock-up with wrist-bands in maternity hospitals we know who is the mother. The following tables and charts are based on the frequencies found in Ireland, the conclusions will be slightly different if you come from elsewhere in Europe and quite a bit different if you're tracking Aztecs or Han Chinese. First lets look at when a man and a women love each other very much . . . and have a child. We can calculate how many of each sort of mother-father-child triplets we can expect. The numbers in the coloured part of the table are the product of the frequencies along the table margins:
There are six possible 'genotypes'. As far as we know - and it has been investigated - there is no assortative mating: you choose your partner because s/he wears the same sort of shoes as your mother or because s/he smells like your Uncle Jim; not because s/he has the same (or different) blood group as you. From the top part of the table above note that in 0.297 (just under 30%) of all 'marriages' in Ireland both parents are blood group O. otoh, only 0.001 (or 1-in-1000) involved two people who are both AB.  The bottom part of the table imagines that there are 4 children to each liaison and lists out their blood groups. Of course, it doesn't work out with strict determinism: all the kids of Mr AB and Ms AB could be AB . . . or A . . . or B - or any combination. But the probability is as outlined in the chart. Some interesting outcomes
  • If you are group O, neither parent can be AB
    • If you are AB you cannot have a child who is group O
  • If one parent is B and the other A then any sort of child could be legitimate
  • If one parent is AB and the other is O then none of the children will be like their parents
We can summarise the Exclusions [chart L] as those children who cannot be the offspring of the declared parents. You may choose to suspect the golf Pro or Mellors the garrrrdener. I've had some thoughts about non-paternity in a case, much more recent than 1984, where the gardai and society-in-general were jumping to conclusions about people who lived a bit outside of a rather narrow definition of normal.

And because I am nerdy like that I have put down [Table L] each combination of parents and the proportion they comprise of the population: from the colour coded blocks in the third table above. My codes for combination are short-hand: A=A also includes A=O cases where one parent is group O - the orange colour really means parents who cannot have a child who is B or AB etc.  I've then cross-referenced the Exclusion table to tally up the expected proportion of people in the Irish population who have the attributes which are excluded by that combination of parents. The bottom right cell = 0.273 = 25%. It's reciprocal of that number which is important: 75% of the time ABO blood groups will,  on their own, have no utility to exclude paternity. YMMV in Kazakhstan but not by much: as group B gets more common in Asia so group A frequencies fall. This is why the Kerry DNA data is so important; by looking at dozens of different independent variants it becomes vanishingly unlikely that you'll make a wrong call on who the parents are.

Friday 19 January 2018

True Grit

Tuesday, they were giving snow-flurries, some accumulation on higher ground, which is sort of useless: is our front gate at 235m above sea-level 'higher ground' or does that really only apply to the Red Hill behind our house at 520m?  I guess the benefit of living "as far from a bus-stop as possible in the province of Leinster" is that the weather usually improves as I drop down towards the lowlands of the Barrow River valley and work. If I can get out of the gate, I can get to work. Although I did experience Frost Flood at the bottom of our lane 5 years ago this week.

In the last cold snap over New Year, I was able to time my journey between home and Waterford, so that the watery winter sun had melted as much as it could and the temperature hadn't started to drop again with nightfall.  With the really short days and 3 or 4 0900am starts on my timetable, it is usually impossible to avoid a start-in-the-dark; which makes me anxious because you can't see the ice. In the days when I commuted to work by bicycle, I wasn't teaching regular classes and could delay my departure by 30 minutes if it was raining stair-rods when I shucked on my coat and PPE [see L vintage 1992 - the reflective ankle strips saved my life for 40,000km because they danced up and down as I pedalled and never needed new batteries].

Obviously I expect to be left to my own resources on the crappy  'county road' that forms the first part of my journey from the Outback, but the 'Main Road' is usually gritted by the county council - sometimes even at night!

<chemistry alert>But the grit in gritters is not grit as you find on sand-paper or in the world of geology. It is rock-salt, often brown in colour, but effectively 99% sodium chloride NaCl and chemically the same as table-salt. Stuff dissolved in liquids lowers the freezing point of water in accordance with Raoult's Law. The depression of freezing point follows a straight line proportional to the concentration of dissolves salt . . . to a certain point. NaCl and ice is able to get down to a temperature of -17.8oC. This is not coincidentally equal to 0oF because that was the coldest temperature that Dr Fahrenheit was able to achieve in his laboratory.

