Monday, 30 April 2018

Too little not often

With some cancers, early detection is the key predictor for a good outcome. Small lumps are easier to deal with than hideous vascularised masses which have penetrated into adjacent tissue. It's much better if you can initiate treatment before the bugger goes all metastatic and sends deadly pods to invade the brain, liver and kidney.

I heard Dr David Gibbons being interviewed on RTE this morning. For those of you in Ukraine and Italy, not in this parish, I'll have to break the news that cervical cancer screening is in the public eye this last week because Vicky Phelan, a young mother of two small children, is now scheduled to die of cervical cancer because her cervical smear test didn't pick up the tell-tale signs of pre-cancer. Her two children will have a trust fund of €700,000 set up on their behalf as part of the €2.500,000 settlement that the Phelans have secured from the US Company that reported a false negative in 2011. They know it's a false negative because in 2014 Ms Phelan was diagnosed with cancer and the Cervical Screening Service went back and looked carefully at the 2011 slides.

Going back and checking results is a key element of the job of the Quality Assurance (QA) Committee which was established for the National Cancer Screening Service (NCSS) in 2007 before they rolled out their first smear campaign. Dr Gibbons, an expert in the diagnosis of cervical carcinoma, was appointed the chair to the cytology and histology group on QA committee. Everyone agrees that screening is cost effective: if you catch the cancers early, the treatment is cheaper because less invasive and that saves money in the long run because you avoid expensive treatment later on. That's quite apart from the non-monetisable intangibles like women not dying of cancer and leaving orphans and widowers behind and/or women having the full dreadful menu of surgery, chemo and radiation. All of which impact negatively on the QALYs [prev] in each case. Probably because the costs of the screening project were not properly worked out, the Screening Service was rapidly overwhelmed with cervical smears and mammograms to check and so they outsourced the cervical screening to a lab in the USA.

Outsourcing may be sensible for economies of scale in a small country. You can't have every service at every cross-roads in Ireland. This is the core of the debate over whether to centralise A&E or cardiac services in a few properly resourced and effectively manned locations and shuttling patients to the treatment centres or, as politicians prefer, having a shiny CAT scan in their local hospital even when there are no effectives to drive it. But Dr Gibbons is asserting that outsourcing cervical smears to America is only an economy if it works and, vitally, that the US lab works on the same schedule as the Irish gynaecologists who are sending the smears for analysis. In Ireland the practice is to screen women every three years and look really closely at each sample: cytologists in Ireland scrutinise only about 30 smears a working day. In America they do the smear annually and can be a little more cavalier (80 smears a day) in the analysis: if you miss something really small one year you'll catch it on the rebound in 12 or 24 months time. Neither practice is wrong until they collide: if you outsource from Ireland, a fraction of women will, like Vicky Phelan, have their early signs missed and not come back for 3 years. A carcinoma can make a lot of headway in 3 years.

Dr Gibbons raised his concerns with the head of the screening service Dr Tony O'Brien [R] and was told to get back in his box because "when the National Cervical Screening Programme was established, the process that was chosen followed best international practice of countries that had well-established cervical screening programmes.Ahem, not so, if you follow Dr Gibbons' logic above. Dr Gibbons said in 2008 that the Screening Service and its parent the HSE were going to reap a whirlwind of missed and mis-diagnosis in 10-15 years time and resigned from his position on the QA Committee. The whirlwind is now, the capo di tutti capi head of the HSE is the same Tony O'Brien who was so certain of his rectitude ten years ago. Dr Gibbons is exceptional among people who have senior positions in the Irish Health Service because he resigned on a point of principle. I can provide a sword if anyone believes they should fall on one.


I was at a happening at Visual, the Arts venue on the other side of town to The Institute. Creativity and Engineering: a new perspective, was the local contribution to Engineers Week (24th Feb - 2nd Mar) . . . it was only 48 days and 10 minutes late in starting. That may have been because the original gig was cancelled because of Storm Emma. I guess it was worth making an 80km round trip to hear what three Engineers had to say about a) how they started in the field b) how they left and c) where the ideas come from. There was a bit of fairy story about the night "Once upon a time, there were three engineers. One was a civil engineer working for a multinational; one was an electronic engineer working in academia; and one was an engineer, but isn't anymore because he became a writer and artist . . .".  The civil engineer claimed to be driven by fear. As a teenager, he wanted to be a sculptor but was told that he'd never earn a penny that way and was bullied by fear of penury into doing engineering at college. As a structural engineer, he tended to make things more boxy, fatter than they needed to be: driven by the fear that an under-engineered bridge or building would collapse and kill people - true dat in Sweetwater, FL!

But I wept a silent tear at the advice the not-yet engineer got from his father. How many children are turned, pushed, shoved away from developing their true selves towards a safe career that will pay the rent but will be an existence rather than a life worth living? You can always have music / art / sculpture / dancing as a hobby, say the adults in the room. But you won't because the paying job will suck you dry so there is no spare capacity for The Arts and eventually another dried husk of a wasted life will blow away into the sunset like so much tumbleweed. Was I here before? I was!  But I've also flagged a couple of stories where, late in life but not too late, a sheep-farmer and a geologist have become stone-mason and sculptor. And I was writing about true-to-self in the music world earlier this April.

The third creative engineer had, during his final years at school, been taken by Technical Drawing, a subject no longer available on the Leaving Certificate. TechyD was also a turn-on for The Boy who relished the challenge of rendering 3-D objects on a flat page so that their quality and properties was readily apparent. I don't need to remind you that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a treatise on the Metaphysics of Quality. What do you do with the skills of TechyD? You apply for Engineering School and you qualify and you work in the industry for 15 years until you finish up as a site-engineer on a new shopping centre in Berlin. Being a qualified engineer in Anglophonia presents a whole set of challenges. Doing the same work with but sketchy German poses a clatter of other problems. You have to learn the German terms of box-girder, gusset-plate, column, truss, concrete-poker [that would be Pneumatischerbetonvibrator] and remember them the next day. Because a comms failure between you the engineer and Gunter the foreman, and Hans-Albrecht the crane-driver could have fatal consequences now or 10 years in the future. Looking back through his technical vocabulary note-book sometime later, the engineer realised that the list of words was a record of the progress of the project from foundations to flag and from that he wrote his first novel. That was the first step in his journey from building site to atelier.

At the end of the night I asked a question "Is it a good thing to have women in engineering because they bring a different worldview or skillset to the table when engineering projects are discussed". The consensus seemed to be that it is because they do. I was glad to hear that because this I firmly believe. Actually, it's not only women who are needed to foster a synergistic creativity round the engineers project table. We need people in wheel-chairs, people from the tropics, people who grew up deaf and people who have never played Rugger at a posh school. They all see things differently and their complementary combination may just cause something really different to be built upon the Earth. 

