Friday 31 May 2019

Flaws of Perception

I've mentioned Billl Bryson many times on The Blob including my first encounter with his Lost Continent which recommended by someone on a pre-WWW internet forum called rec.arts.books. which is still going ... sort of. I was down in Tramore last week and came away with a more recent Bryson book called The Road to Little Dribbling. It isn't as funny as Lost Continent but gives me a greater sense of empathy because it is threaded with reflections on how it feels to be getting older, and [therefore] more prone to mishap. In one incident, he is brained by the descending pole of a car-park in France because he pauses while walking though the opening to plan his next move and BADoinnnng! he is tonked. It was like me sawing half-way through the nail of my thumb as well as a 10cm Wavin pipe because I looked up when I heard a car rather than concentrated on one thing at a time. It's just as well I've only one more year to serve The Institute because the cascade of sensory failures is showing no signs of slowing down.

I was in said Institute a couple of days ago and met one of our graduate students in the corridor. He has always been appreciative when I bring in a slab of flap-jacks because he recognises that being a hoover of free food is one of the universal attributes of graduate students. He comes from India, where this free food thing plays out as it did for me in Boston when I was of his age and status back in the 80s. In Ireland, not so much: graduate students in Ireland of the present generation are quite likely to refuse free food possible from a misplaced fear of Salmonella and Campylobacter? Anyway, the lad impulsively asked
Would you like some mushrooms? . . . they're free.
Does a bear pope in the woods? Of course I'll take some mushrooms if they are Agaricus bisporus
Biologists can talk like that because the realise that having the name and identification right can give you a nice mushroom omelette while cooking up the superficially similar Amanita virosa can send you to ER with multiple organ failure - the gills are  white , silly.

Accordingly we drove to his home where he presented me with a sack full of mushrooms - about 2.5kg in weight. I had a cup of tea when I got back to my own gaff and spend an hour sorting them by size and closedness and cooking up the oldest and rattiest portions to stop the incipient slump in shop-standard quality. I was poking at the second saucepan-full with a wooden spoon when I 'saw' a cinnamon stick poking up out of the berluping seethe. WTF? How did a cinnamon stick get in there? [Matter?] I thought as I started to fish the thing out. It turned out to be the handle of another wooden spoon which I had been using earlier and allowed to sink beneath the surface. That's an interesting example of how our wretched and imperfect brains try to make sense of the world that presents itself on our retinas. The answer to the old conundrum What's brown and sticky? turned out not to be A stick but a quite different, albeit still wooden, object.

Thursday 30 May 2019


The Institute is in a state of Limbo: the last exams have been sat, marked and entered into the system but the meetings where we determine overall grades aren't until the beginning of June.  I went into work yesterday because it was too drizzly to mow grass or chop wood anbd I had a bit of paperwork to do. I was talking to a colleague about learning outcomes and the transition between school and college. We both left home and went to college and assumed that our progress in the new place would be largely up to us. Neither of us expected our parents to bale us out (except maybe literally, if we found ourselves being arrested).  We agreed (predictable pair of ould codgers really) that the young of today were rather less able to cut the apron strings; but agreed that "I blame the parents" was at least parrtly to blame.

Suddenly I found myself blurting out an, often thought, so far unspoken grope about taking attendance for every class. "What are we doing asking voting-age adults to sign a register to say that they have been in each lecture or lab session?"   "Quite apart from it being disrespectful," I continued, "it offers a sub-text that the quality of the teaching and the engagement of the teachers is so appalling that we must compell people to attend."  What I was trying to say was that if my delivery was really exciting; the material delivered on the button and my personality charismatic, then I'd have to keep students away with a chair and a whip. Apart from learning the difference between pH and PhD, college should teach people the management about work/life balance; deadlines; punctuality; clear thinking and cogent presentation of ideas both orally and in writing.

IF Mum has told you to get up in the morning to go to school and made you a packed lunch and put cereal and milk on the breakfast table and popped <rubber gloves!> yesterday's soccer strip in the washer . . . for the last 14 years THEN you may find a college unnerving and exhausting. We weren't all von Trapp family about whistling bringing up Dau.I and Dau.II - sailor suits were not required. But we didn't let them grow up with their little beaks perpetually agape waiting to be fed. If they wanted cakes and biscuits rather than hard-tack, then they had to make them and soon learned how to half, or more usually double, a recipe. And as you see [R] they also learned how to wash up after their kitchen escapades, before they were quite tall enough to reach the kitchen sink. Domestic self-sufficiency spread natuarlly into out-door chores. If they wanted cakes then eggs needed to be guddled from the hen-coop. If they didn't want dead laying hens then they had to remember to shut the coop and night and clean out the chicken-shit occasionally. All that meant they were able to leave home shortly before they turned 18 - able to sew on a button, cook an omelette, sharpen a knife, and manage a limited budget. When Dau.I left home to attend Waldorf-Steiner College in England, she was there are 0900hrs every day because there was new stuff to learn. Almost all her fellow students treated the whole experience as a bit of a jape and devoted at least as much time to booze and weed as they did to classes.

I was rather tickled by a 10 minute mini-doc from ITV in which small children navigate their way unsupervised across London under the covert but watchful eye of Dr Xand [prev] and a lot of cameras. If Mum has always held your hand every time to get on or off a bus then you're less likely to be able to find room C313 for your first chemistry practical at college.

Wednesday 29 May 2019


On this day 29th May in 1453, The Ottomans made the final assault on Constantinople after a 53 day siege. The evening before, the Byzantine Emperor and those who could be spared from manning the walls of the Great City repaired to Αγία Σοφία Hagia Sophia the Church of the Divine Wisdom for a last service. They knew it would be all over on the morrow. Ottoman troops didn't wait for daylight but started to move on the breaches in the mighty walls shortly after midnight. The emperor discarded his purple robes and went down fighting in the streets with most of his soldiers. Some of the Venetian, Genoese and other Christian mercenaries managed to get down to the harbour in the chaos and escape out to sea - so we have several eye-witness accounts of the last days of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Christians stretched an iron chain across the mouth of the Golden Horn between The City and the suburb of Galata to prevent the Ottoman fleet from getting access to the weakly walled edge of the harbour. But the ingenious Turks heaved some of their ships across the peninsula on a road of greased logs and so bypassed that defence. The death of the Constantine XI and the departure of the Italians marked only the beginnings of the horror meted out on the civilian population, not to mention the churches and libraries of the city. By tradition, the troops were allowed three days of loot and pillage as a reward for putting their  own lives on the line. The desire for the good things of life among the Ottoman soldiery was instrumental in allowing the escape of many of the surviving fighters from the other side. As a civilian, the best chance of survival was because, alive, you represented value as a slave.