Scotland is a country which is about the same size and population as (the island of) Ireland. Their Winter weather is a little more extreme than we experience in Hibernia - further from the Gulf Stream; nearer to the Arctic Circle; higher mountains in the interior. They have been having a few dumps of the white stuff already this winter and keep the roads clear with a mixture of snow-ploughs and gritters. Timing is key! They want to get the gritters out as the snow starts to stick - too early and the salt gets blown away; too late and the dusting is overwhelmed; ice is much more difficult to deal with because the relative surface area is lowest. If you need to travel the 40km from Inverness to Invergordon, it would be handy to know if/when the A9 was gritted. Welcome to the 21stC! There are dozens of gritters in Scotland and they all have GPS transponders. These data are captured and integrated and displayed in real time by ArcGIS. As the gritter inches along the virtual highway, it leaves little green data-poos to indicate when grit was last deposited, and by whom [see map-clip at  head of post]. With this information, you can sit tight having a mug of cocoa until the road has been treated . . . and then zinnnng along to your destination. If you look closely you can see that most of the trucks have been given cutie-pie names. There has been plenty of delight in the names at Metafilter: Sir Salter Scott, Gritty Gritty Bang Bang, Luke Snowalker, Gritallica. Nobody has sprung for Gritty MacGritFace . . . yet.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Vole crisps

When The Blob was last in Orkney, we were looking at a mammal with a peculiar diet - the seaweed-eating sheep.  We're back in the region again for similar investigatory purposes. When I was young the was one brand of crisps = potato chips = картофельные чипсы = patatine: Smiths. And one flavour: potato. Although each bag contained a little screw of blue paper containing a daily RDI of salt. Contrary to what is believed in Ireland, Joe "Spud" Murphy of Tayto Inc. did not invent the potato crisp in 1954. Smith's were selling well in UK and Australia 30 years prior. Although a case could be made that Tayto launched food-engineered crisps with added flavours - starting with Cheese-and-Onion and Salt-and-Vinegar.  Back then crisps were still a snack for the plain people of Ireland rather than the mad-flavour fashion accessory we know today. Sour Cream and Jalapeño has become normalised by familiarity but, in Ireland, we may not be ready for mint, beetroot or cucumber chips yet.  Make vids: Tyrrell's No Salt - Tayto in 1970s

Hedgehog Crisps were launched in the UK in 1981 as an ironic comment on crisps as fashion accessory. When it transpired that No hedgehogs were killed in the manufacture of these crisps, the Office of Fair Trading issued a cease-and-desist notice and Hedgehog were up in court for duping the public. The Man has no sense of humour. After consultations between genuine Romany hedgehog-eaters and Hedgehog's food chemists, the bye-line was changed from hedgehog flavour to hedgehog flavoured and honour was satisfied. The species at issue is Erinaceus europaeus, of the Order Eulipotyphla - which used to be Order Insectivora - hedgehogs, shrews and moles aNNyway. According to George Borrow (Lavengro 1851 and Romany Rye 1857), the gypsies would pack clay into the spines of the rolled hedgehog and bake them in and open fire. When done, the ball is cracked open and the spines remain in the discarded crust.

So what else will people eat in the small mammal department?
But if you lived 5000 years ago in Orkney, it is likely that you'd have relished a nice crispy vole roll. Microtus arvalis the common vole is found all over Eurasia. In Belgium it is either campagnol des champs or veldmuis depending on which side of their Mason-Dixon line [prev] you live. You could make a meal of a dormouse because they weigh in at 130g - more if you Hansel & Gretel them for the pot. But Microtus arvalis is less than 1/3rd of that weight, so you might think that it wasn't worth the trouble.

One of the peculiarities of mammalian biogeography is that while the common vole all over the continent, it is not present in Great Britain . . . or Ireland . . . or any of the smaller components of the Western European Archipelago except some of the Orkneys; see map [L where V identifies the Islands of the Vole: Westray, Sanday, Rousay, Mainland, and South Ronaldsay. For many years it was considered a separate species - it is about twice the weight of its continental cousin and has paler fur; but modern taxonomists put it firmly as a sub-species of the Eurovole Microtus arvalis orcadensis. A couple of years ago they did some DNA testing which pointed to an origin in-or-around Belgium and the supposition was that Vikings had somehow brought the field voles home to Orkney in a bale of hay fodder looted from Brugge or Antwerpen or indeed <parity of esteem alert> Bruges or Anvers. But a dig at Skara Brae, the extraordinary Neolithic settlement on the West coast of Mainland, revealed hundreds of charred spit-roasted vole skeletons in several heaps which were carbon dated to 5000 years ago. That's long and long before any Viking was a twinkle in his father's drinking horn. It looks likely that the trading network of the Skara Brae civilisation ran as far as continental Europe and included an order for some of those delicious furry morsels that the Belgae do so well. We think of those neolithic lads as bashing two rocks together to amuse themselves but are brought up short when we see the ruins of their buildings and monuments and, for me especially, the evidence of stuff travelling enormous distances to amuse and delight people at the ends of the Earth [prev stone axe from Umbria to Canterbury].

