Tuesday 31 July 2018

The devil in the detail

What a difference a vowel makes. At The Institute, I teach inter pluribus alia Human Physiology to pharmacy technicians. Very few of them had such an expensive education as me, so I try to cut them some slack on the long words. But in science and in their profession, for some of the long words, they just need to suck it up.  I find the anti-inflammatory antibody Adalimumab notably tongue-twisting, so I tend to talk more about Infliximab which has similar effects but is easier to pronounce. Here are some terrible twins in the spelling-bee of pharmacy:
Promazine v Promethazine; Tamoxifen v Tenoxicam; Vinblastine v Vincristine
In at least 2 out of the 3 cases above, an error in the writing, reading, dispensing or cross-checking of the prescription will have really adverse effects. The marketing department of MegaPharm Inc seems to live a dream-world of creative word-coinage.  The possibility of error multiplies as the number of medications increases - as it does as people age in the First World.  If you're over 80, you're likely to have a handful, or several handfuls, of meds to take every day. With failing sight and slipping memory, not to mention changes in the packaging, mistakes will be made.

Blister-packs [L] were invented to make it easier to get the correct drugs down the patient-hatch on the correct schedule. The packs are assembled and filled in the pharmacy [instructional video]; they have large print labels and supply an audit trail for the owner and carers. The blister-pack option is offered by pharmacies if that seems appropriate. Last year, there was a court case and more forms to be filled after it transpired that some pharmacies were charging for 'phased dispensing' when it was really not appropriate. It's more convenient, and less error prone, for everyone if the weekly blister-packs are made up in batches of four for a month's use.

My aged father-in-law Pat the Salt is in his 90s and still fairly fit but clearly slowing down on multiple fronts. He's no longer, for example, able to mow 2/10ths of a hectare of lawn any more like he could at the age of 85. Growing old is all about the failure of all systems of homeostasis: the eye-muscles can no longer keep things in focus; the blood-pressure goes up and down - mostly up - erratically; core body temperature can no longer be maintained against external fluctuations; diabetes - failure to control effective insulin levels - gets more common; the immune system is slower off the mark so you have to give up unpasteurised dairy products (it's the Listeria, silly). And so on.

A couple of weeks ago, Pat complained of being dizzy so he was taken along to the GP. Nurse measured blood-pressure and found it rather low. Doctor confirmed and ordered him off his BP meds. All blood-pressure medicines are designed to lower blood pressure, because for almost all people high BP is the problem - driven by normal people sitting on the sofa; eating saturated animal fat; sprinkled like snow with table salt . . . and then filling in the corners with ice-cream and cake. The Beloved therefore took all the blister-packs back to the pharmacy and said "Pat's blood pressure is now too low could you fillet out the Reminyl from these two packs and reseal them, please?". And it was so.

Two weeks later, Pat was back to the GP to see how the new regime was working and the Nurse gets a 'normal' BP measurement. But 10 minutes later the GP finds it is too low. The discrepancy is a worry, no? In an ideal world, health practitioners would get out the sphygmomanometer three times to check for consistency but that is never going to happen in this busy world. A bit of detective work indicated that The Beloved should have said "Pat's blood pressure is now too low could you fillet out the Ramipril from these two packs and reseal them, please". More to the point, the pharmacy technician and the locum pharmacist should have acted on the whole sentence rather than getting triggered by the key-word. Reminyl is designed to give folks a boost to their memory; Ramipril a boost to the BP. Because of the comms failure he was on the wrong medicine for 2 whole weeks.

Lucky that Pat doesn't live with  Crohn's disease, psoriasis, ankylosing spondylitis or rheumatoid arthritis, all of which are annoying other members of his family. The treatment of choice for those auto-immune diseases is Infliximab marketed under the trade-name Remicade. Lucky for me-the-tax-payer too: costs per year: Ramipril=€160 ; Reminyl=€1,600; Remicade=€16,000.

Monday 30 July 2018

In proportion

I was decluttering in the obscurer parts of my library - to wit a shelf in one of the sheds - when I put my hand on a copy of Gulliver's Travels, slightly foxed, scuffed and with a small patch of white mold on the front cover. It was a 1939 reprint of the 1899 edition published by Temple Press and illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Identical to this; except that my copy indicates that it was bought by my father on 8th Dec 1940. I find that rather sweet, a small self-indulgence in a 23 year old naval officer who had survived the exhaustion and terror of the Dunkirk evacuation but was still going on patrol in hostile seaways almost every night. It was only a few weeks before a sleep-sodden error of judgement put his motor torpedo boat out of action and thereby saved himself and his crew from a fatal encounter with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during Unternehmen Zerberus the following February.

Every English-speaking child is aware of Gulliver's encounter with people who were inches to his feet in size, but my father was possibly of the last generation to read the actual book rather that get a bowdlerized summary in cartoon form. Here's a great illustrative rip-off
The shortening and sanitation in the conversion to picture book makes children miss the delightful story of how Gulliver averted a disastrous fire in the Emperor's palace by turning his own fire-hose upon the conflagration:
These buckets were about the size of large thimbles, and the poor people supplied me with them as fast as they could: but the flame was so violent that they did little good.  . . . The case seemed wholly desperate and deplorable; and this magnificent palace would have infallibly been burnt down to the ground, if, by a presence of mind unusual to me, I had not suddenly thought of an expedient.  I had, the evening before, drunk plentifully of a most delicious wine . . . which is very diuretic.  By the luckiest chance in the world, I had not discharged myself of any part of it.  The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by labouring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile, which had cost so many ages in erecting, preserved from destruction.
It turns out that his actions are not met with universal approval because "for, by the fundamental laws of the realm, it is capital in any person, of what quality soever, to make water within the precincts of the palace".  The Queen in particulat took against her massive guest after the event. How sensible is that as a fire-fighting solution? I don't mean in the sense of the residual whiff but simply in terms of volume. If Gulliver is 12x taller than the Lilliputans [yes! - see below] then his bladder is going to have 12^3 = 1728x the capacity of one of theirs. Our bladder has a capacity of 500ml, which we will double on account of the peculiar wine-soaked circumstances described above. I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that 1700 litres of water won't be anything near enough to extinguish a palace fire. The standards of the US National Fire Protection Association require a minimum capacity of 1,000 gallons for their water tenders: that's about 4,000lt or double Gulliver's bladderfull contribution.