There is a certain irony that the current name of the city Istanbul is supposed to be a transliteration of a Greek phrase εἰς τὴν πόλιν, [eis tēn pólin] "to the City". 20 years ago, I was teaching in a University outside of Istanbul and at the end of the course, I hung out for a couple of days in The City. Hagia Sophia is now a mosque [the muezzins of the city called the faithful to prayer at first light and woke me up] but I still had a visit on my bucket-list to pay respects to the last of the "Romans", and reflect on the extraordinary perspectives of history. The Byzantines felt they were the descendants of Cincinnatus, Claudius, Cato and Cicero - upholders of civilisation for a 1000 years after the Legions, for example, left Britain. But you can't spend too long looking at the past through the foggy, slightly rose-tinted, lens of history. After breakfast on my last day, I repaired to a huge covered market to buy baklava; red star&crescent tee-shirts, and pointy-toes slippers for the girls and a pair of star&crescent cushion covers which are still gracing our sofa:
Cue WB Yeats:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Murray Gone-Mann

I was scanning the main page of Wikipedia, as I do most mornings because the On This Day section might trigger a Blob; and uttered an involuntary No! when I read that Murray Gell-Mann [R in the autumn of his days] was dead. Not because I disbelieved the information but because I was unconsciously acknowledging a loss - to science; to intellectual discourse; to the pantheon of polymaths. He had a good (89½) innings: being born in September 1929 and didn't stop when he reached retirement age. He wrote a 1994 popular science book The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex which I found more complex than simple. That was because, like us all, Gell-Mann suffered from the curse of knowledge - which holds that, having mastered some understanding of the world, it is impossible to imagine what it was like before you acquired that knowledge.  The CoK is a widespread problem in teaching at The Institute (and elsewhere natch). Several times a year, I stop my younger colleagues from complaining about the failings of students to grasp such obvious to all thinking people concepts as pH or molarity or Newton's Third Law [that wrecks my head]. The CoK was worse for Gell-Mann because he knew so much (and he made sure that everyone knew his erudition).

He could use the word Quark in the title of his book because he invented both the term and the concept for making sense of sub-atomic particles. He pronounced his coinage kwork and then came across a phrase in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake Three quarks for Muster Mark, which implies kwark. But, to his own satisfaction, he was able to make a huge tangle of subsidiary sources to reconcile his original idea with a 'casual' reference to Joyce. That's what polymaths do: they read Joyce for instruction and pleasure and win the (1969) Nobel Prize for Physics "for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions". He called that classification the Eightfold Way in another 'casual' reference to Buddhist practice. That's my sorta guy - I too ripped off the Buddhists in the title for my analysis of the process of pilgrimage. He worked for several years with, and in the same building as, Richard Feynman, it quickly became apparent that no single institution could be big enough for their egos.

His interest in language started him into a project to link all the extant languages of the World back to a single common ancestor. Like Proto-Indo-European PIE, but much much deeper. It is an intellectual problem fraught with problems because you can, with trouble, read something in PIE because English and Irish and Russian all share some common roots. But the few connexions between English and Maori, which consumes much of my cousin Trevor's time, could be because of linguistic universals OR could be borrowings or coincidence. Gell-Mann felt his crap-detector was bright enough to sort the signal from the noise. Two minute TEDxplanation.

Another idea attributed to him, by Michael "Jurassic Park" Crichton, is Gell-Mann Amnesia. Here you read a newspaper article about your field of expertise and find all sorts of errors of attribution and understanding [wet pavements cause rain etc.] . . . and then expect the same journal's reportage on European Law, Ebola Virus or Eritrea to be factually accurate and sensibly analysed.  This is sort of the opposite of my Fodor's Guide to truth and credibility. - which doesn't have an entry in Wikipedia.

Wearing your cleverness on your sleeve can be quite overwhelming and eventually tedious, but for me, the virtue of Gell-Mann's erudition and creativity outweighs the egotism. He has a large media presence because he liked talking: check'im out? on Fermi - on Einstein . . .
Ave atque vale

Monday 27 May 2019


At the last Open Day at The Institute, the Management had supplied tea, coffee and their particular line in iced dainties. I took my snout briefly out of the trough to offer a tray of them to a dad and his chap with "Hey, free food, hard to refuse!" Dad accepted but the young feller said no thanks I've just had breakfast. I looked at him in an appraising manner [built like a pencil] and asked his father "Was he one of those metabolic teenage boys who, if provided with a toaster, could polish off an 800g sliced pan between school and dinner?". Not so; but apparently the chap was a machine for consuming fried eggs.

That allowed me to tell a story about NBT, my well travelled PhD boss. He spent a few years going back and forth to the Middle East on field work - for example, he was one of the last Americans to hang out in the Shah's Iran before the Ayatollahs took over. He used to boast that he could order two fried eggs and a cup of coffee in 15 different languages. That served him well until he rocked up in a café in Anatolia. Having consulted the phrase book in advance, with great assurance he tried something like "iki kızarmış yumurta ve bir fincan kahve" but was met with incomprehension. Like a good Patriarch he repeated the phrase, slightly louder and with more assurance; at which the waiter shrugged and dived into the kitchen. 10 minutes later, the waiter reappeared with a cup of coffee and an omelet the size of a tea-tray. Only slightly daunted, Neil gave a Kobayashi shake and started ploughing through his breakfast. He figured afterwards that he must have asked for 2 dozen eggs - no wonder the waiter was aghast confused.

Some time in the 80s, after I'd stopped living with them and returned to Europe, Neil's wife Joyce bought a slow-cooker. She was out at work all day, as was Neil and their youngest daughter who was studenting in U.Mass Boston. It sounded like A Plan. They'd load up the pot in the morning and return home in the evening to a piping hot meal without the trouble of chopping onions. Chili con carne seemed like a good place to start their new efficient life. Nobody twigged that the toxin present in the skin of kidney beans, which was neutralised by even 5 minutes boiling on the stove-top, was going to be unaffected by many hours simmering at 90°C. Amy the daughter didn't even finish her plate before she departed for the bathroom; Joyce, who had a year in the Gir forest in India under her belt, succumbed after half an hour. Ever the contrarian, Neil of the Iron Stomach affected to believe that everything was under control down there. He stayed at the kitchen table ostentatiously ignoring the Vesuvian rumbles and gloops emanating from his torso . . . until even he had to run for relief. The evacuation was far more spectacular for having been held back for so long.
Sick transit gloria chili?
Other things can be cooked to perfection without coming even close to this temperature: Alex cooks a chateaubriand sous-vide at 54°C.

And because good things always come in Threes, I have another food-related Neil story:
A few years later, he was back in the Third World, with me, on a field trip to Cabo Verde. It must have been 1985 because the whole archipelago was in party mood to celebrate 10 years of independence [a while after the carnation revolution of 1974] from Portugal. We flew in by plane but had to make a few internal trips by bus. These beat-up jalopies were always crowded, not only with people but crates of chickens, sacks of farm produce and other travelling-public luggage. I started learning Portuguese in anticipation of that trip because I knew, far from expecting any fluency in English, the local criolo had something in common with the language of the recent colonial oppressors. There were were no seats when we got on the bus but Neil sat down on the lid of a robust plastic bucket. The driver suggested that wasn't a good ideas because o balde está cheio de tripa  - which I translated as the bucket is full of tripe. Doesn't bother me, said Neil, I'm not in a dress suit and I've sat on worse seats. The driver became more emphatic - please tell your pal that he's sitting [his fat yankee ass] on somebody's lunchRed faces on the visitors' side.