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Poverty of aspiration

30 years ago The Beloved worked for a non-profit in the NE of England which helped to remedy deficits in the fuel- efficiency of housing stock in Geordieland. £200-worth of fibre-glass attic insulation would pay for itself over 18 months in savings on fuel bills - £2,000-worth of double-glazing? not so good. The poor people who most needed to be winter-warm could never aspire to a spare £200 now, so were condemned to spending extra on heating forever. The non-profit was sometimes able to break this cycle.  TB would explain to me that their concern was about Fuel Poverty; but now matter how s l o w l y she spoke I didn't see how Fuel Poverty differed from, well, poverty. To my mind, money is money and poverty is when you can't get enough it. Money is above all fungible: exchangeable for whatever goods and services you require or desire.

As I drive to work, I have 35 minutes of listening-to-the-wireless time: usually Newstalk-FM until the snarking between Paul Williams and Shane Coleman gets insupportable and I flip to RTE1. On Friday last they were on about homelessness again. The fact that 8, 9, 10 thousand people, including small children and unhappy teenagers, are languishing in 'emergency accommodation' is perennial comment-fodder for the listening classes. I think Friday's chatter was triggered by the re-appointment of Conor Skehan [L] to head the Housing Agency for an extra year on top of his 5 year stint which just expired. Why being re-appointed in what is clearly an interim measure? Because HR at the Ministry of Quangology couldn't arrange a timely replacement process. Why is it news-worthy? Because Mr Skehan had unhelpfully suggested that some people were 'gaming the system' to get a house for their family.  Even if it is true, it is not helpful for the chair of the Housing Agency to articulate the idea.

Is it true? In what sense is it true? Ciara Kelly another Newstalk host, who was a GP for 20 years, said that many of her patients had asked for an Asthma Cert or a Clinical Depression Cert to present to their local housing authority. That is gaming the system. But then again, so is claiming to be living with your Ex and the three kids when you aren't. The first <coff coff wheeze wheeze> image should trigger your empathy gland; the second not-so-much? Indeed "claiming to be living with your Ex and the three kids when you aren't" quite possibly conjures up a shaven head, facial metal-work, drink, beatings and fags at the bookies. More importantly this Gamer of the System <basstid!> becomes enormous in the foreground of the mind eclipsing the single mum with two small boys living in a hotel bedroom without cooking or laundry facilities.

Newstalk then interviewed Beth Watts, a housing policist [it's a word now] from Heriot-Watt U in Scotland. Her take on the Skehan quote was that in the UK, the debate had moved on from that sort of victim-shaming. [prev: victim blaming on Newstalk] Across the water, all the stake-holders acknowledge that there is a crisis. They don't all agree about the solution, but they aren't in denial about the existence of a housing problem. A year ago, I set out my own eviction and homelessness credentials. People like Dr Watts gather data, analyse it and put it in geographical, historical and sociological context. They hope that their position papers will inform politicians and government agencies to do something about the problem. In Ireland, this involves a febrile flutter of activity when a chap dies in the street 100m from the national parliament, which then sinks back exhausted when the News cameras focus elsewhere. Because of our Christian cultural bedrock, Matthew 26:11 "For ye have the poor always with you" is floating on the edge on any debate about deprivation; whether it be lack of fuel, lack of food, or lack of roof. Because there have always been people who couldn't settle happily in normal accommodation (because of drugs, derangement or depression?) we collectively tolerate 10,000 people statistics who are living hand to mouth. In Scotland, you have a Right to be housed by the state, in Ireland you have to beg and finagle and, well, game. As Dr Watts put it "The idea that homelessness is impossible to eradicate shows a certain poverty of aspiration, doesn't it?".Quite so! You can hear the Newstalk Beth Watts interview (scroll about 25% through to start) and she has a reasonably high-profile presence on the interweb if you have access to google.

