Friday, 31 August 2018

To Do Good

Stan Brock is dead having spent 30+ years in the the Third World and the American heartlands helping sick and dispossessed people feel a bit better; better teeth, better spectacles, basic medical attention. His organisation Remote Area Medical isn't up for doing triple-bypass cardiac surgery or removing a testicular tumour, but can provide basic care and on-the-hoof interventions to win QALYs [quality adjusted life years] on behalf of those who have no medical insurance and so effectively get no care. It is a peculiarity of the USA world-view that it is not right to subsidise medical care for all citizens from tax dollars. It is okay to support car manufacturers, maize farmers, oil drillers, and nuclear power stations. But ensuring that all children get a basic medical care is somehow against the Will of God.

Brock was born in Northern England and left home and country at the age of 17 to seek his fortune in British Guyana [as cowboy to start with L]. He done good! eventually rising to manage a huge cattle ranch in the tropics which morphed into a successful TV and movie career. The idea and name for Remote Area Medical came to him when he was injured falling from a horse while many days walk from the nearest medical help. He reckoned that sort of accident, while tolerable if the ambulance is a phone-call away, is possibly fatal if you are poor, black and live remote. The same goes for a dental abscess, a lump on your breast, an accident with a macheté. If you can't bring the patient to the doctor maybe bringing the doctor to the boondocks will work, he thought. In 1985 he sold all that he had and sunk it in RAM, initially trucking a bunch of volunteer medics into Mexico for a treatment jamboree.
The irony was that access to medical care were worse in parts of the richest country in the world than they were in Guyana, so RAMUSA was set up [above a typical day in the clinic - efficiency privileged over privacy]. The business model is logistical and financial. RAM

  • targets an area
  • sources a location - preferably but not always indoors - large enough to host a clatter of volunteer health-care professionals
  • recruit the care-providers to rock up, gloved-up and ready to do a day's pro bono.
  • print enough counters with sequential numbers to keep everyone busy
  • at midnight on the day of action they start handing out the numbers to those in need
    • you can have either dental or optometric not both

There are no reservations, you have to be there to get your chit. If you arrive well before midnight you chances of getting seen are increased. I guess it's not very dignified to camp out for a night: you have to need the treatment you are going to get.  RAM recommends that you look at the weather, dress appropriately, bring iron rations and something warm to drink, because it could be a long wait a) to get the precious number and b) to get your bottom in the dentist's chair.

Stats: 740,000 people treated since 1985, of which 38,000 were adults in 2017 USA. In the US, it costs [2017 accounts] the organisation about $90 per treated adult but they deliver care that would cost $300+ in the open market. The gap being made up by the fact that the professionals are having a bus-man's holiday. For which much respect. As previously to David Nott and my pal Mac the Knife and The Boy's pal Christine.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

'Gator River

What do we do when we talk about . . . sex? We were over with Gdau.I, (nearly 7),  Gdau.II (nearly 3) and their parents two weeks ago. There was a brief interlude between the time I spring fully armed out of bed and the rest of the family surfaced, and I could start the child-minding contract up-for-which we had signed. The kids are [maybe] a bit young for it to be relevant but I came across a MeFi thread about The Talk: when and how to inform your beloved youngsters about the R words: respect, responsibility, reproduction, relationships. In Ireland, in schools, this is bundled into RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education) which is a subset of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and all schools are required to have a stated policy on such matters. Home Educators are on their own as regards policy and practice - but that's true for the rest of their kids' education. This essay might help. I was foxed by the acronym PIV [penis in vagina] which in some schools ["When a man loves a woman very much . . ."] is the only option which is discussed.

I think the first honest U$ dollar I earned in Graduate School in Boston was to lead a weekly discussion section for student nurses called BI105: Human sex, reproduction and development. That was fine because I'd recently gotten a degree in Genetics and could tell everyone in the room how many chromosomes were packed in the head of a spermatozoan (same for almost all people; different for dogs and cats). Back in 1979, mechanics were fine but nobody was going to trust a graduate student on the spectrum to help anyone understand respect, responsibility, relationships. Certainly nobody briefed me to be the momentary R expert in the room, and until now I've never thought to add RSE to the list of skills on my CV.

I have now discovered that there is a trope in ethics education called Alligator River in which a short multi-player story is used as a ledge to jump off into a discussion of right, wrong and the grey between. The first was a truly shocking tale from Oakland U [triggers: prostitution; assault, exploitation, victim-shaming] about people behaving badly with/to each other. If that's the one attempt a school has to talk about sexuality and relationships, then everyone will come away associating sex with violence: heck, even compassion is manifest by duffing somebody up. It is 200 words you cannot un-read. If you or the kids can't read you can listen to the story. Or you can have it treated like algebra:
Once upon a time there was a person named A.  A really loves B.  B lives across the river from A.  The river, which separates A from B is teeming with man-eating alligators.  A wants to cross the river to be with B.  Unable to make the crossing without a boat, A asks C to provide transportation across the river.  C agrees but tells A in exchange, they have to spend the night together.  A declines and goes to D, a friend of C.  A asks D to speak with C on A’s behalf.  D does not want to get involved . . .

And here's another version where the sin circles around the theft of an iPod rather than sex - altogether less emotionally charged.

But's that's not the only educational tool using the fearsome Alligator River as a launch-pad. Here's one put out by the Independent Schools Association for the Central States . What's this all about?:
In the sylvan setting of the land of Ethos runs the sinuous Alligator River (1), named for the reptiles who populate its water and banks and who dine upon any local denizens unfortunate enough to fall into their gaping maws. On one side of the river lives Sylvia: sensitive, demure, and chaste: across the river lives Hector, Sylvia's love: proud and strong, in spirit and mind. No wall of stone or statute more effectively separated this Thisbe from her Pyramis than did the Alligator River. No Hero pined more for her Leander, no Juliet longed more for her Romeo, than did Sylvia for her Hector.
WTF? Sylvan, maws, denizens, demure would fox lots of my college-age students. The Shaxsperian references would be alienating and they've spelled Pyramus wrong. It's the sort of stuff I, with my very expensive education, would write if I switched off my crap-detector didn't have access to a good copy-editor.