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Sunday 290418

Stuff not nonsense

Saturday, 28 April 2018

An Traisce

An Taisce [recently], the National Trust for Ireland, is charged "to preserve and protect Ireland's natural and built heritage". This remit falls under three headings
  • Advocacy - they write, mostly indignant, Letters to the Minister about the destruction of our built and natural heritage.
  • Properties - they hold and maintain a few handfuls of random properties around the country
  • Education - they develop education and information packs and brochures
Apart from what they do in schools, I think they are mostly preaching to a rather peculiar choir of people who'd rather spend Saturday in The Wilds than in The Mall buying more plastic jim-crack from China. An example of this is their cunning plan, now in its 20th year, to promote and support an Annual Spring-Clean of the local ordinary environment. That's not the stately homes, Victorian monuments and spectacular mountains but the local roads and by-ways which we drive through in order to visit the touristy bits. Drive through is the operative phrase because nobody walks along these minor roads anymore unless they have a dog that must be walked or a death-wish and a high-viz jacket to provide a target for the boy-racers. It's a peculiar choir because only a teeny-tiny fraction of the population is interested is picking trash out of the hedgerows. Our mailing list is a dozen of the usual suspects from a population of a few hundred. I reckon we've been doing it for about 10 of those 20 years. Before Dau.I and Dau.II left home, we'd all do it as a family - sending the children into the more inaccessible brambles so as not to tear my jodhpurs. After the girls left, it was less fun. Last year I pursed my lips, folded my arms and refused to clear our stretch of the Upper Road through the valley; it seemed such a thankless task.

This year, today is Spring-Clean Day locally, which is really late. Cleaning is meant to happen in April - because there is the chance of warm, or at least dry, days to do it but before the vegetation takes off and makes the coke tins and plastic sandwich packs invisible. A week will make a big difference in whether the work is easy or jungly and brutal. But the long cold, wet Spring has delayed vegetable take-off this year, so it has not been too bad. Yes, that is past tense because I did our 700m stretch on Wednesday: one half starting at 0600hrs before judging the local chapter of SciFest2018 and the other half from 1800hrs afterwards.
One end of the road [see above branch R] has a 1798 monument [above centre] in a little clump of trees which comes with a tiny 4 car gravelled pull-off and a picnic table. This is an obvious place to dump your broken kitchen appliances, so it is important to clean the obvious rubbish out of there lest the place become a known trash-magnet and we finish up with a hape of mattresses and fridge-freezers. The broken window hypothesis may be relevant. Accordingly, I started at the monument and filled a tuthree trash-bags there, topped off with a final Lucozade bottle from the outside edge of the monument retaining wall,then and set off down the road. When I returned an hour later, there was another Lucozade bottle in more or less the same place. Unless these fashion-accessory drinks are sporulating, that second bottle must have been fecked out of the window by a passing motorist. Furthermore, that passing motorist must have seen an ould chap picking trash out of the ditches further down the road - in Ireland you're not allowed to drive if you are blind. It probably seemed a hilarious comment of the fatuity of cleaning trash out of the drains. It is the same mentality that thinks it is appropriate to urinate on homeless people as they doze in shop doorways, or finds it funny to push a blind-man backwards over his seeing-eye dog.

Trash is always with us and on one level it is fatuous to clean it up because it will be back the next day. My father had a parable on this matter which I will share with you now.
Dean Swift and the Boot-boy.
Dean Swift (he of Gulliver's Travels) paused in a journey through the muddy streets of Dublin to have his boots cleaned and blacked by a boot-boy. The waggish young entrepreneur recognised his celebrity customer and asked
"Why, Mr. Swift, do you bother to get your boots cleaned, when they will be all muddy again in 5 minutes?"
To which the Reverend sWIfT replied
"Why, my boy, do you bother to eat when you will be hungry again in an hour?"

This story used to leave my father's children speechless with rage and frustration every time we heard it . . . which was often.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Fantastic voyage

I was driving to work later than usual and caught a bit of an innerview with Anthony O'Connor, consultant gastroenterologist at Tallaght University Hospital [innerview is thus not a typo]. All the hospitals in Ireland seem to have been rebranded at Balliferriter [InsertUnlikelyNameHere] University Hospital even ArdKeen, built in 1952 as a tuberculois sanitorium is now Waterford University Hospital despite being 150km from the nearest university. It's like the cheap-shot rebranding of Institutes of Technology ITs as Technological Universities TUs as if that, in itself, will create a vibrant hub of academic and applied research. Dr O'Connor is The Man if you have a bit of rectal bleeding; unexplained bloatiness; constipation . . . diarrhoea . . . alternating diarrhoea and constipation; all of which might indicate bowel cancer. You should go to him if you can't Go, if you get my drift, because early detection will significantly improve your survival chances; and the disease is possibly far-advanced if you have those symptoms AND you turn out to have a carcinoma. You can of course have any or all of those symptoms from another, less fatal, cause. Diverticulosis for example: according to Dr O'Connor 100% of Irish people will have diverticulosis: the formation of little blind pockets in the lining of the bowel. It's the diet (rashers, chips, red meat, insufficient porridge and kale) stupid. Diverticulitis is different, that's when inflammation starts kicking off which entails tissue damage and possibly bleedin' bowel. As with lumps in your prostate, you are far more likely to die with diverticulosis rather than from diverticulosis.

That's why you go to get checked over: allay the anxieties. The old option is to have a colonoscopy, where Dr. O'Connor or one of his students or interns pushes a drain-rod up your 'back-passage' with a GoPro attached to the end. It's not a real drain-rod, silly, that would be a) insufficiently sterile and b) insufficiently bendy. You'll see from the diagram [above R] that the endoscope driver has to make two right angled turns to reach the ascending colon to have a look-see. Pancreatic cancer is a different parsnip altogether, by the time you are symptomatic you are probably done for. Pat the Salt had a potential pancreatic issue sorted by esophagogastroduodenoscopy an invasion from the other end of the digestive tract. It really is a Incredible Journey [R] up the oompah, round the corner and diagnose a crop of polyps, and probably lasso them off with a little wire loop. Did someone mention polyps? Many of us older people will have those too; and they are indicative of colon cancer but the time scale for the transition from polyp to bloody tumour is from 10 to 40 years, so again you're much more likely to die with than from.

Mais revenons nous à nos rectums!  Actually Walt Disney's heartwarming 1963 story about transcontinental pets is much less appropriate here than Richard Fleischer's 1966 film Fantastic Voyage. In that story, the writers throw physiological sense out of window to imagine a submarine and its crew being miniaturised  and inserted into a chap's bloodstream to zap a clot on his brain. Biophysical constraints dictate that some things have to be the same size. All mammalian red blood cells, for example, are 8μm across. We have more items in that department than mice, not bigger cells. All the boys in the cinema in 1966 were delighted that Rachel Welch's bosom was not shrunk by a single jot of tittle. The problem is that the esophagogastroduodenoscope can reach down as far as it can and the colonoscope can reach up as far as it can but that leaves a whole inaccessible bowel section in the middle. It's like the joke about the nun bathing without removing her habit: "I wash down as far as possible and then I wash up as far as possible; and then I wash possible". Someone had the bright idea of untethering the camera and pilloscopy aka capsule endoscopy was born. This is a small 25mm x 10mm capsule containing a camera, battery and a light (it's dark in there). First you flush out the bowel contents with Vibrio cholerae [kidding!] a laxative. Then you fast for 12 hours. The you choke down your camera and attach a wireless pick-up to your belt. Sometime later you can recover the capsule. Nobody says if they are give a rinse and reuse it. The data - several thousand photographs - are captured later and transferred to a bigger computer for analysis. Don't imagine for a second that Dr O'Connor is going to scan through thousands of of pink pictures. The technique depends upon machine learning and nifty software for discriminating normal variability from abnormal intervention fodder. Nobody imagined in 1966 that Fantastic Voyage was anything other than Fantasy.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology 
is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke

