Saturday 30 June 2018

A short walk by the river

A large part of the economy involves the proletariat (that's all of us) being entertained in exchange for money. I have grown to be suspicious of these transactions as they have become monstrously expensive and ephemeral and people who have money buy into the system because they can. A staff round-robin e-mail this Spring offered four unwanted tickets to the 23Jun18 Billy Joel concert for €460! My eyes were on staaaalks: half a Grand for 2 hours in the Aviva stadium with a lot of other crumblies? That amount of wedge would be really appreciated by your nearest struggling single parent. You could reprise your 1970s memories on youtube - Uptown Girl - Piano Man - while feeling virtuous that you hadn't been supporting Aiken Promotions.

My roomie at work is in some sense in charge of all the post-graduate students, despite only having 3 under her direct care-and-attention. To mark the end of the school year and the start of Summer, she canvassed opinion about what they/we might all do together to celebrate. "Let's go ten-pin bowling" came back. It wasn't strictly my business but I bridled at that suggestion as being unimaginative and costly [R for indicative prices]. I explained my baggage: all through the 00s, I was a comparative immunologist in a lab that cared about the whole person and sponsored an annual lab outing. The Lab murthered The Boss paintballing; played soccer in Glendalough; did corporate bonding in Blessington; walked along the cliffs in So Co Dublin; did the Tayto Theme Park; yomped to the top of Mount Leinster and then had a BBQ. You can see the conflicting pulls here: the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun vs me and The Boss preferring something more thoughtful which promoted cohesion and kindness over noisiness and the haemorrhage of money.

I therefore suggested a) a walk up a hill from our farmlet or b) a walk by the river for the altitude challenged. And it was so! It was agreed that, on the last Friday of June (yest) we would walk from Clash [R] to Graig along the tow-path of the Barrow River Navigation with ice-creams promised at the end. I've done this before and before that Ten of us piled into two cars setting off from The Institute at 3PM. It was shoving 30oC, but we knew it would be cooler by the river. There were only 2 Irish Citizens: one a New Irish born in Senegal. The rest: Greece 1; Britland 1; Poland 1; France 1; Germany 1; India 3. I dunno what it is about the Irish, who make up half our post-grad community: they just don't seem up for getting out and about. I suggested that we could sing River songs in the back of the car on the way to Launch-point:
And eeee it were luvly. But I have to report that the girls in the back of my car were planning a trip later on to the Tayto Theme Park!

The Nakhla Dog

When The Blob was launched in January 2013, it was to record the process of transition from being a gentlemanly part-time, cash-poor, time-rich researcher attached to Ireland's premier University to becoming fire-hose active as a full time teacher in a Technology Institute. Since then, like Topsy, the Blob just growed: extending its curiosity tentacles into places a long way from The Institute; which continues to pay my salary even though I have no classes to teach until September. From the sofa of my mountain fastness, I range across space and time to find things that deserve a better press. There was, for example, Slijper's goat, the little caprid that could; and Mary Anning's dog, killed in the line of duty in 1833.

Anning's dog Tray was an important part of the team, being told to Stay beside an interesting fossil while Anning trudged back along the beach to get the right tools for bagging it. The Nakhla dog, otoh, was mere collateral damage when a meteorite came explosively to earth at 0900hrs on 28th June 1911 at El Nakhla El Bahariya, a village in Egypt. There were lots of people out and about at 9am and, although none of them had dashcams or cell-phones like at Челябинск Chelyabinsk on 15 Feb 2013, there were dozens of eye-witness and 40 fragments were recovered. Many of the bits were dug out of the earth at the bottom of an impact crater and up to 1 meter below grade.

The event gave rise to the eponym Nakhlite for a specific and peculiar class of mineral. They are the N in SNC meteorites which I wrote about last year. SNC meteorites are interesting because the share the same geology, especially wrt gaseous inclusions, as Mars, our nearest neighbour beyond the Moon. For one of these fragments to be found on Earth requires an improbable chain of rare events:
  • A meteor has to strike Mars
  • It has to be sufficiently large to whack off a lump of the red planet
  • That lump has to come within gravitational range of Earth
  • and eventually collide
  • it has to be sufficiently large itself that it doesn't vaporise in the atmosphere
  • it has to fall during the working day 
  • in a place where people are about (ie not in the sea which cover 70% of the Earth's surface)
  • the people have to be idle enough or curious enough to look for the bits, which are unlikely to be lying on the surface.
  • and it's not much use to science if the SNC fragment finishes up on the mantlepiece of a hut in Siberia or Rwanda.
There are nevertheless 132 of these Martian rocks known to science.

Yes yes, but what about the dog?? One of these hot, hard and fast Nakhla rocks was observed by a farmer, Mohammed Ali Effendi Hakim, to hit and vaporize a neighbour's dog. Which sounds a little unlikely, not the hitting, which happens - ask Ann Hodges of Sylacauga AL -  but the vaporisation. You might think that the question "can a rock vaporise a medium sized mammal?" is amenable to testing or modelling by Mythbusters or The Slow Mo Guys [whom bloboprev indeed blobobleve]. The chunks of the Nakhla meteorite were from 20g to 2000g, the larger chunks having more kinetic energy and more vaporisation potential. If the original meteorite was comparable to the Chelyabinsk event, it was travelling at 18,000m/s, which is about 10x faster than the fastest speeding bullet. But 18,000m/s is the impact velocity rather than the terminal velocity having travelled several km through the viscous atmosphere, which is only about 200m/s. I doubt if the [British] Slow Mo Guys are heartless enough to practice their photographic arts on a dog, alive or dead. But I'm sure their ingenuity and contacts will find them the artillery necessary to fire a 500g projectile at 200m/s at a dead goose and see if they can find any solid bits.

Emily Graslie [prev] talking about meteorites and meteowrongs.
Jason Kottke says, The Case Is Altered when you get a really big Cretaceous extinction meteorite incommming.

Friday 29 June 2018

Use your shirt-tail

Being a teacher of, among much else, microbiology and having two a daughters in the catering trade, I've become a bit more careful about washing my hands. But not being a surgeon or a commis chef, I'm not all OCD about it. If I eat a sandwich at work I don't go wash my hands first and I don't wash my hands after I have a pee in the woods. YMMV but you're not going to live longer than me because of it.  You might think I was a bit obsessed about hand-washing from the number of words I've written on the subject: sushi - sangers - lettuce - fungus - more fungusdriers - towels - kittens - OCD -hexachlorophane - money - booksListeria - catheter - nitroglycerine - Semmelweiss - post-dagging.

Whatever about washing your hands want to be careful about drying them as an Arstechnica post pointed out in April. Their conclusion: them electric hot-air driers? They suck! In particular they suck in a selection of fecal coliforms from the flushing aerosols, concentrate them, warm them to blood temperature and then blow them all over your hands. After which you go and eat your dinner? I don't think so, and I try to have a scrap of towel at work so I can avoid using the drier or the seat of my pants.