I have no advice to offer about RSE - you're on your own there - but I'd like to think that my children have grown up within the normal range.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

No booze is good booze

Mighty new study, sponsored by Bill & Melinda Gates, and published in the Lancet indicates a) the alcohol is detrimental to your health [no surprises there] and b) a tiny amount of alcohol is detrimental to your health. According to them, the only safe level of alcoholic consumption is no alcoholic consumption and the best solution (plonkodrain) for a healthy future is shown [L]. This is a bit unfortunate for those of us who like a glass of wine - to celebrate the end of a hard week at work, for example. We have been justifying this preference with the studies showing that moderate amounts of red wine can help reduce cholesterol-driven cardio-vascular events. Actually, if you live in The West [countries binned into High SDI Socio-demographic Index: the 5-point scale used in the Lancet study] there are "some protective effects for ischaemic heart disease and diabetes". But those wins on the swings are lost on the roundabouts of other adverse outcomes from our "only a small one" policy. For example, women's relative risk of developing breast cancer [UP] as a factor of drinks per day [Across]
Note: a 700ml bottle of 12% wine has about 65g of ethanol on board. 'Tis a long way from a case/control trial that chart was r'ared, though. Each dot is a country and the forest of vertical and horizontal bars are the associated errors of estimate, so the data on which the Clear Lancet Statements are based are really very noisy. "we estimated the dose–response relative risk curve using mixed-effects logistic regression with non-linear splines" doesn't really help me or my Uncle "Toper" Jim understand how the dots get their positions on the charts . . . and gives us a psychological out - "I'll be okay, there's no history of cirrhosis in my family".
And, contrary to the Headline take-home that NO alcohol is the only safe amount, their own Fig 5 [L] appears to bottom out at 1 unit a day. That picture is the executive summary of the whole meta-analysis of all the negative outcomes of drinking alcohol. The noise has been sanitised summarised by the grey trumpet showing that the variance increases as higher booze-rates are considered. The study is freely available and long, so if you are concerned you should do a keyword search through the full-text of the study to see the connexion between, say, alcohol and Russia: "mortality crisis in Russia is a striking example, where alcohol use was the primary culprit of increases in mortality starting in the 1980s and led to 75% of deaths among men aged 15–55 years". Lots of informative graphics in the paper but all qualified by the noisiness of the data.

I was interested to encounter a new term to match QALY Quality Adjusted Life Year [multiprev] which allows us to quantify the effects of, say, different treatments for cancer. DALY is a Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY) which in turn is the sum of Years of Life Lost (YLL) and Years Lost due to Disability (YLD). If you survive a year after your alcohol-induced ischaemic stroke but only 50% fit-for-function that's half-a-DALY. I [now] drink very little, because in Ireland it costs very much.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Ogham Code

We were down in Cork last month a-visiting Dau.II. Just round from where she lives, on Father Matthew Quay is a design company called Meitheal, which, because they are Irish, together, right-on and design-conscious have written their name in Ogham on the office-facade. Ogham? [pronounced nowadays like ohm the unit of electrical resistance] is a stone- and treetrunk- carvers alphabet with which you can carve simple messages along the edge of a door-jamb or sarsen: Peadar Skinblister was here, that sort of thing. Because the letters consist entirely of slash-marks, you can write away with an axe or a stone-chisel or a knife . . . so long as you can count up to 5.  When I saw the sign, I knew it must be in code / ogham but it took a few seconds to twig that the inscription starts at the bottom and writes up.

There are a finite number - maybe 400 dated and authenticated - of these inscriptions which have survived; they are almost all written in ancient Irish and almost all on the island of Ireland mostly in the SW.  It is sometimes known as the Celtic Tree Language, because later scribes glossed each symbol with the name of a "tree", if you include shrubs like gorse, broom and fern. That gives letters and whole inscriptions some extra mystical power because each tree will have different medical, magical or practical properties.

HTML UniCode for Ogham goes from   to ᚏ and then ᚐ to  ᚜
  0 blank [ ]
ᚁ B beith birch Betula
ᚂ L Luis later rowan Sorbus
ᚃ F Fearn alder Alnus
ᚄ S Sail willow Salix
ᚅ N Nin later ash Fraxinus
ᚆ H Úath whitethorn Crataegus
ᚇ D Dair oak Quercus
ᚈ T Tinne holly Ilex
ᚉ C Coll hazel Corylus
ᚊ Q Cert apple Malus
ᚋ M Muin vine Vitis
ᚌ G Gort ivy Hedera
ᚍ N nGéadal broom ?Cytisus? or fern Pterdidium
ᚎ Z Straif blackthorn Prunus
ᚏ R Ruis elder Sambucus [ᚏ]
ᚐ A Ailm pine Pinus
ᚑ O Onn furze / whin / gorse Ulex
ᚒ U Ur heather Calluna
ᚓ E Eadhadh aspen Populus
ᚔ I Iodhadh yew Taxus
That's the 20 original letters:
 ᚚ P peith was added later as were these diphthongs (presumably by a monk who was lost in a haze of hallucinogenic mushrooms):
ᚕ EA
ᚖ OI
ᚗ UI
ᚘ IA
ᚙ AE
᚛ beginning of text
᚜ end of text

Interestingly no surviving inscriptions (which are all on stone) include ᚆ H Úath whitethorn or  ᚎ Z Straif blackthorn or ᚍ N nGéadal broom which strongly suggests that there were earlier inscription on wood - and now lost - carved by people who spoke an older version of Irish which needed these sounds. Irish evolved to drop those phonemes, probably by merging them with other letters. This is like Latin, where the pedantic grammars say that second person singular pluperfect subjunctive of some verb is left blank because no example of that word has been found in the whole corpus of Latin writing. Classicists love this sort of thing: there is a whole other class of words called hapax legomenon ἅπαξ λεγόμενον - words of which only a single example is know in all literature. You can write you own boasts, challenges or <here's a great idea> tattoos in ogham using this neat ogham-translator which created the side-bar [R]
᚛ᚁᚑᚁ ᚏᚑᚈᚓ ᚈᚆᚔᚄ᚜

Monday, 27 August 2018

Computers in skirts

It was Katherine Johnson's [R ecently] 100th birthday on Sunday 26 Aug 2018 = yesterday. When she was born Katherine Coleman, troops from her native West Virginia were fighting in France. They were part of the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions that were fighting for democracy in colour-segregated military units. I guess they thought that, even as second class US citizens subject to all sorts of institutional abuse, they were still better off than black people in Gabon. Then again, maybe a job in the military was one of a limited range of employment opportunities available, and it was better than staying at home share-cropping.

Katharine must have been notably smart, especially at math, because her career on, up and out was supported at key times by her parents and people outside her immediate family. In her West Virginia county, for example, there was no public schooling for black kids after the age of 14. So her folks got her - aged 10! - enrolled in high school in Institute WV, 200km NW of home. Indeed, the whole family shipped off to Institute for the school year and came home for the Summer vacations. Having started early she finished high school aged 14 and enrolled in West Virginia College [segregated, of course] and graduated with joint quals in Math and French at the age when her wet white male contemporaries were only starting college at Harvard and MIT. Anyway her summa cum laude degree qualified her to teach in [segregated] high school. She married and had three children but you can't hold back an elemental force and in 1939 she was back in college hunting up a PhD. She dropped out after a year to raise family: I bet they had a chalk-board in the kitchen.
In 1952, she hung up her apron and took a job as a quant for National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics the predecessor of NASA. Actually she didn't hang up the apron, like any STEM woman, she had to do the bulk of the home-work before, after and in-between paid-work. That NACA job was in Hampton VA, 400km from home but the family shipped out there. Katherine had found her billet aged 34 and worked for NASA until she retired in 1986. There were bathroom problems, until The Patriarch decided that wee at NASA all pee the same colour. She had the mathematical chops, sure, but she also had feeling for 3-dimensional space similar to Barbara McClintock's feeling for the organism in her work with the genetics of maize. In the early days of NACA/NASA, 'computers' were people with desk-calculators [as above under the celestial globe]. But the problem of calculating the trajectory for delivering 70kg of muscle-and-bone to the moon and back is too complicated to compute by hand in the time required. But Katherine could use Euler's method for reconciling parabolic and elliptical trajectories. John F Kennedy's 25th May 1961 boast that the USA, through NASA, would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s definitely cranked up the pressure to embrace digital computers. Although their binary calculations had to be verified by Katherine Johnson and others before they were really believed. While she embraced computers, as she had long-division, analytical geometry and desk-calculators, she always tried to ensure that there was a back-up plan in the case of failure.