Smart as he was, you wouldn't expect Dean Swift, a chap born in 1667 and educated in the Arts Block of Trinity College Dublin, to be up with the laws of allometry especially those concerning the proportions of the human body. Our students at The Institute are pretty weak at this and they're meant to be scientists. BUT then again, in another part of the book, the Lilliputan Emperor makes a contract with their unexpected guest to minimise accidental damage.
“1st, The man-mountain shall not depart from our dominions, without our license under our great seal.
“2d, He shall not presume to come into our metropolis, without our express order; at which time, the inhabitants shall have two hours warning to keep within doors.
“3d, The said man-mountain shall confine his walks to our principal high roads, and not offer to walk, or lie down, in a meadow or field of corn.
“4th, As he walks the said roads, he shall take the utmost care not to trample upon the bodies of any of our loving subjects, their horses, or carriages, nor take any of our subjects into his hands without their own consent.
“5th, If an express requires extraordinary despatch, the man-mountain shall be obliged to carry, in his pocket, the messenger and horse a six days journey, once in every moon, and return the said messenger back (if so required) safe to our imperial presence.
“6th, He shall be our ally against our enemies in the island of Blefuscu, and do his utmost to destroy their fleet, which is now preparing to invade us.
“7th, That the said man-mountain shall, at his times of leisure, be aiding and assisting to our workmen, in helping to raise certain great stones, towards covering the wall of the principal park, and other our royal buildings.
“8th, That the said man-mountain shall, in two moons’ time, deliver in an exact survey of the circumference of our dominions, by a computation of his own paces round the coast.
“Lastly, That, upon his solemn oath to observe all the above articles, the said man-mountain shall have a daily allowance of meat and drink sufficient for the support of 1724 of our subjects, with free access to our royal person, and other marks of our favour.  Given at our palace at Belfaborac, the twelfth day of the ninety-first moon of our reign.”

The overly precise number in the last article of the contract is explained thus "his majesty’s mathematicians, having taken the height of my body by the help of a quadrant, and finding it to exceed theirs in the proportion of twelve to one, they concluded from the similarity of their bodies, that mine must contain at least 1724 of theirs".  That 1724 is wrong, wrong nearly right as anyone with a calculator can verify. I therefore conclude that Dean Swift probably suffered from math anxiety but was able to cover the deficit by borrowing some figures from his mathematically competent friends. I suggest that St George Ashe, the Provost of TCD 1692-1695 is the most likely source of the fact that 12 x 12 x 12 = 1728 as he was a good enough friend to have officiated at Swift's wedding. But Swift couldn't even remember the number correctly!

Actually, Swift's calculations are fundamentally wrong. In 1883 German physiologist Max Rubner concluded that, at a steady state, the amount of calories taken in must balance the amount which can be dissipated as heat which is proportional to the surface area [12 x 12 x 12 in Gulliver's case] rather that the mass/volume. That theoretical construct was modified by Max Kleiber's 1932 experimental evidence that the basal metabolic rate BMR scales not at (body mass)2/3 but more likely as mass3/4.  In 2003 White and Seymour and put Kleiber back in his box by concluding that Rubner was right all along: BMR ∝ M2/3.  What's with the M2/3? M1/3 gets you from volume to linear measure and L2 coverts to surface area. We do thus because it is easy to measure a person's mass: being mostly water, you can get a good approximation of the volume in litres from the mass in kilograms. But the area of your skin is devilish difficult to actually measure and everyone who has tried to get a conversion between mass and surface area comes up with a different constant.

Sunday 29 July 2018

Baking blind

eeee, I do like a lemon meringue pie [L from BBC], but I know it's too much trouble to make one myself. One problem is that the pastry takes longer to cook than the lemon curd or the meringue, so you have to start the process by baking the pastry case 'blind'. Late in my culinary career, I was taught to support the inside edges of the pastry case with tin-foil as well as covering the base of the pastry with a handful of beans to stop it up-puffing: that worked.

I've written before about the utility of having The Beloved's aged blind grandmother to live with us when Dau.I and Dau.II were small. The presence of a venerable old lady with clear-and-present needs emphasised that the girls were not the centre of the universe. They were attentive in delivering their elderly relative to the bathroom, or locating her slippers. If you treat people with a handicap, as if they are handicapped then they will learn to be helpless. It's better for everyone if you get some work out of the buggers. I never had the patience to knead the bread as much as it should be kneaded; but that's because I'm a work-shy snow-flake. The old lady was happy to get a good arm and upper-body work-out kneading bread until the gluten was fully-developed; she would stop until it felt right.

I was thinking about baking blind when Penny Melville-Brown PMB surfaced on the blogosphere for winning a James Holman Prize for Blind Ambition last year. It is sponsored by Lighthouse, a San Francisco based non-profit to level the playing field for the visually impaired. It is named for James Holman, a RN naval officer who, 200 years ago, contracted a weird tropical disease in his 20s that deprived him of sight. Nevertheless he spent the next several decades travelling alone to exotic places: "feeling his way round the world". It turns out that PMB was also a naval officer until a degenerative eye-disease secured her a medical discharge. That was tough on her career but freed up some time to pursue another passion - cooking. She believes that cooking had a unique role to play in bringing people together: sighted and sight-impaired, yes, but also people from different cultures and traditions. All this cooking produces food which, if you're open to change, can blow your mind or at the very least do a number on your taste-buds.

PMB started a youtube channel call Baking Blind that aimed to amuse, empower and educate about the process of food and cooking. Here's herself and John baking some goods for comic relief red nose day. They are wearing silly opaque glasses <comic relief after all> but John has two small holes drilled through the front to give him a feel of tunnel-vision.
Even with a 10o circle of vision, he's still waaay ahead of Penny: he can see if something is boiling, check the colour of the crust, recognise the difference between icing sugar and cocoa powder. But there is some helpful tech in the kitchen: a bar-code reader that speaks the contents of the jar of baking soda. Between the two of them, they turn out a passable, and doubtless delicious batch of bagels, some choc-chip cookies and a pecan pie. A couple of years ago, I wrote about BeMyEyes a global network for blind people who are apped up: point your smart-phone at anything and the first pickup at the end of the network will tell you what it looks like. I guess this works better if you speak English than if you want the service in Algonquin or Schweizerdeutsch.  As I said before, the Faroese have an app where volunteers will answer any questions about their language, culture, food, ecology, sheep, waterfalls or postal service.

Winning the $25,000 Holman prize allowed PMB to take her pots and pans and message to Australia, China, Costa Rica, Malawi, and USA. She had almost finished her round the world tour last December when she had car accident in France.  But you can't keep a strong woman down with mere fractured vertebrae. Here she is slicing and dicing in her new neck-brace. Blind person breaks back may remind you of Mark Pollock's story - or Simone George's parallel tale. You should check out Penny Melville-Brown's Baking Blind channel: good fun, nice message.

Zondag denk-links 290718


Saturday 28 July 2018

Elements 28Jul18

Empedoclean elements,

Friday 27 July 2018

Viagra blows the lungs out

With 20/20 hindsight you might think "That's the worst idea I ever heard in my life". But it's easy to be correct after the fact. I told you everything you need to know about Viagra last year: tl;dr any increased priapic tumescence in the Republic of Cork is entirely in the mind. The supposed mechanism by which Viagra works is through peripheral vasodilation: the blood vessels get fatter so the surrounding tissue gets chubby.