Thursday, 26 April 2018

SciFest 2018

Out the mouths of babes and sucklings . . . I heard two obscure words, only one of which I was 'familiar' with, uttered by youngsters in school uniforms. That's an antidote to my general experience that I have to haul my very expensive education wind and mind what I say, in the long-word department, with our students. I spend yesterday  forenoon at The Institute judging entries for this year's SciFest. This is a venture where teenagers present a scientific research project to be in with the chance of a prize. Actually there are so many prizes (first, second, chemistry, space, mathematics, environmental, under-14 . . . I could go on) that there's almost one for everyone in the audience. My Bloborecords indicate that I've been doing this every year since 2013.  And so the words:

Hyperacusis: super-sensitivity to certain everyday sounds. Please note that "hyperacusis and misophonia are completely different conditions" Thee first is noise-induced pain [sensation] and the second is noise-induced rage [reaction]. Getting my head around this is going to be harder work that I can spare right now. I know I did permanent damage to my ears during an absurdly over-amped Paul Brady concert in Newcastle upon Tyne 30 years ago but that is all my ear-'ole problems. I don't hear voices; I don't freak out when I hear people chewing their food; I don't get unduly stressed when someone drops a tray of cutlery behind me. A couple of kids at SciFest 2018 have been working on a solution to a problem which one of them feels acutely. One of them is on the autistic spectrum and suffers hyperacusis. In their blurb they cited the work and ideas of Temple "Think like a cow" Grandin: she has emphasised how she and other autistic people are sound-sensitive. What the kids have done is develop a set of wireless headphones [shown R] that can play appropriate music to white-out distressing sounds. What impressed all the judges was how far the girls had developed their product. Indeed they've secured their first tranche of VC from a local businessman which has helped fund the development of a swish functional website where you can buy their kit, which comes in any colour so long as it's red, packed in a zipped carry case. At The Institute we host Teen Science Days and Teen Enterprise [multiprev] Days, it is rare that I meet acts that could win prizes in both categories.

Coprolalia: that's shit-talking . . . no not metaphorical shit-talking but literal potty-mouth. Coprolalia comes from the same root (Gk κόπρος) as coprolite (fossil turd) which we met in Mary Anning's Dorset + λαλιά = speech. This peculiar word tripped off the tongue of a slight young man who was investigating ways to stave off the worst tics of Tourette's syndrome. Like JBS Haldane, who famously worked himself up into a state of carbon dioxide toxaemia in the cause of science, the young chap had been trying each day a different gadget and counting the number of times he ticced between breakfast and tea-time. Physical exercise - running particularly - seems to be the most reliable remedy. I've mentioned Tourette's syndrome before because the eponym Georges Gilles "fuckit-fuckit-fuckit" de la Tourette was student of Charcot in Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Young Chap politely corrected this cliché symptom of the syndrome, saying that only 10% of Touretters dumped the dirty part of their mind when manifesting a phonic tic. As science, the project was weak, because there was only one case (Young Chap) and no controls but I was delighted when we agreed to give him the Communication Prize because he had been so articulate the multiple times he had to explain his project to judges and other interested parties.

Two words, three youngsters, a couple of ideas, some data. I really cannot think of a more fortunate way to spend a morning than talking science with people who are the future of Ireland as a technological nation FITNa. When SciFest ante-d up some bevvies and the fancier sort of biscuits that our caterers have available as well as free sandwiches for lunch it was as if my tea-cup runneth over. It also gave me pause to reflect on the good fortune of being happy in my own skin and not too much beset by troubles in my head.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Aggravating stereotypes

It shouldn't have really riled me up when I was invited to proof-read the latest edition of my Research Profile on The Institute's website. There are maybe 100 Research Active people on the Faculty. Half of them, seemingly picked a random, are presented with a thumbnail photograph. The rest of us have a place-holder instead. But weirdly and unforgiveably, the women have hair [see LR], while the men have ears [see LL]. Yes, I know I could keep my anger for saving dolphins from microplastic [and I do!] or deploring the use of Sarin in Syria [and I do!]. But the idea that some functionary should take the time to discriminate the place holder on the basis of sex is, well, unconscionable in these times.
Heck-and-jiminy, if we can go to the trouble of designating a gender-neutral bathroom surely we could have a better gender-neutral generic head-and-shoulders. Gmail can do it [R] why don't we rip their's off? but recolour it in Kelly and Bottle green.

Each year in September, I have to learn the names and put faces to 100+ students whom I've never met before. I was never very good at this: getting to know people requires eye-contact. And getting older and more sieve-brained doesn't help. Since my first September in 2013, I scrape The Institute's website for names and thumbnails for each student contact group. It takes me an hour, or a bit more, but it settles my anxiety. Each class is divided into cohorts of N<18 to accord with health & safety limits in laboratories. I finish up with an A4 page with photo, name and student ID which I then spend some time learning. It takes me till early October. This resource is very much appreciated by my colleagues when I share the pages; but none of them offer to help share the burden of populating each sheet. Inevitably, some students are late to register, so I have no picture.  For a placeholder, I always use this:

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Jonas aujourd'hui

Jonath qui aura 65 ans en l'an 2018
One of the first things I did when I went to college in 1973 was join the Film Soc. For good measure, I joined the French Film Soc at the other university across town where The Beloved was studying in The Arts Block. Those films set my clock: even today, if a film doesn't have sub-titles then there's something missing. I get my fix the last Saturday of every month with the Blackstairs Film Society. I couldn't get over how cool and sophisticated French films, by François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle, Bertrand Tavernier, seemed back then in 1970s Ireland: when homosexuality was still illegal, and books by JP Donleavy, Edna O'Brien and John McGahern were banned.

In the middle of this beaker full of the warm South, The Boy was born at the end of 1975. The following year saw the launch of another film from La Francophonie: Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l'an 2000. It was as if it had been written and directed for The Boy. 25 years later for his birthday in 2000, I went off on a hunt for the iconic film, not least because he was then about the age which the adult protagonists of Jonas were when he was born. The internet was a smaller, clunkier and less commercial place in 2000 AD. Google existed but was eclipsed by Altavista; Amazon existed but was years from its first year in profit; DVDs existed and sold them by the bucket-load but their inventory was a long way from being comprehensive - especially for old, niche, not-American films. I never did get a copy of the film but I did track down a copy of the film-script in a bookshop in Texas. I called them up, read my credit-card details down the phone, and they agreed to sell and send me the book. I was delighted. I suspect The Boy was bemused. For his 21st birthday, I'd given him a box containing 21 different bottles of beer and I'm sure he'd have preferred to get N=25 ditto 4 years later.