She has, inevitably clocked up some awards: in 2015 a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama and honorary degrees from SUNY Farmingdale, Maryland's Capitol College, Virginia's Old Dominion University and West Virginia University. Obama must have known about Margot Lee Shetterly's 2016 book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race which was published the following year. It was made into a movie Hidden Figures - Trailer. Actually, if you have 20 minutes check out the featurette, She was scheduled to make it in Lego, but at the last minute she [was] pulled from Lego's Women in Science set, apparently because she didn't approve - fair enough. And hats off!
Many more Women in Science.

Pope: final score

Most of the media are picking up on a Garda estimate that 130,000 people turned up in the Phoenix Park yesterday afternoon; which must be disappointing because the organisers shifted 500,000 free tickets. This photo looks a bit right, maybe, with the available space about a quarter full:
The Vatican claimed 300,000 and others cried no fair about the picture above being taken while the crowd was still assembling. Others claimed 200,000. Now it's all over, the whole event will quickly dip beneath the media horizon and nobody will bother to find the real numbers. Meanwhile at the top of O'Connell Street, the opposition is claiming 8,000 at their event. Including Radau.I
Now, back to science, especially Women in Science [see one above].

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Pope, anti-pope

Unless you've been living under stone or in a no-nothing state of protestant denial, you'll know that the current head of the Roman Catholic Church, Papa Francesco [above with our President & Mrs.], is in Ireland this weekend on a whistle-stop tour for the faithful. They are anticipating 500,000 ticket-holders to be present at a Mass in Phoenix Park at 1500hrs today Sunday 26th August 2018. As there were less than 1,500,000 people actually attending mass on any random Sunday this year, the Pope will also be addressing a horde of rubber-neckers as well as the faithful. Tickets are all gone now, but were free. At least one counter-catholic group planned to order tickets and then throw them in the bin to make the event more damp than 20mm of overnight rain has made it. I missed the last "zhung people of Ireland" papal visit to Ireland because I was abroad but I caught him going past in the popemobile at Boston Common the following day 1st October 1979 - I've got the t-shirt for that . . . somewhere.

Ireland has changed a lot since then: faith for a lot of people has gone down the toilet with mother-and-baby corpses; Magdalene laundries; cassock-gropings and other crimes and cover-ups. Contraceptives are now easily [not freely!!] available, so we are not expecting an up-blip in the number of births at the end of May next year; like there was supposedly after a night of ecstatic bonkings in 1979. John Paul was very common name-combo in 1980s baptismal records anyway.

Another change is that this time there is an anti-pope. Or at least a meeting nearer the centre of Dublin in which a group of people, whose common ground is disquiet about the unassailability of the Catholic Church in Ireland, are coming together to provide an alternative view. There will be people driven by
  • the absence of women priests
  • the absence of married priests
  • the failure to embrace catholics who are BLT 
  • the failure to separate church and state
  • the difficulty of securing secular education
  • €30 million of tax payers money spent on the gig rather than, say, 100 council houses in Dublin
  • indignation at past and present abuse of the vulnerable
  • I could go on, but you shd insert your own gripe here  ______________.
It's not too late to get to the Garden of Remembrance at the top of O'Connell Street, where Dau.I will be among the faithlost of #Stand4Truth. One of the main movers is Darragh "Foodcloud" Doyle. Infotweet here. Also appearing:
Now let us pray.

Sunday Blows

Sunday 26AUG18

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Girl on the button

Though she be but little, she is fierce . . . competition for [contemplative] old blokes. Maxine McCormick is now 14 and started fly-fishing with her dad 5 years ago. She is now the World Champ in some categories of  this sport. She can reliably drop a hook weighing less than 1 gram in a bucket of water 30m away. Nobody can do that straight out of the box, you have to practice, practice, practice if you want to do it well. By coincidence, we were visiting Dau.II when I read the NYT piece about Ms McCormick, and my daughter has just added Lego Lakeside Lodge 31048 [L] to her collection of harmless fantasy. Yer man's fishing pole is a lot more robust than young Maxine would tolerate.
Fly-fishing is another of the sports into which I dipped during my very expensive education, but I was never any good at it: partly because I have the attention-span of a gnat. My dad taught us in the back-garden aiming at a washing-up basin "one, and two, one, and two . . ." to get the necessary rhythm going.  Indeed I'm quite confident that I never caught a fish using this deliberately difficult way of getting lunch. Fly-fishing was one of the things my father did to get out of the house - especially when the 1950s kitchen was full of terry-cloth diapers drying over the stove. I don't think he was much good at fishing and was more likely to exit the house carrying his bag of water-colours:
That's his 1969 take on Slade Castle and Quay in SW Wexford. Where I live now, the most likely angler I encounter is going to be a Polish plasterer having an afternoon off down by the River Barrow. But when I was growing up, fishermen, especially fly-fishermen, were likely to be like my dad: from the higher drawers of the middle class with a back-ground of living in a big house in the country. Background! we never lived in a big house in the country although my grandfather was born into one. Every year we'd go on holiday to Ireland and that would almost always involve staying a few days with my father's cousin who did live in a big house - with a lawn swooping down to the shores of Lough Derg [whc prev]. On at least one day while there, my father would load his three kids into one of the 6m rowing boats and take us out fishing. Not fly-fishing; more likely trolling from the back of the boat with a variety of artificial lures - spinners, spoons and other brightly jiggling things to carry a hook to a greedy fish's mouth. We caught fish in this way with some reliability and at the first bite my father would cry out "It's a trout, well done, it's a trout" [Salmo trutta and edible] but it never was. It was always pike [Esox lucius very sharp teeth, disagreeable disposition] or perch [Perca fluviatilis bright orange fins, full of bones]. Even back then, we sort of knew that my father's optimism outstripped his fish-knowledge.