The original study Deposition of Bacteria and Bacterial Spores by Bathroom Hot Air Hand Dryers out of UConn, Farmington, is paywalled but you can read the abstract at PubMed. They sampled the outblow from several bathrooms [both M & F] by holding a Petri dish open in the airflow for 30 seconds. They caught between 20 and 60 colony-forming units CFUs = bacteria on each plate. This was several times higher than the catch on Petri dishes left out on the bathroom counter next to a regular fan to circulate the miasma. They also found that the interior surfaces of the hand-driers were clean, so the CFUs were likely a sampling+concentration from the ambient air. High efficiency particulate air HEPA filters reduced but did not entirely eliminate the contamination.  HEPA filters are designed to catch 99.97% of all particles that pass through the multi-layered device. Clearly 0.03% of the bacteria are enough to make a few colonies on a plate.

Here's an earlier Arstechnica slap at Dyson Airblades for helping to spread viruses: especially at heights equivalent to a small child's face. Original study out of U.Westminster, UK [abstract] also paywalled. These new-fangled over-tech Airblades delivered 1000x more viruses than plain old paper towels. That's kind of interesting because economists and statisticians are trained in risk-assessment to reconcile the incommensurate. How do you set off the loss to the planet of sending thousands of tonnes of paper towels to land-fill against a cohort of children having snot-virus blown at them? You can do a QALY analysis on the viral-load aspects but how do you set that against the cost of using  paper towels now to the planet and the as-yet-unborn small children.

The answer really is to get an old cotton shirt, cut two neat squares out of the back, hem it, embroider your loved-one's name or initials in the corner and <presto> your Christmas presents are all sorted. If you cannot follow my instructions here is a fully illustrated protocol.

Thursday 28 June 2018

Trade war TransAtlantic

If you're reading this from within the EU or the USA or a lot of other places you will have heard the same information as a billion other people. A few weeks ago the Trump Administration started to levy a tariff on EU steel and aluminium products imported into the USA. Last Friday the EU retaliated . . . by imposing tariffs on such iconic movie-props as Harley-Davidson motor-cycles, Levi blue-jeans, Skippy peanut butter and Jack Daniels Bourbon whiskey. These seem to be weirdly specific choices to make 25% more expensive in Berlin and Barcelona. Some pundits have been explaining the full Machiavellian plan as targetting key US swing states in the run up to the mid-term elections. As we know from the Bush/Gore election in 2000 AD, Florida is a key swing state; so that is why imported orange juice is now being taxed.  That speaks of a really alert and effective group of EU-employed economists and researchers who know the difference between Smoked Irish Salmon and Smoked Irish Salmon [prev] and are prepared to interfere in the politics of a sovereign state. I can do that too by endorsing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Congressional Primaries today June 26, 2018: her piece to camera and here The Young Turks expose The Man and The Machine against who she is running. Indo [UK] weighs in. Dang! I had to push this back for a local story. But now the results are in: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has slain the Giant.

Well, of course, it's not really like that, or that simple. The new regulations are highly specific in some ways but more general in others: it's not just Harleys it's any American motorbikes:
  • 87115000 Motorcycles, incl. mopeds, with reciprocating internal combustion piston engine of a cylinder capacity > 800 cm³
  • 62034231 Men's or boys' trousers and breeches of cotton denim (excl. knitted or crocheted, industrial and occupational, bib and brace overalls and underpants)
  • 20081110 Peanut butter
  • 22083011 Bourbon whiskey, in containers holding <= 2 l
So you can import a motorbike with a Wankel engine and you're okay to buy denim underpants or bib-overalls from the USA but not jeans. There are also 15 pages of other precisely specified commodities including
  • 20098111 Cranberry "Vaccinium macrocarpon, Vaccinium oxycoccos, Vaccinium vitisidaea" juice, unfermented, whether or not containing added sugar or other sweetening matter, Brix value > 67 at 20°C, value of <= € 30 per 100 kg (excl. containing spirit) 
So you're okay if you have a taste for, and a supplier of, Vaccinium arboreum sparkleberry juice.  And there's a lawyer's paradise here because lingonberry is strictly Vaccinium vitis-idaea not Vaccinium vitisidaea. And whereas peanut butter in all its forms (smooth, crunchy) and brands is captured by a single CN number 20081110, the Rice Section of EU bureaucrats had more time on their hands to capture the detail:
  • 10063021 Semi-milled round grain rice, parboiled 
  • 10063023 Semi-milled medium grain rice, parboiled 
  • 10063025 Semi-milled long grain rice, length-width ratio > 2 but < 3, parboiled 
  • 10063027 Semi-milled long grain rice, length-width ratio >= 3, parboiled 
  • 10063042 Semi-milled round grain rice (excl. parboiled) 
  • 10063044 Semi-milled medium grain rice (excl. parboiled) 
  • 10063046 Semi-milled long grain rice, length-width ratio > 2 but < 3 (excl. parboiled) 
  • 10063048 Semi-milled long grain rice, length-width ratio >= 3 (excl. parboiled) 
  • 10063061 Wholly milled round grain rice, parboiled, whether or not polished or glazed 
  • 10063063 Wholly milled medium grain rice, parboiled, whether or not polished or glazed 
  • 10063065 Wholly milled long grain rice, length-width ratio > 2 but < 3, parboiled, whether or not polished or glazed
  • 10063067 Wholly milled long grain rice, length-width ratio >= 3, parboiled, whether or not polished or glazed
  • 10063092 Wholly milled round grain rice, whether or not polished or glazed (excl.parboiled)
  • 10063094 Wholly milled medium grain rice, whether or not polished or glazed (excl. parboiled)
  • 10063096 Wholly milled long grain rice, length-width > 2 but < 3, whether or not polished or glazed (excl. parboiled)
  • 10063098 Wholly milled long grain rice, length-width ratio >= 3, whether or not polished or glazed (excl. parboiled)
  • 10064000 Broken rice 
  • 19041030 Prepared foods obtained by swelling or roasting cereals or cereal products based on rice
  • 19049010 Rice, pre-cooked or otherwise prepared, n.e.s. (excl. flour, groats and meal,food preparations obtained by swelling or roasting or from unroasted cereal flakes or from mixtures of unroasted cereal flakes and roasted cereal flakes or swelled cereals)
All of the above are now taxed at 25%. From the detailed description and definition of rice and rice products, kindly supplied by the EU, it looks like brown rice from the USA is okay . . . for now.
Check your forbidden fruit here.