Mais revenons-nous a nos Jonas. It was filmed in French but in the neighbouring republic of Switzerland, directed by Alain Tanner and written by Tanner and John Berger, the English critic, writer and radical who was a real inspiration for my younger radical self. I wrote about him when he turned 90 in 2016 and again, as an obituary 2 months later. It's a bit jumpy because it tells the interwoven tales of 8 young adults in the early 1970s as they try to discover a new equilibrium after their world turned upside-down by the Paris Spring of May 1968. [Hey, that's 50 years ago next month - we must have a retrospective] Tanner and Berger decided to call their principals Max Mathilde Marco Marcel Marguerite Madeleine Marie Mathieu which must have a Meaning more profound than I can fathom unless - I have it - they are all avatars or dimensions of Marx. It's about maintaining principles and an ethical stance while having to live in a real world which runs on different tracks. About trying to make a difference while making a living. And it's still kind of fun although kind of dated.

How do I know? Because someone called Joan Alice has loaded it up on youtube! I sat still one evening last week and watched it all the way through. Indeed I stayed up way past my bedtime to see it finished. I was confused - not least by Marguerite and Mathilde who look a bit alike. Here's a review. If I watched it again, I'd mine more nuggets of socio-political comment from 1970s Switzerland but maybe my time is better spent on today's problems today.  Who's Jonas? He is the son of Mathilde and Mathieu who comes along towards the end of the film as a new broom sweeping his parents generation into the dustbin of history and replacing their world with a bright new future . . . I think.

Monday, 23 April 2018

On hedges

Whooeee, I just finished a book in hedges [L a plashed hedge from the English MidlandsA Natural History of the Hedgerow: and ditches, dykes and dry stone walls by John Wright ISBN 9781846685538. Well done me because it is 350 small print pages and I don't have the stamina or attention span that I had at school, ploughing through Ulysses and War & Peace. So many distractions: Blob, eat, commute, work, home, sheep, drains, eat, sleep, repeat - that it is difficult to get a good run at a book. A natural history of hedges is clearly related to both parts of my working life - earning an honest crust at the frontiers of science and trying to limit the natural tendency of sheep to die. This has been the longest wettest Winter in this generation. With blizzards of March the grass is at least a month behind itself and the sheep are starvin'. We've been horsing bags of sheep muesli [mmmm good] down their necks at €8.50 a bag but I've also been up and down the field boundaries pulling down hanks of ivy Hedera helix. Those boundaries are hereabouts referred to as ditches, a term reserved exclusively for things running below grade when I was growing up in England: 'drains' is the local term for them. The subtitle of John Wright's book hints at the variety of local terms and local styles of the boundaries between field and field and between field and road.

These differences are driven by local tradition, sure, but the traditions are driven by the local natural history. Building a dry-stone wall L example from Cape Wrath NW Scotland: go to link: that's an order] out of a sedimentary rock like Kilkenny limestone is as easy as building a wall out of Lego: the natural bedding planes give you two flat parallel faces to each stone. Our granite comes in the round and naturally tumbles out of a ditch like marbles. But there is so much of the rock about that you're better off building the stones into vertical walls a) to get rid of them from the fields and b) to keep the sheep separate from the turnips. Our field boundaries are rich in trees: mainly ash Fraxinus excelsior; rowan Sorbus aucuparia; hawthorn Crataegus monogyna with a scatter of blackthorn Prunus spinosa; damson Prunus domestica; and elder Sambucus nigra; with alder Alnus glutinosa and willow Salix spp. down near the river; and plenty of  ivy Hedera helix and gorse /whin / furze Ulex europaeus filling in any gaps. I'm strangely impressed by this diversity because Hooper's Rule states:
Age = (no of species in a 30 yard stretch) x 110 + 30 years.
That's woody species! We're not counting every plant, let alone every beetle and butterfly. I'd guess that we'd have 2 or 3 'trees' in any random 30m stretch which accords with the history of local settlement and hill clearance about 250 years ago.

Wright's book is at pains to big up the smaller constituents of the biota of hedgerows; especially the fungi, lichens and insects which are ignored by Hooper's Rule although not by Hooper or Wright in their books. Wright is a good amateur mycologist and there are some stunning colour photographs of fungi: tiny and delicate or gross and flubbery their fruiting bodies photograph well. We tend to forget that they are just the icing on the cake of a web of mycelia penetrating the substrate, be that soil, leaf-little, dead wood or living tissue. This fungal world is essential for turn-over and maintenance in hedges and their surrounds. We should pay more attention because soil fertility for crops is dependent on the microscopic world for sustainable production. Lurrying on ammonium nitrate shipped from a distant factory is a) expensive and b) not sustainable.

The first part of Hedgerows is about geographic history and the development of the landscape of England. I learned a lot of new (=old) words and concepts. A selion for example is a peasant holding, typically 1 chain wide and 1 furlong long. A chain is 22 yards or 66 feet and the length of a cricket pitch between stumps. 10 chains is 1 furlong. The area 66 x 660 = 43,560 sq.ft is called an acre, which is as near as dammit to 4,000 sq.m. So 1 acre [we have 16 and a whisker on the farrrrrm] is very close to 40% of a hectare - a much more universal unit of area. Depending on the rotation of crops and the inclusion of livestock in the peasant economy, selions would eventually be hedged. Some hedges in England have been there for more than 1,000 years as a living immovable boundary. Regions with hedges were called wooded, to differentiate them from champion [O.Fr. champaign open country] regions of open field systems. The selions and their owners were all written up and recorded in a terrier, (O.Fr terroir as in wine]  some of which have survived to the present day. On the other hand an assart is a piece of farm land carved from the forest. If you look at olde mappes and see fields with rounded edges, then it was likely (part of) an  assart: circles give you the most area for the least effort of clearance.

I have tribbed Oliver Rackham's brilliant Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape before.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Scaling the cruises

I've had a little [bird] to say about the adverse effects of surface to volume ratio. Mammals and birds are generally homeothermic: designed to function only in a narrow range of temperatures. Small creatures, like those stormy petrels have a proportionately large surface area which is leaking heat all the time. They have, therefore, to be eating all the time to replace the lost calories. Big things otoh don't have enough surface for their bulk and have to be concerned not to over-heat. Having large ears networked with hot blood-vessels is the elephant's way of fanning off some of the excess heat. The system only really works if the skin is wet so that the latent heat of evaporation can suck heat from the body as the liquid water turns to vapour.

We human are somewhere between elephants and small birds in size. Very large people, of which we have more every year, really don't do as well in the hot weather as their skinny cousins. otoh the thin dudes feel the cold more. You don't hear much about sealing nowadays. In the 1970s we all got exercised about the practice of clubbing baby seals to death so that rich ladies could wear naturally white fur coats. I'm assuming that doesn't go on any more in commercial quantities. After struggling through Moby Dick, many years ago, I went on a whaling reading jag and that led to the sealing 'industry'. Any industry depends for its success on efficiency. Seal hunting required a sealing ship to descend on some undisturbed rookery and have the crew kill the mostest with the leastest and load the 'product' on board. The product was threefold: skin, meat and fat. Herding the seals to a central place was more efficient than hauling dead seals to the loading point. As the terrified seals lolloped to the killing fields some would die from heat-stroke. The pragmatic sealers had an uncompassionate term for these unfortunate seals which I cannot now track down - it might have been road-kill. The point at issue being that in seal physiology, as in human ditto, the transfer of energy from glucose to muscle movement via ATP is inefficient and this is manifest as heat. The frantic seals, flooded with adrenalin, were too bulky and had too small a surface area to dissipate the heat with the physiological systems that were designed to work in Arctic waters at 5oC.