A few years ago someone in the Netherlands wondered if they could mobilise this mechanism to solve a pregnancy problem. In some cases, the development of the placenta - which is a co-operative effort by the mother and her foetus - is a bit wonky and the traffic across the placental barrier becomes insufficient as the demand for more food and more oxygen increases though the pregnancy. This results in premies and teenies both of which are starting life with significant handicaps. If we could increase the flow through the pipes that are in the insufficient placenta, then maybe that would compensate; resulting in retention of the foetus for a few more [every day extra has significant positive outcome] days or weeks and/or higher birth weight when arrival is finally triggered.

In 2015, they got ethical approval and started to recruit women who fit the desired demographic - pregnant with marginal placental development. There aren't that many in the normal course of events, so they scheduled the trial to run for 5 years until 2020. Well I'm sorry to report that the experiment has been abruptly shut down after a mid-term review:
The Chi.Sq. test on that contingency table gives χ2 = 10.5 p = 0.001. In that small sample, you're 6x more likely to have a baby with lung-damage if you had the Viagra pills than if you got the placebo.  Note also that of the 17 babies who were born with lung damage 11 died. Let the litigation begin!
Reports: BBC - ABC says similar trial in Australia has been paused - Gizmodo.

Given how little we know and how 1-dimensional that knowledge is and how complicated and interweaved natural system are, it is a wonder we have developed any drugs which are both safe and effective. 1-dimensional knowledge is a cornerstone of scientific research rather than an unfortunate deficit or side-effect. The double-blind randomised control trial is the gold-standard of objective science: we plod along checking a single variable at a time deliberately ignoring the interaction terms. In the case of Viagra, which inhibits an enzyme cGMP-specific phosphodiesterase type 5 PDE5, do we really have clue about the full range of functions that this enzyme has?

Thursday 26 July 2018

The food wars

Infographic on the 10 MegaCorps [detail R] which own all the branded food-like material that populates the aisles of your local supermarket. The reddit thread is the source of doubt about how many of these brands qualify as Food. The Big Ten are Nestlé, General Mills, Danone, PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Mars, Kellogg's, Unilever, Associated British Foods, Mondeléz (recently Kraft). I've clipped out the continent owned by the chemical giant Unilever: if you imagine your Hellmann'sⓇ mayo or Ben & Jerry'sⓇ tastes like VaselineⓇ it's only a temporary glitch on a packaging line in Indonesia; it will be back to its normal taste of guar gum and anti-oxidants next week.

Thirty years ago, I used to quip that if you drilled down everything was owned by either General Foods or General Motors those obese soldiers of the capitalist dream. Back then it was a gross exaggeration, but 3 decades of mergers, acquisitions and hostile take-overs have reduced the number of players a lot. General Foods is gone: gobbled up by tobacco giant Philip Morris in 1985, which ate Kraft three years later. The conglom erased General Food to make a snappier letterhead in 1995. On the fertile common ground front, note that GF was started by CW Post in Battle Creek MI, after he'd had a session in the Kellogg health-farm just down the road. On the TMI front note that John Harvey Kellogg JHK was an advocate of both male MGM and female genital mutilation FGM in his War against Wanking WAW: reflect on that when you tuck into your Kellogg's Corn Flakes KCF. Does it disturb you that big tobacco should own the food chain?

Mondelēz is a damn-fool name (Mond = mundus = world + delēz sounds like delicious but looks vaguēly intērñatiönal) invented by a couple of Kraft employees and adopted by senior management experiencing a rush of blood to the head. The brand will Go Down well in Mother Russia because there it sounds like oral sex. Marketing experts are still shaking their heads but acknowledge that to the consumer it makes no difference because they never read the small print. Not like me.

It's in the nature of globalisation that you won't have heard of all the brands on the Mondelēz umbrella. Here's a sample:
  • Cookies / crackers: Belvita, Chips Ahoy!, Nabisco, Oreo, Ritz, TUC, Triscuit, LU, Club Social, Barni, Peek Freans  
  • Choc: Milka, Terry's, Côte d'Or, Toblerone, Cadbury, Freia, Marabou, Fry's, Lacta 
  • Gum: Trident, Dentyne, Chiclets, Halls, Stride
But even the brandnames are irrelevant in the post-literate society. Consumers just need to recognise the logo. I can buy a Cornetto ice-cream all over Europe confident that with the Heartbrand logo [L] on the packaging it will have the same look-and-feel [guar gum, air, corn-starch and palm oil] as the familiar HB Cornetto back home. You will believe it's from the most familiar member of the ice-cream alphabet: Algida to Wall's.

Globalisation is rush to the bottom on price, with loads of unintended consequences. This essay by James Meek at the LRB From Somerdale to Skarbimierz tells the sorry tale of how accountant-led business practice working hand-in-glove with EU policy closed down the Cadbury's factory at Keynsham just outside Bristol in England and shifted the whole operation to a green-field site in the middle of Poland. Somerdale was also a greenfield site when it was acquired in 1923. The difference between The Fry family in 1923 and Mondelēz 100 years later is that the Frys were quakers and they built a raft of social facilities and sports grounds to keep their workers happy. Mondelēz got a huge subsidy from the EU and the local government put in all the roads and utilities. The irony was that the UK government, through the EU, paid good tax-payers money to deprive 5,000 UK voters of a job in the local chocolate factory. Willy Wonka indeed; you can see where the Brexiteers are coming from.

The Keynesham site has been renamed The Chocolate Quarter and acquired for housing mainly aimed at old people. The sport's facilities will be built over in due course. None of the bathrooms in the old factory flats have windows.  That's progress I suppose: you have to park us wrinklies and crumblies somewhere.

And Stop Press!: The EU has just ruled that Kvikk Lunsj [prev] owned by Cadbury owned by Mondelēz is not infringing on the trademark [shape division] of Kit-Kat owned by Rowntree owned by Nestlé. The case seems to have hinged on whether Kit-Kat was distinctively recognised in ALL EU countries. It failed to jump this rather high bar in Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Belgium where folks can't distinguish a Kit-Kat from Mars Bar at 30 paces.

Wednesday 25 July 2018

It was forty years ago today

. . . that Louise Joy Brown saw the light of day : the first child conceived in a Petri dish under the watchful eyes of Bob Edwards, Patrick Steptoe and especially Jean Purdy [all seen above with neonatal Louise] who noted the first cell division of the zygote that would go on to become Louise. Edwards the physiologist developed the gloop in which the sperm and egg came together; Steptoe the Ob&Gyn surgeon did the egg capture and zygote insertion; Purdy the embryologist put in the hours to make sure it all worked. When Bob Edwards started to garner the prizes for being the pioneer in a multi-million dollar industry [Lasker 2001; Nobel 2010; Sir Bob 2011] his co-workers were dead: Steptoe in the fullness of his years (1913-1988) and Purdy tragically young (1945-1985). Edwards nevertheless acknowledged their contribution to Project Louise when he bagged the Nobel.