Wednesday 27 June 2018


Went down to the Wexford Science Café [whc multiprev] last Tuesday because The Lead was going to talk about nZEBs - that would be near Zero Energy Buildings, in which field he has years of expertise. The problem with houses is that they are filled with people, dogs and cats: who breathe (and cook and have baths).  The domestic fridge in the kitchen, if reasonably modern, will run at 150W and cost about 50c/day to keep the contents at an ambient 4oC. Keeping the milk and butter cool will deliver a few Watts of pure heat energy out from the cooling unit to help warm the kitchen. The adults in the house will also be generating about 100W of heat but will also be delivering a bunch of water vapour and carbon-dioxide. The water-vapour from breathing, but also from cooking and washing with large quantities of hot [vaporizing] water has to get out of the building of your kitchen and bathroom walls will quickly become furry. You don't want that, but central-heated houses (of trad or nZEB design) which are dry enough to prevent mold growth are also dry enough to make your lung epithelium dry out. This makes us moderns more prone to sniffles and colds. My Dad used to hang humidifiers on the radiators to wick water from a reservoir and vaporise into the air.

What the nZEB does is reduce the amount of temperature fluctuation through the day. A typical house will have a daily range of temperature of about 10oC from 13oC - 23oC, especially if everyone is absent during the working day. Like the tree falling in the forest which nobody hears, there is no point in keeping the kitchen at 18oC at lunchtime if there is nobody there. Our house, is a very very very nice house, but its capacity for retaining heat is appalling. Get the living-room all toasty with the wood-burning stove and it's gone in a blink if you open the door into the icy hallway beyond. The nZEB home is air-tight and super-well insulated. Once you've got it up to temperature it takes only a trickle of energy to keep it up.

There are a couple issues with this. The first is that the whole house operates as a unit around a fancy heat-exchange unit which pushes out warm, damp, used air and sucks in fresh, drier, colder air from outside. This means that you can get fresh-but-not-Baltic air into the home in December. But it also means that all the rooms in the house are the same temperature. Most people don't want that: they can take it at 18oC in the kitchen because they are moving around chopping, stirring and sieving but that would be a tad too cold if the family is sacked out in the living room watching TV. And many people want it slightly cooler in the bed-rooms . . . after they've finished the bouncy-bouncy and are going to sleep. Those diffs are easier to manage in a traditional home.

I have very direct measured experience of what ambient external temperature is optimal for me. When I went, penniless, to graduate school in Boston in January 1979, I lived in the cellar of my gaffer's home. Nobody in that house walked around, à l'Americain, in tee-shirts in mid-Winter because Neil was in one of his careful-with-money phases. The thermostat was set for 60oF which is 15.5oC. I could work away [in those days I worked all the hours that were not sleeping-hours] it if was 60oF, so long as I had a sweater on. But hot air rises and the forced air heating system made it warmer upstairs than the cellar. What I found was that if the real temperature fell to 59oF = 15.0oC then I just couldn't concentrate even if I wore a coat and hat. That's a rather narrow and precise threshold for sustainable study / reading /calculating.

We were shown a graph of daily temperature fluctuations of a traditional = leaky house vs a nZEB = passivhaus. nZEB is really homeothermic, there is no much insulation and thermal inertia that the temperature is only changing a couple of degrees about, say, 20oC ambient internal. The trad house is all over the place.  It gets quite cold [~13oC] at night, the thermostat kicks in 1 hour before breakfast and the air temp claws up 10oC to 23oC so the kids feel almost too hot in their school uniforms. Within an hour of dispersal to work and school, the house is frezzzing again and the cat has retreated to the hot-press.

That reminded me of my Human Physiology course at The Institute, where our core body temperature is kept at 37oC +/- 1oC. Get dry roasted in a sauna: 37oC; plunge naked into a snow-drift: 37oC; get dressed like Johnny Forty-Coats or like Nadia Comenesci and it's still 37oC.  We know that our sensitivity, not only to light intensity, but also to light wave-length has impact on our health, happiness and immune-system. Maybe, I thought, it's not such a good idea to live in an environment where our external temperature was so tightly controlled. Maybe, I thought, some aspect of our many systems of homeostasis is going to miss a beat or malfunction because there is no external pulse.
Summary: I can't afford to retro-fit our old drafty home into a passivhaus but I'm not sure I want to live in an unvarying temperature whatever the $aving$.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Losing it.

Losing your marbles is a quaint English phrase for dementia. Losing the rag is a quaint English phrase for getting unexpectedly angry. I had the one about the other last week.

Alzheimer's Disease AD is a terrible disease because it blats the mind long before the heart, kidneys or lungs fail and death occurs. In Irish society we haven't decided how to deal with this mens nulla in corpore sano dilemma. Which is rather ostrich because there are 55,000 citizens with AD of which about 10% are Institutionalised. Those 5,000 residents are in nursing homes because the state is paying €1,300 a week, on top if which  the nursing home is garnering an average of €20/wk extra for haircuts, entertainment and a retainer for the local doctor. The annual bill is €70,000 each or about €350,million paid every year through the nose of me-the-taxpayer.  Meanwhile back at the castle home, rather than A Home, the 50,000 are being cared for by their families. Often the carer is the spouse who has kept more marbles; but in other cases it is a daughter, less often a son or a more distant relative. How does The Man support these unacknowledged givers, who are saving the state €70K a year? The Man coughs up a Carer's Allowance of €214/week or just over €11,000/year. This is only buttons more than the Supplementary Welfare Allowance SWA of €196/week which you can claim if you have no source of income. You can see that we are incentivised to leave our demented or otherwise troublesome parents into A&E and walk away. It's a wonder and a tribute to family feeling that more people don't do this.

It therefore raises hopes when someone claims to have found a remedy for Alzheimer's which is readily accessible over the counter. It's also nice when it turns out that the participants were drawn from County Waterford and two of the investigators work in Waterford IT and Waterford University Hospital: you want the local team to win big. Indeed, the article went up on Facebook and was picked up by two members of the family for internal broadcast. But my ould crap detector sounded alarms when it turned out that the study was based on Macushield and ended with this:
On this particular successful trial, there were 25 patients and 15 controls used. The next trial will see 120 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s given the nutritional formula. Dr Howard added: “It would be negligent for us to ignore these results until the next study reports back, which will take several years.
That sounds worryingly unscientific: if there were two old buffers both with Alzheimer's Disease AD and one was given Macushield and the other sunflower oil and the former's disease progression was slower would you believe the difference was driven by Macushield or any aspect of the many differences in the caring regime: more Bingo; more aerobic exercise; better sleep; more skyping the grandchilder; less daytime TV; regular singing; weekly head-and-shoulder massage and so on. Would you be more convinced if the sample was 2 vs 2 or 5 vs 5?  "Convinced" as in would you re-mortgage your house to invest in the company which had that good a result on a sample of 25 patients and 15 controls?

