Friday, 30 November 2018

In pain, on patch

Pain is a peculiar thing. It is perceived by the mind as the brain gets signals from the periphery about damage. It is one of the symptoms of inflammation, for example, and I've argued that is adaptive / useful because experiencing pain or tenderness will persuade you to protect that part of the body from further damage. Then again, some people start to experience pain, terrible immobilising pain, when there is no apparent damage. It must be especially frustrating to experience this pain in a phantom limb which obviously you cannot scratch or rub.

That's pain. As a relevant aside let me report that Pat the Salt m' aged father-in-law developed a weeping sore on the pinna of his ear: probably a Staphylococcus infection; and probably the consequence of his immune system being less feisty than it was when he was 16. It wasn't clearing up so the GP prescribed a course of oral antibiotics. Within a few days, the ear looked a lot better, so that was good. But his intestinal flora had been decimated in the process and that was probably not-so-good. Of course I wondered if his ear would have gotten better in time without the intervention. I also wondered if there wasn't an effective anti-bacterial cream that could be applied to the site of infection and leave his GI tract to fight the good fight on his behalf.

It turns out that sort of solution is available for pain management. It is called Versatis, is manufactured by Pfizer and its licensees, and is an adhesive patch loaded with a 5% solution of lidocaine. Lidocaine is cheap as chips, but Versatis is expensive and the government picks up the Versatis tab each year to the tune of about €30 million. Or rather did pick up the tab but now no longer does so.

Joe Duffy, the self-important opinionated RTE talk-show host was having a rant about the decision by the HSE, on the advice of the HPRA, to cease supporting this therapeutic regime. Obviously, if €30 million has been saved and each prescription costs North of €1,000 a year, there are a lot - about 25,000 - of people out there who will be feeling a sense of deprivation, not to mention feeling aggrieved, not to mention re-suffering pain. Several of these called in to tell their anecdote. "It's purely down to money" claimed Kilmuckridge GP Dr Val Lawlor, as if saving tax-payers' money was obviously a bad thing. There are other pain-killers which are still supported by the HSE, most notably oral pregabalin aka Lyrica about which I waxed lyrical two years ago.  If it was me, and I wasn't paying the bill, I'd prefer something applied locally, topically, rather than have an oral medication coursing through my liver and lights perhaps causing a variety of side effects.

And contra Dr Lawlor and Joe "soundbyte simple" Duffy, the HSE is not directly trying to save money, it is trying to get value for it. To this end, there is another office filled with feeders at the public trough: The HPRA, Health Products Regulatory Agency, An tUdarás Rialála Táirgí Sláinte [prev]. They are scientists, quants and statisticians all charged with assessing the evidence for medical benefit and setting that against the cost. Actually, the quants are in another body: National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics NCPE. They apply a standard formula, probably based on QALYs - quality adjusted life-years - [multiprev] to establish each cost:benefit ratio. If the benefits outweigh the costs by a given threshold then HPRA gives their appro and that cohort of sufferers get relief. Of course, if there is political capital in subverting this ostensibly fair system, then the Minister of Health will bend the rules for the few, and pretend this has no impact on the many.

Here's the [20 page!!] summary of the evidence for the HSE's decision to stop paying for Versatis earlier this year. It reads like the only scientific study for the efficacy of Versatis patches was one investigating "treatment of neuropathic pain associated with post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN)". That study found significant benefit over placebo for that condition, so that's the only condition for which HSE will pay. Because nobody has sponsored a case-control study for the relief of whip-lash pain, or rheumatoid arthritis pain, then the HSE cannot, or will not, countenance paying Versatis prices for those can't-get-out-of-bed sufferers.

Because he is simple, Mr Duffy chose to make a head-to-head comparison between those who had been deprived of Versatis patches and the current hoo-har about 'high fat diet cures cancer' claims in a book called The Ketogenic Kitchen. That is like saying that the cops shouldn't catch me speeding - they should devote their energies to apprehending murderers; they can do both, of course. The MS Society has a more adult response. The HSE effectively has two standards of care:
  • Treatments where the benefits are so fuzzy that they are unwilling to venture tax-dollars on their support. Here, if you have sufficient funds, you can choose to pay the price demanded by big pharma. 
    • The corollary of this is that people in the care of the HSE [everyone in the Republic] can only buy such meds from a reputable source. The Internet, even a huge company like CVS in USA, is not an HSE-approved source. So you can't order 4% Lidocaine patches from them at $1 a go. Irish Customs and Excise will indeed seize such shipments on arrival and destroy them if you cannot show that they are legal according to our health watchdog.
  • Therapies / regimes which are demonstrably wrong-headed or for which there is no good evidence for efficacy. Here, the HSE will not allow sale to anybody. They realise that sick, pain-hobbled people, are not in the best position to be rational and few are qualified to interpret an adverse report from a reputable body like The Cochrane Index.
It seems unlikely that post-herpetic neuralgia is the only painful condition that will respond to Lidocaine patches. I would therefore expect that there are people a) with other sources of agony b) which were relieved by Versatis up until the ban and c) cannot reasonably afford €1,000 /year. But I don't think it is scientific or fair to bend the evidence-based rules for sensibly spending on health just because a talk-show gives voice to a succession of articulate people who stand to benefit. €30,000,000 a year would pay for a lot of nurses, trolleys, speech-therapists, STI-avoidance leaflets . . . or whatever your favourite gripe is about the deficiencies of the health service in Ireland.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Wintertime in Chinatown

The EU is likely to implement the abolishing of shifting the clocks twice a year. This is a good idea. Irish Dept Justice is asking for a votes on whether to go with GMT, what they call Wintertime, or Summertime. In Wintertime the sun is highest at Noon, in the natural way ordained by the gods, Summertime is a trick-about nonsense that wrecks people's bioclocks and causes deaths. Actually it's the change that kills, but Wintertime is still better.  Please tell them. you have till St Andrew's Day = tomorrow.

Meanwhile back in the PRC. . .
Five years ago I confessed to being pathetically ignorant about the geography of China. I could name more cities in Finland [pop 5.5 million] than in China [pop 1390 million]. We have a final year student who has been in The Institute for the last 3.5 years - since I had him for math classes in 2015. He has some sort of diplomatic connexion or his father a professor back home: I haven't enquired too closely. Then at the beginning of this, final, year a young woman was parachuted in from the PRC to complete her education in Ireland. I have the two of them for one lab class. I think that she's quite lonely, a long way from home, with her peer group a bit cliquey and her English isn't great, which doesn't help. I make a point of being kind to her because I was in a similar position when I went abroad for Graduate School in Boston. If she needs help with practicalities, she inevitably asks her compatriot. I earwigged them chatting in Chinese [Mandarin, although I wouldn't know that] last week and I asked if they spoke the same language at home. The answer was a qualified yes: the woman comes from 陕西省 shaanxi shensi and she speaks Zhongyuan Mandarin. The chap is from山东省 Shandong and uses Jiaoliao Mandarin at home. Both are 'Mandarin' and more or less mutually intelligible but I think they speak standard Beijing school Chinese in Ireland.

Next question was "How far apart are your two home cities?". Each had a different, and rather enigmatic answer:
"27 hours on a train"
"About half a Europe"
Distance 临沂 to 西安 is about 950km. That is about the distance from Brussels to Bratislava which is about half the distance from Brussels to Bucharest. So half-a-Europe is okay if you exclude Russia from Europe. I was talking about this with a young friend from India and she said traintime-as-distance is very common where she comes from as well. And she was equally crap as myself for naming cities in the PRC. The five red dots are 'direct controlled municipalities' and all in the top ten biggest cities. I bet you couldn't name any of the other five biggest cities, all of which hold more than 7 million inhabitants.

