Saturday 31 March 2018

Yan tan tethera

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. 
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

We need to count to be sure to be sure. Therefore we don't want to have confusion about what the counting words mean. I've suggested before that most people feel [before they start to think] that a billion is twice a million - after all a bicycle has two wheels and an icicle [example R from Storm Emma] has no wheels; so we must suppose that a micycle has one wheel. In the Dáil last week, the Government was defeated on a motion to abandon a recently created Strategic Communications Unit. The SCU was created by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to blur the lines between policy and advertising with a €5 million budget to inform the public. The thing is that if people see something in print enough times they come to believe it is true even if that truth is established only by assertion and not by evidence. This idea has such an ancient pedigree that it is a Chinese proverb Three Men Make a Tiger. To come to a vote, there must be a debate, and so a lot of precious Dáil time was consumed by the opposition parties throwing shapes about a mildly controversial item that was in the news. It is aggravating because, in the scale of the annual government spend, €5 million is a piffling amount of money.

People who are functionally innumerate - most people, most of the time and all people, some of the time - will get exercised about an emotive but financially trivial subject and then allow load$a money to be spent on dull dull dull intrastructural projects which could be better thought through. C. Northcote Parkinson [prev], the ironic economist, cast that issue in his Law of Triviality: a committee charged with approving the design of a nuclear power-plant will typically spent much of its time arguing about the construction of the staff bike-shed . . . because they can grasp those issues.

Anyway, I was sent [by MeFi] to a numero-linguistic site which lists the words different peoples give to numbers. This is cute. Note how several languages, not English or Dutch, have the form 11 = 10+1; 12=10+2. Polari, just to be different, has 8 = 6+2 and 9 = 6+3. Sheep counting aka Yan Tan Tethera was used in many locally variant forms in these WEA islands to count sheep in the way my grandfather and his grandfather before him did. It is supposed to be based on a long dead Brythonic Celtic [as in P celtic] language check out 5 and 10 in Sheep and Welsh.
Sheep Welsh Manx Dutch Polari Basque
 Yan un nane een una bat
 Tyan dau jees twee dewey bi
 Tethera tri tree drie trey hiru
 Methera pedwar kiare vier quarter lau
 Pimp pump queig vijf chinker bost
 Sethera chwech shey zes sey sei
 Lethera saith shiaght zeven setter zazpi
 Hovera wyth hoght acht say dooe zortzi
 Dovera naw nuy negen sey trey bederatzi
 Dik deg jeih tien dacha hamar
 Yanadik un ar ddeg nane-jeig elf longdedger hamaika
 Tyanadik deuddeg daa-yeig twaalf kenza hamabi
That led me on to million milliard billion trillion which is useful to know when you're talking about the National Debt [or indeed the Strategic Communications Unit]. It turns out the the Brits shifted over the last century from the European "long scale" convention of 10^6 = million; 10^9 = milliard; 10^12 = billion to the US "short scale" preference for 10^6 = million; 10^9 = billion; 10^12 = trillion. These are just conventions and either is acceptable so long as everyone knows which is being used. It's like using Latin names for species - if I say gorse Hungarians and Russians may not know what I mean; but Ulex europaeus is clear to everyone. And if we step outside the West there are other large number conventions which don't step forward in threes. The most notable, because used by 1,600,000,000 people in the Subcontinent: there Lakh is 10^5 = 100,000 and Crore is 10^7 = 10 million.

Billion?? I'll have to be more careful in future, if I want to keep readers in Paris and Budapest. There will be dispute about it meaning 10^12 / 10e12 or 10^9 / 10e9. That's why the SI [= everyone agrees] units specify the prefixes for all scientific units of measurement:
biggest: 10^18 = exa, peta, tera, giga, mega, kilo, hecto, deca,
deci, centi, milli, micro, nano, pico, femto, atto = 10^-18 smallest

Tiangong-1 [yest] news: An updated ESA forecast issued today (March 30) said the 8.5-metric-ton (9.4 tons) space lab will fall to Earth later in the day on April 1. That's because the sun's activity is weaker than expected, ESA explained. [source]

Friday 30 March 2018

Heavenly Palace incommming

I happened to look out of the window at 2100hrs on Wednesday night and saw a bright object cruising steadily across the sky from West to East. That must be the International Space Station, I thought; and I was correct. I've been in a similar position before when I made some calculations about view-time. There is a LOT of stuff up there maybe 18,000 chunks bigger than your pancreas. I also thought I saw a much fainter object in more or less the same orbit following the ISS a few degrees behind. If you missed it you can catch it at about the same time over the next few nights.

ISS is still going fine as a functional unit. Tiangong-1, China's first Space Station, not so good.
In late 2016, the Chinese managed to lose control of their Tonka Toy. I'm guessing that someone sent a signal to turn the antennae away from the Earth so that Tiangong was no longer able to receive incoming signal. Commenter on MeFi has a different explanation: "I found the problem in the YouTube video linked from the article. It appears that the engineering team attached a schoolbus to the port side solar panel. While this wouldn't affect aerodynamics in space, when the driver exited the vehicle to check tire pressure in March 2016, the students probably reset the radio frequency, thereby breaking contact with Earth. Happened all the time on my bus as a kid. Silly oversight by the Chinese." And don't even ask what the Russians do with antennae up on the ISS.

Tiangong-1 is a big lump of a thing weighing in at 8.5 tonnes and one of the key aspects of control from Beijing was to fire up the boosters to push the station further away from Earth. Without those periodical boosts, gravity takes control and the orbit decays until the space station meets the atmosphere. That will catastrophically increase drag and things will get hot up there.  In any case, Tiangong-1 is going to crash our party within the next seven days. Best guess is Easter Sunday 1st April. But as this is a chaotic system - infinitely sensitive to initial conditions - nobody has any idea where the debris will fall to Earth. The closer the station gets to burn-time the better will be the estimates but even with a good estimate the debris field is going to be large and diffuse. When Skylab fell to Earth in 1979, it littered the Indian Ocean [sort of planned] and Western Australia [ooops]. Skylab was about 10x the mass of Tiangong-1. I just thought you should know in case you're inclined to wear a tin-foil hard hat until, say, 5th of April.

Thursday 29 March 2018

Bright orange

Now in the past five years, I've had rather a lot to say about orange and also written some essays about arsenic. Up until now, however, my Venn diagram of language has had no intersect between these two concepts. Then my restless eye flitted across to the BBC and picked up a piece about orpiment [see chunk L; etymology: a contraction of aurum = or + pigment]. It seems that orpiment has been dug out of the sides of volcanoes for hundreds of years because, it makes a fabulously orange pigment and has been used by a succession of artists that we (you and me both) have heard of: Fragonard; Gaugin; Munch; van Gogh.