Macushield does not work for macular degeneration.
I know Macushield of old (Dietary carotenoids: Lutein 10mg, Zeaxanthin 2mg, Meso-Zeaxanthin 10mg) because it used to be part of Pat the Salt's daily drug-bundle when he could get it on prescription at €2 for 30 tabs. Pat's eyesight is pretty good for 93 but the pills weren't doing any harm and 6c/day was affordable. Heck I'd offer to pay that much for him myself. Then the National Centre of Pharmacoeconomics (NCPE) published a report in May 2015 to say that there was no good evidence that Macushield did what it says on the tin and the HSE quickly responded ". . . therefore does not recommend that products containing these preparations be reimbursed under any community drug scheme . . . Supplementation, if desired, should be obtained by purchasing products over the counter. These products are not licensed medicines and are classed as food supplements." As an optional dietary supplement the price jumped to nearer €0.60/day and I said it would be better for Pat to give him a glass of cheap red wine before bed than to give him a worthless 'medicine'. Nobody listened, especially went the family optician ignored the scientific evidence, including the NCPE and a Cochrane Review, and announced ex cathedra optica that Macushield was Grand Altogether.  It's like vitamin C: authority figure asserts something to be true against all the evidence.

I hunted up the original study Phospholipid oxidation and carotenoid supplementation in Alzheimer’s disease patients to scope the basis for "Trial participants were “overwhelmingly” identified to have positive outcomes". And the conclusion is just not true! Indeed it says quite clearly in the paper "Carotenoid supplementation using 10 mg meso-zeaxanthin;10 mg lutein; 2 mg zeaxanthin did not have any effect on cognitive performance in either group (Fig. 3a and b)"  If you scan the text looking for statistical significance you can find it
MMSE, Mini Mental State Examination; Semantic fluency score, (categorical verbal fluency) score was obtained from the number of animals named by the subject in 1 min; Phonemic fluency score, (word fluency) score was generated by the total number of words produced for each of the letters F, A, and S, in 1 min.  But that's not news: that's almost a definition of AD: you can't remember the names of animals or words beginning with S. Heck, if you asked me, a professional biologist, to name animals until a buzzer went off at the end of a minute I'd probably be no better than Pat the Salt, who left school at 14 and has 30 years on me. I'll show you what a non-significant result looks like (Fig. 3a and b):
You won't be able to read the small print so it's Control group on placebo; Control group on carotenoid; AD group on placebo; AD group on carotenoid; for each category the score is calculated at baseline 0-C-P etc. and after 6 months of treatment 6-C-P etc. This shows that the Controls on the Left are more with it on the memory-front than the Demented on the Right - no news here.  But that 6 months of MacuShield (that will be €108, please) will have No Effect on your cognitive function [or on your eyesight, or in any sense except on your wallet]. The study is even more woefully under-powered than I thought. The 25 ADs are divided in 2 groups for the 6 month Macuwuwu vs sunflower-oil study and controls likewise: 8 vs 8. Is it that difficult to find undemented people in their 70s and 80s in Co Waterford? They should have talked to me, we could have doubled the sample at the Tramore Heritage Group.

Monday 25 June 2018

Literati Indiana

I was born on an island off the coast of Europe and grew up speaking, almost exclusively, English.  What a privilege: speaking English like a native, like being born with external plumbing and untanned skin, has made life really easy for me. I often wonder how far I would have gone in Science if I'd first gone to school in Poznan or Porto or Potsdam, rather than Portsmouth. With my tin ear, I probably wouldn't have been fluent in English like my workmates in the zoo in Rotterdam. Europe is crammed with people all yakking away in their native languages: 50 countries, 740 million people, 10 million  The EU (incl for the moment the UK) is home to 510 million people in about 4.4 million There are 24 official languages within the EU and I'll come back to them later.

India, then World's largest democracy, covers about 3/4 the area [3.3 million] but has more than twice as many citizens [1.3 billion (and rising)] as the EU. There are currently 22 languages on the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India. Here they are alphabetically: Assamese; Bengali; Bodo; Dogri; Gujarati; Hindi; Kannada; Kashmiri; Konkani; Maithili; Malayalam; Manipuri; Marathi; Nepali; Odia; Punjabi; Sanskrit; Santali; Sindhi; Tamil; Telugu; Urdu.  Don't know about you but I could only have named a handful of these and even with the list would have difficulty writing them ordered by the number of native speakers. But I would have been quite sure that it would be, like Eclipse, Hindi first, the rest nowhere. And I'd be right: 44% of Indians speak Hindi as a first language 5x more than Bengali, Telugu and Marathi the next highest contenders.

I was reflecting on this because, in my restless surfing of the interweb, I came across the Jnanpith Award, India's Premier literary prize. It has been awarded annually since 1965, sometimes shared when the committee appointed by the Bharatiya Jnanpith cannot agree. The BJ is a literary think tank endowed in 1944 to carry out research into India's dead languages: Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali and Apabhramsha. The Jnanpith Award, is given to an author who has written something in an Eighth Schedule language, or in English and is worth ₹11 lakh = 1.1 million rupees. That's 'only' worth about $20K USDs, but a lakh goes a long way on the sub-conitinent. The JA is thus like the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Man-Booker Prize or our own Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Richard Flanagan (and others) has been scathing about the concept and execution of these events: "Literary prizes exist to give dog shows a good name . . . National prizes are often a barometer of bourgeois bad taste." Success as a writer is chaotic - as in 'sensitive to initial conditions' - Two writers, both alike in dignity, in fair India, where we lay our scene . . . have very different career trajectories if one (and it can only be one) wins a LitFest Prize.

So I thought, I'd have a look at the data of the Jnanpith Award to see if there was evidence of skull-duggery. There could be two sorts of error: one language could be garnering too many prizes or minority languages aren't getting their day in the glare of publicity. The JA committee are compelled to give weight to the Buggins Turn - if a Malayalam writer wins one year, his/her co-linguists are excluded for the next two years. There is a suspicion that Rudyard Kipling won his Nobel because no English-language writer had won in the first seven years of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I think it's clear from that plot that you're at a significant disadvantage if you choose to write in Hindi, the lonely dot in the top right-hand corner. Demographics indicate that Hindi should win 44% of the 57 so far JAs but they've only landed 11.
The huge disparity in the number of native speakers [from 400 million speaking Hindi to 14,000 priests, scholars, dilettantes and the long-dead speaking Sanskrit] cries out for a logarithmic plot for the population.  This suggests that Sanskrit [I winner Satya Vrat Shastri who shared the 2006 award] and Kannada [8 winners] are punching above their weight. If you really want to win a JA in the future, you should learn, and start writing sonnets in, Bodo or Manipuri both of which a) have less than 2 million speakers b) have never won a JA.
I should add that, in a separate analysis, I have also incorporated data from The Moortidevi Award another Lit and Phil Prize given out annually by the lads from Bharatiya Jnanpith. But adding another 29 datums doesn't begin to address the stochastic effects and most of the minority languages remain un-prized. My advice: stick to Bodo, it's the language of the future: looks easy enough.