You want to be a little careful with your ears and the various options for transliterating the sound of Chinese names into the Roman alphabet. It turns out that there are two adjacent provinces in NE Central China [see map R]:
陕西省 Shaanxi and
山西省 Shanxi and for comparison
山东省 Shandong
Notice that they all terminate with 省 which must mean 'City'. The Shan 山 in Shanxi is that same as the Shan 山 in Shandong and the 西 is -xi in both Shaanxi and Shanxi.
陕西 means Shan Pass, West of
山东 means Mountain, East of
山西 means Mountain, West of
all very logical. Just be careful when getting on the train to Shaaaaanxi; you might finish up 200km from where you want to be.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018


. . . in which Bob meets an old friend and starts using emojis; read on . . .
When we bought the ruined farm-house in which we now live, you could run a small dog in under the rotted front-door. The over-hanging trees had carried away all the rain-gutters and beaten a hole in the edge of the roof. That first Summer in 1996, we spent most of the time tidying up the yard [so it looked less like Nazareth] and out-buildings and then moved in on the house to tidy it up before the builders started work. In our investigations of the structure, we revealed seven (7!) bees-nests in the roof and walls. We called in a local bee-keeper to clear these intruders away and hopefully bring each colony back to productivity. The Summer after we moved in to the refurbished house, a swarm of bees appeared in the yard, found a small crack by the frame of the bathroom window and took up residence in the reveals between wall and window. They are still there. It's restful: when you're soaking a the bath you can hear the bees rumbling just 40cm and one layer of plaster-board from your wet head. The Beloved has also kept bee-hives going on the property on and off ever since. I guess we're bee-huggers ; although I think that Lyle's Golden Syrup makes a better flapjack than honey.

When my roomie at work announced yesterday afternoon that the local chapter of the Irish Beekeepers Association was in the Concourse trying to recruit a younger demographic, I naturally went down to see whaaaat's happenin'? I was delighted to meet the youngest of this year's crop of Brewers and Distillers chatting earnestly to one of the apiarists. "Hi Kris," I twitted the young fella, "you're only here for the mead." That was only partially true because he is genuinely interested in life the universe and everything, bless his cotton socks. As I ear-wigged the conversation, my mind was working double-time because the bee-keeper's face was a) about my age b) familiar but c) certainly out of context. I idly picked up a pot of honey from the display table and read "Killoughternane Honey". It was like Marcel Proust being transported back to his childhood by the whiff of a madelaine.

"Frank!" I said, "it's been a while". Almost exactly 20 years in fact. Shortly after we moved into our bee-loud home, I was sent off to  Kilkenny to buy a chain-saw: it's what every country dweller needs. I never used it because I believed it to have a fatal attraction for the limbs of novices. The Beloved also joined the Irish Timber Growers Association: because we aspired to hug trees🌳. That winter, a flyer came in from the ITGA inviting members to attend a Chainsaw Use and Maintenance course run my Coillte, the state forest service. I mitched off work in Dublin - I was the boss of me, so it was easy to get leave - and attended the M-F 10-4 course, which was held in a wood about 80km NW of home. There were about eight men [all men] on the course and one of them was Frank. Killoghternane is only four townlands - Knockscur - Tomduff - Killedmond - Rathanna - from us, so meeting Frank was a typically Irish small world encounter. Apart from making a great deal of noise in the woods, we sat in the back of his van to have lunch on the days when it was raining and on adjacent tree-stumps on the wonderful brisk winter-sunny days when it wasn't. Interesting bloke; I learned a lot from him about our mutual neighbourhood and how to live in it.

But the main thing I took away from yesterday was the whiff  Mead. I'll be knocking off from working at The Institute in few months time, so that might be a good time to return to the heady days of the 1980s when we lived in England and I fermented anything that could be stuffed into a 5 litre demi-john.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

When duty whispers low thou must

. . . the youth replies "I can" [Ralph Waldo Emerson]. It was the last weekend in the month, must be a Film Soc night. Was to have been on Saturday but it was bumped 24 hours so that our neighbour Mike could rest in peace in the church next door - and tea and sangwiches could be served in the hall where we usually show films. For November, the selection committee for the Blackstairs Films-with-subtitles Society picked Wajib,  a road movie by Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir. Thelma and Louise it ain't; but it's an interesting unpicking of the challenges of living with other people while being true to your own values.

Shadi comes home to Nazareth to help the family prepare for his younger sister's wedding. Nazareth is a Palestinian town embedded in the North of Israel so it's a bit like living in a Catholic town in the North of Ireland 40 years ago: it's hard to drive around town without seeing dozens of squaddies in uniform. It's edgy because you know that the conscripts' weapons have a magazine of live rounds and you hope they have the safety catch ON. But it is also the new normal and you can't be having an adrenalin rush at every encounter: you'd be wrung out by lunch-time. Shadi has been living in Italy for the last several years a) because he's educated and there are no jobs for Christian designers in Israel and b) because he'd been an angry young man who bridled at the inequities of the place where he was brought up. He sticks out at home because he wears red trousers, a pink shirt and his long hair tied up in a bun. But he casts fresh exile's eyes on the invisible background of his birth-place: the streets are awash with domestic refuse . . . and soldiers in uniform come into the same falafel-and-houmous place where him and his Dad go for a mid-morning snack. It's like the propaganda gables [above R] in housing estates in The North in the 1970s - they were just there for the kids who lived round the corner.

It's not an exciting film because there are no car chases, indeed chunks of time passes as Shadi and his Dad sit in gridlock. They are in the car together because of Wajib - Duty - that requires the family to hand deliver each wedding invitation and accept tea, another tea, more tea and cakes in return. They also have to stand a barrage of polite enquiry and unspoken tsk tsk criticism of their choices, their morals and their standing in society. And who gets an invitation? There is a list decided by quite rigid protocol, which is adhered to lest offense be taken. They have to invite singers who can't carry a tune; Dad's boss who was mixed up in Shadi's enforced exile; all those yahoos from the groom's family; the widowed aunt whom protocol demands cannot attend because she is a single woman; the cousins because they are cousins. Don't even think how much this is all going to cost.

And all the time, both father and son have to button their lips about the failings of others and soldier on through the social mine-field that is a small tight-knit society. The stress exposes the generational difference: the younger man can act on his principles with righteous anger because he has nothing to lose but his life; and all young men know they will live forever. The father has far more hostages to irredeemable  misfortune: his children, his home, his carefully built standing in society (he's a teacher). His principles are tempered by pragmatism, and perhaps by compassion: it's easier for everyone if you tell a few white lies so that your neighbour's cosy belief system is not challenged. Just like any community, in fact.

If you're intrigued by the tribulations of living in Israel and like falafel you might check out the late lamented Anthony Bourdain's 45min programme about eating in Jerusalem.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Skins are alive with the sound of microbes

Last week in my Human Physiology course, I was wrapping up my section on the Circulatory System. After six years running the course the powerpoint slides are settling down to a stable set, but the anecdotes that come roiling out of my mouth are different each year. This year, I was triggered by the mention of Salbutamol, a selective β2-adrenergic receptor agonist, to talk about The Boy's near-death experience with asthma. He was 16: past the age, we thought, of being responsible for his own inhalers.  Nevertheless, he came downstairs at about 7pm one winter's evening looking distressed and breathless. He asked if we should call the GP to make a house-call because it was outside of surgery hours and Care-Doc hadn't yet been invented. We phoned, the doctor estimated 40 minutes to an hour. 90 minutes later we called again and got the same answer. Accordingly, we cancelled that, piled into the car and drove asap into A&E at Beaumont Hospital about 6km away. Bob the Fainter wrote about the funny-in-hindsight follow on from that adventure. My point here is that The Boy was eventually admitted for observation for what was left of the night. When we went in to see him the following afternoon, he was looking much chirpier and told us that he would likely be discharged after evening rounds had secured appro from the consultant physician.