Mais revenons nous a nos pêcheurs à la mouche: here's a bright micro-documentary about Maxine McCormick [4 mins]  from when she was only 11. Check out her internal clock going  "one, and two, one, and two . . ."  The interview seems to capture the disconcerting collision of ambition and competitiveness in the skin of a small symmetrical girl in tee-shirt and jeans. I think its wonderful to have someone that good and that small in any sort of competition. If, as a 64 y.o. bloke you have your hopes of a prize knocked into a cocked hat by a 14 y.o. girl then you'll have the chance to reflect that it's just a game. Or perhaps that the competition is not with others but with yourself:
every day and in every way I'm getting better and better.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Looks great, not true

For many evolutionary biologists, Darwin's second big idea was not about the origin of coral reefs, but rather an explanation of such peculiarities of the natural world as the tails of peacocks Pavo cristatus. My correspondent G was kind enough to send me the cartoon [R] about 30 years ago: clearly it has been difficult for me to shake the image from my strutting patriarchal mind.  Darwin reckoned that sexual dimorphism " . . . depends not on the struggle for existence, but on the struggle between males for possession of females . . ." even if the attributes which attract females make the males potentially attractive to a wider variety of more voracious predators. It's hard to escape from a fox if you can barely get airborne. It's not just peacocks: deer with an inconvenient coat-rack attached to their heads; monkeys with absurdly rainbow-bright bottoms. We can tell things about the behaviour of animals even if the only specimens are in the Dead Zoo. We've documented on The Blob that human males are bigger than females: bigger feet, bigger upper-body, bigger beard. The irresistible conclusion is that blokes strut and throw shapes and that girls pay attention to their antics. But . . . competition for mates is not as important a drive in us as it is in gorillas with their big heads, sagittal crest, mighty brows and 2x M v F weight differential.

Another take on the over-blown extension of sexual attractants (feathers, horns etc.), which was first proposed by Amotz Zihavi in 1975, but popularised  Richard "God-hater" Dawkins is that the 'extras' are not so much about run-away selection for these attributes. The handicap hypothesis rather says, basically, look at me girls, I got a ton of feathers and a bright-pink head and I can still fly and haven't been swatted by a hawk; I must be well fit, fancy a shag?

You can make all these observations, add your opinions about why these peculiar traits have evolved and convince yourself that you've explained <tick, done that> that aspect of the natural world. By convincing an editor and two referees you can secure another publication against your ambition for tenure at Harvard. How much more convincing this Just-So story would be if you could artificially manipulate the world and show that your changes made a difference in the mating game. In the 1980s Nancy Burley noted that the coloured bands put on the legs of the birds = zebra finch Taeniopygia guttata [L half an ounce 12g each of super-cuteness] she was studying appeared to have such an effect. Red leg bands appeared to enhance the attractiveness and the reproductive success of male finches, while pale green bands were a total bust in sexual politics. Further studies appeared to support this hypothesis and soon enough these now iconic ideas worked their way into text-books of Ecology and Evolution. It seemed to show that sexual preference was lurking just beneath the surface and can hook on to whatever small difference can be detected by the opposite sex. Those small-small differences will get more distinct and enhanced if more offspring come to the odd-ones. When data is consonant with theory it is just more easy to get it published. I told a story of a gamma-male chimpanzee who upped his pay-grade by using a kerosene-drum to act bigger than his god-given muscles.

The pendulum bounced about as scientists tried to replicate these findings, some getting supporting data and some, like Aurelie Seguin, Wolfgang Forstmeier in 2012 finding no effect. Forstmeier was at it again in March of this year, doing a comprehensive review of the field and doing a meta-analysis of all the published data. It's the sort of idea which is hard to kill - because theory and observation collide - and having shown that leg-bands are irrelevant in zebra finch, there will be hold-outs claiming the effect in one of the other 8,000 species of bird. Not much different from the ding-dong battles about whether vultures detected dinner by smell or vision - the answer being both, because there is more than one species of vulture.

If you're really interested in the issues of bias, special pleading and uncritical thinking, you could do worse than read the summary of Forstmeier's jihad and its context by Yao-Hua Law in The Scientist.

Thursday, 23 August 2018


Y'all know that all the words you read on The Blob are stored somewhere on The Cloud as bytes made up of several 1 or 0 bits; because computers are too stupid to count above 1 2 1 2 1 2. In the rough and tumble early days of computing there was a bit a of war [ASCII v EBCDIC] about the details of how letters would be mapped to bytes and ultimately to on/off, 1/0. That was all fine when programmers all spoke English or at least used the Latin alphabet. When Russians and Greeks and Tibetans started to digitise their world, an alphabet of single 8-bit bytes wouldn't do it and so UniCode was created to allow 'foreign' letters, accents and punctuation squiggles to be written and read by using up to 4 x 8-bit bytes. You don't want to use 4 bytes for every letter, so Unicode cleverly has bytes which say "the next three bytes should be read with this one". That's like telephone numbers: 00 indicates the next set of numbers are pointing at Dublin, New Hampshire rather than Dublin, Dublin. UniCode's UFT-8 standard allows for 1,112,064 different glyphs. I've written about how getting your UniCodes in a tangle can be a matter of life and death.

What about kanji? If you think you have it hard mastering English spelinge and apo'strophes, what about being required to learn several thousand characters borrowed from Chinese in order to be able to read the newspaper? Even for the pre-digital age, can you imagine being a type-setter in Japan? would your arms be long enough to reach the bins with the less-used kanji? Like everyone else, the Japanese have gone digital and have been allocated a chunk of UniCode territory to map their world to The Cloud. It is called the JIS-X-0208 aka 7ビット及び8ビットの2バイト情報交換用符号化漢字集合 and uses nearly 7,000 double-bytes to uniquely identify all the characters that are now, or ever have been, used to label words, locations and personal names. You can have fun with Google translate trying to parse 7ビット = nana-bitto = 7-bit . . . 2バイト ni-byto 2-byte. . . 情報 Jōhō = information. Each kanji is mapped to a row and column in Unicode space and a clever graphic designer is tasked to render it into pixels. Here is the 59th row
There is some sort of logic to it: the consecutive kanji 杼 杪 枌 枋 枦 枡 枅 all share the same radical 木 on the left. In fact if you look carefully you'll see that more than half the kanji on row 59 share that attribute.

In 1978, when the Japanese government embraced the JIS-X-0208 standard, they required minions to read all kinds of different sources: birth records, gazeteers, maps, books, and scrolls to identify all the kanji which had been used somewhere, sometime and would therefore require their own place in the UniCode sun. After diligently working through the canon of info, copy-editors, users and readers noticed some oddities in the lists, which nobody could identify, let alone source or pronounce. They became known as ghost characters. Twenty years later, some officious cleaner-upper in the bureaucracy launched an investigation to find out where and how these zombie characters has arisen and kill them if required. Of course, the original compilers had included a source: but sometimes that source was super-unspecific: "Overview of National Administrative Districts" a formidable document which runs to 6000 closely printed pages.