Sunday 24 June 2018

Sunday Sundae 240618

Woowah Loolah:
  • I didn't see the [clawed] end of this story about clogged pipes: I larfed. via MeFi.
  • Co-worker told me a story about a worker in the Waterford Iron Foundry who used to raffle his weekly paycheque. Not quite charitable because the cheque was for £182/wk and most of the 400 employees each paid in £1 to have a chance at a windfall. Probably Urban Legend.
  • Story in a radio segment about de-escalating confrontation with the angry and dispossessed to bring "the problem" back under control. Man goes into a bank with a gun and demands $2,200. Bank-teller finds the specificity of the amount peculiar and asked robber why he needs that much. Robber says his pal will be evicted unless he can raise $2,200 back-rent of his apartment. Teller suggests he go over to the the desk in customer service and she'll come out and arrange a loan for him.
  • The madness of pass-time - Dressage à l'Afrique
  • Feelgood: Telling people they're beautiful - in Brussels
  • On Food and Cookin'
  • Red Deer have heft
  • The Slightly Spooky Recamán Sequence <Numberphile alert>

Saturday 23 June 2018

Koko gone

Dau.I is working in her dream job as a Librarian for Dublin City. As a public servant, she will have to submit 6 monthly PDR so that The Man can track her CPD. Continuing Personal Development and it's Reporting are now pervasive in work-places. It's just not good enough to do you job; every day and in every way you're expected to get better and better. If you're a tired old Union member you can bridle at this intrusion and continue doing the same-old same-old until you die of boredom and unfulfillment.  Or you can get some time off the treadmill on company time and go learn something new. That will be good for the company but will likely also be interesting for you. The problem is when the tail starts wagging the dog and employees go on dead boring courses offered by parasites on the CPD vulture just so that they can tick a box on the next PDR. No amount of free tea and fancy biscuits can compensate for a wasted day.

When she was down for His Blobbiness's bday last weekend, Dau.I said that she'd signed [arf arf] up for a course in Irish Sign Language ISL to better serve readers who are deaf. Two years ago, it was a big surprise for me to see that ISL is totally different from British Sign Language BSL which we used to trick about with in school. ISL is more similar in its conventions to French Sign Language despite using English as the background. Don't get confused here: ISL is not only effective in the Gaeltachts: it's mainly a way of spelling out words in any language that don't have their weird shorthand.

Sign language is so simple to grasp you don't even need to be human to master it. The most famous early adopter was a female lowland Gorilla gorilla gorilla called Koko, who was born on 4th of July 1971 in San Francisco Zoo. She was accordingly aka Hanabiko (花火子 fireworks child). She lived most of her life with Penny Patterson a developmental psychologist who earned her PhD on the back of teaching sign language to Koko and other gorillas. Yes, I am sorry to report that Koko's life is now past tense because the old lady of literate gorillas died on 19th of June 2018, in her sleep and in the fullness of her years, not quite 47 years old. Patterson has made a living out of the whole I-am-the-primate-interface show at The Gorilla Foundation. Head Office is across the Bay in Redwood City CA but the gorillas live in an adventure playground in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Koko was the first gorilla to be taught how to communicate in this way but she followed in the sign-steps of Washoe a female chimpanzee Pan troglodytes who was tamed and trained and, well, humanised by Allen and Beatrix Gardner in the late 1960s. There are ethical issues about whether animals should be used for experimentation and much of the flak that whacked Patterson and the Gardners was the de-chimping of these animals. Washoe lived in with the Gardners and they dressed her up like a Brook Bond PG Tips advertisement. Koko got to hang out with Robin Williams and have a cross-species tickle-fest: a long way from science that was r'ared! And if your business model depends of donations from soft-hearted people with spare cash, kittens are likely to be a winner. [Donate Now] There are 100s of images of Koko playing with kittens like an 11-year-old child. I dunno, I think I would mark the Koko-Patterson axis as "mostly harmless", and not consciously dishonest or exploitative. But I share the skepticism of many scientists about the research into non-human language acquisition: it's a mix of delusion; confirmation bias; and hints of truth. An attempt to replicate the Gardner's findings by Herbert Terrace. Terrace's chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky [a poke/trubute at/to Naom Chomsky] was raised in a regular home and taught ASL. After many years of careful observation, Terrace concluded that none of the signing primates had language as linguists like Chomsky define language. They had mirror-neurons [prev], sure, and could imitate and remember the peculiar gestures of their human co-workers, but never master grammar or syntax which are the key attributes of our amazing form of communication. Words are not enough word-order is essential to meaning: chimp bites man is not the same as man bites chimp.  Hmmm, it happens: Travis, the chimpanzee pet of Sandra Herold, ripped the face of her friend Carla Nash in Feb 2009 and was shot to death when the Stamford CT police arrived, Nash survived and later appear on TV with Ellen DeGeneres. And there was he 'only in California' law-suit from 2005 in which two employees alleged that they were told to bare their breasts to better bond with the gorillas. After they were sacked they sued for wrongful dismissal, which loss they claimed was worth $1,000,000. I should work for the Daily Mail: they can be relied on to cast a peculiarly ugly pall over the stories they choose to deliver to the news-consuming public.

One of the key markers of true language acquisition and understanding, as opposed to parroting and imitation, is when the subject creates a totally novel phrase. Washoe famously called a first-seen swan "water+bird" which caused a witnessing psychologist to fall off his chair "it was like getting an S.O.S. from outer space". The fact that we are still taking about that same insight 50 years later, maybe suggests that these novel coinages weren't really common or reliable in primate-language-land. Koko managed "finger+bracelet" when she noticed someone's ring. otoh, when Koko signed something that was categorically incorrect, it was agreed that Koko was joking - and another tick was added to the positive side of the language-acquisition inventory. If you can never be wrong, then you're always right.

Anyway, poor Koko is dead "de mortuis nil nisi kitten".

Friday 22 June 2018

Death on South Georgia

South Georgia is cold, damp, wind-swept island in the South Atlantic, it is not the sort of place you can visit casually to put flowers on the grave of a dear departed.
Ernest Shacklelton, [prev] Antarctic explorer, born in Co Kildare, died aboard the Steamship Quest 5th January 1922 while it was moored in Grytviken Harbour, South Georgia. The crew sent a telegram to his widow and she asked them to bury The Old Man her husband on South Georgia rather than immersing the body in brandy and shipping him home like Nelson. I've crossed out The Old Man because he was only 47 years old. He could have died 6 years earlier, doing a daft desperate sledging trip at the end of his heroic voyage to South Georgia in 1916.

Sixty years later, Suboficial Primero Félix Artuso was killed in Grytviken Harbor on 26th April 1982. This occurred at the end of Operation Paraquat during La Guerra del Atlántico Sur after the Brits had reconquered South Georgia from Argentine forces. Artuso was a prisoner of war helping move the damaged captured submarine on which he had served as a Petty Officer. The Royal Marine squaddie, who a) was guarding him b) had no Spanish and c) zero knowledge about how to run a submarine, thought Artuso was attempting to scuttle the captured prize and/or fire torpedoes at the victorious warships. He emptied half a clip of 9mm into the unfortunate Artuso's head. Nobody was held to account for this violation of the Geneva Convention unfortunate dreadful misunderstanding. Félix Artuso is buried [pic] a few metres from Shackleton [his arty gravestone shown R] in the cemetery at Grytviken.