The Boy had just finished his hospital lunch and wanted some advice. With lunch came a two-choice menu for the following mid-day meal; what did we think that the next occupant of the bed would like to eat? Or should he play it for laughs, because he had been visited with baked cod and mashed potato by the previous inhabitant and he'd have much preferred it all fried. That's the way monolithic bureaucracies flourish: offering the illusion of choice but being far more rigid in their catering constraints than any restaurant still in business.

This interchange between sequential bed-users in hospital applies in spades to the microbial flora of their skin. Last week's Nature had an Outlook supplement on the Skin. For me the most interesting piece was by Emily Sohn a free-lancer from Minneapolis called Community Effort. It's all about the microbial flora of the skin - a community that gets far less attention, on The Blob and elsewhere, than that in the soil and the GI tract. You should read Sohn's piece because it is easy on the eye and interesting. One cited story is about a longitudinal study, by Jack Gilbert from U Chicago, of the microbial life on exposed surfaces in a newly commissioned hospital.

In Gilbert's study, these surfaces started off with random microbial blow-ins but as soon as patients started to arrive, the swabs started picking up Staphylococcus and Streptococcus and other typical skin-bacteria. As soon as each patient arrived they got a jolt of incommming from the previous patient but within 24 hours had re-established their own characteristic microbial signature. Every hour you are shedding about 40 million bacteria into the local environment and 10 million fungal spores. That's a lot but, when it comes to establishing a new empire, these millions are almost always a verloren hoop against the billions of incumbents. Occasionally however, these microscopic adventurers overwhelm the existing community like Pizzaro in Peru and establish a new dynasty. That coup d'état is more likely if the newly admitted patient is sick or immuno-compromised . . . or has been washed too obsessively???  The CDC estimates that 1.7 million HAIs hospital acquired infections occur in the USA each year resulting in 100,000 deaths. To put that in context there are 35 million hospital admissions in the land of unfree medicine. Do the math: 1 in 20 in-patients catch something else in addition to their original illness.  Not all of them are MRSA [multiprev], or CRE [prev] some of them are 'only' C.diff. [prev].

Sunday, 25 November 2018

E is for Everything

Every good boy deserves fruit [again, published in error a day early yesterday]

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Prodigal sheep

Last Sunday was one of those wonderful 'extra' days: when the weather lifts well after the first frost of Winter. The Beloved was off site, I was awake and alive, it was not raining, so as the dark was fading I set off from home [H right] North up the lane 15 minutes before Sunrise. The advantage to living in the mountains rather than near them, is that you can be a car-ride ahead of the weekend walkers.  I was looking for the last three of our sheep which had been rusticated earlier in the year to eat ling heather Calluna vulgaris and heather purple moor-grass Molinia caerulea. But I was also consciously celebrating the fact that my knees were still working; that my students were not requiring care-and-attention; that a slab of flapjacks was already made. I was feeling lucky, and because we all make our own luck, at about 8am, in the Far East of the territory, I found 3 sheep marked with MN which were therefore owned by our friend and neighbour Martin. That was good news, because it was getting very close to the end of the sheep season, and Martin was pretty much reconciled to the fact that the last handful of his sheep were MIA. I banked them and carried on up the path between hill and forest. As the upland plateau opened out, I was struck by how it had been emptied of large vertebrates since I was up just a few weeks earlier. Occasionally I'd perk up when I saw a white blob on the hillside, but it always turned out to be an outcrop of quartz or the sun glinting off a bogland pool. Along the way I upstarted a couple of golden plover Pluvialis apricaria, so I guess they're planning to spend the Winter. Soon enough I found that I had almost completed the full 4.5km circuit of our mountain without the whiff of any sheep, let alone any with a fist-sized blue dot on the back of their heads. Accordingly, I conveyed his good news to Martin by telephone and sat on a rock to eat an apple and watch the human world waking up below me. The sun was well up, everything was sparkling in a brisk Easterly wind and I was as happy as Bo-Peep.

Three things happened on Thursday:
a) one of our neighbours died: Mike was a craftsman in steel who had made several sheep-handling tools for us most recently in October
b) The Beloved came back from her 3-day shift minding her redoubtable father Pat the Salt
c) on her way home, another Mike, from the Wexford side of the mountain, called her to say he had 2 of her sheep in a trailer and was on his way to repatriate them.
That last was pretty toasty news because it brought the total of recovered moutons up to 7/8.

Last night, Friday, we went into town to show face at Mike the Black's wake. He looked very Mike in his coffin and still had all his hair because he'd refused futile treatment for his cancer, which must have a required a certain determination in the face of interventionist medicine. It was light when we went out but full dark as we approached the lane to come home an hour later. Headlights coming out onto the county road materialised as Martin's tractor and trailer: he had just delivered the 8th and last of our 2018 flock of mountainy sheep. >!huzzah!< Lucky we'd bought a bottle of Jameson in town; imagine having nothing to toast the return of the last heather-prodigal sheep. We'll get them all scanned in February to see if they've acquired lambs in their Summer romps.

Friday, 23 November 2018

You say potato, I say osmosis

It's great when things work out in the laboratory. When I started teaching Cell Biology to our Sporty students (Sports Rehab; Sports Physiol; Strength and Conditioning) we had a number of practicals involving blood. Discovering everyone's ABO blood group for starters; making a blood smear and counting the number of red and white cells [should be in 99:1 ratio]. With a protocol for getting fresh blood from students, we were able to use the red blood cells RBCs as a convenient source of fresh cells.  Obviously a course called Cell Biology needs everyone to find out about cells: their structure and function. One thing to learn is that all cells are surrounded by a semi-permeable membrane SPM: the cell membrane allows a few things to pass freely (water, oxygen and carbon dioxide) and blocks everything else. If you want glucose to enter a cell you have to open a special pore and that only happens if insulin triggers the insulin receptor on that cell. SPMs are efficient at maintaining homeostasis in the cell, which means that the concentration of the dissolved stuff (glucose for example) is the same inside and outside the cell. If water is the only thing that can freely pass the membrane, the homeostatic effect is for water to flood across it to try to equilibrate the sugar concentration on both sides. We set up an experiment where we put fresh blood cells in glucose solutions that were more concentrated, less concentrated and just right and then observed what happened. Cells crinkled up or ballooned or stayed the same: can you predict which? [answer]

Then, abruptly, our management and the spirit-of-the-times caught up with us and came down about contaminated blood products, and blood in general being a potential hazard. What if a student caught a horrible disease from handling a slide smeared with some other student's blood: what an expensive law-suit that would be. If we couldn't use blood what could we do to investigate this phenomenon - called osmosis, as you ask - what could we do? Borrow an experiment from another Course, of course!
And so was born the hypothesis testing with spuds experiment. The idea is to use potato cells as a safer alternative to human blood cells. You can't easily watch them pucker up down a microscope but you can weigh them, before and after immersion in different concentrations of sugar. Potatoes contain some sugar but aren’t sickly sweet, so 1.0M sucrose will be hypertonic to potato. Distilled water will be hypotonic to potato. First catch your potato and punch out cores with a cork-borer. Then slice discs about 5mm thick as your experimental objects. Do you expect the potato disc in 1.0M to gain weight, lose weight, or stay the same? What is your expectation with the disc in plain water?
[1M solution of sucrose has 342g of sugar dissolved in a litre [1000g], so it is a sticky disaster if anyone spills it, or slops it. I know, we've been there.]
Last year, it was a mess and not only the sticky one. The students' data was all over the shop: they couldn't work out how to record the data so that %weight-change was easy to calculate; and the actual measurements went up and down like random yoyos under anti-grav. I rewrote the protocol with two important changes.