I call it Project Louise but I might call it Project Lottery, because at least 100 infertile couples had submitted to the intervention offered by Edwards & Steptoe before they got the conditions right for a mother to carry her re-implanted embryo to term. Since Louise, 6 million <!>  IVF babies have been born, bringing joy to the world, or at least their parents. The odds of a successful procedure are still woeful, but infertility clinics are still taking money from desperate would-be parents. It took, for example, another 6 months of clinical tries before IVF.2 Alastair MacDonald was born on 14th Jan 1979. When it was a new idea forty years ago, the economic arguments were overshadowed by doomy-doom statements about how such unnatural practices would result in the delivery of imps with hooves. Science has totted up the data and found that babies started in vitro are no less healthy than babies started on a  car-seat or in a honeymoon suite. Dr Edwards spent a lot of his valuable time fighting libel actions for ill-informed slurs on his scientific and ethical integrity. 

Historians of science have been picking through the archives to establish who did what among the Edwards, Steptoe, Purdy troika. A paper has been written on Jean Purdy's contribution. It is one of the six parts to The Oldham Notebooks: a series of investigations in all aspects of the work before they founded the Bourn Clinic outside Cambridge, UK. That reveals that Jean Purdy has recently been afforded a new gravestone to replace the old one:

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Guano incommming

If you know anything about rats Rattus norvegicus or indeed Rattus rattus you know that they have clocked a lot of ship-miles since Europeans started to range across the oceans of the world.  There are few places were humans have set foot where rats have not subsequently set up house. We'll leave aside the depredations of feral mice, cats, goats, pigs, sparrows for another time. It's not impossible to eliminate rats as invasive predatory species as I covered in my South Georgia story last month . . . you just need £10 million and ten years of intensive and well-planned effort.

You can weep or chew your beard at the thought of what omnivorous rats are capable of doing to the native bird species. They will eat anything small and tasty that can't fly away yet, so will be gobble chicks and eggs until whole species are driven to extinction - it's almost an evolutionary imperative. Small isolated islands tend to have smaller population sizes than for the same species on a nearby mainland. Predators have smaller populations than the predated. Small populations are more likely, just through random bad luck, to go extinct. These 'facts' have resulted in several predator-free, tree-huggin', all-lovin' Utopian islands which were sorely disrupted after discovery by Adventurers and their menagerie of dependent species: the boobies Sula leucogaster etc. didn't know what hit 'em.

Nick Graham and his team wondered what are the wider ramifications of an invasion of rats and did a controlled experiment in the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean that was just published in Nature; with a News&Views executive summary by Nancy Knowlton. Why Chagos? because of the 16 or 60 islands [depending in what qualifies as an island and what is speck], some are ratty and some are ratless. You need your critical thinking hat on because the Great Chagos Bank is given as being 12,000+sq.km in extent but the small print confesses that only 5.6sq.km of it is above water! [bloboprev Diego Garcia]. In particular the ratologists asked if there was any difference in the off-shore ecosystem, which is, of course, completely off-limits to rats.

The differences between reefs offshore from ratty and ratfree can be put down to the nitrogen run-off which is 250x higher off ratfree islands. And the concentration of N is directly related to the density of sea-birds, which are 750x more common on ratfree islands. The deal seems to be that the birds fly off to the four horizons on a daily basis, hunt fish all day, eat some and bring the rest home for the chicks and/or incubating partner. Between foraging bouts and at night, the birds squawk a lot, squabble a bit with the neighbours, and shit copiously. The white stuff washes into the lagoon whenever it rains or whenever the waves wash over the beach. Nitrogen is essential for making DNA and proteins and in limited supply in most marine environments, so the local algae grow more vigorously off ratfree islands and the rest of the ecosystem. directly or indirectly  feeds off the green stuff. It seems especially important that ratless coral reefs do much better: have higher biomass, more species diversity and more biological turn-over if the rats are eliminated and the native sea-bird recover.

There are two Darwin stories to relate here. He was the first to articulate the presently accepted explanation for how coral atolls come to exist. He is also noted for his description of the unexpected interactions of many different species (clover, bees, mice, cats) to form the complex ecosystems through which we walk in wonder. Darwin's bulldog Thomas Henry Huxley later extended the web to infer that the success of the British Empire depended on the concentration of elderly unmarried women.

Monday 23 July 2018

Restless Earth

A few years ago, someone gave me a copy of Richard Fortey's [prev] book “Earth: An Intimate History”. I really enjoyed it, so much so that I can't lay my hand on a copy now - must have 'lent' it to a friend! The book is a learned but not academic investigation of this our restless Earth. Fortey knows his onions, especially the trilobites of the Ordovician period, about which no person on Earth knows more, but ranges far and wide in place and time to tell the ongoing story. The book is peppered with waggish humour which lightens the tone and makes it easier to read. The first chapter is about "The Temple of Serapis" in Pozzuoli, now a suburb of Naples. The print of the Temple [L] served as the frontispiece of volume I of Charles Lyell's 1830 Principles of Geology. That book was one of the very limited library that Charles Darwin crammed into his tiny cabin for his mind-boiling circumnavigation in HMS Beagle. Darwin, then aged 22, was a bit of  a Lyell groupie even before he left England and Lyell's concept of Uniformitarianism became a guiding principle of Darwin's world-view. The idea is that, given sufficient time, processes with which we are familiar today could have caused all the geological changes which shape the landscape and oceans today. Wind and rain; sun-bake and forest-fire; the tides and the flow of rivers; frost-heave and the grind of glaciers; with an occasional earthquake and landslide can give us the Andes and the Grand Canyon; the fjords of Norway and the Kalahari Desert. I developed this idea last year, again supported by the Lyell print.

The Temple of Serapis was key bit of evidence for this hypothesis. You can see the columns of the ruined temple at the water's edge today on dry land as it must have been when it was constructed nearly 2,000 years ago: it's not a Temple of Neptune / Poseidon after all. But close inspection shows that the base of each column is perforated with little holes aka gastrochaenolites which are definitively characteristic of burrowing marine molluscs of the genus Lithophaga [rock-eater]. Unless you believe in Loki the trickster god, the only rational explanation is that the whole temple gently lowered itself into the Mediterranean like Darwin's maiden aunt; wet its whistle for a couple of centuries; and then rose stately but dripping out the sea again. If a section of the Campanian coast could yo-yo up and down 10m between 100 and 1700CE, then the formation of the Andes was conceivable without calling for help from Jupiter, Poseidon or any other supernatural tinkering. You just need a million years instead of a couple of thousand.

