Thursday 28 February 2019

Trans-Atlantic Comms

I'm given to understand that some Waterford-and-Wider folks are hopping from one foot to the other for closure on the Harrington, Maine Captain Fraser's wayward buoy story. I didn't get any feedback from the local government in Harrington, so I turned to the Fourth Estate. [An idea that stems from Edmund Burke "Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all." Thomas Carlyle]. The nearest organ of the USA's justly famous Free Press is the Machias Valley News Observer ($1.60 but still editorially free!). Good timing! because Sarah Craighead Dedmon, the we-never-sleep Editor of MVNO, was in the process of putting that week's edition to bed. She asked for a higher resolution version of the photo, because MVNO has Standards in that department, and hammered out 200 words to fill in a bit of a hole on the back page of her paper. I'm dead chuffed by the whole story. Captain Dave Fraser seems resigned, if not exactly buoyant, about the loss of his kit. I like to think that the newspaper readers of Washington County ME will face the day with a little more Spring in their step. Schools were starting late there last week because of the latest dump of snow, so any feel-good story is sure to be welcome.
I made a facetious quip comparing the mighty size of Cap'n Fraser's buoy with my diminutive Red Yaris. Obviously the size difference is exaggerated by the perspective. Three days after retrieving the big blue buoy from Garrarus strand, I was back on a different beach and spotted a distant pink dot with my binoculars. Without the optical aid, everything beyond my outstretched hand is a blur. As I got closer, the pink blob revealed itself as the biggest buoy I've ever found. It was really light though, and I dragged it back to the car-park fondly imagining that it would fit in the trunk. It didn't but it didn't fall out either - wedge! There are various letters T(FN)M and numbers 320678 on my latest acquisition, I'll need some help tracking down its origin.
The pic [R above] of the blue buoy's ring-bolt is a final angle on the Maine buoy story. These bivalve molluscs have hitch-hiked across the ocean: it gives some clue about how difficult is the study of oceanic biogeography. A prize for the first person to identify the species.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Checksum tags

Where sheep tags meet combinatorial maths.
I'm a bit of a groupie for David Brailsford on the Numberphile channel. He's a bit older than me, so was an adult at a time when computers were just starting to gain traction as useful tools - even if they were the size of a walk-in cold-room and cost £1 million. Getting them to do your bidding was hard and you had to really understand how they worked to have them spit out anything; let alone the correct answer to your data-crunching problem. Somewhere in his noddle, Brailsford knows where all the bodies are buried and who did what to whom in the 1960s and 1970s when computer-literacy was a rare accomplishment. He knows Kernighan and Ritchie who wrote The Book. A couple of days ago, Brailsford was talking about Reed-Solomon encoding, and most of it was over my head. But Brailsford kindly pointed out that Reed-Solomon was a turbo-changed sort of Hamming codes, which I do kind of understand. Although, for many years I thought they were something invented by wireless hams to ensure correct transmission over shortwave radio. What's a belief that sounds like a bell? <Wronnnnng!> they were invented by Richard Hamming while working at the mighty Bell Labs with the likes of Claude Shannon and indeed, Ritchie and Kernighan and nine (9!) Nobel Prize-winners. Hamming codes work by transmitting a little bit more information and being able to thereby deduce if the data has been transmitted correctly . . . or at least with internal consistency.

Another way of doing this is to use checksums. A number to be transmitted is run through a little program which computes (and appends) an extra digit which is unambiguously associated with the original number.  Any message to be transmitted can, of course be converted to numbers, and indeed nowadays almost always is so converted with ASCII or Unicode schemes. On arrival, the incoming message can be checksummed and if everything matches we can be confident that the message was sent correctly: ie. without getting partly fuzzed out by an electrical storm or mangled by an incompetent at the keyboard.  For several years in the 1990s, this sort of thing was bread-and-butter to me because I'd be dealing with DNA and protein sequences, some of ridiculous length that would be hard to verify as being free of typos. I remember downloading a very large file of DNA sequences and their annotation when the internet was new and flakey. It arrived, I started to analyse it in good faith, and it was a couple of days later that I realised that none of the sequences had names beginning with T U V W X Y or Z. The last section of the file had been dumped out on the floor of the Atlantic as a "broken pipe". Start again, lads! If those data had been checksummed I wouldn't have wasted hours of time analysing an incomplete dataset.

Q. Ah the poor petal, what brought all that on, like a bad dream?
A. The sheep tags is what!
Friday 22 Feb 19 was the day assigned to ultrasound [multiprev] the ewes for lambs. This is a really handy thing to do because the number of lambs carried should dictate their feeding regime in the last months of pregnancy. It also helps tell you to look for an extra lamb if you wake up to find that the ewe scanned as having twins only has a singleton at foot. Sometimes the missing one is still inside, sometimes still-born and on at least one occasion really quiet in a corner. Sometimes you just have to put the MIA down to the fox. We were pretty sure that the sheep we ran up the mountain last Summer had been with the ram. While we waited for the Ultrasound guy, Paddy the Shear came to help us with the dosing [fluke, lung-worms / hoose, Cryptosporidia] and pedicure <snip, snip>.  At some stage I asked Paddy if he thought any of the ewes looked pregnant. As reflex, his hand snaked under the nearest sheep to palpate the udder. The continuing conversation was revelatory: Paddy was extremely skeptical that any ovine bonking had been happening on the mountain - it just isn't done to allow random males to be romping around up there because it screws up everybody's schedule of lambing. Lambing is a time of serious sleep deficit for shepherds and they want to limit it to a window of not more than 2 weeks . . . 5 months after the ewes are put to the desired ram. Red face - it looked like we were going to have the ultrasound guy on a wasted journey. Then again, the new intrusive Dept Ag regulations require that flock owners get their ewes scanned as an animal welfare issue - it's no fun for a sheep if she needs help with delivery and cannot get a [small] helping hand.