  • An exhortation to dab the potato discs dryish before weighing. A big drip of external water could overwhelm the subtle changes in internal water weight.
  • Triplicate! If you measure everything in batches of three identical discs, then any random departures [dropped disc on floor where it acquired 1/10th gram of grit] can be smoothed out.
A lo! [above] the first book I looked at for marking had a very scientific looking record of the data, showing that as the external concentration of sugar increases, so it sucks water from the spud and lowers its weight. Nicely the descending line crosses the point of zero-change at a particular molarity of sugar which you can surmise estimates the sugar concentration of potatoes. = 0.16M - not a lot of people know that. But don't take my word for it: You can do this at home if you can borrow a balance that weighs 1/10th of a gram.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Them Okie girls sure is purty

The lovely Donna Axum died this month [Parkinson's] and there is one less philanthropist in Texas. I'd never heard of her, because I don't really approve of Beauty "Objectification of Women" Contests. That hasn't stopped me having a peek at the process when it intersects with STEM. Since she won the Miss Arkansas competition in 1963, and Miss America the following year, Axum has been shifting money from rich people to her alma mater U. Arkansas and also to U. Texas in which state she lived for many years. She wrote a book: How to Be and Look Your Best Everyday: A Comprehensive Guide from a Former Miss America., which I won't need because ordinary me just wants to be and look just good enough so I don't frighten the students at work, or the sheep at home.

So much for Ms Arkansas-Millions. But you can't keep an obsessive data-wonk down when Wikipedia reports that Axum was the 1st of three winners of the Miss America tiara from AK, her home state. Arkansas? Isn't that one of those rural states in the South? Didn't I apply for a job in Little Rock? Clintons? Maya Angelou? Johnny Cash? Glen Campbell? Surely not many people live there, so isn't Three (3!) Miss America's punching above its weight? It's like my analysis of Literary Prizes in multi-lingual India. Bring on the dancing data!
The 4 most populous states are California 40m, Texas 28m, Florida 21m, NY 20m. The rest nowhere? Arkansas has 3 million people which sounds small: but more people live in Metro Little Rock than in Vermont or Wyoming. The Great Melting [read miscegenation / outbreeding] Pot of NY is the only populous state with more than its fair share of prize winners. The graph shows that, indeed, AK = Arkansas is above average but them purty-as-a-field-of-wheat young OKie girls, they take the tiara!

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Different modes of learning

Two months down, I'm motoring through my Human Physiology course and put out the first quiz "Molecules, Cells and Homeostasis" at the end of October. I call it a quiz, because 'test', let alone 'exam' induces an anxiety attack in many students. I cannot, in all conscience, rubber-stamp an academic qualification for someone who has just been present in class. Where do you draw the line? Get your qual just by paying the registration fee? But I do appreciate that many of the Pharmacy Tech students are only mildly interested in how their body works in health; and slightly less interested in how it all goes wrong in their customers in the pharmacy. And if they were really good at academic skills like the 4 Rs - reading, retaining, remembering, regurgitating - then they wouldn't be in The Institute for a 2 year Cert. My policy is to try to make the course informative and on message but also pop in a few funny anecdotes and do my best to fail nobody. Embarrassingly, I suspect that the only things students retain are the funny stories.

The Quizzes in PT Hum.Phys. are MCQs. If you answer all the Qs at random [arragh have a punt why don't you], you'll get ±20% which halfway to the 40% pass mark. The "Molecules, Cells and Homeostasis" quiz is on about 20 hours of lecturers supported by a few hundred PPT slides. That's a daunting amount of information to crush if you were crap at school and just flicking through the slides again won't help embed anything in the bonce. For each section of the course, therefore, I've constructed an Executive Summary: 2 sides of A4 with bullet-points, cartoons and lists. If you can learn this, I say, then you can pass the assessment. You may not get 100% but you'll defo pass.

Well dang-and-blast-it didn't three of the students fail the g-dam quiz. Indeed, one of them had come up to me afterwards saying she knew she hadn't done well and what to do? I had a rather nifty idea about alternative ways of learning and sent them an e-mail requesting-and-requiring the three quiz-booters to submit a mind-map of a typical human cell making an inventory of the bits-and-bobs including short notes about the function of each. If they did that, then I'd shift the mark up to a bare pass. That way, the students who had actually passed the quiz-assessment wouldn't be disadvantaged. This offer was only taken up by one of the three, the one who talked to me and who had indeed secured the lowest mark in the class. Here it is:
Do I care that this wasn't not carried out under exam conditions?
I do not
Do I think this diagram is as a good as my (wordy) Exec.Summ.?
Better for many
Am I impressed by the battery of coloured felt-tips?
I am
Am I concerned that lysosomes don't get parity-of-esteem with peroxisomes
A little
Would I recommend this as a learning tool?
I would
Is that the end of the catechism?
It is

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

History is Bunk

<tetchy rant alert>
Another scandal breaks wind in the Irish Health Service Executive HSE. 'Health' consumes 25% of every tax dollar which I contribute to the national coffers; 100,000 people are employed by the health behemoth, and I guess there is a normal distribution of competence through the service. For every star nurse, the most be a doppleganger on the other side of average. You could hope for better, because we're dealing with life and death here, but you could hope to win the Lotto as well. And, let's face it, thousands of decisions are made every working hour by that mass of people but many of them have no crunch. Enter Mrs Doohickey's blood pressure on the chart wrong - or make it up because you're worked off your feet, and the sky doesn't fall. It's only news if something goes spectacularly wrong - like the cervical cancer misdiagnoses earlier in the year. This weekend, when a patient was at death's door with ovarian cancer, her care team looked through her records and found that, in 2009, she had been flagged negative for a mutation that predisposes for breast/ovarian cancer. They dug down a little because that was counter to their expectations. RTE's health correspondent Fergal Bowers takes up the story:
"Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Dublin is conducting a precautionary review of around 3,500 transcriptions of BRACA genetic test results, due to what it believes was a transcribing error with one test result . . ." [update: note that the RTE page has now been corrected, perhaps because I sent this piece to Will Goodbody, their Science correspondent].

My crap-detector went on because that's the wrong name of the gene. They mean BRCA1 whose name [it's on the tin!] describes how it was discovered; it's full name is breast cancer type 1 susceptibility protein, in normal life, in you and me, the protein-product of this gene is responsible for repairing DNA when it suffers accidental damage. If you are born with a mutation in the gene, your DNA repair kit is compromised and you're much more likely to get cancer. Almost always, you're born with a defective gene because it runs in your family. You might take a meh! position: "you say BRACA, I say BRCA1, we all know what's being talked about". But you'd be wrong, not least because there is a BRCA2 gene which also affects your chances of getting cancer but is completely different. The error tells me that Fergal Bowers is not trained in biology; which is okay, I guess: scientists are almost universally crap at conveying the meaning and significance of their work to non-scientists.  But you'd hope that RTE's HR department would encourage him to take an OU Science degree. Failing to catch or correct the error suggests
1) RTE has slap-dash copy-editors who wouldn't last a morning on the NYT and
2) that Bowers is likely to make more substantive errors in his reporting because at one level he doesn't know what he's talking about.
The Interweb reports that "RTÉ's Health Correspondent Fergal Bowers was named GSK Irish Health Journalist of the Year in the 2010", what a shower the competition must be.