We've just come back from a road-trip in England where place names include Newcastle-upon-Tyne, not to be confused with Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stoke-on-Trent, Grange-over-Sands, Bradwell-juxta-Coggeshall. In Japan they have the same sort of thing. One place is called "山 over 女" which they captured by pasting the two characters one above the other to give ghost-char 妛: the extra middle stroke resulting from the fuzz where the two characters were glued together. That misunderstanding was caught, propagated and became concrete by continued reproduction despite its meaning being lost. I find that quite delightful: like how a science-anxious lexicographer saw "D or d; n. density" and crammed them together to coin Dord n. density.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Carters Carnies

On Friday, our last full day in Bath with the bold Gdau.I and Gdau.II, we went to Carters Steam Fair in Royal Victoria Park.  It was a peculiar anachronistic experience: solidly Edwardian in the action but all wired up in the booking: if you sign up the day before then you get a wodge of extra "free" ride-tokens. It's your reward for committing to go against the uncertainty of British weather. The carnies at Carters have to have tea, toast and sausages every day for breakfast and if no punters turn up because it's drizzzzzling again, then the smaller employees go hungry. I should add that Carters dont believe in apostrophes.  This is what it looked like as Gdau.I and a tiny Gdau.II (held on by her mother) whirled round and round and round on the galloppers: Edwardian-gaudy painted horses which are cranked up and down by an eccentric crankshaft as they rotate:
Carters is not the ideal place to hang out if you are a bit republican in sentiment: the portraits hanging from the roof of the galloppers are all of the British royal family. And union flags and other patriotic sentimentalia are everywhere you turn. But doing turns on a carnival horse is reasonably demure in its action. There are at least two other rides where the centrifugal force gets mightily cranked up: one where you get whirled round in a car whose axle is itself whirling round a central point and another where you sit in an open seat and get hurled round faster and faster until you feel almost horizontal. We all agreed that those rides should be completed before a feed of ice-cream, dodgy hamburgers and onions: a technicolour yawn is no fun to encounter as it falls at high speed from a great height.

We learned from our Wild Place experience to bring our own sandwiches for lunch and after an hour and a half of Victorian fun we decamped to the park, sat on the grass and had a picnic. An hour and a half is, like Goldilock's porridge, just right. Then we walked into the edge of town to visit the (free-in) Assembly Rooms which was a lot quieter, positively Jane Austen in sense and sensibility, and had clean toilets. On the way back to the car we met an ice-cream van and just had to support another small entrepreneur.

Now me, if I was tasked to entertain a couple of small children for the day, would most likely have them whittling sticks to dig for worms in the back-garden: more palaeolithic than Edwardian or Victorian. But I got my druthers in the evening when Gdau.I took me out blackberrying. I had work-pants, a gauntlet and a sweatshirt against the thorns; she left home in a singlet and shorts. I finished up with more blackberries than my granddaughter because a) I was dressed for the fray b) I'm really competitive c) I can reach higher d) she ate half of the berries she picked.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Fountain pen

Came across a nostalgia piece on MeFi last week about peculiar reverence for a particular brand of ink pen - the Parker "51". They were priced at the cusp of 'status symbol expensive' and 'unaffordable for folks on a salary' - maybe 10 hours work for a middle manager. That artful marketing decision allowed the Park Pen Company to shift about 20 million 51s between the end of WWII and 1972. 20 million!! At a time when ball-point pens were being given away. When I was at school in the 1960s, I owned a fountain-pen - we all owned fountain pens; I suspect that they were in some sense compulsory because only a cad-and-a-bounder would use a ball-point pen. Actually, I owned a succession of fountain-pens because a) I was 11 and treated them casually b) they were the kind of thing that Uncle Jim would give a chap for his birthday or if he won a Latin composition prize. Parker pens had a distinctive arrow-shaped clip on the cap.  A fellow could casually store his Parker in the outer pocket of his jacket and everyone would know he was a Parker chap. Not all Parkers were as pricey as the "51" of course, the company were anxious to sell to poorer people also. But that's like the fact that we all need shoes: €18 a pair in Aldi or Penneys or €5000 a pair made by Lobb's of London. The other chaps in the office will note the difference and apply the appropriate label. Not me, I never check people's shoes - I'm too busy looking for small change.

The basic technology for a pen is the same as it was when Hugo Pictor was scribing his copy of St Jerome's commentary 1000 years ago. A stiffly flexible material (goose feather, sheet metal) is sharpened to a point and split down the middle, so that the ink can run down the slot by capillary action. Hugo would dip his pen in a bottle of ink to fill the hollow shaft of the feather and write till the pen ran dry - then dip, repeat. Fountain pens are higher tech but same principal: the 'fountain' is a reservoir of ink that can be filled - less often than dip dip dip in the 11thC scriptorium. All the marketing crap that we schoolboys, at some level, bought into (18 caret gold or ruthenium plated nibs; heck there was a brand of pen called Platinum) was just flim-flam and cake decoration. For me and my pal Gibbo the key attribute for a fountain pen was the mechanism by which t'bugger was filled. Best was if it was filled by using a little lever that evacuated the air from a rubber reservoir; because it was rubber the reservoir would suck ink in when the lever was released. Gibbo and I were not the first to realise that if you used the lever when the pen was full, then ink would blurf out of the nib and spill on the floor, a white shirt, or your Latin homework.

But I think we were original in drawing an elaborate map of the Kriegsmarine submarine pens at St Nazaire on a piece of paper and seeing how accurately we could ink-bomb them from a great height (about 3m if we took turns standing on a desk). As with painting and decorating, a large part of the process was in the preparation, and final success depended on hand-eye coordination. For the young-of-today <harrumph> the prep is 'borrowing' your father's credit card to order Grand Theft Auto [multi harrrumphy prev] from Amazon.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Where the Lard Things are

We had shoulder season in England taking a week hangin' with Gdau.I (6.5 yrs) and Gdau.II (2.5 yrs). Shoulder Season bridges the gap between what working people in the UK can claim as summer holidays and what teachers in the UK can claim. When both parents go back to work, who is going to mind the kids? The grandparents is who; or Auntie Dau.II. As the girls get older, the responsibilities change. The younger one has now mastered her bladder, so we are getting notice of the need to locate a toilet when we're off-site. It was a bit different when we had a similar gig last July: packing a nappy-bag adds to the burden if you're planning a picnic. She has also mastered the use of her legs, short as they are, and can poddle along at her own pace.

Gdau.I is currently mad-about-the-primates in the way that some other kids get absurdly knowledgeable about dinosaurs. The parents suggested that we might like to take the Gdaus off to The Noah's Ark Zoo out near Bristol Airport. It's one of 100 places where you can arrange an unforgettable birthday party for your little chap and his pals.  Prices starting at £17.50 /head, minimum £175. WTF? £175.00? The only thing that can be said in favour of such a venture is that it keeps the economy going/growing. It's only the start of course, because if Jimmy's parents can lay on Private animal handling session then Chuck's folks will have to up the ante - hang-gliding; paint-ball; pony-trekking; kayaking; abattoir. I gather that all the invited guests now rock up with a birthday present, as well. In my day, before the First War, we had birthdays too. There was cake; fizzy-pop, probably sandwiches; someone would eat the candles for a dare; after a couple of hours everyone went home having had an unforgettable birthday: especially if young Toby sicked up the candles before he left. Making your own simple fun is now sooooo yesterday.