Footnotes: NewstalkFM have decided to give 2 hours of Saturday airtime back to George Hook, who was suspended last year for putting foot-in-mouth again wrt sexual assault. If you want to be there for the next gaffe as it lollops out of his gob, you'll have to tune in.  Then again, maybe it is being broadcast with a 10 minute lag with the station's lawyer ready to edit anything which is more deeply inappropriate than usual. With 4.7 million people in this our Republic, is it so hard to find an aspiring radio presenter? . . . younger? . . . with more X chromosomes? . . . and a mortgage still to pay off? Finding a really talented unemployed presenter living in a hotel room or sleeping on a friend's couch with a child at foot: that would be a coup.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

It's not that simple

Do you like figs? Wasps? Well you can't have one without the other. When I was in Grad School in Boston, I was along the corridor from the lab of Tom Kunz, who taught us Mammalogy 504. He and his people worked on bats, not only the insect-eating chaps we're familiar with in Ireland but also the great flying fruit bats of the tropics. These lads are often part of a complex interacting network of mutually dependent species. The bats eat and disperse the fruit [bat gnawing fig L from Tim Laman] all over the jungle by eating the fruit off the tree and flying off somewhere quiet to digest it. In due course the seeds pass through the bat-gut and finish up as a smear on a tree-trunk, whence they sprout as a network of vines to grow up encircling and eventually strangling the tree. The flowers of the fig "tree", in contrast to garden flowers, develop like an ingrowing toe-nail with all the delicate bits on the inside and a tough exterior; it's called a syconium. Think daisy Bellis perennis rather than daffodil Narcissus poeticus because each syconium consists of multiple florets. There is a little pore at one end, through which the pollinating wasp enters. The female wasp is there to lay a clutch of eggs - for her the pollination is incidental - which hatch as larvae, eat some of the fruit and then exit as new flyers. Without the wasp no fruit is set. Without the bat, no dispersal. Don't think for a minute that figs are 'suitable for vegetarians' though: part of the treat is dead wasp bits. Getting your reproductive parts eaten away inside and out is a small price to pay for thus getting your offspring launched in the world. YMMV! And we have barely even mentioned the tree which supports the fig-tree and eventually gives its life for the system.

From our fuzzy-hearted perspective, some of the players enumerated above are nicer than others. These sort of woowah value judgments have given trouble to some god-botherers, including St Chuck: "I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice " (Charles Darwin). Did someone mention Ichneumons? There are at least 25,000 species of these hymenoptera (the bees, ants and wasps), most of which make a living by parasitising the larvae of other insects. But only because those other species will leave fat, juicy, nutritious morsels lying about unclaimed.

The females who lay the eggs which grow into the larvae sought by ichneumons go to some efforts to hide their progeny from predators; and the wasps exercise themselves to see or smell through these attempts at concealment. One of the better studied species is Ichneumon eumerus which is super-fussy about its host: only a larva of a particular blue butterfly Phengaris rebeli [synonym Maculinea rebeli] will do. Over the evolutionary eons, the butterflies got rather pissed off about this decimation of their progeny until one member of the species was born with a peculiar biochemical mutation. Its larvae produced a pheromone which made it smell remarkably like the larvae of Myrmica schencki a species of small ant; the ants thought so aNNyway and were therefore programmed to carry the butterfly larva back home to their nest and care for it - like cuckoos. For a while, the butterflies were safe from the attentions of the Ichneumon, until one of the latter learned how to find the nests of Myrmica schencki and determine if there were any butterfly larvae in there. If so, the gravid female darted into the ant nest and tried to deposit a clutch of eggs on the butterfly larva. Which led to a bit a barney as the ants tried to defend their trophy "offspring".  The wasps which succeeded left more of their own offspring into the next generation. One avenue to success was to develop and use another 'alarm' pheromone which made the ants run around in circles biting each other . . . thus allowing the wasp a window of egg-laying opportunity. These coils of mutual dependency are now impossible to dis-entangle.  Picture [R] of the dramatis personnae the ant is beige-on-grey to the L from the BBC.

Apart from the baroque inter-dependencies, the peculiar thing is the specificity of it all. No other butterfly larva smells quite right to either of the hymenopteran species. It looks probable that the larval pheromones of the butterfly and the ant are subtly different. Nat Geog suggests that teasing out the differences could help develop chemical agents to control the behaviour of insect pests. The butterfly pheromone is good enough to fool the ant, but different enough to encourage the wasp to assail the nest only if a butterfly larva's reek was wafting out the nest hole. You couldn't make it up! Then again, it suggests that our science is just skimming the surface of what we know about the natural world.

The wasp-ant-butterfly system is covered in a long list of natural peculiarities on