On the same Sunday evening where I thus lost my rag about a typo, RTE posted a piece to camera by Gillian O'Brien Why history should remain compulsory for Junior Cycle. That was a fitting complement to making a dog's dinner over a scientific story; something asserting that the Arts Block was essential to the educational process. And O'Brien would say that because she is Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University. You can read the article if you want but for me O'Brien's substantive argument is presented by two sentences in the middle:
"History teaches us how to critically evaluate sources, to treat hearsay with scepticism and to demand rigour from those with power and influence. Understanding the past ensures that we do not accept the present with passivity."
History does not have a corner on critically evaluating sources: science should do that too, so should law, so should literature. Up above you have a very direct demand for BRCA1 rigour from those with power and influence from a scientist. Scepticism? I don't remember seeing any historians rock up to the monthly meetings of the Irish Skeptics when I was a regular attender 10 years ago. I enjoy history: about a third of my PhD was a critical evaluation of historical documents about the peopling of colonial America. The word 'history has appeared 50+ times on The Blob, not counting such variants as historical, the past, medieval, ancient, Lavoisier or Pythagoras. But that's my taste and predilection not everybody's! Advice to all of us: take one pace back and look from another angle at those parts of our worldview about which we are most certain.

Understanding the past ensures also that we savour the burpy reflux of a particular flavour and interpretation of the past that, far from helping to critically evaluate sources, rather cements a costive inertia to change in a rapidly changing world. For example, it took 100 years for those with power and influence in Ireland to take the 1916 martyrs of the GPO off the tram-lines of the narrative and allow people to wear a poppy for a few days in November . . . if that's what they wanted to do.

And let me suggest that Irish secondary education is far too content-driven to allow for much reflective learning, cross-disciplinary integration or training of the teenage crap-detector . . . regardless of what subjects the poor bamboozled kids take for their Leaving Certificate.

What Henry Ford actually said in 1916 is instructive: "History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today. That’s the trouble with the world. We’re living in books and history and tradition. We want to get away from that and take care of today. We’ve done too much looking back. What we want to do and do it quick is to make just history right now."
Okay Henry, all that Present Moment schtick is current among today's chattering [mindfully] classes but things are running forward so fast that we need a bit of future-proofing.
</tetchy rant alert>

Monday, 19 November 2018

Finding out

I teach in The Institute, a perfectly average third-level college in the Irish Midlands. On Friday, towards the end of Science Week, I asked what I wished for in a young scientist. A few years ago, The Suits were all steamed up about corporate rebranding, mission statement, and graduate attributes. F
or the latter, I pushed to put "a good pair of hands" but nobody else agreed. That captures a lot of the desirable qualities in a person about to launch out into the world. As a worker, yes, but also as a partner, a parent and a person. A GPoH, can fix things, is reliable, steady, and not afraid to get dirty. You can go a long way on that. We spend a helluva lot of billable hours loading content into the minds of our students . . . almost all forgotten immediately after the next quiz / test / exam. You don't need content if you know how to find things out; because you can get your hands on any facts you need by applying your finding out toolkit.

I think finding out is a different graduate attribute from GPoH and I do my best to encourage different ways of getting to The Truth. Sometimes the easiest way is to fire up Wikipedia, or Google; sometimes it's better to go to the scientific literature or >!shock!< a book. Only if you come up empty then you may have to make some observations, record some data, design an experiment to answer your question. On my watch, all of these are valid, but only if there is some processing in the student's brain. This is why we have exercises about plagiarism: nothing lasting or useful has been achieved by cutting and pasting paragraphs from a source 'out there' into a student write-up or report.

We use a series of pages designed by U Leeds. One exercise is to read 10 different copy-and-paste scenarios and decide [black or white] whether each one is 'plagiarism' or 'not plagiarism'. I gave each student in the class the list and invited them to read, think, decide and commit. Being biddable, everyone bowed their heads and started to read - some with furrowed brows. Suddenly in the corner there was a clatter of keyboard and I asked Kris what in heck and tarnation he was doing. He said he was typing in the first sentence to find "1. You use a direct quote but forget to write the reference." to find The Answer.  Me: Aaaaargh, no you're not! You're meant to be thinking, like, on your own two hemispheres, like, not soliciting an opinion from St Google of the Cloud. It's a bit like reaching for the calculator to add two numbers together, when you could do it in your head and keep that part of your brain limber.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

D for dining

Dang it! I'll shoehorn whatever-you're-having-yourself into D is for

Saturday, 17 November 2018


What do we want for our children? Insofar as we can change their fate; what attributes, knowledge or stuff would we wish on them. You can stop reading now if your answer was €10,000,000 because you're not on my wavelength at all at all. Because, if you pause in your gallop you'll realise that there are many things that money cannot buy: health, honour, honesty, happiness . . . and that's just some of the Hs. Many years ago, when I wrote articles for the Home Education Network Newsletter, I submitted a short filler piece; and as I was the editor and needed to fill a fraction of a page, I accepted the submission.
Educational Outcomes
We obviously want good things and positive outcomes for our children and presumably we believe that home education is a way to optimise this process. But can we prioritise? Here is an exercise. Look at the alphabetised list of words below and sort them for how important they are to you as educational outcomes for your children. Subsidiary exercise: do this blind with your partner and see how well your aspirations match. Or again, write your own list and date it and look at it in a year's time - will it have changed? 
Brave -*- Compassionate -*- Confident -*- Co-operative -*- Famous -*- Generous -*- Happy -*-Honest -*- Independent -*- Kind -*- Punctual -*- Rich -*- Successful 

I was thinking about this on the last day of Science Week at The Institute. It has been a great success for me because at least once every day, I've had an encounter with teenagers which gives me hope for the Future of Ireland as a Technological Nation. There was Gabriela, part of whose self-image was Woman of Science although, as yet, she knew little. Her classmates were being constructively noisy around her. I wrote to their teacher: "Science is not about the stuff you know, it's an approach to working out how thing tick. They were pushing the frontiers of acoustics working out how to optimise the signal-to-noise ratio for reflected sound. Of course, they wouldn't have used that sort of language but that was in effect what they were doing. You can find out what "The Answer" is by looking it up but if you Do it, the information will stick." What do I wish for young scientists? Consistency -*- Cooperation -*- Perseverance -*- Self-confidence.

For an hour on Friday morning, I was told off to mind a bank of microscopes which visiting teenagers were encouraged to look through. All the exhibits were obviously alive and kicking: giants snails and cockroaches, nematodes, insect larvae, and huge variety of microscopic pond-life. I was there to make sure nothing got broken but it was me who spilled the vial of Hydra [like L] and had to suck up the puddle with an eye-dropper. I spent rather more than 1 hour fielding questions about the life and times of each creature. During a lull, one of the girls from a Community College just up the road, came back to me.
  • Could she ask me a question?
    • She could
  • Did I know what was a UV-vis Spectrophotometer?
    • I did. I also knew that I was the least appropriate person in our Science Department to ask for help. But I have allowed students to learn how to use such an instrument while I got out of their way - the best way to teach anyone anything. 
  • Did I know what was the minimum amount of water necessary to make measurements with a UV-Spectrophotometer?
    • I didn't but we could find out, and whisked the girl to one of the labs upstairs where I showed her the UV-spec, and gave her a plastic disposable "cuvette" for receiving and processing samples. I gave her my e-mail address: by the time she contacted me I would have found the most appropriate person to supervise her BT Young Scientist project about heavy metals and water quality.
What do I wish for young scientists? Knowing when to ask for help; and when it's better to try something yourself. Knowing whom to ask and getting the timing of the request right. You only learn those skills by being wrong a few times and not giving up. She could have found the answer to her substantive question with Google "UV spectroscophotometer sample size" the answer being 2ml. But by that path she would never have encountered me and secured free access to the instrument she needed.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Open for Business

Yesterday all classes were cancelled at The Institute, so that we could host the annual Open Day. This is when many bus-loads of school kids are delivered to the campus in the hope that the visit will help them decide what to do at college in one, or a couple of, year's time. I am required to stand at a tall table, answering questions and handing out dull-dull-dull brochures for the various course we offer in the biosciences.  It is like nothing so much as an Attenborough documentary about coral reefs. Schools of identically coloured creatures drift past without much obvious sense of purpose: Voice-over "Here, in their characteristic green sweater and skirt, comes a group of Loretto kilkennensis; notice how the tall melanic individual leads the others from one feeding location to the next. But wait, here comes a smaller school of bright-red St.Leo's carlovia, also an all female group: they are studiously ignoring the other species".