It was no birthday of ours but nevertheless we thought about going to Noah's Ark (to see some monkeys, like) . . . until I found out that Noah was hoping to garnish my hard-earned accounts to the tune of £70 (£20 adults x 2;  £15 child x2)!! That's nearly €80: you can buy a car for €80 where we live. I was all for encouraging Gdau.I to develop an abiding interest about invertebrates and we could, like Agassiz, work our way across the tiny front lawn where she lives. Heck, I'd even put €40 into her Harvard Fund. Very democratic our family and my suggestion was not widely supported, so we went to The Wild Place instead. They also do unforgettable birthday parties, of course; and also Experiences like paying £40 for the privilege of shovelling up Okapi Okapia johnstoni shit for an afternoon. But the entry price was "only" £30 for the four of us. And it was right next door to Exit 17 off the M5: only about 25 minutes from home.

The Wild Place, is nice, quiet, unpretentious fun. The demographic seemed to be quite well-to-do yummy mummies with singleton children OR people of our age looking for every opportunity to sit down as their poor lonely grandchild had fun on his own. Fun didn't seem to involve interacting with any other children or meeting new people. Each micro-family group was drifting through the experience as if all the other people (of which there were many) were invisible. The paths were wide and allowed people to pass each other without interacting. Unless either party was pushing one of those enormous double-wide baby-buggies [example L]; in that case mere pedestrians like us had to cram ourselves in the bushes to avoid an accident. What is it with [not] walking?  We raised three kids and never owned a pram or a buggy. By the miracle of evolution, when human infants get too heavy to carry, they can stand and probably stagger a few steps. Or at least you can lean t'buggers up against a lamp-post to catch your breath. What's with the double-wides? it's not as if everyone has twins: and you often see a child occupying a seat and being pushed by his mammy when he's actually big enough to push his baby sister and be useful.  At the Wild Place last week the section with the lemurs is sufficiently constrained for space that the freakin' buggies had to be parked outside:
Above I show a small fraction of the vehicles that were getting in everyone's way at The Wild Place last week. Buggies are utter rubbish: alienating for the child; promoting obesity; awkward for public transport; potentially an expensive fashion accessory [you can spend £1000 on a buggy!].

The other disappointment was that we bought a shocking expensive lunch which cost as much as the entrance-fee. Lunch was also shocking slow in coming and my cappuccino was whisked away by a forcefully impatient yummy-mummy who couldn't see that a) the barista was learning her trade b) there was a queue. You may be sure that her buggy looked absurdly expensive . . . and only she could consider her children attractive.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

19 Agosto 18

Bits n pieces

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Bedside Manner

The Beloved acquired another book about The End. Sallie Tisdale's Advice for future corpses (and those who love them): a practical perspective on death and dying. As all my readers will indeed be a corpse at sometime in the future, then Tisdale is addressing us all. Personal exceptionalism allows us to believe, when young, that other people will of course die, but we will live forever. That is why young men do daft things with guns, knives and cars if they can get them or with sharp sticks, fists and stones if technology eludes them. I've written about 17 y.o. me trying to break the speed-limit if not exactly the sound-barrier in my mother's ancient Vauxhall Viva. No imagination, the youth: possibly because they have only limited experience to inform them.

Tisdale's book is not really talking about recklessness inviting death in the young because they are only a minority of the dying demographic. In The West, life expectancy at birth is 80 ± 5 years which means the most people die in the fullness of their years; often because the meat-machine and its exquisitely sensitive mechanisms for maintaining homeostasis just crocks out. Kidneys, lungs, sphincters, heart, liver, pituitary: one of more of them will get flaky. Far too many people die in hospital where the default position is Fix It. In America, this culture can rack up quite stupendous bills over the last 3 months of life. In Ireland, the same futile interventions occur but the state indemnifies the family for most of them. Nobody is presented with the choice of either trying a fantastical course of therapy on granny to buy another six weeks or putting both grandchildren through college.

The chapter on communication is peppered with things not to say at the beside of the dying:
Don't say I told you to quit smoking
Don't say Please eat; if you really wanted to get well, you'd eat.
Don't say Why didn't you call me first?
Don't say Don't talk like that; let's talk about something happy
Don't say Our neighbour's cousin had this and she's grand now
Don't say Get real; my mother had this and she was dead in a month
Don't say This is a blessing in disguise
Don't say If I were you . . . nor Why don't you . . .
Don't say I'll pray for you nor God has a plan
Don't say I see you're at the bargaining stage [as in Kübler-Ross]
Don't say You should read this great book on mindfulness and cancer
Don't say Don't leave me

Actually a lot of it comes down to shutting your own nervous and anxious gabble and listen to the principal actor in the drama. There may well be desires, fears and needs that cannot be easily articulated. Allowing these drivers to be expressed can be a big part of achieving closure. Closure is often desired or required before exit. A delayed departure is annoying in public transport and also in the hospice: if it's not going to get any better [and that's the difference between a nursing home and a hospice] it may be time to stop wringing the hands and listen to Lady Macbeth
I pray you, speak not. He grows worse and worse.
Question enrages him. At once, good night.
Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.

Friday, 17 August 2018

reductio ad absurdem

IF, in education, you privilege math and literacy as being the key markers for assessment, success & progress THEN all other criteria fade away: your child's dance, empathy, map-reading, cakes, songs, compassion, soccer, sheepdog, surfing, dress-sense . . . all become irrelevant or, at best, hobbies. Good at maths, down with Shagsper and you'll go far; those other attributes of the human condition won't help you. It's all so one-dimensional! and quite possibly self-destructive in a fast-changing world: ask Ken Robinson.

The divil of the free-market capitalist world we live in is that everything can reduced to price. Aldi's milk is cheaper = better than corner-shop's because it is 75c/lt rather than €1.00/lt. It's a lot of work to discover whether Aldimilch is so cheap because of economies of scale and efficiency of their supply chain OR because their volume allows them to nail dairy-farmers to a cross when negotiating the farm-gate price.

Here's an interesting piece-to-camera about supply-chains and globalisation . . . and slave-free chocolate, bitcoin, blockchain and the Internet of Things by Miriam Posner. It gives the lie to the convenient capitalist truth that money is money; nitrate is nitrate; worker is worker. Because some workers are more grossly exploited than others, gold is not gold: some diggings spew more mercury into the Amazon than others. Nobody wants children in Indonesia to work a 12 hour day adding decals to running-shoes. But if you have to buy shoes, would you tolerate a little work by children in the sweat-shop? Is the kid allowed to run 5 km to bring his mother her lunch? If you had to make a choice is it better that the workers are paid a few cents extra if the factory is allowed to dump their surplus glue in the drain out back?  In Ireland, Penney's is famous for its shoddy. You can buy clothing there so cheap that people come from the Third World to buy socks at €1 each; t-shirt, knickers cost a cappuccino; shoes, a pizza. You can go elsewhere and pay more. But you have to pay A LOT more for your socks to escape from guilt about sweatshops in Bangladesh. How do you find out so you can square your ethical conscience?

With difficulty is how! Back in 1958, before most of you were born Leonard Reed wrote I. Pencil [full text and introduction], his classic story about the complexities to economics and manufacture. It is Reed's contention that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make a pencil: so many different materials are required to make it; each combined with cunning and know-how peculiar to the operatives of the machines. The machines are, of course part of the equation, they were designed by an engineer, modified by another; made of parts turned on a lathe, from stock in the foundry, smelted in a blast furnace. And that's just the steel: there is also graphite, wax, cedar, castor-beans, cotton, hemp, zinc, copper, sulphuric acid, ammonium hydroxide. And that's just a pencil: don't even think of tracing your smart-phone or juicer back to its component parts. Freakonomics podcast with transcript about pencils.