I guess even at this distance of time and place, people are still mourning the loss of these two men. Pictures of the graves show changes in the floral tributes, for example. I think it's safe to say that nobody is sorry that the last invasive alien rodents have been culled from South Georgia. This news percolated slowly through some rarified channels of the blogosphere after it was announced that they could find no evidence of living Mus or Rattus. The rodents were introduced by Cap'n James Cook, who surveyed the archipelago and landed a Possession Bay in January 1775. If not by him, then by the sealers who came immediately after the news of the discovery came back to Europe. I cannot (easily) find Latin binomers for the invasive rodents so I am assuming  Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat, possibly Rattus rattus the ship-rat and definitely Mus musculus, the house mouse. The latter were the least serious because a) they are smaller than a penguin egg b) they were at the edge of their habitat, with between 2 and 6 individuals /hectare.

The project to eradicate all the rodents cost £10 million and 10 years of elapsed time. First they surveyed the island to find out where and how the aliens live, then they devised a killing strategy that has to be100% effective. Leaving even 1% of the rats alive will just reset the clock. They decided to distribute poisoned bait on all the likely habitat. It was known that rats don't live actually on glaciers, for example. They ended up distributing 300 tonnes of poison bait over 3 years 2011, 2013 and 2015 with the help of 3 helicopters carrying a modified fertiliser hopper back-and-forth across [video] just over 1,000 of tundra. That's about a third of the total area of the island. Two years, after the last run across the killing fields, it was time for another survey looking real hard for now elusive rodents (they'd taken a hammering from the poison. They used peanut-butter baited cards attached to red-topped stakes: any teeth-marks in the paste and it would have been a £10 million bust! They also walked 3 primed rodent-sniffer dogs - Will, Ahu and Wai - to snuffle down any burrows and crevices. [pictures]. Just like the Brits, they report the names of the dogs but not the proper names of the prey.

This is a huge logistical problem, successfully addressed. I can't find our eight sheep on a hill of only 200 hectares. These dogs couldn't find any rats in 100,000 hectares but that's good news. Hats off!

Thursday 21 June 2018

Threeway in the Balkans

I heard about a diplomatic break-through in the Southern Balkans and had to do some research to make sense of it for you . . . and for me. Part of that was to find a map of the Republic of [Northern] Macedonia. I found one [L] which was politically etymologically neutral and was confused by the blue transnational blobs. As I was in the Balkans, it made me think of Brčko, the autonomous region in Bosnia which appears in a different colour on maps. It is different because the different ethnicities -  Bosniaks 42%; Serbs 35%; Croats 21% - were too nearly equal and too interleaved and intercalated to be able to assign to either of the constituent entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina 1) Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and 2) Republika Srpska.  [total aside Meanwhile in Bosnia] What could the blue blobs be? An enclave of ethnic Albanians? Displaced Bosniaks? An autonomous  district for Crimean Tartars? Then <duh!> it struck me that they might be [blue was a clue!] . . . lakes. And it was so:
Here is a zoom in of the Westernmost lakes: Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa.
Prespa is interesting because there are actually two lakes, the smaller of which (Greek: Μικρή Πρέσπα; Albanian: Prespa e Vogël) is almost entirely within the boundaries of Western Macedonia in Greece.  The bigger body of water Big Prespa gets three different names (Albanian: Liqeni i Prespës, Greek: Μεγάλη Πρέσπα, Megáli Préspa, Macedonian: Преспанско Езеро, Prespansko Ezero) and is covered by three different authorities. I have editted the original wikicommons map to show this week's acceptable name for the country [RoNM] responsible for the  care of the Northern half of the lake. The bedrock hereabouts is a highly porous limestone karst and Lake Prespa is continually leaking down hill and underground towards Lake Ohrid to the NW. Similar geology caused the abandonment of the Cong Canal between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib in the West of Ireland. In the Summer the canal ran dry which was a bit of a handicap for the working of barges between the two lakes.

Local naturalists claim that there are as many as nine species of fish endemic [uniquely restricted] to Lake Prespa including Salmo persistericus which is genetically indistinguishable from Salmo trutta, the common brown trout. When your sense of self is all tied up in what other people call you, then biological exceptionalism will bolster your case. We should be a separate country because all the animals are different, and the plants too. A better case could be made for Spongilla prespensis a species fresh-water sponge which has been found nowhere else. Taxonomy -  the naming of biological entities - is not only a dry, idle, academic exercise. It becomes important when-and-if we decide to save species from extinction. We really don't want to devote enormous resources to saving the last few members of a 'species' which could be replaced by individuals from a different 'species' from a place on the other side of that hill.  Before we do that let's hear it for the aardvark Orycteropus afer, the only species in the mammalian order Tubulidentata. There are 1000 species of bats, slightly more rodents. Heck, there are between 180 and 350 species [depending on whether you are a lumper or splitter] of primate including us.  Aardvarks otoh have no close relatives [last common ancestor 100 mya], and are in a class Tubulidentata of their own and a precise ecological niche, and would be hard to replace if they all took sick and died next week.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

The PrEPpers are OUT

This is not about Preppers. They are in their bunkers rotating their stock of freeze-dried beef-jerky, beans, bottled water and shot-gun shells in anticipation of RightToBearArmsageddon. It must be a real drag having to eat at-sell-by beans every day rather than go off to McDs like the neighbours and get fat eating burgers and shakes. otoh it's a REAL DRAG if the nukes start flyin' and you're unable to take out the Zombies because you've run out of ammo. What Preppers need is an anxiety cost-benefit analysis:
Did someone mention viruses? Is it worth taking prophylactic anti-retrovirals as a hedge against an HIV infection which will blow up into AIDS, uncontrollable Candida infection, Karposi's sarcoma and a grim and early death? Dau.I and her pals from @RadQueersResist think so, as does ActUpDublin. And they were out in front of the Dáil on Friday to tell it like it is to Simon Harris our youthful Minister of Health. It's only a month since they were on the same side celebrating the 2:1 vote in the Pro-Choice Referendum.

I left Boston in the Fall of 1983. For the next several years I got letters from my pal P written while sitting at the hospital beds of a succession of her friends as they died by inches assaulted by a truly wild and bizarre collection of infectious diseases. Those diseases were the consequence of HIV infection. The thing about HIV is that it prefers to reproduce in T-cells and destroying them as the reproductive cycle completes. Without T-cells the immune system is stymied in its fight against other bacteria, fungi and viruses. It was the stuff of horror seeing fit young men, P's pals, turned into cadavers before her eyes. Then along came anti-retroviral therapy ART. It was like a miracle! These drugs didn't do away with the HIV virus but they slowed t'bugger down, so that it was unable to reproduce as quickly. That meant that T-cells could hold their own against the slings and arrows of outrageous pathogenesis. The young men could leave hospital on their own feet rather than feet-first in a box.  The first ARTs were nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors aka NRTIs or nukes. There are now at least 10 NRTIs on the market not to mention 2) non-NRTIs, 3) protease inhibitors, 4) entry inhibitors and 5 integrase inhibitors all of which intervene and disrupt different stages of the HIV lief-cycle. Scientific studies have shown better efficacy if you bundle drugs together and combination cARTs were born.