My job in the dosing and drenching was to record the ear-tag numbers as they went through the process and, like a good secretary, add notes like "loose teeth"; "scald - 5ml betamox"; "too frisky = to factory"; "missing ear-tag". As I did so I noted that there was some semblance of order in the numbers - 05396-07806 for example came in a batch, as "mountain-hardy", from our neighbour Martin. And twig this: Martin must have had 7806-5396 = 2410 sheep through his farm gates. But each number was followed by a random letter between A and J - must be a checksum I thought. Excluding I 'eye' because it might be confused with 1 'one'; then A to J could be code for numeric digits 1 -9.  Do you notice how 0049C is exactly nine higher than 0040C? Maybe the letters run a not-alphabetical cycle repeating after every 9th number?  That's a hypothesis . . . shot down in flames because 0046 is not followed by G like 0037
So there's a puzzle, and a challenge. It's like trying to decipher the Indus Valley script from fragmentary data. I have a box of unused sheep-tags that will be a larger and less fragmentary sample.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Direct Provision

[Try again: published by stutter yesterday]
When I left home in 1973 to go to college in a different country, I was too late to secure a room in the Halls of Residence and was assigned to digs in Sandymount. It wasn't really a home-from-home because my landlady had very (to me) peculiar ideas about what was appropriate. The arrangement was B&B for Mon-Fri and 3 meals on the weekends. I don't remember much about lunch during the working week, but I found the Evening Meal a very unsatisfactory chore. I guess I had other things on my menu but I remember dining chiefly, almost alternately, on a) a packet of Chocolate Goldgrain biscuits and b) fried whiting & chips. As I say, most unsatisfying. The Beloved was barracked in a hostel run by the Loretto Sisters, where she got two meals a day and shared a dormitory with 5 (five!) other young women. We hatched a plan to buy some food in Moore Street market and take it out to visit my pal Robert, a geologist who had a room in the TCD Halls of Residence. Robert said he'd be delighted to have visitors and nobody would care or notice if we used the kitchenette at the end of his corridor. And it was so: we went and bought half a red cabbage, a couple of pounds of potatoes and some other food and took the bus out to the Dartry Halls where we cooked them up a storm. It was the best meal I had that month.
This all came rushing back to me because of a passing remark by Rosey Kunene last Friday lunchtime. Rosey Who? Rosey Kunene; she a young woman from Malawi who came to Ireland as a refugee several years ago. She has been sharing a room in a Direct Provision centre [like above, the old Montague Hotel on the old N7 (now the R445) near Emo, County Laois], on the far side of the river from The Institute. She came to talk about the daily grind of a Displaced Person in Direct Provision DP/DP in BallyBoondocks to a cohort of Media and Publicity students at The Institute. At very short notice the rest of our community were invited to come listen. I've written about Direct Provision before: it is an Irish solution to the International problem and it is quite easy to get cross about its existence.

DP is run by the newspeak Reception and Integration Agency RIA and seems to be premised on this logic: IF someone has been so brutalised and dispossessed that they up-stakes and leave their country of birth THEN they will be grateful for "the basic needs of food and shelter". I'm sure this is true for short while. When I volunteered to meet plane-loads of Ugandan Asians as they de-planed at Stansted Airport in the Summer of 1972, they really appreciated the tea, hot & strong, and biscuits that we were doling out. It was also a relief that they were getting tea and finding their traps in a hanger and not in a dark, damp and muddy field. Within a short time, the whole displaced community, all 27,000 of them, had been absorbed and integrated into British society - mostly in existing Asian ghettos in Leicester and Bradford.

The problem with DP is that it meets only basic needs goes on and on and on, as the refugees wait for their next hearing, their next appeal against an adverse ruling, or for the RIA to find the papers which have been lost. Meanwhile, the agency and self-esteem of the refugees go down the toilet. As well as 4,000+ adults, here are 1,600 children in DP this week, 55% of whom have been in DP limbo for longer than 5 years. The RIA provide all meals, heat, light, laundry, tv, household maintenance and an allowance of €21.60 a week.  Aaaaaaaaaargh! What kind of a bean counter gives an adult an extra €1.60 a week?  The sort of bean counter who knows that bumping the allowance up to a folding-money €25.00 would cost the state [6000 * 52 * €3.40] €1million. Did you know that up until your first hearing you can work outside the DP Centre where you are billeted? But that after you have been refuse 'leave to stay' you can't?  Years go by when you can do nothing but wait for the chop.

Someone, for sure advised by a dietician, cooks 3 meals a day - rice potatoes rice potatoes - which you and your children can eat . . . or leave.  If there are a lot of Africans in a given DP centre some thought is given to provide 'African Food'. WTF - Africa is a continent. Imagine the boot being on the other foot and a clatter of white folks fleeing for their lives to China. The Chinese dietician googles up "European Food" and serves Wexford rissoles with borsch and cannelloni  - mmmm good but ooooo weird.  Rosey Kunene explained that the greatest coup you can achieve as a DP is to make a friend outside the DP who'll invite you home to use their kitchen.  Butttttt! rather too often that friend outside is a Polish or Irish fellow who is nice enough but quite happy to exploit the yearning for affection and human contact but less happy to acknowledge any children that might result.