Thursday, 16 August 2018


Stephen Meyers is a working journalist in Colorado. Last year he was laid off from his suck a pencil and think deep thoughts gig and had to get a proper job. After weeks and weeks of exams, aptitude tests, security clearance, he was given a US Postal Service cap and a route and delivered mail for 15 months. He waggishly titled his piece Man of Letters to reflect on the ironic connexion between his two careers. Fifteen months is about the time it took for Dau.I to land her librarian job in the public service. The USPS and the Dublin Library Service are not cutting any corners in the application and approval process despite both being grossly deficient in the numbers necessary to run the service properly.
One of the reasons why its hard to recruit mail-carriers is because it's hard work . . . and the dog-bites. The picture above is a collection of uniformed USPS employees showing their battle-scars. It also shows the diversity of those who stitch the USA together. The Stephen Meyers piece is via MeFi where the comments fill out the picture a little. Including the rules on tipping and accepting gifts from citizens: Employee Tipping and Gift-Receiving Policy: All postal employees, including carriers, must comply with the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Exec­utive Branch. Under these federal regulations, carriers are permitted to accept a gift worth $20 or less from a customer per occasion, such as Christmas. However, cash and cash equivalents, such as checks or gift cards that can be exchanged for cash, must never be accepted in any amount. Furthermore, no employee may accept more than $50 worth of gifts from any one customer in any one calendar year period.

I too was a man-of-letters briefly after I left school having secured a job as a hospital porter. Although I did once carry a dead body to the mortuary on that gig, my primary function was as the mail-man delivering, 3 times a day, X-rays, sputum samples, letters and parcels round the hospital. Between sorting and delivery rounds, I was told to hang out in the tea-room behind the porters front desk, rather than stand out front chatting to the bloke at the desk. The extra hand out front created an, entirely wrong, impression of idleness and over-manning. I therefore spent about 3 hours a day getting an anatomy lesson in the back room which was wall-papered with dozens of pictures of topless young-wans. I think the Head Porter told me that reading a book in there would also create the wrong impression if one of The Suits dropped in unexpectedly. The Head Porter was kind and effective but definitely not a man of letters, barely literate indeed as I found when he handed me an envelope and said "Take this round to Pysio". In all his years at the hospital nobody had discretely told him that Physio is a F-word.

BTB, the Brother of The Beloved, not to be confused with TBB The Boy's Beloved [prev], like me was subjected to a very expensive education. One of the few sources of happiness in the process, as opposed to building a better pub-quizzer, was the friendship he formed with two other lads in his final year before leaving school. These three BFF, having come together in the unlikely crucible of school, followed very different paths afterwards: an editor of The Irish Catholic; a graphic designer abroad and . . . a postman in Dublin. That last seems an unlikely an unlikely outcome from all that education, but I always approved. At [expensive] school, you are generally being hot-housed for college, preferably there to continue your rugby-football as well as academic studies. And after college, a profession, a spouse and 2.4 children. After 40 years in an office, a pension. BUT! Just because your parents or grandparents can afford the fees, doesn't mean that, in your heart-and-soul, you want to be driving a desk until you retire. The corporate ladder is stressful, betrayal is just the other side of the stationery closet and a sedentary life makes you fat. Postman sounds pretty good to me: you get outdoors; you meet people and you're clearly valued by your community; and it's permanent & pensionable.

I've written about the community gluing character and kindness of our Postman Pat when we move down-country to the farrrrm. And also about the popularity of my mother's postman in rural England. Every year the cost of sending a letter goes up and up because the number of letters sent goes down and down. It's hard to fight that spiral when you can send an e-mail 'for nothing'. Even though everyone enjoys getting something physical in the post, we rarely spend the €1 is costs to spread that pleasure to our friends-and-relations. It requires a couple of days of forward planning to send a real birthday card, let alone a letter, and few of us can muster that skill anymore.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Nitrate Poole

A palomino did really well in the law and retired on his money just before he turned 50. That's several years ago now and after he left law he wasn't ready to hang up his boots entirely, so he partnered up with some others and formed a brokerage company. Their business model, insofar as I "bear-of-little-brain" could understand it, was to commodify carbon [footprint]. The UN [or some other supra-national quango] measured the carbon output of all nations on their books, and, as we all know now, found that it was way to high. Everyone was given a target for reducing their contribution to the whole monstrous problem. But some of these targets were easier to achieve than others. A poor third world country had a lot of people but few cars, no air-conditioners, no electric kettles, no huge dams to build for hydro-electric infrastructure, no high-rise corporate HQs to consume further concrete. On the fungibility of carbon everyone was agreed: The Republic of Boondockia's carbon credits could be traded for cash [or cars, Krugerrands, or corporate jets] with a first world country who couldn't meet its carbon targets ever or anytime soon. My friend's company would, for a modest percentage of the transaction, set up the deals between cash-rich and carbon-poor nations. That cunning plan was briefly, but not sustainably, successful until the whole policy on carbon-targets was thrown out of the window and something else was put in its place. You can get all huffy and judgmental on the ethics if you think it would help.

The Beloved threw a story at me that runs along similar tracks. Different scale, different chemical, different source, different problem, different outcome but . . . still about reducing the incommensurate to cash and thereby directly comparing apples and oranges. That's not so difficult actually, because they are both fruit. In the story above carbon is carbon is carbon, in this one nitrate is nitrate. And we really do not want the stuff in the water-supply.

In Ireland idiots the people have decided that water is free because it falls from the sky and so should appear >!KAdrip!< in our taps (cleared of coliform, cryptosporidium & cadmium) at no charge. In England they have decided that water is a commodity which you pay for, each region of the country is the bailiwick of a for-profit company contracted to supply drinking water and deal with the foul-water which citizens flush away:
Today we are focused on Wessex Water: the bastion which protects my aged mother from the cholera.  They are a subsidiary of a Malaysian multinational conglomerate called YTL Corporation Berhad. Wessex Water discharges a part of their treated waste water into Poole Harbour, an important amenity area on the South Coast. The Boy Scout movement was founded there in 1907, for example. Its sheltered waters and surrounding wetlands are an acronym-rich Special Protection Area (SPA), Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Bird Sensitive Areas (BSA): important habitat for birds, fish and invertebrates all in delicate balance, eating each other up and burping nutrients for the circus to continue. It is delicate because the harbour is 12 in extent but only 0.5m deep. The balance can take a certain amount of disturbance to the equilibrium: the long dry 2018 Summer; the long cold Winters of '47 and '63; a diesel spill from some nob's yacht; far too much tri-butyl-tin.  But there is doubt about whether tonnes of pollutants gathered from almost the entire county of Dorset can be absorbed without lasting ill-effect on the ecosystem.
The graph above shows that since I were a lad the amount of nitrogen (mostly nitrates) has more than doubled: the R Frome discharges into Poole Harbour. Nitrates are a problem because they can be converted into DNA and protein and increase biomass of species which normally find it hard to obtain the necessary nitrogen for growth. If we dump a load of extra nitrates into any aquatic environment, the tiny algae are first off the blocks in the race to use it. They grow like billy-o, metabolising as they go and consuming all the oxygen dissolved in the water. Without oxygen, the invertebrates and fish all go belly up; their dead bodies call jamboree for decomposing microbes which scarf up the last of the oxygen as they feast. The result is a transitory <pooo-eeee> charnel-house and then a poisoned watercourse where nothing lives.