But it turns out that orpiment As2S3 is seriously toxic but not to be confused with realgar As4S4 although both are arsenic sulphides. They have quite different colours for starters. Wikipedia claims that orpiment was used in the manufacture of oil-cloth: I guess the bright yellow variety used for sou-westers and other nautical rain-gear. I guess it's marginal toxicity, even if absorbed through the skin through the salt-water boils that sea-farers got where the skin chaffed at the edge of their oil-skins, was better than hypothermia or pneumonia. Boils are usually caused by Staphylococcus aureus [bloboprev], a commensal bacterium that is normally kept on the outside by the physical barrier if the skin. Although I doubt if any 19thC sailor was presented with an informed consent risk assessment. Orpiment, mixed with Calcium carbonate and clay, is used as a depilatory in many Asian countries and so is readily available for accidental or deliberate consumption. It featured in a list of 9 toxic minerals in Forbes.

If orpiment is so toxic, how else do we get yellow into paintings and products?
  • If you like your yellow dull, then there is yellow ochre which is basically ground clay mostly ferric oxide with other earthy crud. It is accordingly quite variable in tone and quality. For completeness, there is an Australian yellow ochre butterfly Trapezites lutea.
  • Another brighter pigment with an ancient pedigree is Naples yellow chemically Pb2Sb2O7 that was known in Olde Bablylon.
  • Gamboge is derived from the resin of a number of different far-Eastern trees of the genus Garcinia. If you think of Buddhist robes, they are probably dyed with gamboge. Can't give you a chemical formula: it's organic and therefore complex.
  • Indian yellow, is also organic but a reasonably pure xanthanoid; formally known as (2S,3S,4S,5R,6S)-3,4,5-Trihydroxy-6-(8-hydroxy-9-oxo-9H-xanthen-2-yloxy)-tetrahydro-pyran-2-carboxylic acid or 2S3S to its friends. You may be skeptical about the producers' guff that it was [expensive because it] could only be obtained by feeding mango leaves to emaciated cows.  That is no longer the standard method of production, if it ever was.
  • There's a satirical book by Aldous Huxley called Crome Yellow. Chrome-with-a-h yellow is PbCrO4 = lead II chromate, as a pigment is was favoured by van Gogh and Seurat, but that's super toxic too. This is the colour of US school buses.
  • Cadmium yellow is CdS cadmium sulphide, although cadmium appeared often in my lectures about heavy metal poisoning and remediation of cadmium-contaminated industrial sites, CdS is considerably less toxic than orpiment and chrome yellow and has largely replaced the latter because it is brighter and spreads better.
  • Painters nowadays prefer a synthetic aniline-based dye called Hansa yellow because it is far less toxic than all the yellows above which feature metal ions Pb, As, Sb, Cd, Cr etc.

Wednesday 28 March 2018


We signed up for GLAS [Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme] because we are tree-hugging planet-lovers and we might as well get paid for Doing Right as determined by a handful of desk-jockeys at the GLAS head office in Dublin. GLAS is but the latest incarnation of giving money to encourage farmers to have a care for the environment which they share with birds, bats, bees . . . and bacteria in the soil. I'm only peripherally involved in this: I go out to my day job whereas The Beloved sits at the kitchen table filling in forms a) to apply for money [nice] and b) to account for the correct spending of that money [onerous]. Occasionally she'll announce that a certain field margin has to be cleared of furze /whin /gorse Ulex europaeus by the 1st of March . . . it being now 28th February; and I have to find, fuel, oil and 'touch-up' my chain-saw.

The chain-saw was one of the first bits of kit we acquired when we moved to the country in 1996. I went into the Husqvarna dealership in Kilkenny and said, more or less, "I'll have one of your best chain-saws my good man" which engaged my good man's rube-alert and he sold me, for list price, a more powerful engine with a longer dick chain-bar than was really appropriate for someone who was going to do a little light firewooding each fall.  The Beloved also signed up for the The Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA) because we were tree-huggers. in November 1999, because we were ITGA members, I went on a 5 day chain-saw use and maintenance course at Mountrath. I learned a lot - mainly about how dangerous chain-saws were; so much so that I fainted dead away during 'the video' of injuries sustained in the woods. On the last day, the course tutor asked for our social security numbers. One of the other participants turned to me and said "That's nice, they're going to pay us" And it was so, for taking a week off work in the interest of CPD we were given the same amount of money €178.65 as would be given for attending a youth-training scheme. Better still, we were told that, because we were of ITGA, we could keep all the safety-gear, for working in a government wood, which we'd been kitted out with on the Monday: kevlar trews; helmet with face-guard and ear-defenders; bright orange chain-saw boots. Win! and, like, Win!

It's a bit different with GLAS. The government is less happy about writing cheques for farmers and hoping that they'll do the right thing. They've employed more people to check upon recipients: sheep-counters; hedge-row appraisers; evaluators of bat boxes. But they've also forced the farmers to attend training sessions. These are universally derided as a complete waste of time. One of our neighbours lost a cow-and-calf while he was out for the day at one of these piffling courses; that was worse than a waste of time. Because the quality of the material is as for a kindergarten and the mode of presentation is a droning mumble with disconnected and irrelevant power-points. One of the Learning Outcomes is to visit a mountain with a farmer who holds upland commonage. A pal o'mino attended his course on a miserable drizzling day and the mountain visit amounted to a walk from the parked cars to the gate of the lane leading to the hills and the statement "That's what a mountain looks like, there is grass up there". Box ticked! Another chap was told to turn up in a village hall in the next county for 10am. The tutors appeared at 10.30 to say it was time for a tea-break . . . except that there were no facilities for making tea, let alone a welcoming packet of biscuits. The course, such as it was, started at 11am and the information session finished at 1230. There was a visit to a local GLAS farm after lunch to see what a heap of sand looks like. You can get money under GLAS for buying a tonne of sand and putting a bit of sheep-wire around it. It is said to encourage solitary bees. Nobody in the room that morning was able to explain, or had the least bit of interest in, why solitary bees are both important and endangered.

The Beloved came away with a single useful piece of advice: to have a paperwork up-to-date and in am accessible place because the inspectors could turn up unannounced and would go easier on you if you made life easier for them. Hardly worth a day of your time for that. There is both carrot and stick to attend these nonsense courses: continued payments under GLAS are contingent upon participation AND they give the punters €158 CPD money. They presumably pay the tutors more to share their expertise. Something like €4,000 will have haemorrhaged from the public purse on each of these training sessions. Nice little earner if you have absolutely nothing better to do with your time; or if you have no compunction about running a training session for which you are unqualified and unprepared. And, next time, bring a kettle, tea, sugar, milk and a packet of biscuits. A tea-softened digestive turneth away wrath.