The rest of Fortey's book carries forward the history with other stories and evidence, some of the equally improbably by seemingly true. The world is a pretty strange and wonderful place if we look at it, as did Darwin, through the uniformitarian eyes of Charles Lyell.

A couple of years after I finished the book, Fortey came to Dublin (possibly on a book-signing tour paid for by his publisher) and gave a talk at the ?Royal Irish Academy?.  Like for Heaney's Antigone, I more or less ordered everyone in the lab to come along and hear him talk.  I have to say that it was a big disappointment and my street-cred slumped a couple of notches because the talk was so dull. On the page he was so chirpy and alive, informative and witty, magisterial and self-deprecating; in real-time he was wooden and, dare I say it, boring. Maybe he had a massive headache. Heck, maybe I was hung-over. But such different dimensions or multiple intelligences are common enough in the one person. Me, I'm not stupid but I can be slow on the uptake: some things I can only work out if given sufficient time. Yes yes geological time is often required for me to get the message. And as a scientist I was always crap at writing the results up and getting them published; while I never had trouble writing book-reviews or home-ed newsletter articles or 700 words of Blob. Maybe I have a 700 word attention span and get daunted and exhausted at the prospect of writing a 7,000 word scientific paper. And I'm definitely more comfortable communicating here in Blobland than I am face-to-face: there's nobody to answer back, for starters.

Sunday 22 July 2018

Mind-boggle 22Jul18

The youngest World Cup goalscorer since Pele, Kylian Mbappé gets a big hug from Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović [PrevBlobboSnark]: the coolest and wettest President in Europe: equal first with Emmanuel Macron. Good Sport. The kid? Doesn't know what to do with his hands but he has magic boots: you don't have to watch the whole thing - if you start to feel inadequate, just stop. Then reflect on what Mbappé does with his money - gives it to the dispossessed.

Saturday 21 July 2018


I was boasting the other day about my "prowess" in sports: which amounts to the fact that, in the course of my very expensive education, I was given the chance to try a number of different ways of striking a ball. In 2002, The Boy told me to pack my traps for a weekend on the Isle of Wight with him and his pal Eoin. "Y'have to come paragliding with me and Eoin, Dad, it will be a bonding experience". As an institutionalised kind of bloke, I can obey orders, so I flew to London and we left early early on Saturday to catch the ferry to IoW and onwards to the Paragliding School at Mellow. Saturday morning was fun, we were kitted out with a "canopy" appropriate to our weight, then taken to a sloping field and taught the elements of take-off and landing. To get airborne, you first have to lay out the nylon canopy in such a way that with controlled tugs you can get it to fill with breeze and start to lift. You then turn round and run like Bernoulli buggery downhill hoping that the the canopy will become a aerofoil generating a pressure differential that gives sufficient lift to take flight. It takes a bit of practice but soon enough one minute you'll be pounding downhill and the next your legs will be rotating in the air 2 or 3 metres off the ground and you can glide to the bottom of the hill.

After lunch, everyone was taken to the bottom of the chalk downs by LandRover and the morning lesson was repeated from the top of the downs maybe 30m up a steepish slope. This is where you get the chance to catch a thermal which means that you don't have to trudge up from the bottom at the end of each flight. You can rather get the rising warm air, the on-shore sea-breeze, and the aerofoil of your canopy to deliver you back to your start point for another go. After a couple of mildly amusing glides downhill parallel to the grass, on my third attempt, most of me was suddenly hoiked vertically upwards about 25m leaving my stomach behind. I was airborne but terrified that I'd be swept out to sea:
I have achieved what every budding paraglider aspires to; and I knew I wanted no part of the game. For the rest of the afternoon, I avoided my turn in the air: as a beginner's class only one person was allowed airborne at a time. But eventually, I stood up to the plate to give it another go - we'd paid a chunk of money for the privilege, after all. It all went wrong, a stiff breeze swept in from the sea dragging my canopy backwards, the instructor tried to pull me straight but suddenly one half of the canopy collapsed as the other side took off and my feet were whisked out from under me. The Boy caught it all on film until he dropped the camera diving forward trying to catch me. I finished up in a heap on the ground mumbling heroic things and looking for someone called Hardy to gie us a kiss:
My fore-arm had a huge bruise the size and shape of half a hen's egg and I assumed I'd broken my arm when it was crushed between the chalky soil and my descending rib-cage. I hadn't. But I had an excellent excuse to spend the Sunday session in spectator mode watching The Boy and Eoin and the others cruising about in the air, landing in shrubberies, and having a flyin' time altogether.

When I got back to work in St Vincent's Hospital, I asked one of the junior doctors to check if, rather than my arm, I'd broken some ribs. "Here Conor, crepitate my ribs to see if they're bust; it will be practice for when you're in an A&E rotation." Crepitation was a diagnostic practice back in Nelson's day: if your ribs were broken the doctor could hear the jagged ends creaking against each other when he pressed the place with his thumbs. Young Conor was having none of that, but he did give me a chit for the X-ray department and duly told me that two of my ribs were fractured but I wasn't going to puncture a lung so I'd just have to wait until the damage repaired itself. "Try not to laugh" he suggested.