Weirdly, my thoughts on these disturbing issues were triggered by my look at another sort of maritime enterprise - cruise-ships. In retirement, my folks acquired a wide experience in that industry and they 'spent my inheritance' [and welcome to it] on almost annual cultural cruises with Swan-Hellenic.  There is a limited market for spending the time between ports being lectured by a retired bishop about Byzantine triptychs and the Ἀρτεμίσιον: the great ruined temple of Artemis at Ephesus. So the Swan-Hellenic cruise-ships were quite small and pretty much everyone's cabin had a view of the heaving sea through a port-hole.

In two short decades (1988-2009), the largest class cruise ships [R MS Divina dwarfing a 10 storey apartment complex at Ocho Rios, Jamaica] have grown a third longer (268 m to 360 m), almost doubled their widths (32.2 m to 60.5 m), doubled the total passengers (2,744 to 5,400), and tripled in weight (73,000 GT to 225,000 GT). Just picture the scale here. Our modest 100sq.m. home is 11m across the front; a modern cruise-ship is 5 times wider. Even if, like in modern Dublin apartments the bathroom (and often the kitchen) is without a window, the interior of the megaship is filled with infrastructure and service space you cannot give a view of the heaving sea to all the punters. But a technological solution is at hand, which stems from the normality that many people now have a flat screen TV in their homes which is the size of a billiard table.  Indoor cabins above a certain class threshold are fitted with "virtual balconies" connected to out-facing cameras elsewhere in the ship. Why this should be considered acceptable rather than fraudulent is a mystery to me.

Here's another scaling issue. If you double the linear dimensions of something you increase its volume by 2^3 = 8x, if you increase them by a third the volume goes up 1.33^3 = 2.35x. The volume is more or less proportional to the passenger carrying capacity. 8 times more people need eight times as many lifeboats and you run out of rail to load and launch the boats: it is impractical to have two rows of life-boats along each side -  they have to be orange and that spoils the white slab wedding cake looks, as well as obscuring the view. One solution is to make the lifeboats bigger. By increasing the length of the lifeboat by 50% you can double 1.5^2 = 2.25 the carrying capacity. The scaling-factor is ^2 because you can only use the area of a life-boat until they design one which has two decks. That starts me down a Jorge Luis Borges rabbit-hole where the lifeboats get so big that they are the size of the ship. Current megacruiser lifeboats can carry 370 people. They are used as shuttles [L above] when not called upon for an emergency. In an emergency, even a traditional 150-person life-boat looks real crowded, hope they get rescued soon.

Sunday Earthday 220418

It's EarthDay 22 April 2018: the theme of which is End Plastic Pollution. There is only one Earth, let's not bugger it up. Apart from dumping all your grocery plastic on the floor in Tesco, what else is going down?

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Plus One

We are all _meant_ to be partnered off. Society expects it; so we find partners for social occasions. Even in these free-form days a lot of dancing is a multi-partner event: Eightsome or Virginia reel, Les Lanciers, Dashing White Sergeant and the Walls of Limerick all require equal numbers of men and women. Traditional dinner parties alternate men and women round the table and the placing conveys subtle clues about who is In. But if you're not currently with someone, then everyone would be happier if you came alone.
  1. One of the worst nights of my life [admittedly not as bad as when they attached live electrodes to my testicles] started one day in 1972 with a phone call from a girl I knew, inviting me to a West London show. We both lived close to the capital in rural Essex and moved in a circle of comfortable families: Dads who worked in The City or were captains of industry or substantial farmers or professionals of other denominations. We agreed to meet at Chelmsford railway station a few afternoons later. As we waited for the train, Maggie explained that the parents of her best friend from Chalet School had secured six tickets to Jesus Christ Superstar and invited Maggie and her plus-one. With heedless brutal 'honesty' of privilege, she continued to explain that I was the 4th bloke on her list of people to invite. hmmmmm? We met in a pub near the Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus and everyone was delighted to see each other, the other girl had an integrated boy-friend and the parents wanted to catch up with Maggie and the girls want to natter about their pals and nobody had the slightest interest in me. The show was okay because we were all facing forward and not expected the talk but afterwards there was an excruciating meal in a fancy restaurant. After the starters, I looked at my watch to see if I could make the last train towards home but being callow and out of my social depth lacked the courage to stand up and walk out. The ordeal continued through the night because Maggie and I had been invited to sleep in the other people's London flat. After tea and toast the next morning, I left and never spoke to Maggie again.
  2. About ten years ago, The Beloved and I were invited to the wedding of a pal of mine from work. I think the invitation said "Bob and partner". The Boss was invited as well but she came alone because her husband hated Work's Dos and she was happier without him being at the same table all miserable. An Other Chap from the Lab turned up with a woman from home-down-the-country who, it transpired, he'd invited to a number of similar events. It was a nice day, we were at the Her Workmates table for the reception but there were some other folk in that bin as well and it was great to bear witness to the nuptials of a friend. There was probably dancing later on but we left in the early evening to relieve the baby-sitter. A very few years later we were at another rollicking knees-up when the Other Chap celebrated his civil partnership CP with his bloke. It was in the brief period when gay couples could settle their financial interdependence with a CP but before we voted for Marriage Equality [bloboprev]. We've come on a long long way in the last decade in recognising that not all relationships are monogamous, heterosexual and permanent. 
  3. About 25 years ago, The Boy had just left school and secured a job with Ryanair before it got to be the global behemoth it has become. He was a Ground Handling Agent GHA which had a very wide job description: The Boy slung bags in the hold; drove the little train of baggage cars to the terminal; drove the toilet-emptying shit truck; batted the planes in to their standing; carried the loading bill to the Captain and loaded the appropriate amount of fuel in the tanks. After he'd worked there a few months he was well fit. Michael O'Leary, the boss, had a cunning publicity plan, called Muscles from Brussels, to celebrate the opening of a new Ryanair hub at Charleroi. 1994 was a totally sexist time. Ryanair's 'hosties' and check-in were all female and on the glam side, the GHAs were all male because they did a lot of heavy lifting. Muscles from Brussels was cast as a competition: the blokes had to get their tops off and those with the best six-pack [prev] would be flown with their girl-friends for a photo-shoot in Charleroi, have a night in a hotel and then fly back to base in Dublin. Fair enough. The Boy got his kit off and his abs passed muster and he was told the day for departure. Unfortunately, he was between girl-friends and all the women he knew were tied up [nnnggg nnngg] elsewhere on that weekend. He tried approaching random girls in a night-club but was turned down flat by them all . . . despite, or perhaps because of, him showing them the winning muscles. At the last minute, his pal Sergio said he was up for a free trip to Europe and a bit of craic in Belgium. And it was so. Even in those heterosexual times, the management didn't dare revoke The Boy's ticket. But it put a bit of constraint on the part of the photo-shoot where the boys and their girls posed together looking fit and glamorous . . . just like potential customers would be if they flew to the-arse-end-of-nowhere Charleroi to attend a meeting in Brussels.

So here's a suggestion. Dump the whole idea of Plus One. Ask your pals to your wedding. If they're your pals, you'll know whether they are hooked up at the moment. If you don't know, and can't be bothered to find out, then why not shorten the guest list, save yourself €80/head and not put some poor stand-in through the expense and trouble of Being There for someone they've never met. And while we're about it, could we stop plonking spouses and partners at the same table? We know them. Apart from Bearing Witness, which I believe in, weddings [and funerals and christenings] are about networking and meeting new and interesting  and different people.