Tuesday 27 March 2018

Recycle my arse

For all its information content most dialogue is about equivalent to riffling through each other's fur looking for lice and skin-flakes. Ethologists call the physical activity allo-grooming, and immunologists recognise it as having utility in reducing the pathogenic load. When you stop your colleague in the corridor to ask "how was your weekend?" and promptly zone out before you hear the answer, you're engaging in vital social activity: sniffing the pheromones; gently reinforcing the pecking order; checking out for signs of infection. We all have stereotypical greetings which really have no meaning; my "Hiya!" was so often interpreted as "How are you?" [really don't care, me] that I switched to a faux-Geordie "Ay-oop" to lower the number of "Fine, thank you" responses. Nevertheless, because we all come from different backgrounds, sometimes someone's cliché seems strikingly novel and witty. Two cases last week were new to me. "I'm like frozen peas, always present" in answer to my enquiry about whether a colleague would be in the office during this, non-teaching, week. "The dog at home has more chance" as the assessment about whether one of our, not stupid, mostly idle, often absent, students was likely to secure enrollment on a higher degree in the UK.

That latter reminded me of the "My Scotch maid could do better" which launched Mina Fleming as an astronomer in the late 19thC. The fact that Fleming left school at 14 didn't prevent her from seizing the opportunity and sorting out the universe. Obviously, not every early school leaver in 1870 made good in this way; at least partly because the others didn't have the same levels of grit, openness and smarts as young Wilhelmina. There are plenty of people wandering around just barely competent to carry out the tasks which their work assigns. There is no point in getting angry with such people, even when you are forced to have time wasted by their bumbling incompetence. Someone has to do what they are doing and all the more competent people are doing more interesting things with their day.

One of the current corporate acronyms is CPD - continuing professional development - this laudable aspiration is all too often vindicated by offering a talk or, mote likely, a workshop. This allows the  box-tickers to believe that a roomful of people have had an "every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better" experience. Too often, in reality, the only benefit in the session is free coffee and croissants. You know how much the organisers care by the quality of the biscuits. Not quite CPD, but I spent a short hour last week in a "recycling household waste"" workshop. My Roomie at The Institute cancelled class brought along her Environmental Science students. That was unfortunate because it meant 8 wasted person-hours rather than just one [mine].  It wasn't a workshop in any case because the facilitator stood up on the stage in our biggest lecture theatre and talked at us for a while about what was and was not currently acceptable to the Irish Waste Industry.

Well what about plastics? They aren't all the same: there's PTFE, BPA, PVC, PE, PP, HDPE, LDPE, PET. I really must get out a definitive Blob on the matter because I keep forgetting which is which. The Lady of Recycling LoR reduced the plastic rules to "the scrumple test": if you can crush it in your hand then the waste industry don't want to know. That seems to be barely suitable for a kindergarten explanation. A colleague next to me required clarification: "I can crush a cottage cheese tub, but you say that's acceptable in the green bin". There didn't seem to be an answer to that.

Having been thus 'instructed' in the rules, LoR then started to audience-engagement part of the workshop by emptying her uneditted household recycling bin on the floor of the stage and picking up each piece of trash in turn to ask "Green or Landfill?". This was marginally interesting because it gave us an unwitting insight into the garbage this women fed her teenage family. But there is limited didactic benefit to be had from calling "Green" every time a water bottle is waved in the air. Not even good pantomime in a "she's behind you" sort of way. And I don't mind admitting that, it being after my lunchtime sandwich, I zzzzzzed off for several minutes of this watching-paint-dry excitement. I didn't wait for the end of the bin because I had a class to teach and she seemed to show no sign of flagging in the exposure of her grocery packing. My following lecture of war stories in the world of comparative immunology was a) better theatre and b) more informative. I know that because one of the students said "That was interesting, thank you" at the end of it. I haven't had that much of an accolade since I taught in South Africa at the end of the last century.

We've managed quite well thank you without a waste-collection service. We incinerate the toilet-paper; recycle the glass, steel, aluminium, cardboard and whatever is currently acceptable in the recycling centre. About twice in three years we load up the car and drive to the landfill. Last time I went, in 2015, it tipped the scales at €26.50; just barely above the €25 minimum. By contrast Pat the Salt, living town gets a bill for about €400/year. At least, when we carefully sort our waste, we are working for ourselves to save a bit of money. To my mind the waste industry treats consumers like the garment industry treats its workers in Bangladesh and Indonesia. You have to wash your trash and then pay the company to take it away and sell it. It is no wonder that people throw up their hands and lurry everything into the landfill bin; that way you don't get wrong-footed and finger-wagged for not being up-to-date in the shifting rules of what's profitable to recycle.

Monday 26 March 2018

Launching Melisandre

Last November, The Beloved had an awf'y big adventure sprung upon her when she was visiting with Dau.II in Cork. She volunteered to drive a couple of seals across the country and deliver them to Seal Rescue Ireland in Courtown. One of the beast was a big slob of teenager but the other was a small handful of orphan. Seal Rescue have a policy: when a seal weighs 35-40kg s/he is ready for the wide ocean blue; and Seal Rescue's task is to fatten up the seals to pass this threshold. Last week The Beloved got a call to say that Melisandre the tiny orphan was now At Weight; was to be launched on Sunday; and would we like to witness this rite of passage ? We would, and we did.

We got there, by invitation, about an hour early and were able to visit the centre and talk to the volunteers before driving a piece up the coast to a shingly Kiltennel Beach North of Courtown. It was interesting. There are two species of seals which wash up on Irish beaches: Phoca vitulina the  harbour seal or common seal and the larger, not common, grey seal Halichoerus grypus. The Rescue Centre is located behind the Adventure and Leisure Centre but has fewer water slides. Some . . . but it's less exciting than in the pay-in section. When we visited there were 30 seals present in various states of development and de-climatisation from human contact. Typically a baby seal will wash up, often storm battered, on a beach somewhere in Ireland. Small seals are fed milk, but they won't suck from a bottle so have to be intubated and delivered a stomach-full several times a day. The Help really have to get up close and personal to do this and are often nipped by the teeth. Somehow everyone needs to forget the close cross-species relationship and go each their separate ways.