One of the earliest cARTs to market was a drug called Truvada, patented and manufactured by Gilead Sciences which celebrated its 30th corporate birthday last July.  Truvada combines two NRTIs Tenofovir & Emtricitabine [prev on bonkers names for drugs] and was highly successful and presumably profitable for Gilead. As the patent came due to expire, other companies moved in to develop identikit generic medicines and get a piece of the action. Developing a generic drug has a whole set of manufacturing and licencing conditions different from, but almost as onerous as, creating and marketing the original.

Here's another issue to throw into the equation. If you only go to the doctor when you notice the symptoms of HIV/AIDS, then you've probably left it too late. If your T-cell count is down enough to open the gates to peculiar opportunistic infections, then you already have a lot of HIV particles coursing through your system. Best to minimise your exposure to HIV in the first place. 0) Don't share needles. 1) Don't have sex! 2) If you're a gay man don't have sex with men MSM. 3) If you must have sex then use a condom. 4) Even if you use a condom, use PrEP: pre-exposure prophylaxis, of, say, Truvada (or its generic equivalent). If you embrace Case 4 and you take your medicine every day then you can reduce your chance of getting HIV-infected by 90%.

Last 1st December, to mark World AIDS Day 2017, Teva Pharmaceuticals launched their yellow-pack version of Truvada especially at the PrEP market. Our Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was delighed:
It's potentially lucrative: the cohort of young gay men are expected to spend €4 a day (€1440/yr) for the next 30-40 years. The Gilead branded product is about 3x the price.  That's not insanely expensive if you're on a pensionable salary and buying a couple of lattes a day already. Sure beats getting AIDS, that's for sure. But Varadkar's delight wasn't so great that he instructed the government to pick up the tab by allowing it to be paid for by the GSM medical card or the drug-payment scheme. If you live below the poverty line because you live in the ghetto and/or are an IV drug user, then you're not going to have €30 a week to spare for the blue pill. It is for these poor, dispossessed, HIV-susceptible people that RadQueersResist are fighting. Well, not fighting, or even on the barricades yet, but shouting loudly outside the Dáil in the hope that Health Minister Simon Harris will get off the fence and start the ball rolling on the cost-effectiveness analysis that has to be gone through before yet another drug is added to the allowable costs of the HSE.  Hello! Mr Harris: this problem is not going to go away, young people are not going to shop having sex: HIV is here to stay. Every week you delay effective prophylaxis against HIV/AIDS there are another 10 HIV positive diagnoses. Those chaps are going to have sex and the infection cycle will crank up a notch. It's like Ebola, if you don't act quickly, you have an epidemic which is out of control and then, well, everybody dies.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Half and half

I've been baking bread, almost all the family eats, for more than 30 years. Back in the last century, when I used to brew beer, I often took a generous spoon of the beige sludge at the bottom of the brewing keg, put it in a kitchen mixing bowl with water, flour, and salt and made perfectly acceptable loaves of bread. But I never drank enough to have this as the sole source of yeast for bread. I started off using little 7g sachets of dried yeast which worked out at about €25/kg! and comprised about 15% of the ingredients cost of a loaf. The 18c pressure on my wallet was enough to precipitate me out to an industrial estate to buy 500g of dried yeast in a tin.

A few years ago, I caught the sourdough bug, which was good because I didn't need to buy dried yeast anymore. But it was also relentless: because I was solely responsible for the the health and welfare of my sourdough starter, I had to keep feeding the ferment and occasionally spring-clean the jar which was its home. And of course I had to eat bread with every meal to keep up with the starter turn-over. I still had about 80-100g of dried yeast left in the last 500g tin and would occasionally use this to make 'sweet' bread or, very occasionally, croissants.

Time runs fast when you get old, and I can no longer remember when I last topped up the original yeast tin with a packet from the Dublin Yeast Co. Must be more than 3 years ago anyway. I did get the sense that it had lost its ooomph as a raising agent. Last weekend, with my birthday and all, I agreed to make flat-breads for the party. But, when I opened the tin, the yeast looked ever so slightly furry and I decided that sourdough flat-bread would be Just The Thing. On Monday, I brought the yeast into the lab to have a closer look with one of our new microscopes. Under the 4x objective, a salt-spoonful of yeast looked not so much furry as alive. It seemed like about 50% of the volume was crawling creatures, which on investigation turned out to be Acarus siro, flour mites. They aren't insects because they have eight legs and are more akin to spiders and ticks [whc prev]. The picture [R] is from a video by Victor Fursov from Ukraine, because I wasn't clever enough to capture my own image on the fancy new tablet-enhanced microscope. When I got home, I added the yeast, mites and all, to the compost heap where they'll have to fight their corner with a lot of small rough kids from the wrong side of the tracks. This means that, after 30 years, I've completed a cycle and am back to buying yeast in sachets and infrequently.

This reminded me of the old advice to never look at your favourite cheese down a microscope because several of the most interesting and tasty cheeses - Mimolette, and Tomme céronnée for starters - add mites to the mix deliberately in order to improve the flavour. Life would be insupportable if the only 'cheese' available was American Sandwich Slices.

Interesting video on the cheesy aspects of a mites life:
One comment:
Depuis avril 2013, la Food and Drug Administration (l'administration fédérale américaine chargée de la sécurité alimentaire) bloque les importations de mimolette aux États-Unis. Le fromage est jugé « impropre à la consommation » par les douanes américaines et 1 500 kilos de fromage vont être détruits « Cet article semble être, en totalité ou en partie, composée d'une substance dégoûtante, putride, ou décomposée, ou autrement inadaptée comme nourriture », ont écrit les inspecteurs de la FDA, pour expliquer leur refus d'autoriser désormais la célèbre boule de fromage orange, plus ou moins vieilli, sur le sol américain. Comme motif, les inspecteurs de la FDA indiquent que ce fromage compte plus de 6 acariens au pouce carré (6,45 cm²). Ces animaux, ou cirons, sont des acariens microscopiques cultivés à dessein sur la croûte, dont la FDA affirme qu'ils sont allergènes.
The US FDA acting on behalf of the plain people of America, deemed Mimolette to be "disgusting, putrid, decomposed and unfit for human consumption". The cheese eating surrender-monkeys of France know better.
Another comment (it's all a matter of taste):

Monday 18 June 2018

Balkan punctilio

You may call me Bob, or Bobby Big-nose, don't make me no difference. I'm used to meeting people who are also called Bob, Bobby Two-Socks, Roberto, Rabbie, Roibeárd . . . I don't bridle at the idea of sharing a name with someone else. I don't feel diminished in their presence. I am also a piss-poor patriot: flag-waving is utterly alien to me; as is supporting a soccer team because I happened to be born in a place over which I had no choice or control. I left that country, anyway, almost as soon as I was able to vote and have spent 8/10ths of the subsequent years living and working 'abroad'. I share an office at The Institute with a woman who similarly was born in one place (a small town in Δυτική Μακεδονία Northern Greece); she left home to go to college in one country; then to find a job in another and raise two kids at the other end of Europe. We are good pals and support each other but we have agreed to differ on the matter of patriotism. I'm pretty sure she stands straighter when she sees the Γαλανόλευκη Galanoleuki run up the flag-pole and knows all the words to the Hymn to Liberty. I assume that, being born in Macedonia, she feels even more proprietal about the name of her province that do the people in distant Athens.