The RIA spends a chunk of its budget gathering statistics and making monthly reports. The most recent is from October 2018. It is 18 pages long and full of statistics. Like this picture from October 2018
How does that differ from the same data six months earlier?
It's like those find ten differences puzzles in the children's pages of the newspaper.
Answer: They've opened a new Emergency Accommodation Centre [capacity 30] in Cavan. AND they have conjured a 27th county, as yet unnamed, between Limerick and Longford. What's the point of having an Effective in the RIA compiling statistics which never change? I'm too depressed to continue . . .

Monday 25 February 2019

Hickey's desp'iled

". . . a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children" 
The quote emphasises the fact that we don't own The Ringstone, the neolithic artwork that we discovered on our property 12 years ago. We are holding it in trust for future generations - perhaps in the hope that they will be better equipped to make sense of it. Grassing ourselves up to the Archaeology Service of Ireland and getting the site mapped comes with some constraint: now The Man [Chris Corlett] knows about it, we can't ship it off to California or build it into the wall of a shiny new bungalow. I think it may indeed impact on planning permissions for the fields abutting the site. Neolithic? that's obviously part of our Heritage. The disintegrating 16ft touring caravan which we lived in while our Farm was getting renovated? Not so much. With 'Native' trees the cut-off is 500 years ago. Weirdly Antiques Roadshow now frequently covers toys and knick-knacks which were just everyday stuff when I was growing up and now command surprisingly high prices. I have to report a sorry tale of careless destruction, so that the ESB, a semi-state body, can tick a box [✓] about diminishing its corporate carbon footprint.
Access to Hickey's: used to be 2.5m wide and you had to duck past an occluding sceach, now you can drive a 20 tonne dump-truck straight in off Shannon's Lane. In the sun in the distance lower-right you can see the white deer-guards protecting the token un-Sitka trees in the plantation
There has been a recent rash of forestation up our valley. Not only upstairs where the bushy, rocky fields meet the commonage but right down to the fields beside which the R Aughnabrisky runs. At least our 0.4 hectare woodlot is a) native only [except - ooops my bad - for the lovely few dozen of larch Larix europea] b) a screen against the hideous steel sheds installed by my neighbour below. Several of of neighbours have recently sold up or leased their fields to a monoculture of Sitka spruce Picea sitchensis.  In December, I was moaning about the damage that might follow from Forestry Operations further up our lane. Well that damage is now manifest, and it was not directly to do with heedless messing with the drainage. The ESB's 15 hectare tract given over to Sitka runs in a narrow strip from the valley floor right up to the edge of the mountain and a much earlier plantation, which you can see in the pics above and we are expecting to be clear-felled any year now. At the top, the new planting crosses from one side to the other of Shannon's Lane that runs from the county road, past our place and up-up-and-away to the mountain. At the crossing, the mighty tracked digger drove straight through the little drive-way down to the steading we always knew as Hickey's . . . because the Hickey's lived there for a couple of centuries.
Hickey's was a sort of micro-clachan, although presumably all the sheds and dwellings were occupied by the one family and their stock. I'm sorry that I never made a photographic record of this one of the magical places where Dau.I and Dau.II played when they grew up on our farmlet. The Eastern gable of the main house [cottage, really) started up vertically from a massive erratic granite boulder [see above left]: the walls were about shoulder height high but no trace of a roof remained because the last of the Hickey's vacated two generations ago and the weather can be quite whippy-of-slates 300m above sea-level.
Every so often I would go up with some shears and trim back the brambles ‎Rubus fructicosus and hawthorn / sceach Crataegus monogyna twigs so that, by ducking and weaving a bit, folks could walk down and check out the clatter of small ruined buildings and the field walls that marked out the property. Someone must have instructed the digger-driver to leave standing any buildings; but now the context of those buildings has been largely obliterated. Which is a shame and a loss, because it's easy to smack something down but impossible to put it back like it was before - thaaaat's entropy. The fact that such heritage sites are protected must be a huge pain in the tits to contractors who are on piece-work [Picea geddit] to clear the site and plant it asap with 2500 30cm-high Sitka saplings to the hectare. Little wonder that they are careless in their clearing
But really did the digger-man have to clear 3 substantial boulders [two clearly visible above] from the old laneway and drop them from a great height right in the kitchen of the Hickey's family home, where they will sit like so many turds for the rest of time?

Sunday 24 February 2019

P peppa pig

P for Pexas P for Pennessee

Saturday 23 February 2019

Not returnable, sorry

Wednesday I was down visiting Pat the Salt on the Waterford coast. I had an hour before I had to pick him up from town, and as Garrarus Strand is only 5 minutes from Tramore; as the tide was rising; and as a storm was raising whitecaps I though I had time to stride manfully along the beach and get some fresh salt wind in what's left of me hair. At the far end of the strand I saw a spot of pale green. As I trotted along it got bigger and bigger until it manifest as an inflatable buoy 60cm tall and 40cm in diameter. I was delighted. On the way back along the tide-line I picked up another smaller buoy as well.
Because I know you care, I've taken a picture with my Yaris for scale. I do my best to repatriate these things [prev] because they are worth money to the owner and I'm trying to declutter.  So here's what was written on the end:
598-5755 E CH.80 / Allison Rianne / Dave Fraser / 1749.
I had a bit of a googlefish and landed an Excel file Vessel & Permit Listing - Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. Which said that Allison Rianne is a 42 ft [13m] fishing boat; Dave Fraser is the skipper; and they are both berthed in Harrington, Maine. That's 4400 km up the Gulf Stream, so I cannot return this one as easily as sending a few txts and popping over to Dunmore. I could call Dave because I've found his area code but that might be too weirdly disconcerting for him.