One of the heart-warming positives of such events is to see solid evidence of Irish multiculturalism. This manifests as black teenagers speaking perfect idiomatic, locally accented, hiberno-english; and why not? they were born here, schooled here and GAAed here. Not so much when my friend and work-mate Aspinas came with his family from Zimbabwe 15 years ago. His boy was A God on the GAA pitch in Tullamore but his accent retained a southern lilt until he left school a tuthree years later. The other evidence is the make up of pal-clutches: these are typically 2 or 3 in number and often come in a palette of colours. Maybe the current teenagers are not only down-with-the-gays but also colour-blind.

Having concluded that the brochures had no information that was of any use to a 16 y.o would-be student, I decided to play an empathy game. If I, even silverback crotchetty me, can come across as interested and engaged, or even interesting and engaging then it might shift the scales so that a bright, curious student falls into our clutches in 2020. My standard patter was to tell anyone who would stand still long enough:
  • For god's sake take a year out after school! If you go to Perth or Perth Amboy or Prague for a visit you may never come back to Carrick-on-Suir and then you won't need to worry about which college to go to . . . you can skip that whole schtick.
  • Don't over-think the decision. Our [generic] Bioscience degree is no better, no worse, than the equivalents in other colleges. The vital details in teaching quality are not captured on the brochure. In any case the most significant variable (and probably the source of your life-time Significant Other) is the group of kids whom you meet in your first week in college. Their composition is completely beyond your control.
  • Never go to any college in order to get a job! Imagine trudging through four years of your life getting marks but marking time, to get a job that will have been Taiwanised or robotised 5 years from now.
At the end of a long day, I spoke with one Mum who quizzed me about how we would manage her son, who was fifteen, ASD, dyslexic and colour-blind. Put those in order of burden, if you can. I remember being fifteen, it was not a pretty sight. I think I was able to reassure her. Every year about this time, and again in January, we have a Retention Meeting where we compare notes on All our students. If Jimmy has been mitching half my classes, it may be because he has to leave early on Tuesday to go to work; if he's missing half of all his classes then we intervene. In the first instance, we collar him in the corridor and ask him what's going on because he's not getting his money's worth out of classes. That never happened when I worked in Universities: nobody was pushed if a student was struggling or consistently absent. Indeed, my impression is that those, more likely from stable middle-class homes, university students were less likely to have work-life issues that couldn't be balanced. So, at The Institute, we care. At about the same time of year we get a <strictly confidential> list of students who need extra time or special conditions for December and May examinations: ASD, dyslexia, dyspraxia are the commonest conditions on the list, but impaired sight, wheelchair-needed and other surprising conditions feature. I said to Mum "As we're talking, students are passing my mind's eye each of whom was special: they were accepted, accommodated and, well, cherished". I think that's true. My dyslexic star Project student a few years ago, never thought of dyslexia as a handicap, that's for sure.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

As good as Curie

Science Week motors along. Busy, busy yesterday. I started with a 1st Year Cell Biology class that generated beautiful results from a rather clever experiment to determine just how sweet a potato is. Not a sweet potato Ipomoea batatas! The regular "Irish" potato Solanum tuberosum is not as sweet as as a bowl of breakfast cereal but it's got a lot more sugar onboard than plain tap water.  Me, I love data, but there's something particularly exciting about data that has been generated fresh by students before your very eyes.
Accordingly I was quite bouncy at 11am when I went out to the big steel-and-canvas Science Week geodesic dome [above] to check on my Science Week project inside:
The things hanging from the horizontalish struts are the 26 posters for my Alphabet of Eponyms. I was expecting a trolley loaded with free tea-and-coffee-and-fancy-biscuits but all I found was 1 chair, 1 table and 1 very necessary space-heater . . . and about a dozen schoolkids with their teachers from Selskar College, the Vocational School in Wexford Town. Vocational Schools are scattered across the country. They cater for those youngsters who maybe care a little less about academic abstractions and are more interested in practical skills and things you can see and measure and knock into shape. In this case, in this town, it the only secondary school catering for those families which think that boys and girls should be in the same classroom. Whatever, these kids seems to be having a lot of investigative science-fun playing with the acoustics of the dome: a whisper on one side can be clearly heard over the hubbub if the receiving ears are exactly opposite. They are just the sort of kids - curious, engaged, give-it-a-go - whom we'd love to have in The Institute in a couple of years time.

Two of the girls were occupying the 1 table and 1 chair . . . and working on the Eponym competition while their class-mates were doing Practical Acoustics 101. Despite much pencil sucking, the girls were coming up empty so I asked if they could name any female scientists.
"Mmmble Crmmble", one of them replied [the acoustics were really terrible in the middle of the space]
"Say that again"
"Marie Curie"
"That's okay, but she already has something named after her; do you know any others?"
I was distracted by something else [not the arrival of the tea-trolley, harrrumph] but when I came back to them, they had an answer.
"A Gabriela!"
"Ace! which scientist is called Gabriela?"
Bouncy as I already was, that was the mostest, bestest, brightest thing that had happened all week. Here was a 15 y.o. young woman who had a degree of self-belief to say that a) she was a scientist [I blame the engaged young men who were their teachers] b) she was, or had the potential to be, every bit as good as Marie Curie [I blame herself for that, helped by her pals and her family]. Curie snagged two Nobel Prizes, I'll wager €1 that Ms Gabriella wins one. This may remind you of the great Ken Robinson story about a young girl drawing a picture of god: "They will in a minute".

We weren't finished because the name had yet to be pegged on something. After a couple of minutes the pair had decided that a Gabriela would be a measure of stress. Not engineering stress, but medical stress. With a little help from their teacher and a suggestion from me about salivary cortisol [prev] being used to measure stress we finished up with a novel Eponym:
Gabriela [Gb] n. A measure of internal stress.
1 gabriela = 1μg/dl cortisol in the blood.
Me? Stoked!

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Bob the Pencil

No not those pencils! Those are Science Week pencils; today I'm a metaphorical pencil. Science Week is happenin' all over the country but I'm in The Institute somewhere near the middle. It turns out that I am somewhere in the middle in myself too, because I got my vitals tested by our 2nd Year Strength and Conditioning S&C students in their Annual Mini Health Check. I did this last year, which gives a base line and I got in early yesterday before the lines built up. Well friends, it seems I am wastin' away. Last year I clocked in at 72kg [which was my steady-as-she-goes aged 18-30 weight], now I'm reporting 68.7kg fully clothed. I am not so old that I've started to shrink through vertebral compression, so my BMI has slumped from 24 to 22. The S&C lads told me that my waist is now 81cm = 32 inches. No wonder my trews don't stay up.

The final stop in the Mini Health Check protocol was to have a Lifestyle Consult with an apprentice (younger than my daughters) to that trade. I presented my docket of results and said "Okay, tell me what to do, Doc". But the current feeling in the Life-style & Exercise profession is that they are not proscriptive: they've realised that telling people what to do [esp. if it comes from a beardless boy] will achieve no good outcome. Young feller replied:
"What do you think of the results?"
"Well I'm a professional biologist - that's my office up there - and I have an idea about what the terms mean and they look like average, so I can continue to occupy my sofa until I need to get up to bring in more fire-wood". Sofa? who mentioned sofa? Bring on the sofa, with the light, the lap-top, the stove, the kettle:
Then I had a thought.
"What would you say to a big fatty who came to you? Who might actually need some advice"
"I certainly wouldn't use that terminology, for starters!"
Touché, my fine young friend!
Well I could imagine the sort of advice which would be given for such a case in the form of Socratic questions like "How do you feel about a pile of profiterols?" and "Do you ever think that minutes  mowing the lawn is better than seconds at dinner?"
Then I had another thought.
"It must be a much harder conversation when you're presented with someone who is under the recommended BMI. What do you say to such a one?"
"Have you thought about seeing a nutritionist?" That's the answer given by my colleague, the S&C coach/teacher who was i/c the whole exercise.