This social weaning starts as soon as they switch to solid food and, as I witnessed, this food is a bucket of herring Clupea harengus lobbed one-a-time over a fence. These herring come all the way from Donegal on the other side of the country and up until recently was a logistical nightmare. They couldn't be sure how many 'customers' might be on the premises and it was costing a fabulous amount in transport costs. More recently, a local industrialist donated them an industrial sized freezer and they take delivery of a couple of tonnes (!) of frozen herring in 20kg boxes. These have miscellaneous catch-dates which might be 18 or 24 months in the past. That has got to be beyond the sell-by for human consumption. Occasionally there will be a rogue cod Gadus morua or hake Merluccius merluccius; but the seals are fussy and will leave such offerings on the side of their plate.

As the seals get ready for the off they are shifted to a pool surrounded by a sight-blocking fence in the hope that they will forget to associate free fish with kind humankind. On the Day of Departure they are crated up and loaded into the back of a Renault van [second pic above].  Having been portaged down to the beach, the public were invited to enter a €2-a-ticket chance to open the door to the transport crate. After a brief explanation from one of the Seal Volunteers, the doors were opened the the two seals lummocked along towards the sea. Melisandre seemed to be more bewildered, and slower out of the traps than her companion.

But eventually, she made it to the surf [L] and disappeared >!poof!< into a much wilder and harder world than she had experienced since the end of November. Instead of having 5kg of herring fly over the fence on a regular basis, young Mel will have to chase down herring which probably don't want to be eaten. A moments reflection will suggest that the reason their preferred herring supplier is from Donegal is that there are no herring to be had from the exploited seas off the Wexford coast. One of the volunteers told me about a young seal that wasn't thriving but after a few days voided a mass of feathers and felt (and looked) much better after that. So harbour seals do eat other fish than herring and have been known to scarf down seagulls but more commonly crustacea and molluscs. At least the latter don't move too fast and should be catchable.
These launches pose a bit of a dilemma for the Seal Rescue people. It is excellent publicity and, as they depend entirely on a) volunteers b) voluntary donations, seems to give income a bit of a boost. A while back they more actively advertised an event and 1,000 people turned up. You can't park 50 cars down the bohereen at the preferred launch beach, let alone 500 and the disappointed and disgruntled rubber-neckers then proceeded to bad-mouth Seal Rescue on Friendface and across the wider social media. Nobody need that sort of publicity. You can donate on-line. They need rubber-gloves; dog-crates; towels; detergent; electric kettles; Epsom salts; etc. etc. and money: you get buy any of the needed materials with money . . . except time, they cannot pay you for that.

Sunday 25 March 2018

Bits n Bobs 250318

Sunday rolls round again. this one called Palm Sunday when I was growing up in the Church of England. The week before Easter Sunday, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem a few days before Passover and this supporters spread palm fronds in the street hence Palm Sunday.  If it's ever concerned you that he was crucified on Friday and rose again, 48 hours later, on the third day, worry no more. It's because the Romans counted their dates inclusively. Each of their months started = 1st with the Calends and the 8th was called Nones for the same inclusive reasons. The Ides, of March, and other months was more moveable but occurred in the middle of their 30/31 day months.

Did someone mention the death penalty? We don't put people to death in this country, not since Michael Manning was hanged on 20th April 1954. In the USA they do and they get themselves all tied in knots about the method by which they terminate their prisoners. The lawyers have a field day over it but the functionaries who actually do the deed seem to be barely competent to carry out the 'humane' method decided upon by each state. Manning was hanged 22 weeks after his arrest. In the US, people can languish on death row for 22 years, which seems intrinsically less humane than any method of judicial killing. In any case, Oklahoma have now approved a new method: asphyxiation with Nitrogen, the inert gas that makes up 80% of our atmosphere. I am a little teed off with the sciencification of the death penalty: there are plenty of quick, brutal and efficient ways of killing that don't involve science.  There are also unquick, distressing and messy ways of killing that do.
That's enough horror, let's have some fluffy as antidote:

Saturday 24 March 2018

Kitchen stuff

I was born in 1954 and was a first adopter of all sorts of goods and services.
  • One of the very first kids in UK to have Lego to play with
  • Early experience of TV dinners: a part-cooked meal loaded into separate indentations on an aluminum tray, frozen, and made edible by putting in a hot oven. Synchronizing the doneness of each ingredient required months of experimentation by Swanson's food engineers.
    • Me, I preferred frozen chicken pies: aged 12, I could easily put away a 'family sized' pie and thought an "individual" pie no more than a snack
    • I could also knock off a dozen fish-fingers at a setting
    • It's a wonder I didn't become the Michelin Man of Plymstock
  • Remember instant tea, the complement of instant coffee? We had that briefly at home before the whole idea died.
All that convenience, especially when the bins were taken away for free every week by the municipality. Then, say 15 years ago, we all suddenly discovered that our normal, convenient life-style was consuming the planet in all kinds of unconsidered ways. From being innocent in our ignorance, we were being hectored to consider our carbon footprint and air-miles; to feel guilty about packaging, especially plastic; on the ethics of eating meat . . . and then fish. It could get passive-aggressive competitive among friends "oh, are you still using cling-film / saranwrap?" . . . "we never eat strawberries in Winter, they don't taste right having been air-freighted from Chile".

That was all brought home to me when The Beloved sent me a link from The Zero-waste chef about 9 items I banned from my kitchen and how I replaced them. I thought her list might include some of the single use kitchen gadgets which we've bought over the years:
  • a stand alone deep-fat fryer, with a little rubber penis for draining the used oil
  • an electric waffle-iron
  • a toasted cheese-sandwich maker
  • a nut-chopper
  • a juicer
  • a homogenising wand
  • an electric egg-beater
  • a half dozen different things to make coffee with/in
  • at least we drew the line at footless drinking glasses
Such much stuff such little utility; luckily we have 7 hectares of space to store it all.  And I haven't started on the blokey hardware inventory: the average life-time usage for an electric drill is 12 minutes. Here's Zero-Waste Chef's list, with Bob's commentary.
  1. Nespresso gadgets and the mountain of single use cartridges
    • This is the only variety of coffee-maker that we haven't (yet) embraced.
  2. Plastic wrap
    • Gave this up years ago, although we still have aluminium foil and greaseproof paper ( a square really helps cornbread out of the pan)
  3. Plastic baggies
    • What? Why would you buy plastic bags when so much food comes in plastic bags? I slip my lunchtime cheese sandwich into the wax-paper bag the cheese comes in.
  4. Bottled water
    • This is such A Thing now - about half my students at The Institute are chugging away during class. Our water at home is completely untreated, only lightly coliformed, but it's our coliforms so we're used to it. [kidding about the coliform]
  5. Other bottled bevvies
    • Why would you pay a premium for water with a 1% whiff of colour and patchouli?
  6. Tea bags
    • hmmmm, ZWC recommends loose tea and one of those perforated infusers. I'll do some research on that as to cost; my current feeling is that the 'sweepings' [a technical term for small fragments of tea that go into teabags so it brews quicker; nothing to do with sweeping up from the tea-factory floor] are cheaper than the chunks of leaf that make up loose tea. For 2 pins, I'd give up on the tea-bags and do unadulterated hot water instead
  7. Paper towels
    • It's true we used to have a roll of these on the go in the kitchen, but we stopped buying them years ago. I'm really twitchy about putting grease down the kitchen sink because of fear of fatberg; so we tend to degloop the frying pan with a tissue or two sheets of toilet paper. These later make reasonably effective firelighters. Mopping up spills is done with washable cloths. ZWC has an infinite supply of small cotton rags ripped from her children's worn out clothing: kept in a glass jar and thrown in the wash when they smell.
  8. Paper napkins
    • Are you joking? why would I use a napkin when I have a sleeve?
  9. Processed food
    • Sure we have some of this go through out kitchen - mainly so I can do research on The Blob's channel on Food Engineering and edible Tables of Contents.
    • Q. How difficult is it to make a 5 ingredient fresh pizza: bread dough; tomato passata; salami; mushrooms; cheese ? A. Not so very difficult that I would consider buying a 20 ingredient frozen pizza. I do miss a shop-bought chicken pot pie - engineered to be delicious 
There we go. I bet some of you now feel guilty about last week's grocery cart.