I'm clearly on a roll here because I have another Neil story which hinges on a, relatively benign, communication breakdown. As one of the last great Europhiles, during the 1980s, Neil would make several trips a year across The Pond, often the UK, to do some research: he'd travel hand-baggage only because it was more efficient and start off from Boston with his most raggedy socks & jocks. As he moved round the country in search of data, he'd discard these rags to make a bit of room for any treasures [Kelly's Street Directory of Coventry 1886; 6 misc. tavern tokens from Staffordshire; a History of Baden-Württemberg; 4 linen tea-towels] he might pick up on the journey. One trip he had two nights booked in a humble B&B in Cardiff. After the first breakfast, he threw his underwear in the waste-paper bin and went off for a day's work in the National Museum of Wales. When he returned in the evening, he found his discarded clothing washed and ironed on the end of his bed. I can't remember if he troubled to explain what his intentions were or whether it was less embarrassing all round if he just moved on to the next town with an extra day's underwear in the bank.

Sunday 26 May 2019

hands on

Science is A way of knowing [prev]. I'm a scientist, I've had a lifetime in science trying to make sense of it all. If I know One thing now, it is that no person, not even the most tediously obsessive know-it-all can can know it all. What scientists do is find a spot at The Frontier, preferably not too busy with other scientists, and start chipping away making sense of it. With time, and money [thank you governments and founadations] and an occasional creative spark, we can fuse the chippings to make another brick in the wall of understanding. That provides an extension and a foundation for others to add their own synthetic brick. The universe trundles on with or without the wall; with or without the synthesis; with or without you. The scientific process is only useful if the discoveries can be explained to others. The standard scientific brick is a peer-reviewed publication; written in a formal, idiosyncratic style; read by other scientists who use the information to push at their own bit of the Frontier. Readers of The Blob, including myself, know that the 'explanation' is often dense = opaque, and therefore stupid.

Saturday night, me and The Beloved, and Pat the Salt her aged father, were in The Arts Block to see what they could do towards making sense of it all. We spent a couple of hours, including a most welcome tea and cakes, at Liminal States in St Patrick's Gateway Centre a re-purposed Protestant church in Waterford. Liminal States has been a massive multi-media multi-cultural project headed up by visual and performance artist Alanna O'Kelly. It was funded by Wexford CoCo and Waterford CoCo through their Arts Office[r]s and the Bealtaine Festival of Age and Opportunity.  Liminal States are at the edge - ultimately from the Latin limes = frontier. Frontier?? that's where we-the-scientists are! But of course it's a different frontier with different Ways of Seeing. There's a use of language in any field that makes more sense to those in the tent looking out, than the folks outside the tent looking in. Look at me: Blobbin' away about science and culture; thinking it's both clear and useful but often desperately in need of a ruthless copy editor.

What we heard in St Patrick's was a hub-bub of exotic sound: somewhere high up, a recorded sound-track but on the ground a buzz of comms in a dozen different languages. What we saw was the floor being gradually covered with mandalas of overlapping stencilled patterns picked out in primary poster paints. I can imagine that the building custodian was thinking Jakers, I hope they clean up after themselves. I was thinking this paint is going to be tracked through a lot of homes in Waterford tonight.  But that's not the point. The event was the culmination of a Process, involving women at a Direct Provision Centre down the way from Waterford City.  I've written about Direct Provision before - DP centres are hostels for displaced persons people awaiting a decision on the application for asylum in Ireland. They wait and wait and wait in a limbo of enervating boredom occasionally jangled by another court appearance or a meeting with the lawyer. DP Centres are often former hotels built hopefully in peculiar places . . . if they had a functional business plan, they'd still be hotels. It's a Limbo - a Liminal State - a dump of unPersons unrecognised by the State; cut off from their physical neighbours by cultural, economic and psychological barriers. A frontier with too much law and not enough compassion.
What Alanna O'Kelly and her sunny arty crew have done is rock up to the DP centre with a boxful of paints and encourage the women there to express their true selves in paint or performance or story. More importantly those stories have been heard. Received with respect and attention and whatever time it took to express their understanding of what it means to be human and alive. Wade says it for Tibet - Liminal States says it for Sierra Leone, Somalia, Guatemala, Kurdistan. All those colourful, exotic, tasty, ways of being. Not better than bacon-and-cabbage but different, definitely different.

Saturday 25 May 2019

Democracy for all

All! Since 1972, following the Fourth Amendment to the constitution, every citizen over the age of 18 may vote in elections and referendums. Every citizen?? For most of us, it's straighforward: take your polling card to the voting centre; get the ballot and mark it up; pop it in the ballot box; have a congratulatory cup of tea. No problem if you're deaf. But what about if you're legally blind or otherwise incapacitated -  the Downs? demented? two broken arms? Clearly it would be a Bad Thing to exclude such people because the can't read the ballot paper or write numbers in the boxes. But how much is democracy prepared to accommodate them? A few Braille ballots at each polling station?

Section 103 of the Electoral Act of 1992 applies.  The presiding officer may ask the Elector to swear that they are so incapacitated that they require assistance, but they are not obliged to do so. An official called a Personation Agent may descend on the polling station and require the presiding officer to administer the oath. Otherwise the presiding officer is able to use good judgement.

Most of the difficult cases are swept up by allowing a Companion to enter the booth with the Elector to help push the process along. That companion must be a) at least 16 years old, b) not standing for election and c) not the agent for one standing for election. You also can't make a living hiring yourself out as a companion. Any companion may help a maximum of two electors in any one election. That is a reasonable compromise - adult son may take both his aged parents to the polling booth; but the owner of a nursing home cannot rock up with a charabanc full of demented democrats.

In the absence of a companion, the presiding officer, shall, in the presence of the Elector - but no other person, mark up the ballot for the Elector. "the presiding officer may assist the elector by reading out in full from the ballot paper the particulars stated in respect of each candidate". Which is fine if the Elector is a perfectly lucid blind person; but maybe not so straight-forward if Elector is also hard of hearing and/or losing a few marbles. And the privacy requirement is not going to happen, folks. Polling stations are usually drafty halls or classrooms with fold-out polling booths made up from hard-board and 2x1s: it would be hard to find a quiet place to read out the list of candidates and their affiliations. That is 23 candidates <!!> for the European Elections in Ireland South: the ballot being the size of a pillow case.

There you are. I didn't know how all that worked until, perforce, I became a Companion. With my interest in Signing, you'll expect that I found the site where the Referendum is explained in ISL. The information is also available for those with intellectual disability. I can't tell you how we voted; that goes against the principle of a secret ballot. Later today, I hope to visit the secret beach.