In 1991, when Jugoslavia broke up into its constituent parts, more or less on ethnic[-cleansing] lines, the Southernmost part of the country, wedged between Albania and Bulgaria, achieved its autonomy and independence quickly and cleanly, despite having about 25% of its citizens ethnic Albanians. They called themselves Република Македонија = Republic of Macedonia. This caused a shit-storm south of the border in Greece because three of their 13 provinces use the same official demonym - Δυτική Μακεδονία; Κεντρική Μακεδονία; Ανατολική Μακεδονία και Θράκη [W-M Central-M and E-M & Thrace]. An independent Republic of Macedonia north of the border implied that those South Slavs had imperial designs to dismember the Greek State by actual, cultural, or  metaphorical imperialist invasion of their Macedonia[s].
The 'error' was compounded by the Republic designing a flag that incorporated the 16-pointed Sun of Vergina [L above]. But that was the symbol was adopted from a yet more antient Greek usage by Philip II of Macedonia the father of Alexander the Great! Alexander [356-323 BC] was by some accounts the last throw of the dice of the Glory That Was Greece. From Greeks conquering and ruling the World for a few short years, they slipped back to a rustic economy with a landscape liberally peppered with extraordinary ruins that nobody had the money to maintain. Heck, those guys up North didn't even speak Greek! The Greek government imposed an economic blockade on the land-locked Republic, lodged an exclusive-use trademark request with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), prevented the new flag from being flown at the United Nations and generally made it difficult for the new state to take her place among the nations of the Earth [Robert Emmet]. The Republic caved in to this bullying and changed their flag to something less offensive to the neighbours [R above] even if the design looked a bit like the battle-flag of Imperial Japan.  Whatever they called themselves at home, the outside world - UN, EU, NATO - could/would only deal with "FYROM" = the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Last week, a 20 year sojourn by UN Special Envoy Matthew Nemetz and others [reports:NPR and BBC] bore fruit by conjuring a name which would a) satisfy the current Prime Minister of Greece Αλέξης Τσίπρας = Alexis Tsipras and b) be acceptable to the current government in the Republic led by Зоран Заев = Zoran Zaev. This is
Република Северна Македонија
= the Republic of Northern Macedonia.  I emphasise the 'current' on both sides of the border because you can bet your sweet bippy that when either or both of these polities slides to the Right, someone will be delighted to stir up the shit again. RoNM is one of the smallest nations in Europe with a population just scraping above 2 million - a bit like a Baltic State in the Balkans. The economy is not going to get any better if there is a similar haemorrhage of youth and talent to The West. A tanked economy is fertile ground to sow the seeds of discord. Discord becomes riot, riot becomes revolution, revolution becomes war, and war becomes tanks across the border. What price The Sun of Vergina now?

Sunday 17 June 2018

Der Tag

Cuando me haga viejo y pierda el cabello a muchos años de hoy . . . eso sería hoy!
Silverback = 2^6 years +/- 5 mins
Party-time: Low Tide
Party-place: Trá na mBó, The Déise.
GPS: 52.1345N -7.37564W
OS: X427981
als je het haalt, zal er taart zijn
oops não, não esse bolo, aqui está uma que fiz antes:
It's a cinnamon&ginger marzipan&sultana simnel-teabrack. Maybe a bit heavy on the ginger. If it is Cake or Death, today I opt for cake.

Saturday 16 June 2018

Saturday Morning Post

I'm clearing the social chit-chat, commentary decks from tomorrow Sunday in favour of Cake. Here is your Something For The Weekend:

Friday 15 June 2018

Northern Lights

Bill Bryson tells a story about going to Hammerfest in the hope of seeing the Aurora Borealis and being told that success was iffy. People would travel hopefully, long and hard to get to the remotest parts of Far North and stay there until they had to go back for work and . . . see nothing except Norwegians drinking beer while eating reindeer steaks and lutefisk. Bryson got lucky on Day 16, and can now die happy. Of course like Simon Clark and my mother, Bryson made his luck by making the laborious trek.

For many people, it's like that with St Kilda [prev], which operates a powerful draw on a certain category of pilgrim souls. It's damnably difficult to get to St. Kilda; even if you have a private yacht the weather closes the place off for weeks on end. Even after you set off for the 5 hour journey in calm seas and a glorious sunrise, a ferocious storm can blow in without notice and kibosh your paltry pilgrim plans.  I've just finished Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeline Bunting. It's a book, it's a travel book but it's not an original travel book. It's not really a wholly derivative In The Footsteps of . . . [insert one of AlexanderTheGreat | PeterFleming | Hannibal | RobertLouisStevenson] sort of book and it's not a gimmick like Round Ireland with a Fridge or walking the Camino de Santiago in Reverse.
Nevertheless Ms Bunting is standing on the shoulders of others who have sought themselves in the remoter, bleaker edges of this our Western European Archipelago WEA. Despite citing Norman Davies in her references, Bunting slides easily into calling the conglomerate of islands off the NW coast of Europe The British Isles. Aaaaaargh! Nope! That designation is a value-laden label that sits easily only if you live and breathe in London. The title itself has a tendency to rile me up because I'm with Samuel "Dictionary" Johnson on "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." Dr.  Johnson is great source for comparison with a modern experience of the Western Isles, and Bunting draws on his views and sardonic comments on Scotland and the Scots. OATS: A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Bunting does get to St Kilda but only on a day-trip. Her plans to spend a couple of weeks there in a tent are set at naught by the weather. On a walk along Tobha Mòr beach in South Uist [pics], she comes across a tide-washed office chair and muses "A sampling of the tons of plastic which circulate the globe was scattered amongst the shells and seaweed: brightly coloured bottles, odd shoes, buoys, bits of old rope and fishing crates."  I don't know if I'll now be able to walk the Hebridean Way with all my gear in a rucksack: the waste of leaving all those fish-crates behind may be too painful. I guess I could leave them alongside the fence at Howmore Hostel [as L].

I think part of my dissatisfaction with Bunting's Hebridean book, in contrast with Poacher's Pilgrimage: an Island Journey by Alastair McIntosh, is that it is editted from a great many visits to the Hebrides over a span of decades. If you're on The Way to discover or reveal some truth about your place in the Universe, then you're better off to commit a chunk time away from the office, the school-run and a familiar bed. If you flit in and out you're not working hard enough to make your own luck. But what do I know? I only saw the kingfisher once on my walk through Spain