Friday, 20 April 2018

So so retro

Nobody would call me an Early Adopter. I was the last person in Ireland to purchase a slide-rule, just as they were made obsolete by pocket calculators. It takes me ages to start going with the flow and getting with the programme. In the early 1990s we were writing DNA sequence analysis software in Fortran, which I'd first learned in college in 1974. Like Dr Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs, it was not done well but it was amazing that we could do it at all with a language that was essentially mathematical rather that build for string processing. When I was back writing original sequence analysis software in the very early 2000s, everyone in the room was using Perl, so I learned that. By the time I learn Python, everyone will have moved on to the next best thing.

We moved down the country in 1997, while I was still working in Dublin. On Fridays, I'd get on the bus and The Beloved would pick me up from the nearest bus-stop which was an inconvenient 20km distant. We knew the bus would be late, but not how late, so set the pick-up time for eta+25minutes. One summer evening the bus was an hour and 25 minutes late, and by the time it pulled into Gowran, the girls had divested themselves of all their clothes and were running starkers round the ruins of the abbey. It never occurred to me to buy a mobile phone. Even when I went on my long walk through Spain in 2004, I would call home from a call-box every 2 or 3 days. I didn't have a camera either - too much weight. Then the logistics of meeting buses got too-too much and I bought a Siemens C35 in about 2006. Actually I think the phone was free if I contracted for a year with Vodafone. It was magic, I could call - or txt - from Castledermatitis which was exactly the same time from rendezvous as what it took to pile two small children into a car and set off from home. That was all I used the phone for. About a year later, I went back to the shop and said the battery wouldn't charge anymore, so they gave me a new one . . . for €5 because I was a loyal customer. A year after that, the same thing happened but the C35 was now definitively obsolete and batteries were no longer available.  But, the spotty youth in the Vodafone shop looked up my records and said that as I'd been with the company for 2+ years they would upgrade my phone to a Samsung C3050 for free [above L]. That must have been in early 2009.
Eight and a half years later my trusty and under-used C3050 was down to a battery life of about 25 minutes and I went looking for a replacement which would last me another 10 years. All the phone-shops in town had the New retro-chic Nokia 3310 [R], the original of which was launched in 2000 the same year as my Siemens C35. A young woman in the shop said that the 3310 was The Biz because you could drop in from a great height and she'd bought one for a pop festival that Summer. At €50 it didn't strike me as being a throw-away phone but was clearly cheaper and more robust than the latest iPhone. I said I'd have one in canary yellow [L]; but she said they had none in stock; and I said I'd wait. I didn't want to buy a cheaper phone by Doro or Alcatel - never 'eard of them. Only a yellow 3310 would satisfy me. It was about 3 months later when the flow of 3310 into a demanding market finally coincided with one of us being a phone-shop. In the run-up to Christmas it was marked down to €39.95 so it was worth the wait.

I must be the last person in Ireland to upgrade to a button phone for primary use.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Let us Barf

The hazards of globalization!
Since March in the USA, there has been a multistate outbreak of E.coli O157:H7 driven food-poisoning. A few dozen people in 11 states have been infected and several of them have gotten very sick indeed. All the cases are hundreds of kilometers from the currently identified source Chopped Romaine Lettuce from Arizona. Every year in the US there are a couple of similar outbreaks from a remarkable variety of sources:
  • 2018
    • Chopped Romaine Lettuce – O157:H7
  • 2017
    • Leafy Greens – O157:H7
    • I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter – O157:H7
  • 2016
    • Beef Products – O157:H7
    • Flour – O121 and O26
    • Jack & The Green Sprouts Alfalfa Sprouts – O157
  • 2015
    • Costco Rotisserie Chicken Salad – O157:H7
    • Chipotle Mexican Grill – O26
  • 2014
    • Raw Clover Sprouts – O121
    • Ground Beef – 157:H7
  • 2013
    • Ready-to-Eat Salads – O157:H7
    • Farm Rich Brand Frozen Food Products – O121
That's just the E.coli, folks, the CDC has a page for Campylobacter and a more exciting one for Salmonella. The irony will not be lost on you how many of these attacks come from healthy-lifestyle foods.  If you want alfalfa sprouts, then buy 1kg of seeds $1.49 and save yourself a mort o' money spouting your own.

It must be edgy fun to be a CDC epidemiologist, flying around the country interviewing people: “I need a food diary for the seven days before you got sick – tell me everything you ate
Dr CDC then enters the data into a neat relational database to look for commonalities. Inevitably someone among the sick will forget that they ate dill pickles – perhaps because they were really eating a Big Mac and the ‘veg’ in that product is effectively invisible. But if 19/21 of all the sick folk ate romaine lettuce, then the hunt is on. Where did you buy the lettuce? Where did they buy the lettuce? And where did they buy the lettuce? In the current case CDC have tracked it to lettuce growing in Yuma County in Arizona.

If they ever get to the bottom of it, it will probably be the bottom of an itinerant veg-picker, possibly illegal, probably being paid very little and worked very hard. There may not be a convenient convenience in the field; there may not be facilities for washing hands. If you’re desperate for work, you may turn up to work already leaky sick. A crate of coliform contaminated lettuce gathered by that one field hand may go to the wash-and-shred facility and mixed [economies of scale] with dozens of other crates and stirred around to loose the dirt. It’s like the pint of hepatitis C virus HCV contaminated blood that infected 1500 Irish women in the anti-D scandal. Make that two pints because the blood transfusion board cocked up again a decade later.

If we all grew our own food or spouted our own sprouts we wouldn’t have such a wide-spread dissipation of contaminants. The periodic cases of an entire village going blind after drinking methanol contaminated home-made cherry brandy are unfortunate but limited to a single wedding party. And the CDC have to take into account, and probably ignore, ‘false negatives’ – people who ate the same romaine lettuce but didn’t get sick. If our bore-hole is unwittingly connected underground with our septic drain-field, we may drink the water for years and not suffer any ill-effects. When Uncle Bill comes to visit from Philadelphia, he gets sick because, although his genes are our genes, his E.coli isn’t our E.coli.

Shiga toxin is why you die from O157. It triggers a cascade of reactions from the immune system and shatters lots of the red blood cells. Some of these fragments lodge in the capillaries of the glomeruli of the kidney. That anomaly triggers further attack from the immune system and in the worse cases the kidney shuts down. Then you are diagnosed with Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). MegaPharma is working on the basic biology of the immune response: what triggers what; and the consequences of that . . . they are looking for target proteins that can be nobbled to calm down or shut off the response to the toxin. You might think that it would be a good idea, as well as dealing with the symptoms, to deal with the causative bug. But a [small] case control study has shown that antibiotics cause more cases of HUS than not antibiotics. Antibiotics may be killing good bacteria which are an essential factor in reining in the multiplication of the pathogen.