When I'd finished, I came up to my office and reported my blood glucose to my roomie who is a pharmacist: "93 mg/dl" I said, "within the normal range, they said".
"When did you have breakfast?", she replied, looking a little anxious.
We both calmed down when I realised that she was using very different units (mmol/Lt) to record blood glucose in her shop and my mg/dl is about 20x what she would consider normal in her clients.
FYI Normal range between meals is 70-130 mg/dl = 4-7 mmol/Lt.
Blood pressure is 121/82 and my pulse-rate is 82bpm. That reminded me to be much less dogmatic about this sort of thing in Human Physiology class. I've been saying the adult pulse rate is 70bpm, but that's just the mean and there is quite a lot of flex (60-100bpm) to be still in the normal range.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

A fine cursive hand

A couple of weeks ago, one of my 1st Year Cell Biology students rocked up to class with his right hand in plaster. He was sorry to have broken himself and wondered what he should do about writing up the experiments.
Bob: Are you right-handed then?
Stu: Yes.
Bob: Well you'll have to use your left, so. Give it a go, if you don't try, you'll think you're crippled. If you scratch away and write something, anything, then I'll cut you some slack on the marking.
An hour later, he showed me his progress: the writing was scraggy but legible and he was quite chuffed with himself. The drawings were much worse - like a child of four. Then again it was not the worst in the class.

The reason I insisted on him trying was that I've been there myself - in 1997 I broke both wrists [in series] the first accident took out my right hand and I could still use use one or two of the fingers for typing, so it wasn't really a handicap at work. Who actually writes much with a pen anymore? My mother otoh, tripped on a rug in our kitchen and, aged 73, broke her right wrist. She quickly learned to write with her left-hand and by the time her plaster was removed was almost as quick with left as right. I remember thinking it was noteworthy that her left-handwriting was shaky but recognisably hers; not like an alien scrawl from demonic possession. How does that work? How do we develop a distinctive hand? Is it all training and example, or is there some slice of genetics in the mix?
That's an autograph from WB Yeats: with horizontal flip. The Stolen Child. Where dips the rocky highland / of se of Slewth ^[wood]^ in the lake / there lies a leafy island / where flapping herons wake / the drowsy water rats; Sing it! When my sister was a teenager, she taught herself to write 'in mirror' from right to left like she was living in Israel or Syria. It took a while until her party trick became completely easy. Again, her writing was recognizably her own albeit backwards. Leonardo da Vinci more famously used the same technique in his notebooks.

In primary school my handwriting was all over the shop and I was put through remedial classes in a largely vain attempt to develop in me a fine cursive hand. It was part of being the despair of my parents and teachers because I clearly wasn't stupid but seemed to be functionally illiterate. Then at the age of 15 or so, I embarked on a project to transcribe all my favorite poems into a couple of fat foolscap blocks of lined paper. It was unfortunate for me and all the trees that serviced the task that I liked long narrative Victorian epics like Morte d'Arthur [300 lines] and Sohrab and Rustum [950 lines]. I rapidly discovered that I could write more and quicker if I wrote neatly - I was a machine - and it still looks well on the page [Wilfred Owen for the Weekend that's in it: he died exactly a week before the Armistice 4th Nov 1918]
I was reflecting on this because The Boy and his family were over for a few days over Hallowe'en and we got plenty face time with Gdau.I and Gdau.II. The older one is in her second year in an English country primary school which is so small that pairs of year groups are bundled into the same room with one teacher. It's therefore quite intimate and the head-teacher tries to channel a holistic education not too trammelled by curriculum and syllabus. tries but the poor chap spends a lot of time filling in forms to show how he is obeying policy from the education mandarins. The policy seems driven by two things:
  • a) accountability and transparency which requires reams of form-filling and external checking that detracts from the actual teaching and dampens each spark of spontaneity into a grey sameness that spreads like a pall across the classrooms of the country.
  • b) a sort of bullying nostalgia for the kind of things that were emphasised in the 1950s and 19060s when the current policy wonks and their political masters were in short pants at school. "If it didn't do me any harm, then it's what we want for the current generation who have been allowed too much woolly leftie 'imagine you're a medieval peasant' nonsense. Children really prefer rote learning of dates. And grammar, let's have more grammar; grammar requires discipline; let's have more discipline; discipline requires rules; rules require rulers; Mr Chapman used to give us a tonk with a ruler in 1959, never did us any harm"
No more than me, Gdau.I is not stupid and she has much more bottle - staying-power / concentration / engagement - than I did at her age. Part of my identity was to be a little drifty; so much so that my siblings briefly called me 'bubble'. As soon as she needed to, Gdau.I learned how to write more than her name and started to get her thoughts, whims and ideas down on paper. The more she wrote, the easier it got and more thoughts, whims and ideas were captured. Then her age group passed the arbitrary age threshold when the central government dictates that all English school-children should start performing >!ark! ark!< joined up handwriting à la 1956. Well, you may imagine that has put a real damper on her true creativity - her teachers prefering to hector the kids to make all the letters in a word join up than give any credit for what the words mean. That kind of petty, picky, rule-based box-ticking just makes me bloody furious. We sat round the fire after the girls had gone to bed and found that we had all made a big shift on the hand-writing front which came from within in the early teen years. If my sister could teach herself to write backwards in a couple of weeks, and I could miraculously start writing neatly, then it seems an exercise in futility to foist that sort of thing on children ten years younger when they aren't ready for it. Why? What use is it? So that they can write thank-you letters to their grand-parents.

Monday, 12 November 2018

F is for Eponym

It's Science Week!
Epic fail, me. A month ago, I undertook to create an Alphabet of Eponyms. Then we had a progress meeting and objections were made about the sex-ratio. Fairy nuff. We dumped half the patriarchs and scrabbled for things to be included so that we began to approach a 1M:1F ratio. Some of the previous choices were oversights, bias and want of imagination in poor old Bob the Biologist.
  • M is for Mertensian Mimicry is, frankly quite obscure except to nerdnik evolutionary biologists
    • M for Meitnerium, the 109th chemical element, hadn't been discovered when I passed through college in the 1970s. But it's named for Lise Meitner one of the many women in 20thC science who was much less visible than her male colleagues like Otto Hahn who stood on her shoulders to win the 1944 Nobel Prize.
Meitner is well 'ard but some of my other affirmative actions could be derided as from the squidgy end of science. The new list tribs a number of STEM women after whom species have been named. In general when fenaming species, men carry on in their usual objectifying women way - tribbing royalty and celebs rather than actual working women in science. Calypte anna, a hummingbird, for example is homage to Anna Masséna, Duchess of Rivoli. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Angelina Jolie all have creepy-crawly eponyms. The promotions to eponymhood on my final list, the linked ones having featured on The Blob before, are:
That brings the ratio to 12F:14M = 46% which is better than the representation in the EU parliament. Estonia 55%; Ireland 50%; Malta 67%; Finland 54%; Sweden 55% are the only countries that elected more women to Strasbourg than we promoted to Eponymbourg. I decided that we can do some small-small thing about redressing the eponym imbalance and have instituted a competition:
My suggestions [above] may not be readable on your m.device, so:
  • Chisholm n. a billion3 = 1027 = the number of Prochlorococcus, the world’s most abundant organism, in the ocean. Named for Penny Chisholm their discoverer. Sometimes called a Chisllion to match billion, trillion . . .
  • Hopkins Ratio n. the amount by which office space [see comment] is diminished for female faculty members. Named for Nancy Hopkins who documented the discrepancy in MIT.
  • Cliona v.t. A didactic / mentoring technique in which despairing post-graduate students are encouraged to re-read their first post-graduate lab note book. "I've just been clionaed, I really knew bugger-all two years ago and feel much better about my progress now." Named for Nature Mentor of the Year 2014: Cliona O'Farrelly.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

A is for orAnge

Damme, I started, by accident or force of circumstance, at B for Sunday which was naturally followed by C for Sunday and now need A for pArity of esteem before we move off, like QI,  through the alphabet D E F.