Friday 20 July 2018

How much wood could a woodchuck

. . . chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood. Woodchuck = groundhog [day] = Marmota monax but I'm not here talking about mammals except insofar as I've dived down a rabbit-hole about measures of firewood.  I'm there because I'm reading Richard Fortey's memoir about 4 acres of woodland in Oxfordshire entitled The Wood For The Trees; the long view of nature from a small wood. Fortey, a retired geologist, bought the lot partly because he was fascinated by the ancient language associated with woods and wood: bodger; spile, bavin. On p.154 he elucidates:
  • bavin is a bundle of coppiced firewood 3ft 4in long and 24in in circumference
  • billet a bundle of ditto 3ft long and circumference of 10in
    • in = inch 2.5cm; ft = foot = 12 inches = 30.5cm
    • thinking about it, a billet could be a single length of wood you could hold in two hands to defend yourself from a highwayman.
  • bottle enough birch-twigs to make a besom = witch's broom
  • faggot a bundle 3ft long and and 2ft/24in in circumference suitable for bakers' ovens [prev on The Charter of the Forest 1217]
  • fascine a more robust bundle, of uncertain dimensions, used for filling marshy ground for a roadway or incorporating into [military] earthworks.
    • obviously related to fasces [which prev] the Latin for a bundle of sticks and adopted by Mussolini's Fascists.
  • tal(l)wood wood cut a bit long: 4ft
    • you can with advantage read the Assize of Fuel 1553 an Act of King Edward VI to regulate the buying and selling of firewood on pain of forfeiture, and/or a session in the pillory with a faggot or billet bounden to some part of his body etc.
That got me thinking about other measures of firewood, the standards of which are:
  • cord - a stack 4ft x 4ft x 8ft of cut and split logs typically 16 in long [prev]
    • only really used in North America it is about 3.6 cu.m.
    • cord is 4ft4in x 2ft2in x 8ft8in in Forest of Dean on the Welsh Marches which makes their cord ~25% more total volume
    • it's damn-fool silly to say 1 cord = 3.624556416 cu.m. because that final 6 is 6 cu.mm or about a rice grain of firewood and you lose that much overnight from the insect damage
  • rick - aka a fireplace cord is 1/3 of a cord = a facecord if the logs are 16in long
  • stack - like a cord but 3.5ft x 3.5ft x 12ft or about 15% bigger than a regular cord
  • stere = stère = 1 cu.m.
    • although in France they still use a corde or a moule which vary [from 2.06 to 4.9 stère]  according to the region in which you source your firewood: 
    • the French revolutionaries wanted to have a décistère as well for widows and orphans and people with extremely well insulated homes; this later became known as a solive
  • load - a quantity of unstacked wood typically about 50cu.ft or under half a cord
  • favn - how firewood is sold in Norway a volume = 1 alen x 1 favn x 1 favn = 2.2 steres
    • favn (think our nautical fathom) is 6 fot or 3 alen alen is cognate with Latin ulna a forearm which is about the same as a biblical cubit.
Soliciting how firewood is measured in your home-town in the comments.

Thursday 19 July 2018

Nosocomial nose? The noes have it!

Joy! Sometimes the headlines write themselves. Regular readers will know that I lurk-a-lot at Metafilter a site which allows a community of interested and interesting people to post once a day about what is floating their boat. Not everything there floats mine, but there is enough overlap that I check in most days in my restless search for Blob-copy. A MeFi post about I recognized your foul stench [It's a Star Wars ref] just cries to be clicked.

I've been interested academically in the evolution of olfactory receptors and am curious about the refusal of my students to use theirs. Pretty much anything that smells in the lab (or the previous inhabitants of a lecture theatre) will have them elaborately fanning their faces and throwing open windows. Young people don't like silage or slurry [or even know the difference]; they don't like Escherichia coli; Bacillus subtilis; Streptomyces or Pseudomonas aeruginosa - none of them or old bones. Limburger? No thanks! In my human physiology course I tell the students that, before they had pee-sticks, doctors used to diagnose diabetes by dipping their finger in a urine sample and tasting it - sweet indicates a problem, because are kidneys are really good at recovering circulating glucose. EEeeuuww, the students shriek. They must be terrible cooks if they are so unwilling to taste, taste, taste.

The MeFi post is more or less about a commercial product called Liquid Ass which 'smells like butt-crack' and has a ready market among fart frat boys even at $13/bottle. Ho ho "I sprayed a small stream of it in my buddy's office and it ruined his entire day!" etc. But there is a minority demand for the product among those who are training nurses, first-responders and battlefield triage medics. Best get the disgust [prev] under control in class before you have to deal with it at the coal-face. As so often on MeFi, the comments are often as rich as the original post. I now know far more than I need  about fisting, for example. And a list from Slarty Bartfast of various hospital smells that knock Liquid Ass into the ha'penny place: yeasty body odour; bloody stool; necrosis and gangrene. And others that are less unpleasant: electrocautery [bloboprev]; amniotic fluid, strep throat

But, given my previous short list of the smell of different species of bacteria; and my ongoing interest in the well-known potentially deadly nosocomial [hospital-acquired] pathogen Clostridium difficile, I was delighted to find the comment by ericales "I've found C. diff to have a very recognizable odor." Yes, yes, but what is that smell? I googled and found lots of nurses certain that they were 100% precise and 100% accurate and no need for the path lab in detecting a C.diff infection by the whiff: moldy like stale bread...tinged with a little skunk; outhouse during 3 months of 110+ degree temperature days; rotten chicken meat smell, (like when you smell that chicken and go..."no way..can't make this tonight!) mixed with baby diaper sweet smell, mixed with old blood smell [which in turn smells like I have nickels in my mouth]; road kill on a 100 degree day mixed with silent but deadly flatus.

But it just ain't true, because when you put normal nurses, even the confident ones, in a proper scientifically controlled double-blind experiment, it turns out that they are piss-poor in matching the smell to real C.diff samples. But you might have know that already from the lack of agreement about what C.diff actually smells like.

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Mountain to Mohammed

The Minister (of Education) was down to The Institute yesterday . . . to turn the sod on our new Sports Campus. As a deeply unsporty person, I look a bit askance at the importance given to sport  by Institutes of Learning. As opposed to other (quieter?) off-curriculum possibilities like archaeology, beekeeping, chess, dance, entomology, fishing, gardening, hairdressing, ironing, juggling, knitting, lego, movies . . , When I was in school, a chunk of my very expensive education was to participate in a wide variety of organised sports, but I mostly played it for laughs. As I saw it then, with so much that needed fixing in the World it seemed, well, unproductive to have 22 people and a referee running in random circles for 90 minutes. That's a person week of steam with nothing to show for it. Insofar as recreational physical activity had a necessary place in my life I preferred to go on a solitary run: at least nobody got to lose that match. Later on I recognised that doing things together - singing, drumming, sporting - is part of the healthy human condition and so had merit. I also got to appreciate that, without the structure of a sports fixture, many people, including self, would find it difficult to ever lever themselves off the sofa . . . and that leads to obesity, atherosclerosis and an early death.

Some sports require more infrastructure than others. Cross-country running requires less organised works than a soccer pitch; a squash court is more complex than a hand-ball alley. On The Institute's main Campus, sports facilities consume about a third of the footprint; and car-parking about a fifth. The main neutral green space, which used to have a lovely avenue of cherry trees, has been built over since I came to work here. The most recent building was opened by the same Minister in January of last year. There are ambitions for further expansion. The college has acquired a parcel of land about 1km out along the road out of town to provide additional pitches and running tracks and changing facilities. It might also be a cunning plan to convert more on-campus green-space into laboratories, innovation incubators, vice-presidential office suites, surveillance towers. Some suggest that all the car-parking should be shifted out to the sports-platz, so that everyone gets 2km of walking every day.