Accordingly I helpfully e-mailed the The Harrington Town Office which houses the Town Clerk, Tax Collector, Treasurer, Registrar of Voters, General Assistance Administrator, Administrative Assistant to the Selectmen, Bureau of Motor Vehicles Agent, and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Agent. If this sounds like Parks & Recreation [Nick Offermann prev] it may be because Harrington is home to only 1000 people, so there are almost as many functionaries inside the Town Office as citizens on the outside. "Stormy weather on the Waterford Coast in Ireland! I've just picked up a buoy belonging to the Allison Rianne, skipper Dave Fraser, (821 Marshfield Rd, Harrington) from Garrarus Strand just West of Tramore. I do my best to return flotsam to its owner. But this one a little awkward to return because the Gulf Stream is relentlessly one way. Perhaps you could tell Dave, though, so he isn't fruitlessly scouring the waves for his buoy. I attach a photo with my Toyota for scale. Either it's a helluva big buoy or we have really tiny cars in Europe - both might be true." If I hear from Maine, I'll let you know.

Friday 22 February 2019

Humpty-Dumpty goes Nunavut

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.Nunavut.
Here we go: some compulsory homework rather than a neat 700 word exegesis Blob identifying a problem, sorting it out, tying it up with a pink ribbon and delivering it with your breakfast tea-and-toast. Sorry but it's interesting but a bit more than 700 words worth, so in this case it's worth scanning the original article and the MeFi commentary: "all the wrong answers are interesting".  Twain alert:
 "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. 
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so"
What do you actually know about the lads with kayaks and igloos?
  1. One of them was called Nanook of the North in Robert Flaherty's factional 1922 film
  2. They hunt seals from kayaks
  3. They are partial to beluga Delphinapterus leucas fat.
  4. They build igloos [recent]
  5. The woman of the house was willing to bonk Robert Peary and Matthew Henson.
  6. They have fifty words for snow [klaxon! no they don't]
  7. They are no longer called eskimos except in some parts of Alaska. Inuit preferred.
A couple of quotes from the article:
"All these changes brought with them new English words that describe the new objects and their function. The changes also triggered a shift in the use of language." If you want to maintain a sense of cultural identity you have to make sure that you don't inherit the word for a new-thing along with the new-thing itself. French and Irish are fighting a rear-guard action trying to use ordinateur or ríomhaire instead of computer. Actually of course the language doesn't fight, l'Académie française and Coiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus na nOileán fight on the language's behalf. When I needed to print new letterhead for INCBI in 1993 I applied to CnGnGanO for how to translate the neologism bioinformatics [a word defo not used by Douglas Hyde, or St Patrick]: they returned bithaisnéisíochta but had a debate about it, with a transliteration bioinformatici being considered.

“Eskimos Have Fifty Words for Snow” is an amazing phrase, because every word in it is wrong. But reversing it—announcing proudly that they don’t—only replicates that wrongness; you can’t say no to a bad question and be right. In other words, it is a have you stopped beating your wife? question. You cannot safely even address the question because it is framed as a condemnation; to maintain your innocence of assault-and-battery you have to challenge the very question. For the fifty words issue you need to redefine or at least deep-think "eskimo" "fifty" "word" and "snow" [you're safe with have and for]. The question of whether the words you have to use when speaking a given langauge affect your ability to think independently was briefly Blobbed in my piece about Lera Boroditsky six months ago.

Thursday 21 February 2019

The myth of exceptionalism

I had a most interesting MI weekend propagating Joshua Katz's NYT quiz on the language used in These Islands and reflecting on the results. The "QI" Brother came back with a map-of-usage very similar to mine - no surprises there because we were at school together . . . and born in Dover. With the Wexford Science Café scheduled [not skheduled!] for Tuesday 19th Feb, I ordered the WSC troops to do the test on themselves and those about them and report aTuesda'.
And it was so, the most surprising finding was that Dau.II, despite being born in the same farmhouse and raised on the same remote farmlet as her older sister, talks the very best, slightly strangled, Home Counties middle-class southern like Father Bob. That older sister, who spent 5 of her young adult years living in England [Stroud, Gloucs], but should be otherwise identical, spiks, in fact, broad Irish like her Brother [and her Mother, data not shown]. The Boy's daughter Gdau.I otoh, was born seven year ago in Bath. Despite her father's Irish creds and her mother's in Manchester Cambridge Bristol, the youngster has picked up a strong streak of West-Country Wurzle.

At Wex Sci Caf, we came up with few surprises: two of our number raised in the UK had maps broadly similar to mine and Dau.II's [above bot left], the rest painted a broad swathe of red across the Southern half of Ireland despite a good bit of hopping about within those bounds and stints abroad. One thing we agreed on was that your identity is identified by the first [above the fold] 25 questions on the Katz NYT quiz. That's an interesting reflection on sampling, sample size and minimising effort for return. When MORI carry out a political poll to gauge public sentiment on Brexit or Fine Gael, they equip a team with clipboards and sent them to several areas of Ireland and ask their questions of 1000+handful of normal-looking random people. They don't ask 2000+handful of people because that would cost twice as much but wouldn't substantially increase the precision. Pollsters reckon that 1000+ gives an estimate ± 2-3% error. Obviously the 25 Qs in the quiz are words chosen because of their discriminatory power but the implication is that analyzing the usage of a few hundred informally written words [letters home, blogs, tweets] will identify the origin and upbringing of the writer to the nearest whole county. Like me at the compiler of Times Jumbo Crosswords. Outlying points like my usage of the word wean for infant is smoked out as an absurd adult-acquired affectation rather than evidence of a Scottish grandmother [which I have].