Friday 24 May 2019

All over for 2018-2019

The last exam for this session at The Institute was sat on Tuesday and I'm sure all the students are glad the ordeal is over. For our final year research project students, there was one final task - to present their project in 10 minutes + 5 for questions. For many, this public speaking task is far more daunting than trying to remember everything they know about blood pressure or nematodes. otoh some people can't do exams - mathematician Klaus Roth almost flunked his finals in 1945 at Cambridge (panic attacks over exams) but went on to win the Field Medal in 1958. Yesterday, I sat through 20 such talks, including the 9 who flourished on my watch.  I won't say there wasn't a tiny bit of anxious parent about the ordeal. 5 hours of anything can be an ordeal; it doesn't need palpable anxiety, shaking and blushing. But, in the 20thC bourgeois-speak with which I grew up, they all aquitted themselves well . . . some really well. A tuthree so on top of their material, and confident in their demeanour, and clear in their explanations as to be really professional. It's not every year that I can, with hand on heart, claim that they all done good. But this year I could and I told them so, and continued thus:
Now it's really all over,  you deserve prizes:
a. for spelling Escherichia correctly
b. for italicising Latin binomers
c. for having bottle
d. for not being competitive
e. for being ambitious
f. for being independent
g. for knowing when to get help
h. for knowing when to get coffee
i. for having a sense of humour
Chapeaux! as we say in Europeo.
You see that I have offered 9 prizes, so that there is something for everyone in the audience.

Me? I've still got a couple of weeks to go. Those projects have to be given a mark - 10% for The Perf yesterday; the exams results have to be collated and an overall grade assigned; the end of year staff party has to be endured (must make more effort to avoid the boring olde crumblies table). And the Summer, which in April was broad vistas of white diary, is now filling up with events and things to do.

Thursday 23 May 2019


That would be Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Hard to Google [Synthetic Milk Adaptation; Society of African Missions] ghastly to live with. Grace O'Malley [R] isn't ghastly, of course, she's a real sweetie but she (and her parents) are living with this progressive progressive neuromuscular degeneration and the prognosis is not good. She's in the news again because Sarah McInerney one of RTE's solid up-and-coming journalistic stars invited Grace's mother Lorraine to  make a pitch on The Late Debate. Less that 2 weeks before the local and European elections, you couldn't have better timing to gain some political traction. The pitch was that Simon Harris, the minister of health should request-and-require the HSE to authorise payment for an orphan drug called Spinraza which might have some medical benefits for the 2 dozen kids who, like Grace, suffer from SMA. When the quants and economists at the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics NCPE see the phrase orphan drug they know that they are going to have to work at being the cold-hearted black hats utilitarian adults in the room.

SMA is an inborn error of metabolism, clearly rare because there are 1 million 0-14 y.o children in Ireland with about 65,000 more coming on stream every year but only 25 of them have SMA. The error occurs as a mutation in the SMN [survival motor neuron] gene located on chromosome 5. The SMN protein is one member of a complex of proteins that process mRNAs before export from the nucleus. Several different defective mutations have been logged among sick children who present with progressive loss of muscle tone. Each lesion will give a different prognosis; several are associated with SMA1, the worst condition with such early onset that the poor wean never gets the ooof to sit up. Other changes will result in later onset of the clinical symptoms: SMA2 (Grace's cohort) get to sit but not to stand; while SMA3, the mildest form, learn to stand and have the expectation of getting to vote. Each case is spontaneous - it doesn't run in families because with SMA it's hard enough to breathe and feed yourself, let alone make babies.

The peculiarity of SMN is that most of us have two copies. A 300,000 bp chunk of Chr5, has been duplicated and reinserted backwards further along the chromosome. This duplicated region includes SMN2 which is identical to SMN1 but usually kept on the back-burner. Spinraza / Nusinersen works on this information by encouraging SMN2 to perk up and make full length copies of the protein that can compensate for the duff copies of SMN1. Spinraza is an anti-sense DNA which cannot be administered intravenously, let alone orally, but must be injected directly into the cerebro-spinal fluid. As it has a finite half-life, this life-enhancing fluid must be given 4 times a year. That's less frequently than Factor VIII for haemophilia, but the market price for Spinraza is an eye-watering $125,000 a pop or €500,000/year for starters, trailing off in subsequent years as the number of booster injections is reduced.

The maths is beguilingly symmetrical.
  • Team Haemophilia has more [N=200] members who need their therapy, more often, but the cost per dose is about €2,000. Cost to the tax-payer is €60 million annually.
  • SMA United musters about 25 people, and the NCPE reckons the cost will be a rolling €10-20 million.
I don't think that symmetry is a coincidence. A modern drug, any drug, will cost MegaPharma €1 billion in R&D, false leads, dead-ends, animal models, Phase I, II, III clinical trials and all the quants to get a positive gloss on the numbers. For context, the Minister of Finance can run an entire country on a budget of about €70 billion a year. Megapharm is not looking at the Irish market which is vanishingly small potatoes. But the EU, the USA and increasingly China - that's where the big bucks are to be made because the market is bigger. Ireland's population is about 1% of the EU, so European sales of Spinraza will be about €150 million - the USA about the same, [China? who knows what the Central Praesidium is prepared to pay the capitalist paper tigers of Western Big Pharma]. Payment is not profit but assuming a 30% mark-up, The Company will just about pay off the R&D as the patent window [about 10 years of exclusive sales] closes. The commoner the disease, the more patients across which the costs may be amortized and so the cheaper the sale price.

The difference between Haemophilia and SMA treatments are the QALYs - quality adjusted life years - this is where the NCPE earns its salt. It's brutal but not hard to assess the relative value of competing therapies: urinary incontinence among women who have given birth is unsexy and in many cases treatable with a nip-and-tuck surgery down there. A double-lung transplant for a young chap with cystic fibrosis is fantastically complicated and so expensive.  All those women can live a little dribbly [don't laugh, it just makes it worse] but it makes life awkward every day. Surely we can find the compassion, and the general surgeon, to sort it out. For that boy with CF and two new pink lungs [R source] - I met him at mature student interviews a couple of weeks ago! - life itself depends on the intervention. We the tax-payer just cannot do everything for everyone without we embrace a highly productive socialist paradise with to each according to his need. Why not be a utilitarian?
The drug market is regulated at two levels:
  • EMA [European Medicines Agency; = FDA in USA] decides if a new drug is a) safe and b) works to specification: a pass here allows the drug to be sold
  • NCPE decides if the drug is so good that the government will pick up the tab.
12,000 people have signed a petition to persuade Minister Harris to order that €20,000,000 should be diverted from {A&E + trolleys + mortuaries + nurses' pay demandsm + hiring the best consultants} to improve the quality of life of 2 dozen small suffering children. He did exactly this two years ago when he approved Orkambi over and against the advice of the NCPE. But here's the thing, those petitioners can contribute it themselves: €20M/12K = €1,500 each every year until a better, cheaper therapy comes like magic from the genii's lamp a bright idea and some meticulous hard work from science.
"The impulse to serve the collective many over the individual few is hard to assail." is an aposite quote from a NYT longform on hospice care for children. When the amazing and ingenious therapies run out, a place needs to be set aside, preferably without drips and tubes and perpetually beeping monitors, where the poor child can go in peace.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

6 year stretch

When I started writing The Blob in January 2013, it was to log the process of transition between working part time in a University in distant Dublin and working full on, full time, in the IT sector. That's Institutes of Technology not, the more usual use as IT = Information Technology. On the scale of thing Dublin isn't 'distant' except by comparison with my current commute; which is 40km down hill and along dale through the incomparable Irish countryside watching the seasons change through the front window on my little red Yaris. It was mad busy at work and at the weekends getting to grips with the new job. But eventually (with a chair and a whip) I brought it under control. The Blob documents some of the events, triumphs and disasters that have made life so interesting for me and in science those years.