On another note entirely. It is World TB Day today: I have nothing new to say [2015 report]

Friday 23 March 2018

The future is hummmm

I was watching some convincing propaganda from What3Words, the global locating service, by Clare Jones one of their top guns. She floated the idea that their W3W technology would be a boon for getting an Olli to the right place. Olli, what am dat t'ing?  It is an autonomous minibus made by a Phoenix AZ company called Local Motors in partnership with General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, US Army, Dominos, Airbus, Snap-On, Shell, Siemens, Peterbilt, Mouser, Oak Ridge National Lab, DARPA & IMTS. Which is, if you think a bit, a wildly eclectic bunch of players to be pushing the same bus uphill. It looks like a see-thru toaster on wheels but is a little bigger [this is not a toy or a kitchen appliance]; each unit is about 4m long, just under 2 tonnes kerbside weight [it's the batteries, stupid] with a carrying capacity of 800kg - that's about 12 normal adults, or 8 Rust-Belt Americans [and most of them can sit down: L below] for a range of about 50km.
It is not, therefore suitable for the Interstate, but as a bus it can shuttle back and forth from terminal to terminal, presumably pausing for recharge at a time and place to maximize efficiency. Once you've embraced driverless, you open up a world of flexibility because driverless / autonomous requires a huge front-loading of nifty software: to prevent cyclists being run down; to avoid potholes; and decide when to recharge.

But there's more:
  • it can deal with the disabled by detecting crutches or wheelchairs at the bus stop and deploying the ramp automatically
  • it can deal with the forgetful by detecting the bag under the seat of the person who is just leaving
  • it can deal with emergencies by detouring directly to the nearest hospital if one of the passengers collapses
  • it can deal with ASBOs by locking the doors and zipping over to the nearest police station
  • it can detect sign-language; Spanish; Bengali, Tamil, Hindi
All that requires some up-front infrastructural inputs: Meridian Autonomous, another company, scopes out proposed routes and maps them into the on-board computer. Obviously the granualarity of MA is far finer than the 3m x 3m square of W3W: getting +/- 3m of that cyclist is going to wipe out a few cyclists. MA claims they can drive an Olli to within 1.5cm of the intended destination.

Once you embrace all-wired up, you can imagine all sorts of flexibility. 20 years ago, in deepest rural Ireland Ring-a-Link was available. It would be bonkers to run a regular bus-schedule along our valley because the population density was so low and either a) sedentary or b) in possession of a car (or a tractor). Ring-a-Link would, on 12 hours notice, send a mini-bus to your door and take you somewhere else (usually civilisation, the doctor, the supermarket, the chemist) . . . and then bring you home again a while later. You'd probably share the ride with someone else. I took Dau.I and Dau.II in to town by Ring-a-Link in about 2001, as proof of principle. It cost me a flat-fee €3 and the girls went free (or was it half price); we had some interesting chat about the olde dayes with the two elderly ladies with whom we travelled. It was Demand Responsive Transport DRT. Olli could do that too: make a small detour off the route to deliver to her door Mrs Doohickey with the gammy leg. It could integrate the utilitarian benefit to Mrs D against the loss of time for the other passengers on board and come up with an [algorithmically] fair solution.

At about the same time, every Thursday evening I was locked into coming home 130km by bus from working in Dublin. It was rush-hour, and bus lanes were rare, so we fought and crawled through the stop-go traffic for the first 15km. Just as the road cleared and bus was picking up speed, it left the main road and plunged into the dormitory town of Bray . . . because there was an official bus stop in Bray. About once every couple months there a passenger waiting at that bus stop; the other 90% of the time it was a useless, revenue-absent, diesel-guzzling detour that delayed the actual passengers' arrival home by 15 minutes. At the time, I thought that the bus company could make Bray a request stop: requiring would be travellers to phone the company in advance. But I knew that everyone was far too rigid to embrace such a radical solution. Olli would take that sort of thing in his stride. With everyone wired up to the cloud, you can imagine Ollies zig-zagging across the city picking up people who want to get to near enough the same place. A certain amount of internet-based ride-sharing happened two years ago when there was a Dublin Bus strike and reduced taxi-fares.

Thursday 22 March 2018

Where is Civilisation?

Q. Where is Civilisation?
A. Just outside Mountrath, Co Laois: more-or-less in the centre of Ireland.
There you can find one man's attempt to see off the barbarians at the gate and keep one room in a warm house as a sanctuary in which to reflect upon the achievements of which humanity can be most proud. That man is Frank Kennan. In the 1980s, after a successful career in MegaCorp, he and his wife Rosemary took a one year lease on Roundwood House [R with dog, the stables are round the back], a huge heap of a place then owned by the Irish Georgian Society. Frank and Rosemary had a romantic dream to run the place as a country guest house. After that year's trial run, the Kennan's took the house off the IGS's hands and have had a going concern for the last 30+ years.

They were early adopters of the concept of marketing idiosyncratic home-from-home hospitality to folk who didn't want to see the same-again inside of another Holiday Inn. There are now several clearing houses of such adventures - Hidden Ireland is one. We took my mother out to lunch in one Hidden Ireland place [not Roundwood House, I hasten to add] on her last visit to Ireland. Dau.II asked for a glass of elder-flower cordial and was served a beaker of fish-stock. You can see how The Help might confuse two jugs of off-white liquid in a slightly chaotic fridge. If a small hole in the floor-boards is covered with a square of sheet-metal and a shifted carpet, then that is part of the charm.