The EU Water Framework Directive WFD / Wasserrahmenrichtlinie / Directive-cadre sur l'eau / Rámcové směrnice o vodě / Vesipuitedirektiivi  [prev] is a set of evidence-based regulations that endeavour to keep European water within acceptable limits of insult from industrial, agricultural and domestic pollution. WFD encompasses a lot: pH, phenol, BOD, phosphates, nitrates.

The regs indicated that Wessex Water had to reduce its discharge of nitrates into Poole Harbour by 40 tonnes a year. No fair, cried Wessex, there are 2,000 tonnes of nitrate added to the Harbour, so that 40 tonnes on our To Do List is only 2% of the total. Furthermore, it will cost our Malaysian masters £6 million to build new treatment plants which will incur a £400,000/yr running cost - that's £10,000 per tonne to process the waste water solution to the excess nitrate problem. They looked round the harbour for something on which to shift the blame. The graphic L shows that sewage treatment works STW's contribution is dwarfed by that of agriculture.  Agricultural nitrates enter the water because farmers pay for fertiliser and spread it on their fields in unsuitable quantities and inappropriate times. Before it can be absorbed by the wheat, beet or ryegrass, the rain comes in and washes the investment into the local drains, rills, streams and rivers, eventually to Poole Harbour.

Wessex contacted Entrade to do some research and broker a deal with local farmers. That solution sounds good because it looks at nitrates as a catchment issue rather than a Wessex Water issue. In our everything can be monetized world, nitrate is nitrate, in the same way as  €1 is $1.14. Entrade determined that, if farmers could be induced to plant cover crops over-winter when rainfall is highest, then that would demonstrably reduce fertilizer run-off. That would alsokeep the nutrient on the fields on which it had been spread and as a green manure provide better soil structure. And (although this wasn't factored in) promote microbial diversity in the soil. How to set the price? By auction! farmers bid for money from Wessex to encourage them to do manage their land a little differently. The price came down to £1.40 /kg N saved. I'm a bit out of my depth [so not in the shallows of Poole Harbour har har] here but I think that is equivalent to £6,360 /tonne NO3 saved. Which is less than the STW capital infrastructure solution at £10,000 /tonne.

Wessex can wriggle off the WFD hook and save a massive capital investment. My mother and her neighbours can continue to flush flush flush and pay for a bunch of Malaysians to deal with their ordures. If that sounds bit colonial it is; but the question is who is the coloniser and who the colonised?

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Pissing it away

I was down on the Costa na Déise last week mowing the lawn from the first time this hot dry grass-killing Summer. I noticed that the neighbour-across was out as well; painting his boundary wall. So I went and introduced myself: they've lived there more than  a year but it's the first time we've been on the street at the same time.  He's about my age and used to work as a paramedic in the UK. Indeed he spent 25 years of his life dealing with trauma: arriving on the scene by ambulance and even for a while by helicopter. God knows it was stressful and challenging but it was interesting and fulfilling and he vowed that he would jack it in when he stopped enjoying it. Things started to cloud over when he found that more and more of his working day was filling in forms and so less was available for actually relieving suffering and saving lives. The forms ensured that his boss's arse was covered if something went wrong ;and somebody somewhere else had a full-time job filing them in a cabinet bigger than the biggest ambulance.
[Aside from ROAR on bullshit jobs]:
""Right now nurses in New Zealand are on strike and one of their major issues is exactly that: on the one hand, their real wages have been declining, but on the other, they also find they are spending so much time filling out forms they can’t take care of their patients. It’s over 50 percent for many nurses.
The two problems are linked because of course all the money that would have otherwise been going to keep their wages up, are instead being diverted to hiring new and useless administrators who then burden them with even more bullshit to justify their own existence."" via MeFi here be counter-arguments.

Then he was transferred to a small University town. It seemed like every Friday and Saturday night, he would be called to take another student incapable through drink to the A&E. Then one evening after delivering a legless youngster to hospital he was called to a case of heart attack. He stabilised the patient and rushed back to A&E, only to find that there was no bed available; so he continued to watch and ward in the ambulance for another two hours. The bed was occupied by the young chap earlier who didn't know when to stop swilling pints. That was when it stopped being fun.

We agreed that a) we sounded like two old farts moaning about the Youth Of Today b) when we were young we'd both done foolish and potentially self-destructive things involving drink and/or cars. "I blame technology" the neighbour suggested, "in our day, we'd get home somehow; if not in our own weaving way then with the help of our pals. Kids now, they call 911 and get The Man to sort them out."

That reminded me of The Girl Who Invented Herself. When she lost her job in Germany and all her money in Brussels just before Christmas 1987, she came to stay with us. In the New Year she landed a job pulling pints and piling pizzas in the Student's Union. That conveniently evening work freed up the day for a Secretarial Course. Often and often at breakfast on the weekends, she'd report that when she had finished her shift at the bar, cashed up and locked the door, she'd find a student comatose in the flower-bed or slumped in a doorway with puke down his or her shirt. She'd go back into the Union and call for help again; when all she wanted, after 6 hours on her feet, was her bed. Sometimes she'd get really angry: what she could have done with a chance to go to college! You wouldn't find her pissing it all away in an alcoholic haze. And indeed nobody did. After a few years in London working in the office of a Danish construction company, she started a diploma then a degree under a day-release scheme. She is now Viceroy of Networks AsiaPac for Megacorp Telecoms in Singapore.

If I'm not exactly The Patriarchy (my beard isn't really sufficiently biblical), I do walk in a miasma of privilege. I had a very expensive education, for example; and my accent is at the snootier end of middle-class Southern British. Because of the accent and because I'm not black, in random encounters with the police, I tend not get barked at "place your hands on the bonnet with your feet apart". I took a year out after leaving school and worked in a hospital and for a publisher of primary school books. When I left home and country the following September, I had tried at least those two ways of making a living. I started classes in Trinity College Dublin thinking that learning was the main purpose for my being there. I knew students did other things as well - I joined the Film Society, for example, and started my love affair with Chabrol and Truffaut and subtitles; and I started another love affair as well with a real person - but learning was the axis around which these other activities rotated.  I wasn't totally clear about where I was going but I knew that flunking exams or failing to submit assignments were not wanted on the voyage. I also learned before I got to college that one pint can be lubricating; two pints impairs your judgement . . . often enough to believe that a third pint is a good idea. Like a rat in an operant conditioning cage I was able to associate four pints with a truly appalling sense of malaise the next morning: and so stopped going that far.