The arrival of diggers and dump-trucks to begin works on that site was what the Minister was required to symbolically start. But the minister is a busy man and speeches have to be made before the shovel is handed to The Great Man. It is 1000m between the new site and the nearest microphone. Accordingly the already symbolic bit of work by The Man in a Suit was shifted to a patch of grass just outside the lecture hall so we wouldn't have to shift all the witnesses and photographers to a different location. If you've ever been to a funeral you'll know how the run of events has a hiccup / pause while the departed is shifted from the chapel to the diggings. The problem is that, except for two spits of rain over the weekend, there has been a drought for nearly 4 weeks. That patch of convenient grass is a) beige b) brittle c) set in concrete.  No problem: as well as importing the Minister we'll also import the sod [there is an obvious comparison joke to be made there]. In the picture below, I've highlighted the 4sq.m. of turf  - the little white van which delivered it is just off camera to the right.
The youth in the photo are two of our sporty students Marcus Lawlor and Molly Scott, the latter with her silver medal which she won in a relay at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Finland last week.
The absurdity of the symbolic sod-turning could only with difficulty be taken seriously, and I'm glad to report that the Minister and Molly played it for laughs by shifting from sod-turning to pancake-tossing. All good fun.

Less jollity down the road at the Minister-less new sports complex which is right next door to a brand-new secondary school called Tyndall College. That school is not going to open anytime soon because the multinational that acquired to the contract to build the complex was Carillion which went bust at the beginning of the year. Another company Sammon which was somehow involved in the stew of contractors, out-sourcers, fixers, consultants and entrepreneurs has also gone down the financial toilet. A whole rattle of sub-contractors: electricians, plumbers, plasterers, painters, steel-erectors have put in time and materiél and now, because of the serial bankruptcies, are out of pocket if not also out of business. While the Minister was tossing turves with Molly and Marcus, several of the subbies were down the road taking down the fencing that they installed just a few weeks ago. The Minister stoutly maintains that the dispute, about who owes what to whom, is nothing to do with the Department of Education. But it is: one or more of his functionaries failed to carry out due diligence on the companies that won the government contracts. That's why we pay the Government's Head of Procurement the big bucks: so that the buck stops on his desk . . . no I don't believe that equation will ever apply here either.

Tuesday 17 July 2018


You could be forgiven for thinking that cyclosporiasis was a fungal infection acquired on Le Tour de France, but you'd be wrong. It is rather the consequence of being infected by another apicomplexan parasite. Another? Well, those you may know about include:
These are all protozoan parasites, single-celled organisms with a nucleus, but only a bit bigger than typical bacteria. Cyclospora cayetanensis , the cause of cyclosporiasis was unknown until about 30 years ago, when it was characterised by researchers at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, who were looking for evidence of Cryptosporidium parvum in the barrios of Lima. What they found was a new species [Cyclospora cayetanensis A in panel below] which was similar to but different from Cryptosporidium muris [B] and  Cryptosporidium parvum [C] and so they got to name it after their place of work. They are all almost exactly the same size as a human red blood cell.

It's probably the same as an organism isolated from stool samples in Papua New Guinea in 1979. Since its discovery in the tropics, it has been responsible for numerous epidemics in the United States. Including one which made the New York Times 7th Jul 18 because 200 people across the upper midwest had gotten sick after eating Fresh Del Monte Produce vegetable trays containing broccoli, cauliflower, celery sticks, carrots and dill dip. That's what the CDC is saying anyway.

They may be wrong yet, because Cyclospora takes so long to hatch out of its spore and start to go forth and multiply in your gut that a week or more will have gone by before you have symptoms. [Let's hear it for symptoms: Watery diarrhoea; Loss of appetite+weight loss; Cramping; Bloating; Gas; Nausea; Fatigue] What the epidemiologists at the CDC have to do is find something that 200+ random people across 4 states have eaten-in-common the weekend before last. Someone else has to do a [watery] stool analysis to make sure everyone has the same bug. Of the 36 outbreaks of cyclosporiasis this century, CDC were only able to identify a culprit in 16 and of those only 8 were unqualified by 'suspected' or 'likely'.

And Del Monte are having to scratch their heads about which of the ingredients in their fashion-accessory plastic-trayed health-snack to blame: the cauliflower from Arizona? the celery sticks from Belize? Because they have to send their quality-control hard-men down the supply chain to find the source and close it off. Del Monte don't want to annoy their clean and loyal producers of perfect broccoli florets if the slack-bobs two states over, who julienne the carrots, are to blame. It's a globalisation head-ache for producers and consumers alike.

It's ironic that this infection catches people who feel virtuous because they obey Micheal Pollan's dietary instructions [prev and prevlier]  "Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much". Well what do you expect if you buy your Mostly Plants in a clam-shell tray filled with stuff from who-knows-where?

Monday 16 July 2018

More worms are needed!

Early last Sunday morning, I was responding to an e-mail and needed a reference to The Blob to save me re-writing one of my well-worn anecdotes. As a by-product to that search I came across a Trib to The Boy, who helped me declutter about 50kg of scientific papers when he was 'resting' between jobs 12 years ago. My offspring have told me quite clearly that they will pour rancid milk on my grave if I leave them a mess of papers to go through after I pop my clogs. Because I love the kids, I thought I'd wade through one of my filing-cabinets to see if I could simplify their post-mortem paperwork.  An hour later, I'd culled a xerox-box full [~10kg] of discards: Win!  I also found a paper that I've been hankering after since I started The Blob. Win! Win!

It's like with trying to Google a remembered article at the intersect between Beirut and cooking oil without getting lost in a storm of recipes from Claudia Roden. Well like my recent triumph about eggs and Sarajevo, throwing out the dross has surfaced some evidence for the hygiene hypothesis: that we are beset with allergies, eczema, asthma, lupus, psoriatic arthritis and other autoimmune diseases because we never meet pathogens as kids. The immune system, having been crafted over millions of years to aggressively fight infection, is incapable of sitting on its thumbs if there is nothing left to fight. I remember the paper "Trichuris suis therapy in Crohn's disease." because it was one of the most interesting which was discussed that year at the Journal Club which I coordinated at St. Vincent's Hospital. But I got some key data wrong which meant my google-hunt and pubmed-search lurched quickly off the tracks on which I was running. Crohn's Disease is no fun: Diarrhea, Fever, Fatigue Abdominal cramps, Bloody stools, Mouth sores, Reduced appetite, Weight loss, Anal [not St Martin's] fistula, Inflammation of skin, eyes joints, liver or bile ducts, Delayed growth or sexual development.

Trichuris trichiura is the human whipworm a nematode about 50cm long which inhabits the large intestine of about 1 billion people. Not you and me, because we aren't poor and black and living in the tropics without proper sanitary facilities. The adult whipworms, with their heads embedded in the gut epitheium have their arse end hanging out into the lumen of the gut into which the females shed 5,000 fertilised eggs a day. Some of which get into the food supply or on the shitty fingers of the neighbours. Those dispossessed people in the tropical and sub-tropical Third World are notable, not only for their load of intestinal worms but also for the comparative absence of the Diseases of the West: asthma, IBS, MS, etceterzema. It didn't take long for someone to put these two observations together to suggest a causal relationship between them..