In some cases a single word will do. Scheveningen will discriminate genuine Hollanders from invading Germans very nicely. Schild also. . Thesche say-it-right tests are known as shibboleths from a typically bloody anecdote from the Old Testament, Judges XII:
5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.
Nice! Remind me not to stop and shay hello to those men of Gilead.

What's this-all to do with Exceptionalism? Well only the fact that Brexit and the dismemberment of the EUropean Dream is hanging on personal identity "we are special in the eyes of god" politics. The Irish government, backed by Big Brother Brussels is insisting on an open border between Dundalk and Newry; Pettigo and Tullyhommon; Strabane and Lifford; Kiltyclogher and Cashelnadrea. The Ulster Protestants are insisting that they must be treated in every detail as equivalent to, and embedded, in the United Kingdom. Newlyn next to Newry; Turnham Green next to Tullyhommon; Strabane next to Stratford; Canterbury next to Cashenandra. . . like Norton-juxta-Twycross in Leicestershire. Certain strains of the political divide are holding up The Troubles as an armageddon in the gestation. But the Troubles are a fading memory even for those who lived through them as adults: I turned 18 the June after things kicked off on Bloody "Derry 1972" Sunday. I know that the average Brit, whatever side they voted in the Brexit referendum, has not the slightest interest or understanding of Irish exceptionalism on their border. They are mostly unaware of  the fact that [part of] Ireland left the UK before WWII; are bemused about the difference between the Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity [it's the transubstantiation, fellers]; couldn't point to either Derry or Dublin on a map [like me with cities in China] and when they think about the Irish at all it is to say "a plague on both your houses". My brother was 20 minutes too early for a bomb in London's Oxford Street in the 70s: near-misses like that and actual victims known personally to Brits added a further level of disdain for The Other Island. It is tribute to British tolerance (mixed with disdain) that there were no pogroms, or street-spittings aimed at Irish people on the mainland during the Troubles.

Wednesday 20 February 2019


We stayed a few days on Sherkin Island with our vet a couple of years ago. It's a ferry-trip from civilisation if you count Baltimore, Co Cork, as civilised [it has a post-office]. The extraordinary and eccentric Sherkin Marine Station publishes Sherkin Comment a tabloid newspaper about the natural world, originally quarterly, now it seems whenever they get a grant to defray the printing costs. They must be in funds because a stack of the 2018 edition appeared at the library in Tramore last week. There was an article addressing a burning question of ecology and conservation: Is Scots' Pine Pinus sylvestris [fine example R] native to Ireland? Getting a seal of approval for being native requires quite a bit of definition. Is a tree which came in behind the retreating ice-sheets 12,000 years ago a blow-in?  Many people take 500 years ago as the cut-off.
Gospel Inventory According the the Tree Council of Ireland:
Ogham - Ingles - Irish - Latin
Alder Fearnóg Alnus glutinosa
Strawberry tree Caithne Arbutus unedo
Birch, silver Beith gheal Betula pendula
Birch, downy Beith chlúmhach Betula pubescens
Hazel Coll Corylus avellana
Hawthorn Sceach gheal Crataegus monogyna
Ash Fuinseog Fraxinus excelsior
Holly Cuileann  Ilex aquifolium
Juniper Aiteal Juniperus communis
Crab Apple Crann fia-úll Malus sylvestris
Scots pine Péine Albanach Pinus sylvestris
Aspen Crann creathach Populus tremula
Cherry, wild / Gean Crann silíní fiáin Prunus avium
Cherry, bird Donnroisc Prunus padus
Blackthorn Draighean Prunus spinosa
Oak, sessile Dair ghaelach Quercus petraea
Oak, pedunculate Dair ghallda Quercus robur
Willow Saileach Salix spp.
Rowan Caorthann Sorbus aucuparia
Whitebeam Fionncholl Sorbus spp.
Yew Iúr Taxus baccata
Wych elm Leamhán sléibhe Ulmus glabra
Probably pre-Farming
Hornbeam Crann sleamhain Carpinus betulus
Lime Crann aoil Tilia europaea
There is an argument that IF the tree has a representation in Ogham THEN it is native because Ogham pre-dates the threshold for 'Native'. The native Irish seem to have been pretty good taxonomists; having separate names for the two species of oak [Quercus] and birch [Betula a distinction vital to the proper function of saunas]. The Irish for hornbeam at the bottom of the list - sleamhean -  means slippery; or shifty when applied to people. Slippery might better be applied to Betula pendula the supposed soapy [saponins!] component of sauna whisks.

Other people are more widely inclusive to tally up 33 species which are native or probably native. Part of the dilemma about Scots' is that pollen analysis = palynology says that the species was here early but seems to have died out around 4,000 years ago. It must have been some epidemic like Dutch Elm Disease or Ash Die-Back because the extinction was replicated across much of NE Europe. The tree was re-introduced from Scotland [hence the name?] with the plantations of the 1600s. Recent evidence from Fraser Mitchell, and his Effective Alwynne McGeever in TCD Botany Dept indicates that there was a refugium in Co Clare where Pinus sylvestris pollen has been found in sediment cores all the way back to the first post-glacial recolonisation. That's all very well but it will require DNA analysis to determine if any 'original' genetic stock is left in the genepool today or if the whole island has been swamped by the McInblows.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Happisburgh long long ago

Blink and ya miss it, b'ys. 
There is an archaeologically important site on the very edge of England in the village of Happisburgh. It came to prominence in 2010 when researchers found a bunch of flint flakes and a mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis) tooth buried in sediments that were about 840,000 years old. The flakes were clearly made by flint-knappers and no dog or dolphins has ever mastered those skills; so these artifacts were evidence of human habitation much early than previously documented for NW Europe. As with the Piltdown Man discovered almost exactly 100 years previously there was a frisson of jingoism in the reportage - Brits First, those foreign-johnny hominids nowhere. Puffing Piltdown in an excess of patriotism looked rather foolish when the fossil was outed as an elaborate fraud/prank 40 years after its discovery. In May 2013, further coastal erosion and a storm exposed a jumble of trace-fossil footprints which were carefully recorded in a series of photographs by a team from London. They were there because the earlier archaeological investigations had primed people to expect them. The flint knappers must, after all, have walked along this coast. It is just as well that the site was small enough to capture on film in a few hectic days because the next storm lifted the foot-dinted sediments and swept them to fragments in the back-wash. The 3-D imaging was carried out by Isabelle de Groote of Liverpool John Moores U.