22 May 2013 was one of several days in the early part of that year when I didn't have time to post anything on Blogspot. But the next day 23rd May 2013, I was back at the scriptorum busily transcribing the Gospel According to Bob and I haven't missed a day since. If you look carefully, as my fellow blogger Russ did, for one day when there is nothing on record - but that was a cock-up on the scheduling front. I wrote something that day but it  was 'published' on a previous day - a reversal of time's arrow of which Blogspot is capable. I say Gospel According to Bob because by recording the everyday story of science-folk, I have had to put things in context. Often that context requires dredging up something from my past that seems, in my mind, relevant. I know readers, including myself later, are frequently bemused the jumps and transitions: "I have no idea what's going on here" I say.  Nevertheless it is getting like The Blob is the, rather poorly editted, story of my life. As I slip towards retirement age, it is harder to recall previous events; so soon enough I'll be unable to find any background that hasn't already been recorded.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: it's all in the index down the right hand margin >>>>>>

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Only (some of) her rivers run free

Let nobody doubt that free-flowing rivers are highly politicised. Reflecting on the big ticket items . . .
  • The Colorado River that carved the Grand Canyon now reduced to a dribble the fails to reach the Gulf of California
  • The Aswan Dam that drowned the Abu Simbel temple complex
  • All those Army Corps of Engineers levées on the Mississippi that have given back 500,000 hectares of Louisiana to the sea.
Or the Irish ecocrumps:
  • The Ard na Crusha hydroelectric dam that blocked the Shannon Ireland's longest river
    • and Bord na Mona stripping the adjacent bogs to allow millions of tonnes of sediment to clog the river
    • and Athlone to establish the town's landfill on the callows below the town
  • The Barrow Navigation that changed the river's natural tumble into a series of steps [Clashganny Lock R] to provide an additional energetic burden on spawning salmon
    • there are now no eels on the Barrow
. . . you'd think that humanity had changed, changed utterly the running of fresh water across the entire planet. Running is the appropriate word because rivers run, yes, but we run businesses also; and we have looked on rivers as things to be used and exploited to suit human convenience and profit. Let the chips for the {alder | bacteroides | caddis flies | damselflies | eel | figwort | gudgeon | heron . . .} fall where they may.

Now a multinational group led by geographers from McGill U, Montreal have carried out a global inventory of "free-flowing rivers" and published their work in Nature. It's paywalled but the abstract and pixellated figures are available to all. It's not just the goddamm dams that inhibit free-flow:

  1. dams, weirs and locks are just the longitudinal source-to-sea element. 
  2. There are also the levées, and berms and quays which constrain lateral flow - natural rivers spill out over the banks to inundate callows, flood-plains and riparian fields and forests. 
  3. Thirdly, there is a vital dynamic between groundwater, surface rivers and the atmosphere: oxygen maxes out at 14 ppm in cold water raise the temperature to 15°C downstream from a factory and there's a third less bio-available oxygen. 
  4. Finally, rivers are dynamic through time: thee Aughnabriskey at the bottom of our fields was rocks and puddles during the last hot summer but can become a raging torrent 2m deep after a significant spill of rain. Callows flood in the winter, depositing silt [good] but compressing the soil [ungood] with the weight of water. And there we go again: making a value judgement on a natural process to decide that it is [good] or indeed [bad] for us.

The McGilliQuanties have spent some time defining terms and applying weightings to their base metrics so they are comparable across very different rivers from 10km streamlets to the mighty rivers that feature in Sporcle quizzes: including Ob, Lena, Parana. Someone has to decide if a navigational lock is more or less inhibitory of free-flow than a mile of levée or a tonne of sediment retention. They have reduced the multivariate multidimensional statistics of free-flow status to a single value the connectivity status index CSI and then applied that to every reach of every river longer than 10km. A reach is stretch of river between two confluences (where a significant lateral inflow occurs). I guess its a feature of the granularity of the analysis to find that short (10-100km) rivers are mostly [97%] free-flowing, while half the long (500-1000km) rivers are constrained [56% free-flow] and very long rivers (>1000km) are mostly not free-flow [only 37% still free]. It takes just one Hoover [L] or Aswan or Three Gorges or Oroville to destroy the free-flow status and the longer the river the more places humanity can tromp in with steel and concrete. Dam removal prev.

Sounds better to me than I expected from prior ignorance. Then again, a lot of the remaining free-flowing rivers debouch into the Arctic and they are only being left alone because nobody lives there. But watch out for the Congo, when they can stop killing each other in rolling civil wars in Central Africa, then the human population will grow and it's only a matter of demographic time before some bright spark proposes a prestige dam for power. What's upstream from the Aswan Dam? Ethiopia is upstream and Ethiopia  wants its own dam. Tomorrow: The Water Wars

Monday 20 May 2019


The EireVision Song contest came and went without me tuning in at all and all. It would help with the tuning if we had a television, of course.

IF you're into fishnet hosiery, stilettos and very tall fit young women crawling about on the floor THEN you'll be sorry Ukraine and their song pick by Maruv couldn't sign a licencing agreement, so had to withdraw from the competition in February. If you prefer spikes, leather and fake blood then Iceland's Hatari is yer only man. At least he's singing in his native tongue rather than joining +70% of the entries to sing in English. And of course there was a background kerfuffle about whether TV can recognise North Macedonia as the country that used to be FYRoM - they entered Proud.

That cleared some competition out of the way for Ireland's Own Sarah McTernan . . . but she still came last in the semi-final. I guess that will put a damper on sales. It's Frankly Scarlett for me on that, but I was curious about conformity between the two equally weighted components to the marking process. Would the opinion of a jury composed of media people and celebs agree with a jury composed of people who had 60c to rub together to send the appropriate SMS? Turns out, from the graphs [L] that these two parameters are correlated but not very well, when the votes received are compared [L upper]. As to the votes given, I've filleted out the Irish numbers to show [L below] that there is a bit more cohesion between the Celebrity Influencers and The Plain People of Ireland.