Four years ago, Frank looked at his library and felt unaccountably happy to have gathered a collection of books which he knew and loved and believed to be valuable in a cosmic rather than a monetary sense. In this he went one up on William Morris "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, OR believe to be beautiful" by changing the Boolean OR into an emphatic AND. He knows that almost every book published in English has been digitised by Google books but he believes that part of the pleasure, part of the didactic value, lies in the physical book. At the last count he has 870 books [searchable catalogue] in a comfortable room in Roundwood, which he calls The Library of Civilisation. He has set a limit of about 1,000 books, and is soliciting suggestions from you about how to fill the remaining spaces. The library was launched by an always civilised Senator David Norris and you can have 25 minutes of Frank's address if 2 mins isn't enough for you. Don't try to browse the library's website from anywhere so uncivilised as to lack true broadband because page turn-over takes a long time across our wireless 'broad'band. I downloaded the whole list into Excel which was quicker in the long run. The library samples widely across the Western canon on both sides of the Arts - Science divide. Frank and Rosemary's daughter Avril Kennan [now an advocate for research into rare genetic diseases] was educated, long after me, in the Genetics Department of Trinity College Dublin. Indeed that connexion is how I came to visit Roundwood and meet the Kennans at the turn of the century; but that's another story for another time.

I like the Library of Civilisation very much although I am a bit ambivalent about embracing the idea myself. I'm torn between the desire to de-clutter my life and a Canticle for Leibowitz concern that in the End Times Google's server farms will be among the first things to wink out. I think that's the reason I'm holding on to my 1953, almost complete [missing Volume I A-Anstey], revised 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica which I bought for £6 from a junk-shop in Newcastle in 1987. Someone who comes after me may want to know about Confederate Generals of the American Civil War, or to seek clues about how electric motors work. While I'm still havering between clear vs keep, I can look at my library . . . and so can you:
I think there about 1,000 books on the North wall of our living room [see above] where they form a handy barrier for thermal insulation. There are at least as many more books lurking about the property on shelves and in boxes. But this view has everything a chap could want for post-apocalyptic bliss. A lot of books [The Complete Blob in Ten x 200 post volumes is circled in lime green]; a chair with optional foot-pouffe; a stove with enough fuel and a kettle for tea; an inspirational calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh sharing a shelf with a bottle of brandy.  I haven't Frank's patience to catalogue my books but I have shared some part of my library in the past, and even offered a listicle of should-reads in 2013.

There is a little enough overlap between my books and Frank's and that's rather nice too. If we all agreed on The Canon, then nobody would be marching to a different drummer and we will need all the diversity we can muster when our World goes all brittle and crumbly. And another thing, Sciency books don't really give us much clue to Montaigne's question How to Live? You'll get a lot more of that sort of thing from the remaining fragments of Sophocles, even though he knew nothing about 3-D printers, nanotechnology or stem-cells.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Sea-level sorted at source

I was on about the effect of climate change induced sea-level rise. Since the 1950s there has been a huge demand for beach-front property. If you read Laurie Lee on his travels through Spain in 1936, you'll find that the sandy beaches and hidden coves of the Costa del Sol were seen as deserts only fit for habitation by dirt-poor fisher-folk and their families. My own experience of the Waterford coast is that the half-life of a steel wheel-barrow is about 18 months if left 2km from the sea and its incoming salty wind. The lack of shelter from The Sea View, which is now so desirable, means that storms are fiercer on the coast and damage (trees down, tiles off, electric fails) much more likely than inland. Almost the whole Mediterranean coast of Spain has, since I was born, been covered with a narrow strip of bars, cafés, apart-hotels, time-shares, discos, banks, casinos, and shops anxious to part tourists from their money. This development is mirrored over many other coasts where a huge amount of investment has been made on the assumption that the sea will be in view but out there and not washing through the foyer of my time-share apartment block. In my piece, cited above, I was reflecting on the astronomical cost of protecting all that property if sea-levels rise by a few meters. We could imagine housing refugees from Seychelles, Tuvalu, Maldives, Kiribati, because these low-lying tropical paradises have relatively small populations. And the people of Hemsby on the East coast of England whose houses will be over the cliff in the next few weeks followed shortly after by a pub on the West coast. Holbeck Hall Hotel in Scarborough [live!] went in 1993. Bangladesh is a different matter entirely in housing a lot of people a few metres above current sea-level and not enough space in the rest of the country to take in the dispossessed.

But it is unfair and short-sighted to have each stakeholder operating in their own best interests. The River Suir which flows through Waterford City is flanked for much its upstream length by callows = meadows which flood whenever there is too much rain for the river bed&banks to take away. Having 1m of water sitting on your meadow is bad for the farmer because that's a tonne weight per sq.m. which compacts the soil, suffocates the earthworms and changes the microbial flora of the soil to anaerobic. It takes years to recover. Accordingly farmers have pushed up berms along the river bank which protects their grassland from these adverse effects. 
Q. Where does the water go?
A. It backs up and floods the streets, home and businesses of Clonmel.
If we lived in Padraig Pearse's socialist paradise, the property rights of farmers would not trump those of town-dwellers who buy their beef and potatoes from said farmers. Clonmel floods pretty much every winter.