The best estimate of the age is based on the geological principle of stratigraphy: older sediments are covered by younger ones. Fossils in these over-lying layers put a limit on how recent the foot-prints and the flint-shavings can be. It turns out that a conveniently timed magnetic reversal also helps nail down the dates. Magnetic reversals = where the N and S poles flip over in a very short space of geological time. These events happen frequently if you scale time in millions of years and helped Marie Tharp make sense of the development of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Some people are suggesting that the North Magnetic Pole is getting a bit zippier than the normal stately 50km annual drift and that this presages a magnetic flip.

840,000 years is of the same order of magnitude as Raquel Welch fishing and John Richardson wrastling with dinosaurs in the film 1 million years BC. Much much older in time are the fossils that Mary Anning found on the beach at Lyme Regis.

As to footprints in the mud, I've been there before: with thieves in Crete - with Mary Leakey in Laetoli - with Lucy in Ethiopia.

Monday 18 February 2019

Mutual Aid

When he was young, my late lamented pal Pepe Malpica managed the family farm in Extremadura while holding down a full-time job in Madrid. Every Friday evening he'd leave work, pick up his wife and two small boys and drive 250km SE to Cáceres. Late on Sunday evening, having put in 30 hours of solid work, the family would drive back to Madrid and sleep the sleep of virtuous work. When he came to TCD, on a well-earned sabbatical year in 1992, he compared his hard-chaw farming with farming in Ireland "The fields are green year round; the rains come reliably and rarely too much; all Irish farmers need do is turn the cattle out in the morning and call them back in, several kilos heavier, in the evening." The criticism was offered with an ironic twinkle that turned away indignation but there was a dig there as well. All things are relative and I don't imagine that Pepe would consider Extremaduran farming a doddle compared to hard scrabble subsistence farming in the Sahel trying to raise enough millet Pennisetum glaucum or sorghum/milo Sorghum bicolor to keep the kids from starvation.
 So much to contend with in Sub-Saharan Africa which are irrelevant in Europe: locusts, sand-storms, army-worms; and above all, drought. In the largely artificial capital intensive agricultural systems of The West, monocultures covering prairie-sized fields are not only possible but economically desirable. No farmer in the US Midwest, who can spell the word, believes that the relentless pounding of the soil with corn and soya is sustainable. It is only possible with a) cheap oil to drive the mighty tractors, b) Monsanto to kill everything that impacts on yield and c) depletion of the Ogallala aquifer until it squeaks.

It has long been recognised that intercropping food crops with other species can yield paradoxical benefits. The economic success of pre-Columbian MesoAmerican empires came from the mutually supportive Three Sisters triad of corn, squash and beans. Beans fix atmospheric nitrogen, so all the players can make proteins; the corn provides the bean-pole; while the squash provides water-conserving and weed-suppressing ground-cover. The fact that all three sisters provide something worth eating is almost a by-product: succotash, corn-pone, calabacitas con elote, all mmmmm good.

In the Sahel, the growth limiting factor is almost always water; even in the "old" soils of Africa, lack of minerals, nitrogen and phosphorus is not the deal-breaker. It has been recognised since the 1930s that some plants, like catclaw Acacia gregii and sagebrush Artemesia tridentata are valuable for hydraulic lift. In simple terms, these perennial shrubs can develop a root-system that can tap into deep water . . . and redistribute it where annual crops like millet and milo can use it. They're a bit vague about how this works but the transfer appears to take place underground which implies that the roots of different species are talking to each other.
Nate Bogie is a BSc+PhD Effective working Teamrat Ghezzehei's Soil Physics lab in UC Merced, California. They have zeroed in on a native West African shrub Guiera senegalensis which is tolerated in fields of millet and groundnut Arachis hypogea at least in Senegal where their experiments were carried out. The picture above says it all. The scrawny pathetic plot on the left is millet monoculture; the lushness on the right is millet with added Guiera. The final count was that added shrub multiplied the millet biomass by 10x to about 2 tonnes per hectare and the seed bearing capacity was increased seven-fold. Read the details of their research trying to tease how it works. For me, for now, the bottom line is that the association works . . . wonders.

Sunday 17 February 2019

O is for orogeny

OMG. It's an orchid [R possibly Dactylorhiza incarnata] a group of plants so called because their roots look like testicles = όρχεις in Greek. In Irish it's the same lus na magairli = herb of the stones/testicles. There are 56 native species [illustrated PDF guide BMNH] on These Islands. Heaven forfend that anyone should suffer an orchidectomy because of testicular cancer.

Saturday 16 February 2019

Whom do ye think you be?