Thank you cards

On Saturday morning 18th May a goodly company of wayfarers streamed along our lane on one of the downhill stretches of The Blackstairs Challenge an up-hill and down-dale walk of about 30km. I'm told that next year will be the 20th Anniversary of the first such event, for almost as long we have been making water available for the trekkers: initially with a 25 lt drum and since 2007 from the tap plumbed up in the yard near the front gate. One year, anticipating a phew wot a sorcher of a day, the organisers phoned me up to make sure of supply;  but usually I remember the date and often I make a slab or two of flapjacks. These seem to be appreciated - in any case they are all gone long before the last of the walkers has passed through. But the water, which costs nothing because it falls from the sky, is definitely valued. Unless it is raining in a serious fashion, I usually put out a few wooden benches, and plenty of people use them to change socks, doctor blisters or just take the weight off their abuséd knees.

This year I found a card in an envelope tucked under the empty box of flapjacks. Sincere Thanks, it said Whoever has a heartful of love always has something to give Pope John XXIII. The pedant in me noted the absence of . between give and Pope and suggest that His Holiness has quite enough already. But, heck, let's not carp, someone came prepared a) for flapjacks and b) for the wherewithal to say thanks for them. Puts a tiny bit of pressure on me to remember the date and the recipe next year.  When I picked up the empty box, it rattled and revealed inside €2.50, which is more or less what it takes to make a swiss-roll tinsworth of cookies, so that was appreciated also. I long ago stopped expected people to formally say thanks for services undertaken for the community: all my years editting newsletters and serving on committees and washing mountains of dishes. The revelation was realising that I did those things because I enjoyed doing it; not because I was taking one for the team.

Four years ago, my project students clubbed together and bought me a mug, a packet of biscuits and some tea-bags in acknowledgement that I had been present for/with them for 6 hours a week for 30 weeks. I still have the mug, although its handle and the tea and biks are long gone. Doesn't happen every year, but a couple of weeks ago I had a knock at the door of my office from one of this year's crop of about-to-graduates. S/he presented me with a bar of chocolate and a card by way of saying thanks for her 30 weeks of care&attention. I can do no better than to quote verbatim:
Thank you for the unending support that powered me through my proudest work from these stressful college years. Without your knowledge and help, I wouldn't have been able to find my way through the jungle of bioinformatics. I wouldn't have been able to annotate two previously unannotated genes from little brown bats. The witty e-mails and conversations in D426 are aspects of these years that will be missed. Thank you for re-igniting my passion to 'push the frontiers of science' as it had been dulled from the stress of previous years. I hope you look back on those synteny maps of fantastic design (if I do say it myself) with fondness and know how inspired I feel since rediscovering I have the ability to create something great.
That is exactly on the button. That's one student who had a self-affirming "hey, I can leap tall buildings" experience in room D426 this year: who was given space, and pushed a little, and teased a bit, and worked damned hard to achieve the very best. <Milton alertThat one talent, which is death to hide, is no longer lodged in me useless. It is not about me: the truth is a pathless land - occasionally for a few people (maybe one, occasionally two a year) I can be a finger-post.

What's definitely true is that we don't formally say Thanks half enough.

Sunday 19 May 2019


World Bee Day - that would be today, since 2017 when the UN, at the insistence of Slovenia, designated 20th May to raise awareness of bees and bee keeping; colony collapse disorder and our inter-dependence with Apis mellifera and other bees. Rathanna is having a session this afternoon. I'll be there, but hopefully not covered in beeees.

Saturday 18 May 2019


Spot price Au when written €37 / gram.
Sometimes, the youtube recommendation algorithm comes up with gold instead of something similar to what you clicked upon by accident while drunk at Christmas. What I would prefer is short videos, with good production values and a bit of back story, which show an expert going about their craft. A bit of jargon doesn't go amiss. Could be rock-climberspotters - axe-makers - mathematicians - philologists - biologists - book-binders. But I'm done with people who make long videos about picking detritus from the bottom of rivers: it's just too easy to game that sort of stuff. Oh look I've found that slightly weedy GoPro again on a different stretch of river. Even if it's a civil war Springfield.

But forget about discarded man-made, where's the gold? It is . . .
  • Near Tyndrum in Scotland: up an upland valley not far from the village. Jaysus, if only I'd known during thje cumulative hours I spent in my youth trying to hitch-hike out of Tyndrum on my way North from Glasgow or South from Glencoe on the A85. The trouble being that half the traffic was cutting across country from Perth to Oban on the A85; the two roads shared the valley between Crianlarich [another place desperate to hitch out of] and Tyndrum. But back to the Tyndrum Gold. I really like this little film - lovely drone footage of the moors with mighty sound-track until MrDazP1 gets down and wetty in the stream. He looked nigglingly familiar until I slept on it and realised he was eerily like the eary one of the rowers of Skib
    • You'd want to be dedicated, though, and know what you're at, because the returns are almost too small to see. Then again gold weighs heavy: about 20x the density of water & 1 cu. mm weighs 20mg and is worth 75c - you don't want to sneeze.
  • Somewhere in Arizona. USMiner is along way from water so relies on his metal detector to find chunks "absolute screamer sitting right on bed-rock" big enough to see [R above estimated to be a 1 grammer - who said USA couldn't manage metric?]. He's bought a tract of 80ac [30+ ha] in AZ and another 40ac  [16 ha.] in N. Nevada, which was not a million miles from existing gold-prospecting operations, in case he got bored. Again I like this chap's style - he's got a goal and clearly has some money behind him and doesn't want to go bust but he's not in it just for the money. For example he's happy to give some youtube laggards in the business a bit of a leg up, now that he's passed 6 million views.
  • West of St. Louis. Kyle Thiemann is doing alright [300K views] but goes do go on a bit and there's no back-story. All very well if you're in the present moment of gold-panning but 30 minutes is about 20 minutes too long - here's a leg-up from me: be ruthless with the edits!
  • Northern California. TwoToes [2m views] goes sniping for gold. A bit didactic but clear: snipe the inside of the bend - that's where the gold gets dropped. Point is that gold is the heaviest thing in the gravel and so it sinks; it also moves slowest when you're fanning the gravel away.
  • Pilbara W.A. with a GPZ-7000 metal detector. Glenn Baker: "nice little sun-baker there, complete with cow-shit; won't be putting that one in my mouth" 500g = €18,500 for a few days work. These guys are also a helluva a long way from water except for the occasional flash-flood and are fetching stuff up along a little run-off dell. An Anglo-Irish pal of my parents, Charles Chenevix-Trench, was a D.O. in Kenya during Mau-Mau and before independence. He used to tease visitors by pinching off a bit of elephant dung popping it in his mouth to pronounce, after a bit of meditative chewing "Three days old!" Probably coliform safe enough after 3 days in the sun, and it would not take The Amazing Randi to pretend to pop elephant dung in your mouth either.
Obviously the itemised bill principle applies. Hitting payola is not about digging so much as knowing where to dig / pan / snipe.