The CDC has to act quickly to alert the public that "Yuma, we have a problem" before more people sicken and die. But they also have to (equally quickly) discover the source, identify it publicly and move in to remediate the problem. With Circumspection and Focus! You can't say "it's salad" without the risk of putting completely innocent concerns out of business and enormous wastage and loss all the way up the food chain. As the author of an article in Gizmodo has it "The agency has recommended that everyone across the US throw out their store-bought chopped romaine (or any lettuce, if you’re vegetable-illiterate like me and can’t tell what kind it is), and avoid purchasing or eating chopped romaine from Yuma, Arizona."

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Is it a bus? Is it a cab?

How about a bub? Because I live in a rural backwater, I can speculate about a technological transport future and then find that it's already up and running in a more metropolitan hub. I was imagining that an autonomous vehicle would. because it could, deviate from its route to pick up someone who needed its services. The other passengers would be microscopically delayed but more people would have been satisfied. It's a utilitarian - greatest good for the greatest number - solution that appeals to me.

Buses, trams and trains are cheap and inflexible - especially trams and trains. Taxicabs offer a door-to-door service but cost a lot more for the convenience. I am really wary of taxis which I think are super expensive and have engaged in absurd work-arounds to avoid using them. My younger friends think nothing at all about missing the last bus, if the craic is mighty, and hailing a 'Joe Maxi' after midnight to deliver their drunken body home. It's only €20, they say. That's only 3 times my first weekly pay-packet I reply.

When I was a student, I had to deliver a tea-chest full of my gear from one bed-sit to another about 3 km away. I made a wooden trolley out of a short plank and four plastic shopping trolley wheels and pushed this skate board across the city after dark. It worked for a while, but one of the wheels failed under the stress of mounting yet another sidewalk and I more or less dragged the box the last 300m. I should have taken a leaf out of my Dad's book who had an argument with his landlady in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1946 and shifted his traps to another set of diggings further up Osborne Avenue. He had the foresight (and connexions) to borrow a wheelbarrow for 10 minutes. Nobody in my indigent student circle in 1974 owned a wheel-barrow and a taxi never crossed my mind.

The problem with buses is that they come when they please. Even if, as in Dublin now, there is a little display on some of the stops to indicate when the next bus is coming, you still have to stand at a bus-stop and wait in the rain until it arrives. Citymapper is an integrated transport planning App originating in London but now elsewhere like the Randstad in the Netherlands. Load it on your phone and you can find the nearest interface with the local public transport system and even find the most efficient way to get from I-am-here to D-for-destination. It's dynamic. It is data rich and that data is being processed by the company. At the end of last year, Citymapper realised that there was a gap in the market in East London. So they launched their own bub route.

The regulator TfL Transport for London was a little wrong-footed because they regulate buses and taxis in separate wings of the organisation and it is taking them time to open their minds to an addition to transport infrastructure which has elements of both modes. They are, for now, treating Citymapper's 'Smart Ride' [watch it shimmer] as a taxi which limits the number of seats to 8 including the [human] driver. Whereas CM's data analysis shows that it would be more efficient to run minibuses. App-based contact and 'time-table' and word-of-twitter publicity means that a new transport player can stat up really cheaply: no bus stops installed; no t-tables printed; no local radio ads. There needs to be regulation otherwise you have minibuses overtaking each other on blind corners to get to the next bus-stop first. But flexible routing and licensing is also important. We live in interesting times.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Life is hard

Easter was late in 1916.  On 23 April that year Padraig Pearse proclaimed his revolution on the steps of the GPO, promising " . . . The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally". Fine words but we find 100+ years later that some are more equal than others. I worked for 20 years in the Ivory Tower of Trinity College Dublin. That is Ireland's premier university. But I also earned my salt for a number of years at the other main contender - UCD - for the premier laurels. It was Ivory Tower for me because for most of those years I was not teaching undergraduates but rather carrying out arcane research and providing infrastructural support for other pointy-headed intellectuals.

Arriving at The Institute mid-year in January 2013 was rather a shock to my delicate system. The workload was absurdly heavier. For the whole of 2012, I'd been time-rich cash-poor because the recession had reduced me to working only 1 day a week. The transition was a Faustian bargain because although the new job doubled my take-home pay, it quadrupled the hours I had to work and most of that was on my feet teaching. Or on my knees beside some kid struggling to drive a computer. That's much harder physically - oh my aching cruciate ligaments - than sitting in a chair thinking deeply or having a barney discussion in a lab meeting. It was also much harder socially, because each year I had to learn the names and faces of 100-120 new students. If I was really good with people, I would have a job in a Citizen's Information Centre. Nevertheless, by mid October most years, I've nailed names to most of the new faces with my mental hammer.

I've also acquired far too much information TMI about the people behind those names and faces. Students would miss class and then come to explain: my €500 car broke down or wouldn't start; my grandmother died and I went to funeral; my father has cancer; I have cancer; my kid has cancer; my kid's father <useless baastid> couldn't do the school-run; I was mugged and concussed at Christmas and don't feel right still; my mother has dementia; my daughter anorexia; I can't sleep at nights; I had to do a shift at the place I work. I'm sure that each of these stories could be replicated if you looked through the attendance rolls in TCD. But those students made it to TCD because they made a better fist of the school Leaving Certificate; because they could study in a warm home; because there was always healthy food on the table; because there was money to pay for extra tuition. I have a theory that my students at The Institute get sick more often and more seriously because they just can't afford to buy good food and enough fuel.

In recent years, a third of my contact hours have required me to supervise Final Year research projects in molecular evolution. This year there are 11 on the A-Team [prev]. It is great fun but can get super busy: explaining, demonstrating, trying the Socratic method to get someone to think, explaining the same thing as last week . . . and the week before. Everyone passes, everyone fulfills their potential (and a little bit more) and some do really well: like Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, discovering something interesting and useful about the world that nobody else knows. Well now, we're all wrapped up for the year on that front. The literature has been read and recorded; the frontiers of science have been given a damned good shove; the results have been interpreted and it has all been written up as a Senior Thesis. Except that we're not all quite wrapped up. Because, to students at The Institute, shit happens.

The students are required to submit three (3!) copies of their project report bound into a single document. 1) copy for the Supervisor, 2) for the Second Reader, 3) for the External Examiner. I've proposed that the Extern's copies be sent as PDFs at no cost rather than as 20kg of paper, which the poor bugger has to schlep around; but so far that hasn't happened. Me, I can copy whatever I want for free on a xerox machine in the office, and I'm tight with the woman who works the copy and binding service for a bit of book-binding. Poor students, not so much: they have to pay 24c /page and €2 for each copy bound. For rich students it's not a problem: €30 is only a week's worth of canteen lunches. Last Friday was the deadline for submission and one of my poor-but-honest students (let's call him Pete because that's not his name) asked for an extension. He'd submitted the work electronically, so I knew he'd finished, but he just didn't have the €30 that week. I then got far TMI about the circumstances at home: his father works in educational infrastructure and just doesn't get paid over Easter when schools are out. Pete himself was the first one in his family, the first in his village almost, to go to college. He was surviving on a SUSI grant and scraping by on €30/week; it cost him €20/week for petrol. If he could just make it through the degree he'd get a job that would make a material difference to the economics back home including a string of younger sibs.