Saturday, 10 November 2018


I was having a reasonably happy ramble about getting up in medieval clobber as a sort of tribute to the past. My anxiety about what to wear at a Graduation ceremony is very much a First World problem. Apart from a quite casual, probably invisible, oppression of women in respect of hats, nobody is going to get hurt whether or not I wear pointy shoes and a cod-piece. On the other hand, you might get a little worn out if The Blob was always presented in a hailstorm of red. This is an interim report on a First World War problem. I am not embedded in my certainties on the matter of compulsory manifestation of patriotism but I'm not happy. Some notapoppy views expressed on the BBC.

When I was at school in England, 11th November was A Thing. At 11am on that day, everyone paused what they were doing and stood in silence for two minutes. 11am marked the time when the armistice came into force in 1918 and decades later British people marked the occasion to remember the 700,000 UK soldiers who didn't come back from Mespot, Gallipoli, Flanders or Palestine. In the 1960s, there weren't too many survivors hirpling about the streets with missing limbs, or missing lungs; like my grandfather (luckily he had a spare). Medical care was patchier then and your life expectancy after coming through an encounter with phosgene was measured in years rather than decades. Accordingly it became increasingly difficult to sustain the sense of loss and mourning for the wasted years. Armistice day was eventually moved to the nearest Sunday so as not to make people feel awkward at work and avoid disrupting the economy.  Memorial red poppies, which were made by disabled veterans, ceased to be in every lapel. CND and the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction made anti-war a legitimate position. A generation was born who knew nobody personally who had been in uniform before 1918.

I left England in October 1973 and found a rather different back-ground in Dublin. There, nobody wore a poppy, they certainly weren't for sale on street-corners in the first week of November. A student pal of mine,  from Kilreekil, Co Galway, went to an army surplus store and bought a powder-blue Canadian Air Force great-coat . . . because it was warm and had capacious pockets; because it looked vaguely Sergeant Pepper; because he imagined that it might be a babe-magnet. He went to his local bar in Northside Dublin one night shortly after this purchase and was quickly sandwiched between two hard-chaws who told him it was foolish to come in there wearing a British Uniform. He tried to squeak out a counter-argument about the dominion status of Canada but wasn't stupid enough or yet drunk enough to make a fight about the difference. This wasn't two whole years after Bloody Sunday in Derry when men in British military uniforms had shot 28 civilian protesters, killing half of them. Even apart from that, the Republic was born in a mindset of neutrality because the Irish wished to differentiate themselves from Britland. Poppies were associated with British imperialism and those from Ireland who fought on that side in WWI were more or less written out of the easy-think history of the new country.
Ten years later, in October 1983, I'd gotten my PhD and was back in England after I landed a job in the Newcastle upon Tyne.  I don't remember anything about poppies, but I did decide, as an ostentatious display of cultural engagement, to go t St James's Park and support Newcastle United playing soccer. The NE of England was the most culturally homogeneous region of the country: Indians ran some corner shops or curry houses but almost everyone else was white. I stood on the terraces watching Newcastle take on Fulham. Fulham operated out of west London and on that day had a single black midfielder - it must have been Paul Parker [see L] It was like the men around me had never seen a Londoner black man before. Whenever that poor chap had the ball he was barracked and insulted from the terraces in the language of peculiarly potty-mouthed kindergarteners. I was shocked, but I lacked the moral courage to protest and take on this display of bad manners, and I didn't watch soccer again except on TV. I knew where jungle law [scratch us and we're primates] was more likely to kick-off and it wasn't with the chap whom those around me dehumanised as "jungle-bunny".

Whatever about before, after that I never imagined that the highest standards of compassion, inclusivity and fairness, let alone wit and originality, were to be found on football terraces. Tribalism, yes; passion, sure; excitement undoubtedly but really not good clean fun. And he we go again, it's November, and Jimmy McClean soccer star [RoI and Stoke City] is being Othered again [prev] for not having a poppy stitched on his strip. Whaaaa'? What have poppies got to do with soccer? Since I left the UK again in 1990, poppies have become A Thing in soccer. Not only the national teams, but clubs in the English and Scottish FA have started to sport poppies [R James Forrest wearing an arm-band in a breach of FIFA rules banning political statements or messages] in the run up to Remembrance Sunday. Not McClean, he's from the Creggan a Catholic district in ghettoised Derry. He was born 17 years after Bloody Sunday, and he grew up not knowing six members of his community because they'd been shot dead by 1 Para in 1972. It's just a matter of conscience, he sees the poppy as a symbol of imperialist aggression which thinks that the Irish, especially Irish Catholics, are untermensch who can be shot with impunity. 

Others in this country see it as a politically neutral tribute to the unfortunate dead, who did their duty, did their best, and died anyway. We've recently heard from Sinn Féin Senator and former Lord Mayor of Belfast Niall Ó Donnghaile and Sinn Féin Presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada. They both see poppy-wearing as a matter of choice and conscience and are not about to demonise someone, Irish or whatever, for wearing a poppy. To me that shows a commendable maturing of attitudes away from militant sectarianism and towards a "My rights end where your poppy begins" tolerance.  If my pal Eugene is still alive and still has his great-coat, he may get teased for looking a bit retro-dorky but he's not going to get duffed up as an Imperialist lick-spittle. If the shinners can accept this potent symbol as just a tribute to life's diversity and cultural relativism [I like my values, you like yours, let's agree to differ] [Fred and Ginger and Potatoesthen I think we are moving on in the Republic. Although to be unsmug scratch the Irish and they're as tribalist and intolerant as any other people.

Across the water, not so much, is what I hear. According to one UK source, "if you don’t wear one (esp on telly) you are a traitor and a commie". You might read a Deadspin essay [Also useful comments in Mefion the Jimmy McClean set-to, which has the advantage of quoting the whole of his Snapchat slap at the poppy-wielding Stoke fans. The rest of the media just filleted out his phrase "uneducated cavemen" because they are too wet to deal with the following sentence "i am a PROUD FENIAN no c@#t will ever change that, so sing away". The English FA had a fit of the vapours at the hint of the c- word and chid the young feller to mind his language. Fighty McClean therefore rounded on the FA, denouncing them for tolerating 7 years of sectarian abuse to which he, Irish Catholic / PROUD FENIAN has been subjected since he stopped wearing their compulsory symbol. They'd be quick enough to object, he suggested, if a muslim or a black had been consistently abused in such hateful language. Some anonymous snapchat bravo has offered to tattoo a poppy on to the face McClean's wife; another group of 'ex-soldiers' threatened to kill him and drag his body past the cenotaph; lots of others have offered to publish his address, presumably hoping for torches and pitch-forks by proxy. Poor old poppy, so delicate and ephemeral; so inappropriate to use a bludgeon for thoughtless conformity. 
And I promise not to ram poppy red text down your eyeballs again.