In this week's Nature, John Moore and three other glaciologists describe a few cunning plans to solve all the problems of future sea-level rise by stopping sea-level rise. To a hammer everything looks like a nail, and glaciologists know how glaciers move. If you really understand a system, then you can start to imagine interventions. The knowledge which two generations of government-funded academic scientists have discovered about the pattern and process of inflammation have allowed MegaPharm Inc. to develop profitable anti-inflammatories. Moore&3more propose to Geoengineer polar glaciers to slow sea-level rise: stalling the fastest flows of ice into the oceans would buy us a few centuries to deal with climate change and protect coasts.  Here is the executive summary:
  1. Protect the leading edge of the biggest glaciers from contact with warmer ocean water by dumping millions of tonnes of rock on top of existing sea-bed undulations to prevent or minimise melt and keep the ice-bergs uncalved. The Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland accounts for 4% of 20thC sea-level rise. It could be insulated by shifting 0.1 of to create a berm across the 'estuary'. That's 10% of the volume shifted to dig the Suez Canal and that was done by fellaheen with baskets and shovels . . . with a bit of help from steam-power.
  2. Pin the leading edge of glaciers with immovable [ya hope] concrete pillars built up from suitable rises in the bed rock and/or creating new or extending existing islands. Some of these sub-projects will require a LOT more material to be moved, and stabilised. Not forgetting, as I say above, that the weather is rougher out at sea and moving water has tremendous destructive power.
  3. Dry up the lubricating sub-glacial streams. Glaciers slip along nicely when they experience summer surface melting which cascades liquid water down the cracks and crevasses. Even without that, the action of grinding thousands of tonnes of ice against an immovable rocky base generates enough frictional heat to lube up the under-surface. Moore&3more concentrate on the feasibility to getting access to the flowing water through 1km of frozen over-burden but seem short on ideas of what to do once they get there. Me, I'd pump down wood-chips to increase the viscosity. Twigs and brambles have been very effective at preventing water-flow in the drains at home so that water blurfs out into the road-bed to sweep the whole thing downhill in a heap.
You want to be super-skeptical about geo-engineers as hammers seeing nails everywhere. Seeding the oceans with iron and manganese to encourage bacterial growth and CO2 sequestration is right dodgy if you look beyond the immediate. And Transaqua's cunning plan for transporting millions of tonnes of water across Africa to re-fill Lake Chad, like a reverse Aral Sea, sounds like hubris to me [Last week]. Hubris = ὕβρις - over-weening arrogance inviting retribution. There will for sure be unintended consequences but if the alternative is to sit on our thumbs waiting for the End Times, maybe we should let the glaciologists have a crack at it?

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Where am I ?

Drunk: Hi Honey I'm a bit fluthered, can you come pick me up?
Patient Husband: Sure, where are you?
Drunk: I'm at the corner of Walk and Don't Walk
Did you see what I did there? I reversed the stereotype of the drunken husband and long-suffering wife. Patriarchy 1 - Civilisation 0.

I wrote earlier about my mother having to find her husband 'somewhere in South London' in around 1958. Until The Man implants GPS transponders in all newborns (at the same time as they have their PKU pin-prick test?), knowing where you are is an on-going problem. Getting your pizza or another internet-impulse buy is potentially a problem, to which different countries have come up with different solutions.

I've had a few swipes at Eircode, Ireland's €25 million solution to getting a unique address for every home and business in the country:
Whatever about the codes, the quality of the underlying mapping data has been increasing exponentially. In December last year, I pointed at a fascinating comparison of the quality /richness of Google and Apple Maps by Justin O'Beirne. He pointed out that Google Streetview is IDing all the doorways so that a driverless taxi can purrrrr up to the entry of an apartment complex even when it round the corner from the official street address.
STOP PRESS: First person killed by a driverless Uber car (with safety-driver on board). One of the 184 comments says that the 'pedestrian' in the headline was a cyclist . . . in the cycle-lane. That unfortunate will be remembered in 200 years like William Huskisson the first man killed by a railway engine.

In about 2012, concert promoter Chris Sheldrick was getting pissed off at inadequate addressing as he tried to get kit to concerts in advance of the band. He moaned about it to Mohan Ganesalingam, a genius geek who stood astride the Two Cultures with Cambridge degrees in both mathematics and languages. Between the two of them, and some other early adopters and a few $million of VC, they came up with What 3 Words a global addressing system that assigns a unique identifier to every 3m x 3m square on the planet . . . so 70% of them are all wet. How many such 'squares' are there? about 57,000,000,000,000.  That's a lot of digits to remember! That's why phone numbers are often 7 digits because that's the limit of items that can be retained in short-term memory until we find a pencil to write it down. We're much better at recalling words because we 'chunk' into meaningful images and store that instead of the individual letters. If you want help memorising stuff, then you can embrace the Memory Palace techniques espoused by Mr Memory contestants or my Human Physiology students.

It didn't take [Chris and] Mohan long to twig that the cube root of 57 trillion is about 40,000 which is the number of normal words in the English language which are familiar to well-read people. A normal child will have acquired about 10,000 words by their 8th birthday: an astonishing 5 new words every day since they turned 2 and started speaking. So they took 40,000 English words and grouped them in ordered triplets to generate 64 trillion unique addresses in their GPS look-up table. mineral.customer.ridiculed is different from, not even close to, mineral.ridiculed customer. Like Eircode there is no hierarchy or order in the assignments and that can be a problem. What 3 Words and Eircode will tell you that this a virtue and mumble about error checking. But Alistair Cohen indicates that one letter different in the W3W could send you to New Zealand rather than Olde Zeeland with a huge bill for diesel.

High production value Ad / propaganda by the company. You may argue that such a cunning plan is all very well for Anglophones, but what about deliveries to Петропа́вловск-Камча́тский ? The company has parallel databases in Arabic, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Mongolian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish,Turkish and Kiswahili. At the moment only in English for the oceanic locations, though.  This is the future: for driverless taxis, drone-deliveries, meet-ups in pop concerts and a cascade of, as yet unknown, problems for which W3W will be the solution.

As near as matters to the postman, I am now in / at provide.deluxe.interlude because that's what I do with The Blob every day between 7am and 8am every morning. Be sure you get that right: provide.wonderful.experience is almost exactly halfway between Cuba and Grand Canaria; and I defo won't be there to provide tea and flapjacks for visitors. If I walk out the front door I may drift into metabolism.collider.unedited, still within range of a tossed flapjack!

Monday 19 March 2018

Waves incoming

We live 230m above sea-level, the last 30m of which requires a 300m journey up a 1:10 dirt track. I think, even given the worst-case prediction of sea-level rise driven by global warming, we'll be safe. The doomsday outcome if all the ice in Antarctica and Greenland melts is 70m increase of sea-level. Now that would be awkward, because we'd have nowhere to shop. Elevations: Bunclody 15m; Borris 44m; Enniscorthy 25m; New Ross 7m; Kilkenny 45m - they're all ploosh; on the other hand, I guess our management would expect me into work because The Institute 70m.

I was reflecting our Elevation because of an article in a recent Nature The Cruellest Seas: extreme floods will become more common as sea levels rise. It is ironic because the author Alexandra Witze is based in Denver Colorado 1600m about as far as you can get from the impact of sea level rise. The article is interesting as an example of why climate change is a more appropriate term than global warming. The 2018 Patrick's day weekend was the coldest mid-March we've had since 2007. That year I was part of the Dublin St Patrick's Day Parade in samba school and a handful of allllmost naked Brasileira dancers. At least we sambistas had white short sleeved shirts against a whipping East wind; but the girls had gone from a pleasing coffee-au-lait to a worrying shade of blue/grey by the time we'd swung along the route. Not every country is going to get warmer and not every coast is going to be increasingly at risk of flooding; as shown in two clips from the graphics:
Bring on the global warming whenever you're ready! The effect of sea-level rise on the fate of cities depends, sure, on the rate of melting at the ice-caps; and also on the fortunes of timing of tides and weather. But it also depends on whether the coast itself is rising or falling. For the last 10,000 years the bulk of Scandinavia has been rising elastically as it recovers from the weight of ice accumulated during the last ice age. All the ports and cities round the Gulf of Bothnia from Turku/Åbo to Stockholm are marked blue in the map above because, by 2050 (!) their likelihood of a 100 year flood is receding to once every 1000+ years. Dieppe otoh or Brest is going to be getting "100 year floods" every 5 years.