Shaggit! I said. I'll print the berluddy thesis. And I did. And then he remembered that he'd forgotten an Acknowledgments section. If I could just wait there he'd write that page, e-mail it to me and then take away the copies to be bound . . . he had, barely,  €6 about his person for that service. I got on with something else until the extra sheet came in. I then put a note on the door of my office saying "Back in 5 minutes" and nipped down to my pal in copy&bind and got her to do a nixxer on the binding. The Institute unwittingly sucked up €6 in costs and my chap kept his dinner money. It felt great that we had thus stuck one to The Man.

A couple of hours later, I was telling this tale, anonymised, to one of my younger colleagues and she said "Was it Pete?" Because she is young and full of beans, she has devised a new extra-curricular course for school pupils to get a taste of science. This worked better if each group of kids was led around the campus by one of our students; and my colleague called for volunteers from the Final Year. They are mad stressed and busy: completing assignments, wrapping their projects, preparing for the May exams and, when thus solicited, everyone looked at their shoes. So m'colleague asked the HoD if she could incentivise the students with a €5 voucher for lunch. Pete was about the only one who was impressed by that. After he's done his session, he said he'd be willing to take another group the next day. M'colleague demurred; Pete insisted. It transpired that the meal voucher doesn't have to be exchanged for pork chops, chips and mushy peas on a plate but is treated as cash in the campus shop. Pete's plan was to forgo lunch and buy treats for his younger brothers and sisters. Some people seem to be put on the planet to help others.

Monday, 16 April 2018


That would be Fanning Island, part of the Line Islands, once part of the British Empire but now a key inhabited element of Kiribati, the Central Pacific micro-nation.We were visiting Malden Island, another, uninhabited element of Kiribari in August 2016. Now I find out that Tabuaeran is key to the absurd economics of cruise-ships. These monsters, which might have 8,000 people on board: 2/3 paying passengers and 1/3 low-pay serfs. As they cruise about cost the planet about 12x more to ship fun-lovers from A to A via nowhere than it would to put them up in a hotel. The Japanese have a jolly wheeze for low carbon footprint: virtual reality flights in a cardboard studio set that allows the punter to pretend they are flying to Paris.

To cut wage costs, cruise-ships are registered in Liberia or Panama because their labour laws allow the ruthless exploitation of workers. But the [USA] Passenger Vessels Services Act of 1886 states  "No foreign vessels shall transport passengers between ports in the United States".  Accordingly cruises to and from Hawaii usually make a 1800km trek SSW to Tabuaeran to circumvent the law. Source of pic: kees torn - Harmony of the Seas Link. I only show the front half of the ship so you don't feel overwhelmed. Yesterday with the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and I am suoer-sensitive about only showing half the lifeboats. Disclaimer: I've been on a cruise to nowhere in December 1982 out of Boston. It lasted a weekend. It was okay. We saw whales. The management would have preferred if we'd stayed in the casino. And 'free' food ad lib is a mixed blessing in these obese times. I wouldn't want to spend a fortnight in such a place: I'd get restless.

That 1886 Act sounds So Yesterday.  It was instituted 235 years after the Brits signed into law the first of several Navigation Acts - 1651, 1660 and 1663 especially. This legislation limited trade between England and its colonies to that which was carried in "English bottoms". It was clear a case of restrictive practice to bolster the business of complacent and inefficient English merchants in the face of the relentless cost-cutting economies of rivals in the Netherlands. It meant that everything bound for New York and Philadelphia had to be shipped to London or Bristol, unloaded, pilferred, taxed and re-loaded before going on to the American Colonies. That added to cost and delay and was naturally resented by American merchants who'd rather ship their sugar, tobacco and rum direct to Hamburg and Bordeaux, there to pick up the latest books and mechanical toys and casks of claret to sell back home. For the purposes of the Acts, Ireland was a colony and Irish goods had to be shipped to England tariff free (to keep costs down for English customers) but imposts were implemented on the reverse trip.  "Free trade or a Speedy Revolution" was a slogan of the Irish Volunteers until they kicked off their rebellion in 1798.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Sunday Bloody Sunday 150418

Very miscellaneous:

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Seal Cheese

I have three "children" all fledged up and flown the nest. The Boy went to 7 or 8 different schools in 3 countries. Dau.I and Dau.II went to no schools. I can't see any quantitative difference in what they know or in their ability to work things out. Qualitative, sure, they are different people: better at math; more interested in Shaxsper; braver with the cooking; more reliable with time-keeping; safer with money; kinder to animals. How did the girls learn anything if they never went to school? There were books in the house and, in the month after their respective sixth birthday, they worked out that the glyphs on the page matched the sound of speech in a reliable breakable code. Once able to read, they could find out whatever they needed to learn. That was supplemented by talking at the dinner table. I've been over the process at greater length before.  It would often start with a question and then we'd be off round the table, round the world, trying to work out an answer. I wrote about one such Q before: "How many people make a proposal of marriage in/on the Eiffel Tower every day?" The answer is anchored in data, but you cannot look it up.  The whole family was home at various times over Easter and I was telling the girls about releasing an orphan seal at the end of March.

That set off the relentless train of questions. If a baby seal is found, do they feed it milk? A. Yes! What sort of milk? Can you make cheese from seal milk? Why do we make cheese from cow's milk . . . and goat's and sheep's? Is that an accident of availability? Or did we domesticate those animals because they have human-like milk? Or milk ideal for cheese? Did cows always have such big udders? A. Nope, we've selected them for 10,000 years so they will no longer dare jump over a thorn hedge!

Some of these questions can be anchored to data to inform and focus any speculations you might have. First catch your data! U.Illinois has a table of milk composition. From which I have abstracted the %Fat;  % Protein; %Lactose; TotalSolids%
From this, I deduce that there is no such thing as milk! There are 5,000 species of mammal, they all have fur, they all have modified some of their hair-follicles to make a liquid-leaking nipple; they all use prolactin to stimulate secretory cells near that nipple; they all use oxytocin [multiprev]to help squeeze the juice out . . . with a little help from a voraciously sucking infant. BUT the quality of the juice is as different as different can be. Fat from 1 to 54%; Protein content from 1 to 15%; Milk sugar 0.5 to 7%; Solids from 2 to 63%  63% solids? That will have a viscosity like the thickest cream you can buy that isn't whipped to solidity; almost margarine. I don't think we're going to see seal cheese on the market anytime soon. I have helpfully sorted the data in the table as a % parameter difference from human PDH: which is the sum of the % difference from human milk in Fat, Prot and Lact, If you want to have a physiologically ideal milk for your orphan infant, first catch your monkey! Or, mire conveniently, a wet-nurse (who is also a primate). Below that phylogenetic similiarity you can see the usual milking suspects: cow, sheep and goat. Donkey? You may remember hearing that Cleopatra bathed daily in asses' milk: it required the services of 700 donks a day. More recently donkey milk has been productified at fabulous prices and promoted as having fabulous benefits for your chi, aura and callipygia. Mares milk is up there as well, it is widely used in central Asia fermented into koumiss. Donkey's milk cheese is available at $1,000/kg but, hey, that's cheaper than saffron! The "Buffalo" is Buffalo, Philippine which is probably the tarawar Bubalus mindorensis which is a different species from Bubalus bubalis from which Johnny Lynch makes his Macroom Buffalo MozzarellaCamel's milk cheese can be obtained in Dubai since 2013. Other non-traditional species in the cheese business. There girls, I hope that begins to answer some of your milky questions.