Who said a good PhD didn't land you a dream job? Certainly not Joshua Katz, in 2013 a graduate student at NCSU (North Carolina State University) who made some lovely English dialect maps for the USA. You say pop and I say soda and I'll fight you for it because you're wrong. He now works for the NYT and has put out a crowd-sourcing information gathering tool, especially for those who learned their English in the WEA. You really should do the test - it's really fascinating for a mongrel like me with i) a Scottish granny, born in Limerick who lived all her adult life in Dover ii) a father born in London in 1917 and raised in Dunmore East, Co Waterford iii) a list of domiciles longer than will fit on a Garda Vetting form. Katz's software, built on 73,000 [and rising] contributors, smoked my Dover connexions quite clearly [see below], despite my habitually using Irishisms like skanger and eejit. I don't use 'lack' for girl-friend [as in the very focussed map [R] despite my father's Waterford credentials.  Yere's me:
It's really as if I hadn't spent the most recent half of my life in Ireland. But then again, language has quite a bit of inertia, it's hard not to use the slang and curses which you learned at school.
By comparison, The Boy was born in Dublin, left a year later and didn't return until he was 14. Despite 7 of those years being spent in Newcastle upon Tyne, his language is distinctly and surprisingly Irish. Living the most recent ten years of his life in England has had no impact whatsoever. Dau.II [and her sister] was born in a draughty farmhouse near Dublin Airport, she grew up on a different farmstead in the rural hinterland of Leinster and left home to live in Cork City Centre just before she turned 18. Despite this she [above L] speaks middle-class southern [England] received pronunciation. It must be because she didn't go to school but spent all her minor years sleeping in an outhouse, except when she was compelled to clean out the chicken-shit or carry buckets of feed to the sheep in a remote field. That, or the binge-watching of boxed-sets of Kenneth Branagh.
I've sent the link (which came to me from Dau.II) to my brother and sister in England. We grew up in the same highly peripatetic household but have lived all our adult lives in different counties /countries of the WEA. I'm really interested to see how similar our sib-dialects are.

Friday 15 February 2019

Street-light biology

There it is [the Mountain River] running under the (locally) famous viaduct of the long defunct railway that went from Bagenalstown to Wexford between 1858 and 1947. For the last 15 years of its existence the railway operated solely for hauling sugar beet from Ballynowhere to the Sugar Factory in Carlow. The town of Borris, which runs up from the river valley, abstracts its drinking water from the Mountain River, fouls it, treats it and discharges the effluent a little further downstream. It is just as well that, like time's arrow, water flows in one direction. The Public Meeting was called, for 1930hrs 13 Feb 2019 in the boutique wee hotel at the top of the town, to encourage dialogue between ordinary people on the ground OPOGs and All Agency Experts AAEs who occasionally parachuted in to make some desultory, irregular, duplicated, uncoordinated measurements of the river before flitting off to the next project.
  • The OPOGs include 
    • anyone [N=800 incl. 80 Polish-originally] who has to drink the water in Borris; 
      • The town's main's water supply installed in the 19thC was replaced in 2017: Causing transitory transit-jams but great reducing the leakage of treated drinking water
    • farmers with bank-side fields [that would include us as owners of The Field Over The River Aughnabrisky] anywhere up the catchment area; 
    • anglers; 
    • hill-walkers; 
    • fly-tippers.
  • The AAEs include
The Public Meeting was for Consultation on the local River Basin Management Plan RBMP [we are not nearly finished on the acronyms!]. They were hopelessly optimistic about the amount of interest in their work: the hotel's ballroom was rented and 50 wedding-reception seats were laid out in an arc; 15 OPOGs turned up only just exceeding the functionaries who had to be there to answer questions and explain what they had been doing with their time, and our money, since the Local Authority Waters Programme LAWP kicked off two years ago. The OPOGs were not exactly hostile but were certainly critical of how their tax-payers money had been, and would be, spent. The LWAB, for example, just for the Sunny SE of Ireland employs seven people to carry out audits of water quality.
  • One of our OPOGs had been asked by ALL the AAEs for permission to walk through his fields to access the river. "Do you share your data with the Fisheries people?" he asked but what he meant was, the fellow from Fisheries was knocking on my door three weeks before you came. In a free and transparent society these data should be put up in the public domain; as well as the intended schedule of sampling so that IFI and EPA could, say, share the petrol costs. The subtext here was that maybe either the EPA effective or the IFI effective could be laid off and we-the-people could save €80K salary+costs+mileage+PRSI a year. That would go a long way to making the Water Treatment Plant in Borris functional.
  • Another farmer worried that the River Barrow was running dry . . . because so many entities were abstracting water. That's a worry because there will be less water to dilute any accidental (or deliberate) discharge. We wouldn't need water treatment if we banned flush toilets.
  • None of the OPOGs at the Wednesday meeting admitted to fly-tipping their trash over a convenient bridge across the Mountain River, but many asserted that it was a regular occurrence under named bridges in their neighbourhood. 
    • If a hoodlum fires a used soda bottle out of the window, I will clean it up during the annual An Taisce Spring clean.
    • If a hoodlum dumps a load of car-batteries or paint-pots into a river someone has to clean it up ASAP (I'm too busy with the bottles). Leaving them there leaching toxins will make a disaster out of a problem. This is not the sort of things that the County Council prioritises: the crud is out of sight from the road and will cost a lot of billable hours to clean up. 
How do assess the quality of river water? The quick-and-dirty way is to jump in the river and do some kick-sampling. This is what LAWPers do: they kick-sample a bucket of aquatic invertebrates out of the river and count the numbers for different key species of creepy-crawlies. If you find caddis-fly (Trichoptera spp.) [example L] and mayfly larvae, (Rhithrogena semicolorata or Ecdyonurus venosus), the water is safe to drink. If they are absent you may not know exactly what's gone wrong with the ecosystem but you know it is poor quality. You could be much more expensive and "scientific": quantify the metals with AAS or FES; measure the nitrates; the Biological Oxygen Demand BOD; TriHaloMethane THM . . . but that would take time, kit and money. otoh, you're not better off by checking for key mammals like otters Lutra lutra: because that species is rare there is not enough granularity in the data. After the talk Ipulled on the lapel of the head LAWPer to suggest that kick-sampling and counting caddis-fly larvae is sooooo 19thC and salary-time-consuming. Why not, I suggested, take a sample of water + river-bottom and run it through a DNA sequencer. It is so cheap to sequence DNA now  and that will give you an estimate, not only of the countable invertebrates but also, of the microbial community . . . and probably the fish species as well from the fish-shit. Concentrating on the countable is a classic example of street-light science: it gives you a handle on what's easily available which may be almost irrelevant to a true measure of biological diversity or water-quality.
It was clear that DNA analysis hasn't arrived in LAWP-land yet - if it ever will. I therefore switched tack and asked what they were doing about [measuring, legislating for, informing the County Council] light-pollution. Here I must confess that I was channelling my pal Rene from St Mullins who, before he left the Netherlands 25+ years ago, was fattened on eels Anguilla anguilla. When he arrived in St Mullins on the River Barrow in the early 1990s, eels were plentiful. When they came back from the Wild Sargasso Sea as hatchlings, some of them turned right and swam up up the Mill Stream in search of a new home. Then the County Council installed a street-light on the narrow road bridge that crosses the stream as it met the Barrow. That was end of eels up the Mill Stream - they travel at night, avoiding light, which exposes them to predators. Same thing happens where the Mountain River goes under Main Street in Borris. Light and Dark are natural! they happen every 24 hours many / most / all animals have adapted to the change. Now, for the trifling convenience of people walking to the pub at night, we have daylight all night with utterly unconsidered consequences for the natural world.