Friday 17 May 2019

Chicken wars

We had the whole family sitting down to dinner on Easter Sunday Pater [that would be Bob the Patriarch], Mater, the F1 generation and their partners, the F2 = Gdau.I and Gdau.II. It was lovely to see their shining faces but the table was barely big enough to give everyone elbow room . . . and to hold the mountain of thanksgiven food. Mr Dunne the Butcher in Btown supplied one of his monstrous organic chickens, but there was much more beside; not least because there are several veggies in the family. That chicken was r'ared a long way from those battery farms where it takes 41 days to get a chicken from hatchling to marketable weight. Two days later, everyone had dispersed to their own homes and I was left with a hape of chicken to finish off. There is only so much chicken curry that a fellow can eat and I had to freeze two tasty aliquots of chicken stock for later. This probably colours my verdict but really I wouldn't care if I never ate chicken again.  But I do realise that I'm in a minority here: there is a rolling total of 19 billion chucks on the planet and about 25 million of them are killed in the USA every day for people to eat. And Herbert Hoover did not define prosperity and progress as "A chicken in every pot" in 1928. That was Henri IV of France: “Je veux qu'il n'y ait si pauvre paysan en mon royaume qu'il n'ait tous les dimanches sa poule au pot.”

But for several years in the 00s, I had the option of a chicken for Sunday dinner because I was on the payroll of a massive study to look at Campylobacter jejuni in chicken. Campy is a natural commensal of chicken guts and present in all commercial and homestead chickens as a wholly benign presence. If any of these microbes transfer to your gut unkilled then you are going to be talking to the porcelain telephone for a couple of days and hoping that the transitory infection isn't going to develop into Guillain-Barré syndrome which will give you months of pain and paralysis. With the best of intentions, our studies were probably under-powered and used technology and analysis that could never give a definitive answer to explain why Campy was treated so differently by people and by chickens. I have been know to say "They gave us €1 million of tax-payers money to find the the best solutions for avoiding infection by Campylobacter jejuni and the answer is . . . don't wash your chicken". It's the aerosol, stupid, like with hot-air hand-driers, chickens all have Campy about their person; it is easily killed by cooking; you don't want to spray in over the kitchen counter, the salad or you hands.

That bold advice is echoed "Do not wash raw chicken. During washing, chicken juices can spread in the kitchen and contaminate other foods, utensils, and countertops" by the US Center for Disease Control CDC in Atlanta Georgia. Even though they are more concerned with Salmonella than the much more prevalent cause of giving at both ends Campylobacter. Well the shit hit the fan <frrrppppttt> across many communities across America! Huge and engaged comment [read the comments to poll middle America] on both sides of the wash/unwash divide. Marriages have collapsed over the matter and, being America, probably several spouses have been offed in gunfire for [not] washing the Sunday chicken. The story was rechurned by Metafilter where it garnered a whole lot more commentary, some droll, some informative. It's probably marginally more important than whether you put the milk in first but the passion with which people hold and articulate their beliefs on chicken-washing suggests that the position is not data-driven.

Thursday 16 May 2019

T for Texas T for Transessee

The other evening, my son the engineer was asking his father the geneticist about Caster Semenya's chromosomes. I hadn't been following the story, and I gave him some incorrect information [she probably has XY chromosomes . . . but I'll have a go at this later] and we moved on to talk about people being born in the wrong body. I boasted that The Institute now had >!ta RAAA!< gender-neutral bathrooms . . . because it had put different signage [as L] on the wheel-chair access bathrooms. The Boy gave us a very slow hand-clap for making people who cannot walk wait in line while a variety of other people use a bathroom they feel comfortabe using. It's a bit like using  ♿ disabled parking spot ♿  because you're really crap at reversing your car and you need a wider approach. As such, the  spiked wheel is an unintentionally appropriate symbol. I met the president of The Institute at the Open Day on Saturday and mentioned this labelling solution to the bathroom problem.

Not for the first time, I asked myself whether gender dysphoria [no longer called gender identity disorder GID in these inclusive times - because it's not a disorder] is a national problem or just a headache with which individuals have to deal. For quanti-me national vs individual hinges on frequency [R f =~ 0.004]. They say that some men wish they had a 12 inch pianist and many people would be delighted if the tax-payer would stump up €1 million to pay off the mortgage but it ain't gonna happen. Contrariwise, if it turns out that none of our black students can secure a 12 week work-placement while all the Old Irish can, then we might do something about it. Because that seems less about the student and more about the injustice of prejudice. The graph [R] from a 2017 study by Meerwijk and Sevelius gives some sort of an answer about the frequency of Transgender people: 0.4% or 1/250 people on the planet don't feel right about the gender they were assigned at birth. That's a lot: 1 million US citizens or about 20,000 in Ireland. Perspective: that's about 4x as many as the 5,000 capital D deaf people; but less than the 50,000 registered blind. For parity of esteem, I should add that 100,000 people report having impaired hearing - these are mostly people my age [wha'? wha? speak up young man] and older and we really don't have the same burden as those who never heard. My macular degeneration Mum is registered blind, with a disabled parking ticket for whoever is giving her a shopping lift, but she can with effort read the newspaper. So none of these conditions {gender | deaf | blind | leg-disabled} are monochrome but all on a sliding grey scale.

There's another term - gender non-conformity - which seems to be more of a life-style choice - maybe like  Eddie Izzard's taste in eye-liner and sequins? then again Izzard is a well 'ard multi-marathonner who'll take the fight to anyone who disses him, so in that sense he's still part of the Patriarchy. Then again, then again: we want to be careful about treating mental troubles as less serious than physical troubles: depression kills 10x more people in Ireland than infectious diseases and 2x more than vehicular homicide.

Gender dysphoria is less of a laughing matter than Eddie Izzard (who is funny) which really adversely affects the quality of life.
4x more likely to live in poverty;
2x more likely unemployed
2x more likely homeless
4x more likely HIV positive
40% attempted suicide ['normal' range 1-2% whc is worrying enough]
Anyway, on the basis of these [admittedly arm-wavy] figures, we might find it in our hearts to help people as they Transition from the gender they grew up with. At the very least by getting the freaking pronouns correct; keeping bathrooms inclusive; not caring whether someone is bloke or belle - especially if you don't fancy them. When we've got that far along the road to common decency, we could think about paying for the hormones and the gender reassignment surgery. That answer betrays me as currently thinking that gender dysphoria is a personal thing not a public burden. But Patriarch SWM me would say that, wouldn't I? Then again I'm with the NCPE in denying €300K/yr Orkambi drugs to youngsters with CF.

There's an interesting and informative piece-to-camera in Nature by Sara Reardon their Wash DC correspondent. In Science in Transition she investigates the health impacts on people as they make the burdensome changes necessary to become happy in their own skins. And if you haven't heard about TERF wars, then you haven't been listening. And lest you think that there are limits to what capitalism will do to exploit a marketing opportunity, I suggest you try the new BLT [R for right-on] from Marks & Sparks - anything to abstract money from the smashed-avocado-for-breakfast generation.