It's not just Bangladesh that is going to be awash. A disconcerting number of the world's greatest cities started their growth as ports [London, Marseille, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, Kolkata] ; many of the rest [Paris, Budapest, Memphis, Minneapolis, Hyderabad] were established at significant river crossings. Cities don't get big by acting as a local market for surplus grain, they grow because they corner the trade in non-essentials like silk, cloves, cuff-links, pork belly futures, Guinness.  In any case you should have a gander at Alexandra Witze's article because the prognosis of these great coastal cities [New York City futures anyone?] hinges critically on the past data you put in to the equations to predict the future and how you set the gears grinding on the algorithmic mill. Whatever the data, whatever the model, whatever the result; you can bet your sweet bippy that few governments are going to undertake the cost of future-proofing their real estate beyond the next election. That's because the actual cost of berms, dykes, surge-barriers, evacuation routes, building redesign (in absolute $£€ or as % of GDP) is frightening - there are a lot of people and a lot of real estate that will need remediation . . . or abandonment.

Sunday 18 March 2018

Clippedy doo dah 18 Mar 18

What we got today? We got a Gallimaufry today:

Saturday 17 March 2018

Skull Valley Sheep vale

Ancient Roman citizens used to leave the party with an ave atque vale = hail and farewell. By contrast, Roman gladiators used to begin there party with Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant = hail emperor, those about to die salute you. 6,000 sheep from Utah started off St Patrick's Day 1968 with little thought that without vale farewell they were morituri about to die . . . but they were. About 2/3 of them dying [R for sample] from inanition and internal haemorrhage, the rest shot in the head by their human minders when it was clear they weren't going to get up.  It is exactly 50 years ago, that a phone call was made to the US Army Dugway Proving Ground, alerting them to the fact of wide-spread sheep death in Skull Valley about 30 miles NE of their Top Secret chemical and biological warfare CBW playground [warning sign below L] on the edge of the desert a couple of hours outside Salt Lake City.

hmmmm? well it turned out that, on the 13th of March that year, there had been 3 separate experiments at Dugway on the distribution of what we now call weapons of mass destruction WMD, in particular a nerve agent called VX. VX is a denser, more viscous, relative of Sarin which has been used with such abandon in Syria.  Both VX and Sarin (and the Новичо́к Novichok stuff which took out Серге́й Ви́кторович Скрипаль and Юлия Сергеевич Скрипал in Salisbury a couple of weeks ago) are anti-cholinesterases. Cholinesterase is an enzyme [most biologics ending -ase are enzymes] is which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine ACh after it has been used by motor neurons to stimulate the muscles. Anti-cholinesterases stop the enzyme working, so the ACh continues to call for muscle contraction and you die all locked up in the agonising spasms of tetanic paralysis. Botox kills you with flabby paralysis because it prevents the release of ACh from the motor neuron.

Team Dugway seem to have done a controlled experiment by trying out three different methods of dispersal: they fired an artillery shell; they burned 600 lt in an open-air pit; they loaded a fighter-plane with two tanksful and sprayed it out over the countryside.  In all cases, they cut the lethal load with a red dye of similar density to make easier the post hoc detection. I wrote about using Serratia marcescens as a marker in another friendly-fire incident for CBW dispersal over San Francisco in 1950.  A low-ranking officer on the Army's PR team mistakenly released a confidential report to the press and public opinion quickly gelled into the certainty that the [poor] sheep had been killed in a carelessly conducted experiment by the US military. It became A Mighty Wind that blew fresh air through the establishment and changed government policy on CBW and probably directly saved thousands of Vietnamese people and their livestock from a fate worse than probably involving death. That loonngg essay A Mighty Wind is by Dr Steve J Allen of the right-wing independent investigative think-tank Capital Research Center. In a previous life Allen was a researcher for 1990s Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich [R, Georgia], but we won't hold that against his views on the Skull Valley Incident; which I find to be informed and informative about the history, chemistry, biology, ecology, epidemiology, politics, and press coverage of those times.

The 3 internally inconsistent issues that interest me are:
  • that the physics of dispersal and dilution of VX - which is lethal at small-small concentrations [LD50 about 10mg / person or about 10x more toxic than Sarin] but not so small that a single molecule homeopathically diluted by the wind can kill several thousand sheep - don't seem to be consonant with the supposed action-at-a-distance. 
  • the symptoms in the dying sheep - no difficulty breathing but internal haemorrhage - are definitely not consonant with VX poisoning: anti-cholinesterases exhaust the muscles which power the lungs because the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is left permanently ON stimulating them.
  • only sheep Ovis aries seem to have been affected by the VX; not the jack-rabbits Lepus californicus; marmots, Marmota flaviventris; beavers, Castor canadensis; ground squirrels, Urocitellus mollis; Coyote, Canis latrans; Raccoon, Procyon lotor; nor Mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus
Here's what I think from my sofa, 50 years after the event. The US military had been lobbing toxins about the range in Utah for the best part of 20 years and 17 March 1968 was the first time that a lot of farm-stock had beencome ill in the vicinity. That's in the vicinity in the uniquely American way of people who will think nothing of driving 80km to have dinner or take in a movie. The 6,000 sheep died in two tranches 50km and 110km distant from the flight-path of the spraying jet-fighter, and 4 days after the last run of tests at Dugway. I suggest that flight and fatality were coincidental and that the sheep succumbed to a sheep-specific enterohaemorrhagic bacterial infection. That pathogen having been spread through both flocks of sheep, by exchange of stock in the days before in the attack became obvious. The farming corporations who owned the sheep got compensation from the Feds at about twice the market value of the stock. So they had a vested interest in allowing the press to put the blame on the military. The military, maybe paradoxically, in the realpolitik of the cold war liked the idea that their potency was in the public domain and hopefully putting the frighteners on the Soviets. As evidence of the credibility of my pathogenic insult explanation, remember that half the saiga antelopes Saiga tatarica of Central Asia died of Pasteurellosis in May 2015.
lá fhéile pádraig