The paper which surfaced in my filing 'system' is a nifty advance on the hygiene hypothesis into a testable experiment. No Ethics Board is going to countenance deliberately infecting sick people with a known and debilitating human pathogen. Therefore the team from U Iowa Medical School deliberately infected patients living with the Crohn's Disease [see IBD link above] with 8 x 2400 eggs from Trichuris suis the pig whipworm. It has long been known that whipworms are quite species-specific and T. suis just can't get established in the human gut or vice versa. Part of the reason for that is because the human immune system gives it a damned good alien drubbing and stops the eggs from hatching or, if they hatch, from getting a toe-hold in the wall of the human gut. The immune response is necessarily systemic: anti T. suis agents are released into the blood-stream and find their way to the gut. OR the ongoing immune response to Crohn's is diverted to combat the whipworm eggs and leave the intestinal epithelium alone.

Excited as I was back in 2005 when the paper came out, I'm a bit more skeptical now.
  • It's an open label trial (everyone knows the treatment that is being administered).
  • There are no controls - where, say, half the participants get a teaspoon of baker's yeast instead of the eggs
  • The sample is small - only 29 participants with an initial CDAI (Crohn's Disease Activity Index) greater than 220. Hey, you can calculate your own: +20 for anal fistula, +2 for each extra loose stool. The cut off between 'normal' and Crohn's is CDAI= 150; so >220 is definitely clinical Crohn's
  • It is still being cited in the Wikipedia entry 13 years on
Nevertheless, after 24 weeks of getting a dose o' whipworm every 3 week 23/29 patients reported a significant reduction in their CDAI and 21/23 were effectively cured.  It might be a life-time commitment because the study doesn't claim that the treatment has reset the inflammatory clock but that it a small price to pay for such a dramatic reduction in symptoms. Then again, it could be that, without a reset of the clock, eventually the immune system will get used to the whipworm eggs and return its attention to hacking blood out of the bowel.

Sunday 15 July 2018

Sheep shedder

We own the 20th part of the hill that gives the townland its name. That holding more than doubles the size of our farrrrm by adding 10 hectares to the 7ha which surround our home. The trouble with the 'commonage' is that it is owned in common and we cannot point to a single bush or rock or rich source of fraughans and claim exclusive rights to it. Two generations ago, the mountain was an essential part of the farming economy. In the Spring after lambing, the sheep would be driven up onto the mountain where they would eat whatever they could find. I gave some more exotic examples of transhumance this time last year. The in-bye fields would have a rest from herbivory and be allowed to grow into hay, which would, if everyone was lucky with the weather, be won as winter fodder. The ram-lambs would be sold to the local butcher after which salt, tea, butter, rashers and a new shovel would be bought on the other side of the street. An idyllic local circular economy: the local cinema would alternate between The Quiet Man and Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Globalisation put paid to all that. The butcher could buy cheaper, better quality lamb from New Zealand. The price of wool collapsed so that it cost as much to shear the sheep as the wool was worth. Teagasc, the government agricultural advisory service has, for the last 30 years, acknowledged that no small or medium-sized farm can survive without an external income. In parallel, the EU has determined that there is social utility in keeping farmers in place in the landscape, and funneled grants of money to off-set the losses of running uneconomic farms in the globalised present. Every 5 years, a new Cunning Plan will emanate from Brussels, with a different name and different rules. The rules often change to remediate the disastrous effects of the unintended consequences of the last set of rules. The latest fund is called GLAS [Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme] and it looks grand on paper . . . laid out across an agronomist's desk in Dublin. Less so when laid out across real fields and operated by real farmers with real sheep.

Anyway we signed up for GLAS because it seemed that the benefits outweighed the deficits (the training has been a total waste of everybody's time and a lot of tax-dollars). One of the key changes in GLAS is that, if you are claiming commonage as part of your holding, then you now have to use the commonage by agreeing to run a specified number of sheep on the hill for a specified number of months . . . just like folks used to do in the 1940s. The trouble is that, of the 20 farmers who own a share of the common, only 2 of them have been using the hill in this century to graze sheep. At the beginning of April we pushed 8 of our most mountainy sheep through the 'mountain gate' to shift for themselves upstairs. We never saw them together again; partly because we were looking in the wrong place. The day after shearing in June:
acting on the advice and hill-savvy of Paddy the Shears [at work above]. I went round to the Far Side of the hill to see if I could find our sheep between there and the Mountain River. I found one which, spooked by my approach, rapidly disappeared out of frame:
It has been 25 days since we last had rain and the bogs on the hill are all dried up but there is still a lot more green up on the hill than there is, for example, in our yard which looks like the green tide is draining away as you watch:
On Saturday we rose before the sun, had a cup of tea and set out to find our sheep. The early start was required because running unshorn sheep about the landscape in the heat of the day is a cruel and unusual punishment. We were delighted, with the help of binoculars, to find six of our sheep [three foreground sheep shown below, the others are a pixel each in the middle distance]:
That was  a dry run really because we had asked to borrow our neighbour Martin and his dog to help bring those sheep down to the bone-dry yard for shearing and a few scoops of sheep-muesli [mmmm good]. On Sunday morning therefore we were again up before sparrow-fart to meet Martin at 0640hrs on the Far Side.

Shedding sheep is a one of the tasks that is required of shepherds and their collies in sheepdog trials. The idea is to separate out two sorts of sheep from a co-mingle flock. How it's done. It was brought home to  me why it is done as our sheep moved across the face of a hill that was already dotted with sheep from other places. It fell to me twice to separate our sheep from a bunch of strangers heading in the same direction - mainly because ours were following them . . . like sheep. Don't forget that there are 200ha of hill up there and at least 200 other sheep to get in the way. The rest of the time my task was to follow a path more or less parallel to that chosen by our girls to discourage them from breaking in that direction. You may call me Rrrrrrex <arf!> <arf!>.
E v e n t u a l l y our sheep were encouraged to start moving quietly in a more-or-less SSE direction until they departed back through the Mountain Gate and down the green lane to home [as L]. Martin left us at the second gate because he'd seen two of his sheep in a peculiar place and intended to bring them back to the fold before they edged out of the county. That was a pity because The Beloved had the makings of a massive fry-up in the kitchen and I had to eat Martin's share of the sausage and rashers. The key thing with moving sheep is to keep the pace measured: slow and steady works. Anything else results in everyone getting hot and bothered and making poor decisions. As for the utility or sense of running sheep on an unfenced hill for which neither they nor their shepherds have any 'heft' [defined prev], I have my doubts. I think it's probably true that many canny farmers who have signed up to GLAS for the cheque have no intention of actually leaving €100 worth of asset on the side a mountain which they cannot reach without getting their arse out of their €100K tractor.