Not directly related but today is GAAD Global Accessibility Awareness Day designated as such by Joe Devon & Jennison Asuncion Who dat? Check out the Global for an event near you? Here's some advice about Powerpoint from the UCD event run by my old pal Grace Mulcahy. San Serif font: big; clear contrast; use Alt.Text for vis-impaired.

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Back-it-up then bin-it

Was I on about decluttering recently? I was: in particular the, originally Swedish, concept of death cleaning aka döstädening. I take from this that getting rid of sentimental-attachment shite is
  1. a courtesy to those who will have to execute your Will and tidy up Your Affairs 
  2. a cleansing therapy to realise that your memories are selective and having a physical coat-rack for them only works if it is on the mantle-piece in plain site. If your keep-sakes and memorabilia are in the cupboard under the stairs, then you might as well forgettit.
If it takes a ceramic rissole [L] for you to remember that amazing meal you had with your long dead father - the time he told a joke that was most improper for children - then perhaps of don't need the rissole. Just imagine your children going through the house after the funeral "Guess what I've found? A ceramic rissole! I can't imagine why someone would make such an object; but only Pop would be dopey enough to buy one - ah bless".  It was a bit like being present at me own wake when Dau.II came up from Cork for the long weekend and offered to help process some of the stuff in the shed. Shed-stuff consists of material possessions that are reasonably immune to cold-and-damp but not in regular use. The döstädening gauleiters would define it differently.
Shed-stuff (n.) stuff that should be shed.
Brutal, but often true dat! Bank-holiday Sunday was a Perfect Day for mowing the lawn - slight breeze; good sun; bone dry - but also for turning a shedful out onto the [recently mowed] grass and seeing what we had <da da daaah> behind the crate brim-full of jam-jars-for-next-years-marmalade. Down a couple of archaeological layers, Dau.II found three flat-screen computer monitors which haven't been warm for at least three years. The sight of computer kit for the dump sent me up the attic of the shed for a 30lt box of  "misc. comp.peripherals". If you think that stuff in the distant shed has rather low status, imagine how stuff in the dark attic of the distant shed feels. Behind the misc.comp.peripherals box was a disintegrating plastic bag marked "olde lappe-tops", so I brought that down as well.
We each acquired a Dell lap-top when the first SFI-funded Molecular Evolution Lab was set up in 2001. The boss had a few million €uros to spend and that seemed a justifiable way of keeping the troops fully productive even when away from their desks. Well that laptop, and two of its descendant, is now for recycling and gold-abstraction. I'm not so naive as to discard the whole instrument when it still has information about the correct way to parse the human genome - imagine <WhatsApp alert> if The Feds or The Reds got hold of that?? So I filleted out the hard-drives: shown above with their storage capacity in Gb. The storage capacity and the speed went up in leaps and bounds but the price was more of less the same - that is the Law of Computing Costs.
The box of misc. comp.peripherals was mostly a tangle of wires each one with a connector at one end and a different connector or a gadget at the other. Everything nowadays is USB but in the past there was a wild variety of incompatible plugs & plug-holes. All for the dump! Even the hook-on-your-monitor ALDIDL web-cam that lasted about 3 weeks. But underneath the wires were layers of magnetic data-storage devices. A collection of 5¼ inch floppies; lots more of 3½ inch 'stiffies' - that's what my German pals called them in the 90s anyway. At some stage I had bought floppy storage-boxes with plastic section dividers to keep the data in finger-tip librarian order. There were even a dozen 100MB zip-drives - remember them from 20 years ago? They were the backup's answer to Microsoft bloatware because they could store about 50x more bytes on an object that was only twice the size of a 3½ inch floppy. But for the big stuff - the DNA database from 1993; all the files of my 300 users when I was SYS$OP for The Irish National Centre for BioInformatics INCBI at the end of the last century - I have a small collection of 90m DAT tapes that were supposed to have a capacity 40x more than a Zip-drive.

I spent a few minutes sorting out the GDPR-compliant discs for dump - ancient operating systems; start-up discs; obsolete printer-drivers - and a much longer time thinking about how I could dispose of all the personal or potentially personal stuff  (I don't have anything that can read a zip-drive to find out; but I am confident that all the Polish dump scavengers do). It is salutary to reflect on man's vanity that I should have been so careful to make copies of this valuable material and it is now beyond my wit or available technology to read it. We can make a stab at reading Linear-B shopping lists from the 3000 year old but electronic media from 30 years ago is essentially beyond recovery.
Sic transit gloria INCBI.

Tuesday 14 May 2019

Old ways down the Déise

For about a year 2017-2018, I used to spend Sunday night with my venerable father-in-law Pat the Salt as part of the rota of Elder care down in Tramore. On Monday mornings we'd walk up to the community centre on the promise of free tea and biscuits with The Heritage Group. This group had been convened a few years earlier and was structured to capture the everyday story of Tramore folk who grew up in the 30s 40s & 50s of the last century. The convenor, prompter, key-grip, boom-operator and sound-recordist was Maxine Keoghan FG, BA, PhD, local historian and community activist.  I became a fly on the wall as they collectively walked up a virtual Patrick Street to determine who lived at #35 after the Powers left for England in 1952. My credentials, apart from coat-tailing on Pat's legitimate seat at the table [and the biscuits, of course], were accepted when I claimed the harbourmaster of Dunmore East as my grandfather. Even though for most Tramore folks, Dunmore might as well be in Burkina Faso for all the notice they took of the next village down the coast.

I forget who lived at #35 because those details are of limited interest (to anyone!) but those sessions were fascinating because the details clagged together to evoke a time and place that would be recognisable to anyone who grew up in any small town in Catholic Ireland during those years. The endemic poverty, the damp, the TB, the loss: through relentless emigration and premature death. But also the simple pleasures and outdoor pursuits of those undigital times. People got a lot more fresh air back then - any excuse to get out of a house crammed with siblings and cousins and demanding parents. The personalities forged by fortune and privation and friendship shone through the intervening decades. At the end of my time with the Heritage Folk, I had a good idea who would be the best fun at a hop; who would lend me a bicycle to get there; who could be trusted with a secret and who would have the hottest gossip. All different, all interesting, all vital cogs in the mills of community.

Now after 5 years in gestation, Maxine has written it all down, thrown half the material away under the stern diktats of a good copy-editor, and published Tramore of our Times: aspects of twentieth century social history. I know because I was invited to the Launch in Tramore County Library on Friday evening 10th May 2019. The book is leavened with many pictures of the Tramore in the olde days as well as pictures of the contributors taken by local photographer, tech whizz and heritageer Eddie Drea. In several cases the recent picture of an octagenarian is matched with a thumb-nail of how s/he was when all the teeth in the smile were real and a bicycle could be ridden for 40 kilometers with not a bother to the legs.

While we're here in The Déise, I'll give a shout for a candidate in the local government elections on the 24th of May:  author, local historian and community activist - Dr Maxine Keoghan. Vote early and vote often.