Thursday 14 February 2019


In case you wanted more Zoo Breeding [yest] here is a funny-ironic story about sex among endangered species comes from Basel Zoo's Orangutans [Pongo abelii]. The total population of this species is down more than 50% in the last 100 years. There has been huge habitat destruction [for palm-oil plantations and Japanese hardwood furniture] in Borneo and Sumatra and poaching - not to mention the market for captive apes for zoos - but there are still more than 60,000 out in the wild.  Conservation efforts have been complicated by the fact that there are three species of Orangutans each with sufficient genetical, behavioural and cultural identity to justify saving all three. Pongo abelii on Sumatra Pongo pygmaeus on Borneo and another far rarer variant Pongo tapanuliensis living in a separate part of N. Sumatra. Deciding on what is a species and what is a mere variant or sub-species is not a black & white problem. The ultimate test should be whether a male and a female from two groups can produce fertile offspring. But that's a long haul - maybe 30 years for Pongo - and there is some urgency in the matter: in 30 years all the wild orangutans may be dead.  So conservation biologists tend to take a tissue sample (saliva or blood easiest, turd is enough IF you can get access) and sequence [some portion of] the DNA. The % identity acts as a surrogate marker for actual co-fertility.

If we believe that each species is a unique assemblage of traits (genes, behaviours, microbial hitch-hikers) then we can freeze dry some sperm and egg and send them off to a long-term storage facility like they have on Svalbard. OR (and this is the usual preference of active zoo-keepers) we can try to establish sustainable populations of captive born-and-bred individuals for re-introduction into the wild . . . after Armageddon reduces the number of people to more sustainable levels. That unique assemblage of traits is more than a single ape can carry, so the plan is to retain as much genetic diversity in what is available in the zoos and circuses of the world. That means a structured breeding program to mobilise semen from as many healthy males as possible. Nobody in the ape-breeding business believes that a super-fit wonder-male should be identified to 'improve' the species although that is the basic protocol in breeding cattle and other domestic animals. That shows a commendable humility about knowing what is best for wild animals. Diversity is certainly good for the future.

Which brings us back to Basel. With a rather Calvinist outlook on morality among their captive primates, the Zoo has separated their orangutans into 3 family enclosures, each with a [Ma+Pa+offspring] demographic. When Padma the most recent female cub was born, the management took saliva samples from all nine members of their herd stock and sent them off for paternity testing. Ooops! Budi, the younger male who was cohabiting with Maja, Padma's mother, was not the Dad. It seems that, despite a chain-link fence separating them, Maja had got it off with Vendel [R] the Patriarch next door. Clearly the old lady knew whom she fancied. There is speculation that Vendel's attractiveness lies in his 'flanges' - the horizontal dewlaps that surround his face and emphasise the size of his head. Budi may have a six-pack, but a well-turned flange - which only develop in some males with maturity - makes the ladies swoon . . . or at least present their bottom.

Zoos talk large and strong, especially at Christmas when the WWF is drumming for money, about their value as an ark for animals whose habitat in the Third World has been destroyed by people and corporations. But Zoos are also in it as a business - however much subsidised by local and national governments. What brings 'Gate' more than anything else is a new-born addition to the inventory - especially from a cute species - great apes, pandas, bears . . . other large carnivores at a pinch. If they were really interested in the welfare of their breeding stock they wouldn't put the animals out as a raree show for the public where the animals can be assaulted with coins, inappropriate food, and a deafening hubbub of cries and whistles.

Great apes, being clever enough to spot an opportunity to escape from Stalag MenschenAffen XIX, used a storm-broken branch to leave their enclosure in Belfast Zoo last weekend [video footage]. Being seriously institutionalised they didn't much like the open space and small edible children of The Outside and were easily persuaded to return to ad lib bananas Inside.